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The Song Remains The Same

Chapter Text

Prologue


"Farewell, Snow."

"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..."

Chapter Text

The Song of Ice and Fire


Everything had changed, and yet nothing had changed. With half the castle gone and the remaining half deep in mourning, it was a wonder Jon didn't start hearing voices in his head or initiate desperate conversations with the cold stone walls. He talked to Ghost instead, knowing it was far less mad than the alternatives. Winterfell had never been a warm place and, after hearing half of King's Landing and an army of westermen complaining about it in their cups (though some, like the Hound, even did so when sober), he was not like to forget it.

Cold as it was, he never before felt those icy pinpricks on his skin or noticed how the wind howled through the cracks in the western tower when Winterfell was still cozy and populated. More than the system of hot water that flowed within the walls, it was the people who were truly the lifeblood of the castle. Sometimes, out of the corner of his eye, he could see Jory bragging about his girl in Wintertown or Fat Tom huffing after Rickon. His father sitting behind the desk in the solar, quill scratching rapidly on a piece of parchment. Or that unruly mop of brown hair that always seemed to be underfoot, that he could never keep himself from mussing into something even worse.

Without them, Winterfell was grim. Dead.

Not that the Wall was known for its warmth either but, at times like these, Jon almost regretted his decision to stay.

Benjen, on the other hand, didn't, to his irritation. Or at least that's how it seemed from the long sigh his uncle expelled after he stuttered out his explanation. "Lad, if I knew you were just suffering from the indecisions of youth, we would have left hours ago. Is it a girl? Did you manage to kiss one at the last second and realized you didn't want to be celibate for the rest of your life?"

His completely unreasonable blush was only compounded by Robb's loud snort. Jon elbowed him sharply in the ribs.

Uncle Benjen had been far more understanding than Jon deserved and not even a bit angry. He grabbed Jon's shoulder from his seat on the saddle and looked his nephew straight in the eye. "As I already said, Jon, there's no need to rush. The Wall won't go anywhere, and I will be there when you are ready, if that is still what you want. Just go on and tell your father. I don't want him sending letters to the Old Bear asking after you. If so, I might have to tell him about this girl you met and how she turned your world around." He winked.

The King's procession had an hour's head start on Jon and Robb, which meant they were able to reach the royal party in ten minutes at a full gallop. Arya was jumping in her saddle, Nymeria loping along beside her, when they rode up. "Oh! Oh! Are you coming with us? Both of you? Please say you are! Or are you here to take Sansa to the Wall?"

The sister in question visibly blanched. "Don't even joke about that! How am I supposed to marry Prince Joffrey on that dreadful Wall? Father, make her stop!"

Lord Eddard laughed lightly. "It's only a jest, sweetling. I would need to buy you some thicker furs before I send you there." He turned away from Sansa's shriek and Lady's howl to face Jon curiously. "Shouldn't you be on your way with Benjen, Jon?"

He gave the same story he'd told his uncle, with an even greater excess of stammering. But he need not have feared. Lord Eddard's reaction was even milder than Benjen's. His father actually seemed relieved. "I should have known. You are still half a boy. I should have spoken to you, counseled you. Instead I let matters with the King and Jon Arryn's death blind me to what was important: my duty as a father. But it seems Robb has done my work for me."

Jon pretended not to see the satisfied smirk on Robb's face. And shifting his horse so he could be close enough to elbow Robb was too much hassle.

Lord Eddard's gray eyes softened as they regarded him, and it shamed Jon to think of how severely he'd underestimated the man's care for him. "Forgive me for not sparing time for you, Jon. I must have seemed so monstrous, cold and distant, as if I did not care what became of you. That is not true. When next we meet, we will discuss your future, among... other things. You may be half a boy, but you are also half a man, and there is much I should have told you years ago. About your mother, for starters." He straightened on his horse and gazed off towards the south, every bit the great lord that he was. "But now's not the time. I have a king to serve, and a kingdom that could prove as obstinate. And you have Winterfell to go home to. I will tell you all you wish to know. I promise, my son."

More than a week had passed since then, and much of it had been spent running from one end of the castle to the other. Robb had wasted little time assigning Jon his place, which turned out to be as an extra pair of legs and sometimes a second head for the current Lord of Winterfell. With the steward gone, it was left to Robb and Maester Luwin to handle most of the upkeep. Lady Stark couldn't well see to anything from her residence in Bran's room, and no one was about to dislodge her from her son's side. Jon hadn't managed to visit Bran since that morning when Lady Catelyn made him wish he had never been born. He couldn't begrudge her that, though. She was deep in grief, and no doubt her words would have been directed at the Seven instead of to his face otherwise. Still, he was prudent enough to know that the last person she wanted to see was him. He doubted she even knew he hadn't left for the Wall.

In a way, Jon enjoyed his new responsibilities, and it was better than being in one room long enough to suffer Theon's "conversation" (usually involving whichever farm wench he was seeing that day). But there was no escaping the loneliness. He hadn't had a real talk with Robb all week, and they only sparred when they randomly crossed each other's paths in the yard. Even Ser Rodrik couldn't find the time to train them, being temporary captain of the guard and with the recruiting he needed to do to replace the men they'd lost. Jon wished he could run into Robb long enough to discuss their last meeting. He still couldn't believe he cried in front of his brother, who had been just as much a rival of late and thus not one he could shed tears in front of. But... there were the tender words Robb had said to him, words that made his chest ache and his face heat up sometimes... Surely, Robb was just as embarrassed of those? He didn't want Robb to take them back, though, so maybe he shouldn't mention them.

While they were roughly the same age, he had always thought of Robb as his big brother. And so Jon didn't mind being Robb's second shadow. It may be tedium, but it was Robb's tedium, too. And, besides, this was probably the closest he was ever going to get to running Winterfell.

The great hall was almost deserted save for one or two serving girls shuffling around lethargically and the two boys seated at a dining table. Robb was shoveling food into his mouth like he hadn't eaten for days, while Theon was taking a more languorous pace with his supper. Jon slipped onto the bench opposite them and looked at Robb with concern. "Missed meals again?" he said, as he pulled over a lone plate and slapped a slab of roast pheasant on it.

Robb mumbled unintelligibly in assent, one cheek bursting with fowl and the other with some stew. He swallowed painfully. "Still so much to do." He then belched before swigging down a mug of ale. "The man who provided us this bird had his field raided by bandits. Said they were using direwolves to herd the flock out, but I convinced him we had all the direwolves in the North within the family and his trouble's probably just dogs. Now I have to give him what few guards we have left to protect his flock and find who's responsible." He dabbed at his beard with a napkin. "Direwolves. What hogwash."

Instinctively, Jon checked the spot beside him, but Ghost was absent. He hardly saw his wolf of late either. Ghost preferred to spend his time in the wood outside Bran's window howling with Grey Wind, Shaggydog, and Bran's own unnamed pup. Jon could still hear the haunting melody of their cries, all the way here. Saddened, he cut up some pheasant and hoped Ghost would find his own meal.

"Why don't you send Snow out there, Robb?" Greyjoy drawled with that half-smile he always seemed to have. "Maybe he fancies himself a guard this week. And maybe next week, when he finds the missing birds, he'll be a herder and bring them all back safe and sound. But I'm sure he won't be a man of the Night's Watch. It will probably be a month or two before that comes around again."

"Shove it, Greyjoy," Robb muttered around a large beefy haunch.

Jon ignored him, which was the only appropriate response to Theon Greyjoy, and addressed Robb. "If you're that busy, I can help with some of your chores. I've already finished all my tasks." He bit off a mouthful of greasy meat and began to chew.

Robb's throat distended from the size of his swallow. He grimaced before taking another long swig of ale. Then he slammed the mug down and quirked one auburn eyebrow at Jon. "Indeed? All of them? Did you take the new horses from Barrowton to the stables, feed them, wash them, and prepare them for the new master of horse?"

"Done."

"Did you inspect the granary in Wintertown and partition a third of the stock to our own holds while noting the difference in quantity from last year?"

"Done. Fifty-four bushels and an increase of six percent."

"Did you read to Rickon 'The Last Dragonrider of Valyria' complete with dramatic roleplay?"

"Done. Three days ago. He wants to hear 'The Drunk Giant of Oxcross' now."

"Did you unblock the cistern in the King's room?"

"Disgusting but done."

Robb's eyes were wide and disbelieving as he stared at Jon, his mouth working on a lemon tart very slowly. "Well... Are you sure I'm not the bastard? I'd bequeath my inheritance to you right now if I didn't know it would finish off Mother."

Jon grinned, though it faltered somewhat when he noted the slight hint of irritation in Robb's tone.

The heir to Winterfell was all smiles, though, haggard and forced as his cheer was, when he stood up abruptly. "Then I don't know where else to set you. Truly, the gods outdid themselves with you, my dear brother." Robb made a contemplative noise before saying, "I remember Maester Luwin grumbling about the library tower. Perhaps he has something for you."

"That's a good idea, Robb," Theon quipped, standing as well, before Jon could speak. "Maybe all those books will inspire him to be a maester, but I'm sure he'll consider another profession by the moon's turn. As for me, I have a less dusty destination in my near future."

Robb laughed. "Oh, yes, the miller's wife has been collecting a lot more than dust from what I've heard." The two boys turned away from the table without another word and left, talking animatedly.

Jon felt deflated as he picked at the remnants of his supper with hunched shoulders. It didn't seem fair for Robb to get all prissy just because he'd finished his chores. Jon wasn't trying to usurp Robb. The thought hadn't even crossed his mind. He was only happy to help, and he knew that the likely reason he finished before his brother was how much more advanced Robb's work was. But what annoyed him most was that somehow Robb didn't expect him to get everything done by himself. Or maybe Robb didn't want him to get everything done?

He didn't want to think about it anymore, nor did he feel like finishing his supper. Jon left his half-eaten meal to the servants and trundled off up the stairs to the library tower. He wished Ghost was with him.

Maester Luwin was there struggling with a raven that didn't seem to like being held. "No... matter... how... many times..." he huffed as the raven batted its wings and squawked shrilly, "I... train them... to... stay in the rookery..." The gray-robed man nearly tripped on a scroll in his haste to lead the bird to the window while it flapped in the other direction. "Half of them... always... insist... on coming here!" Maester Luwin swung bodily towards the window and threw the bird out like a black sack, quickly banging the panes shut and turning the latch. The old man leaned his back against the glass and sighed. "The rookery is on the other side of the castle. Why must they roost here? Don't they know this is the library tower?"

Jon couldn't tell it from a battlefield at the present moment. He had a faint suspicion of what his task was going to be. "Robb told me you would have something for me to do, maester."

The old man clearly brightened at that. "Bless you, my dear boy. I'm afraid I've gotten a little behind on my organization."

Since when? The Age of Heroes? For as long as Jon could remember, Luwin's workspaces had been nothing less than piles and piles of everything you could think of. Here they were books, scrolls, maps, and various scientific tools that had bled off from the rookery where he usually kept his office. Sometimes the star system he wanted to see could be better viewed from this tower, so a supply of telescopes were scattered all over the place with star charts here and there. Jon couldn't see a single surface that wasn't buried, and the shelves were half empty with their contents on the floor or on the other side of the room.

Maester Luwin threw open his arms. "As you can see, you have much to do. Possibly for weeks. I do not expect you to finish much tonight, and do not trouble yourself with alphabetization. The genealogies go in the first section, histories and biographies in the second and third, bestiaries and such organic research in the fourth, magical tomes and dragonlore in the fifth, tales and songs in the sixth, religious texts in the seventh, and the bird droppings outside. Everything else is for the scrolls and uncategorized works. You can invent your own method for sorting those because I haven't the foggiest." He smiled tiredly and drew out a piece of parchment from his sleeve. "Now, I must show this roster of candidates for the captain of the guard position to Lady Stark, assuming she's well enough for it. Do take care with the moldy books, Jon. Some of those date back to before the first Valyrian empire, and I did not smuggle them from the Citadel to see them disintegrate. And never leave a candle unattended. The oldest tomes feed the brightest flame." With that, he scurried off out of the tower, leaving Jon to his mess.

Jon spared a couple of seconds to take it all in, then sighed. Where do I start?

It didn't really matter, he supposed. He scooped up the nearest pile of everything, with the least amount of raven shit, and dropped it all on the nearest desk he could find, which was in a dark alcove between sections four and five. A cloud of dust billowed out, and he sneezed. Mindful of anything flammable, Jon lit a tallow candle and placed it on an empty shelf beside him. It was now full dark outside, with moonlight streaming in from the eastern windows. He sat down and began his work.

The task was as simple as reading the titles and figuring out where they belonged. Some were written in obscure languages, and those he shoved to the side for later. There were about ten thousand books in all and as many parchments, most of which were off the shelves if not shelved in the wrong places. It was painfully tedious work, and Jon's eyes were getting watery from the dust and reading by the faint light of the candle, but the stacks kept rising, and he kept reading. "...mating habits of the winter possum... kings and demagogy... the eighth face of God and why he's such a secret... Dornish girls on lust and love... Who reads this trash...? ...the song of ice and fire..."

Interesting... The last scroll was different from the others. For one, it wasn't ancient. The vellum was clearly of high quality, and there were no yellow patches that he could find. But the part that really drew the eye was the Targaryen seal stamped above the title. If this scroll was as new as it appeared, it could have been written in the time of the Mad King. Jon couldn't imagine why anyone in Winterfell would want to keep anything from that Targaryen, considering all that had happened.

The title was written in the common tongue, in the most elegant style he had ever seen. Even Sansa would be envious. The body of the scroll was written almost entirely in musical notation. He was completely out of his depth when it came to music, so these lines meant nothing to him. But under each staff was a language, possibly the lyrics of the song. Judging by some of the characters, it looked like High Valyrian... No... Old Valyrian. He took enough from Maester Luwin's lessons to recognize that much. This was the language spoken by the ancient Valyrians for thousands of years, before their empire fell into the sea and the original tongue became fragmented. How many in Westeros, in the world, could still speak Old Valyrian, let alone write in it?

Jon was so astonished by the find that he turned it over to see what else was written on it. On the back was an inscription, written in the same style as the rest of the text, so it could only be from the same hand. He leaned forward, pressing his face against it, and began to read.

My Queen of Love and Beauty,

You asked me once where I learned to play such a powerful song,
But to answer I must bring you to the ruins of Summerhall,
And show to you the heart of my despair.

I do not wish that for you, and time is not a comfort I believe we have.
Someday, I will come for you, and I will play for you this song one last time.
And I hope you will understand then the meaning and why the lovers had to die.

For now, I write this song in my own hand,
Though I fear I can but fail to do Aenar justice.
May you find a harpist with the skill to wield this song,
But remember the words are not for him,
As they are ours and ours alone.

I will sing them to you again. One last time.

Rhaegar Targaryen

Jon stared at the name, as if frozen. "Rhaegar... Targaryen?"

It was impossible. How could the Starks have kept this letter? Perhaps Prince Rhaegar had crowned dozens of Queens of Love and Beauty in all the tourneys he'd fought in, but there was only one that really mattered. One that everyone, even children, knew of: the tourney of Harrenhal. Some said that was the moment the war began, when Rhaegar crowned his Queen of Love and Beauty...

More intrigued than he could imagine, Jon turned the parchment around and around, even upside down, looking for a word, a name, proof that this was truly addressed to Lyanna Stark and of what it meant. He bent towards the candle to have a better look at the letter. Just a little more light...

...and in that second a dagger plunged down and stuck itself into the table mere centimeters from where his right shoulder was.

The impact bolted him from his chair, and he crashed into a pile of books, gripping the shelves to keep himself upright and facing the man who had nearly killed him. "You weren't supposed to be here..." the man muttered, half-crazed. He had a dirty look about him, and he smelled like horse and hay. The memory shot through Jon, and he remembered seeing this man loitering by the stables while he was tending to the horses that morning. Jon had thought of him as nothing but another prospective recruit for the guard. "You weren't supposed to be here..."

It was then that Jon noticed the torch he was carrying. "No!"

The man hurled the torch at the cache of books beside him, and the ancient papers lit up like they were doused with oil. He dived for the desk, gripping the dagger in an attempt to pull it free. Jon didn't give him the chance and swung at the man’s face the heaviest book he could grab. The man fell on his back, and it was Jon's turn to try and pull the dagger out. But somehow the blade was in far too deep, and the smoke wafting into Jon's face was making his eyes burn. Dammit! Why are my hands so sweaty?! Wiry arms encircled him from behind and pinned him to the floor. The first punch got him between the eyes, and the back of his head slammed against stone. The world spun, but his legs weren't pinned, and he managed to kick out from under the man and roll himself free. When the man got to his feet, Jon rammed him into the shelf.

A silent white form sprang from outside the aisle and latched sharp teeth around the man's arm. He screamed, trying to bat away Ghost from tearing his arm off.

Jon would have joined the fight, but the smoke was so thick and starting to cover him from the waist up. He couldn't stop coughing. The fire had reached the shelf and was ready to devour the entire library. He took off his cloak and started beating at the fire with it. Jon was practically blind, could barely breathe, and possibly burning, but that didn't stop him from waving his cloak repeatedly. He'd left the candle unattended, and Maester Luwin would never forgive him.

Two big bodies shoved him away, and he fell to the ground, too tired to get up. Past the water in his eyes, he could see one figure dumping a bucket of it on the fire and another batting away at the flames like he had. A pair of hands latched on to his arms and started pulling him away. "Oh, Jon, Jon, oh, Jon, oh, Jon..." the person's mantra seemed to go.

After whoever it was pulled him to safety, it was as if a gate had opened in his nose, and he could breathe again. His eyes were still watering, and the back of his head hurt like a horse had kicked it in. And the floor was tilting, and there was something wrong with his hands...

"Gods, Jon, what have you done to your hands?" Robb choked out above him, checking the rest of his body for damage.

When Robb got to his face, Jon got an eyeful of dark blue, and it was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen. "Sorry... Had to put out... fire... Maester Luwin..." He coughed.

"Which reminds me, where in the fucking hells is the damn maester!" Robb shouted to everyone and no one in particular before turning back to Jon. "All will be well. It's just burns, and you swallowed a lot of smoke. And I think you banged your head. You fucking stubborn idiot, why didn't you run..."

Jon cupped Robb's cheek with his hand and, for some reason, Robb flinched. "I'm sorry..." He coughed again. "I... don't want... Winterfell... It's yours... Sorry..."

Robb's eyes were stricken. "What are you talking about? Jon, stay awake! Godsdammit! Someone find Maester Luwin—" After that, Jon knew no more.

Until he awakened. Someone had cleaved an ax into his skull and sliced off his hands for good measure. Jon gave the universe a chance to reorient itself first before he looked to see what was going on. He was lying on the floor and still in the library tower judging from the debris scattered everywhere. Maester Luwin was crouching down beside him and holding a small brown bottle against his nose. "Oh, thank the gods. I was afraid you would never wake. You probably have a concussion and sleeping through one could be permanent. How do you feel?"

"Like I've been broken to pieces and put together by Rickon, thank you for asking," Jon rasped, trying to sit up while ignoring the maester's caution. He didn't reject the glass of water being thrust to his lips, though, and he drank greedily. Ghost padded up beside him and licked the bandages around his hand. Bandages...

He held his hands up to his face. Both of them were covered thickly in gauze, blood seeping through on the right and, as it turned out, the one that hurt most. Maester Luwin answered the question he didn't ask. "Your hands were burned severely, Jon. The right one, in particular. You will likely be able to hold small, thin objects with your left, but nothing more for a few weeks. Your right... I'm sorry, Jon. It will be months before it's healed, and the pain will be terrible."

Just out of grim curiosity, he tried flexing his hand, but a gasp burst from his lips, and he wondered how he could be so stupid.

The maester appeared close to tears. "I added milk of the poppy to your water. You should take it regularly, and it will at least make the pain bearable. I am so sorry, Jon. If I had never asked you to..."

"It's not your fault," Jon said quickly. "It's no one's fault. No one could have known..." He remembered how he had ended up here in the first place. The intruder was leaning against a bookshelf. It seemed his hands were tied behind his back, and he had acquired bruises on his face that Jon didn't remember giving. The man's eyes were swollen shut, and his mouth was a bloody ruin of broken teeth. Murderous faces surrounded him; one was Rodrik Cassel with his fists clenched and his jaw hard. Farlen the kennelmaster looked almost as ferocious as the dogs he trained. Even Theon Greyjoy wasn't smiling for once.

But it was Robb who drew his brother's eye and, as if sensing it, he twisted to lock gazes with Jon. His face was a well of concern and fear, but he turned back to the unknown man and immediately morphed into the vengeful lord. "Tell us why you came here and tried to kill my brother, and I promise you will have teeth left when I throw you in a cell."

The intruder merely lolled his head. "He wasn't supposed to be here... wasn't suppose—"

Robb kicked him in the ribs, and the stranger doubled over to the side, coughing out blood. Ser Rodrik placed a hand on Robb's shoulder. "Stop, lad. More and he'll be too dead to tell us anything."

"I don't care! If he thinks he can sneak into my castle and burn down whatever he wants—"

"It's not your castle yet, Robb. It's your father's," Ser Rodrik said sternly. "And while he's away, we are bound to serve his justice, and I know that killing prisoners before they can be judged is not his justice."

Robb seethed, his fists shaking, but said nothing.

"It was a royal command, my lords... Please... A royal command..." The stranger sobbed bloody tears onto the floor.

"What is this dullard talking about? A royal command for the likes of him?" Theon Greyjoy said in disbelief.

Ser Rodrik's eyes narrowed. "No, there's something here. Farlen, hand me the knife." The kennelmaster passed him the blade that had been lodged in the table. The hilt was pure gold, inlaid with gemstones, and the blade seemed to glow red and black in the candlelight. "Royalty, you say? Only those of the highest stock would possess a blade like this. This is Valyrian steel and not oft held by common footpads. Are you saying the King gave this to you?" Gasps erupted from the onlookers.

The stranger's head rocked back and forth. "No... the prince..."

Just as much shock met this declaration as did the first. Robb swiveled around to look at Jon. "That doesn't make sense. It was me who fought Joffrey, not Jon. If there's anyone he wants dead, it would be me. That little shit."

The intruder's head began rocking once again. "Neither... of you... Not him..." Though both his eyes were swollen shut, they found Jon nonetheless, and they hated. "...the... the younger one..."

"The younger..." Surprise and confusion seemed to wipe the anger right from Robb's face. "You mean Bran? Why, by the old gods, would anyone want to kill Bran? He's just a little boy! And hurt besides! He never did anything to Joffrey!" Robb was all but screaming. A ripple of outrage and assent met his words.

"I... don't know... Didn't... share with me..."

Theon barked out a laugh, but there was no humor in it. "You got the wrong room then, you fool. Bran's room is on the other side of the castle."

"Was just... dis... distraction..."

That seemed to have shocked everyone into silence, or else they didn't understand. They all turned to face Jon when he began speaking. "That's why he had a torch. That's why he tried to burn down the library. Anyone in Bran's room would be rushing to put out the fire, giving him the chance to slit Bran's throat. Only I was here, and Ghost stopped him." Suddenly, he felt extremely tired.

All the faces were turning to one another, clearly asking the same question. Ser Rodrik was the first to put himself together and said to Theon, "Lad, fetch Lady Stark. She needs to hear this. And make sure to wake Old Nan and have her watch over Bran."

And off Theon went, while in all the time it took, no one spoke a word, too caught up thinking about what this could mean and the horror that would await them in the days to come. Robb came over to sit beside Jon. His hand gently glided over the bandages, the other hand petting Ghost, resting on Jon's knee, and his eyes were filled with hurt. Somehow, Jon understood exactly what Robb was thinking. If I never asked you to stay, this wouldn't have happened to you.

Jon shook his head, hoping his eyes could say just as much. If I left, you wouldn't be there to take care of me.

Fifteen minutes had passed before Theon came in, dragging Lady Stark by the elbow. She wrenched her arm from his grasp and glared sightlessly at everyone in the room. "Why have you called me here? I was taking care of my son. Theon kept going on about someone wanting to kill him, which is insane, and..." For the first time, she seemed to notice the state of the room and the general mood of its occupants. "What... What happened here?"

Ser Rodrik stepped up to her. "There was a fire, milady. And what Theon said is true." He pointed towards the intruder. "That man came here to kill Bran, by order of Prince Joffrey."

Lady Catelyn gaped at Ser Rodrik like he had just turned into a fish and started talking as one. The gaze she directed at the would-be assassin was no better. "I... I don't understand... Who is that...? I don't..." And, as if a malevolent hand were guiding her, her eyes found Jon, and something red flashed in their depths. Emotion, at last. "What is he doing here? He's supposed to be at the Wall!"

Robb flared up beside him. "Don't you dare say that! It's because of him that Bran is alive! If it weren't for Jon, who knows what could have happened."

"Actually, it was Ghost who did most of the saving..." Jon muttered, but no one was listening.

Lady Catelyn looked at Robb like he had slapped her. "Robb, what are you saying? This story of assassination plots—"

"It's not a story, milady," Maester Luwin spoke over her. "I was here when this man gave his confession, was here before that dressing Jon's wounds. Wounds incurred putting out the fire this man started and would have used as a distraction to murder Bran. Jon is a hero, milady."

Jon was about to get up and say he didn't do anything, that he was only here at the right time, but then Robb placed a hand on his knee, head shaking. Just let her like you.

Lady Catelyn never met his eyes, but it was clear the maester's explanation was reviving her senses. A maester never gave anything but the facts. She turned to the intruder, and her gaze was analytical. "Is it true? Did you try to murder my son?"

The failed assassin gurgled a yes.

Bran's mother seemed to straighten at that, finally returning as lady of the castle. "Ser Rodrik, take this man to the dungeons. We will... converse... with him further down there. The rest of you, return to your beds. The fate of this house and all the houses of the North may depend on this night, so no word of this should leave your lips. Maester Luwin, I will have someone clean up this mess on the morrow. We have long days ahead of us. And come to my chamber in an hour. I will have a letter to send." Lady Stark turned and swept out the door. Ser Rodrik pulled the stranger roughly from the floor and half dragged him out of the room. The rest of them scattered to do as Lady Stark suggested.

Only Jon, Robb, and Maester Luwin remained in the library, and Robb was not about to leave Jon's side. He held his brother's waist with a strong arm and helped Jon stand. "Come on. I'll take you to your room."

Jon pushed Robb's arm away gently and shook his head. "No, I have something to ask Maester Luwin. And you should be with your mother. Whatever this whole thing is about, you need to know. All of it."

Robb looked like he was about to say something but only nodded. "As you wish. I'll come to your room later. We'll... We'll talk then."

Jon nodded, too, and watched Robb go. Maester Luwin was at his side in an instant. "Are you in pain, Jon? Do you need more milk of the poppy?"

"No, not right now. I have... something to find." If it's even still intact. Jon walked as fast as he could to where the desk had been before it burned to cinders. Maester Luwin called him back, but there was nothing to call him back from. The fire was out, and it was lucky that it never spread beyond the piles of books between the two shelves. Which made his hopes that much more futile. All the books that he had organized, every single one, were nothing but ashes. He felt stupid for thinking—

And then he saw it. A glint of cream among the soot. Jon crouched down and wiped the ash away with his bandaged hand. The Targaryen symbol was still visible. He had no way to clutch the piece of paper, so with a flash of agonizing pain, he bent and tore the thumb and forefinger of his left hand through the bandages, using them to grip the scroll. He brought it before Maester Luwin.

Ever a man of strange priorities, Maester Luwin grimaced at Jon's hand. "Jon, what have you done to your bandages? Now I will need to rewind—"

"Maester. This scroll? What is it?"

His curiosity overruling his healer's sense, the old man squinted at the paper. "What is that? Let me see." Now that someone else was holding it, Jon could see how badly burned the paper was. Rhaegar's inscription had been eaten clean off. Fortunately, that was the extent of the damage, and the majority of the notes and indecipherable words were still intact. The maester's eyes seemed to soften when he got a good look at what he was holding, but he appeared somewhat troubled, as well. "Ah, you found this. I rather wish you hadn't."

"What is it?" Jon's curiosity was starting to hurt more than his hands.

Maester Luwin let out a breath, knowing he couldn't possibly deny Jon anything now. "It's called 'The Song of Ice and Fire.' It's a prophecy made by Aenar Targaryen before the Doom of Valyria; his daughter had it written into song. Parts of itare scattered throughout the world, and no one has ever known what the full text is. Except for Rhaegar, it seems. The most famous passage is about the coming of the Prince That Was Promised, a savior of the Targaryen line who would reach Valyria and raise it from the sea. Countless generations of Targaryens have sought the Prince That Was Promised amongst themselves, and all failed. Rhaegar was the latest one, I believe."

"Why do you believe that?"

Maester Luwin turned away from Jon, his head bowed. "Because he took Lyanna Stark. Your father brought back three things from Dorne after the war. Lady Lyanna's body, this letter... and you, Jon."

Jon's head spun. It wasn't because of the poppy. "Wait... I was born in Dorne? I'm a dornishman?" Robb would get a laugh out of that.

"Of course." The maester faced him again. "Has your father never told you that?"

"No. Father said he was going to talk to me about my... past the next time we meet."

"Then it's not my place to tell you these things." The old man handed back the letter. Jon stared at the words, as if somehow that would make him understand them, which seemed to have been the case with Rhaegar.

"Just one more thing. Did you ever translate the words?"

Maester Luwin shook his head with an expression of deep regret. "I never got the chance. When Lord Eddard left it to me to do with as I pleased, I planned to travel to the Citadel and have it translated by the two or three maesters who had studied the ancient tongue, but that day never came. And I was apprehensive about sending it to the Citadel. Just imagine what this could be. The complete version of a lost prophecy, written in the hand of Rhaegar Targaryen and addressed to the woman he started a war for. They would never give it back. That only leaves the Wall..." He appeared to be lost in thought for a second but shook himself out of it and faced Jon curiously. "Why do you care so much about this letter, Jon? What does it mean to you?"

Jon looked at the letter for what felt again like the first time. Like what he held in his fingers was something precious, something unique and meant to be his. He smiled at it tenderly. "I think this letter saved my life."

 

Chapter Text

All Alone In The World


Jon's hands were still burning long after he retired to his room. It felt like hours since he fell into his bed and attempted sleep, but the pain was so terrible that it rendered all rest impossible. Sweat soaked through his clothes and sheets, and he bit his lip hard to keep himself from screaming. He should have asked Maester Luwin for milk of the poppy or dreamwine to get him through the night, but thoughts of the murder attempt on Bran, Rhaegar's letter, and the discovery of his birthplace had pushed the agony temporarily from his mind. Those thoughts availed him little now, though. He daren't seek out Maester Luwin, not when he could be with Lady Catelyn, discussing the night and its consequences. Jon knew where Luwin kept his potions, and the maester probably wouldn't mind if he helped himself but, with his hands nothing more than charred meat, there was no way for him to take anything. He couldn't even find a way to slip out of his smoke-damaged clothes or clean the soot off his skin. He felt useless and alone.

Ghost was trying his best to comfort his master but, while he was still the best pillow that Jon could ask for, unless his fur was made of poppy, there was little the pup could do. In Jon's pain-addled brain, that actually seemed a good idea, and he buried his face into that thick white coat. (It didn't work.) Ghost whined from the contact, probably complaining about the heat. Jon likely had a fever and, despite the draft in the room, his body felt heavy and broiling. The window was open, and he used the moonlight to survey the damage on his right hand. Patches of red dotted the heavy bandages, so he didn't doubt the possibility of an infection. Surely, the maester would remember to come and change the dressing?

"If he remembers to screw his head on first," he muttered bitterly into Ghost's fur. Jon was feverish, exhausted and in pain; he had every right to be snappish.

He had been six or so the last time he felt so helpless. Old Nan had told Robb that the heart tree would grant wishes to good boys who prayed to it every day. Somehow, Robb took that to mean it would grant him a wish if he climbed up to the top faster than Jon did. In the end, Jon was the first to reach the top... and the first to reach the bottom, when he fell off and broke his arm. It took Lady Catelyn half the morning to call the maester from his study after Robb found her, crying about what happened. Robb stayed with Jon the entire time in the godswood, going from miserable to restless to downright panicked when the minutes turned to hours. Jon reassured him that the maester was simply out of the castle and proving hard to find, but he knew better. He always knew better than Robb when it came to his neglect, and the less Robb knew, the better. Just like then, Jon had little faith that anyone would come to help him now...

If there was one positive thing about the incident, however, it was that they became quite religious afterward.

Ghost's ears perked up, and Jon heard the door opening softly. The wolf slid carefully out of his arms and hopped off the bed, and Jon turned over to face his visitor. "I'm sorry that you have to be here at this hour, maester, but—"

"And I'm sure the maester will be thrilled to hear what a martyr you are, even in your state." Robb kicked the door shut after Grey Wind slipped through and initiated a cuddling match with Ghost. Robb's arms were loaded with rolls of bandages, glass jars, and even a pitcher. He set them all clattering on the table beside Jon's bed and proceeded to light a tallow candle. "Maester Luwin's still with Mother and Ser Rodrik, discussing our future, as if we're all going to die tomorrow if we don't replay this again and again." He sighed tiredly as he pulled a chair up to the bed and began fiddling with the items he brought.

Jon fell back more comfortably against the bed. "Well, a strange man did come into the castle to try and kill our brother, with Prince Joffrey's blessing no less. It's a little hard to ignore."

"I know, I know. If I had Ice, I'd cut the fucker's head off myself and send it to Joffrey, but I doubt Father would give me the pleasure." Robb took out a cup and filled it with water. "Or you can do it. He can languish in a cell until your hands heal. Then you lop his head off." He reached for a vial and pulled out the stopper, pouring a chalky white powder into the cup.

Jon used his legs to push himself against the headboard, wriggling into a sitting position. He winced when contact with his bandaged hands sent a shockwave of pain up his arms. "No, thank you. I'm just glad he didn't hurt anyone." Robb swirled the concoction in the cup and said nothing. There was something like weariness and frustration on his brother's face. Jon started awkwardly, about to scratch the back of his head before he remembered he had no fingers. "You don't have to do this. I could have waited for Maester Luwin..."

Robb sighed and set the cup on the table, turning to Jon with a hard, if tired, gaze. "First of all, you look like shit. You were practically writhing on the bed when I came in. I'm lucky I didn't come here a minute too late and find you had strangled yourself with your sheets. Second of all..." Robb paused and lifted the cup again, staring into the contents as if he expected it to boil. "There's no way I'm letting what happened last time happen again."

Jon's brows drew together. "Last time?"

His brother met Jon's eyes again with an expression that was achingly familiar. "When you fell off that damn tree and broke your arm, and we waited hours for the maester to arrive from gods know where. Just what was he doing gallivanting out of the castle? Getting drunk in the tavern? Wenching?" Robb snorted.

"Ah..." Jon turned away, suddenly unable to hold Robb's gaze. Don't tell him the truth. Don't tell him the truth. "You still... remember that?"

"Of course. I've never been more scared in my entire life, tonight aside. I think I was crying harder than you were. You always seem to bear it better..."

Jon wanted to say it wasn't true, but Robb's hollow tone cut off his words. Robb's voice was so distant that he wasn't sure his brother was even really in the room. There was something wrong here, something Robb wasn't saying. Life had taught him, though, that Robb would tell him when able. Coaxing and prodding never did any good. It was usually Jon who tended towards silence, who needed to be pushed and shoved, as Robb had proved recently.

After a time, the silence became more than a little unbearable, and Robb cleared his throat. "...right. Enough of that memory. Here." Robb extended the foamy mixture to him.

Jon stared at the cup for a few moments and quirked an eyebrow at Robb.

Robb blinked. "Oh, right. No hands. Sorry." He shifted closer and pressed the cup against Jon's lips. He tilted it slowly, careful not to spill, and Jon swallowed the drink like he had never tasted anything so fine, though in truth it tasted like bitter sawdust. After Jon drank every drop, he leaned against the headboard, already feeling the mixture cloud his mind and mask his pain. But Robb leaned closer and brought a thumb to his lips. "Mustache," Robb muttered, taking an inordinately long time to wipe the substance from his upper lip. Robb surely didn't need to cup his cheek, too, but Jon couldn't imagine what he could possibly do to stop his brother. The medicine was making him dizzy.

Eventually, Robb drew away, and Jon's face felt cold despite his fever. Robb set the cup aside. "If you had a girl, she could do this for you."

You mean massage my lips? "A girl... to do what exactly?"

Robb shrugged, seemingly uncomfortable despite being the one to start the conversation. "To help you out. As an extra pair of hands... to do... handy stuff..."

What in the seven hells is he babbling about? Jon had never seen Robb so flustered. Could he possibly mean...? "Please don't tell me you're thinking what I think you're thinking. And please don't tell me you're still thinking about it."

"Thinking about..." Robb looked confused, until he saw the disgust on Jon's face and it seemed to dawn on him. "Oh! I'm not thinking about that! Oh, gods, no! Yes, I think of it sometimes, but not about you and your hands... Oh, fuck it! Just let me take your clothes off!"

If there was ever a sentence that could take Jon's breath away... "Excuse me?"

Robb seemed to have given up all attempts at composure. "You're covered in soot and burnt old books! Your clothes are ruined, and you can't change yourself! What kind of brother would I be if I left you in this state? Now let me slip off your clothes so I can wash you!"

Jon curled against the headboard, as if that would somehow save him from this situation. "No. Go find a girl. There are plenty in the brothel. I know you've been there."

Robb rolled his eyes. "Gods, Jon! I'm your brother! I've seen everything you've got!"

"Then why were you blubbering about hands?" Jon demanded. "Stop being so weird about this!"

He must have hit a mark because Robb turned a lovely shade of 'caught being a pervert.' "I wasn't... That was just... Oh, come off it!" Robb gripped the hem of Jon's horribly soiled shirt with both hands. "Your clothes are coming off. It will only hurt if you struggle."

"You must say that to all your girls," Jon snarked, before sighing and raising his arms. "Do it already." You could have asked like a normal person.

He expected Robb to yank the shirt right off him but, to his surprise, Robb was exceedingly gentle, even using fingers to widen the armholes so as not to chafe his bandages. When Robb got the tunic over Jon's head, he grimaced at the dirty clothing and threw it to the floor. "I doubt you'll need that rag again. Now lie down so I can take off your pants."

"Yes, my lord." Jon did as he was told and laid his head upon the pillow. His pulse was racing even though Robb was his brother and this was something brothers did. Isn't it? "Please watch where you put your hands. I don't want any handy stuff."

"Will you please shut up?" Though Robb had been as conscientious as an old woman when it came to Jon's shirt, he displayed no such courtesy for the trousers. Jon had to look down to make sure his smallclothes hadn't been wrenched off, too. Robb held up the ash-stained garment. "See? How's that for handy?" He then chucked it over his shoulder—met by a soft whine from the floor—and went back to his chair to soak the towel. "Honestly, would you truly rather have Maester Luwin or Old Nan do th—"

"No," Jon answered automatically.

"Didn't think so." Robb's smirk seemed almost wolfish by the light of the candle. "You do look a mess."

"Yes, I'm aware of that." He never got a chance to view a looking glass, but Jon knew it must be true. His skin itched, and his eyes felt crusty from all the black dust that must have accumulated there. He watched Robb wring out the towel and couldn't imagine wanting anyone else to do this for him. Except maybe his mother, if he ever had one. Robb had been many people to Jon throughout his life, many people he needed. Maybe now that he knew his mother was from Dorne, he could search for her, and Robb would no longer have to take her place in his mind. His brother might even accompany him, if he asked.

Jon's eyes were growing heavy, thinking about all the possibilities and the peace they brought him, when Robb said, "Close your eyes." He had done so anyway by the time Robb ran the damp cloth against his face. His brother pressed it around the stubble on his cheeks, under his nose, and again with a thumb around his lips. Robb kneaded the cloth into his ears, under his chin, and down his neck. Jon opened his eyes slightly to see the cloth caked in dirt, before Robb submerged it back into the bowl to wring it out once more. Robb returned to his forehead, combing through his hair with gentle hands, untangling the grimy knots there. "Your skin is burning up, Jon. I'll tell the maester to give you something for that tomorrow."

With his eyes shut, Jon hummed, simply enjoying his brother's attention. He couldn't remember the last time anyone cared for him like this. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been with Robb like this.

He couldn't say how much time had passed. Moments were measured by the number of times Robb dunked the towel back into the basin and returned it to his skin. Robb caressed his shoulders, his arms, his chest, pausing above his heart. When Robb had wiped the last of the soot from his abdomen, just above the hem of his smallclothes, his brother dropped the cloth back into the bowl. "There. Good as new. You no longer look like you crawled out of a hole in the ground."

"Always an advantage." Jon smiled sleepily as Robb opened a large green jar and sniffed its contents. "Thank you, Robb. Sorry you had to do this."

"Stop being sorry. There's no need to be sorry," Robb muttered darkly to himself. Jon was about to ask him what he meant when Robb turned back with a large toothy smile. "Don't thank me yet. I still have to change your bandages."

Jon paled. "Don't trouble yourself over that."

Robb shook his head, positioning himself by Jon's hand. "I want to. Besides, it's good practice and useful, in case you get into any more fires. And it will only be the right. That one looks like a direwolf's chew toy." An offended whine sounded from the floor. "No offense, Ghost."

Jon sighed. He knew there was no persuading his stubborn block of a brother, and he was much too tired to even try. "Very well. Have at it. Just know that if anything goes wrong, your hands are mine."

"Duly noted." Robb shifted Jon's hand onto his lap as carefully as if it was a newborn babe. He unwound the bloody linen slowly, biting his tongue the way he did when he was concentrating. Jon winced when Robb painstakingly tugged free the last loop, which had molded into raw and blackened flesh. He nearly bit his lip off from the pain, and Robb muttered "I'm sorry, I'm sorry" repeatedly before finally getting the bloody strip unwrapped. Robb gasped at the sight of the naked appendage, and even Jon had to admit it looked pretty bad. Robb shook his head, the lines on his forehead drawing together in pain, as if he had borrowed some from Jon. "Just terrible. This shouldn't have happened to you."

Jon knew guilt and self-blame when he heard it. "It's not your fault, Robb." How many more people did he have to tell this to?

Robb's blue eyes were haunted. It scared Jon a little. "You can't know that," he said monotonously. Not letting go of Jon's wrist, he grabbed the green jar he had unsealed earlier and showed it to Jon. "You're supposed to dunk your hand into this. It's just big enough to allow it, I think."

Jon wrinkled his nose at the green goop inside and the strong minty scent radiating from it. "What is that?"

"It's salve. Supposed to 'fend off infection, promote healing, and accelerate skin regeneration,' as our dear maester put it."

"Do I have to?" Jon whined for the sake of it.

Robb frowned at him. "You do if you want to ever lift a sword again. Now stop being a baby and dunk."

Contact with the air was making his burned skin sting, so for that reason alone Jon pursed his lips and pushed his hand into the jar, careful not to touch the sides. There was a sucking sound as he submerged his hand down to the palm. "It feels... squishy. And cold. It's like jellied calves' brains."

"I don't want to ask when you stuck your hand into jellied calves' brains, and I don't want to know. Thank the gods I don't eat that rubbish." Robb gently pulled the jar away, and it released Jon's hand with a soft plop. What remained was a sickly green film covering the hand. "And now the bandages." Jon held up his hand as Robb unwound a long roll of linen. Without preamble, Robb wound several loops around Jon's palm, then between his fingers and around his thumb. Robb was biting his tongue again.

"You're doing it wrong," Jon said amusedly.

"Shut up. As if you could do better. There. All finished." The result was something that looked like a mitten, so thickly was it bound. But at least it was secure, and Robb had tied off the end perfectly. Maybe Jon couldn't do better. It didn't look anything like Maester Luwin's effort, but he wasn't about to put off Robb when his brother cared enough to do this at all. When that was done, Robb rooted around in a trunk for some clean clothes. He helped Jon into them, once again being expertly careful on the top, not so much on the bottom. There was very little awkwardness, though, and for that Robb's lopsided effort was forgiven.

"Thank you again. I'm truly grateful, Robb." Jon smiled big enough to show it.

Robb leaned back into his chair. "Don't mention it. What are brothers for?" Robb's shoulders were slumped and, for the first time, Jon really saw how bone-tired his brother was. Robb's eyes were rimmed in red, and his hair was a mess, as if he had ran his fingers through it all night. There were also smudges of soot and ash on his face and clothes. He looked like he was about to collapse.

"I hope you don't mind me saying this, but you look like a wreck. You can go now and get some rest. I think I'm well enough."

Robb smiled crookedly at him. "That means precious little coming from you. Always a martyr." Robb sighed and ran his fingers through his hair. "Maybe in a minute. I need to sit down and think about... some things. Such as... I was half-serious before. When I said you should get a girl."

This again? Jon couldn't begin to imagine what the point of this topic was, and it annoyed him that Robb was being so circuitous about it. It only made a little sense when Robb was using it as an excuse to take his clothes off, but now... Jon's smile dissipated. "Why don't you lend me one of yours then? You must have about a dozen from all the times you've gone to the brothel with Greyjoy."

Robb winced. "Would that I had even one."

Jon scoffed. "I find that hard to believe."

"It's true. I never took advantage of those visits near as much as Theon did." Robb began picking beneath his fingernails, as if the things under them were far more fascinating than Jon's confusion. "You could have come with us. I always ask you to come."

Jon turned away, not caring for where this was headed. "And I always say no."

"Because you hate Theon."

"I sense that wasn't a question."

Robb grunted behind his back. "He's not as bad as you think. He reminds me a bit of you sometimes."

Jon turned around and glared at Robb uncomprehendingly. "Are you trying to insult me? If you want to fight, know that I'm at a severe disadvantage."

Robb held up his hands in a placating gesture. "It wasn't an insult." Robb looked down, his voice becoming quiet and strained, as if all the sadness in the world were contained in his lungs. "Sometimes when he gets dead drunk, Theon tells me things. Things he never tells anyone. Like how, if he ever returned home to the Iron Islands, no one would even remember him. He's supposed to be the heir, but his father hardly answers any of his letters nor does Lord Balon make any mention of him going home. He's been here half his life, and yet everyone still looks at him like he started the Greyjoy rebellion, when he had nothing to fucking do with it. Why do people blame others for things they have no control over? And then Theon cries afterward, about how alone he feels in this 'cold wasteland.' I guess that's why he goes to the brothel so much. Uncle Benjen once told me that a lady will hate you for true, but a whore never judges." Robb met his eyes then, and those deep blue depths seemed to hold more sympathy than Jon could ever deserve. "When you told me in the godswood about how tired you were and why you wanted to leave Winterfell, it was like hearing it all in Theon's voice."

Jon didn't know what to say. He'd expected some affirmation as to why Robb seemed to think so highly of Theon Greyjoy, but he never expected this. He felt like he had been slapped awake, though Robb's voice never rose above quiet pity. "Why are you telling me this?"

Robb clenched a fist on his lap. "Because I'm trying very hard to understand why you said what you said. Before you passed out in the library, you said you didn't want Winterfell and that you were sorry. Why were you sorry, Jon?"

Jon was dumbstruck and verging on frightened at the budding anger on Robb's face. "Wait... Did I... I really said that?"

"Yes, you did. There was blood on my cheek, from when you touched it. I was too terrified about what had happened to you, that you almost died and how I couldn't bear to lose you, that I really didn't think about it until now, but now I can't think of anything else. When did I ever make you feel like you had to compete with me? Like I thought you were a threat to my birthright? Please explain that to me, brother."

Jon gaped, which must have been the wrong answer because Robb's pained scowl deepened. Quickly, he tried to organize his thoughts into something resembling coherence. "I didn't plan on saying that. I don't even remember saying it. It was something I was hoping to keep silent on and take to my grave. But... it was just..." He hoped Robb could see the turmoil this was causing him. "Yesterday, you didn't seem very pleased that I had finished all my work..."

Robb's eyes narrowed. "What?"

Gods, why is this happening? Why can't I keep my mouth shut and faint faster? "You... you said that you wish you could bequeath your inheritance to me... so I thought..."

Robb's tone was as cold and flat as slate. "That was a joke."

"Yes, yes, it could have been..." Jon agreed wholeheartedly.

"Could have been?" Robb was less agreeable.

"I didn't mean—"

Robb stood up suddenly and looked at his brother like Jon had betrayed him. "Let me tell you something, Jon. You think that just because you're a bastard the whole world is out to get you. You twist words around and turn them against yourself, hoping people will feel bad about them. Well, there are worse things than being a bastard!"

Jon had planned on being the contrite little brother, to get on his knees and beg for Robb's forgiveness. He suddenly disposed of that plan, though, and took on some anger of his own. "Is that what you think? Have you ever been a bastard?" Have you ever had to wait three hours to get your broken arm set because of it?

"No, but have you ever been heir to Winterfell?" Robb spat, his voice getting higher and more desperate by turns. "It's not the court ball in King's Landing you think it is! You wouldn't want it if you knew what it entailed! If you knew what I have to face tomorrow and all the days after! If you knew..."

And just like that, all of Jon's impromptu rage drained out of him at the sight of tears forming in his brother's eyes. He tried reaching for Robb, screw the burns and the pain. He would have tried to hold Robb closer to his side if it weren't for the bandages. "Robb—"

Robb wrenched away from Jon's ineffective grasp and crossed the room, hiding his face from Jon. He scooped up Grey Wind, who was sleeping in a tight ball around Ghost, on a bed of Jon's soiled clothes. The little wolf whined and kicked in his arms. "It was just a joke. So stop reading things into it, other than that I'm proud to call you my brother. I left a cup of poppy on your table. You should drink it when you wake." Without another look at Jon, he strode from the room and was gone, taking all the warmth there was with him.

What a perfect end to a perfect day. Ghost hopped onto the bed and settled by Jon's side. "Remember me, do you?" he whispered bitterly. "While you were getting cozy with your brother, I was having a row with mine. What I wouldn't give to be a wolf." Ghost licked his cheek, and he supposed that was all that needed to be said about it. So tired. It was probably long past midnight, with morning rapidly approaching. He wished he never had to wake up. As his eyes slowly closed and his mind drew away from Robb's anguished face, Jon thought he saw a raven perched on his windowsill. Do the birds not already have enough places to roost? He dreamt of dark wings.

· · ·


As expected, morning came too soon and with it a new world of struggles for Jon Snow to overcome. Drinking the cup of poppy that Robb had left him required not only extreme patience on his part but elbows and strange maneuvers. A real sightif anyone had been watching. Attempting to wash his face was a rude awakening, so he simply plunged his head into the basin and let the air dry his skin. Climbing down stairs was tricky. With hands, there came an easy confidence that made stairs not even worth thinking about but, without, the chance of falling and smashing himself to more injuries was an uncomfortable possibility. Breaking his fast... Now that was a complete nightmare.

The cook had served mutton chops lathered in gravy this morning. Jon stared at the dish like he meant to absorb it through his eyes. Only the thumb and index finger of his left hand were usable to him, and it was hard enough just gripping a utensil without having to cut with it. He was tempted to throw all pride to the winds and ask someone to help him or to bury his face in the meat and shred it with his teeth like Ghost. As he wouldn't be able to clean himself afterward, and he didn't like walking around with gravy on his face, he decided against that course of action. Before he could call over one of the serving girls who had been standing to the side and watching his internal battle with piteous eyes, Robb slid onto the bench beside him and took his plate. "Give that back. I was staring at it..."

"And maybe in a thousand years the meat will understand what you're thinking and learn to cut itself, but until then you need help." And clearly that help was going to be Robb. He wielded the knife and fork like he had been born to it and cut the lamb meat into dozens of small squares.

"You don't have to do that..."

"Yes, you say that every hour or so. Bear with it." Robb proceeded with his work, not looking at Jon once. "You're so obsessed when it comes to helping someone else, and yet you never expect it or desire it for yourself. I don't understand you,Jon."

"I just thought... after last night, you wouldn't want to..." Jon mumbled.

"I don't want to talk about last night. Not yet."

Jon nodded, though he wasn't sure if Robb saw it, so concentrated was he on his cutting. Jon didn't know what to say, and Robb wasn't about to offer anything, so Jon kept his silence. Robb looked no better than he did last night. In fact, he looked worse. Jon doubted Robb got any sleep. Whatever was going on with Robb, it wasn't healthy, and it made him feel even more helpless that there was nothing he could do for his brother. Maybe he really was pushy when it came to helping, but he couldn't see anything wrong in wanting to lend a hand (figuratively) to Robb.

When the mutton had been cut from the bone and separated into equal bite-sized pieces, Robb speared one greasy cube with the fork and held it before Jon's mouth.

"Oh, no," Jon groaned.

"Oh, yes," Robb replied with a small, strained smile. "Come now. We've already done 'handy stuff.' What's one more shame to the pile?"

"We never did any handy stuff."

"We could have." Robb wiggled his eyebrows. "And I think I saw something not quite so small in your smallclothes when I whipped your pants off."

Jon laughed despite how absolutely fucking wrong this whole conversation was. "You're insane."

"Only for you, dear brother. Now swallow my meat before I shove it in your mouth."

Jon grinned. "You must say that to all your girls." Despite how unbearably awful and disorienting this day had been when it began, it was almost worth it to hear Robb laugh with him. "You're not going to stop until I... swallow your meat, are you?"

"No."

"And there's no point resisting, is there?"

"There never is."

"I guess I should stop trying then." Jon opened his mouth and let Robb push the morsel inside. He'd never tasted anything so good.

That was how it went. Robb fed him like he was a babe and tipped the cider to his lips when he asked. Soon the plate was empty except for the bones, and Robb wiped some gravy from his lips with a napkin. Once again, Robb's fingers lingered, and Jon wanted to ask him why he did that but, as it wasn't really a bother, Jon couldn't think of any reason for him to stop. So Jon let him, damn what he thought about it. There was a long silence between them after that, but for once it wasn't uncomfortable. It was like how it used to be long ago, before the King came to Winterfell and Jon decided he wanted to freeze on a wall for the rest of his life, when they were close, and things were simple and uncomplicated. Robb must have realized that, too, as he started speaking. "Mother's leaving with Ser Rodrik for King's Landing today. She's taking the knife to Father, to find out whose it is. To decide what to do next."

This news didn't surprise Jon. It was the sensible thing to do. You didn't simply lay an accusation like attempted murder at a king's door without due consideration. "They're not going to bring the assassin? Won't they need him to implicate Joffrey?"

Robb shook his head. "Mother says it won't work. The Lannisters will just say he's a feigned witness we conjured up, and it's his word against all of theirs. No, Father will have to present the knife to the King. If it's theirs, then there can be no doubt, and King Robert trusts Father. Even then, it's not so simple. If it were just the Lannisters, then that's one thing. The King hates his wife and her family. Everyone knows that. But this is his son. We might all know what a worthless little turd Joffrey is, but does King Robert?" Robb absently fingered a scratch on the table, his tone becoming more grave by the word. "And there's more. Before Father left, Mother got a letter from Aunt Lysa. It said the Lannisters killed Jon Arryn."

That news did surprise Jon. "That's... What do we make of that? What does that have to do with Joffrey? Did his mother order him to hire an assassin to kill Bran? And why kill Bran? Are they all just a family of murderers?" He was so confused.

From the way Robb's face scrunched up, he was faring no better. "We don't know about the rest, but Mother suspects that Bran was pushed. That he must have seen something. Bran has been climbing since he was four, but now he falls while the Lannisters stay under our roof?" Robb slammed a fist on the table.

Jon was feeling lightheaded. He shouldn't have downed so much poppy. "I can't believe it. What... do you think Bran saw?"

Robb shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe Joffrey fucking Myrcella?"

Jon was aghast. Only Robb could possess that sort of imagination. "Gods, Robb, Myrcella is only eight! And his sister!" Jon didn't know why he thought the second was less severe.

"All the more reason to push a little boy off a tower to cover it up, then send a footpad to slit his throat when he refuses to die." Robb struck the carving knife into a scar on the table, probably imagining it was a prince's throat.

It shocked Jon when Robb gripped that knife in both hands like it was the only thing keeping him upright. His head was bowed, and his shoulders were shaking like he was sobbing. Jon hated not knowing what to do, so he did the only thing he could do. He rubbed Robb's back with his bandaged hand, in hopes that it was at least soothing. "Robb, what's going on?" Besides everything? he thought at the last second, wanting to slap himself. There may be one way to reach Robb. "Please speak to me. I don't like it when you don't tell me what's going on," he repeated Robb's words back to him.

Slowly, Robb let go of the knife and looked at Jon with watering, tired eyes. "You were right. You were right about everything. About me." His voice cracked. "I knew it as soon as I left your room, but I was too proud and ashamed to come back in and say I'm sorry. Grey Wind knew it, too. He wouldn't stop biting me and trying to get back to your room. I just didn't know what to do. I don't know what's wrong with me."

Jon shifted closer to him and gave Robb his shoulder. Robb took it gratefully and placed his head there, like a man starving for rest or a little bit of warmth. He wrapped his arm around Jon, just content to hold Jon close and rub his eyes against hisbrother's shoulder. And Jon was more than content to be held. Whatever anchor Robb needed to stay whole, Jon would give it to him.

"I don't know who I was fooling," Robb muttered against Jon's shirt. "Not even to my sixteenth nameday and I'm expected to hold Winterfell? We were playing with wooden swords a mere two weeks ago! I was annoyed that you finished your own work ahead of me. I knew thinking it was wrong, and it was unfair to you, but I couldn't stop. I couldn't stop thinking, thinking how you would be a better lord than me. And I said that horrible thing to you. I didn't mean it, though maybe I did, and when it left my mouth I felt awful about it. I'm so sorry, Jon."

Jon tried his best to give his own hug. "It's no matter. You think I care about that right now?"

Robb chuckled against Jon's shoulder and gave a slightly wet sniff. "Jon Snow. Always the martyr. Regardless what anyone does to you. It seems you're ever the one comforting me. Even when you broke your arm, you were trying to make me feel better. Dammit, Jon, I'm so scared. I feel so alone."

There was a painful pang in Jon's heart, and he pulled Robb in as close as he could manage on the bench. "What are you afraid of, Robb?"

It seemed Robb's tears remained unshed, but there was a hollowness to his voice now that was probably worse. "Whatever happens in King's Landing, it will mean war. With Father there, I might have to call the banners. The North cannot stand for this, and I agree. Joffrey and his entire family deserve to burn. But a Stark must lead the North and... I don't know if I can do it, Jon."

Jon shook his head, so strongly was he against those words. "That's not true. Do you remember what Father always said? A good leader can make anyone believe him, not just in him. I believed you when you convinced me to stay, and you cannot imagine how much that took when I was already so set on dying at my post on the Wall."

Robb lifted his head to see Jon's face, though his was still conflicted. "Do you regret it? Do you regret staying? This all happened to you because I made you stay. I was selfish and stupid, and now look what it's got you. And the awful things I said to you last night. I tried so hard to keep you here, and the next thing I know I'm pushing you away. I only ever seem to cause you trouble, like when I pushed you to climb up that tree, and now..."

Jon held Robb's face in his bandaged hands despite the pain it caused him; he needed Robb to look him in the eye. "I promise you, if you never held me back, I would have made the worst mistake of my life. There was nothing I wanted or feared more than staying in Winterfell. And you made me see that. Nothing that's happened since then or after could ever make me regret it. Believe me, Robb, like I believed you."

It took all Jon had, but Robb's despair broke into a huge, silly grin that screamed his relief. He hugged Jon tighter then, nuzzling against his neck. "Very well. I believe you. I love you, Jon."

Jon smiled warmly against Robb's hair. "I know."

"Promise me that, no matter how much of an arse I am to you, you'll never leave."

There was nothing Jon wanted more. "I promise. May the gods strike me down if I break it."

"I'll pray to that." Robb's fingers drew circles on Jon's back. "King of Winterfell, and you'll be my Hand. A Hand without hands."

Jon groaned. "You've been waiting forever to tell that joke, haven't you?"

Robb's grin was infectious. "You know me so well."

· · ·

Lady Catelyn bid goodbye to the entire household in the castle courtyard with Ser Rodrik beside her, both dressed in traveling cloaks with their horses saddled and bridled. They would take ship for King's Landing in White Harbor, which was a two week's journey from Winterfell. They would arrive before the King and Lord Eddard no matter what, though, as ponderous as their pace was. Only a handful of people knew the full details of the assassination attempt on Bran the night before, which naturally meant everyone knew by now. But Lady Stark took no chances. "A mother longs for her children. And though it's been little more than a week, I could not make it one more day without seeing the girls again."

The crowd of servants, smiths, and stable boys voiced an affirmative, though by the steel in their eyes and being true northmen to the bone, they weren't fooled for a second.

Nor did Lady Catelyn expect them to be. "I trust this castle to all of you, and leave it in good hands. And whatever belongs in Winterfell, must stay in Winterfell. Is that understood?"

"Yes, milady!"

"Of course, Lady Stark!"

"Hodor!"

Little Rickon came to his mother sniffling, with his wolf padding beside him. His mother took him into her arms. "Try not to cause too much trouble now. I'll be back soon, my baby."

The toddler wrenched out of her hold. "No, you won't!" he wailed. "You're all leaving and not coming back, and Bran won't wake up! I hate you!" The baby ran sobbing back into the castle with his wolf snapping behind him. Lady Stark's face was agony, but she didn't run after him. It must have been a huge effort not to.

Robb stepped towards her then. He looked resplendent in his cloak, pinned by the direwolf sigil, with his sword strapped to his waist, his hair washed and combed. There was no sign of the scared young man who had fallen apart in Jon's arms only hours before. Their father would be proud. Robb was what a lord should look like, though Jon wished Robb believed it himself. "Goodbye, Mother."

"Goodbye, my son." She wrapped him in a tight embrace and kissed his cheek. "Take care of your brothers and the castle. I know you will do your father and I proud."

"I will," Robb said, with a confidence Jon wasn't sure was feigned.

Lady Catelyn let Robb go and left the courtyard on her mare. Or at least that was what Jon expected, before she moved her gaze to him and he froze. Her eyes were uncertain, as if she didn't know what to do after that. But there was no turning back when she stepped closer towards him and spoke. "I... know it was because of you that Bran is alive. You saved my son, and I am in your debt." Her eyes drew to his left arm, and for a second he wondered what she was looking at, before remembering that was the one that broke when he fell off the heart tree. "I pray that you will continue to take care of my sons while I am gone."

Jon nodded stiffly, too flabbergasted by this turn of events to actually speak. Robb was grinning proudly at him beside her.

"Farewell then." Lady Stark pulled her hood over her head, got on her horse, and rode away.

Jon was still standing there looking at the gates long after the household returned to posts and chores. Robb stood beside him, as Jon hoped he would for many more days to come. "That wasn't so bad, was it?"

"No."

"Do you want to see Bran?"

Jon could barely contain his tears. "Yes."

Bran was unchanged since the last time Jon saw him, and Jon's heart broke all over again. He looked so small, practically consumed by all the pillows and fur piled around him. Jon wondered if Bran was feeling hot. He wondered if Bran would ever wake again. He noticed long after the fact that it was Bran's wolf nestled by the boy's side and not a blanket. Robb answered his silent question. "Mother let him stay when I told her how Ghost rushed in and tried to stop that man. She believes our wolves are gifts from the old gods, and we should always have them by our side." Robb nudged his shoulder. "She especially likes yours, Jon."

Jon nodded again, too choked up for words.

Robb gripped his shoulder gently. "I have duties that I desperately need to go back to. I've been neglecting them today."

"Then you need to get back to them," Jon said, before adding, "I'm not going anywhere."

Robb made a smile that was more hopeful than Jon could fathom, then returned to his duties.

True to his word, Jon stayed by Bran's side that whole afternoon, his bandaged hands over Bran's thin, lifeless ones, praying to whatever gods could hear him. It seemed whenever the south came north, it brought nothing but destruction. When Rhaegar came for Lyanna, and now when King Robert came for his father. It seemed from Rhaegar's letter that there had been something more to Lyanna's abduction, and he had to believe the same of this. No one could hurt such a sweet little boy for no reason. It made the hatred in his soul that burned for the Lannisters easier to bear, admitting that there had to be an explanation for what happened. Though he couldn't imagine excusing them, no matter what it was. He understood Robb's fear of going to war.

Sometime in the afternoon, Ghost climbed onto his lap and dozed like a cat. The warmth of him made Jon yawn, exhaustion bone deep. He wondered how Robb was coping with it. His body sagged into Bran's bed, and he closed his eyes, just for a little while. But a little while became much longer and, before he realized it, he was asleep, dreaming of heat and air beating against his skin.

A soft mewling woke him from his dream, and Jon was about to bat away the unnamed wolf from licking at Bran's face before he saw his brother's eyes were open.

"Bran?" he said hoarsely. This must be a dream. He was still dreaming. But his hands throbbed with pain, so he knew that couldn't be.

"Jon." Bran's voice was raspy like sandpaper, like he hadn't used it in years. He regarded his wolf with a small smile. "His name is Summer. I should have thought of a name sooner, but his name is Summer."

The sound of a bowl crashing onto the floor broke him from his stupor, and Jon turned to the shocked servant. "Find Robb and Maester Luwin! Bran's awake! Go!" The woman ran out of the room and down the steps, screaming.

Bran reached out and touched Jon's bandages. "What happened to your hands?"

"I burned them. I left a candle unattended," he croaked, desperate to touch his little brother.

Bran shook his head and looked at Jon with the most profound sorrow. "My legs are broken, aren't they? I can't feel them."

Jon wished he didn't have to say it. Wished he didn't have to be the one to tell Bran. Wished he could climb up that heart tree and wish for Bran's legs back. Wished that the gods didn't demand such a cruel price for returning his brother. "Yes, Bran. I'm sorry."

Bran's tears spilled over like Jon knew they would. "He said I could fly. He told me I could fly. He lied. How am I supposed to fly now?" Bran's arms reached for Jon, and he sobbed, and that was how Robb found them.

Jon returned to his room feeling weak and empty. There were no miracles in this world, and the few that came were cold and vicious. He left Maester Luwin and Robb to look after Bran. They deserved more time with Bran than he did. The general tone of the castle was celebratory, a drastic change from the bleak fog that had covered it for weeks. But Jon didn't feel like celebrating, and he was sure neither did Robb nor Bran.

He nudged his trunk open and rifled through his clothes. He found the letter where he had hidden it with his two fingers, under a pile of riding apparel. He read the words he couldn't understand, over and over. "You saved Bran, too, didn't you? Just like you saved me. Would that you had saved all of him."

The sound of his door opening made Jon shove the letter back into the chest and kick the lid closed. It was one of the handmaids, he recognized. Lady Catelyn's, he recalled. "Good evening, my lord," she said, looking somewhat embarrassed. "My lady sent me to you. She said you might need assistance due to your injuries."

The same sensation that he felt that morning of crashing into a wall returned to him just then. "Lady? You mean... Lady Stark?"

"Of course, my lord. Who else could it be?"

I expected Cersei Lannister. It certainly would have been more likely. As astounding as this was, he saw no reason to reject Lady Catelyn's kindness, and it was probably dangerous and counterproductive to do so. "Very well... Can you help me into a change of clothes?"

"Certainly, my lord." She enthusiastically entered his personal space to pull him out of his shirt. He'd finally found himself a girl. Robb would be so proud. Jon winced when she drew the shirt over his head, as she neglected to widen the armholes like Robb had done. He felt strangely disappointed. She was good at giving dreamwine, though, and as soon as his head hit the pillow, he was gone.

He'd had this dream before. Jon was at the base of a tower that stood alone, overlooking a mountain pass. It was raised on a ledge of red rock, and hot, fierce winds battered the coarse sandstone that composed it. Dorne. This is Dorne. He didn't know that before, but somehow he knew it now. He also knew this was a place of despair. Gauzy curtains billowed through the open window of the tower's topmost floor. Rivulets of blood snaked across the ground around the structure, seeping deep into brown pools where bones glinted white in the sun. A ragged length of cloth was snagged on the doorframe; it was barely recognizable as a cloak. All was silent as a crypt, except for the skittering of windblown sand.

He made to enter the tower, but a crackly voice stopped him midstep. "Don't go in. You will not like what you find." A crow was perched on a boulder. The most astonishing thing about it was not that it could talk, but that it had three eyes.

"Who are you?" he asked. "And why are you in my dream?"

"The same reason I've been in all your dreams." The bird pecked at its wing. "I've been watching you, Jon Snow."

Jon's eyes narrowed. He should have needed to do so sooner with the sand blowing his way, but he could feel nothing of it. "And why have you been doing that?"

The strange bird cocked its head, all three eyes blinking at him. "You stayed."

Jon felt himself going cold, though he couldn't say why. Something told him that this was the bird's dream, too, and the terror was not his. "What do you mean?"

The crow's voice was soft. "All possible futures I have seen, Jon Snow. Through the eyes of heart trees from beyond the Wall to this desolate place. A thousand eyes and one, and nearly all my power. Bran Stark dies in every future."

He never thought Dorne could feel so cold. He was shivering now, and his heart was thudding painfully. "What are you talking about? You lie! This is just a dream."

The crow shook its head. How the bird did that, he couldn't tell. "You know this is not a dream, Jon Snow. Don't lie to yourself."

"But... Bran just woke up! Why would he die now?"

"It will not come soon, but it will come nonetheless. You were meant to leave, to make your future at the Wall. But Robb Stark changed all that. With your continued presence by his side, certain events will not come to pass, and Bran will never learn how to fly. He will die, alone and in despair."

Jon could hear the fluttering of the curtains in the tower and, with it, faint cries. "What you're saying is... if I stay with Robb, Bran will die?" He didn't know why he believed this, but there was a force here that compelled him to do so. The only times he had ever felt anything like it was when he found Ghost... and when he found the letter. "If I go to the Wall, will Bran live?"

"Yes. It's not too late."

"Then..." He remembered Robb hugging him, holding him like he would break if Robb didn't, making him promise. And worse, it was a six-year-old Robb he remembered. "Then I... then I leave Robb." The gods would strike him down, but there was no choice. Bran had just gotten his life back; Jon would do anything in his power for Bran to keep it. "So I go to the Wall. That's it." There was something strangely gratifying in learning that he and Robb couldn't stay together. Were never meant to be.

"Yes." It was the saddest "yes" he had ever heard, and immediately his blood froze. "If you go to the Wall, Robb Stark will die."

It felt like the earth itself was pulled out from under him. He wanted to believe so badly that none of this was true, that he could go back to his bed and remember nothing. But he was still here, the blood-red sand swallowing his feet.

The evil crow's eyes were hard and merciless. "Could you do it, Jon Snow? Could you choose? One brother's life for another's? Who is more valuable? Which soul weighs more?"

Jon backed away, too horrified at what he had to consider. "No. Please. Don't make me choose. Anything but this. I can't do this."

"Can't? Or won't?" the crow sneered at him. "You love them both, but not the same."

"What? I love them. They're my brothers. There's no choice!"

"You lie. You love them both, but not the same. I too had brothers once, Jon Snow. One I loved and one I hated. The choice was simple once I learned which was which."

Jon shook his head, trying to wipe this nightmare from his mind. He looked over the edge of the cliff, seeing the blue bend of a river thousands of feet below. He wondered if it hurt to die in a dream.

The crow spread its black wings and squawked. "If you truly wish to save both, then you must teach Bran Stark to fly."

He caught on to that. Anything but this. "How do I do that? Tell me!"

"You must reach him. Save him from his suffering. And urge him to let go. You know what it means to be alone in the world, just like me. You can find him when others cannot."

Jon shook his head again. "That's not true. Robb was right. There are worse things than being a bastard, and I don't feel so alone anymore."

"If you feel that way, then so be it." The crow flew up and sat on the window ledge at the top of the tower. "Why then do you dream of this place? The stain has never left your soul, and so you return. Even without knowing, your spirit hungers for home. You will always be alone, Jon Snow."

Jon stared at the edifice like it was supposed to trigger something in his memory. "This? This is my home? What is this place?"

"You will learn that, too, if you teach Bran Stark to fly."

Jon ran a shaking hand through his hair. "Why me? Why does it have to be me?"

The crow cawed from above him. "You have the gift. Your siblings all possess it, but not like Bran. Nobody is like Bran. His power is immense. Unimaginable. He can see through to the dawn of time and shape worlds if he wishes. But first he needs someone to save him. His sisters have gone, and your brother has his own cross to bear. That leaves only you."

Jon clenched his fists. There was no question. Nothing to consider. He would do anything to save them. Save them both. "Tell me what to do. I'll do it."

The three-eyed crow flew from the window and cackled. "Then open your eye," he screeched, before burying his beak into Jon's forehead.

 

Chapter Text

Broken


Tyrion Lannister seemed smaller than Jon remembered. That was perhaps because Lord Tyrion's red-cloaked guards and the four black brothers behind him, all of whom were at least twice his size, surrounded him like sentinels. They were packed close together in the center of the great hall, their fingers inches from their sword belts, wary of the thinly veiled anger that was inexplicably leveled towards them.

Robb took his accustomed place at the high seat of House Stark, with his sword sitting naked across his thighs. Jon saw no benefit in antagonizing Lannister openly like that, but he would not have been able to stop Robb even if he dared. Bran sat at Robb's right, his small hands gripping the armrests tightly to keep himself from sliding off. Jon stood to the left of Robb, completing the lineup. He secretly hoped that Lord Tyrion couldn't read the message his brother was sending but, with the clear and open hostility pervading the room, it was a vain hope. The two growling direwolves and Jon's silent one prowling around the visitors didn't help much either.

Lannister took the message in seemingly good stride. "Now, now, my lords. Is this how you would greet a guest? If I didn't know better, I'd think it was my sister receiving me in King's Landing."

Bran smiled weakly, but Robb was stone-faced. "The Night's Watch is always welcome in our hall. You, however... Why are you here, Lannister?"

The dwarf shrugged. "I was simply curious as to the health of your little brother and wanted to see him for myself, give him my blessings and so forth. He seems to be getting on fairly well, all things considered."

No thanks to you. Come back to finish the job? Robb's expression clearly said, and Jon hoped desperately that it was clear only to him.

"Also, I wanted to avail myself a little of your famous northern hospitality." The little man surveyed the room with those eerie mismatched eyes, probably taking note of all the cold, hard faces. "It seems we went too far south..."

"There's an inn in town. Feel free to avail yourself of the hospitality there," Robb said icily.

Lannister ignored Robb for the moment and turned to Jon with a warm smile. "Ah, Jon Snow. It was a shame you decided not to accompany us to the Wall. Your wolf could have assisted us in finding game. At one point, we were down to nothing but salt beef and the leather of our shoes. Soon we were out of beef, but I was still pissing salt a good long while afterward, with plenty of boots to spare, so we were never left wanting. But the companionship remained scarce, I'm afraid. Your uncle is not much of a conversationalist."

Jon nodded slowly. He didn't know what he was doing, but he had to do it fast before the moment was lost forever. "And... how is our uncle, my lord?" he said quickly, feeling like a dolt. Robb made a sour face at him, as if his brother couldn't believe he was actually starting a conversation with Tyrion Lannister.

The little man didn't seem to think anything was amiss, or maybe he was just grateful for a distraction from the murderous intent in the room. "Benjen Stark? He seemed well, last I saw his gruff, long face. As to his current whereabouts, I believe the gentlemen in black behind me would be of more help to you there. He did speak fondly of you, when I hazarded to ask him why you chose not to come with us, and he didn't tear my little head off for speaking to him." He glanced warily at Grey Wind, who was low to the ground with teeth bared. "Though it seems I only managed to delay the inevitable..."

Jon fumbled for something to say. "That... That's good to know, my lord. You must tell us more at table tonight."

He saw Robb gape at him from the corner of his eye. "What the hell are you doing?" Robb hissed.

Lord Tyrion raised an eyebrow, clearly doubtful. "Truly? Call it an instinct, but I was under the impression I was not wanted here. Your own brother, lord of the castle, stated that I'm not welcome under his roof."

Robb was quick to supplement that with, "Yes, and if you know what's good—"

"Yet you have all traveled so far and could surely use some warm food and beds!" Jon bulled over his brother. He prayed Robb would find it in his heart to forgive this trespass. "This is the first time Lord Tyrion has trekked through the northern wilds and he must be weary for more familiar comforts. Isn't that right, my good man?" Jon called to the lone black brother who seemed to be the senior of the group.

It took the man a few moments to realize he was being addressed. He was a stooped and shabby figure, with a worn, heavily patched cloak and one shoulder higher than the other. "Ah, aye! Yoren's my name, if it please milords. We been travelin' through sleet and snow and sleepin' on hard ground for near two fortnights and wouldn't turn away any hospitality you care to offer. 'specially if it included some good ale and lots of it. As for the little lion lord... If I have to hear about 'roast capons, drizzled with honey and garlic sauce, swimming in a Pentoshi spice reduction' one more time, I'm goin' to brain myself with a mace, and then who'll sweep your scum to the Wall? So you best give him what he wants... with your pardons, milord."

The whole room was staring at Robb. He looked like he had just swallowed a slug. Jon had gotten the black brother to include Tyrion Lannister in the party from the Wall, and to eject the dwarf would be to boot out the Night's Watch, as well. The first lesson a young lord learned was how to maintain good form. It would cause a scene now to try to expel Lannister. Robb realized all this in less than a second. "It seems I was... inconsiderate," he pushed out through clenched teeth. "Rooms and hot water have already been prepared for you... all of you... and I would be... honored if you would dine with us tonight."

"Many thanks, milord." The black brothers bowed and walked out of the great hall.

Tyrion Lannister quirked his head at this change of events, before giving his own version of a bow. "Kind of you to reconsider, Lord Stark. I was so looking forward to that warm bath. In fact, I think I'll take one right now. Come, men." Lord Tyrion and his guards proceeded to the doors at the front of the hall while skirting cautiously around the still snarling direwolves. The little man paused beside Jon for just a second, whispering so only he could hear, "Well played." Lannister was already waddling away when Jon turned, but he swore he saw that one green eye wink at him at the last moment.

There was silence in the room after the guests filed out, cold and foreboding. Jon was afraid to even look at Robb. Jon had shamed and undermined him in his own court, after all. Eventually, the young Lord of Winterfell stood, sheathing his sword in its scabbard. "Leave us," he announced to the remaining stragglers. Then it was only Jon, Robb, and Bran left in the dark, empty space of the great hall.

Robb rounded on Jon, nostrils flaring. "If you weren't my brother, and if I didn't already give it all I had to keep you away from there, I would send you to the Wall for treason. Just what in the seven hells was that about? Are you buttering up Tyrion Lannister's tiny backside?"

Jon flinched at his brother's wrath, but it was no less than he deserved. "Please. I can explain, Robb." But will you understand?

Robb crossed his arms. "You better. You made me look a fool in front of the whole court. Not a good start to my rule."

Jon opened his mouth, then realized he had no idea how to say this. The plan had come to him on a whim, and he gave no consideration as to how he was going to sell it to Robb. How his brother took this was the only thing that mattered, so he needed to give it his all. Convincing Robb of his own character was hard enough; Jon couldn't imagine how much it would take to convince Robb of Tyrion Lannister's. "I... I think we should tell the Imp about the assassin."

That caught Robb completely off guard. Better confused than angry, thought Jon. "Tell?"

"Not just tell him. Show him. Let them talk. He can help us prove Joffrey is behind this."

Robb just gaped, clearly not knowing what to say. Jon was starting to feel uncomfortable. Bran seemed to be in the same state, looking from one brother to the other nervously. After a time, Robb found his composure, but his tone was no calmer. "Are you out of your fucking mind?" His voice echoed throughout the hall. "He's a Lannister! You remember what a Lannister is, don't you? Blond, snobbish, shits gold, tried to murder you and Bran? Please tell me you haven't forgotten!"

"I... I don't think this Lannister had anything to do with the assassination," Jon countered, hopefully with more conviction than he felt.

Robb stared at Jon incredulously, before squeezing his temples with his fingers. "Kindly tell me who you are and what you've done with my brother's senses because I am at a loss here."

Jon started fingering the bandages on his right hand with his left, a nervous gesture that he had developed recently. "I don't think he's who you think he is. If what the guardsmen said is true, he slapped Joffrey silly while they were here in Winterfell, so it's unlikely they could be planning something together, family or no. Also, he already knew of Bran's recovery. Probably found out at the Wall, when Maester Luwin sent word to Uncle Benjen. And yet he walks back into Winterfell, calm as you please? That doesn't sound like a murderous mastermind to me. And..." Jon didn't know how to voice the last point. It seemed too personal, even for Robb's ears, but his brother didn't have to know the exact details. "He... helped me... in a way, when he spoke to me all those months ago. He gave me something to think about..." Which helped me understand your words when you told me to stay.

Robb rolled his eyes. "So you're friends? Is that it? And just because he slapped Joffrey's block off doesn't mean they aren't conspiring when no one's looking. I'd hit that little prick, too, if I were him. Hells, I'd do it if I were the Queen. And as for strolling in here... He's a Lannister. They're all arrogant piss pots who think they can walk around wherever they please expecting everyone will bend down and scoop up their shit. No doubt he just wanted to see the damage he's wrought and laugh about it with the rest of his wretched family when he gets home."

"I think Jon is right, Robb," Bran suddenly muttered, startling them both. Jon's heart swelled to hear that his baby brother was siding with him. "He doesn't look bad to me. His eyes scare me a bit, but I don't think that makes him evil. I think he's really funny." Bran petted Summer's head, the wolf having slinked comfortably between his legs.

"This isn't about..." Robb started, before sighing with exasperation. "Enough! I'm done with this conversation. We are not asking him why his family wants to destroy ours, and that's final." He directed a finger at Jon's face. "I may be your brother, but for the time being I am also your lord, and I forbid you from inducting him into our little circle. And now, thanks to you, I have to ask Gage to make more food for..." Robb made a noise of disgust. "...Lannisters. Bloody pleasant evening this will be." He scooped Bran gently into his arms, speaking softly to the boy. "I'll carry you back to your room, and have Hodor take you down in time for supper." Robb turned and leveled one last glare at Jon. "I better see you at table tonight. This is your fault, so it's your duty to entertain them." He then strode out of the great hall carrying Bran, their wolves trailing after them.

Jon bowed his head and sighed deeply. "Well, it was worth a shot." He got off lightly. He'd only been threatened with hypothetical banishment to the Wall and the promise of further interaction with Tyrion Lannister. Though that might not be so bad...

When Jon opened the door to his room with Ghost loping at his heels, Ellys was already waiting for him inside. "Good afternoon, my lord. Would you like your bandages changed and milk of the poppy for the pain?"

He looked at his hands. The bleeding had stopped when most of the skin healed almost a month ago, and much of the pain was gone with it. But his palms still throbbed on occasion, and it was a distraction he had no need to bear. "Yes, if you would be so kind."

"Certainly, my lord." Jon sat on the bed, and she fell immediately into her tasks. Her fingers were deft and precise, with experience in dressing wounds. There was no uncertainty in the way she applied the wrappings, unlike with Robb, but sometimes he found himself missing Robb's rough but tender treatment, like he was a precious toy that had to be mended and not just an employer. She was at least ten years his senior, and her red hair was clean and fragrant, from what he could smell of it as she bent to replace the bandages. She said she was a native of King's Landing. While visiting Riverrun, she found herself in Lady Catelyn's service, on the express recommendation of the lady's old friend, Petyr Baelish.

Jon may have been a decade younger than her, but he wasn't stupid enough not to see the intent of her touches, the way her fingers caressed his palm, lingered too long by his wrists. As it never progressed past light touching and peculiarly heavy gazes, he couldn't tell her to stop. Her actions were no different than how Robb usually was when they were together, but Robb touching him was as natural as being brothers. With her, he couldn't help but blush and feel extremely uncomfortable.

"There. All done." His right hand was in its usual mitten, while his left was only bandaged at the palm, being mostly back to normal now. She handed him a glass of poppy, and he quaffed it down. She put everything back where it was, stood up, and gave him a smile. "Pleasure serving you, milord. Please give the Lord Imp my regards."

"You know Tyrion Lannister?"

"Does anyone truly know Tyrion Lannister, milord?" There was something mysterious about the way she quirked her lips. "But, yes, you could say that." Without any further explanation, she stepped out and closed the door behind her.

Jon waited a few moments, before gently nudging Ghost with his boot from where the wolf had been napping by his feet. "Go watch the door." Ghost silently blinked those eerie red eyes of his and obediently padded to just one meter from the door, sitting on his haunches and turning into a furry white statue facing the entrance. Jon smiled at the trick. The perfect sentry.

With his good hand, Jon opened his trunk, which was starting to house a lot more than clothes of late. He drew out three choice books and hefted them to his desk one at a time. Lastly, he drew out the burned letter, a permanent fixture in his private activities.

Jon had wasted no time in getting back to the library after Bran's awakening. He proposed to continue organizing Maester Luwin's books, but the old man was having none of it, saying that it would interfere with his recovery, that it was asking too much. Jon replied that he was volunteering, that he had little enough to do with only two fingers, and he wanted to advance his intellectualism. The last part caught the maester's approval, but Luwin was still reluctant. Jon assured the old man that he would only work when the sun was up, and there would be no candles anywhere in his vicinity. The maester was too touched by his good intentions to refuse.

And so that was his excuse for piecing together all he could find on the ancient Valyrian tongue.

Under the pretense of organizing the books, he had first pick of whatever dusty tome seemed likely to shed a little of the light he needed. Maester Luwin wasn't likely to miss one book or even ten. The old man only hoped that he hadn't lost anything important to the fire. "Dornish Girls On Lust and Love" was probably gone for good, but no one was bound to miss that one aside from Luwin and maybe Theon, if he ever managed to stumble drunkenly into the library.

It didn't take Jon long, however, to realize his search was hopeless. He couldn't find any books that spoke of the old tongue in significant detail, and the scant few he did find that touched on the subject at all were written in Valyrian. All the knowledge of the lost empire had sunk into the sea along with Valyria, and it was left to the survivors to piece together what they could of their history. Unfortunately, those pieces were not in Maester Luwin's library. The closest he ever got was a book of ancient song translations, which excited him initially, until he found that "The Song of Ice and Fire" was nowhere in there. There were two miniscule translations of traditional Valyrian psalms, though, from which he was able to derive "birth" and "sacrifice" in Rhaegar's letter. With two months of work, that was all he managed to find. He tried searching for mentions of "The Song of Ice and Fire" itself, but his results were even more abysmal. By all accounts, the letter shouldn't even exist, but there it remained, driving him mad. Sometimes Jon thought he was already insane. He didn't know why he cared so much, other than a feeling in his soul that he should.

It was the same feeling he got when he thought about the dream with the crow. Sometimes he doubted if it even happened. But he could still feel the eruption in his forehead, when the bird buried its beak in his skull. It was hard to dream pain like that. And the things it said about Bran and Robb dying... Just the idea of it shook him down to his core. Jon never saw the crow again, not in any dreams he'd had since. Some nights, he found himself by the forlorn tower in Dorne, but with a cognizance he lacked before he met the crow. Each time, he would enter the open door, the cloak snagged on the frame, and attempt to climb up the stairs. But the dream would always end just as he arrived at the topmost room, smears of blood and blue petals on the floor...

When he wasn't dreaming of Dorne or suffering the rare peaceful slumber, Jon was wandering the halls of Winterfell. Those dreams were no use to him in his present predicament, though, so he thought it best to ignore them. Without much faith in success, he tried searching for whatever he could find about three-eyed crows. He even bothered to ask Maester Luwin, who he thought would simply laugh in his face. "Three-eyed crows? Why, that's a mutation I've never even conceived of. Are you sure it wasn't a three-eyed raven? That would be valuable, I think. Sadly, I'm not well versed in avian deformities, having not devoted any time to acquiring an ivory chain. Maester Gamlen of Griffin's Roost would be thrilled to hear of this possibility, though. He always exhibited a love for the birds that most of us found quite inappropriate..."

On some days, Jon would sleep in the afternoons, hoping to trigger another crow dream. The crow said to save Bran, but the damn bird never said how. Was it really enough just to comfort him? How would Jon know if it worked? Should he wait for Bran to die to find out whether he'd failed? Was he truly insane? At random times, the possibility of losing his brothers sank in, and it made him want to collapse. It was horrible enough that he may lose them, but how would he bear it knowing he could have saved them if he only figured out how? He wished the crow never told him at all, if it wouldn't even tell him that much.

For half an hour, his fingers idly flicked the pages without him realizing, so lost was he in his worries. Jon thumped the book shut and gave it up for lost. He wasn't getting any work done tonight, it seemed. The sun had set behind a mountain range outside his window, and the sky was tinged pink and purple. It was time for dinner.

He piled the books back into the trunk, taking more care to secure the letter. Ghost was still sitting like marble on the floor. "All clear, Ghost." The wolf snapped back into motion instantly, jumping onto the bed with his tongue wagging. "Yes, yes. Time for supper. You'll get your reward. I promise." Jon stood up and stretched, muscles tired from disuse popping back into place. He glanced at the wooden practice sword he kept leaning at his bedside and grasped the hilt with his left hand. He swung it about, right and left, lunged and parried. The swings were still awkward, slow and uncomfortable, the weight alien and unusual in his off hand. It would surely be a while before he could cut down Lannisters with that hand. With a sigh, he set the sword back into place and left the room, Ghost trailing after him.

The dining table was unusually crowded this night. Robb seemed to have donned a different face compared to the one he wore in the great hall, laughing and joking with retainers and black brothers alike, as if a Lannister had never stepped north of the Neck. That was probably a feeling he wanted to hold on to, considering Tyrion Lannister and his men were seated on the far side of the table, as far from Robb as possible. The effort was futile, however. The Imp was quite loud for such a little man.

"Do you remember me, my lord?" One of the serving girls sauntered up to Lannister, filling up his tankard to the brim with wine.

Lord Tyrion grinned at her. "Oh, yes, I think I remember showering you with gifts. I gave you some gold, too." His side of the table guffawed, and more girls flocked for the chance to serve the little lord and refresh his memory as well as his tankard. Lannister chugged down his wine in one long pull that was probably a third of his body weight. "And I remember you and you and, oh, how could I ever forget you! And I think I remember you... Twice, I believe. I'll always appreciate the memories I've made in the North. I can only hope those memories don't end up in your bellies!"

Jon took his place on Robb's left and across from Bran, who was strapped to a high seat. Theon made room for him. "It looks like you can't spell 'imp' with 'limp'." Greyjoy laughed at his own wit.

Robb scowled. "Disgusting little fucker, isn't he? Bran, shield your ears every time he opens his mouth."

Bran did as he was told, resigned to remaining deaf for the rest of the night.

Robb turned to Jon as he reached for a bowl of crab soup. "Pleasure to see you here, Jon. Planning any treacheries of late? I know I urged you to entertain the Imp as punishment, but I'm afraid you'll use that opportunity to join his service." Though Robb's words were biting, his tone was jesting and companionable.

Jon smiled secretively. "I'll let you know once I've finished my meal. My decision rides on the quality of this soup." As he was about to get a spoonful of creamy white broth, Robb already had one nearly pressed against his lips. "Robb... You... Youdon't have to feed me anymore. I can do pretty much everything with my left hand now, as far as eating is concerned. And besides, it's soup, not mutton."

Robb's spoon didn't waver. "Truly? Well, how was I supposed to know that? I almost never see you nowadays. I just assumed that servant girl Mother gave you assisted you with these things. But she isn't here right now, so..."

Jon raised an eyebrow. "Ellys? She never helps me with that. She assists with other things like changing my bandages and... my clothes... but she's never had to feed me. I can do that myself."

Robb lowered the spoon, but his face was curiously petulant. "Are you sure that's all she helps you with? You seem to spend a lot of time with her, a lot more than you do with us. What is it that you do in your room all day, Jon?"

Jon was flabbergasted. Where was this coming from? He was usually slow in these areas, but it dawned on him regardless, and he smiled at Robb with sickly sympathy. "Are you actually jealous, Robb?"

Robb turned bright red and started sputtering, so Jon knew he was on target. "Jealous? Why in the world would I be jealous? So what if you spend all your time with some girl. It's naught to me. I was just curious." And he tried to prove it by returning to his food with more attention than was strictly necessary.

Jon nudged Robb by the shoulder, his grin treacly sweet. "Robb, if you wanted a girl, all you had to do was ask Greyjoy, or maybe get some advice from Tyrion Lannister. Your mother might even send you a handmaid of your own, if you wrote her."

Robb looked at Jon like he didn't know what his brother had just said. "A... a girl? Yes, yes. Of course. That's what I was jealous of. Yes... I'll... get right on that."

That was the moment Theon chose to choke on his soup. He coughed explosively, beating at his chest. "Robb and a girl? Not bloody likely. Do you know how many times I've tried dragging him to the tavern? Or the brothel, when I didn't feel like explaining what I was taking him out for? You'd think I was presenting him to the Others and not a bunch of bouncing teats. Teats that would be more than happy to bounce with him free of charge for the chance to deflower the heir of Winterfell, I might add."

"Perhaps he wants one who looks like Ellys. You should have taken his preferences into consideration," Jon added, delighting at Robb's chalk-white face.

Theon pressed a finger to his chin. "The closest I can think of is Ros. But that whore thinks her cunt is made of gold and charges about the same value. She'd even dare to demand extra, as a privilege tax." Theon scowled at the recollection.

"Oh, I'm sure Robb can afford it..."

Robb's hands slammed on the table. "When did you two get so damn chummy, ganging up on me like this? I think you're both conspiring against me. Traitors, the both of you." He pointed at their guilty faces. "Now bugger off, Greyjoy. I want a word with my brother."

Theon scoffed. "Not likely. I haven't finished my supper yet." With that said, he promptly returned to his meal, seemingly losing interest.

Not willing to take any chances, Robb clasped the back of Jon's neck, bringing their faces close together. "Now that we're alone, I'd like the truth out of you." Jon could feel the warmth of Robb's breath on his face, the smell of maple tarts still fresh on his brother's tongue. "Where have you been lately? It feels like I haven't seen you at all these past two months."

Jon opened his mouth and closed it, not knowing what he could possibly say. Should he tell Robb that he was researching a letter written by the man who destroyed their father's family? Or about the dreams he'd had, the agony gnawing at him thathis brothers may die any day now? The uncertainty that pained him more than ever that maybe going to the Wall was the right choice? That, if one of his brothers was doomed to die, he'd rather take the choice that took him farther away from them, so he wouldn't have to see them die and live with the nightmares. But it seemed nightmares were bound to follow him, no matter what he chose.

But he couldn't tell Robb any of that, not unless he wanted Robb to think him mad. "I've been helping Maester Luwin with the library. It's the only thing I can help with right now, so I give it my all."

Robb's expression was incredulous, if a little sympathetic. "You'd help me just by reminding me that you're actually here every now and then. I hope you don't read too much into it, but I sorely miss you."

Jon bowed his head in shame. Robb knew just how to make him feel guilty and regret everything without even trying. He never honestly wanted to think about how his own pain affected Robb, avoiding the idea. But knowing that the distance he was keeping hurt the one person whose trust he valued most in the world shone a light on some things. Still, there was no way he could share any of his troubles. No way at all. "I didn't know you would feel that way... I'm sorry, Robb."

Robb's smile was warm and understanding, but there was no missing the underlying sadness in his eyes. "Don't worry about it. I just wanted you to know that I didn't keep you here to see you hide away from me. I thought I would be the one too busy to see you, with all my responsibilities, not the other way around." Jon was about to respond when Robb abruptly let him go, leaving him to miss their contact. Robb donned his lord's face once again and turned to Yoren, who was a few seats down the table. "Yoren. You said you have news of our uncle?"

The stooped man didn't seem to like the prospect. "Yes, milord. About that..."

What he had to say stunned their half of the table into silence. It seemed Uncle Benjen had been ranging beyond the Wall, searching for some lord's son from the Vale, and never came back. Robb was quick to deny that Benjen was dead, but the black brother didn't look too convinced. The news threw a pall on their mood, and dropped a ball of ice in Jon's stomach. He wondered unreasonably if he could have prevented it if he had been there. He knew it wasn't likely. A new recruit wouldn't have had the power to change anything, but knowing that didn't stop him from regretting. Doubts and second guesses seemed to be all that flowed through Jon's mind of late.

Their supper became officially soured when a guardsman burst through the door and kneeled at Robb's side. "Pardons, milord, but Baroch just sent a runner here. The bandits are back and are carting off his livestock as we speak."

Robb ran a frustrated hand through his hair. "Again? I thought we drove those arseholes off months ago! I am not in the mood for this." But, despite his words, he stood. "Maybe if we ride now, we can catch them, while their trail is still fresh. I want to know where they're holed up and who they're selling the meat to." He turned to Jon and started rifling in his pockets. "Have you seen Maester Luwin?"

"I think he's in the library. He's been there a lot ever since I completed most of the scrolls section."

Robb handed a rolled up letter to Jon sealed with the Stark insignia. "Give this to him, if you would. It's a letter to Father about some inheritance dispute in Ramsgate. Also, have him draft a letter about... Uncle Benjen. You heard the story. Have him write as you see fit." Robb strode to Theon and slapped him on the shoulder. "With me, Greyjoy, and bring your bow."

"Aye, my lord." Theon crammed half a slice of kidney pie into his mouth before getting off the bench and following Robb out the door.

"Good luck," Jon muttered. There was no point in wishing he could go with them. That made him somber.

Bran didn't seem any happier. He was picking listlessly at his food, shoving pieces to the floor with his fork for Summer to have at. "I hope he'll be safe," he said, so quietly Jon almost missed it.

"Of course. He's Robb. There's no one finer atop a horse, except maybe Arya. Grey Wind won't let anyone touch him. You can be sure of that. And he has Theon with him. Greyjoy may be an arse, but he's an arse who can find a target from a hundred paces away. And Robb'll have half the guard with him, too. Nothing could possibly happen to him." Only when he was finished did Jon realize he was trying to convince himself as much as Bran.

Bran nodded without much vigor. "He's Robb the Lord now. Nothing can ever happen to Robb the Lord." Bran looked up right then, and it crushed Jon to see eyes so hollow and bruised, with so many tired lines around them, on a boy so young. "I'm glad you didn't go to the Wall, Jon. Robb really doesn't have time for me anymore and... I don't see you that much either. Sometimes I think you both don't want to be around me because I can't walk—"

Jon's hand shot out for Bran's, squeezing as hard as he could, to stop both their tears from falling. "Don't ever think that, Bran! We could never think that about you!"

Bran smiled hesitantly, clearly grateful for the contact and reassurance. "I know. I really do. It's just that sometimes when I'm alone in my bed and no one comes... I miss everyone so much, and I think these horrible things..."

That makes two of us. Jon kissed Bran's fingers. "I'm not avoiding you, Bran. Neither is Robb. It's only that things have been so awful lately. For all of us. And Robb is lord of the castle. There's nothing either of us wants more than to go back to how things were, to spend time with each other and with you. I'll try to be there for you more. I promise."

Bran nodded, and it chipped a large chunk out of the ice in Jon's stomach to see the color returning to his brother's eyes. "I know I'll never walk again, but do you think there's some way I can move around at least? I heard from one of the washerwomen that there's this chair with wheels that the Dornish prince rides on, though he keeps it a secret. Do you think I could have one of those?"

Jon assured him without a doubt in the world. "Of course. I'll ask Maester Luwin about it as soon as I can, and then we'll find someone who can build it for you, and you can ride around as much as you want." And you'll fly. Somehow, I will teach you to fly. I'll learn what it means, even if I have to drag that three-eyed crow right out of my dreams and pluck it from him. I'll learn, and I'll save you, and I'll never see that desolation on your face again. I promise.

· · ·

Jon was walking to his room after tucking Bran into bed when he stopped just short of his door. Thoughts swirled around in his head. When this coming war rose up and consumed them, as they all feared it would, there might not be anyone left to save. Bran might die no matter what he did. Maybe it was the quiet despair that ate at him that made him consider it, the need to prevent everything he feared from happening. Changing the future had never been a possibility before the three-eyed crow suggested it to him. Now, he needed to try, in some small way. Even if it involved treason. After a while of internal debate, the gain eventually overtook the risk.

He turned around and sped in the other direction, towards the other side of the castle. Ghost bounded before him, already knowing where to go. Lady Catelyn just may have been right about the direwolves.

Jon found Tyrion Lannister reading by the desk that was a customary feature in all the guest rooms. Jon bowed before him. "Good evening, my lord. You... You can still read after emptying all those flagons of wine?" Jon had to admit he was somewhat impressed.

Lannister set down the book and gave Jon an amused smile. "I've found that nothing clears a head quite as effectively as Maester Malleus's dissertation on the medicinal properties of dragon dung. I always bring it with me, which is fortunate, as I expected I would be needing a clear head tonight." He clasped his hands around a knee and leaned back, analyzing Jon with those strange and penetrating eyes. "So, what can I do for you, Lord Snow? Are you here to explain why it was worth angering your brother to get me into Winterfell? Are you here to claim a debt from me? If you need someone to reach a jar of sweets, I'm afraid I won't be able to help you."

"No," Jon said uncertainly. "Rather, yes. No to the sweets, yes to the debt. Though it's not truly a debt..." He was stuttering. He took a deep, long breath and started over. "I need your help."

The dwarf began clapping at him, which made him feel a little like a dog who had just learned a new trick. "Bravo. Very impressive. What a big man you must be to ask that of one so small. Well, Jon Snow, color me intrigued. Please continue. What is it you need? If it's all the gold in Casterly Rock, I'm afraid I'll have better luck with the jar of sweets."

"I can't tell you." Jon looked around the room, wary of listeners, though he had already posted Ghost outside the door. "It would be better if I showed you. Please come with me, if you would."

"A conspiracy! How exciting!" Lannister pushed off the chair and retrieved his cloak, following after Jon with his signature waddle. He spied Ghost waiting by the door and hesitated. "Just to make sure, as there have been wenches who find me quite delicious, does he bite?"

Jon smirked, pleased to find the cocksure expression on the dwarf's face wiped away for once. "Only if he dislikes you."

The Imp extended a shaking hand to Ghost's nose, who merely stared at him with unblinking red eyes. The wolf licked the little man's hand—a peace offering. "I am the luckiest dwarf in the world," Lord Tyrion said, boldly scratching Ghost behind the ears.

Jon led Lannister down to the bowels of Winterfell. He made sure to take the dark passages that he knew would be deserted, slowing his pace so the dwarf could keep up. They descended a twisting flight of stone steps, the light sconces getting farther and farther apart the closer they got to the dungeons. Soon they came to the end of a hall, and a heavy wooden door with a ring for a handle loomed before them. Jon turned to his companion, gesturing to a dark alcove to the side where the statue of a leaping direwolf stood. Ghost pawed at it curiously. "I'm sorry to ask this of you, my lord, but could you hide in there for a minute? I can't risk anyone seeing you here."

"I understand. Squeezing into tiny spaces is what I was built for." Tyrion Lannister proved the truth of that boast by sliding into the gap and disappearing from view. "I also have an unusually large cock, in case you were wondering," he called out.

Jon sighed and pulled the door open with his left hand. The guard sputtered awake behind his desk as the door creaked loudly closed. The man blinked his eyes rapidly in the dim light to get a better look at who was disturbing him. "Ah, Jon. Nice of you to come down and visit me here. What business do you have in the dungeons?"

"Need to speak with the prisoner, Will. Robb's orders," Jon said curtly, hoping that made him sound authoritative.

"Aye? Well, he came down here not too long ago and said that anyone wanting to speak with the prisoner would need a letter signed by him, even the lord's brother. He stressed that last part, come to think of it. Sorry. Got to be careful, what with Lannisters infestin' the castle."

Sometimes there were advantages to being a bastard, and this was one of them. It allowed him to know things Robb couldn't. "It just so happens I have written permission right here." He drew out the letter Robb gave him and unrolled it, handing it to the guard.

The man couldn't read, but even Hodor would recognize the Stark sigil. He made a good show of moving his eyes across the words, though. "Everything seems to be in good order," he proclaimed, handing the letter back. "You go on and chew the fat with that sorry sod."

"Actually, I would like to speak with him in private. Go on to the guardhouse and have yourself an ale for an hour. My treat." Jon flicked a copper coin at the guard, who caught it deftly.

"Mighty thanks, Jon. It gets right cold down here. Don't open any cells now, though I have the keys." Will rounded the desk and rushed gratefully out of the room, the door thudding loudly after him.

Jon counted to twenty, which should have been enough time for Will to walk across the hall and reach the steps. Still, he pushed the door open slowly, just enough to peek his head through the gap and see that no one was outside. "Lord Tyrion," he called hoarsely. "You can come out now."

The dwarf emerged from the alcove covered head to heel in dust and cobwebs. He sputtered and coughed out a thick glob of it. "I think I just swallowed Bran the Builder's spider. History has never tasted so foul." Lannister slipped through the door and patted himself down as much as he could. He surveyed the cold, dark subterranean chamber. "The dungeons. You better have my sweet sister in here. I can give you half the gold of Casterly Rock for that surprise."

Jon led him to the row of cells that seemed to go on forever. Hardly anyone dared to commit crimes close to Winterfell, so the cells were completely empty, aside from old bones, rats, and spiders. The would-be murderer was the sole occupant. It was no wonder the guards were thankful for every opportunity to get away for a while.

The prisoner they were looking for was in the first cell on the left. The only things he had for comforts were a pile of dirty straw for a bed and a bucket to shit in. The small cage smelled of stale piss and unwashed bodies. From what Jon could see of the man's face where he slept huddled in the corner, his bruises had long since healed, but there were tiny bite marks on his arms and legs. He also looked thinner than he was before. It seemed the rats were fed better than he was. Jon felt no sympathy whatsoever.

The dwarf wrinkled his nose. "Too ugly to be my sister. How disappointing. Who is this man, Lord Snow?"

Jon's burned fingers twitched as he glared at the sleeping man. "This man tried to murder my brother Bran... at the order of your nephew, Prince Joffrey."

That took the Imp completely by surprise, which was a welcome change. "You're not serious," he croaked. But after seeing the hard and unamused expression on Jon's face, he amended that. "You are serious." Lannister turned back to the man in the cage with a look of dawning interest and... Was that fear? "That is... This... I don't know what to say, Jon Snow. That doesn't usually happen to me. I suppose I should be grateful that he didn't succeed then?"

"No, he didn't. I stopped him..." Jon held his bandaged hand at eye level with the dwarf. "...with this."

Lannister stared at the appendage before looking away, shaking his head. "I wondered about that. Never in my wildest dreams..."

A rat the size of a small ferret squeezed through the bars from the adjoining cell and began nibbling on the prisoner's foot. The man kicked and jerked, his eyes opening slowly. It took a few moments for him to comprehend that he was not alone before he shrieked and curled up even further into the corner. "You!" he screamed hoarsely at Jon.

"Me," Jon said tonelessly.

"I'm here, too," Lord Tyrion said with an intensity that Jon had never heard from him before. With only the faint light of a single torch to illuminate them, it made the dwarf's eyes seem even more unnerving under the shadow of that bulging brow. "You know who I am, do you not?"

The man shivered. "You... You're the Imp! Imp Lannister! You come to get me out of here, milord? I was only doing the Prince's bidding! I was, I was!"

Lannister scowled in disgust. "It's true then. I didn't want to believe it. How much did that idiot pay you? What did he promise you?"

The prisoner's hopeful face fell away at the dwarf's tone. "He... He didn't pay me anything, milord! He just gave me the knife. Valyrian steel, it was, with gemstones! He said to sell it after I cut the boy's throat out with it, then return to him in King's Landing. He said he'd make me a lord, give me a castle. Winterfell even!" He crawled towards them, reaching for Lord Tyrion's feet beyond the bars. "But I was only doing the Prince's bidding! I didn't care for no reward! I was just doing the royal service! I promise, milord!" he sobbed.

The Imp flinched from the man's fingers, his face a battlefield of horror and amazement. "Madness. This is madness. I can't decide which of you is the bigger fool. You for thinking Joffrey would ever confer on you anything but a swift death, or that evil little hellspawn for thinking this dimwitted plan couldn't lead back to him. Sell a Valyrian dagger? Where are the fucking wits in that boy?"

If Jon had doubted that Tyrion Lannister was innocent of this crime, all doubts were erased after seeing the rage and disbelief playing over the dwarf's misshapen face.

Lannister turned away from the man in the cell, refusing to look at him. "Let us leave this pitiful wretch to rot, Lord Snow. I don't think I can stomach any more." Jon followed Lord Tyrion out of the gloom and into the guardroom, the prisoner screaming after them. "Joffrey. If I ever thought he was capable of this... The sins of my kin are dire and endless. Why would he do this? I just don't—" Suddenly, his eyes widened, and his mouth opened in shock. "Robert. Oh, if you only knew the damage your drunken ramblings have brought us this time..."

Jon kneeled down and gripped the stunned Imp's shoulders. "Robert? You mean King Robert? Does he have something to do with this? Why would he want to kill Bran? He and Father are friends!"

Lannister shook his head. "No, he knows not what he's done. He never does in that state." The dwarf shrugged out of Jon's hold and gazed at the ceiling for a while, taking deep and calming breaths. "Very well. You've shown me. You've shown me a side of my family that I knew existed but never wanted to see. It shames me to say that I wish you hadn't. Ignorance would have been kinder, though I suppose if you think I should share the guilt of my kin, then I don't deserve any kindness." He turned back towards Jon, his large brow creased in worry and helplessness. "What did you imagine I could do, Jon Snow?"

Jon's heart fell to his stomach, turning into ice and freezing there. "I thought... You're his uncle. I thought there was something you could do. I hoped..."

The dwarf smiled ruefully. "That's the trick with hope. It's a rug that tends to slide right out from under you if you dare put all your weight on it. I suppose I'm your rug now." The Imp's eyes drew to Jon's bandages, and he sighed. "If I could even begin to help you, I would need to see that knife first, the one he claimed was made from Valyrian steel."

Jon cursed under his breath. "Lady Stark took it with her when she sailed for King's Landing, to show to Father... to learn whose it is." He had already gone this far. There was no reason to keep things from the Imp now.

Lord Tyrion made a curse of his own. "That is not good. She shouldn't have done that."

Jon was confused. "Why not?"

"Varys and Littlefinger." Lannister spat the names out. "Nothing happens in King's Landing without their knowledge. And if war between Stark and Lannister is imminent, there's no doubt they already have a hand in it. And, as I recall, Petyr Baelish had a bit of an obsession with Catelyn Stark. That blade has probably already fallen into the wrong hands." The dwarf stepped up to Jon then, looking him in the eye. "I do not want a war between our houses any more than you do, Lord Snow. It will only destroy us, while the crows feast on our remains. I will do what I can to stop it."

Jon's chest rose up a bit and, along with it, his hope. "You will?"

"Yes, though it will be little enough." Lord Tyrion stepped away and stared off wistfully again. "The only member of my family who even deigns to acknowledge I exist is Jaime, and there isn't a solution he can think of that doesn't involve his sword. Still, I'll try and win him to this. He has... more at stake in the matter than I do. Perhaps I'll try and uncover what Littlefinger is plotting. Oh, there is no doubt that he's plotting something to use this to his advantage. Your father is in grave danger."

Jon had never even considered that. Arya and Sansa... "You think so? But he's the Hand!"

"And a hand can be damaged, as I'm sure you know from experience." Lannister pressed his fingers to his forehead, trying to relieve the knots that had formed there. "One thing I don't understand, Lord Snow. Why trust me with this?"

Jon didn't need to think about it now. He had already done so over and over before Lord Tyrion had even reached Winterfell. "Because you told me something I didn't wish to hear. You told it to my face, and while I didn't like it at the time, I saw the sense of it after. You know what it feels like to have people assume things about you. To be misunderstood. I know that anyone who could show me that would never try to murder my brother. In a way, we're the same, and I knew you would help me. Help us."

Lord Tyrion seemed astonished by his passionate response; clearly, the little man had not expected it. His eyes were getting blurry, and he turned away from Jon. "It seems I wasn't wrong about you either, Lord Snow. You would do anything for your family, even if it means trusting in the most reviled man in the Seven Kingdoms. I can... respect that."

Jon stepped towards him. "So you'll help? You'll try?"

Lannister nodded, still not looking at Jon. "I will do everything in my power. I will try and make what amends I can for the misdeeds of my family. In fact..." His eyes became far off again, contemplative. "When I saw your brother this morning, a little something formed in my head. A way that your brother could ride a horse. Come to me in the morning, and I'll give you the schematics. It will be a small apology, hopefully a prelude to a much bigger one."

That was more than Jon could ever ask for, but he couldn't stop himself. "My brother mentioned something about a chair with wheels? He said the Dornish prince rides one."

Lord Tyrion quirked his brows in obvious interest. "A chair with wheels? Fascinating. I don't think I've ever seen such a contraption. Though I think I can conjure up some crude design just from the idea... It's already formed in my too large head, in fact. Two gifts then, Lord Snow."

Jon hadn't heard such good news in a long time. He felt lightheaded. And, apparently, hope and happiness made him curious. "Thank you so much, my lord. But... why must you call me Lord Snow?"

Lord Tyrion's smile was indulgent, as if the answer were obvious. "Because, from what I saw in the audience chamber and from what I'm seeing now, you have the potential to be a greater lord than your brother will ever be. A good lord knows how to pick his enemies, but an even better one knows how to pick his friends. I always thought this fear and hatred surrounding bastards was absurd, just as much as the malice towards dwarves. Birth doesn't make you who you are. Even the highest blood can be the greatest of fools, and the humblest bastards the greatest of heroes. Though, sadly, Daemon Blackfyre and Maelys the Monstrous did us no favors in that regard."

"I see." Jon grinned and held out his hand to Tyrion—a peace offering. "Friend."

Tyrion looked deeply touched and hesitated not a moment as he clasped his much smaller hand with Jon's. "Friend."

They walked together as far as the staircase on the ground level, where Tyrion assured Jon he would be able to find his room. Jon went down into the courtyard, needing to breathe the cool open air and watch the moonlight dance upon the snow. He felt too lightened for sleep, and he had more important things to do. He went to the armory and drew out a practice sword, going back outside to swing at an archery butt. He felt as if a large burden had been lifted off his shoulders, and somehow that translated into a desire to spar. He knew that nothing was for certain. The next sunrise could bring another world of fears and regrets, but for now he needed to feel that he'd accomplished something, that his trust was well placed. The only thing that could have made it sweeter was to be able to share it with Robb. But Jon had no way to know how Robb would take this betrayal. It was better that he never tell his brother.

He missed the dummy's head by a foot when a voice spoke up behind him. "Is this where you go every night?" Jon nearly stumbled and fell on his arse but somehow managed to stand despite Robb's withering glare. He thought of dozens of explanations, a hundred excuses that he could spout in rapid-fire, but they all flew from his head when Robb said, "I know what you did."

Jon thought of a thousand more questions after that, but all he could manage to say was, "H-How?"

Robb crossed his arms. "I saw Will passed out drunk in the guardhouse after we got back, after I specifically told him to remain at his post, tonight of all nights. Then, when I decided to see things in the dungeon for myself, I saw you and the Imp climb out of the stairwell. So, unless you have a fondness for dwarves in cold, dark places, I think you just betrayed me. Again. How can you possibly explain yourself?"

There was no response Jon could make, so his shoulders slumped, and he bowed his head, ready for whatever punishment Robb saw fit to give him. Suddenly, every good feeling he'd accumulated that day was wiped away, knowing his brother wouldn't support him. "I can't, Robb."

Robb's voice was cold. "I know." That was all he said for a while, before he sighed, and Jon had no choice but to look up. "I know you can't explain yourself, so I'm going to try and do it for you. For the first time since this nightmare started, you actually asked for help. From Tyrion Lannister, of all people, to be sure, but you asked for help. You are a martyr through and through, so I know it had to matter to you for you to sneak behind my back." Jon was in shock when Robb cupped his cheek, willing their eyes to meet. There was not a shred of anger in Robb's, only a need to understand. "Do you truly trust him, Jon? Do you truly think he would help us?"

Jon looked into that deep blue for as long as he could, so touched by Robb's unyielding trust, drowning in it, and so amazed by how much he didn't deserve it. He nodded.

"Then that's good enough for me." The night air rushed onto Jon's skin when Robb took his hand away. "I hope it pays off in the long run. You trusted me when I made you stay here, though I didn't protect you from what happened, so I have to trust in you. Not that I don't already. Why would I ever need a reason to?" Robb's gaze went to the practice sword still in Jon's left hand. "How long have you been practicing?"

Jon thought of his usual denials, but he didn't see a point. Robb would just draw it out of him, like always. "Since I stopped having to wear bandages. Almost a month." Jon looked at his feet.

"A month? And you never told me you were back in the yard? Me? Your sparring partner?" Robb clasped his chest in mock hurt.

Jon's lips twitched. "It's only with my left hand; my right is still useless. There wouldn't be any challenge in it for you. I only do it for exercise. And I know how busy you've been..."

Robb shook his head, a tilt to his lips that Jon didn't know whether to slap or to kiss. "Jon, Jon, Jon. Stupid, irritating, selfless, lovable Jon. I adore you, and I can't stand you." Robb drew out a practice sword from behind his back that Jon had never noticed he was holding. "You have committed the unforgivable crime of training with dummies instead of me and of being such a fucking martyr. I think we need to have a trial by combat."

Jon couldn't hold back his smile, not even if he wanted to. "But you surely have the advantage, my lord."

Robb swapped the sword into his left hand. "Now we're even. Are we going to talk? Or are we going to fight for justice?"

They must have looked silly. As predicted, their swings were jerky and awkward, often hitting things they didn't mean to hit. Even with the wrong hand, Jon was still the faster fighter, though Robb was stronger. Robb still fought like a bear swinging a tree trunk, though, as Jon was quick to remind him. After twenty minutes, they were covered in bruises, their haggard breaths frosting in the cold night air, but they were laughing in between. If Jon thought his new friendship with Tyrion Lannisterwas the happiest point of the day, he was wrong. Sparring with Robb, their swords clashing against each other, their sweat and their breaths mingling—that was the happiest he'd ever been, as it always used to be.

The hour was growing late, and they both needed their rest, so Robb patted him on the back and offered to accompany him to his room. Jon shook his head. "No, you go ahead. I still have something to do in the armory."

Robb nodded, his eyes drooping but contented. "Very well. Same time tomorrow?"

Jon made to deny Robb again, but he caught the reflex just in time. "As you wish," he acquiesced.

Robb grinned and jogged back into the castle.

Instead of heading into the armory as he'd said, Jon made for the center of the yard once again and stared at the moon. He only half expected it, but he wasn't surprised when a figure stepped out from the shadows, boots crunching in the muddy snow. "I thought he'd never leave," Theon said by way of greeting, his hands stuffed into his pockets. He stood beside Jon, seemingly gazing up at the same thing, pondering the same regrets. "You took it easy on him. Either that or you've gotten worse since our last bout."

Jon didn't look at Theon, didn't look at anything but the boundless night sky. "He doesn't know," he murmured placidly.

He saw Theon's eyes go wide beside him. "You still haven't told him? You do know he's going to notice eventually, right? You can't hide this forever."

"I know. That's not the point." Jon sighed, looking away from the stars to survey Theon Greyjoy, his sparring partner of a month now.

Greyjoy grunted, still unable to comprehend Jon's logic. "Suit yourself. When he's not around you, he looks almost like a wight. Today was the happiest I've seen him." The other boy looked sad about that, which was not an emotion commonly associated with Theon Greyjoy, at least externally. "He'll be a wreck when he finds out."

Jon shoved the thought out of his mind. He had to. "Then we'll put it off as long as we can." He'd had practically the same conversation with Maester Luwin when the old man assessed his injuries almost a month ago. Jon's left hand was healingwell and was ready to leave the bandages, but his right... The skin was mostly black and red, almost the entire surface covered in scabs. He thought that was the part that should have troubled him. Until Luwin pressed a needle into each digit, his actions becoming more fervid, more desperate as every puncture got no response from Jon. The maester refused to meet his eyes. "I can't feel anything." Jon's voice was curiously hollow.

That just made the maester press the point even deeper into the ball of Jon's forefinger.

There was a tiny pinprick of something, but nothing that could be described as pain. Nothing at all. "Maester, I don't feel anything."

The gray-robed man shook his head, refusing to believe what he was seeing. But he said, "I suspected... suspected when I saw your injuries. The burns were so severe, but you still felt pain, so I hoped for the best. Yet even then I worried that the damage wasn't uniform. Your fingers took the worst of it, burned right through the skin and into muscle, nerves and cartilage. That's why the joints won't bend. They've fused from the heat; the nerve damage must have stopped the pain."

Jon never noticed when his hand was bundled away in a mitten, and the pain was so great he thought it all hurt, but it was only his palm, and he couldn't feel his fingers at all. He tried to move them, willed them with all he had, but he could barelymanage a twitch. "I'll never wield a sword again."

The maester finally put away his needles. "No, Jon. I'm so sorry..."

This is nothing. This is nothing compared to his pain. Nothing compared to his suffering. Even knowing the truth, Jon couldn't keep his eyes from watering, couldn't keep from trying to make a fist, but his hand just would not obey. It might not have been there at all, useless as a burnt piece of meat. Bran must have done this same thing after he awoke, must have used all he had to move his legs, only sinking further into despair when they refused. It was then that Jon remembered. The crow had told him: "You know what it means to be alone in the world, just like me. You can find him when others cannot." Is this what the crow meant? Was it because Jon would know the pain that came from being a cripple? Did the crow know this would happen to him?

Jon closed his eyes as hard as he could. "Maester, don't tell Robb. Don't tell anyone. Please."

"Jon... He will find out eventually, when he sees that you don't—"

"I know that!" he snapped, slamming his hand down on the table. The back of his hand flared horribly, but the fingers felt nothing. Jon used whatever pain he had left as his fuel. He would draw from it.

For how could he help Robb in his war now? How could he help Robb without a sword hand? How could he save Bran? Save Robb? Like Bran needed a chair with wheels, Jon needed to wield a sword.

He didn't know what it was that made him think to seek out Greyjoy for help. Maybe it was what Robb had told him of Theon's own feelings. Maybe that made him understand Theon better. But there was no one else Jon could turn to, and Greyjoy didn't laugh in his face and send him away when he told the other boy why. If Jon learned to be as good with his left hand as he had ever been with his right, then Robb would never need to think about what the fire had cost him. He had already seen the guilt in his brother's eyes; he did not need to see it again. Jon would have to master his left hand in the time he could keep hiding his right without Robb growing suspicious. If he avoided Robb, buried himself in work and never saw his brother, then maybe Robb would forget how long it had been, and Jon could hold on to his pretense. But his time was running short. Robb called him a martyr, but it was Robb who blamed himself. And that Jon couldn't allow.

So, Jon trusted Tyrion, trusted Theon, knowing that, though he couldn't sense it, he was steadily losing Robb's trust.

He threw the practice sword to Theon with a deftness and grace he did not possess a month ago. "Enough talk. Put out your sword, Greyjoy, and use your good hand."

· · ·

Hours later, Jon fell into bed, tired to the bone. He was sore and bruised, much worse than he had been during his play with Robb, but Theon made sure to hit where no one could see under his clothes. Ellys was the only one who did, and she never made a word of comment. As soon as his head hit the pillow, he was gone...

He was not ready yet for sleep. Thankfully, the door was ajar, and he slipped through the gap silently. He padded down the dark corridor, the smells of ancient stone and the hot spring water rushing through the walls assaulting his senses. He knew his brothers were sleeping with their masters in different parts of the man-cave, but his sisters were far away. One of them, he couldn't feel at all, and it made his chest ache. He would have cried for her, if he could make a sound.

A light shone at the far end of the hall, and he sped up towards it. Friend, he thought the word was. He came through the door without a noise, and the strange little man didn't turn at all, so focused was he on the large piece of paper on the table. Writing, the word came to him. His master had been doing writing almost every day, so he knew what it looked like.

"I think three bars ought to be enough to support the seat..." the little man muttered to himself. His master did that, too, talking when there was no one to hear but him. "Now to make it proportionate with the wheels..." He sat on his haunches, watching the little man work. It was only after a while that the little man felt himself being watched.

"Oh!" The little man jumped in surprise. "Ghost! Does your master know you're here? No, I think not." The little man held out a hand, and he went to lick it without hesitation. Friend. He buzzed in pleasure when the little man scratched his ears. He liked the little man's little fingers. They could get at places his master's hand couldn't. "I confess I've always wanted a pet dragon. But I'm starting to consider that maybe direwolves are more convenient. It seems it's not just Jon Snow's height and good looks I'm envious of." He tilted his head at the little man.

"Yes, look at the silly dwarf being wistful. I thought I was over such things." The little man smoothed the big piece of paper as it began to curl. "Well, you can tell your master that I'll be finished with this in the morning and with only one sleepless night. I hope he's grateful. Tell him that I will turn King's Landing on its head if I must. A Lannister always pays his debts, and trust in Tyrion Lannister is worth a thousand good debts."

The little man swiveled around on the stool and faced him, green and black eyes piercing into his red ones. "And tell him that, somehow, I will make Cersei pay for what she did to his little brother. I'll probably spare Jaime. He's the only brother I have and actually loves me, strangely enough, so you can understand. Still, for all their love and hate, they think I'm such an insignificant little thing, like I haven't known they were fucking since before I knew what fucking was. But, I assure you, Cersei will rue the day she hurled Bran out that window and brought this nightmare down upon us. Now run along. I have a chair to build and no more wine. Where was I..."

In a bed on the other side of the castle, Jon Snow awoke with a gasp.

 

Chapter Text

 

The Iron Prince


Jon had not seen Bran so happy in a long time. Too long.

"Jon! Look! She goes left when I tell her to! Left," Bran whispered into the mare's ear, patting her on the neck. The horse veered placidly to the left. "Hard left." The horse swerved more sharply, going in a circle. "Stop." The horse halted, picking at the ground with her hooves. "Go." The mare trotted slowly around the yard, guided by an occasional flick of the reins. Bran grinned at Jon, sitting proud and tall on his custom saddle.

Jon's grin was even wider where he stood in the center of the yard, watching Bran make another circuit past the row of archery butts, the drawbridge and stables, the castle gates, and back again. For weeks after the saddle had been completed and Bran's initial excitement waned, Bran chafed at the glacial pace. When it wasn't Hodor leading the horse around the yard, it was Jon and, on rare occasions, even Robb, making Bran squirm with boredom. Bran had already been a decent rider before his fall, but Maester Luwin would not have them accelerate the process. Finally, the old man had deemed Bran ready to ride the horse on his own (with supervision, of course). He was a quick learner, and his mare was the smartest in the North. Though Bran would never feel the satisfying sensation of his first crop of saddle sores or the way his legs would toughen and harden from years of riding, too long had there not been anything for any of them to smile about, so Jon was happy to indulge his little brother and himself.

Even Jon's unplanned sparring sessions with Robb were a bittersweet thing. Jon actually had to hold back and make himself clumsier so Robb wouldn't catch on. Usually, Robb came completely exhausted from his duties, but he was hearing none of Jon's pleas to go to bed and leave Jon to practice alone. As a result, Jon had to stay up even later to have his real sparring matches with Theon, who was starting to get worn down from the long hours and had begun raving about telling Robb the truth. Even if there was some way to get Robb to stop, Jon knew he wouldn't be able to. Jon missed Robb as much as Robb missed him. More often than not, late at night in the training yard was the only time he ever saw Robb, and he didn't have the strength to deny himself that.

"Weak coward," Jon muttered, as Bran made his horse canter backwards and forwards with swift commands. Jon held up his bandaged right hand, which had long since stopped needing bandages. It was only a matter of time. Eventually, Robb would see the farce for what it was and rip the bandages off his useless fingers, and then... He didn't know what would happen after that. He had focused all his energy on keeping it from Robb, on gaining another sword arm, avoiding Robb and punishing them both so he could protect his brother. Would Robb even still want Jon's protection after he learned the truth?

Jon had been so lost in his troubles that he hadn't noticed Bran galloping around him.

"Bran, slow down!" he yelled. Bran screamed a command, and the mare skidded to a stop, her rider lurching forward with an oomph. Jon rushed to him, checking him all over. "Are you hurt? Can you breathe? Dammit, Bran! You're not ready to gallop around like Arya! You could have shot yourself across the yard!"

Bran was laughing. "I'm not hurt, Jon. The restraints keep me secure. Lord Tyrion designed them really well." He pulled on the crisscrossing chords of leather and leaned back into his high seat to prove his point.

Jon sighed with relief. "Yes, he did. Be grateful that he has such a big head. I think that's enough for today."

Bran nodded solemnly, already unlatching the buckles and straps expertly. Hodor came over and pulled Bran gently from his seat after he was free. Jon brought the chair over, pushing it from behind. Hodor tucked Bran carefully into the seat and went off to walk the mare to the stables with his customary grin. Jon pushed Bran towards the castle, the chair's wheels creaking softly. "You did well, Bran. I think you're ready for a ride outside the castle."

Bran's head snapped around. "You mean it? Can I?"

"I don't see why not," Jon said, wincing as the wheels caught on a rock, using his one hand to steer the chair back on course. "No galloping, though. And we'll need a whole retinue with us. Maester Luwin included."

Bran sniffed as he turned his head back forward. "How am I supposed to ride with him fussing all over me?"

"He only cares for you," Jon said. The left wheel jammed again, and he grunted, trying to get it to move. "This... damn... chair..." He kicked the offending wheel, and it loosened. Jon couldn't truly complain about the chair, though, and Bran loved it despite how much it creaked. It was a remarkable contraption for something designed in one night. Even Maester Luwin was impressed by it as well as with the saddle, berating himself for not coming up with them.

Jon was amazed himself when he unfurled the large roll of parchment and saw the designs. "This is... incredible, Lord Tyrion. Did you say you drew these just a few hours ago?" he asked incredulously.

Ghost lazed in front of the dwarf, Lannister's stubby fingers attacking the wolf's ears. "Please, Jon. Call me Tyrion. And I've never found much use for sleep, which gives me plenty of time to do the things I love: fucking books and reading whores. No, I didn't get that turned around. Some books have given me more pleasure than any woman ever has, and some whores have given me valuable lessons in human nature and how far one will go to cope with who one is. In this instance, I borrowed the chair's design from the wooden dragon Aegon the Unworthy built and rolled into Dorne, hoping it would splinter the dornishmen into surrender while he filled his paramours with bastards, and I knew that Bran would want to sit upon it from a whore I once knew with a peg leg."

Jon quirked his head to the side like Ghost would have done. His brain suddenly felt burdened for some reason. "That's quite... amusing, Tyrion..." He rolled the parchment up, set it aside on the table, and spoke softly. "I was afraid nothing wouldever be amusing again. Thank you for all you've done, and all you will do."

"Please don't thank me. Thank the peg-legged whore," Tyrion said as Ghost leaned up and licked his cheek.

Jon sat down and studied Tyrion as he played with the wolf. He looks the same, Jon thought. Exactly like he did in my dream... if it was a dream. Only one way to find out... "My lord— That is, Tyrion, I... noticed my wolf missing last night. Did you happen to see him, by any chance?" Jon groaned in his head. What a stupid question.

Lannister seemed to think so, too, as he raised a blond eyebrow at Jon, but he answered nonetheless. "Yes, as it happens. He came strolling into my room while I was dressing up these plans. We had a nice conversation about stewed venison with bits of barley and mashed neeps, and the poor thing was slavering on the floor. Or was that me..."

Liar, Jon snapped internally. "Yes, I'm thankful you looked after him. I'm also grateful for what you're doing for Bran. His mood's been poor lately. It's still a shock to us how he could have fallen off the tower. Are you aware that Bran was a great climber?" He tried to make his tone bland and conversational, but it was a sensitive topic no matter how he made it sound.

Lannister turned to him with a hint of suspicion. "I believe I heard Lord Eddard mention that once, when my siblings and I came to offer our sympathies. The gods can be terribly monstrous at times, even to experienced climbers."

"Yes, but... Do you perhaps have any theories as to how Bran could have come to fall? I wonder."

Tyrion's fingers stopped scratching Ghost, and the dwarf regarded Jon with a look that sent him back hours in time. He saw the same intense gaze through Ghost's eyes, the green eye and dark one hard in unsettling contrast with each other. It was a look that could make one forget that Tyrion Lannister was only three feet tall. "Jon Snow... Is there a specific reason why you are asking me these questions? If I am not mistaken, it seems that you think I'm keeping something from you, something to do with your brother's fall. Am I right?"

"No!" Jon said quickly. Perhaps a little too quickly. "I was merely asking since you are so well read and inventive that you might have an idea. I wasn't implying anything."

Lannister stared into his eyes. Jon stared right back. They did this for a long while until the dwarf's mismatched face suddenly broke into a bright grin. "Well, that's understandable. I'm afraid there's nothing I can tell you. Nothing at all. Now, the morning's getting on, and I think I should be going. Yoren's probably waiting for me, grumbling all the while. Make sure to give these designs to your maester. I'm sure he can find someone with the ability to construct them. The chair's just a rough design, though, and far from perfect, so I shall be sending updated schematics when inspiration hits me. Please give your little brother my regards, and tell your other brother to pull that sword out of his arse. I will do what I can to quell this war, so I expect him down on bended knee the next time I visit." Tyrion squeezed Ghost's face in his hands and rubbed their noses together. "And I will visit—yes, I will—because I will challenge your master to a drinking game and win you as my own. Who needs dragons..."

In the past month, Jon had thought of little else but Tyrion's words and whether he had simply imagined that slight twitch of the dwarf's eye. And of wargs. Jon had thought much about wargs, and he was certain that they were not fantasy. Across the continent, wargs were viewed with no less mocking disdain than snarks and grumkins, and a few even feared them as minions of the Others. It was yet another topic to add to the growing pile to look for in the castle library.

He didn't need a book, though, to be sure of one thing: he had not just dreamt it. As the nights wore on and he had more of those wolf dreams, he knew that they were real. It was like a floodgate had opened after that first burst of clarity and soon, every other night, Jon was inside Ghost's skin. He could never control it while it happened. It felt too comfortable to let his soft paws guide him across the castle, to let the smells of the larder drift by his nose all the way from the kitchen, to let the melodies of soft breathing and gruff snores ring in his sensitive ears. No one ever saw him. No one ever heard him. There were no wars and deaths and lies, and he was a simple wolf, a wolf who had all his paws whole and intact, skulking in the shadows. It was the easiest thing, to remain in Ghost's uninhibited form and never wake up, but then he did and wanted nothing more than to return to sleep because it was too soon.

It scared Jon. How much he enjoyed being Ghost. It got him thinking about Bran and whether this was what "flying" meant. "You have the gift," the crow had said. Was this the gift? Were all Starks wargs? Or was it only the ones who had direwolves? The crow had made no mention of anyone else in the family, only his siblings. Did that mean they had these dreams, too? Every night, he was tempted to breach the subject with Robb while they sparred, but the words would never come. If Jon shared this, he would have to include the rest—his hand and the crow and Bran's imminent death and that Cersei Lannister had pushed Bran off the tower. It was all so heavy that he wanted to scream, but then he had another wolf dream and, for just a short while, he could forget being Jon Snow.

He had to speak about it to someone, though. He could never forget what the crow commanded him to do before that beak bore into his head. Perhaps Bran could warg, too. But how was Jon supposed to teach him? He couldn't even control his own dreams. How could he teach another to do it?

As if he had been reading Jon's mind, Bran suddenly said, "Do you think I can fly, Jon?"

They stopped under the archway leading into the castle, and Jon looked down at Bran's auburn hair. "What do you mean?"

Bran shifted in discomfort. "I'm very happy that Lord Tyrion made me these, and I have no reason to expect more. But do you think he can make something that will let me fly? I know it's stupid and impossible, and I'm not a baby, but I never thought I would ever ride a horse either, so..."

Jon walked around the chair and crouched in front of Bran. He gripped his brother's knee, then moved his hand to a shoulder after he realized Bran couldn't feel it. "Why do you ask, Bran? Did someone tell you that you could fly?"

Bran didn't meet his eyes. "You'll think me mad."

Jon shook his head, smile sad but honest. "I don't think I will."

Bran must have heard something in his tone, a sign that he truly meant it. "It's... I have dreams—"

"About a three-eyed crow?" Jon said before he could stop himself, but he knew there was no point in denial, from how Bran's eyes widened half in shock and half in relief.

"You've seen him, too?"

Jon nodded. "Only once, thankfully." All that he'd expected was realized. Slipping into Ghost's skin wasn't a dream, and neither was the crow, though he'd prayed to the gods north and south of the Neck that he had been wrong about that. Now the confirmation made him want to collapse all over again. What could he do? What could he say? Should he ask Bran about the wolf dreams? Or should he ask Bran who pushed him out that window? They had tried to question Bran about how he fell as soon as he awoke but, the moment he started talking, he would begin to shake as if he was in pain. They never got an answer, and nobody wanted to force Bran, least of all Jon.

They had both fallen silent as Jon stared at Bran, and his little brother's excitement ebbed away slowly. "What are you thinking about, Jon?"

Jon snapped out of his trance upon hearing Bran's voice. "What?"

Bran frowned. "You're always looking at me like you mean to say something. It started after Lord Tyrion left. What is it? Is it about the crow?"

Before Jon could say that nothing ever got past his bright little brother, hurried footsteps rang out from behind them. Robb was striding towards them, Theon and Maester Luwin hurrying along at his heels. He looked pale and slightly sweaty. "Robb... The letter?" Maester Luwin puffed before the three came to a stop.

"Not now, maester," Robb replied curtly. He noticed Jon standing there, and his eyes went down to Jon's bandaged hand. "Maester, when do you think Jon's hand will be free of those damn bandages? Surely his wounds will heal before the next century?"

The maester blanched, and his eyes zipped to Jon's. Jon tried to relay his message as best and as quickly as he could with a few eye twitches. No! Don't you dare! Lie!

The gray-robed man turned back to Robb and sputtered, "Not for a good long while yet, I'm afraid! You have to understand that... much of the tissue was severely damaged and requires a great amount of time to heal. Maybe in a few more weeks— months!" he amended upon seeing Jon's head shake. "Months. Before we see a full recovery." The maester had sounded hysterical but, strangely enough, Robb seemed to be containing hysterics of his own and must not have noticed. Theon rolled his eyes behind Robb's shoulder, and Jon tried to silence him with a glare.

"I see. Nothing can be done for it then," Robb intoned hollowly, as if he wasn't really in the conversation. "Maester, please take Bran up for his studies. I'll be borrowing Jon for a little while."

The maester seemed relieved at the prospect. He took Jon's place behind the wheeled chair and pushed Bran into the foyer. "Today, I believe we're going to have a discussion on ravenlore. Perhaps you can help me understand a few things I've forgotten, as I cannot fathom why the birds keep flying off and disappearing... And why they insist on roosting in the library, I just don't know..."

Bran met Jon's eyes as Maester Luwin and he passed, and Jon smiled reassuringly. "We'll talk later. I promise. After we have your ride."

When they vanished into the great hall, Robb took Jon by the arm and pulled him into the yard. "Robb, you—"

"Before you give me your usual lame excuses, I'm just going to say that I'm not interested and you can shove them up your arse," Robb gritted out as they sped past two stable boys lugging bales of hay and who nodded respectfully at Robb. "If you must know, we're going to the tavern to get sloshed, and I don't care how busy you are with the library or how much your hand hurts. That is an order." The guardsmen stood up straighter when they crossed the drawbridge but began muttering curiously to each other when they were nearly out of earshot.

Jon let Robb drag him for a time, if only to let Robb flush whatever it was out his system, but it eventually became more than Jon could take. "Robb, I was merely going to say that your nails are digging into my arm. And it hurts. Quite a lot. I would like to keep my left arm functional please."

Immediately, Robb let Jon's arm go, but he did not turn to apologize or explain himself and kept on walking down the dirt road leading to town. Jon had no choice but to follow, Theon jogging along beside him. He gave the older boy a questioning look, but Greyjoy only shrugged with a slight smirk on his lips. "I've been trying to get him to town for a drink for months, so I'm not about to complain," he muttered. "He needs it—desperately—and for that I'm willing to bear with your company, even though the sun is up. Who knows? This might just be the day he lays with a woman." Theon laughed but, for some reason, Jon went cold all over and said nothing.

Wintertown was bustling this morning. Farmers were carting their crops to storage for the coming winter, and half the populace was getting ready to book passage to leave for warmer climes. The townsfolk bowed at Robb's passing, while offering more modest greetings to the two other boys. As the wolves weren't with them, none of the people skirted their approach, though a few had developed a fierce pride in their lords' direwolves, hailing the beasts as symbols of the North. The tavern was just as full, with some of the patrons standing outside holding their tankards beneath the swinging signpost, which depicted the carved head of a wolf with a bottle between its teeth. Loud laughter broke out and mead sloshed as the men made way for the boys of Winterfell, singing praises of them and their lord father, the Hand.

The interior was smoky and thick with the smell of hops and unwashed bodies. A bard was strumming his lute in the corner of the room. Jon thought about requesting "The Song of Ice and Fire," but the tavern keeper came up to them, bowing profusely. "Welcome, welcome, milords! Please have a seat and drink as much as you like! I'll shoo out the rabble, if you prefer."

Robb shook his head. "None of that please. Just bring us the finest ale you've got and keep the drinks coming, and I'll talk to my lord father about how much I value your service." That got the man running, and they seated themselves at a table that was the least drenched in spilled alcohol. "I'll never get used to that. All of them fawning over me and kissing the ground I walk on. I don't know how Father stands it." He turned to Jon. "Do you remember when I took you here when we were twelve? Father wouldn't let us sample the cask of Arbor gold that King Robert sent him, so we snuck out and tried to have a taste of our own? No one even batted an eye when we came in and slammed down all our coppers on the counter, with no clue how many tankards that would get us."

Jon smiled at the memory. "Yes... Except we were eleven, not twelve, and Arya and Bran followed us. We got so drunk Arya wouldn't stop shaking and kicking us, thinking we were sick. Meanwhile, Bran was climbing the walls and had gotten stuck on a buttress. The tavern keeper had to find a ladder to get him down. Everyone was laughing."

Robb grinned. "I know. Jory found us and—"

"Your mother was waiting when we got back," Jon interrupted, Robb's voice fading from his mind, his smile and the happy recollection all but vanishing. "Even while my head was spinning, I didn't miss a single word she screamed at me. Father tried to calm her, saying that boys will be boys, but she bit back and demanded why you couldn't be a boy with anyone else but his bastard, that I had nearly endangered all his trueborn children. I thought he was going to hit her, and I tripped and fell trying to get him to stop, because it was my fault and I deserved punishment. Then I vomited, and I thought I would die from the disgusted look she gave me."

Robb was chalk-white beside him, mouth open in horror. It seemed this little trip down the path of their memories did not go as Robb had planned. "Gods, Jon... They... they took me away as soon as we got home... I never knew... Why didn't you tell me..."

"There are many things I never told you," Jon said flatly, refusing to meet Robb's unbearably sympathetic face. "Things you never needed to know." Yet he was telling Robb now. He was already filled to the brim with secrets and lies. Why was he tormenting Robb with one long since passed?

"How can you say that?" Robb said, his voice choked with hurt.

They both looked up at the sound of loud clapping from across the table. "Boys, boys. Save the tears for when the drinks come. That's what ale is for, after all." Theon smirked at them. "I actually remember that day, but I was on the other side of town, in bed with a comely wench. I suppose we all got our first tastes that night, but that wasn't the first time Lady Catelyn tore your heart out with her teeth, was it, Snow? I can't imagine why Robb would be so shocked." Robb stood up and looked like he was about to tear at Theon with his own teeth, when the tavern keeper arrived with their tankards. "At last! And not a moment too soon. All this sober weeping is giving me a headache."

"The best ale in the North, milords." The man set the mugs down, happily oblivious. "And as much as you can drink. Call on me when you need a refill." And with that he sped off, humming about serving the Hand in King's Landing.

Theon reached for his tankard and downed a quarter of the brew in one pull, slamming it back down on the table. A line of white foam covered his upper lip. "Ah. It's nothing like what we have in the Iron Islands, but good northern ale still hits all the spots."

Jon didn't bother pointing out that Theon couldn't possibly have drunk anything in the Iron Islands, having been shipped off to Winterfell when only nine, but he was too sullen to really care. Robb must have felt the same, as well, as he took his tankard without a word. Jon supposed he should feel guilty for ruining his brother's mood, but he couldn't manage it when he didn't know what he was even doing there. Or why Robb suddenly wanted to get drunk. Though grateful to Greyjoy for his help in the training yard, Jon didn't like him much better and loathed having to spend more time with him than was absolutely necessary.

Still, Jon couldn't well justify letting the "best ale in the North" go to waste, and it was the easiest method available to cloud his mind without being in Ghost's skin. He took a deep swallow, letting the ale burn down his throat and spread wildfire in his stomach.

They drank in silence, just letting the drink wash over them while they listened to the bard sing about a wildling king who stole a fair princess in place of a winter rose. Theon had finished two whole tankards, with Robb fast approaching his count. Jon had only downed one and stared at the full contents of his second serving dazedly. His head felt muddled and heavy, ready to topple off his shoulders at any moment. It was the best feeling he'd had in a while.

Robb slammed his tankard on the table, brown fluid sloshing over the rim, grabbing their attention. "You know what? If I'm going to die tomorrow... I should lay with a woman." He upended the dregs into his mouth, most of it running down his chin.

Jon must have been more drunk than he realized, because those words made no sense at all. "Wha—?"

"You heard me," Robb slurred. Jon thought he looked kind of funny, with his eyes out of focus and his skin redder than his hair, which was wild and disheveled. For once, he didn't look like the Lord of Winterfell. That made Jon happy for some reason. "I'm almost sixteen... and the heir to fucking Winterfell! I should be laying with dozens of wenches! At the same time!" Robb meant to grab the tankard's handle and ended up punching the side, which spilled what little ale was left in it. "Oops." Next, he punched Jon on the shoulder. "You should get one, too! Since you're not doing that pretty maid of yours... Maybe then you wouldn't be so dour." Robb snickered.

Theon swayed in his chair. "That's brilliant, Robb! I admit I'm tired of being seen with you... children all the time." He hiccupped before his head slipped to the table.

Why weren't they answering his question? Jon asked again. "Wha—?"

Robb tugged on Jon's arm, forcing him to stand. "Come on! We have to be quick before the Lannisters come and... take all the wenches... Tyrion Lannister always takes the wenches..." Robb sniffled and dragged Jon to the door. He didn't mind being pulled everywhere by Robb. It was as if they were young again. Only drunk.

"Wait for me!" Theon called after them, before falling over in his chair.

Jon didn't know how they managed to find the brothel. The prospect of whores had given a moment's sobriety to Theon's gait, which led them to the gaudily painted building on the edge of town. It was even gaudier indoors, though. Colorful cushions were scattered all over what must have been the reception hall, where half-naked men lazed with naked women astride their laps, flowery curtains hung up to obscure them. There was a smell of perfume and musk about the place, and it helped little with Jon's dizziness. A beautiful red-haired woman came up to them, dressed in a thin, sheer gown that hugged her shapely form like a second skin. "You again, Theon. Come to pay the rest of your tab? I'd need to fuck half the North and all the Night's Watch to get back what you owe me." She turned to Robb then, looking up and down his body while fluttering her heavy, painted lashes. "My, my. Lord Stark. I never expected to see you. Lord Greyjoy has been promising to get you drunk enough to walk up here for months now, but you know how much his word is worth."

Robb stood up straighter, but the effect was ruined when he nearly tripped on his own feet. "You are... a princess in a tower, my lady, a hoarded jewel waiting to be claimed by the right knight. Please give me the pleasure of storming your castle, of batting down your gates, of raising your portcullis, of... unleashing my dragon... Gods, this place is ugly."

The red-haired whore covered her smile with her fingertips. "Oh, I like you. So much courtesy. More than Greyjoy ever gave me, for sure. I'm Ros, by the way."

Theon's eyes narrowed, and he stepped between them. "Hold on there. I've got you on loan, wench. How could you just offer yourself to every man you see without my permission?"

Ros looked amused. "Quite easily, actually. Just ask the twenty men I've fucked since yesterday. And you should be the one on loan to me, considering your debt." She jabbed a red fingernail at Theon's chest.

Robb couldn't seem to comprehend what was happening, with how his head was flopping about. "Look, I just want to get laid, so if you can just—"

"Sorry, Stark. She's taken." Theon leveled a drunken glare at Robb.

The lady rolled her eyes and slid between the two boys before they started butting heads. "It's probably best if you let him have what he wants, milord. He doesn't budge; I've fucked him, so I know that best. Maybe you'd like one of the other gi—"

One of the ten or so girls who had somehow surrounded them without their notice rushed into Robb's personal space, to the cries of all the rest who had been too late to react. She had long brown hair and seemed to be of an age with Robb and Jon. "I would gladly let you climb over my parapets, Lord Stark. I'm younger than Ros and more... flexible. I can show you if you like."

Robb's only response was, "Hello."

She seemed to take that as assent and took his hand, pulling him into the hallway, which led to the private rooms. Robb put his heels down, though, and looked back at Jon. "No. Him, too."

The girl quirked an eyebrow. "There are plenty of others, milord. I'm sure he can fi—"

"No. I want him with me." Robb's jaw was set, and his hand reunited with Jon's arm, pulling his brother along.

"Robb, what the hell—" Jon tried to protest, but his body felt strangely numb.

The other girls saw what was happening, and Jon could almost see the filthy images speeding behind their eyeballs, making them squeal in delight. Robb's whore looked like she had just been crowned Queen of Love and Beauty and followed Robb, who seemed to be leading them now. Jon could hear Theon's palm slap against his forehead. "Why is it always Snow..."

Jon was finding it very difficult to think straight at this point, though Robb was apparently bringing Jon into his first fuck. By Jon's every sense of decency, this seemed incredibly wrong, and he should be wrenching his arm out of Robb's strong grip and running back to Winterfell as fast as he could to forget this ever happened. But all those senses felt clouded at the moment, and he couldn't bring himself to do it. Yet another failure on his part to control himself when around Robb. It was almost like he was warging again, except he was inside Robb's skin instead of Ghost's, and he couldn't leave if he wanted to. He always followed Robb, no matter where his brother went.

He just wished it didn't have to be to a dimly lit bedroom in a whorehouse. Robb took him inside with the whore tottering after. Her eyes raked over the two boys like she was deciding which one to eat. "I've never done this before, especially with brothers. I've thought about it sometimes, but... Oh, may the gods smite me now. How would you like to proceed, milords?" Clearly, she already had an idea, as her gown pooled around her feet.

Robb stared at her like a giant maggot had burst out of her clothes. He shook his head. "No, no. This won't work. I thought it would, but..."

The girl looked crestfallen, her breasts sagging sadly. "Are you reconsidering, milord? Perhaps your brother can stay and watch until you get used to the—"

"Oh, gods, no. Make him watch? Are you mad? He's my brother!" Robb shouted, shoving the poor confused girl out the door and slamming it behind her. He then leaned against the door, probably to keep himself upright. "I shouldn't have pushed her so hard. But she was going to make you watch..."

Jon gaped at him. If this was what drinking did to people when they didn't realize it, Jon was swearing off drink forever. He was about to march out of the room and put an end to this bizarre day when Robb grabbed his arm again and launched him at the bed. Jon fell on his back with a plop, a thick cloud of dust erupting from the impact. Robb joined him, sitting cross-legged by his feet, rocking back and forth. "Robb! By the gods, stop this already and let—" All words died in his throat when he saw that Robb was crying.

"How could she do this?" Robb groaned, slamming his palm against the moth-eaten linen. "Damn her! She leaves me here and then does this... Is she trying to sabotage us on purpose?"

Jon gaped—a common occurrence these last few hours—and coughed when a cloud of dust entered his mouth as a result. He waved it away in irritation. "Who are you talking about? The whore?" he croaked.

"Don't you dare call my mother a whore!" Robb rounded on Jon. "She's a lot of things, and I hate her for how she treats you, but she's not a whore... I don't think..."

It felt like Jon had to readjust his mind to understand the new direction this had taken. "Wait. You're talking about your mother? What happened?"

Robb wrapped his arms around his knees, and he looked so vulnerable that Jon wanted nothing but to hold him. "There was a raven. This morning. Mother met Tyrion Lannister while she was heading up the kingsroad on the way home. She captured him. Took him to the Eyrie. So stupid."

Jon felt his spine turn to ice. He was actually shaking. What had possessed Lady Stark to do that?

"And then she released him!" Robb continued. "They never even made it to the Eyrie! She released him leagues before getting there! If he got eaten by the mountain clans, I don't want to think about what Lord Tywin will do..." Robb attempted to pull his hair out.

Jon reached for Robb's hand, concerned that he would hurt himself, which was a definite possibility in his scared and drunken state. "Where is your mother now?"

"In the Eyrie. She sent the raven from there. She had the gall to ask me why I told the Imp about the assassin and the knife!" Robb swayed his head from side to side. "I suppose I'll have to write her back. But I won't tell her that you were the one who spilled our secrets to Lannister like a dirty traitor. I won't ever give her a reason to be mad at you again."

Jon stroked Robb's knee. "No, it's my fault. You don't have to—"

"It's not your fault! It's never your fault. You always follow me blindly into things, and I always get you in trouble. It's my fault..." Robb sniffed, pawing at his nose with his knuckles.

"Yes, yes. Have it your way then." Jon smiled as Robb tried in vain to wipe the snot away, too drunk to even be capable of that. Robb looked adorable, despite the threat of war drawing closer every day. Jon hoped the plans he'd made with Tyrion weren't jeopardized, that there wouldn't be deadly reprisal from the rest of the Lannisters, but he couldn't move himself to think on all that right now. Maybe there was an alternative to wolf dreams and ale; seeing Robb acting like a little boy again was somehow enough to make Jon feel better.

Robb's bright blue eyes peeked out from the enclosure of his arms and focused on Jon. Or with as much focus as he could manage. He sniffled. "I told you all my ills... Now you... What's new with you lately?"

Where do I start? Jon made a show of thinking about it. "You're probably not going to remember any of this, are you?"

"Probably not."

Jon inhaled deeply and tried to get it all out in one breath. "I'm researching a letter from Rhaegar Targaryen—what is 'The Song of Ice and Fire'?—and my hand is useless, and I have dreams about a three-eyed crow and a tower where I was probably born—I guess I'm a dornishman—but Bran is going to die, and the only way I can save him for sure is to go to the Wall but, if I do that, then you will die in his place, and this is ruining me, same as my hand being useless, though Theon is training me, except I'm also a warg—who can train me in that?—and found out Cersei Lannister pushed Bran off the tower." Jon gasped, took another deep breath, and bowed his head. It did feel good to let your feelings out. He always thought those sayings were complete horse dung.

But it felt even better to know Robb would remember none of it. Robb's eyes were glazed, and his head tipped to the side as if looking at something alien. "I thought you were going to be serious. Suit yourself. Don't tell me anything. Like always." He yawned and stretched out his arms and legs, extending them between Jon's. "I'm glad you're here. You always make everything bearable, even though you're so depressing, and you keep sneaking behind my back and, by gods, we're in a brothel!"

Jon snickered at the random outburst. "Does this mean you're sober now?"

Robb shook his head rapidly, as if checking for any spare drunkenness clunking within his skull. "No, I don't think I am." In half a second, Robb's goofy expression changed into something predatory. He leered at Jon with half crazed eyes. "Jon, we are in a brothel. There's no reason we can't use the facilities."

Sweat formed on Jon's neck. Something's wrong here. "What are you talking about?"

Like a cat, Robb crawled on all fours on top of his brother, who was stunned. Jon could smell the ale on Robb's breath, but it was oddly sweet, gusting wetly across his face. "Hello, Jon," Robb whispered.

Jon's reply was a strangled choking sound. What could he say? Hello to you, too? Robb was writhing on top of him, for gods' sake, eyes smoldering and lips so close... Jon suddenly realized that he was choking because he couldn't breathe. Robb was right on top of him!

Robb smoothed a loving thumb over Jon's cheek. Why is he always doing that? But it seemed Robb was about to give him the answer. "I wanted it. I wanted it so much. I even thought about letting that girl join in so I could have a reason to touch you. But I couldn't do it. I couldn't let her ruin this. I want you all to myself."

A thousand denials and objections ran through Jon's mind in a panicked cacophony. He's drunk! We're in a brothel! It's just the atmosphere! He's drunk! He's confused from fear and anxiety! He's my brother! He doesn't know what he's saying! I do NOT like this! Jon thought he could sidle out from under Robb and flee, but his body felt like a hot block of lead, and he knew there was no hope. There was no hope for anything but pleasure when Robb's lips were pressing against his cheek.

"I thought long and hard about what I wanted from a brothel," Robb breathed against the shell of his brother's ear, and all Jon's muscles seized in reaction. "And I realized there was nothing I could possibly want if you're not there. I can't stand it when you're not there. It feels like a part of me is missing, and it hurts. You can't imagine how much it hurt when I thought of you dying at the Wall." Robb trailed a line of kisses down to the base of Jon's neck, nipping lightly on the collarbones with his teeth. "It took me so long to realize it. You're my brother. But the morning after the fire when I was helping you eat, I imagined what it would be like if you had burned and died, and then I was hugging you... I knew. Oh, the gods preserve me. I just knew." Robb's hands wove through Jon's hair, and he nuzzled the lip of Jon's shirt loose to lick a scorching path over the exposed breastbone. "I tried to reason it out over and over. We do everything together. What's this one more thing? Can you understand that, Jon? You love me, too, don't you?"

Jon thought there was nothing more obvious in the whole world, but the breadth of his emotions, the sudden truth of their nature, shocked him to his core, and he couldn't speak. Couldn't articulate it. Until he could. He always could have. All these years. I'm in love with my brother. Oh, gods...

"Please, Jon. Say something. I need you to accept this. Accept me." Robb rubbed his face against Jon's clothed chest, seemingly desperate for more skin. "I need you... Always have... Don't let me go to war without this..." His hand reached for Jon's breeches, and Jon gasped when Robb found his handful. He squeezed, and stars burst before Jon's abruptly closed eyes. Robb seemed rather curious, like a child with a new toy. "You're bigger than I thought. Interesting..."

And just like that, it was over. Robb collapsed on top of him, head nestled under Jon's chin, snoring softly. Jon's body was still thrumming long after Robb had fallen asleep. He couldn't move. Not because Robb was heavy and practically crushing him, but because he secretly waited for Robb to awaken and continue this dream.

The dream ended when the door burst open and Theon strode in, topless and disheveled. He gave the scene before him a long critical look and sighed. "I should have known this would happen."

"It's not what it looks like!" Jon protested, which might not have been effective considering Robb still had him pinned to the bed.

Theon deadpanned, "It looks like Robb is lying on top of you in a compromising position, with his hand grasping your prick." He screwed his face up in disgust. "Horrible. If I ever groped my sister like that, I would kill myself."

Jon couldn't think of anything to counter that, appearances being what they were. "I admit it's exactly what it looks like. Can you please get him off me?"

Theon shook his head derisively. "Always asking for help." He came to the bed, anyways, and heaved Robb not ungently onto his back beside Jon. Jon was about to thank Theon and get off the bed, shake the feeling back into his limbs and hopefully bring his erection down, when Theon stopped him by straddling his hips.

Oh, gods! Not him, too? "What are you doing?" he demanded in more surprise than he thought he could still feel. Theon's dark eyes were hard, and Jon knew instantly this wasn't the same situation. There was no affection on Theon's face, no allure in his posture. His muscles were coiled and ready to spring, and Jon felt distinctly like a wild animal had cornered him. A wild animal whose nose and forehead were heavily colored from drink and whose eyes were half mad. In a sense, Theon was worse than a wild animal.

"Why do you always get in the way, Snow?" Theon spat, mere inches from Jon's face. The alcohol in Greyjoy's breath was several times thicker than in Robb's and a thousand times fouler because it was Theon. "This was supposed to be ours. I was supposed to bring Robb to the brothel, give him his first fuck, but you come and take that away." Every word was heavy and filled with scorn; Theon was barely containing his rage.

Jon thought about punching Greyjoy but, with his left hand still largely uncoordinated and in his own inebriated state, it probably wouldn't have much effect. He gulped.

"It's always about you. He can't stop talking about you and worrying about you. It's enough to make me..." Theon's voice trailed off, and he bit his lip, as if trying to say something while holding it back at the same time. One side must have won in the end. "I never knew what was so great about brothers. Both of mine died during the rebellion, and I was glad. Those bastards got what they deserved, but the Drowned God demanded the iron price for my joy and shipped me off here, to this dreary wasteland and your dreary family. I thought I would never feel at home again, but Robb was kind to me, and soon I wished he were my brother. But he was your brother first. And how could I ever measure up to the great Jon Snow?" He sneered.

Jon's mouth felt dry. He shouldn't be hearing this. It felt like he was eavesdropping on Theon's soul, and he didn't want to leave a stain that Theon would never be able to wash off if the other boy ever remembered this. He tried to squirm free, but Greyjoy was having none of it.

"Don't you dare leave! Not until I'm... done talking..." Theon coughed, his eyes beginning to water. "No matter what I did... No matter how badly I treated you, no matter how many times I insulted and embarrassed you, called you a bastard, you were still there. Your name always on Robb's tongue. And it drove me mad. Why can't I ever measure up?" He squeezed his eyes tight, a few salty drops falling onto Jon's nose. "Father gave Asha a ship. He gave that poxy bitch a ship and let her reave along the Stepstones while I languish here. Can't even be bothered to write me once a year. And I'm supposed to be his heir!"

Jon felt strangely tired, for himself and for Theon. He knew all too well what this was about. "Theon..."

"Don't call me that! I'm Theon Greyjoy, bastard! Heir to Pyke and the Iron Isles..." Theon's voice grew weak at the last, his conviction faltering with every word. "Am I, though? Am I still his heir if he's forgotten me, left me here to freeze and die with his enemies? Is Asha heir now? If my own father has discarded me..."

"Theon, you can't thi—"

"Stop it!" Greyjoy shouted, his plea rife with desperation and confusion. "Why are you being so nice to me? Why did you ask me to help you? All I've ever done is make your life hell! I don't deserve..." His eyes met Jon's for the first time since he began. "I lied. I wasn't fucking some comely wench. I was there in the great hall, and I heard what Lady Stark screamed at you. I thought it was unfair, but I did nothing. I am a hostage—no better than you. And I was angry... Angry that Robb took you to the tavern instead of me, so I took delight in it... but I didn't... Not truly... My father doesn't care whether I live or die. For what it's worth... I'm a bastard, too... same as you..."

Moisture continued to drop on Jon's face, but he did nothing to discourage Theon's hitching sobs. "You couldn't have done anything, Theon," he muttered.

"Shut up. Just shut up," Theon choked past wet rattling gasps. "I hate you... Dammit... I hate you..." He repeated the words over and over again, until his voice grew faint, and he collapsed into a limp puddle on Jon's chest. His snores were in tune with Robb's, and Jon sighed and vowed never to go drinking with anyone ever again.

The door burst open for a second time, and Jon prepared himself for the next assault, but it was only Ros, completely naked. She sighed upon seeing the scene before her and leaned against the doorframe. "Forgive me, milord. I only gave him one thimble of wine, to help calm his aggression. We whores are soldiers in the bedroom; we use whatever we can to arm ourselves, especially when fucking real soldiers. How was I supposed to know he would get this bad?"

Jon raised his head, trying to look at her past Theon's body. "Does this happen often?"

"Oh, like you wouldn't believe. He's weepy when he's in his cups, which is preferable to when he's sober, as then he's just angry. I always have a bottle ready for him. I probably know more about the Iron Islands than any other whore in the North."

Jon's head fell back onto the bed, not having anything to say to that. Gods, he was tired.

Ros was tapping her slippered foot, which told him what she thought of them sleeping in one of the brothel's beds. "Look, milord, I'm truly grateful that you put the boys to bed. You have a real talent there. But since you drove one of our girls to tears, and the rest have been denied the privilege of laying with the handsome heir to Winterfell, I must ask you to leave. I can fetch a bucket of water, if you think it necessary. Your choice." She winked.

In the end, Jon didn't need a bucket of water. A quick succession of punches and slaps for Theon and a kick in the ribs for Robb were enough to get them out of the brothel, the whores crying after them in dismay and disappointment.

· · ·


Jon and Theon sat still and stone-faced on one of the benches in the great hall. Robb was either passed out or retching in his room. Jon felt like a spear had been driven between his eyes and there was no way to wrench it out. Theon must have felt the same, his posture stiff as a statue, as if every motion sent bolts into his skull. Jon could relate in that he didn't want to leave this spot, to risk moving and melting into a puddle of vomit. He didn't want to speak either, not for many days. He felt that if no one spoke about their little adventure, it could all be dismissed as a bad dream.

"What did I say?"

Apparently, Theon did not have the same idea. "What?"

"What did I say?" It was like there were ashes in his mouth, but Jon couldn't pretend not to understand. "In the brothel. I said things. What were they?"

Jon didn't look at Theon, preferring to stare at a tapestry. "Nothing I didn't already know." And a little more that I didn't.

He saw Theon nod minutely from the corner of his eye. "Did Robb tell you?"

"Yes."

Theon reacted no more to that answer than the first. It seemed all emotion had drained completely out of him. Jon was mostly in the same predicament. "Lady Catelyn fucked us over, didn't she?"

Jon didn't expect that, and he turned away from the ancient embroidery. "Robb told you?"

"Is there an echo in here?" Greyjoy joked, which was astonishing considering his face was still dotted with wine sweats. "No. I was looking over his shoulder while he read her letter. He was too busy gaping at his mother's stupidity to notice."

Jon frowned, preparing to defend Lady Stark, though he didn't really know why he should. "You don't know if anything will come of this. Nothing has happened yet. Perhaps Tyrion will put a stop to the retaliation."

"Tyrion." Greyjoy sniggered. "Calling him by his first name? Are you a Lannister man now, Snow?"

Jon's fist clenched. "I call you Theon. Does that make me a Greyjoy man?"

Theon stared at Jon, whether from amazement or in denial, it couldn't be said, but instead of the scathing retort Jon had come to expect, Theon shook his head, as if he couldn't quite believe what he was hearing. "No, I guess not. Don't know why you do that, though. Besides, allying with me doesn't make anyone a Greyjoy man. I suppose I'm a Stark man now. Or maybe I always was." He stood up suddenly, his gaze turned to the front of the hall, in the direction of the west. "I know you're Robb's man through and through, Snow. Just like me. You love him as much as I do."

No, I love him more. More than you ever could. Even in Jon's head, it wasn't a boast. It was a simple fact: fifteen years of confusion and awkward touches condensed into a few obvious words. Maybe he would never have known if Robb hadn't opened up like that, though he doubted that Robb remembered any of it. Perhaps it was Theon's insistence on taverns and brothels that led him to this path. In that small way, one that required some creative thinking on his part, Jon was grateful for Theon. And he didn't mind being so. He welcomed any miniscule reason to like the older boy. Jon wasn't sure what made him say it, but he wasn't willing to let all that Theon unwittingly revealed to him fade into the haze of sobriety. "Do you want to be brothers, Theon?"

Theon rounded on Jon, looking aghast. His face transformed into something ugly, and Jon foresaw that he was about to make liking him much harder. "Brothers? With a bastard? Don't make me laugh. I'm Theon Greyjoy, heir to the Iron Islands, and I'd sooner be heir to a mud hut than be brothers with you." Greyjoy crossed his arms and pivoted away, standing straight and proud in an incredibly frustrating manner. Jon wondered why he even bothered. He was about to stomp off and leave the arsehole alone when Theon suddenly spoke. "Although, when this war comes, I suppose we'll be brothers in arms. That doesn't sound too dreadful."

Jon smirked, then shrugged. "I suppose I can settle for that, my lord kraken."

Theon faced Jon again, and there was a softness in his eyes Jon never thought could exist. "Mark my words, Snow. Whether my father wants it or not, I'm going to fight for my inheritance and bring the Iron Fleet under my heel. Robb will have all the power of the Iron Islands behind him. I promise you that." He raised his smug nose at Jon. "But, until then, I'm going to have to do something about that useless arm of yours. You're worthless on the field and, if I don't train you, you're going to embarrass us all and let the Lannisters piss on our corpses."

The words sounded cruel, but Jon knew Theon well enough now to understand what they truly meant. He smiled gratefully. "I'll drink to that, Greyjoy. Well, on second thought, I believe we've both had enough of drink." They laughed together at that, then Jon noticed the sunshine streaming through the high windows. "It's growing late. You up for a little riding with Bran?" He sidled off the bench and stood.

Theon tightened his belt. "I only feel like retching my liver out. It's nothing I'm not used to. I don't think Robb can accompany us, though. He seems to have gotten the worst of it. What did you two do in that room, anyways? My memory is silent on that."

"Nothing. Absolutely nothing," Jon stammered. He rushed past Theon to find Bran and Maester Luwin.

He could practically hear Theon's smirk behind him, which made him consider punching Greyjoy all over again. "I'll get it out of you yet, Snow. Yes, I will."

Robb had taken the worst of it, with how he was moaning in his bed, complaining about his head. Jon nearly kissed it to make it better, but Theon was there and he didn't dare. So, it was down to them, the maester and kennelmaster, plus two of the guardsmen to accompany Bran out on his first excursion beyond the castle walls. Jon knew if there was any force left in Bran's legs he would have been jumping in the saddle. It made Jon sad, to know that something as simple and otherwise mundane as a horse ride into the woods could excite Bran so.

They found their direwolves prowling around when they entered a copse of trees, the wolves disappearing soon after to continue their hunt. At random moments, Jon's mouth began to water, and he swallowed the spit down in irritation. It seemed his connection with Ghost was no longer isolated to his dreams. He didn't know if that should scare him or not.

"How are you doing there, Snow?" Theon grinned at Jon from his horse, slashing at a low hanging branch with his sword. "You look famished. Come to think of it, we never had lunch, did we? Gods, now I'm hungry."

"Me, too," Jon agreed. His stomach was rumbling and, faintly, he could feel another, smaller stomach growling from somewhere in the forest. He then heard a howl that was easy to understand even without being a warg. "I think the wolves caught something. Looks like we're having venison for supper."

Theon licked his lips. "At last, a use for you, Snow. Though it's your wolf that does all the work."

Jon looked behind him and saw that the maester and the rest of their party had fallen far back. They weren't about to reach the three boys for a while. He turned to Bran, saying, "You stay here, Bran, while we go find what the wolves caught for us. Wait here for Maester Luwin."

Bran nodded. Jon and Theon rode into the trees, twigs snapping under their horses' hooves. Jon followed the howls, though he didn't need to, as he felt where Ghost was. It was a strange feeling, not one he could define, but he was beginning not to feel surprised at the possibilities this gift opened in him. Perhaps he needed to speak about it to Bran, after all, if the crow had showed itself to Bran. And Robb. Jon was tired of keeping secrets from Robb. He promised himself to tell Robb the truth when they came back from their ride. All the truths that he had only been able to say while he was sloshed. It just didn't seem fair to Robb, to cheapen the trust his brother had in him like that. And Jon was sick of lies.

They found the deer dead beside a stream. Summer was already feasting on the entrails. But that wasn't what drew Jon's eye. An arrow was sticking out of the deer's hindquarters.

"Who the hell shot it?" Theon said, getting down from his horse.

"I don't know," Jon replied. There must be others in the woods. "Hello? Anyone here? We have your deer," he shouted, with no response but the sigh of rushing waters. He didn't like this. A presence you couldn't see was more likely an enemy than a friend. "Greyjoy, strap the deer to your horse. Quickly."

"You don't give me commands, Snow." Even after saying that, Theon bent down to the carcass and shooed Summer away. He pulled out the arrow from the deer's rump and threw it into the stream. "Snow? A little help?"

Jon raised his hands, one gloved and one still hidden in linen. "Sorry, Greyjoy. You never trained me to lift deer."

Theon grumbled as he bent back down to his solitary task. "Useless bastard..."

They followed the stream to where Bran was waiting, the deer drawing flies to Theon's horse. Only after pushing through the thick hedges did they find that Bran wasn't alone. Jon drew his sword. "Move away from him! Now!" he shouted. His voice cracked, and he could feel himself shaking. Oh, gods, please no. Not now, not now...

"Jon!" Bran called to him. Jon could see a deep cut on his brother's leg where blood was welling out.

"My, my. What have we here?" A tall woman with a spear and a pot helm stepped out of the stream.

Jon saw Theon drawing out his bow, but the bald man with a knife in hand beside Bran pulled him from the saddle and held the blade to Bran's throat. "Put down your weapons or the boy gets a red smile."

Theon hesitated, but Jon screamed at him, "Do as he says. Do it!" Jon dropped his sword to the ground.

Greyjoy stared at Jon in astonishment. "Jon, what are you—"

"I said, do it!He can't die. Bran can't die. DON'T LET HIM DIE. Jon's ears were ringing, and he couldn't think. And where the fuck was Ghost?

A short, plump woman with an ugly poxed face grinned at them, showing crooked brown teeth. "These are good boys. I'm going to enjoy seeing their pretty little cocks before I chop them off."

"You're as stupid as you are ugly, Hali," the tall woman said. "For all we know, these two could be Starks, as well. Imagine what Mance will give us for three."

Theon scowled. "I'm no Stark, and neither is he. I'm Theon Greyjoy, heir to Pyke."

Jon rounded on Theon despairingly. "Shut up!"

"Oh, another lordling!" The one called Hali jumped from foot to foot in glee. "Probably not as good for trading as a Stark, but a squid is just as tasty!"

A heavily bearded man in a leather helm and wielding a loaded crossbow shouted, "What'd we do with them, Stiv?"

The man holding Bran pulled him closer, the blade leaving a red mark on his neck. "Kill one. They won't try anything while I've got the boy. Isn't that right, milords?"

Then Jon saw him, saw Ghost emerging from the hedges, snarling and looking for blood.

Stiv saw him, too, and gasped in alarm. "Is that a wolf?"

"He's a direwolf! Ghost!" Bran shrieked, locked within the man's arm.

The tall woman, who was closest to Ghost, stepped back, trying to bat him away with her spear. "That thing is yours? Get the beast away or Stiv'll gut you!"

Dammit, Bran! Shut up! But it was too late, and he had no choice. He was too far away from Bran. "Ghost! Don't move!"

Theon glared at Jon with scorn. "Are you just going to let them kill us all, Snow?"

He didn't know. He had no idea what to do. It was like being drunk again but, instead of euphoria, there was agonizing fear. If he didn't do something, Bran would die, just like he had been dreading for months. But if he did do something, then Robb would die. Theon was screaming, probably the word "coward," at him, but Jon was frozen to his horse. Bran was going to die, and there was absolutely nothing he could do to stop it.

The man with the crossbow looked to his comrades uncertainly. "Do I shoot the damn dog or what?"

The tall woman glared at him. "Don't you dare! Or I'll be the one fending it off when you miss!"

Hali snickered. "Shut your mouth, Osha! I say do it! I could use me a good wolfskin cloak."

Suddenly, Jon's helplessness turned into rage. Months of fear and hopelessness came boiling out of him, and all he wanted to see was blood. They weren't going to take his brother. He wouldn't let them! In an instant, his vision moved several meters away from his body, and he saw himself topple unconscious from his horse. The strangeness of it caught everyone's attention, and he had his chance. He snarled and leapt at the tall woman, her back slamming into the streambed and her spear flying from her grasp. She screamed as he buried his teeth into her neck, warm blood gushing into his mouth. Immediately, her screams quieted into a gurgle. He continued to tear at her, even after she was dead, but he had to make sure, make sure she never hurt Bran...

His sensitive ears heard a sharp twang, and his head jerked in the direction of the noise. He saw the empty crossbow, and his red eyes followed its trajectory... In his mind, he screamed, though he never made a sound...

A quarrel was buried in Theon Greyjoy's stomach all the way to the fletching. His arms were still raised from his attempt to launch an arrow, but both it and his bow fell from his fingers as his body struck the water like a ragdoll, his blood carried away by the stream.

 

Chapter Text

The Only Way Home


 Jon opened his eyes to chaos.

He was on the ground, his shoulder and hip throbbing from when he fell on them. He blinked rapidly past the disorientation and saw his horse a good distance away, spooked by the smell of gore. Ghost was still in the stream, padding away from his prey: the tall wildling, Osha, whose throat was a red ruin. Jon could taste the metallic flavor of her blood on his tongue, and he spat, though he knew there was none in his mouth.

Stiv, who was still holding Bran at knifepoint, stared at the corpse of his comrade with wide, terrified eyes. "Oh, gods, it ripped out her throat!" A ferocious growl sounded from behind him, and he was suddenly slammed into the ground, Summer snarling on his back with teeth bared. The impact released his grip on Bran, who crawled away, hands reaching for a tree root.

Ghost stalked towards Hali, silent, his red eyes shining with malice. She swung her dagger in wild arcs while backing away. "Get away! Damn you! A cloak ain't worth this!"

Jon tried to stand, the world tipping over and forcing him to lean against a tree to keep himself upright. He fought the reflex to retch, fought the sick need to look and confirm what he had seen. Shaking, he reached for his sword and lumbered dazedly into the stream. Bran's captor was being savaged by Summer, and the stout woman, Hali, was doing everything she could to fend off Ghost. Jon's eyes snapped to the bearded man trying without success to reload his crossbow with unsteady hands, his ragged black cloak marking him a deserter from the Night's Watch. Jon's vision darkened with rage and sorrow and overwhelming guilt, but he shoved the last emotion down as he splashed towards the man, sword gripped tightly in his fist. The deserter was bent down inserting another bolt into his crossbow and never saw Jon coming. Jon plunged his sword as hard as he could through leather, flesh, and sinew, right where Theon had been shot. Theon's murderer coughed out blood before Jon twisted the blade harshly and pulled it free, watching as the light faded from the man's eyes. His first kill should have been harder, but it was the easiest thing in the world.

Hali turned, saw that she was trapped, and dropped her rusted blade, falling to her knees. "I surrender, milord! I surrender! I'll do whatever you want! Please get that monster away from me!"

Jon's eyes were cold, but he let her beg as he commanded Ghost to stay and watch her. Bran had propped himself against some thick roots and was trembling with shock. "Bran, are you unhurt?" He wasn't, but it needed to be asked. Jon checked the wound on Bran's leg and decided it wasn't too deep. "Any other injuries?"

Summer padded to them, his muzzle drenched red, and laid his head on Bran's thigh. "No, I'm fine." Bran's voice shook, tears flowing freely down his cheeks. "But Theon..."

Jon stood. "Stay here. I'll... go get him."

Theon lay on his side, unmoving, half his face submerged in the flowing waters. Jon knelt and turned him on his back, taking a moment to assess the damage. The bolt had punched into his abdomen, clean and deep with only a trace amount of blood seeping out, but Jon knew it was far worse than it looked. Theon's face was pale and clammy despite barely losing any blood, and his chest was still. Jon's heart lurched painfully. He reached for Theon's wrist to check for a pulse. "What have I done..."

Suddenly, Theon's eyes shot open, and he coughed, expelling a mouthful of water mixed with blood. He gasped in some air and moaned softly. Too softly.

A pang of relief shot through Jon's stomach. He propped up Theon's head to help the other boy breathe. "Hold on. Maester Luwin is on his way... Dammit... Hold on... Oh, gods..."

The gods must have heard his prayer. "What has happened here?" gasped Maester Luwin, sitting appalled on his donkey at the head of the trail. The others were quicker to act, jumping down from their horses to make sense of the scene before them. One of the guardsmen saw what was left of Stiv, blue entrails pulled out of his stomach cavity, and retched into the bushes. The kennelmaster tried to ignore the carnage and ran towards Bran, taking the boy into his arms. Eventually, the maester recovered and saw Jon, as well as whom he was cradling on his lap. Luwin ran to them, the foot of his gray robes becoming soaked in the bloody stream.

What happened after that seemed like a nightmarish blur to Jon. They returned to Winterfell with Theon strapped to his horse, face ashen and beaded with sweat, not even strong enough to moan. Bran had been put back on Dancer, his cut quickly dressed by Maester Luwin and his young face drawn with worry. The guardsmen lagged behind towing Hali, sword points at her back, the only survivor of the ragtag band of wildlings and deserters. Together, they were a pitiful bunch.

Robb and half the household awaited them on the castle steps, as they had sent a guardsman ahead to warn of what had happened. Robb's eyes were bloodshot, and his skin was wan and damp, though whether that was from their earlier drinking or their current predicament Jon couldn't say. In spite of the clear worry on his face, Robb was every bit the lord. He ordered strong arms to carry Theon to Maester Luwin's quarters along with a few of Septa Mordane's acolytes to help with the healing, then had Hodor take Bran to his room with a promise of a bath and supper. He gave their little brother a tight hug and whispered words of comfort before sending Bran off. Theon was still unconscious, the quarrel protruding from his stomach, when he was hauled up through the threshold. Robb grabbed the maester's arm as the old man skittered past. "He's going to be fine, isn't he?" His voice was firm, though Jon wondered how a commanding tone could help them in this.

The maester didn't meet Robb's eyes, fidgeting with the wide sleeves of his robes—a terrible sign. "He took a quarrel in the bowels, Robb. We can but hope that the bolt only pierced through the lining and not the intestines. If not... pray that I have enough cat gut." Maester Luwin pulled away from Robb and raced up the steps, Theon's need giving new life to his aged legs.

When they were alone underneath the archway, Robb let his lordly face crash to the ground and immediately began fumbling all over Jon with a speed that surprised him. "Jon! Gods almighty! You're covered in blood! You should let one of the women take a look at you while Maester Luwin—"

"It's not my blood," Jon mumbled, attention drawn to the red droplets that had escaped Theon's wound and followed him into the castle.

"It's not..." Robb started, but then realization dawned on him. "Oh." That single sound contained all the sadness and sympathy that Jon had come to expect. Robb probably thought, like Jon himself, that they would both whet their swords on enemies across a battlefield, on lives they had come to terms with taking the night before, likely on soldiers in gold and crimson with lions on their breasts. Neither of them ever expected that one of them would face that rite of passage with brigands in the woods beyond Winterfell. Nor did they expect that Jon would face it first. Robb took Jon's hand, though it was crusted with dried blood. "Jon, when the guard came running up to me... I don't think he was clear on what happened... What exactly..."

"Wildlings. Deserters. Both," Jon explained, his voice strained. "We left Bran for a short while to fetch a deer. When we came back... We shouldn't have..." He turned his face away, unable to go on. Then the image of Theon falling off his horse flashed before his eyes, and he couldn't hold it back, his hand tightening in Robb's. "I killed him. Two of them." He could still recall with perfect clarity how his fangs tore into Osha's neck, his tongue lapping up her blood. The worst part was that he had complete control, was consciously enjoying it, reveling in her death. Even after he regained his body and rammed the deserter through with his sword, the beastly bloodlust had remained, strong as ever. It scared him almost as much as everything else that had happened this day.

Robb could clearly see that Jon was warring within himself but could not hear his thoughts and so could not think of anything to say to make him feel better. Like the protective big brother he was, that didn't stop Robb from trying. "Jon, killing them was a good thing. You saved Bran and—"

"And got Theon shot. It's my fault."

Robb was taken aback. "That's not... That can't be true... I understand you feel—"

He wrenched his hand from Robb's. "No, you don't. You don't understand at all."

Robb looked like he had been slapped, his hand frozen in the air, but he made no attempt to argue with Jon. His face fell and seemed almost heavy with grief, and Jon's stomach turned once again with guilt. "Blame yourself if you must. I don't want us fighting. Especially not now..."

The desperate plea made Jon forget his trauma, and he faced Robb with new worry. He took Robb's hand back in his and was grateful when Robb didn't pull away. "I'm sorry. You didn't deserve that. Something's happened, hasn't it?"

Robb nodded, twining their fingers together. "Maester Luwin left a letter in my room while we were at the brothel. I didn't open it until now and... Jory is dead, Jon. The Kingslayer killed him along with some of our other men. Alyn said Lannister was looking for his brother. But it gets worse. Father was with them and... His horse fell on top of him, shattering his leg." He squeezed Jon's fingers like a vise. "It's as if the gods are punishing us with the fucking Lannisters. Why is all this happening? I don't know if I should call the banners or simply demand that Jaime Lannister's head be sliced from his shoulders. Maybe Joffrey's, too, or..." Robb sighed, which sounded to Jon a lot like defeat. "I wish Father never went south..." he said, his posture desperate for comfort.

Jon had none to give Robb. He slowly unlatched his fingers from Robb's and shambled off into the castle. Every step was heavy and difficult, and it felt like he was sinking into the stone floor. How many people did he have to mourn tonight? How many would still be alive tomorrow? A shattered leg did not mean death but, in Jon's grief, he was already biding his father farewell.

"Jon, where are you going?" Robb called after him, unsettled by his silence.

"To my room. To... clean up." The blood was starting to smell. His gloves would be ruined if he didn't wash them out. Not to mention his sword...

"Can it wait? I really want to talk—"

"No." Jon rounded a corner and approached a staircase. Robb did not chase after him, which was odd but welcome. He welcomed every chance to be alone. Robb didn't understand. Couldn't possibly understand. Didn't Robb realize how much blood Jon had to clean off?

Peace wouldn't come so soon, however, as Ellys was standing in his room. Her face was distraught. That annoyed him for some reason. "I heard what happened, milord. How awful that deserters would dare come so near Winterfell. And what they did to Lord Greyjoy..." She sniffed daintily, as if she knew Theon and he was already dead, and Jon's temper bubbled up. "Please let me assist you. You look a right mess."

"Get out."

Her hand flew to her chest, eyes wide with concern. "But, milord, I just want to help. I know you've been needing me less and less in the past months, but considering what you went through—"

"I said, get out!"

She didn't need to be told thrice and rushed past him out of the room. It seemed even bastards had to be obeyed at some point. Or maybe it was because Ghost had started snapping at her, a mirror image of his master's emotions. The blood caked on his fur and around his muzzle only magnified the effect.

Ghost. Jon pondered his wolf for a few long seconds, so long that the blood-splattered animal cocked his head at the attention. For the first time, Jon had slipped into Ghost's form while awake, had consciously acted through him and taken control. For the first time, Jon's gift had not been dampened by the shroud of dreams, and he truly experienced what it was like to be a beast. He had smelled the grass and dirt and weeks of traveling through snow and mud that had clung to the wildlings' bodies. He had also smelled their fear and exhaustion, sensed the life pulsing through their necks, telling him where to sink his teeth. More than ever, Ghost had proved himself to be a part of Jon. Not just Jon's companion but an extension of him, his soul made flesh and fur.

Jon couldn't bear to look at him.

He grabbed Ghost by the scruff of his neck and dragged him towards the door. He had gotten much heavier since Jon first found him as a miserable little pup, cold and alone and pushed away by his siblings. That puppy had grown six times since then, and Jon had to keep his feet from skidding as Ghost tried to thrash free from his hold, knowing what he meant to do. He dropped the crazed animal in the hallway, hoping that he hadn't hurt Ghost, and shut the door. Jon leaned against the heavy oak and sank to the floor. He winced when the iron studs of his scabbard clanged on the cold stone, then fumbled to unclasp his sword belt. He threw it furiously across the room, where it clattered to a stop under his desk. This was the first time he had ever worn steel around his waist. Now he wished he never had to see a sword ever again.

He could hear Ghost scratching wildly at the door, confused and terrified at being shut out, both from the room and from Jon, desperate to get back in. Ghost never made a sound, but nonetheless somewhere inside him Jon could hear his wolf whimpering. His very spirit reached out for Ghost.

Jon curled up into a ball, trying to block out everything with his hands. It was too much. It was all just too much. Agonizing guilt and regret roiled in his mind like a whirlpool, pulling him into the center, drowning as scenes of the fight played over and over. What was the point of saving Bran if someone else had to pay the price? Was Bran's life worth Theon giving up his? Had the crow known this would happen and pushed Jon into being a warg just for that moment to go as it had? The memory wouldn't leave his mind... His snout drenched in the wildling's blood, vivid despite the gray hues of Ghost's vision. He saw the dead slate of her eyes, empty and unseeing, but still he ripped and tore, unable to stop. He had to make sure, had to be certain she was dead...

Would Theon have been hurt if he had stayed human?

Ghost was still scratching at the door, still trying to dig his way into the room. Jon pressed his hands over his ears as hard as he could, whimpering like he knew Ghost was. He was so afraid. Afraid of what he had become, disgusted of what he had been. But the worst part was being afraid of Ghost, of rejecting a fundamental piece of him, something that made him whole. In one of his dire imaginings, it could easily have been Robb he slammed the door on, if his brother had followed him.

Jon must have sat there for hours, not even able to distinguish if he had fallen asleep or just remained consumed by his self-flagellation. But what he did know was that the sun had fallen when he opened and lifted his eyes, the room covered in shadow and the frantic scraping behind the door gone. His legs wobbled as he tried to stand, his muscles numb from the long hours coiled in the same position.

There was a timid knock at the door. "My lord? Maester Luwin is calling for you. We have finished tending to Lord Greyjoy," said the servant and, even through the thick oak, Jon could make out the forlorn note in her voice. He stood there for a while, moonlight slanting across his face. "My lord? Are you well?"

His reply came out as a rasp. "I'll be right there." Through the dark, he went to the basin at his bedside and washed the day from his hair. Jon looked around for Ghost to use his fur as a towel before remembering that he had been torn by Jon's own hands from his soul. He let the air dry his face.

Maester Luwin was waiting for Jon by the door to his observatory. His sleeves were stained red halfway to his elbows and even his slippers were soaked. The skin that had not been marked with blood looked wan and drooping, making him seem years older. He made no expression as Jon rose up the stairs, nor was there any preamble. "Theon will be dead by the morrow. The damage to his bowels is irreparable, and no amount of twine will put it back together. I can prolong his life by at least a few more days, but the infection will slowly destroy him and forcing him to live through that would be cruel. All I can do is ease his passing and make sure his body will be presentable for burial."

The old man's telling was reticent, hollow, as if Theon was nothing more than a training exercise at the Citadel and the outcome was as distressing as losing a link on his chain. But Jon knew Luwin and, by extension, maesters, well enough tounderstand that the clinical assessment was only a façade for his grief. Jon wanted to tell him to try harder, to write the Citadel and call for a whole army of maesters, to work miracles and create a potion that could bring back the dead. But the words never left Jon's lips, and he simply nodded.

The maester nodded, too. "I know you wish I could do more. Do everything. And I wish for that, too. But we are not wizards, and those arts died long ago. Maybe I should have taken Valyrian lore more seriously... and Qyburn, for that matter. There was darkness in him, but he knew the processes of life and death better than any of the others, though it terrifies me to think of the roads he took to learn what he did. In the Citadel, we are trained to be impartial to death, but death is only bearable when we know how to prevent it. There are no sanctioned studies for what comes after." He squeezed his eyes shut, as if fighting back some surge of emotion, before exhaling and opening them again, his face impassive. "Robb is already inside... saying his goodbyes. Tell him to summon me when he can. There will be letters to write, and he will need counsel on what words to use. I need a change of robes..." Maester Luwin moved past Jon without another word and padded down the stairs.

The observatory was an even greater mess than the library had been, the only difference being that, instead of books, there were glass vials, jars with strange fluids and objects floating in them, and a variety of tools Jon couldn't begin to guess the purpose of as well as a few telescopes and star charts littered about. A cache of potions was strewn next to the cot where Theon lay, and the vapors from them made his nose burn and his eyes water. There was no way to mask the smell of blood and bodily fluids, though; even with the window open, the stench of death refused to depart. Jon stepped on a pile of bloodstained towels as he approached the cot.

Theon was naked from the waist up, save for a thick roll of bandages wrapped around his abdomen and a sheen of sweat that covered the rest of him. His skin was bloodless despite the obvious fever, and his breathing was shallow. He looked peaceful for a man on his deathbed. Only Theon could manage that smirk he always wore at a time like this. For once, Jon did not want to punch it off his face.

Robb sat beside him, their faces close enough for whispers and hands clasped like brothers. Robb was crying freely, in the one place he could afford to do so. "Yes, I will... Kyra will treasure your cloak. Though I think it's a little big for her."

Theon chuckled, which turned into a volley of coughs. He looked diminished by the effort, but his secretive smile returned regardless, specks of blood dotting his lips. "That bitch will wear anything... with a kraken on it... unless she thinks the... the embroidery is real gold and sells it." He attempted laughter again and was punished with more coughs. Robb's face contorted in shared agony. Jon fared no better. "Don't... make that face, Stark... She really is as stupid as she looks. If she... doesn't sell it... she can always use it as... as a blanket. That's what... she used to... after... after we... She said it smelled like me... the whore..." His eyes closed, and it seemed like Theon had fallen asleep or worse, until he whispered, "Speaking of... whores... pay my debt to Ros... She... she's earned it. I... gave her... the last of the riches... my father sent with me... Give the cunt a medallion or something... like what Lannister gave her... Fucking whoreson... Not jealous..."

Robb nodded jerkily, drawing Theon's knuckles to his forehead in a sort of joint prayer.

Theon opened his eyes slowly, the tiny movements costing him dearly, and saw Jon standing there. The smirk widened on his bloodless lips. "Snow. You came. Didn't think you would..."

Robb realized Jon had arrived and scooted to the side, making room for him. Robb had had his turn, it seemed. Jon pulled up a stool and took his brother's place. The smell of Theon's ravaged flesh was sickening, but he bore it, holding on to what little composure he had left. He wanted to retch and sob, to fall to his knees and beg for Theon's forgiveness, but the dying boy extended his hand, and Jon took those clammy fingers in a vise grip. Just the day before Jon would never have thought he could truly see Theon Greyjoy as a comrade, but here he was now, trying to keep Theon in this world. It wasn't fair for him to finally realize what a friend he'd had on the eve of that friend's departure. It isn't fair.

"Don't tell me... you're going to start... bawling, too... Snow," Theon muttered, the words devolving into more agonized coughs. "I thought you were... made of... sterner stuff than that. Too... surly to cry..."

Jon didn't know what to say to that, his throat too tight for words.

"Yes... you are. You need a... wench... as much as Robb does... I suppose... you'll have to find... someone else to take you to the brothel now." Theon's smile melted away then, and a trace of fear started to show in his dark eyes, though the light behind them was fading. "I'm buggered, aren't I? Don't bother... hiding it... I'm not stupid. I'm... worried, Snow... Who's going to train you now? You're... useless without me..."

Jon saw Robb start at those words, eyes narrowing in confusion, but this was neither the time nor place for questions. Though that didn't stop Robb from inching closer.

Theon went on, heedless. "Just when... I thought... we were making some progress. Funny, isn't it...? Your old gods never did care for me..." he said, closing his eyes again and drawing on the last of his strength. "Whatever happens, Snow...Promise me you'll be Robb's man. Take care of him... Watch his back... I mean that..." His eyes sprang open suddenly, and he leveled a weak glare at Jon. "I mean that literally... Watch his back. Don't rush in... You're no good for anything else... Not right now. You hear me?"

Jon nodded, not even caring that he was being insulted or that Robb was listening. He would never hear Theon's backhanded encouragement ever again. "Of course. I will..."

Theon seemed satisfied with that, and the peace returned to his pale features. Jon could feel him drifting. "I should be glad then... I can finally... go home now. Isn't that what I wanted? To see the Iron Islands... My father will look on me again... I just wish I... could make him proud... Died like ironborn... danced in the Drowned God's watery halls... What rubbish..."

There was no holding back the tears now. A dam broke behind Jon's eyes, and hours of despair rolled down his cheeks. "I'm sorry, Theon. I'm so sorry..."

He could find no blame in Theon's eyes, just curiosity, and that made the tears flow even faster. "What are you sorry for? You didn't do anything... You... fell off your horse... It happens... We... don't have many horses in the Isles..." Theon Greyjoy closed his eyes for the last time, murmuring about the Drowned God and kissing mermaids in the sea before those words quieted, too. He was far away now, and there was no calling him back. Jon stayed there for a long while, holding his hand until it grew cold.

In time, Jon did manage to let go and stand. Robb trailed him out of the room.

"He taught me how to use a bow," Robb said as he closed the door behind them. "Ser Rodrik trained Theon, like he trained both of us. But Theon figured out himself how to hold the bow more efficiently, how to angle your arm for a more accurate shot—ways not even Ser Rodrik knew of. There was no better archer in Winterfell." Robb smiled as he reminisced, thinking of happier days untouched by the sorrows of the present. "I didn't know he was training you, too. I never saw you two spar. What did he—" He didn't finish, as he noticed Jon walking away. "Don't run from me, Jon!" he shouted, following.

"I'm not running," Jon said, the distance between them widening as he sped down the stairs.

"Like hells you're not!" Robb snarled, as he bounded after his brother. "You've been running from me since you got back. We need to talk, Jon. About Theon and about you." They nearly crashed into a servant carrying a pewter jug as they rounded a corner.

Jon kept up his pace. "There's nothing to talk about," he insisted, pushing the door to his room open. Robb was just fast enough to slip through the gap before Jon slammed it shut. Jon sighed, realizing he was trapped, and leaned out the window to let the cool night wind dry the moisture in his eyes. "I don't want to talk right now, Robb."

"When do you ever? It's like I have to walk barefoot across broken glass to find out what you're thinking." Jon could feel Robb behind him, breath hot on the back of his neck. He tensed, expecting to be wrenched away from his refuge by the window and shaken for answers, but it never happened. Robb only pleaded with him. Which was somehow worse. "Please, Jon. Do you think I want to do this right now? Theon is dead! Fucking dead! And hundreds of leagues away Father could be dying, too. I have so much on my mind... Do you truly believe I would rather be here fixing you?"

Jon's hand clenched on the windowsill. Was that how Robb thought of him? Just another burden keeping Robb from his duties, despite what he always said of needing Jon. It was no less than Jon expected. It was no less than he feared. Jon turned and saw Robb for the first time. His eyes were deep blue pits, and it looked like he had been running his hands through his hair for hours. In the face of his own grief, the sight left no impression on Jon for once. He crossed his arms, already rallying his defenses. "Then why are you here? I didn't ask you to come. Couldn't you let me fix myself in peace?"

Robb was slightly startled by the venom in Jon's tone, but he recovered quickly. "I could have... if I could stand aside and let you destroy yourself. You think you're so subtle, but you're not fooling anyone. When you need something, you ask me for it. You don't scamper off or push me away, hoping that I can't see how much pain you're in." Robb dragged Jon from the window at last and backed him against the wall, their mouths inches apart. "You're not pushing me away. Not now. Not again. So, what is it, Jon? I never had a reason to assume you cared one whit about Theon, but suddenly you're acting like chums? You look more distraught than I am."

Jon shoved him off, and Robb nearly fell to the floor but, as soon as he regained his balance, his eyes returned to Jon, tired and yet radiating an inexplicable anger. Jon countered that anger with his own. "I don't need a reason to mourn Greyjoy. I'm not heartless."

Robb scowled, which was such an ugly expression on his face that it shocked Jon to see it. "That's what I told myself, but then I put the pieces together. You're killing yourself over him. But you're not mourning him. You're mourning yourself. A deserter shot him. End of story. When are you going to realize that not everything is your fault? Stop blaming yourself!"

That's what this is about. Suddenly, the months of swinging swords in the dead of night and skirting as much attention as possible like he was a rat so he would never end up in this very situation seemed totally pointless. If he continued to hide his weakness, Robb would resent him. If Jon told the truth, Robb would resent himself. But that was the trick, wasn't it? No matter how hard he tried to protect those he loved, things would go wrong. Theon had already lost his life thanks to Jon's efforts; Jon couldn't imagine anything ever being worse than now. He rounded on Robb with the accumulated anguish of several months. "Blame? You dare lecture me on blame?" Jon raised his right arm over his head and smashed his dead hand down on the table.

Robb jumped back, expecting to be struck. He looked confused and a little frightened at Jon's random outburst of violence. "What was that for? If you need to hit someone, I'm right here. I don't see what hurting yourself or the innocent table will prove."

Staring down at his bandaged hand, Jon shook his head. "It should have hurt, but it didn't. Since you want the truth so badly... I haven't felt anything with this hand for months and, according to Maester Luwin, I never will. I can't even hold a quill with it. Let alone a sword."

Robb had already been pale, but this knowledge drained from his face what little color he had left. His eyes widened as he looked at Jon's hand, seeing it in a new light. "No... Gods, Jon. What Theon said about training..."

Jon nodded bitterly. "I didn't want to tell you until I could fight with my left as well as I once did with my right. I killed a deserter just a few hours ago, so maybe I managed to get halfway decent, after all. I never planned for you to find out this way..."

Running a hand through his hair, Robb leaned against the table as if he were too nauseous to stand without support. "Why? Why did you keep this from me? Why didn't you ask me to train with you? All those nights we spent playing with each other... Just what in the seven hells did you think you were doing, Jon?"

"I didn't want to see that face you're making now. The one you make when you're blaming yourself," Jon said harshly, with not a shred of sympathy. All that had been burned out of him. "I'm not the only martyr here. You were already beating yourself up for making me stay and getting me burned. You think I wanted to hear that again? You're no better than me when it comes to being at fault."

He said it to wound, and it gave Jon a sickening satisfaction to see how he succeeded. Robb seemed almost lost. "That's not... not the same..."

"How is it not the same?" Jon truly hated Robb then—hated him for his stupidity, for his hypocrisy, for cheapening the pain and guilt Jon felt. It was enough to make Jon wonder why he had ever tried so hard to please Robb. "It's exactly the same! If you had never kept me here, then maybe Theon would have..." He couldn't finish. As much as he wanted Robb to feel as he did, the suggestion was too cruel for his lips, and immediately he regretted using this tactic on Robb. Why was he so angry? He didn't know anymore. And he was so tired.

But that didn't matter. Robb knew exactly what he was getting at and stepped away from Jon, looking utterly wrecked. "Don't you dare put that on me. Blame me for your hand and whatever else, but don't blame me for Theon! How could you say that..."

And then Jon remembered. He saw the solution. Had known it all along. "I wouldn't have said anything at all if I had went to the Wall like I was supposed to." You were meant to leave, to make your future at the Wall. But Robb Stark changed all that... Even awake, the three-eyed crow still haunted him and probably always would, no matter what path he chose.

Robb's reaction was an act of three stages. First came disbelief, then grief, and finally hard resignation. His eyes were cold as only a true Stark's could be. "If that is what you want. If you think the Wall can give you more joy than we can here, then go. And don't come running back when the Night's Watch throws you out because you can't swing a sword." Stiffly, Robb turned on his heel and strode out the door, out of Jon's room and out of his life.

Well, at least that's settled.

Jon always knew leaving would be difficult but, at the moment, his ordeal had little to do with the emotional toll of abandoning his one and only home. Putting his cloak on with one hand was hard enough, but trying to put together supplies was an exercise in frustration. He packed as many of his belongings into leather satchels as he could justify, though fortunately he didn't have much to his name. Prince Rhaegar's letter and the direwolf emblem his father had given him—even allowed him to wear, when Lady Stark was away—were the only treasures he possessed, and they were quite portable. The trouble was in lugging his heavier belongings down through the castle and to the stables. Thankfully, the moon was high and Winterfell deserted, which made it a lot easier for him to raid the larder and take as much food as he could carry.

He had no idea just how much a trip to the Wall warranted, though. He didn't have much gold, so whatever supplies he had needed to be enough to keep him alive for two hundred leagues. He didn't even possess a map, and asking one from Maester Luwin was out of the question. The obvious course was to keep going north until he reached the Wall, which would have been sound if most of the castles of the Night's Watch weren't empty and ruined. He could always buy a map in the first holdfast he came across. Jon wished his uncle had been less accommodating with him and forced him to go before at the threat of being tied to his horse. It was better than dealing with it all himself now. Then he remembered that Uncle Benjen was lost somewhere beyond the Wall and felt even more miserable.

Jon led his horse out of the stables and into the yard, slowly so as not to spook her and wake the whole castle. The portcullis was down, and the guards were snoring at their posts. He would need to wake them if he wanted to get past the gates. He wasn't a servant and could leave without anyone's say-so. Even were that not the case, Robb was the one who had banished him, and they couldn't well argue with that.

As he was cinching the straps on the bridle, Jon realized that maybe it didn't have to be the Wall. If disasters could be averted just by him leaving Winterfell, then he could ride south instead of north and visit his father. King's Landing was another four hundred leagues closer to Dorne, too, and perhaps he could finally ask Lord Eddard the questions that had been burning inside him for months now. If he felt particularly bold, he might even show Father the letter to Lyanna, though that was likely to open old wounds he had no right to see. He also missed Arya, and that alone was enough to warrant the trip. He longed to muss her hair and call her little sister, to tease Sansa and slip lemon cakes into her dress's pockets. He hoped she wasn't still betrothed to Joffrey...

But those dreams were fruitless. Nothing but a pleasant diversion from reality. Jon was meant to go to the Wall, and that was where he had to be. He couldn't bear it if any more people died due to his need to be happy. He only hoped that he had done all he could for Bran, that he had saved Bran from whatever fate his presence wrought, despite the cost. They were all better off without him... Robb especially.

Jon realized then that he never said goodbye to Bran and that Ghost was still missing. His chest ached at the thought that he had really torn out something so vital, no matter how ashamed of himself he was. He tied the last of the sacks carrying nourishment for his long and lonely journey to the saddle and turned to search for Ghost, only to find Robb standing just a few meters away.

Robb inched towards him, as if afraid Jon would shy away. "Please, Jon. Don't go."

"Dammit!" Jon cursed, half his resolve already flowing out due to Robb's existence. "Why do you always do this? I was ready. I had made up my mind. And then you... Godsdammit!"

Robb held up his hands, in what he no doubt thought was a pacifying gesture. "It was right here, Jon. You were right here."

"What?"

"You were right there when I pulled you into the godswood. You no more wanted to go then than you do now."

Jon shook off the truth. It didn't matter what he wanted. He had to go. He didn't have time for this. He had to look for Ghost and maybe steal a map from the library. "But you said—"

"I know what I said." Robb straightened, having moved to only a few feet from Jon, his stance sure and resolute. "And I lied. You hurt me, and I had to hurt you worse. Though I regret it now. I don't want you to leave. I want you to never leave. Why can't you understand that?"

Jon turned away, gripping the chords of the saddle uselessly. He couldn't look at his brother. Robb was like the sun and, if he looked at Robb long enough, he would be blinded and lose sight of what he needed to do, ruining everything. "It's not about what you need or what I need. It's..." How could he even say it? It still sounded crazy to him, after all this time.

"Then what is it? Is it about your place? I thought we'd already addressed that." Boots crunched on the gravel, and Robb's chest pressed against his back. "Or is it something else? Something you don't want to talk about? Tell me, Jon. I just want to help," Robb whispered, his breath hot on Jon's neck. Strong arms encircled Jon's stomach, holding him tight, caging him and preventing him from flying away. "Or don't tell me. Whatever you want. Just don't leave."

Jon beat a fist against the saddle, choking back a sob. Nothing ever seemed to go the way he wanted. When it wasn't fate, it was Robb. Fucking stubborn, pigheaded Robb, who never knew when to mind his own damn business. "Why can't you let me be? You said you had better things to do... You said..."

Robb's arms tightened, probably sensing that Jon was about to bolt. "I say a lot of things when I mourn friends. Things I don't mean. You should know me well enough by now to know that I could never think you were in the way or want you gone. There's very little in the world more important to me than you. I also know you well enough to see that something is tearing you apart. What are you running from? Whatever it is, we'll fight it together. Just let me help you."

Jon's face grew hot as he felt the rub of Robb's stubble against the back of his neck. He felt so warm and safe, he wanted to stay there within Robb's protection forever. He knew he would never feel this way on the Wall and, with that realization, he was slipping. "I don't even know where to begin. So much has happened and most of it so strange and impossible you would never believe me..."

Robb's arms unwound, and the autumn chill rushed into Jon's clothes and made him shiver, but Robb turned him around so they were face to face, holding him steady by the shoulders. "What's happened to you, Jon? I used to know everything about you, but now..." Robb trailed off upon seeing Jon cast his eyes down, then sighed. "I said something stupid, didn't I? I don't know even half the things Mother did to you. What else have you been keeping from me?" Robb's hands slid down Jon's arms, his gaze drawn to the dirty, old bandage still wrapped around Jon's hand. It hadn't been changed in a week. Jon didn't really need to. Robb took it in his hands. "This secret, for starters," he muttered, fingering the lip of the adhesive.

"Robb, you don't have to do that. You don't want to see..."

"I do. I must," Robb said softly, uncoiling the bandage one loop at a time.

Jon could only watch as the linen strip lengthened until it reached the ground and fell in a heap. His hand was a horror and unsettled even him. He never looked at it, not any of the times Maester Luwin or Ellys changed the dressing. He would always avert his eyes, unable to see what he had lost or what he had left. The skin was pinkish and mottled, a patchwork of discolored flesh covered in scabs and burn marks. His fingers were withered and thin, resembling more talons than human digits, so long had they been unused. He couldn't bear to look at his hand anymore. He wanted to rip it from Robb's grasp and spare them both.

But instead of flinching or turning away in disgust, Robb held the maimed hand with the utmost reverence, regarding it with such tenderness that Jon had to fight the urge to cry all over again. Robb entwined his fingers through the dead stalks, back to front, and pressed the palm to his cheek. He closed his eyes and rubbed his face against it. "Do you feel me, Jon?"

Tears ran down Jon's face for what seemed like the umpteenth time that day but, unlike all the other times, he smiled, big and a bit foolish, so filled was he with such incredible relief. "Yes, Robb, I can feel you."

Robb nodded, his hand and Jon's still pressed together to his face. After a time, he set their clasped hands down, but their fingers remained twined around each other. Jon couldn't move his, so he couldn't let go even had he wanted to. "Did Theon train you well? How to use your left hand?"

"He was the best teacher I ever had." Jon smiled, amazed at his own sincerity. Though he was glad Ser Rodrik was a thousand leagues away, or the man would have cuffed him in the head for that dishonor.

Robb nodded again, simply basking in the memory of a good friend. "He was, was he?" Robb's eyes bored into his, and Jon could see something blooming there, gratitude mixed with realization and a deep, abiding affection. "Everything you did...It was all to protect me, wasn't it? Ever since we were children, it's been so. You've been shielding me this whole time, and I never knew. None of it was even your fault. My knight."

Jon felt his cheeks flush with embarrassment and a little satisfaction. He wished Robb hadn't said it like that. His brother almost sounded like Sansa, which would have been silly if it didn't seem so wrong.

"And, to think, I would never have known if you had left," Robb said, his voice choked. He kissed Jon's fingers, and Jon thought all the blood in his face was going to boil. He could nearly believe that he felt those kisses, that sensation had returnedto his hand through only the sheer power that Robb held over him and would always hold over him. "I wish I could take care of you as well as you take care of me."

Jon's throat was seizing up, but he had to get the words out somehow. "You already do, Robb." By upending everything I believe in, you take care of me better than anyone else.

"You will tell me, though, right? Someday, you'll tell me what's going on with you?" Robb said beseechingly. "We've been together for almost sixteen years, and it feels like I've only known you half as long."

Jon sighed, but it wasn't from irritation. He wanted more than anything to talk to Robb, to have help in sorting it all out. "I will. Someday. Soon. I just have to figure some things out first. I don't even understand most of it myself. I swear I'll tell you when I have at least half of it down."

Robb looked satisfied. "Very well. I'll wait. I've waited all this time, right?"

Jon squeezed Robb's free hand with his left, as he couldn't do so with the other one. "I didn't mean it. Any of it. I don't blame you for anything," he said with an excess of shame and regret. It appalled him to think about the nasty things he'dsneered at Robb.

"I know you didn't. I know you would never blame me when you can simply blame yourself, as unjust as that is. I know how much you care for me. Why can't you see that I feel the same?"

Jon nodded, bowing to Robb's implacable logic. "I'll keep that in mind next time."

Robb peered around the yard, at the horse already lugging all of Jon's supplies. "So, this adventure you've got planned. It ends?"

Jon deflated, his shoulders slumping though his face was curiously serene. "I suppose so. What can't I ever win?"

Robb grinned, the arrogant one that made Jon want to throttle him. "If you think staying here is losing, then maybe you belong on the Wall. Besides, you promised me that you would never leave, and a promise made at the dining table can never be broken without angering the gods. Well, I made that up, but you can see how dire the situation is. Also..." Robb's tone went down to a respectable whisper. "You promised Theon you would watch my back. No doubt you could say that manning the Wall would be like guarding my sorry arse, but I'm sure that's not what he meant. Would you truly deny his wishes now?"

An invisible weight fell on Jon's shoulders, almost as if Theon's spirit was ramming Jon for daring to forget him so soon, that ever present smirk quirking his lips. And, suddenly, Jon wondered what he had been thinking. How could he forsake those who cared for him and depended on him? He had been running away. It'd taken him too long to see that.

Robb needed no more of an answer from him, all of it already written on Jon's face. He let Jon go and went to untie one of the bags from the horse. "I'll help you unpack."

Jon watched Robb for a while, watched him unload all the baggage. The crow's haunting words echoed through him again: "If you go to the Wall, Robb Stark will die." How could Jon conveniently disregard so much to flee from the hardship he faced now? When did he let himself become this flighty, paranoid craven? His father and Robb, too, would have been ashamed of him if they knew what he was running from: the dire warnings of a bird and, though they held some truth, it didn't excuse him scurrying away from his guilt. The Wall was the easy way out and, maybe in another life, his cowardice had prevailed, but Robb had changed that, and Jon wanted his brother to have that victory. Perhaps it was time he let go.

"You must reach him. Save him from his suffering. And urge him to let go."

And there it was. Once again, Jon felt like smacking himself for being so stupid. Maybe he'd never needed to change anything. Maybe all he had to do was talk.

Robb looked back at him. "Are you going to help me or what? Three hands are still better than two."

Jon chuckled. "In a while. I need to talk to Bran." Jon stepped up to Robb and wrapped him in a one-armed hug. "Thank you, Robb. For this. For... everything."

Robb returned the embrace with twice the force and twice the arms. "Anytime, Snow. Anytime," he said into Jon's hair. He then held Jon away at arm's length. "I can't claim to know how everything happened, and I realize now I shouldn't have judged, but he didn't blame you. I was there, and Theon didn't blame you at all. Can you at least find some solace in that?"

He kept his face still, as Robb was watching his reaction closely. Theon didn't know I'm a warg. He didn't know that when I should have been watching his back I was savaging a wildling for no reason. If he knew, he would have blamed me and called me a monster, as well. But Jon let none of that leave his head, and his smile was bright and comforting. Just what Robb needed to see. "I understand. I was grieving... I didn't know what I was saying."

Robb stared at Jon's face for a long time, before breaking out into a grin, Jon passing his test. "Good." He spun Jon around and patted his brother on the back. "You go do what you need to. I'll make sure everything is back where it belongs so we'll actually have food in the morning... Where did you imagine you were heading, Jon? Asshai?"

A few moments of pelting through the castle later, Jon softly opened the door to Bran's room and tiptoed in to sit at his bedside. A candle still burned down to the wick on the dresser. Bran slept with his arms locked tightly around Summer, his face buried in his wolf's fur. Jon watched them sleep for a while, putting together his thoughts and what he meant to say. Bran's expression was peaceful, but Jon knew deep inside his little brother was anything but. He knew firsthand what that was like, and it shamed him like nothing else that he'd hesitated until now in sharing that with the one who needed it most. No doubt the crow must think him such a dullard.

Summer yawned and spotted Jon with those yellow eyes. He wriggled out of Bran's arms and hopped off the bed for Jon to scratch him behind the ears, then slipped out the partially open door. Bran felt the absence of warmth, and his eyes peeled open. "Jon? What are you doing here?" he said groggily, pushing himself into a sitting position.

"I need to talk to you. Something I should have done a long time ago."

"Okay," Bran said, pulling the blanket up to cover his legs. "But what about Theon? Did Maester Luwin cure him?"

Jon's face fell, and he pondered how he could keep this from Bran before deciding there was no point and shaking his head.

Bran looked down at his lap, his fists clenched and trembling. "I dreamed of him. Just now, I dreamt that he was dead. He was being flayed, like they say the Boltons do, and I was glad that he died because I was so frightened, and living without skin must hurt, like being without..." He trailed off, blinking away the tears that were falling onto his hands.

Jon reached for a small hand, clasping it in his larger one. "No one flayed him, Bran. He looked almost peaceful when... when he passed on."

Bran nodded to appease Jon, though he was clearly far from comforted. "He tried to save me."

"He tried to save us both," Jon muttered. "Bran... These dreams... That's one of the things I want to talk about. I know you have wolf dreams."

Bran turned to him, eyes wide and glistening. "How did you know that? Did the crow tell you? I don't like them... I'm scared when they happen. I hate all of them. The crow is always hurting me, and the golden man makes me fall. People arealways dying, and I don't want to be a wolf. I want to be a knight... Why can't I dream that I'm a knight..." Bran's fingernails dug into Jon's hand.

It was so easy to forget Bran was just a little boy who'd had his whole life planned out. He was too young to see everything he'd envisioned crumble around him. It was at that moment that Jon finally rejected the idea of ever going to the Wall, if it meant he wouldn't be able to make the Lannisters pay for what they'd done. "Bran, I'm sorry about the nightmares, but there's nothing wrong with the wolf dreams. You need to stop fighting them."

Bran was incredulous. "Why? What do you know of them?"

"I have them, too," Jon said, looking through the window to the forest where the stream flowed. "It doesn't mean you're a monster. Summer is a part of you, and you don't have to be afraid of him. Sometimes, when you're inside him, you'll do things and feel things that scare you, but he is a wolf as much as he is you. Any... mistakes you make through him are no more his doing than they are yours."

Bran stared at him in disbelief and also wonder, never knowing that they shared so much. "You... have them? And... you like them?"

Jon nodded. "Most of the time. Ghost likes to wander the halls at night. He's probably prowling around right now," he said, feeling in his soul how much he missed Ghost. "I need to show you one more thing." He lifted his right hand and placed it on Bran's lap.

By the faint candlelight, they could both see the full extent of his burns. "Your hand... The one that got burned in the library before I woke up. They said you tried to save me from a bad man. Does it still hurt?"

"No. It doesn't hurt. I don't feel much of anything anymore."

He waited for comprehension to dawn on Bran's face and, quick enough, it did. Bran stared at his hand with a sorrow not so different from Robb's but with an empathy that was unmatched. Tears beaded at the corners of Bran's eyes as he took in the implication of what Jon had just revealed to him.

Jon kept his voice steady and hopeful. "I will never hold a sword again with this hand, Bran. But, though I've lost my hand, I'm not broken... and neither are you. I'm going to train as hard as I can with my left. Theon was teaching me but, even now that he's gone, I won't stop. I will make him proud. I'm not going to give up, and I'm not going to fall into despair. And neither are you."

Bran took Jon's dead hand in both of his, his tears falling heavy and wet on the mottled skin, though Jon couldn't feel the drops. "Thank you... Thank you, Jon..." Suddenly, Bran flung his thin arms around Jon's neck and, together, they cried. They had formed a bond that could never be broken, one that went beyond simple brotherhood. They didn't have to be alone anymore. Jon hoped that Bran could finally fly.

He didn't have to look very long for Ghost after seeing Bran back to sleep. They were a part of each other, and nothing he did could ever rip them apart. The godswood was still and magical in the night. Living weirwood shone in the dark, the heart tree's bark glowing brighter than the moon, both mirrored in the hot pools. Ghost sat on a nest of red leaves, nearly invisible in his place beside the heart tree. Jon knelt down until they were at eye level, and Ghost sat straight and proud, no doubt awaiting his apology.

"You knew, didn't you?" Jon said instead, the reflection of his eyes shining within Ghost's. "This is the place where I changed my mind the first time. Well, this time, I didn't even get that far. Though I'm a bit hurt that you hold such little faith in my resolve." He wrapped his arms around his wolf, burying his face in the white fur. "I'm sorry, Ghost," he said, his voice muffled. Ghost licked him and nipped his ear, and all was forgiven, though he had a feeling Ghost would claw out more than just his door if he shut his other self out again. He didn't know he could be so vengeful.

· · ·


Theon left the North the same way he left the Iron Islands—on a ship. Robb had dispatched one of his men to escort Theon's body to Pyke, where Balon Greyjoy would receive his son along with a letter expressing the Starks' deepest sorrows. Three weeks had passed since then, and the vessel should have returned with an answer. Elsewhere, the news was less uncertain, as Lord Eddard had sent a message soon after he left his bed that he was recovering and still Hand of the King. They were all relieved that he hadn't ordered Robb to call the banners but were somewhat uneasy, too, about the decision, as everyone thought it was merely the calm before the storm. Gregor Clegane was raiding in the Riverlands, and there were whispers that Jaime Lannister had gone home to Casterly Rock to marshal an army. They weren't at war right then, but there was little doubt they would be soon. Jon feared for his father and the girls.

He sat at his desk, skimming through a book of old children's stories. Jon couldn't bear to look at another Valyrian text even if it was his duty to. He had only managed to decipher four words out of Rhaegar Targaryen's letter, and they told him virtually nothing. He had a feeling that was all he was meant to learn from Winterfell's library. Ancient folklore was far easier on the eyes, and Jon needed a new story to tell to Rickon when he got rowdy. Old Nan knew every tale ever told, plus a few she made up herself, but she didn't have the energy to keep Rickon's attention... or the pantomime skills.

There was a soft knock at the door. Ghost perked up on the bed as Maester Luwin came into the room, looking grayer than his robes. "Jon, a letter came for you. From King's Landing." Jon took it, looking it over, but there was no sign on the outside as to whom it was from. It had to be from either his father or Arya. "And there's another matter... The Salty Bear has returned, with an answer from Lord Greyjoy. Robb wishes for you to see it for yourself, and I agree."

From the way the maester was fidgeting and the graveness of his tone, Jon knew Lord Balon's reply wasn't favorable. "Is it so bad?"

The maester winced. "As to that, you will have to judge for yourself. It's certainly not what your brother hoped."

Jon accompanied the maester into the hallway, diverging in different directions as the old man went off muttering about squids and ravens roosting in the library tower again. He found Robb in their father's solar. Robb had been sitting there much of late, poring over contracts, tallies and appeals. Sometimes, he even slept there, drooling on the piles of parchment. For all of Robb's modesty and uncertainty, he would make a great lord. Though perhaps Jon was biased.

Robb's auburn hair was a mess again, clearly a recent victim of his hand. His eyes were rooted on a letter, though the words couldn't be anything pleasurable as he seemed close to crushing it in his fist. He looked up as Jon entered and pointed his brother to a box Jon hadn't noticed lying beside the desk. "Take a look at what's in there."

Curiously, Jon peered into the wooden crate, not so different from the ones used to store fruit. There was nothing of that sort inside, though, but an assortment of apparel, from a cloak, to boots, gloves, and even a sword belt with the blade sheathed in the scabbard. There was a faint odor coming from the items, and Jon wrinkled his nose.

Robb held out the letter to him. "Now read this. Try not to retch. Mine still hasn't cooled."

With a degree of trepidation, Jon quickly read over the letter. As the words washed over him, he began to question why Theon ever wanted to return to the Iron Islands.

 

Boy of Winterfell,

The ironborn do not forget, nor do we forgive. We have stayed our blades, not because you held my heir after seeing his brothers dead, but for the time to strike had not yet come.

Know, traitors of Winterfell, that this crime will not go unpunished. We have discarded your fable of wildlings and deserters for the insulting farce it is. That you are too craven to admit to murdering my son only reassures me of our victory when at last we cross swords. Keep your ships out of our seas, or you may find none will return.

Balon Greyjoy, Lord of Pyke and the Iron Islands



As it sickens me to see my blood dolled up in greenlands filth, I have taken the liberty of returning your rags to you in a box meant for dung. A man wears what he pays the iron price for, but he lost his manhood to the wolves as I always feared. Be wary next you pin another direwolf on my kin.

 

Jon blinked when he was done, not believing what he had read. He could almost feel the venom jumping from the paper and stinging his eyes. His limbs numb, he handed the letter back to Robb, who shoved it into a drawer, which was then slammed closed, too enraged to look at it.

Robb pounded a fist on the table, making an inkwell jump and spill. "That slimy bastard! He stripped Theon's corpse! What was I supposed to dress him in? He had given his cloak to Kyra, and I thought my own best set would be worthy enough. I certainly wasn't going to send Theon back naked. Then they'd go to war with us for sure. And the man dares call me a traitor!" Robb brought down his fist again, splashing on the black puddle.

Jon didn't know what to tell him. It was worse than anything they could have expected, save an open declaration of war or Theon's chopped up body stuffed in the box instead of his clothes. "He didn't say much about Theon."

Robb ran a hand through his hair, streaking it with ink. "He didn't, did he? You'd think he would be more concerned about the state of his son than his son's clothes or wasting our time with empty threats. Theon was better off without those arses."Robb breathed out to calm himself and stood. "Father will hear of this, of course, and King Robert will support him. He smashed their worthless family before, and he can do it again. Does Greyjoy honestly think he can get away with this? Boy of Winterfell... Ha! I'll show him." Robb strode past Jon and beckoned him to follow.

"Where are we going?" Jon said, keeping up with his brother's long strides.

"To an execution," Robb said expressionlessly. "That wildling has been sitting in the dungeons for three weeks, and I thought it was about time I put her to some use. Unlike our favorite assassin, she's no one, though she's another in the long list of idiots who've tried to kill our brother." Robb regarded Jon briefly with a glint of pride in his eyes. "And another you stopped."

Jon shook that off but didn't refute him. It wasn't the time.

They quickly descended the steps, and Robb continued, "It occurs to me now that I should have sent her to the ironborn. Maybe given them no reason to doubt us, cooled their blood a bit. But... I didn't, and she's here. Might as well relieve some of our own aggression."

And quite a lot of aggression there was. Nearly the entire household came to the yard to see the wildling's head roll. With all their troubles, tensions had been simmering throughout the whole castle for a long time now. It was amazing how many expressed rage and sadness after Theon's death, with a few even threatening to go down into the dungeons and slit her throat. A chorus of jeers and curses rippled through the crowd as the guards brought out Hali, greatly diminished from starvation, as Jon knew the goalers neglected to feed her as much as possible. He saw Kyra at the front of the crowd, her eyes cold with hatred as they followed the wildling, Theon's cloak wrapped around her lithe frame. The guards shoved Hali's neck down onto the block, and the mob began throwing stones and rotten food.

"Go back to the Wall, filthy wildling!"

"Eat your own children, you bloody savage!"

"Theon should have cut you apart, bitch!"

"May the old gods drink of her blood!"

"Justice for the Starks!"

The yelling settled down into angry murmurs as Robb came up to the block with a long blade in hand. It was the sharpest in Mikken's forge, but it wouldn't cut even half as well as Ice could. Considering Robb had never swung a real sword at anyone, nor was he using Valyrian steel, Jon didn't expect the cut to be neat. There was no kindness in telling Robb that, though, and the one who passed the sentence swung the sword. It was an age old tenet, and Robb could no more ignore it than he could surrender the North to the Lannisters and kiss Joffrey's feet.

Robb's fingers twitched where they gripped the pommel, and Jon watched him swallow, nervous tics only he could see. Robb would have to be heartless not to be nervous. "Hali from beyond the Wall, I accuse you of attempting to kidnap my brother Bran and find you complicit in the murder of my dear friend, Theon Greyjoy." The shouts and emotions rang to a fever pitch at the last, as all of Winterfell joined in assent. "For those crimes and more, I judge you guilty. Any last words before you die?"

The wildling wriggled in her bonds, but the ropes tying her hands behind her back and the guardsman's knee pinning her to the ground kept her secure. She sneered at Robb and tried to spit at him through rotten teeth. "Think you're safe in your castles and your walls, little lord? Ha! They'll be no better than hedgerows when winter comes! The Others'll take you and eat your pretty little lordling children! And if they don't, Mance Rayder will break through that wretched Wall with all the free folk and take your castles for hisself! You hear me—"

"Time's up," Robb said, and he brought down the sword in a perfect arc. The edge caught on her shoulder blades.

It took at least a dozen sweeps in total, about six after she had died, before her head finally parted from her neck and rolled across the packed earth. Robb threw the sword away in disgust and came shambling over to Jon, leaving the crowd to do with her body as they wished. Smears of blood covered Robb's arms and chest, dotting all the way to his jaw. He bent over to catch his breath. "You did well, Robb," Jon said, patting his brother's back.

"Yes, I should be cutting cheese. That's how well I did."

"No one expected you to get her head off on the first swing. You don't have Ice, and it's your first execution," Jon assured him.

Robb smiled crookedly at Jon, still breathing heavily. "You got it on the first try, and that deserter had more meat and metal on him from what I heard."

Jon narrowed his eyes. "I didn't slash. I stabbed, and I wasn't even aiming for anything." Jon didn't want to talk about that. Especially not here. "Take the compliment, Robb."

Robb collected himself and straightened, tugging on Jon's forearm in what he must have thought was a placating manner. "I'm sorry. It's just... It takes a lot out of you, doesn't it? Was this how it was for you? When you did it?"

"Yes," Jon said grimly. It seemed the first kill was always hard, whether it was planned or a chaotic nightmare like it had been for him. It was an experience he never wanted to relive again.

Robb tried to wipe off as much of the gore from his surcoat as he could, before scowling and giving it up for lost. "Well, I butchered a wildling. And it seems that not only do I have the Lannisters and the Greyjoys to contend with, but the Others and this Mance Rayder hunger for my blood, as well. I think I need a bath. Please excuse me." He squeezed Jon's shoulder before marching off into the castle, his arms red and shaking at his sides, probably due to lingering vibrations from the sword.

When the onlookers had filed out, and Hali's body and head had been removed with only a red puddle on the ground to show that she had ever been there, Jon decided it was a good time to practice. It was a relief to train in the daytime, and no more hiding meant that he could practice as often as he wanted. He thought his reflexes had improved greatly in the last three weeks, and his left arm was approaching at least half the mobility of his right. Robb's help was invaluable and no longer limited to mock spars after learning the truth. Still, Jon sometimes longed for Theon's guidance. Greyjoy had an innovative style of training and often ideas that made things easier for Jon. He also missed the man himself. Theon had died before Jon could truly get to know him, and Jon regretted never making the effort before, though much of the blame was undoubtedly on Theon. It was hard, however, to fault the dead.

The turn his thoughts took stole the pleasure out of training, and Jon returned to his room for a good long nap. Ghost was gone and probably hunting out in the woods with his brothers, so Jon fell heavily into bed with a poof. He shifted onto his side and heard a crinkling sound from under him. Curiously, he dug into his pockets and fished out a rolled piece of parchment. He nearly slapped himself. He completely forgot about the letter from King's Landing. Jon hoped it was from Father, though he welcomed Arya's letters when she wrote about her dancing lessons and not what new spicy southern food the cooks had served, sounding not unlike Sansa. He broke the unmarked seal and unfurled the letter, immediately discovering that it was neither from his father nor Arya. Dread expanded in his chest like ripples as his eyes went down the parchment, until he reached the last word and leapt from the bed in horror.

 

Lord Snow,

You likely didn't expect a letter from me, did you? Get over your surprise quickly, for matters are about to become far worse.

King Robert is dead. Killed by another pig, a cousin no doubt. I was too late. Please forgive me.

After my scenic adventure through the mountains of the Vale, courtesy of Lady Stark, I raced as fast as I could to King's Landing. I wouldn't have made it without my new sellsword, and together we managed to slip past the bloodthirsty mountain clans, though happily we were near enough to the Riverlands that their numbers were blessedly thin. Thank Lady Stark for that, at least.

My companion and I entered the city through the King's Gate into a bit of an upheaval. It appears my headstrong brother, for whom a more ironic description is hard to imagine, declared war on your father. From what I've heard, Jaime was already riding west before my arrival, so there was nothing I could do, and my lord father, bless his soul, unleashed his dogs on my behalf. No, I would never be so naïve as to believe that, but allow me my moment of false satisfaction.

Events have turned from bad to awful and, at the center of it all, there is your father, limping about the Red Keep. I demanded an audience with him as soon as I could, but he refused to see me. There are whispers that he intends to accuse Joffrey of conspiring murder as well as other crimes I don't feel it necessary to mention. The troubling part is that, though these titters have certainly reached my sweet sister's ears, she seems damnably pleased with herself. I fear what she has planned, Jon.

So, the King is dead, and the world is ready to explode. Prepare to hear from me again once I know more.

Tyrion Lannister, son of Tywin, bane of Cersei, and
future first direwolf breeder of Casterly Rock



Lest I forget, Littlefinger has a spy in your household.

Attached is one of the letters I found whilst raiding his room. Littlefinger is sadly mistaken if he thinks he can implicate me in his devious schemes by informing Lady Stark the dagger is mine without receiving in turn a taste of dwarven vengeance. He must have grown careless for once and simply left the letter in the back of a dresser instead of burning it. Hopefully, he'll assume Varys stole it, and they can destroy each other, leaving the rest of us better off.

Now, I really must be going. What are you waiting for? Stop reading. You have a snitch to catch.

 

Open-mouthed and shaking, Jon tore off the square of paper stuck to the foot of the parchment and unfolded it with clammy, quivering fingers, nearly tearing it in two in his haste. He read:

The Greyjoy boy is dead. Will send you the response when it comes.

In two sentences, it felt as if everything he knew had been reversed. He had to tell someone—tell Robb! He had to find Robb! And then the full meaning of the letter burned through his mind. The response!

Jon burst out of his room and skidded down the hall. The solar was at the other end, and he ran through the open door. Robb was not there, and leaves of parchment and a dried puddle of black ink still covered the desktop. He raced to it, pushing the chair away, and started pulling drawers open. He rifled through all of them—twice, thrice—before emptying their contents on the floor and digging through the piles of paper. Nothing that looked like Lord Balon's letter was there. It isn’t here!

He ran a hand through his hair in a habit that mirrored Robb's, forcing himself to think. He was panicked and his mind slow. Where would the letter be if it had been stolen? The answer came to him instantly, and he chided himself for being so thick.

Jon sprinted to the western tower, climbing the stairs three at a time up to the rookery. If the traitor had not sent the letter yet, then this was where he would go, and Jon would be there, waiting.

He heard the ravens shrieking, beating their cages, twenty steps before he reached the top, and he froze in his tracks upon entering. Maester Luwin lay at the center of the room, blood pooling underneath him from a gash in his stomach. The black birds were screaming, wild from smelling the blood.

"No... Oh, no." He found his feet and dashed to Maester Luwin. Jon rolled him onto his back and pressed a wad of his robe on the cut to staunch the bleeding. "All will be well, maester. I'm going to get help. You're going to be fine." Who's supposed to cure the maester?!

The maester's eyes opened heavily, and he looked like he was about to say something, when his eyes widened and he gasped in fear, staring beyond Jon's shoulder.

Before Jon could react, it was too late, and a dagger was pressed against his throat, the edge tipped with blood. "Easy now. Easy. Don't make any moves you might regret." He stood slowly, the dagger biting as he rose. The blade was held at an angle, so he knew his assailant was shorter than him. "It's a pleasure seeing you here... milord."

That voice! He knew that voice, had been hearing it at intervals for the past several months. "Ellys?!"

"Correct, milord. I'm truly sorry I have to do this, but I need to be going, and you're the only one who can get me past the gates," she purred, her other hand patting him down for any weapons he was concealing.

"Why did you stab him?" Jon said, the motion of his throat nicking the blade with every word. "He's a maester!"

"And he caught me doing something I shouldn't be. I had no choice," she said over his shoulder. She turned them around so they faced the doorway. "Besides, it's not fatal. Just a little prick. It turns out I'm not made for killing. If you get me out of here fast enough, you can bring up someone to stitch his wounds that much sooner."

"If you can't kill, what's to stop me from tearing this knife away?" he said, his neck beginning to sweat.

"No, no. I've just been caught—not once, but twice. The first time, it was a defenseless old man. I could have knocked him out and made a run for it. Maybe kissed a guardsman to let me out of the castle. But you... Plans have changed. I'm desperate, trapped, and you can hurt me. I will not be so sympathetic when my life is in danger. And don't think the nights we two spent alone meant any more to me than they did to you. You're not my type. Lastly... Are you willing to risk it, milord?" She untucked his shirt with her free hand and quickly darted the hand holding the dagger inside, the cold steel making him hiss as it made contact with his skin.

"What are you doing?" he yelped, alarmed, as she pressed the flat of the blade against the side of his waist and glued herself to his other side. He could finally get a good look at her, and she seemed the same as always, if a little haggard. Her hair was red and smelled of fruit.

"Putting on a show. It would hardly help me if I dragged you through Winterfell with a knife to your neck," she said, working on her hair with the hand that wasn't wrapped around his waist with a knife. When she was done making herself look as natural and presentable as possible without a looking glass or even a comb, she led him forward. "Not too fast now. You don't want my hand to slip and accidentally disembowel you."

And so they went, probably looking to all the world like two lovers out on a stroll through the castle. Jon felt sick. He hoped Robb never saw this. Then he hoped Robb would so his brother could rescue him. She led Jon down the stairs, one step at a time with the knife's edge scraping across his skin with every footfall. Ellys leaned her head against his shoulder, and he wanted nothing more than to rip her away. "Wrap your arm around my shoulders."

"What?"

"Do it." The dagger broke skin, and he winced. "We don't want to look like I'm holding you hostage, now do we? Have you ever been with a woman? Oh, of course not. I know who you prefer."

Jon didn't want to ask what she meant by that, so he complied with her earlier demand and stiffly wrapped her with his arm.

"Much better. Like a real happy couple."

Jon wanted to retch. How could anyone fall for this farce? As they went down the steps to the lower level, they came upon two servant girls who stared at them as they passed but did nothing more than giggle and whisper to each other. It seemed the farce was working, after all. He wanted to retch harder. He needed to distract himself from this torment. "It's you. You're Littlefinger's spy."

Her steps faltered for half a beat, but she soon continued as if there was no interruption at all and, when he looked at her face, he didn't even have the satisfaction of seeing shock. The woman wielded her façade like warriors wielded swords. "How did you know that? Well, I suppose it doesn't matter. The bright minds of the North would have realized who I worked for before I came into Lady Catelyn's service, and it's no secret what sort of man he is. It would only have been a matter of time. I failed. All because I had to send that letter."

"Did you?" Jon said, passing the arts room where Arya and Sansa would have been learning how to knit from Septa Mordane. "Send the letter?"

"Yes, but I didn't have to. I even considered not sending it, but my need to please Lord Baelish won out in the end. It's funny how fate works sometimes," she mused, steering him into another hallway that led to the great hall. "All this while, I've been sending letters, and no one's had a whit of suspicion. When the birds I used returned to the library tower instead of the rookery, the maester never cottoned on. The man is a hopeless scatterbrain, so had he noticed ravens missing, he might have simply assumed that he had sent them and forgotten. I worked with that for years. But to have everything fall apart because of some letter I never had to send... Doesn't that just wrinkle your cunt, milord?"

She was mocking him and, though he had a vague suspicion of why, he didn't want to know for sure. He changed the subject. "Did Littlefinger send you letters? How did you get them?"

Ellys seemed happy to indulge him. "He sends his instructions to a maester in a holdfast somewhere in the North but living in his pocket, and the man passes them on to me through couriers. Don't bother looking for the maester, as you won't find him. Lord Baelish's instructions are infrequent but, when he does deign to contact me, it's usually about what information to focus on, the secrets I should be drawing out, which rivalry or affair I should pay attention to, what kind of perfume Lady Stark wears to bed, demands to send him snips of her hair. That last one is always the most challenging."

Jon's stomach writhed in disgust. Even Lady Stark didn't deserve a man like that pining after her, not while she was still his father's wife. "He sounds like a nasty little fucker."

"Oh, he most certainly is! One can't deny that. But he's also brilliant, and that's even more undeniable. He was barely past his twentieth year when he became King Robert's master of coin, and the flow of gold through the streets of King's Landing changed almost overnight. He built a brothel not long after, and I was one of his first little darlings. My parents died in some trouble with debt collectors, and Lord Baelish came in just as they were about to rape me. He took me in. Made me a whore, of course, but taught me to read and write, as well, to understand the language men speak when they are lost in passion and how to draw secrets out of them along with their completion."

Jon didn't know how much more repulsed he could become. "That's... kind of him."

Ellys grinned airily on his arm. "Yes, I thought so, too. I was halfway in love with him... Until I found out that he had sent the debt collectors in the first place, telling them that my parents were planning to flee to Oldtown and abandon our loans. He was the royal master of coin. Who could refute him? One of the other girls he saved told me the gory details. I was such a pretty little thing, you see, with red hair and creamy skin, and he had to have me, she said. Lord Baelish prefers red hair, especially when it's tinged with brown. The way she made it sound, he must have been standing outside the window, watching those brutes tear my clothes off, before he barged in."

He hadn't thought he could be any more appalled than he already was but, clearly, the limit could be raised. What kind of monster was Littlefinger? "Why are you still working for him then? If you know he did all that to you?"

She rubbed the hilt of the dagger high against his hip, mockingly working out the tension that had formed there during her story. "Because one of the first lessons Lord Baelish taught us was to be practical. A woman has no way to fight in this world, so she must don armor. When I thought about it, he did save me. If I wasn't his whore, I would have been someone else's, and no one would have stopped the rapes. We don't have many options in Flea Bottom. Besides, if everyone rose up against the masters who had wronged them, there would be no whores at all, and nobody wants that."

Jon shook his head, unable to accept her logic, but he couldn't respond as they entered the great hall and Ellys's hold around him tightened. The tables were occupied mostly by guardsmen and stable boys having an early supper. All eyes seemed to have diverted to them, though, globs of food falling comically out of mouths in shock. One of the guards cursed when he saw them. "Why did he do that?"

Ellys raised herself on her tiptoes and kissed his ear, as Jon tried very hard not to flinch away. "There's been a betting pool amongst the guardsmen for months," she whispered. "Most of them thought you would fuck me in a moon's turn. Others said two, and a few put it at more than three. Garlyn risked all his coppers on never. That was Garlyn. Smart man, but you just cost him a year's wage. Are you sad?"

If by "sad" one meant that he dearly wanted to punch a woman in the face, then, yes, he was sad.

"You seem angry. Don't be like that. None of them know where your heart truly lies, or they wouldn't be sharing such ribald jests behind our backs. You want me to tell them? I'll scream it to them so the whole castle can hear."

"Stop it," Jon hissed through gritted teeth, willing his rage not to boil over and get himself killed.

"I don't want to. Ah, speaking of whom..."

They had exited the main hall and were bare meters from the threshold to the courtyard when who else would walk by but Robb. He saw Jon and, for half a second, smiled at Jon in greeting, but then the image of Ellys's position must have reached the part of his brain that processed horror because his face fell instantly. Robb looked equally shocked, disgusted, and betrayed, plus another emotion that burned in his eyes but that Jon was afraid to define. It was made worse when Ellys tucked her head into the crook of Jon's neck and cuddled like a kitten. Nothing was said as they passed one another, but Jon's mind screamed for Robb to understand, begging his brother to see this for the lie it was, that he was being held captive. But his silent pleas didn't work, and Robb merely stared at him like he had gone mad or become a turncloak as he stepped into the yard with Ellys on his arm.

"How awkward. You'd think he would be happy for us," she quipped. With a light sigh, she continued, "I'm almost sorry our little charade might put an early end to your romance, though it would not have lasted in any case, unseemly as it is."

"How..." he croaked, having never been more humiliated in his life. "How... how did you..."

"How did I know? Oh, I am very good at what I do, milord, as long as it doesn't involve killing," she said, her eyes drawn to the stables and her path to freedom. "I see the way you look at him, the way he looks at you. The midnight sparring matches that are bursting with male energy and unnecessary touching. You fight with Late Lord Greyjoy immediately after, and you have none of that... passion with him. You and young Lord Stark can't seem to stay away from one another, sulking when you force yourselves to avoid each other, though it's mostly him on the receiving end. What a cruel mistress you are, playing that game with him when he adores you so. Not to mention your mutual outpouring of emotion after Lord Theon's death. I've never seen men unravel together quite so completely, and I'm a whore who's seen it all."

Jon felt sick to have his relationship with Robb violated by this creature. But, more than that, he felt stupid for being so careless. Was he truly so obvious? He didn't want to ask. He'd had enough of her conversation and needed to see her gone before Maester Luwin bled to death.

Thankfully, they had reached the stables, his arm numb from having been wound around her for so long. "Now get me a horse. And don't ask for anything else."

He sighed. "Hodor? Are you in there?" Jon called. The huge stable boy came lumbering out, jovial as ever and fortunately unable to ask awkward questions. "I need a horse. No, not my horse. One for the... lady," he said lamely, and Hodor ducked back inside. They didn't say anything during the time it took for Hodor to pull out a gelding, already saddled and bridled. Jon expected her to hop up and be on her way, but Ellys refused to disappear so easily and said, "Well? Get on."

"What? Why do I have to?"

She looked at him like he had started saying nothing but "Hodor." "Do you think me stupid? I didn't survive five years in the North by being stupid. Now get on and be quick about it."

Jon didn't know how he was supposed to do that with a knife pressed against his ribs, but he lifted his arm from around her shoulder, inserted his foot through the stirrup, and vaulted onto the saddle. For a moment, the knife was gone but, before he could even grab the reins and whip them, gallop away and call the entire guard to seize Ellys, she followed him as fast as a cat and, with a sleight of hand that surprised him, the dagger was back inside his shirt. They were even closer now than they were before, with both her arms around him, the blade swinging back and forth before his sternum. He had to stay completely straight or risk impaling himself on it. "Ride, milord, and remember that even ahorse I can still slip," she said against his collarbone.

He flicked the gelding into a slow trot and stopped only at the gates. A guard holding a spear leered up at them. "I'm taking my lady into town to... see the town. If you would please let us pass..."

For a second, Jon thought the guard was going to refuse them, his face suspicious, but those hopes died when his mouth broke into a lascivious grin, and he winked. "You go plow that one good, Snow. It's about time, I say. My money was on two." He waved them through, and they left the castle, Jon's dignity disappearing along with the gates.

They galloped along the road to Wintertown. The sun was just beginning to slide behind the western mountains, setting the horizon ablaze in pink and purple. The horse's breath frosted in the air, and Ellys wasn't even wearing a cloak, which would make whatever journey she had planned unthinkable. As much as he loathed hearing her voice, Jon had to pull from her as much as he could. She was being strangely forthcoming with her secrets, which he found unnerving, but he couldn't see what disadvantage questioning her might bring them so he went on with it. "About the letter... The one you sent. What does Littlefinger plan to do about that?"

"About your quarrel with the Greyjoys?" She yawned against his neck, patting the dagger to make sure he didn't forget it. "Little enough, I'm afraid, which makes my failure that much more embarrassing. No doubt in the future, he will use the tension between your houses for his benefit, but it will already be too apparent by then, the information worthless. It changes none of his immediate goals."

Jon didn't like the sound of that. "And what are his immediate goals?"

He could feel her smirking. "You'll see."

That was all she was willing to say. Apparently, she still had some discretion. They rode into the heart of town, galloping past farmers loading bales of corn onto carts for transport. "We're in town. You can book passage here to wherever it is you're going."

He now felt her rolling her eyes. "Once again, milord, not stupid. Keep going."

"Where are we supposed to stop? White Harbor?"

"Not so far as that. Just a ways beyond the town and far enough into the wasteland that no one will hear you scream before I slit your throat."

She's joking. She must be. He scowled and flicked the reins, and they sped down the track.

Soon they had passed the brothel and crossed the border into the rest of the northlands. Shrubs grew on the sides of the road, and he saw the brown strip extend before him into rolling hills and plains until it disappeared in the distance. He hoped she didn't plan on taking him that far. He would never be able to get home in the night, and there would be nothing to stop her from simply killing him and dumping his body in the wilderness.

They had gone just out of sight of the town, though Winterfell still loomed huge and blue in the distance at their backs, when she said, "That's enough. Stop." He kicked the horse to a halt and panted into the air, cold tendrils freezing his sweat. "Good boy. Now throw your legs over the side, and be careful of the dagger in your ribcage." He didn't need the warning, and he heeded her instructions as if his joints were frozen solid. Once he got both of his legs on the side, she pushed him off the horse unceremoniously, and he tumbled into the grass. He righted and patted himself, though she couldn't still have a dagger on him from her place upon the saddle. She took the reins in one hand and smoothed her hair with the other. "Well, milord, can't say it was exactly a pleasure but, as masters go, you didn't grope me as much as most."

He ignored that and concentrated on getting some last tidbits out of her before she fled. "Where are you going?"

She made a face as if she was touched. "That's sweet of you. Concerned about my well-being? I'm going home, if you must know, or to wherever it is Lord Baelish sends me next. There's never a shortage of people to stalk in Westeros."

"Lord Baelish..." Jon spat the name out, as if its mere presence on his tongue was vile enough. "What does he plan to do? What does he want?"

She drew her eyebrows together, frowning at him like he was stupid. "What does he want? Why, he wants what all men with power want: more power. Your brother will come to know the same hunger when his time comes, and Lord Baelish hopes that it does."

The idea of Robb becoming anything like Petyr Baelish utterly disturbed him. "Robb will never be like him."

Ellys seemed impressed, and he had a feeling it was genuine. "Such loyalty, such love. You truly do think the world of him, don't you? I must admit I find that refreshing, as most brothers I've seen would rather kill each other than fuck each other. I would be moved to tears, if it weren't so unsettling. Don't the gods have laws against such things?" She shrugged, before leaning her face closer to his, her expression cold and serious. "Don't be naïve, milord. Your brother will be a lord like all the others and, like all the others, he'll play the game. But he won't win, so nurture that love, milord. Cherish it, and let it bloom. For, though from it you will draw strength, Lord Baelish will take what makes you strongest and use it to destroy you and all you love. That's how he wins. That's how he always wins."

Jon felt a chill in his bones at those words that had nothing to do with the growing dark. Ellys didn't say those words as a boast but as a simple fact, and his natural need to protect Robb intensified and burned in his heart. What had they gotten themselves into? How many enemies did they have now? Suddenly, he was worried for his father, which made him realize something he hadn't considered. "What's to stop me from sending a letter to my father and telling him all that you've said? He's the Hand and can have Littlefinger thrown in the dungeons or even executed." The man would certainly deserve it.

Ellys sat up on the saddle, seemingly ready to depart. She gave the threatening query no more than a twitch of her shoulder. "Lord Baelish's plans are already in motion. The Greyjoy response would not have changed anything. Nothing could have changed anything."

That puzzled Jon. "What are you talking about? That doesn't answer my question."

She smiled at him, and it was the first time he had ever seen true sadness and pity on her face. "It does, milord. And you will know why soon. I can assure you of that. Now, enough of this distraction, as it's time I be off. Please tell Lady Stark that it was a pleasure serving her and that she has beautiful hair. I will miss cutting it. And please give your Lord Stark my regards. Don't be so dour. He'll think you a prude." She winked before flicking the reins, galloping off down the road to the east, back to wherever whores go.

Jon started his long walk back to Winterfell, hoping to return before he became a block of ice. He jogged as far as he was able and, when he couldn't keep up that pace, he walked, then jogged again. Eventually, he made it to Wintertown and was thankful to the gods for the invention of bonfires. He saw a troop of guards galloping down from the castle gates in the direction he had come from as he warmed himself by a brazier. Jon hoped that meant Maester Luwin had been found.

He shambled back through the gates, bone-tired and emotionally drained, and found the yard deserted, as it seemed most of the men had been dispatched to look for him and Ellys. It didn't surprise him to see Robb leaping down the steps with a parchment in hand, pulling him into a crushing hug. "Fucking gods, Jon! I didn't know! I thought she was... and you... and I was... I didn't know, and I'm sorry! I was afraid she had taken you with her, and I sent the entire guard out to get you back."

Jon was touched that Robb thought finding him was more important than catching Ellys. He pushed himself out of Robb's comforting embrace with much reluctance. "Maester Luwin? Is he..."

Robb made a half-smile. "He'll recover, the tough old fucker. He's stitching himself up right now, assuring me that it's nothing, that he was just surprised." Then Robb's smile melted away, and Jon could see all the lines marring his young face.

Jon didn't want to know, didn't want to ask and hear how things could possibly get worse. "Robb, what happened?"

Robb's eyes met his own, and their dread became one. "There was a raven. From Tyrion Lannister. Father's been accused of treason, Fat Tom and the rest already killed, even Septa Mordane. I'm calling the banners. And we're going to war."

Chapter Text

Want and Need

The Karstarks and their men-at-arms marched through the gate like a river of beards and furs. They were the last of the great lords to arrive in Winterfell after Robb called the banners. From atop the ramparts, Jon could see Wintertown expanding once again to accommodate the latest influx of soldiers and retainers, the smell of horses and peat fires riding the wind. Down below, the drawbridge creaked and thudded as the Lord of Karhold and his heirs rode under the portcullis. Jon had been only a boy when last Lord Eddard had feasted the Karstarks in his hall, though Lord Rickard had brought his daughter that time instead of his sons and not nearly so much steel as now. Back then, they had seemed like wild men, all hair and pelts and bulging arms. He was glad to see time had not changed them. They were going to need those arms in the coming war.

Bran watched from beside him on the battlements, sitting securely in a basket strapped to Hodor's shoulders. The large boy cooed his name in approval as the horses thundered past, probably impatient to stable them. Bran strained to get a closer look. "I hope they don't fall into the moat."

Jon could see what Bran meant. Their direwolves were perched on either side of the drawbridge, sniffing the procession for spies and assassins. The horses in proximity whickered away in fear as their riders cursed, yanking on reins to keep them from crashing into each other. Jon smiled slightly. As far as he knew, the men and their horses needed to get used to the wolves. They were going to be thankful for Grey Wind and Ghost once battle was joined.

Standard bearers grasped wooden poles tipped with banners to herald the houses that came with Karhold. The Karstark sunburst was much in evidence, but there were also smaller banners with obscure sigils that Jon hardly recognized. About a dozen minor lords had come with the Karstarks, bannermen to Lord Rickard, making up their army of two thousand. Jon thought it was a good opportunity to test Bran, as their father always said an eye for sigils was as important as a strong sword arm when it came to being a lord and would likely save more lives in the end. Bran was second only to Sansa when it came to heraldry, and Jon wasn't about to pass up a chance to remedy all the lessons he'd missed tuning out Maester Luwin, though he wasn't about tell either of his siblings or the old man that.

"Which house does that one belong to, Bran?" Jon said, pointing to a banner ruffling by the foot of the drawbridge.

Bran folded his arms on Hodor's head and squinted. "I think that's... an ebony chest on a white field. Sigil of House Krate. They run a lumber mill south of Karhold."

Jon nodded. "Very good. And that one?" He gestured to one held by a rider in a thick snowy pelt, on a horse smaller than the common garron with bushy tufts of hair growing over its hooves.

Bran pondered that one with barely a pause. "A bluebird and red chevron on a gray field. House Chandril. They guard the high passes in the rocky mountains east of Karhold. It's why their horses look so funny."

Jon did not know any of that, but he had no trouble pretending that he did. He hummed in vague approval. "Now, how about that one?" He pointed to a single banner flapping just short of the guardhouse on the other side of the moat.

Bran leaned forward as far as he could without tipping over the battlements, possibly taking Hodor with him. "It's too small. I can't make it out. Wait a moment..." Before Jon could caution him, Bran's eyes closed, and he collapsed bonelessly against the back of the basket. At that exact time, Summer perked up below and loped towards the outer gates, wading through a line of frightened horses (and riders) as he went. The standard bearer nearly dropped his banner into the moat in fright before Bran returned, shaking his head through the haze of false sensations that always remained a few seconds after awakening. "Three chestnuts on an ochre field. The sigil of House Sutt. I can't remember where their holdfast is, but I think they carry bacon. I'm hungry." He rubbed his stomach to show he meant it.

Jon laughed, though he felt sorry for the standard bearer, who had to dismount to retrieve his fallen banner. "That's just Summer. Remember that you are one with your wolf except where your stomachs are concerned. Next time you do that, I'm calling it cheating." It still amazed Jon how quickly Bran had taken to his abilities. He had learned how to control Summer while maintaining his humanity with alarming speed. Granted, Jon didn't know much more about the general extent of their powers than he had in the beginning, but when he compared the facts that it took him months just to move one of Ghost's paws after discovering his gift whereas it had taken Bran only weeks to do the same and more, it was hard not to be impressed. Bran could not only maintain the warging connection for several minutes outside of dreams but, at the rate he was going, there was no doubt he would be able to live through Summer for as long as he wanted soon enough. That might have scared Jon previously, when Bran had been lost to despair over his dead legs and Summer had four, but a light had returned to his eyes after their moment together, and he had even begun talking about knighthood again. Jon hoped that spark would never go out after he and Robb left.

Some things did scare him, though. The crow's estimation of Bran's talents had proven true enough. But what did that mean? Did it want to use Bran's powers for itself, which was why it had urged Jon to save him? Did the bird intend for them to leave Winterfell so it might steal Bran while they were gone? That didn't sit well in Jon's stomach, considering he still couldn't understand why the crow had told him about Robb's death when that had only made him conflicted about staying in Winterfell. Now, they were marching off to war, with the possibility that Robb might die without him...

Bran pouted while Jon's brain began to steam from overuse but propped his head on Hodor's as a new pair of banners emerged through the outer gates. "I know what that one is. A merman on a blue-green field. Sigil of House Manderly," Bran said to Jon, pointing. "And I didn't cheat. I swear."

That snapped Jon out of his reverie, and he leaned over the crenellations to make sure he had heard right. Two roan stallions trotted side by side with another horse wedged between them, its rider, a woman, bound to the other two by ropes. Even from a distance, he could see the sunlight glinting off her bright red hair.

Jon quickly bid goodbye to Bran, reminding Hodor to bring him in for supper with the Karstarks, and raced down the stairs to the yard. They had received a raven from White Harbor the week before that a woman matching Ellys's description had been caught trying to book passage to King's Landing. Lord Manderly's levies were to join the march on the way to Moat Cailin, but he'd sent riders ahead to Winterfell to deliver Littlefinger's spy for Robb's justice. Jon hoped the justice could come later. He still had questions to ask.

He joined Robb as the Karstark men-at-arms brought their horses to the stables and the men from White Harbor rode forward. They dismounted, yanking the woman from her saddle, her hands bound behind her back and her mouth gagged. "We rode as fast as we could, milord, through rain and snow to bring you this poxy bitch, begging your pardons," one of the riders said. "We've had just about enough of her wailing, but Lord Wyman told us that you might prefer her face nice and pretty with her lying tongue intact for confessing, so we never touched her. She still tried to claw our eyes out, though." The other man pushed her roughly to Robb for his inspection, as she tried to writhe and bite through her bonds.

Robb looked to Jon for a moment before sighing, carefully slipping off her gag with a finger. The stream of curses that erupted from her mouth burned through Jon's ears. He never imagined there were so many words for the male anatomy.

"...how many times must I tell you that you've got the wrong whore! I never even fucked the Starks! Why would I betray them?! I swear, milords, if you don't get me out of these ropes, I'll..."

The curses continued, and Jon's heart dropped to his navel. Robb sighed again and said, "Forgive us, my lady. It seems there's been a mistake. Untie her at once. She's not the one we want."

The Manderly men seemed perplexed, probably wondering just how many red-headed whores there were fleeing to King's Landing, but they did as they were told and sliced off the ropes binding Ros's hands. Robb offered them a night to rest before they returned to White Harbor, and Ros glared at them venomously as they begged for her forgiveness and ran off to stable their stallions.

Ros rubbed at her wrists, which were red and raw from the bindings. Jon felt unreasonably guilty and, from Robb's face, it seemed he felt the same. Or maybe he was simply crestfallen that they got the wrong woman. "Please forgive us, my lady. There was a misunderstanding—"

"I'm no lady," she snapped, her eyes moist and her skin pale and wan from exhaustion, hair a tangled nest after her long captivity. "Nor is my name Ellys. I don't even know who that is. I kept telling them over and over that I was just going to King's Landing to... find work. I heard there was a brothel there that would gladly take me in, where red hair gets a bonus. With winter coming, I'll starve or die of boredom if I stay here. But they didn't believe me! Bastards..." She turned to Jon. "No offense, milord. Now, where is Greyjoy? As long as I'm back here, I might as well winkle out some of that debt he owes me. Don't you two expect to sweet talk your way out of paying for this either. Ten nights each for the ones I've lost, and I don't care whose sons you are."

Jon and Robb exchanged awkward glances. "You don't know?" Robb said hoarsely. "He's dead, Ros. Theon is dead."

If there was a shade lighter than bone-pale, Ros's face had just assumed it. "Dead? What do you mean dead? You must be joking..." She looked from Jon to Robb and saw not a hint of a smile on their faces. "You're... serious. How? How did it happen?"

"Deserters. We were fighting deserters and wildlings..." Jon told her, his eyes drawn to the ground. The memory still haunted him and likely always would. He couldn't look at their faces as he told the story, afraid of the accusation he would find there.

He was surprised when Ros started laughing, but there was no humor in it, only bitterness and regret. Emotions Jon knew well. "He always said he would die with a ship under his feet," she muttered, slowly massaging her wrist. "With a sword in hand and ten saltwives waiting for him in the cabin. He wanted to die like ironborn, he said. It looks like he never got what he wanted... Deserters. He didn't deserve that."

Neither of them knew what to say to that, so they remained silent for a time, surprised by the depth of Ros's grief. After a while, Robb gently took Ros's arm in his gloved hand and said, "We will repay you for the damages done to you, as well as Theon's debt. You may stay in the castle for as long as you like. I'll have rooms arranged for you."

Ros smiled sadly and moved her arm out of Robb's grip. "Thank you, milord. I will gladly take the gold, but I think I will pass on the bed. I suddenly find myself longing for my own. If you'll excuse me." She turned away and headed for the gates but, after a few steps, turned back to them and said, "And if you could add something with a kraken on it, that would be nice." She went past the guards to the drawbridge and disappeared from view.

After a moment, Robb nudged Jon. "Come on. Ellys got away. Though I would have loved to strangle that bitch myself, we have more important things to think of now. With all the lords assembled, we're having our first war council... My first war council," he said dazedly, heading towards the castle.

Jon kept pace, his boots crunching on the packed earth, pockmarked with the footprints of the thousands of pairs of feet that had been coming and going about the castle of late. Even now, servants and squires rushed up and down the steps, carrying everything from clothes to weapons and dragging wagons stacked with dried food to supplement the baggage train growing outside the gates. Hammers rang on anvils day and night in the forge. The mad flurry that came with preparing for war made Jon queasy, but not quite so much as appearing before all the great lords of the North did. "You want me with you? In council? Are you sure that's a good idea?" he said, leaving out the part about how he was a bastard and Lady Stark had tried very hard to hide him from important guests whenever any called on Winterfell.

Robb eyed Jon like he had said something embarrassing. "You're my brother. Why wouldn't I want you in council? Besides, you alone know firsthand about Ellys and what she said of Petyr Baelish. You'll do the sordid tale more justice than I could, no matter how many times you've told it to me. I won't have Bran there, though. He doesn't need to hear about that creature sniffing our mother's hair," Robb said contemptuously. He stopped abruptly before the doors to the great hall and looked at Jon sheepishly. "On second thought, I think it would be best if you left that part out entirely. We need these men to hate him, but I don't need Mother hating us should all the North and the Riverlands start chuckling about this." He then opened the doors.

The chatter ceased as Robb and Jon's boots echoed through the room. All the tables in the great hall had been pushed to the side for the congregation, save for one at the center of the cavernous room that served as the council table. Their father's bannermen filled the seats, from giant Greatjon Umber, chugging from a goblet, to stout Maege Mormont, her daughter Dacey beside her, taller than both Robb and Jon. Roose Bolton's eerie colorless eyes followed them as they made their way to the head of the table. Maester Luwin stood and pulled back the lord's chair, nodding to them as Robb took his rightful place. There was no chair for Jon, but he'd never expected one and stayed rooted to his feet on Robb's right, which he feared might be misconstrued though Rickard Karstark had already assumed the seat of the honored guest.

"Thank you for your patience, my lords." Robb's voice carried across the room as his cupbearer poured him some red. "Lord Manderly's men just arrived with a prisoner, so—"

"Did you cut the whore's head off?" bellowed the Greatjon, waving around his stump of a hand, the bandages still stained with dried blood. "Or are you saving her for your wolf like you did me fingers? If you must have a show, bring her out and let us see it!" He banged the table with his goblet, Arbor gold splashing over the rim. He chanted "bring the whore" with every beat.

Half the council followed suit, repeating the Greatjon's words like a battle cry, goblets clinking to their need for vengeance. Robb let them have it for a while, probably knowing that whatever bloodthirst his bannermen felt should be encouraged, before raising a hand for quiet. "That's enough, my lords. Shame we don't have a bard present. He could have made a song of that for us to sing to Cersei Lannister once we're marching through King's Landing." The council laughed, and even Jon managed a smile, though it was mostly out of pride in Robb for bravely jesting through a situation that would have made grown men quake. "Unfortunately, she has likely fled the North by now. Lord Wyman caught the wrong whore, though the resemblance is uncanny, so he is not at fault."

Robett Glover scoffed into his wine. "Lord Too Fat wouldn't be able to find his own navel. For all we know, that's where she's hiding."

"You're full of shit, Glover," Harrion Karstark slurred from his father's right, already half drunk. "How do you know he hasn't eaten her? Perhaps he mistook her for a red eel."

Robb's face was solemn while the rest of the table guffawed, a trait that only long years of sitting at Eddard Stark's elbow could instill naturally. He held up a hand again and bulled his lord's voice over theirs. "Enough. Lord Manderly is a good friend to all our houses, and his sons will be joining us on the morrow, so I will hear no more talk of eels." He looked to each man (and woman) in turn, daring them to say otherwise. "Now, I'm sure each of you has heard a word or two concerning this traitor in my lady mother's service, but what the washerwomen and drunken guardsmen in the tavern have not told you is the full truth." Robb glanced up at Jon and gripped his shoulder. "Go on, Jon. Tell them all you know."

Jon stiffened, his blood rushing down to his toes when the attention of all the council focused on him. Lady Stark never failed to sequester him at the servants' table whenever a lord came to feast, hidden away and forgotten. He'd always expected that, if they ever saw him, their eyes would be filled with loathing, the same narrowing that afflicted Lady Stark's if she deigned to look at him. His back began to sweat at the prospect of seeing that in so many eyes. But he need not have feared. The gathered lords were only curious, perhaps too engrossed in the intrigue of spies to be concerned with his bastard blood. Other than Lord Bolton's cold, empty eyes, which seemed to drink the warmth from all they saw, there was no malice in their gazes.

And Robb's hand was rubbing at the small of his back comfortingly, giving him strength.

He took a deep breath, deciding that it was best to get it over with, and began reciting the tale he had already told Robb and Maester Luwin a dozen times over. It drained him every time.

All assembled were rendered into a silence that was equal parts rage and revulsion when Jon was done. Harrion Karstark had tipped over his goblet and started yelling for more wine to wash his disgust away. Greatjon Umber seemed to have broken his own goblet, squeezing it so tightly in his huge, unmaimed fist that his fingers left gouges in the bronze. Genial old Lord Hornwood looked about ready to retch. But there was no one more stricken than the two ladies Mormont, their faces completely drained of color. The truth of what girls were subjected to under Littlefinger's vile thumb had hit them harder than all the rest.

"Petyr Baelish... is a monster," quiet Lord Cerwyn muttered.

"If I didn't already know King's Landing was filled with vipers, I'd be surprised," said Lord Karstark with a shake of his head.

"Poor Lady Stark... To have that thing sending watchers to her door... Horrible," Dacey Mormont groaned, hugging herself as if the idea chilled her. "And poor Lord Stark."

"How did that whore think she could get away with this?" the Greatjon roared at Jon. "She must not have thought much of her Littlefinger if she told you all that, and yet you say she's sailing back to him?"

Jon was ready for that. "She knew," he said gravely, all eyes returning to him. "She knew Fath— Lord Stark was about to be accused of treason or at least put in a position where he wouldn't be able to stop Littlefinger. She kept hinting at it to me, but I didn't catch on in time. She knew there would be no one left in King's Landing to oppose her master. The way she spoke, it's as if they had been planning to get rid of Lord Stark all along."

The Greatjon had nothing to say in response to that, and neither did anyone else.

Lord Bolton was placid as usual and, when he began speaking, Jon and the others had to lean over to hear. "I have a query. No offense is meant to my lords of Stark, as I am simply curious, but how was this harlot able to make contact with Lord Baelish for so long while eluding your notice? I find this passing strange," he said impassively, as if he thought a loose thread on his doublet was passing strange.

"She used my ravens," Maester Luwin growled from beside Robb, livid, as if Ellys had violated his children as well as his birds. That was all he was willing to say, and no one dared provoke him at the risk of getting clawed to shreds by the old man.

"I believe that's all that needs be said concerning Littlefinger," Robb announced. "I have something in mind for our slippery friend, though it's still just a thought. Thank you, Harrion, for mentioning red eels. Know, my lords, that he will be among the first to taste Father's sword once we take King's Landing. Also, be wary of those you've allowed into your households. We have no reason to think that Littlefinger was interested only in House Stark." That sent a ripple of disquiet through the room, whispers about handmaids and red hair. Robb continued as if there was no interruption. "We have other matters to discuss. One of which concerns the... death of Theon Greyjoy and possible retaliation from Pyke. The response from Lord Balon was... less than cordial. I will not have the ironborn seething on their islands and springing out to strike after we march south."

More angry mutters and fists banging on hardwood erupted at that, as well as more demands for wine—the northern way of dealing with bad news. "Never trust a squid," said Lord Karstark with a scowl. "They'll wrap their tentacles about you when you're alone and squeeze until you die."

"I will not give them a chance to squeeze," Robb said in a hard tone that brooked no argument. He turned to the Mormonts. "How many ships do you have, my lady? Is anyone of your house capable behind a helm?"

"We mostly have fishing vessels but also a dromond or two to fend off the blasted ironborn," said Lady Maege, her mouth cross at the thought of the krakens, their old enemies. "As to your other question, my second daughter, Alysane, was born with a net in her hands, so rest assured that she will not shame you on a deck."

Robb smiled. "Good, because I will need her on the swiftest vessel you have to watch the Iron Islands from just beyond their waters. She must bring a maester with her, so I will hear of all that goes on. I need to know if the Greyjoys call their banners, seal off the ports—anything to let us learn of what they intend—so it would be best if she is never seen." Robb turned to address the whole table. "I will request ships from White Harbor to patrol the Stony Shore and the Rills. If Lord Balon ever attacks, it will be there. Barrowton, Torrhen's Square, Deepwood Motte—every castle and holdfast on the western shore will need to be defended, so feel free to leave a token force behind if you can spare it."

Lord Galbart Glover turned to his brother Robett sadly. "It seems you will not be joining us, brother."

Robett sighed. "I was afraid of that. Well, squids aren't so different from lions, I suppose. They all bleed black in the end." He drank a full cup to that.

Robb nodded in approval. "Krakens might not be all we need to watch for. I have heard some disturbing rumors from beyond the Wall. It seems this Mance Rayder might be amassing a force there, and Lord Commander Mormont confirmed the possibility."

"Are we going to fortify our walls against snarks and grumkins next, milord? You can't trust half the things you hear from the Wall," chuckled Ser Donnel Locke, an heir to Oldcastle, one of the most southern holds in the North and three hundred leagues apart from the Wall. The Umbers and Mormonts glared at him with distaste.

Robb's stare was icy, an uncanny reflection of their father when his wrath was awakened. "It's not snarks and grumkins I'm afraid of, ser. It's people. The same sort of people who murdered Theon Greyjoy. Now, if the snarks and grumkins do bestir themselves, since you know so much of them, I will expect your house to be the first to repel them while the rest of us fight the real threats."

Ser Donnel withered under Robb's gaze and sipped at a mug of ale to busy himself from having to respond.

Satisfied, Robb declared, "I expect all here to clean out your dungeons and send what men you can to the Wall. Every keep within leagues of the Gift will also need to be strengthened, in case Mance Rayder poses a bigger threat than we feared."

The Greatjon slammed his fist on the table, which was apparently his way of expressing agreement. "No need to worry on that quarter, lad. Last Hearth has ever been a friend to the Night's Watch."

Robb nodded, leaning back into his chair. "Good, good. I have every faith that I am leaving my father's realm in good hands. Now, before we go and make our preparations, I need to share with you the nature of this war and what we fight for. All of you think it is simply to free my lord father, but he was already fighting something else, something that threatens all of us and goes beyond the petty machinations of Petyr Baelish." He leaned forward and steepled his fingers together.

He told them everything. Robb told them about Lysa Arryn's accusations that the Lannisters had conspired to murder her husband and the assassination attempt on Bran, that Prince Joffrey, now king, had commanded it. Maester Luwin supplied what he could and so did Jon when he was asked to recount the fire. He was somewhat embarrassed when he showed them his burned hand, feeling as if their eyes were writhing underneath his skin and exposing him, but he told himself it was necessary. Jon regretted that he never told anyone about his suspicions concerning Bran's fall. But he had no proof, as Bran was still unable to speak of it, and Jon didn't dare pull that nightmare out of Bran when he wasn't ready.

If any of their father's bannermen hadn't been committed to the war before, all doubts were gone now. A fire burned within their eyes at what the Lannisters had dared commit against their honor. Even Roose Bolton appeared to show some hard emotion for once, and Jon judged that it was favorable.

When the outrage had quieted down somewhat, Robb stood with goblet in hand, and all the powerful lords of the North stood with him, the highest respect they could bestow. "The prisoner is down in the dungeons, if any of you would like to speak with him, but under no account will I have him harmed, as I plan to bring him with me to King's Landing to shove under Joffrey's nose before I part his head from his shoulders. Make your prayers at our heart tree, my lords. Our godswood is open to all. Maester Luwin will attend to you, as well, so write your letters now. On the morrow, we march, and we will bring the vengeance of the North to the Lannisters' door. Winter is coming, my lords, and we will make sure it comes for them. Winter is coming!"

The council raised their goblets to Robb with a reverence usually reserved for only kings. "Winter is coming! Glory to the Starks and the North!" They downed their drinks in unison, Robb's men for true.

Afterward, one lord followed by another rushed to the head of the table to slap Robb on the back and shoulders, reaffirming allegiances and saying how blessed Lord Eddard was to have him for an heir before going off to see to business. Once they had all dispersed, Robb leaned into Jon, clearly exhausted. "Come with me to my room. There are things we need to talk about."

Jon felt guilty that he couldn't remember when last he had been in Robb's room. They never had the time of late, though Robb had been in his room recently... and on his bed. Still, it was like stepping into an unknown section of the castle as he followed Robb through the door. He couldn't recall ever seeing that massive painting of King Daeron fighting through dornishmen in the Boneway hanging beside the window or the rack of strange and exotic swords that he was sure Robb had never actually wielded sitting in the corner. He certainly couldn't recall the long table at the foot of the bed, covered from end to end with a giant map of Westeros, funny wooden pieces dotting the Riverlands.

"What is all this?" Jon had to ask, picking up a blue elephant from Seagard and rolling it in his palm.

Robb looked up from unbuckling his sword belt. "Oh, those are cyvasse pieces." Upon seeing Jon's blank face, he laughed and amended, "It's a board game from Volantis. A merchant gave it to me as a gift when he passed through here years ago. I wanted to play it with you, but..." He hung his sword belt on a rack, back to Jon. "You fell off the heart tree, and I forgot about it. I never learned the rules, anyways."

Jon nodded, putting the elephant back where it was and surveying how the other pieces were arrayed throughout Westeros.

There was a rustling sound that meant Robb had removed his heavy cloak, and he soon joined Jon by the table. "I've been poring over war strategies and books about conquests every night since Lannister's letter came. I thought a visual representation might help me understand it all better. Some of the books I wanted were missing, though, despite the fact that you've got the library looking like an actual library now."

Jon made a sheepish sound. "Me, too. That is, I've been studying, as well. Battles and such. I'm sorry."

Robb looked at Jon with that admiration he'd never gotten used to. "Should have known. Great minds think alike." Robb's gaze returned to the table. "I've been staging mock battles against myself, trying to predict what I would do once we breach the Neck and what they would do. There weren't any appropriate pieces for the Lannisters, so I used moldy pieces of cheese."

Jon wrinkled his nose. That's what those yellow-green things are. "That explains the smell."

"I can't imagine a Lannister camp would smell any better," Robb said with a tired smile, moving away and falling heavily face first into the bed. "Gods, I'm still shaking. We just had our first war council. My back is sweating buckets. It's all real now."

Jon sat beside him on the sheets, gripping Robb's thigh tenderly. "You did well. You didn't fumble once, and I think Ser Donnel might have pissed himself. I was ready to die for you by the end of it."

Robb rolled onto his side, propping his head on a forearm and grinning up at Jon. "You're biased. You would die for me regardless. I had to convince them to feel the same way. I'm not sure I managed it."

"Stop doubting yourself. You gave us all chills in there. Father would have been proud. I know I am."

Those deep blue eyes he loved so well almost seemed to water from his praise, and Robb beckoned Jon closer. "Come here."

Jon did so without hesitation, assuming Robb's position and facing him, only an inch apart. Jon could count the bags under Robb's eyes that came from many sleepless nights, as well as each strand of the stubble he had grown out like a hedge left untended. Robb's beard was the color of rust, brighter than the hair on his head, which was starting to get long, as well. It made him look like a man. Irresistible.

"I've been meaning to talk to you about something," Robb said solemnly, unable to hear the stutter of Jon's heart. "I've put it off until the last minute because I'm afraid of what you might say. But we're out of time now. Truly out of time." He took a deep breath, Jon having never seen him so conflicted. "I can't stop thinking about Sansa's letter... Or should I say Cersei Lannister's letter, written by Sansa... About how there's no mention of Arya..."

That plunged a knife into Jon's chest every time he thought on it—that Arya could be lost or, worse, dead. But a second knife sank in when he realized just what Robb was getting at.

"I get so scared of what might happen to Bran and Rickon. Lannisters to the south, ironborn to the west, wildlings and the Others and gods know what else to the north. I'm surprised the Free Cities haven't declared war on us, too." Robb laughed bitterly, then raised tentative eyes to meet Jon's. "So, I've decided that... I think you should stay here with Bran."

The fluttering within Jon's ribcage stopped, to be replaced by a weight that felt too heavy to bear. He wasn't surprised. He had been expecting it, always knowing that it was the right choice and how things had to be. But it still hurt so much.

"I want you to rule beside Bran, to guide him. Maester Luwin is capable, but he can be soft and cautious, and I need more than that if there's any chance our father's lands will be besieged. Mother is still at the Eyrie with Ser Rodrik, and I don't know when they'll return. You think like me, Jon, but best of all you think like Father. I trust you with all the North." Robb's hand slid behind Jon's nape and held it securely. "What do you say?"

It was like rejoining himself from another life, a life Jon had thought long gone. It was everything he'd ever wanted, everything he'd never dared speak of because he had no right. To rule Winterfell... It was like they were children again, building snow castles, and he'd declared himself Lord of Winterfell, but Robb had corrected him, saying that he could never be a lord, that he was a bastard. Robb never meant to hurt. His mother had taught him what the word meant, and he was simply relaying her words. But here they were, Robb making Jon a lord in truth if not in name, without any consideration for his birth or Lady Catelyn's words. Jon wanted with all his heart and years of unshed tears to say yes, to say he would do anything Robb commanded him to, that he would be a good ruler, even if it was just from behind Bran's shoulder. All he wanted...

But... Robb...

Before Jon could say anything, though his throat had closed up and no words could escape, Robb shook his head, desperation clear on his face. "That is the right decision. I know it. But... I'm selfish, Jon. I can't distinguish between what I want and what I need, and it shames me that I have to consider it. The truth is I don't want to do this without you." His hand climbed up into Jon's hair, weaving through the strands with urgent fingers, bringing their foreheads together. "I don't want to imagine what it would be like without you by my side, not commanding my armies, not waiting for me when the battle is done, not giving me advice and making me laugh out there as surely no one else would be able to with Theon gone. I can't make the choice, Jon, so you'll have to do it, and may the gods punish me for forcing you to choose. It seems the Glovers are stronger than I am..."

Suddenly, Jon's old life disintegrated and his very existence began anew at that moment. Every shattered dream he'd ever had about Winterfell fell away, sliding through the cracks in his soul. Robb needed him. This was what he wanted now. What he would always want from now on. He had found his place at last, and how long it had taken him to see it.

His only regret was that he couldn't hold Robb the way his brother did him, not with his hand dead and broken, but Jon wrapped his arm around Robb, anyways, needing to be close. "Yes, Robb. I won't abandon you. We'll fight and free Father together," he whispered in a breath across Robb's lips.

Robb grinned, his relief thick and palpable. "Then may the gods preserve us in our frailty." Robb then pushed Jon gently onto his back and sidled up against his chest like a big auburn cat. Tucking his head under Jon's chin, Robb sighed as steady arms surrounded him. Jon would never stop protecting Robb. No matter what. "I miss it," he said to Jon's sternum. "I miss when we were little and used to sneak into each other's beds when afraid, and I would push you under the bed when Mother came knocking. Those were simpler times."

Jon didn't need to remind Robb that they had done that recently, too, knowing that hadn't been one of those simpler times that Robb spoke of. The confrontation with Greatjon Umber had shaken Robb, though he never showed it in the audience hall. Jon had been just as scared when the Greatjon drew his sword, ready to slip into Ghost and tear the big man's arm off for daring such treason, but Jon stopped himself at the last moment. This was Robb's hall, and it was for him to dole out whatever justice he felt necessary. And...

He vowed that there would never be a repeat of the time he had lost control and let Theon die. Never again.

Jon had little to fear, though. Grey Wind was on the Greatjon in seconds and had showed more restraint than Jon would have by biting off only his fingers. Miraculously, that had made Lord Umber Robb's champion for good and all, and no one dared defy the Young Wolf again.

That victory had not stopped Robb from seeking Jon out in the night, fifteen years old and in need of reassurance. They had slept in the cocoon of each other's arms, and Jon had no doubt that it was the first time either of them had slept the whole night through in a long, long time.

As Jon remembered one of the few good things in the world, Robb had risen from his sprawl on Jon's chest and slid up until they were face to face, pushing Jon deep into the featherbed, his gaze warm and tender. "I don't think I can be comfortable without you, Jon. I just don't know how to anymore." His cheek rubbed against Jon's, coarse stubble prickling. "I remember," Robb whispered into Jon's ear, which felt as if it were burning. "Just bits and pieces. What I said in the brothel. For the longest time, it drove me crazy with shame, thinking I'd done that against your will. But that's not all I remember. It wasn't against your will, was it?" Robb gave Jon that predatory look again, but it was so much more incredible knowing both of them were sober. "You wanted it as much as I did. I felt that in my hand... Jon..."

There were no words to describe the feel of Robb's lips against his own. It was soft and chaste, exceedingly gentle, but he could have had his entire body kissed by Robb all at once for the effect it had on him. It seemed Robb was in the same predicament for he was flushed and panting as he looked at Jon after their lips parted, his eyes shy and shining with wonder. Their arms and legs were coiled around each other, though Jon couldn't remember when that had happened. "You...You never answered me. That time." Robb swallowed, and Jon thought it was most endearing. "When I asked if you could accept this." Robb's lips came down again, ghosting over Jon's. "Can you...?"

Jon palmed Robb's cheek, feeling the shivers that met his touch, their breaths mingling, before he said, "No."

Robb's face fell, clearly not expecting that. "What?"

Instead of answering, Jon just smiled secretively and took Robb's hand, pulling him from the bed to one of the seats by the table. Robb sat down, perplexed, while Jon took the chair next to his. "Like anything worth having, you have to fight for it," Jon said, trying to hide the glee on his face, though he grimaced when he picked up a block of hairy cheese from beside Harrenhal. "And I think it's about time we played cyvasse."

Robb caught on right away, his face brightening in delight. "Yes, I believe it is."

Jon paused in thought, waving the "piece" around before setting it down near Maidenpool, making a mental note to wash his hand when this game was done. "Lannister forces are marching on Maidenpool. They left a garrison at Harrenhal, blocking off all approaches from the west north of the God's Eye. What do you do?"

Robb set his chin on a palm, pondering, before picking up the blue spearman sitting on Darry. "My forces will cross the river at Darry, following the northern bank downstream towards Saltpans, where the men will board ships and sail to Maidenpool, intercept the Lannisters and crush them."

"But that will leave Darry exposed."

"Not if I leave a smaller force to harry and raid the lands around Harrenhal, luring the Lannister rearguard out of the castle to be trapped between the detachment from Darry and the returning army from Maidenpool. Darry itself will have to be abandoned, but Harrenhal is the real prize and could garrison all my forces combined as well as seal off the eastern and northern land approaches to King's Landing. Darry cannot offer us much there," Robb mused with a frown, clearly unhappy with his decision.

Pleased despite Robb's dissatisfaction, Jon nodded. You had to lose to win a war—that was what all the books said. Robb nearly leapt from his chair when Jon suddenly grasped him behind the neck and brought their lips together. Robb had not even closed his eyes to enjoy the kiss when Jon pulled away, attention returning to the table. Robb gaped at Jon like his brains were addled. "Are you serious?"

Jon tried not to chuckle, though his face was as red and heated as Robb's. He fingered another moldy ball of cheese from King's Landing. "An army of gold cloaks has been sent to take Stoney Sept. What do you do?"

Robb had an answer in moments, though he seemed no happier with his solution than before. "I will let them." He leaned over and reached for a piece by the westerlands. "There is already an army marching from the Golden Tooth to besiege Riverrun. If those forces are unaware that I have taken Harrenhal, I will move my men there through the forests around Acorn Hall and come up from the south, breaking the Lannisters' flank and destroying them upon the Tumblestone. With luck, I will have enough men left to free Stoney Sept."

Jon nodded slowly, knowing there was no other way. They kissed again, and this time Robb expected it. It was longer than the last, deeper and exploratory. Jon could taste grief and fear in the kiss, realizing that it came from his lips as much as from Robb's. The truth of the game and how many lives they would need to sacrifice to play it added a haunting rhythm to their actions. Jon pressed himself as hard as he could into Robb, drawing Robb in before breaking away again, but he knew the play was over. Soon there would be nothing in their lives but cyvasse.

His eyes swept past the Riverlands to the North, where Jon was bemused to find a dragon and a king placed under Winterfell. Robb watched him intently as he reached for the dragon. "The king is riding off to war," Jon whispered, spinning the dragon slowly on the table. "The dragon wants to go with the king, but he's afraid of leaving the people he loves behind. He knows anyone can die at any moment, and he fears he won't be there to save them, no matter where he is. What should the dragon do?"

Robb moved until he was flush against Jon from shoulder to hip, grasping the king and pushing it towards the dragon, which was still in Jon's hand. "If the dragon loves the king, then the dragon should be with the king. Everyone needs the dragon, but the dragon cannot save everyone, so he should go where he wants." Robb laced their fingers, the pieces molding together within their palms. Their eyes met, and Jon couldn't look away. "The king also loves the dragon. Loves him more than anything. The king will always come back for the dragon. No matter how many times he tries to leave."

The cyvasse pieces fell from their hands as they wrapped around each other, kissing like it was their last, which might turn out to be true. There were few places they could go on the march to find peace, out in the wilderness surrounded by twenty thousand soldiers and Robb's bannermen. Jon would never forgive himself if any of them saw this, if they took back the loyalty and worship they had heaped on Robb because of him. He couldn't afford another Ellys, sneering at them and undermining Robb's authority.

But they weren't marching yet, and Jon had Robb all to himself, hands and hair and lips all his, for a little while at least. Robb moaned between kisses, tongue twining hesitantly with Jon's until he knew no more and his worries were far away.

There was a knock at the door, calling Lord Stark down for supper.

They arranged themselves to look presentable again, pulling their clothes back in order and patting down their hair so it didn't have the appearance of something that had been caught in a windstorm. They were silent, a bit awkward, but intensely aware of each other's presence as they headed for the door. Jon debated on whether he should leave after Robb but decided that he was being silly. Who would assume that they had been doing... what they'd been doing even if they were seen exiting the room together? I'm being paranoid.

The great hall was back to its usual bustling state. Some of the lords had brought their own singers, each playing a different song and trying to one-up each other in a cacophony of musical notes. Serving girls and bar wenches danced through the aisles, bouncing and laughing on the laps of Karstark men who joked and played with their bodices. The lords were seated at a table atop the dais, assuming much the same places that they had before. Summer played with Shaggydog on one end, Bran and Rickon throwing scraps across the room for the wolves to catch in midair, to the hoots and cheers of the lords and their men. Jon followed Robb to the head of the raised table; Robb forced Jon to take the spot on his left without exception. In the end, Jon was seated between Lord Cerwyn and his daughter Jonella, who he insisted had made the arduous half-day's journey from home to serve Robb, though no one would have known it from how her eyes were glued to her plate, never even looking at Robb.

Jon knew matchmaking when he saw it. Not that he had ever been on the receiving end of such schemes. He savagely ripped a leg from a turkey to distract himself from his own sulking, though it satisfied him that Robb looked no more pleased by their slight separation. Still, a lord had to keep up appearances, and Robb tried to coax Jonella out of her catatonic state to please her father, though to no avail. Good.

They were well into dessert with the ordeal nearly behind him when the carrion birds began swooping in. Daughters from minor houses pulled up chairs and surrounded Robb like a wall of loose velvet, all giggles and titters and heaving bosoms. Half of them were presumably sent there by their fathers, but Jon knew most of them would give up their virtue to Robb without a thought. Robb was handsome and strong, and no doubt their lord fathers had recounted what a capable leader Ned Stark's eldest son was, as he had demonstrated in council. Robb had the decency to seem embarrassed, but he gave the girls no reason to shun him as he laughed along with them and responded to their attentions in kind.

Jon emptied a flagon of ale just to keep himself from having to look at them. Why was he surprised? He wasn't, in truth, the same way you knew that you could fall down the stairs but would be unpleasantly surprised when you did. There was never any question that a match would be made for Robb. All Jon had thought about was how many people die because of war; he had never even considered how many people wed because of it, too. Their own father had done exactly that, and half the realm had married to forge some alliance or another. Why not Robb? Why not to a southron lady whose father possessed an army that Robb needed, just like Lord Eddard had needed Riverrun? Why did Jon ever think kissing his brother would lead anywhere?

Ellys's words came back to him then, as much as he despised everything she'd said. Robb would be a lord who played the game like all the rest, whether he wanted to or not.

Jon felt sick. Most of all, he wanted to leave and was about to do so when a familiar weight settled on his shoulder. He batted it away. Jonella's head snapped up at the sound, and Robb looked hurt as he massaged his hand. Jon ignored them both as he stood and excused himself from the table. "Jon! Wait!" Robb called after him, but his brother would have to get used to not winning all the time.

He made it to the blessed peace of the quiet hallway before Robb caught up, turning him around by the arm. "What in the seven hells was that about? Have you any idea how hard it was for me to wade through all those girls?"

That wasn't the right thing to say, and it was clear that Robb knew it instantly. "You shouldn't have touched me back there. You don't want them to see that."

Now Robb was confused. "What are you talking about? I'm always touching you. If they haven't gotten used to that, then—"

"You should have kept touching them instead," Jon blurted out before he could contain it, dreadfully aware of what a fool he sounded, but he couldn't stop. "Touch them like they touch you. That's what they want to see. That's what they expect of you. They want to know they have a chance of binding their houses to the great heir to the North. Then they won't desert you."

Robb stared at him before laughing uneasily, which only deepened Jon's scowl. "Is that what your problem is? A bunch of girls? Did you ever think that I was just trying to get through all that, to get past their cooing and clawing so I could be with you, where I want to be? Did you ever think that I don't care for any of this any more than you do?"

"It doesn't matter what you care for or don't," Jon retorted, his voice gaining in pitch embarrassingly. "What matters is that you give them no reason to suspect you are anything but the happily eligible Robb Stark, young Lord of Winterfell. You don't want anyone else to know you're fooling around with your fucking bastard brother."

The blood drained from Robb's face, and his legs actually began to wobble. "This can't be happening... Please tell me this is a joke. Only a few hours ago, we were... and now you're..." He rubbed a hand against his forehead, and Jon was shocked to see he was holding back tears. "Why are you saying all this now? If you had such a problem before... and what do you mean by 'anyone else'? Who else knows about us? For gods' sake, Jon, out with it!"

Jon turned his face away, backing up to lean on a wall. "Ellys. She knew... Even before we did. Word has probably reached Littlefinger by now, and I'm..."

Robb threw his head back and barked out a bitter laugh that echoed down the torch-lit hall, and Jon half thought he was going mad. "Littlefinger? That's who's got your smallclothes in a twist? Fucking Littlefinger? Who's a thousand leagues away? Please tell me you're not serious."

"You weren't there when she spoke of him," Jon said defensively, affronted that his foreboding was being cast aside so lightly. "You weren't there when she told me about how he had her family murdered for her hair. You weren't there when she told me about how hard he tries to find information. Which you should have some notion of because we had a fucking spy in Winterfell. You weren't there when she told me about how he destroys people by using what they love, and if he knows that you..." He couldn't say it. Couldn't face the possibility.

Robb's eyes looked wide and empty, and Jon wondered if his brother had even heard his outburst, until Robb ran a hand through his hair and breathed out to calm his shaking. Only then did Jon realize that he was shaking, too. "So? Do you want us to stop?" Robb implored in disbelief, as if every word caused him pain. "We haven't even started, and you want to stop? All because of Littlefinger?"

Jon stared down at his feet. "I don't know," he mumbled.

"You have to know. We're going to war tomorrow, so you have to know." Robb scoffed miserably, peering down at his open palm. "The king will always come back for the dragon, but not if the dragon doesn't want him to," he said to himself, but Jon heard it all the same and felt as if a dragon was tearing at his heart. Robb's expression was at once hard and despondent. "If you care about me as much as I do you, then come to my room tonight. I still want to sleep well, and I never have nightmares when I'm with you. Decide by then, so I'll know if we're wasting our time or not." He spun around without another glance at Jon and went off back in the direction of the great hall.

Jon stayed propped against the wall for a while, willing his pulse to return to normal so he could start walking again. He then returned to his room and saw to the last of his packing. Ghost was still out of the castle, probably hunting with Grey Wind, his soul told him. He grunted. At least a part of him could be with a part of Robb, and nobody would think twice about it. He longed to bury his face in Ghost's fur, which always made him feel better somehow.

He lay in bed for hours, awake and pensive. Thoughts swirled around in his head, ensuring that he pondered everything at least five times over. He had never thought so hard in his life. Robb needed to know what he was thinking and understand his point of view. Jon expected Robb to relay the point to his bannermen, yet Robb didn't seem to grasp it himself. All Jon wanted was to keep Robb safe. Why did they always butt heads over that? He needed to explain it all to Robb and, if Jon had to suffer through a deep and contented sleep with Robb's body half on top of his the entire night, then that was a sacrifice he was willing to make. With that selfless determination, Jon jumped off his bed and went looking for Robb.

The castle was mostly deserted despite the early hour, as everyone would have to be up and ready by first light. No doubt the brothel was full to bursting now, and he wondered if Ros had returned there or was still thinking of leaving for King's Landing. Jon couldn't imagine any more ships from White Harbor would be sailing there once word of the rebellion spread south.

He passed the privy on the way to Robb's room and heard a few loud chuckles coming from inside. Jon thought nothing of it until the words "Young Wolf" reached his ears. He stopped, feeling like a voyeur.

"Did you see how uncomfortable he was?" one gruff voice said. "Milord Krate actually thought he was going to get that slut out from under his roof and with the Young Wolf no less. Too bad the boy ain't interested." The man laughed.

Another voice snorted derisively after the first. "There were about half a dozen flowers prettier than Lady Cock in a Krate, but he gave them no more mind than you would weeds sproutin' in the midden. The boy must be a eunuch, betrothed, or worse."

"Nah. There ain't no betrothal on that one, least none that I know of. There was talk that he was meant for Lady Myrcella, but you know how that's turned out. What I heard down in the tavern..." He started to whisper, but as if he knew there were listeners and didn't care all that much. "One of the townsfolk, some miller or another, drunk, told me tales about the Young Wolf's last trip to a brothel."

"A brothel? Well, ain't that reassuring."

"Wait 'til I'm done. You see, he went in, true, but never even touched a wench. He just took a room for hisself."

The second man chuckled uncomfortably. "Mayhaps he got cold feet? He's young. Could've just beat his prick after getting a look. Or some such."

Though Jon couldn't see it, he was sure the first man shrugged. "Mayhaps. Might be that's what I'd think, if I weren't told he went to that room with his brother."

A comical gasp. "His brother? The little crippled one or..."

"The bastard, you fool! The damn bastard! Some boy from the Iron Isles, too. Who knows what blasphemous shit they get up to on those miserable black rocks. Their drowned god probably lets them fuck their mothers."

"That's just unsettling," came the grunted reply. "Think you they feed children to their dogs? Like it's said in the Rills?"

A scoff. "I don't know nothin' about that, but you're a dullard, so I won't lose no sleep over it. It's a shame we have to follow the young monster into war, but the lords are all half in love with him, so what can we rabble say about it? He for sure won't be falling in love with ol' box for a cunt, though." The privy door burst open, and the men came out laughing, their voices ringing as they made the bend and descended the stairs. They never saw Jon backed into a shadowed alcove on the opposite side, shaking and his face pale.

He didn't know how he got to Robb's room. His body had seemingly shut down, and he was running on what little strength was left. Jon traced a finger along the grain of the door, longing for the warm body that lay within. But it was hopeless now. Had always been hopeless. He pressed his forehead against the cool wood, praying that Robb would understand and forgive him, but he never wanted Robb to know what others thought. How men spoke of them. He would take that secret to his grave, and Robb would never have to look on it. With a pretty southron wife by his side and a dozen trueborn auburn-haired children, the whispers would die soon enough.

Jon went back to his room to face another restless night alone.

· · ·


Winterfell looked bigger than Jon remembered. The procession had long since marched down the kingsroad, only the baggage train remaining, but those sworn to Winterfell lingered for a little while longer to say their farewells. Jon watched Robb shake hands with Maester Luwin, exchanging words of encouragement before hopping on his horse. His gaze met Jon's for a moment, but Robb turned away, still refusing to speak to or even look at Jon. Robb waved to Bran where the boy sat on Hodor's shoulders atop the battlements, eyes teary, before wheeling his horse around and trotting to join the column without a glance at Jon.

Jon waved to Bran with his bad hand, and his little brother smiled, knowing what it meant. His eyes were dry as he pulled his horse about and galloped to the head of the march, his home dwindling behind him. He tried not to feel regret at leaving Bran. Jon had only just come to terms with that, and he didn't want to reopen the wound. Bran was smarter and more mature than he let on, and Jon had done all he could for Bran. Whatever happened now, Bran would have to save himself and, if he still didn't know how to fly, he could learn on his own.

Summer loped next to Ghost, jumping and cuddling together on the grass and racing beside Jon's horse, until he could follow no longer, and Jon waved one last goodbye to Bran. He knew Bran was watching through those yellow eyes.

For three days, Robb pretended that Jon didn't exist, and it was three days later that the riders from White Harbor came with Lady Stark.

They were camped beside a small lake a league west of the kingsroad and a fortnight from Moat Cailin. The Stark banner billowed atop Robb's pavilion, taller than a man with its printed direwolf about the same size as Grey Wind. The smoke of a thousand cook fires blew from the plain where Robb's army was camped. Robb emerged from his huge tent to receive his mother. Two of the fattest men Jon had ever seen had come with her, more massive than their horses with their merman sigils looking like minnows on their broad chests. Wylis and Wendel Manderly were gracious enough, though, pledging their swords to Robb and gushing about what a pleasure it was to escort his lady mother. Robb offered them a place at his table that night, then led Lady Stark to the tent flap so they may speak alone. Jon thought that was the end of that, until Robb's finger pointed at him and to the inside of the tent, clearly still upholding the silent treatment. Before he could ask why his presence was required, Robb had already slipped inside, and he had no choice but to follow. As my lord commands.

He came in to find Lady Catelyn hugging Robb beside the brazier. Jon had never realized how tall Robb had gotten until he compared now to the last time mother and son had embraced more than half a year past. He thought they were going to exchange loving words—whatever it was children did with their mothers—until Lady Stark broke away from Robb and glared at him in accusation. "How could you, Robb? How could you share our secrets with Tyrion Lannister? You could have destroyed us!"

Robb gaped like the fish on his mother's sigil. Obviously, he had not been expecting that so soon. "I..."

Jon stepped forward. There was no way he was letting Robb take the blame for this. "It was me, my lady. Not Robb. I told Tyrion Lannister everything."

Robb shook his head. "Jon, no..."

"Oh, so you're talking to me now?" Jon snapped.

At least Robb had the grace to look sheepish. Lady Stark seemed to have noticed Jon for the first time, and her glare was as familiar as ever. "You? You told Lannister about Bran, about the assassin and Joffrey? How dare you?"

Robb found his footing at last, stepping in between Jon and his mother, a gesture that seemed alien to Jon after the past three days. "Yes, Jon told him. And you know what? Nothing bad has come of it. The Imp has actually been helping us, in ways you don't know of yet. Be grateful that Jon has such a good head on his shoulders."

Now, Jon really hadn't expected that, but he held on to the last vestiges of his anger towards Robb. He deserved to be angry.

Lady Catelyn thought so, too, because she was fuming. "Your father was cast in a dungeon right after the dwarf arrived in King's Landing. You mean to tell me he had nothing to do with that? I should have had him thrown off a mountain, but instead I released him, let him ride off on his merry way and didn't bring him to justice because... because he said..."

Robb's hands were clasped behind his back, face stern and immovable like a proper lord. "Hold on to that thought, Mother, because he's not the enemy you think he is... we thought he was. It took a while for me to see it myself, but Jon helped me along, and Lannister's last efforts have been attempts to save Father as well as expose the real monsters in our midst."

"What do you mean?" Lady Stark asked, clearly sensing the apprehension the revelation would bring her.

"Petyr Baelish," was all Robb said.

"Petyr?" she said, with more fear than surprise. It was obvious she had expected as much. She sat down on one of the stools scattered around the tent. "The Imp mentioned him, too. He said that Petyr lied about the dagger, that it didn't belong to him. Why would Petyr lie about that?"

Robb sat on a stool across from his mother, gripping her shoulder tightly. They both knew that what they were about to tell her would devastate her. "He is a liar, Mother, though that one simple word doesn't quite encompass his misdeeds." Robbturned to Jon and gave him his cue.

Jon sighed and went on with the by now familiar dance. Lady Stark stared at him with suspicion, but the horror of the story soon overrode her ingrained conceptions of him. He told the tale flatly, not only because he was speaking to Lady Catelyn, but because he had recited it so many times already that the words didn't sicken him anymore. And yet he was the only one who truly appreciated the threat of Petyr Baelish, far more than Robb did. Jon wondered what that said about him.

By the time Jon was done, tears were flowing freely down Lady Stark's fair skin. "Ellys? I thought he gave her to me as a gift. She was such a wonderful handmaid, always so courteous and sweet. Always offering to cut my hair..." She wrapped her arms around her stomach, her disgust going bone deep.

Robb rose from his seat and joined Jon, standing by his side. They said nothing, letting Lady Catelyn work through her grief. A dear friend had just been unmasked as a monster before her. The torment could not be easy to bear.

"How could he do this to us?" she groaned, her throat sounding thick and wet. "I always assumed he was jealous. Just a little. He resented Brandon, and he had never been cordial with Ned. But this... This is evil. To threaten my entire family. To betray Ned and have him accused of treason. To send spies to our home. I shouldn't have asked Brandon to spare him. I should have let him die... Gods, what have I done..." The sobs continued, and it was clear that Lady Stark had reached the nadir of her turmoil. A long while later, she stood shakily, her eyes dry, though they remained red and anguished. "I thought that I would be going home to my babies, to hold them and tell them everything will be well," she croaked. "But I don't think anything can be so long as Petyr lives. I will come with you in your war."

Robb frowned at that. "Mother, I don't think that's—"

She rounded on him. "You want to have your vengeance, so let me have mine. He is my greatest mistake, and I mean to correct it if I can."

Robb and Jon exchanged worried glances, not knowing what they could say to that. But it was apparent that Lady Catelyn's mind was set, and there was no changing it. "Well, you might be pleased to hear that I've hatched a plan concerning Littlefinger. We know a whore who intends to leave for King's Landing to work in his brothel. She has agreed to send information to us, as a... debt to a friend."

Jon glanced at Robb, equal parts startled and impressed. When had he managed that?

Lady Stark nodded absently, still lost in her living nightmare.

Robb seemed at a loss as to what else to say, until something came to mind and he went up to her, suddenly nervous again. "Mother, there's another thing. About Theon—"

She scowled, an ugly expression on her tear-ravaged face. "Yes, I read your letter at the Eyrie. Be sure that Balon Greyjoy will not sit on his laurels and let this slide. He has rebelled for much less." She regarded Jon with eyes that were like daggers burrowing into his gut. "I understand that you were there when it happened. What folly have you wrought this time?"

Jon bowed his head, ready to say he was sorry, but they both jumped as a stool went flying into the tent canvas. Robb had kicked it, his face purple with rage. "Enough! That's enough! You will not torture him anymore! I command it!"

Lady Catelyn was aghast, her expression contorted in shock. "Robb..."

He extended a finger at her face. "I'm sorry that you are in pain, but Jon has suffered as much, and I will not stand for your shit anymore! He's helped me more than anyone after you left, which I've found unbelievable ever since I finally opened my eyes and realized how you've tormented him all these years! He should hate me, but instead he's taken care of me and of Bran, as well. I don't know how he did it, but Bran is actually happy now. Which you had no part in while riding around the fucking south, kidnapping dwarves! He gave us Tyrion Lannister, he exposed Ellys and your wonderful friend Littlefinger, he lost his hand trying to save Bran—the least you could do is thank him rather than spewing this venom everywhere he goes! Blame Father all you want, but Jon had nothing to do with his sins! If you want to come with us, then this ends now, or I'm sending you back to Winterfell! And don't assume you can stop me! Is that clear, Mother?"

All color had drained from Lady Catelyn's face midway through Robb's tirade. Even her eyes seemed paler, as if the light had been shouted out of them. She muttered something that sounded a lot like, "Please excuse me... I need a strong drink," before she shambled stiffly out of the tent.

There was a deathly silence in the pavilion and, if Jon listened closely, he could almost hear the echo of Robb's voice ringing through the air.

Robb collapsed onto a stool, both of his hands in his hair. "It shouldn't have gone like that," he grumbled guiltily. "I was too rough on her. But I got so angry when she said that to you and in my hearing for once. I wanted to break something. I know what you're going to say—that I didn't need to do that. But I did. I don't want her making snide remarks to you while—"

He was unable to finish as Jon tackled him to the ground, attacking his lips like a wild animal. Soon Robb stopped struggling as he realized he was being mauled in only the best possible way and began returning the desperate kiss in kind. Three days and a lifetime of frustration drove their tongues to twist together, and they rolled around trying to find the position that would allow them to press closer to one another. When the need to breathe could be denied no longer, they disengaged reluctantly, sucking air into their lungs, lips wet and cooling, with Jon straddled across Robb's thighs, hands braced on either side of Robb's head. Maybe it was the light, but Jon swore he saw sparks in Robb's eyes. "I should... attack my mother... more often..."

Jon couldn't help but smile at that before descending back onto Robb's lips, their tongues playing their own version of cyvasse until Robb held Jon's face with his hands and pushed Jon away, both of them panting. Robb's thumbs rubbed absentminded circles over Jon's cheeks, catching on the corners of his lips.

"Does this mean we're... Are we..." Robb interrupted, the killjoy for a change.

"Shut up," Jon gasped before diving in for another breathless kiss. He rocked his hips in a move that seemed to drive Robb mad, body arching under his in a long, taut line, so he did it once more, again and again...

Robb moaned into Jon's mouth before pulling his face away again with shaky fingers. "You... you want to kiss... I can respect that... but just let me say..." He stuttered to a stop when Jon's hand found its way through the layers of clothes at his waist to settle warm against bare skin. "...you were right, and I was wrong... As always... We'll be discreet... I promise... No one will ever know..." A gasp. Jon had shifted one of his legs between Robb's. He stretched out down the length of Robb's body, draping himself over Robb with small hitching motions. "Gods, don't stop, don't stop... I... command it..."

Jon rolled his eyes but did as he was bidden, and there were no more interruptions.

He prayed to all the gods he could think of, to the old and the new, to the drowned god of the ironborn and the red god of the east. He even prayed to their shared ancestors and father, begging them to forgive him his selfishness for as long as Robb wanted him. If you must punish someone, then punish me. Just let me have this...

Chapter Text

The Heart of the Neck


He was having that dream again. His feet ascended the spiraling stairs, guided by an unseen force. The old nightmare beckoned him higher, as it always did, each step echoing against the red stone of the tower. Hot desert winds raged outside and whistled through the cracks in the walls, but within the structure his skin was icy cold. His bones felt much older than their young years, exposed and ground to dust by the cruel rushing sands of Dorne and dried to ashes beneath the relentless sun. But he never felt so cold even in Winterfell, when his blood did not drip with his every lurching stride from the wounds he had sustained, to be swallowed by the red foundations.

He knew without knowing that what lay at the top would bring him no warmth, no comfort. Death had spurred him on this long and bloody journey, and death would await him still at its conclusion. Six had ridden with him after Rhaegar Targaryen perished at the Trident and Tywin Lannister laid the cold, ruined bodies of his children at the foot of the Iron Throne, but only one had made it through the threshold of the Tower of Joy. Howland Reed had not followed him, the little man leaning on his spear at the shadow of the entrance, his face veiled in blood, too weak to brave the steps. Eddard was grateful for that. He could not have survived without his small companion, but this was a trial he had to face alone.

Up he went, higher and higher, alone, his vision a purple haze as he scaled the final step. Curtains billowed from the canopy, blue petals dancing around his feet. He raged at the gods then, knowing they couldn’t hear him so far south. It was not fair to lose so much. He wished he could die with them.

Her pale hand caressed his cheek, smearing it with her blood. “Promise me Ned,” she had whispered, her eyes wet with his tears. “Promise me you’ll love him as your own…and...don’t tell Robert…”

He took the bundle from her arms, and screamed when it turned into Robb’s head, his blue eyes dead and sightless. The tower crumbled around him as visions surged before his eyes, one after another. Cruel laughter burst to meet his horror, the Mad King cackling upon his throne as he went up in green flame. An army of corpses with pale, glowing eyes rushed like a torrent onto a wall of ice, a black dragon circling overhead. A single blue rose unfolded from a frozen crevice. Bran fell from the highest branch of a weirwood, swallowed by a sea of rotting hands and torn to shreds. A man in golden armor laughed as he watched.

A crow with three eyes shrieked from a windowsill.

Jon Snow opened his eyes, blinking away a sheen of sweat. He was on his stomach, blankets tangled around his legs several meters away from his bedroll. Ghost licked at his face as he rolled onto his back with a groan, muscles aching from so many hours writhing on hard ground. His dreams were getting stranger and stranger the farther they marched from Winterfell. He thought that the gods would only relent in their torment the nearer they got to exiting the north, but it seemed to have the opposite effect. There was a sense of urgency to the dreams, as if the mounting chaos invading his rest were messages demanding his attention. But he had a hard time enough remembering one vision out of hundreds, let alone caring what they meant.

“This is getting ridiculous…,” he grumbled. Ghost nuzzled his chin comfortingly and he scratched the wolf behind the ears in thanks. “At least one of us got some sleep. Traitor.” He yawned and rubbed at his eyes, as exhausted as if he had never gone to bed at all. He tried to pinpoint what it was the dreams were trying to tell him this time, but the images were already fading from his memory. Suddenly he felt a debilitating sense of loss for his brother, father, and sister, and for a moment he thought he was going to vomit. He reminded himself that neither his father nor Robb were dead, and that he had two sisters, both of which were very much alive…had to be alive…

So why did he keep seeing Arya on a bed of blood?

He extricated himself from the covers and strode to the basin on the other side of his tent, dousing his face in water. He needed to wake up, to get out, to assure himself that everyone he ever cared about weren’t buried beneath Winterfell. When he had washed off as much of the night as he could and relieved the parchedness from his throat, he threw on his cloak and ducked through the tent flap, Ghost loping at his heels.

Jon breathed in the cold morning air, thick with the smell of swamp water and horse shit, as he glanced at the black remains of the cook fire he had made the other night. He had pitched his tent in the shadow of the Gatehouse Tower where Robb had taken quarters on the highest floor. Habitable lodgings were hard to come by in the dilapidated ruins of Moat Cailin, and Jon was not about to take one from Robb’s bannermen, no matter how hard his brother tried to be persuade him otherwise. He almost laughed himself to tears when Robb had suggested they share a room, completely oblivious to the wild blush that had colored his cheeks to match his auburn hair.

Instead Jon elected to sleep right at the base of the tower, which was as close to Robb as he could safely get, though the young lord had done little to hide his disappointment. Anyway, Jon couldn’t imagine the accommodations were much better within than without, or at least he told himself. Centuries of moss and vines smothered the towers like a second skin, spreading out to swallow the mess of fallen foundation blocks littering around them which was all that was left of the castle walls. The Children’s Tower and the Drunken Tower flanked opposite sides of the causeway, completing the set.

Jon had barely contained his disappointment upon seeing the broken pile of rocks and mildew that had once been the sole guardian of the north from southron invasion. But then Jon saw just what the towers were guarding, and his opinion changed. The poisonous bogs and exotic wildlife of the Neck were as dangerous as the towers themselves, and there was no way to get past them but to squeeze an army through the narrow causeway and straight into Moat Cailin, to be rained by arrows from all sides. A force of three hundred could hold back thirty thousand if their quivers were well stocked.

Still, while the setting had its advantages, there were its drawbacks as well. Recent rains and the phase of the moon had raised the tidal waters within the Neck, flooding over the causeway and blocking their only route to the south. Despite all their protestations, the crannogmen’s best advice was to wait out the tide before advancing further, or risk making their soldiers and horses wade through knee high bog water to be slowly wiped out by snakes, lizard lions and disease from mosquito bites. It would be the shortest war in the history of the north, a point that Robb was forced to concede, though reluctantly, and with a slew of muttered curses.

They had been trapped for three days now.

“Is that how these swamp folk break their fast? Why, I could eat a whole bison, and still have room for half an elk. Have these gods forsaken cranoggmen ever even seen a bison? A warrior can’t live on frogs alone, son. It’s no wonder they’re so damn short!” Greatjon Umber’s characteristic bellow burst from several dozen paces off in the direction of the Children’s Tower, where their house had claimed residence. He strode towards the Gatehouse Tower, his son the Smalljon lumbering after him. The Greatjon wore the pelt of a snow bear of which legends claimed he had peeled off the animal himself, with his bare hands. Jon was inclined to believe it. He spotted Jon beside his tent and called out, “Morning to you Jon Snow. Get some meat on you boy, you’re looking a bit famished. Though I can’t say I’m doing much better.” The big man thumped his belly, which must have been like swinging a hammer against a boulder.

Jon bowed. “Morning to you as well, my lord. I’ll send Ghost out to hunt and we can share the bounty.”

The Greatjon laughed, flexing his hand with its missing fingers. “I’ll hold you to that, boy. I know whatever meat he’ll get us will be bloody tough.” He was still laughing as he went into the Gatehouse.

The Smalljon did not follow his father inside and instead sauntered towards him. “Halloo Jon.”

“Hello to you too Jon,” he replied with a smile. That was how they greeted each other every morning. Smalljon Umber had been a pleasant riding companion when he couldn’t be with Robb, and it helped that they were close in age, the seven foot heir to Last Hearth only just eighteen. It was easy to forget that when he towered over his own giant of a father and was eternally covered in furs, whether the sort from hapless mammals or the shaggy mane encasing his face and head. “Aren’t you going in with your father?”

“Naw,” he said past his beard, bending down to tickle Ghost under his snout. “Just another boring war council. That’s really all we can do right now, listening to the great lords mutter to each other and pretend like we’re doing something, even if it’s just to repeat the same things we’ve discussed a fortnight ago. I’ll follow your brother to the grave, no doubts about that, but he can be a bit obsessive if you don’t mind me saying.”

This is his first command, which happens to be a rebellion. He just wants to get it right, he left unsaid.

The Smalljon stood up, looking down on Jon with curiosity. “Aren’t you going in yourself?”

Jon glanced up at the roof of the tower, which had begun billowing smoke from the hearth. “No, that wouldn’t be…proper.” He had almost said “necessary”. He already knew all of Robb’s plans by heart, having formed half of them himself during their rare moments of privacy, when they deigned to use their mouths for conversation… He turned away to hide the blush, though he could probably blame it on the cold.

The Smalljon made no note of it though. The taller boy was often oblivious to his dark moods or just chose to ignore them with a customary, easygoing grin on his face. He was the perfect friend as far as Jon was concerned. He employed that grin now. “Well, there’s been a bit of news that they haven’t seen fit to share with the rest of the council. You’ll be pleased to hear that I’m about to be betrothed.”

Jon turned away from the tower to raise a surprised eyebrow at his friend, wondering what woman would be brave enough to share a bed with Smalljon Umber. “Who’s the lucky lady?”

He started fidgeting with his boot, which was such a childish action from a man so massive. “It’s just an idea, nothing official, so don’t make anything of it. The letters haven’t even been sent yet. It’s to Asha Greyjoy. Lord Balon’s girl.”

Jon simply gaped at that. “Asha…Greyjoy? Theon’s sister?” For some reason he had never really thought about Theon’s siblings, though he knew he still had them, the one’s that hadn’t died in the war. He’d certainly never met his sister, and only ever heard of her from Theon’s drunken tirades. He couldn’t even imagine what she would look like, except maybe Theon with long hair and wearing a gown. He shivered at the thought. He drew himself away from that foul image and considered the proposal itself, grasping that it couldn’t possibly be a match made at the spur of the moment, not when they were on the precipice of open warfare with the Greyjoys. “Who cooked this up?”

The Smalljon appeared disgruntled by the question. “Your brother of course, with his mother whispering at his side, and my pa too when he got sold on the idea. They think that if things don’t blow over with the squids, we can’t afford to have them hounding on our flanks. So why not have them join us through marriage? There are worse houses to be bound to, and they can’t act offended at the prospect of joining one of the strongest houses in the north. Harrion’s been put forth as well, though Lord Rickard didn’t seem as pleased as my pa. He has his eyes on your sister Sansa, if the talk is right. They need not bother anyway. I’m taller than Harrion, and so’s me manhood. And my ma always said I looked like Prince Rhaegar after a haircut.”

Jon nodded, grinning up at him. This was probably the best way forge a rapport with Pyke, if not true absolution. He patted his friend on the shoulder. “I’m happy for you Jon. If I had any money to bet I’d put it all on you.”

He chuckled, and then tilted his head as he studied Jon. “I wondered why they didn’t put you forth for the match. You’re more lordly than the rest of us, and a Stark besides. I asked Robb about that, but he just seemed agitated, as if I had offended him. If he wasn’t my commander I’d knock his block off for that.”

Jon was stricken, though a small part of him was pleased that Robb would be averse to the notion, and he was relieved the Smalljon had misunderstood his reaction. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. We don’t want to offend Lord Balon any further. I’m a bastard in case you’ve forgotten.”

The Smalljon scoffed derisively. “So what? What’s wrong with being a bastard? My sister’s betrothed to the bastard of Ramsgate, and I don’t hear anyone making a fuss about it. Bastards are people like the rest of us, and most of them have more manners besides. I like you well enough. Why can’t Lord Balon’s prissy little girl?”

Jon smiled slightly at his friend’s serious speech. He envied how simply he viewed the world, and wondered what it would be like to not see the consequences in everything and have his head swamped with doubts. Unfortunately Jon had never really known to think like that, and he couldn’t afford to when lives could be at stake. But his friend meant well and didn’t deserve to be lectured to, so he simply nodded in silence.

Neither of them knew what else to say, and they both suspected that the topic of betrothals had made things awkward. Unused to quiet, Smalljon thumped smaller Jon on the back and broke into another big hairy grin. “I’m pleased, if not a little disappointed, that you’re not glaring at me with jealousy. I have a camp follower waiting for me who says she hailed from White Harbor. I suppose I should try to get used to the smell of brine on a woman. You should try to get one yourself. I know you could use the relief.”

Jon shook his head, chagrined. “I think I’ll pass for now. You go on ahead.” The Smalljon ambled away into the direction of the Manderly camps, waiting for him to disappear from view before facing the crown of the Gatehouse Tower again with a sigh. Maybe it wasn’t so preposterous, the idea of being married off for an alliance. Robb would be wed for a certainty, depending on how the war went on. Perhaps himself as well, if a Stark bastard was truly worth more than some minor nobles, and if his seed could buy a thousand gangly foot soldiers.

Among other things, Jon did not wish to think on it, but like an unhealed would he could not stop prodding.

So lost in troubling scenarios was he that he never noticed Lady Catelyn exit the tower until she was halfway towards him. She must have been deep in thought as well, as she stopped in her tracks only when their eyes met. They were still red rimmed and bruised from crying. Whether they were a result of further separation from Bran and Rickon, Arya and Sansa’s uncertain fates, Lord Eddard’s captivity, Littlefinger’s betrayal, Robb’s first explosive outburst towards his own mother, or all of the above, Jon was in no business to know. Indeed, while Robb had thought at the time that commanding his mother to be civil would be to their benefit, he never considered how Lady Stark would react when her son chose his side over hers.

Hatred could only grow when you were forced to contain it.

Silence stretched between them. Ghost nipped at his hind legs, an excuse to hide his face. Jon wanted to kick him. Instead he bowed his head, “My lady.”

Lady Stark stared at him, a thousand scathing responses battling behind her noble visage. No words won out in the end, and she simply nodded curtly, her eyes dry and cold. She hiked up her skirts and swept past him down the muddy dirt track, in haste to get away from him.

He raised his head when he was sure she was truly gone. He cuffed Ghost lightly with his boot. “Thanks for the defense.” He wondered if there would ever come a time when he wouldn’t have to freeze up and retreat into himself in Lady Stark’s presence. He wondered if Hodor could become king of Westeros and rain lemon tarts down on the starving masses from his dragon.

With no particular direction in mind he set off, if only to get his legs moving. Smoke from cook fires and the clang of whetstones on steel washed over him as he found himself in one of the camps. The grey direwolf flew high and proud over rows of tents numbering in the hundreds, the main force from Winterfell. Men (and some women) in varying stages of undress bowed to him as they went about their business, not a one of them dressed in armor. Cries of “milord” and “care to join us around the fire milord?” assailed him as he trudged across the camp, nodding his head in acknowledgement and graciously turning down their offers. He crossed a wooden plank over a narrow stream and with every step the noise and smells of the army died away, to be replaced by the natural wild ambience of the Neck.

There were few places in Westeros more dangerous than the Neck, and he appreciated its quiet menace. Black willows fanned their network of branches and twigs high above him, dappling the forest floor in green and blue shadows. He looked out over the pond, which was thick in an accumulation of scum and moss, masking the predators lurking in their shallow depths. Cypress grew out like spires from the water’s soil, half trees honed to sharp points by a process he didn’t understand. Toads the size of cats sang their deep-throated song on the bank, calmly picking off a troupe of dragonflies circling overhead.

Jon sat on a log parallel to a ledge overlooking the pond, making sure to place himself on the driest, least rotten section. He swung his legs back and forth several feet over the water’s surface, so he did not fear any lizard lions leaping out of the muck to chomp his leg off. Ghost curled up beside him and he wrapped an around his neck, simply enjoying the privilege of peace. The forest seemed to go on forever, the pond branching off into a stream constituting the web of green channels that flowed through the Neck like veins. He had heard the Neck was more populated than it appeared, but he could see no structure or anywhere that people could comfortably live. The crannogmen were a strange and secretive lot, and he had never gotten the chance to question them. They seemed to just disappear into the shadows whenever it suited them.

He envied that talent. It was difficult finding moments to be alone on a march…more so to be alone with Robb. It still embarrassed him to think back on that, losing his restraint the way he did and jumping on Robb. But for all the guilt, he couldn’t pull himself away from the short moments that they could spend together. They kissed wherever it was possible; when he could slither into Robb’s tent in the dead of night, in the alcoves of whatever holdfast they stopped in to resupply, even in bushes deep in the side of the road when they paused to make water.

Being away from Robb was like having his wits pulled from him an inch at a time and he could barely think straight. Sometimes he even slipped into Ghost’s skin while he was alone in his tent and padded into Robb’s quarters to see him. He always found him poring over maps and half-open tomes with a dark cast to his face that he never showed even to Jon, but he was always happy to see Ghost, petting and holding him like he would Grey Wind. Robb didn’t understand the full extent of it, but Jon was certain that he sensed at least instinctually that a part of him lived on in his wolf. He visibly relaxed in his presence, the strain easing from his shoulders, so he slipped in as often as he could.

He yawned, rubbing at his eyes with the back of his glove. The month of sleepless nights were catching up with him. The patch of weeds behind him looked very inviting to Jon, and was probably more comfortable than his ratty old bedroll. Maybe a change of scenery would accord him with long, dreamless sleep.

Standing up, he stretched his sore, unrested limbs and watched a swallow swoop down on a wasp with heavy eyes. Gods he was tired. He reasoned that the three eyed crow would ignore him this time and just leave him be. He was going to die if he didn’t get any rest, and who would that help? Besides, he couldn’t recall the damned crow visiting upon him in the daytime…the three-eyed crow…

The three-eyed crow was staring at him from a branch across the pool.

His boots shifted in alarm, his torso leaning forward reflexively to confirm what he had just seen. Before he could even think about how impossible this was and that he was obviously still dreaming, his boot scuffed on a patch of slippery moss and he slid off the log. There was nothing solid to stop his fall, and he didn’t even have the chance to yelp before the freezing, foul smelling water swallowed him whole, the cover of moss quickly reforming as soon as he submerged like a mouth closing shut. The pond was deeper than he thought, though he could barely see his own hands in front of him let alone the bottom. His cloak and his sword belt weighed him down like ballast. He pushed up towards the murky green light, but something kept him tethered. He saw with an exhalation of bubbles that his cloak was snagged on the cypress. He pulled with all his strength, but the tree would not let him go. He had released all the oxygen he had in his panic, and water was rushing in to replace it, choking him. He felt his strength leaving him…

Ghost was silent, ever silent, but he sensed from the depth of his soul that he was barking down at him, darting around and desperate to save his master and brother, but in his mind Jon screamed at him to stay on the ledge, as jumping after him would ensure both of their deaths. For a moment Jon slipped into him, looking down at the waves of the pond, but quickly he fled back to himself, and he was drowning again. If he left his body then he would die for true. He could live on as Ghost, he knew he could, but Robb wouldn’t be happy with just Ghost. Robb would miss him…Robb…

After a while he stopped struggling, the darkness taking over his senses. He couldn’t even feel the cold anymore as warmth spread around him, pulling him and dragging him insistently. So that’s what dying felt like…strangely comforting. The only thing that could make it complete would be to feel Robb’s lips just one more time. He tried opening his eyes, hoping that his first glimpse of the afterlife would be the memory of Robb’s kiss…

But a girl was kissing him instead.

He gasped, or at least he tried to, but all that came out was an ejection of fluid and painful wheezing coughs as the liquid burst out of his lungs. He rolled unto his side and coughed into the muddy earth beside the pond until he could breathe. He drew in as much air as he could, boneless and weak from near death and shivering uncontrollably. He was alive…somehow he had made it out of the water and was alive…he opened his eyes again and the girl was there, straddling over him.

“Are you alright?” she said, beads of moisture flowing down the tips of her short brown hair to fall on his face. Her eyes were a startling green. “I thought you were done for. I swam as fast as I could after I saw you fall from the far bank. You should watch your step next time. The moss can be slippery.”

“Duly noted…” he croaked, going into another round of hacking coughs. She did not draw away from him, waiting it out with concern in her eyes. Her hand was on his chest. When he was finally able to speak again, he said, “Thank you for pulling me out. But, what were you doing when you…” he found himself unable to say it. What if he dreamed up that part?

Or maybe he didn’t, as she turned her face away, her cheeks flushing red despite that she was pale and shivering from the damp and the cold. “Yes, well…I’m sorry about that. I had no choice. If I didn’t blow the water out of your lungs you would have drowned still. I’ve never done it before…not the kiss, the blowing part…well, the kiss as well…my father taught me how to do it…not the kiss of course…but I never tried it for real. I suppose I did it right, then, as you’re still breathing…” She shook her head, embarrassment clear on her face. “I’m babbling right now. I’ve never saved someone’s life before…especially not in that fashion…”

Jon was somewhat amused by her flustering, which only made her cheeks burn brighter when she noticed the small smile on his lips. “It’s no harm done, really. I’m grateful you…did that. Thank you. I’m Jon Snow. What’s your name?”

She swiped the soggy strands of hair from her eyes and tucked them behind an ear. “Meera Reed.” She moved off him and crouched by his side, giving him the chance to sit up. “You’re from Robb Stark’s army aren’t you? I must say not many of you have been brave, or stupid enough to walk so far into these woods all alone.”

Jon couldn’t argue with that point, removing his cloak and wringing it out before it froze around him. “I thought it would be a good idea and get some fresh air…or at least as fresh as it gets here. And I wasn’t alone…” On that thought, he glanced towards the log on the ledge where he had been so clumsy, and found it unoccupied. He stood up, his knees shivering. “Ghost? Where are you?” he called out.

Meera stared at him perplexedly. “Ghost? You northerners always say there are ghosts and bog wraiths haunting through the Neck, but I’ve never seen one. Are you sure you didn’t hit your head when you – oh gods!” She sprang up like a cat, drawing a frog spear that Jon had never noticed before tight in her quaking hands. “Either I’ve gone mad too or there’s a wolf running towards us.”

Indeed there was. Ghost must have circled around the pond and was bounding like an avalanche towards them. Meera stepped towards him, to push him away before the beast devoured him, but Ghost was too fast for her and tackled Jon to the ground, attacking his face with his tongue. “Ghost...stop it…relieved to see you too…I’m fine I’m fine…”

Meera gaped at the affectionate scene, her spear poised and extended, which might have looked threatening if it weren’t for the fish quivering at its neck. “Don’t tell me that monster is yours! That looks almost like a-“ She suddenly gasped and cupped her mouth in her hands, her spear its fish wagging comically. “A direwolf! You’re a Stark! The rumors were true. Forgive me for not recognizing you my lord.”

Seven hells not her too, he mentally groaned, pushing Ghost off and getting back to his feet.

She dropped down on one knee, and all Jon wanted to do was to pull her back up and slap some sense into her. “Please my liege, allow me to take you to my father’s hall. It’s nearby, and we have a hearth and some food to warm yourself with. You’re likely to rejoin the gods again if I let you walk off in sodden clothes.”

Is she only offering because I’m related to Robb? That bothered him for a second, before he remembered that he really wasn’t surprised anymore, and sighed. “I would appreciate that. Carry on then.”

She led him through the forest, while keeping Jon between herself and Ghost. For some reason he had assumed they were of an age, when he hadn’t noticed how short she was. She barely peaked his shoulder, and for a second he had the undoubtedly ill-conceived temptation to mess up her hair, like he would Arya. Maybe he had hit his head.

They trekked in silence, stepping over invisible sinkholes under Meera’s guidance and skirting around bushes of poisonous ivy that looked no different from all the other foliage, and Jon realized with a grimace that the only reason he had made it as far as he had alone was due to sheer luck. After ten minutes Jon had not seen one holdfast, keep or even a shanty by the river. Maybe the bog folk lived underground. He made to ask her if that was true, and noticed her darting her eyes away. She had been throwing covert glances at him since they had set out, clearly meaning to say something.

He was about to tell her to spit it out, to ask him what it was like to be a lord in Winterfell and be waited on hand and foot as if he was a prince, when she saved him the trouble. “Are you a skinchanger?” she muttered.

All his dark thoughts evaporated into a puff of smoke, and he nearly stumbled on a toadstool. “What?”

“Skinchanger. Warg, beastman, shapeshifter, were-”

“I know what a skinchanger is!” he exclaimed. “I’m asking you why you think I’m one.”

She gazed at him, never losing her step as they traipsed through a mound of twining tree roots. “Oh, I forgot you aren’t from the Neck, and you probably kept it a secret.” She leaned past him to look at Ghost while still keeping a safe distance. “If you’ve lived here as long as I have, you sort of learn to spot them. You’re not doing a very good job of hiding it.”

He glared down at Ghost as if it was his fault, and the poor wolf quirked his head and whined in dismay. See? It’s because you’re so obvious. Stop being an extension of me.

“That’s what I’m talking about,” Meera said with a smirk.

 Jon flinched, rubbing at the back of his neck. “Alright, so my secret’s out. What do I have to do to stop being so…apparent?”

She shrugged. “It’s not so much what you do, it’s just what you are. I know the same way you would know if two people were friends, rivals, siblings…lovers. It’s in the way you move, the way you interact with your familiar, the way your actions seem to mimic the other. I really don’t know how one would go about not seeming like a skinchanger. Nobody really tries to hide it here, as their hunters have no way to reach them, from the north or south. Hatred and superstition lose their potency in a place like this. If you want to know anything beyond that though, my father would be of more help to you. And maybe my brother too, if he’s had a dream about it…”

Jon smiled ruefully as he listened to her. I hope she never sees me with Robb, or she’ll know pretty much all my secrets.

They reverted back to silence, though it was more comfortable than the previous one, despite the fact that Jon felt almost exposed in her presence. It probably helped that Meera no longer seemed to fear Ghost, and had even stopped to throw a dagger at a ridiculously fat rabbit and offered it to him as a treat. That made them as good as best friends in Ghost’s book.

They emerged out of the edge of the forest into the silty bank of a wide, sluggish river, and what Jon had taken for treetops only moments ago turned out be something so bizarre that Jon couldn’t even speak. He had never seen anything like it.

Sitting on the river was the most horrible ship Jon had ever laid eyes on. It had a hull about the size of a large ocean galley’s, but the rest of the vessel was so strange he didn’t even really consider how something like that could move through a river without plowing through the bottom. It was just narrow enough to fit through the main channels of the Neck, but what it lacked in width it made up for in five towering stories. The upper half was an amalgamation of cabins and jutting balconies. The first layer seemed like the most normal, like any cabin one might find on a barge, but as the structure went higher, more and more rooms and extensions were added that fanned out like branches. He could walk onto the deck and actually stand under the shadow of the upper floors, making him wonder how the whole thing didn’t just tip over or sink to the river floor. Windows dotted the structures like eyes on wooden barnacles, and he could even see laundry whipping out of one from the fourth layer. Smoke poured out of a vent from the upper storey, hidden behind what looked remarkably like battlements. The only way Jon could explain the hideous anomaly was that it had once been a ship, who then decided it wanted to be a castle, but was unable to complete the transformation. 

But none of those were the strangest parts. At the very top, sitting like some grotesque crown was a weirwood, its pale arms extended outward like a blood drenched umbrella, the trunk disappearing down the center of the ship. Jon had really seen it all.

Meera turned to him with a grin, as if his reaction was the most normal thing in the world. “Um…we’re here. You can stop gawking now.”

He wanted to heed her order, but his eyes and his brain would not follow. “What…what…what is that?”

She made an offended pout, though it was plainly in jest. “That is Greywater Watch, the bleeding heart of the Neck.”

“Greywater Watch?” he repeated like a dumbstruck parrot. He had heard legends of Greywater Watch, that it was older than half the castles in Westeros and it moved. He could see now how that was possible, but its mobility was nowhere near as interesting as its appearance, and of course the heart tree growing out of its roof. Clearly it was a privilege just to lay eyes on Greywater Watch, if not even that much was known about it. He turned to Meera when realization struck him. “Wait, you’re Meera Reed? The Reeds of Greywater Watch?”

She arched an eyebrow at his surprise. “Are there any others? Come. I know my father would love to meet you, having been friends with your father and all.” She left him and walked across the gangplank, and he had no choice but to follow her, suddenly nervous.

The vessel-keep was as still as a true castle on the sluggish green water, and he didn’t feel it shift at all as he followed Meera through the door, Ghost loping before him. A gust of warmth and a woman with towels draped in her arms awaited them within. She handed one each to Meera and Jon. “Welcome back milady. Greetings to you as well milord. Our Lord Howland is expecting you,” she said, squeaking in surprise as Ghost darted around her legs.

How do you figure that? he meant to say, but somehow the words didn’t come. Meera on the other hand made a noise of irritation as she rubbed her hair aggressively with her towel. Jon couldn’t give that reaction the attention it deserved however, as he was too awestruck by everything around him.

Impossibly, inconceivably, the hold appeared to be twice as large within as without. It was practically indistinguishable from any other hall he’d seen, but instead of hewed stone everything was made of dark, varnished wood. Tapestries lined the walls, showing scenes of ancient battles involving dragons and white walkers, as well as the sigil of House Reed and even a Stark direwolf here and there. There was no lord’s seat that he could find, just stairs on either end of the hall leading up to the cluster of upper stories, and a long table near the center with a small hearth burning beside it.

And, of course, the weirwood growing out of the floor in the middle of the hall to break through the ceiling. He had almost missed that one.

Before Jon’s wonder could be renewed, Meera took him roughly by the arm and dragged him to the table, at the head of which sat a brown haired man with a thin beard and glittering green eyes, who, even sitting appeared to be no taller than Meera. He stood and pulled a chair, beckoning him to sit with a warm smile. “At last we meet, Jon Snow. As has been said, I have been expecting you, perhaps for a very, very long time.”

Meera let him go and glared hot knives at her father, her spear quivering in her hand. “Is that why you sent me out to catch a fish? You said you had a craving and you couldn’t possibly get through the day without trout in your belly, but I was only supposed to catch him wasn’t I?” She glowered at Jon, as if somehow he had masterminded it as well.

Lord Howland sat back down, his eyes twinkling in amusement. “You’re being irrational my sweetling. Everything is set in stone you know that. We can’t change the course of events no more than we can dam a river and create an ocean. I only know what your brother has seen. It is not a crime if I simply…gave a little push, so to speak. After all, even if you use different words to convey the same meaning, the song remains the same.”

Meera rolled her eyes and faced the chair on her father’s right. “And you, was it your idea to make me into father’s pawn? You could have left that out and me out of it.”

Jon nearly drew back when he saw that there was someone occupying the chair. It was probably the most nondescript little boy he had ever seen. Brown hair, a solemn face, and about the same age as Bran…but his eyes were deep and ancient, even in comparison to his father’s. “I only see what I see, sister. How father chooses to play within their boundaries is beyond my abilities. If he never sent you out to catch trout, you would have gone out yourself to watch the army camp. Father simply preferred the most amusing course.”

Meera had nothing to say to that. She raised her spear and for a moment Jon thought she was going to skewer her father with it, but she only shook out the fish still wriggling on its shaft to flop on the table before Howland Reed. “There’s your trout. Hope it tastes divine,” she said before stomping off to stand by the hearth with a scowl.

“Thank you my dear. Considering the gift this fish has brought us, it will make for a most satisfying supper.” A maidservant took the fish in two fingers and disappeared behind a door.  

Jon stared wide eyed at them all. What bizarre world had he just stumbled into? Surely he was still asleep on his bedroll and dreaming up a storm. “Forgive me my lord but…just what is going on here?”

The Lord of Greywater Watch gazed at him like the most patient father upon his son’s first sword swing. “I’m sorry lad. We must all seem very strange to you.”

“Speak for yourself…” Meera grumbled under her breath.

“But please, do sit and I promise to explain as much as I am allowed.”

Jon suddenly remembered that he had been standing the whole time even after the Lord had offered a seat, and he fell unto the chair gracelessly. The maid appeared again and placed a steaming hot mug of something before Jon.

“That tea has been in my family since the Age of Heroes. We don’t get many spirits here in the Neck, but we’ve never lacked for herbs.”

“Thank you my lord. Tea will do nicely.” He gripped the mug and took a sip. He winced at the bitter flavor, but as soon as it settled on his tongue it began to taste like honey and every flavor his mouth had longed for for a month, leading a trail of fire down to his stomach that spread outward. He gulped the concoction down.  

As he set down his tea, he saw from the corner of his eye Lord Howland setting his chin on steepled fingers, just looking at him with the most serene expression. Even more than when Meera had guessed that he was a warg, Howland Reed’s gaze seemed to expose him layer by layer, past his skin and into his soul, and he shivered at its intensity. There was something incredibly unsettling about him, even if by all appearances he seemed like a very kindly man. What was worse, the yet unnamed boy stared at him as well from across the table, but with such a profoundly placid expression that he felt no more interesting than a single brown blade of grass. Unnerved, he bowed his head and began fiddling with his mug, completely at a loss as to what to say. What am I doing here?

“Do you have questions, Jon Snow?”

His back straightened as if it had been struck by lightning. Of course Lord Reed could read his thoughts, or at least his face. It was probably rude to go right out and say what he was thinking, so he quested for things to inquire about. He didn’t need to look very hard. “Actually my lord, there is one thing that’s been bothering me…” His eyes ghosted to the weirwood, its bleeding, carved face taunting.

Lord Howland looked behind him and jumped in mock surprise. “Oh that. Sometimes I forget that’s even there. I wonder why guests are always so fascinated with it. Do you think hanging some banners around it would make it less noticeable?”

“Uh…” Is this man serious?

Howland Reed chuckled. “That was a joke, lad. You are so like your father that it almost seems like I am in his company again. How I treasured it... But back to your curiosity, to understand the heart tree you must first understand our history. What do you know about the origin of the Neck?”

Jon tilted his head in thought. “Only what Maester Luwin and Old Nan have told me, though they have some contrasting interpretations, the story is generally the same. They said that in order to hold back the Andals from invading the north, the children of the forest raised the waters of the Neck and turned it into swampland.”

Lord Howland nodded. “Yes, but that is not the entire tale. The children of the forest could not bear to sacrifice the wildlife of the Neck as well as its human inhabitants, so they built a ship to survive the flood. But as they were not craftsmen, they sought the help of a family of the First Men to assist with its construction. They also tasked that family with rounding up as many animals as they could fit into the ship, which ensured their longevity as the waters rose and wiped away the invaders. One child of the forest remained aboard to guide the ship until the waters receded, but she perished just as the gangplank descended unto the loamy soil of the newly made wetlands, and transformed into a heart tree. She remains still, to steer the ship and ensure it would never be lost to displacement or decay.”

Jon listened to the tale with rapt attention, as one of Old Nan’s tales came to life. “The ship…the family…you…”

“Yes. The Reeds have never left their ancestral home. It still brings me deep sadness how our northern neighbors never loved the children as we did, and so without understanding slayed them into extinction, even after how they had saved them.”

Jon felt a little sad as well. He always found it strange how the First Men obliterated the children, and yet worshipped their husks as gods. It was a shame how such a powerful and noble race died out, while people like the Lannisters remained. Unreasonably, he was angry all over again. “I feel the same way my lord. Thank you for telling me that. But, you say the weirwood moves the ship?”

Lord Howland’s smile widened. “Do you see a helm, Jon Snow? Our tree’s roots reach into the river floor, and they take us where they will. It is my belief that we have her to thank for our meeting, or at least…partly to thank.”

His head was swimming. Such ancient sorcery. It puts Winterfell to shame.

“The children have always sought out our best interest, even if the rest of humanity has been too blind to see it.” His gaze went to one of the tapestries hanging on the wall; a man in mail raising a glowing red sword while an army of pale, naked figures with blue eyes surged towards him. “Do you see that one, Jon? That is the first hero, the one who fought the Others and pushed them back into the black glaciers of the far north and ended the Long Night. The children knew that such a threat could never be truly vanquished, so they helped Bran the Builder in raising a Wall, infusing it with their magic. But even then, they believed such powerful constructions would not hold forever, and man is ever seeking to destroy that which they don’t understand. The children are all but gone now, but still their souls long for a champion to burn away the Long Night for when it once again descends unto our world.” Howland Reed turned to him, his green eyes shining brightly from the light of the hearth. “Do you understand, Jon Snow?”

A chill passed over him that had little to do with the story, though upsetting it was. There was expectation in Lord Howland’s stare, and he had no idea how to confront it. He had no clue why he had told him that tale, let alone how he was supposed to respond to it. “That’s…fascinating my lord…” he said lamely, and he was certain it was the wrong answer.

He didn’t have to see how Howland Reed took that response, as the maid returned with a plate of steaming roast meat that set his mouth to gushing. He had almost forgotten that he hadn’t eaten all morning. He was glad to see that she had also set out a bowl for Ghost, who already seemed to have digested his rabbit. “My lord, I couldn’t possibly…”

Lord Reed reverted to his airy smile. “Your words say one thing, but your stomach growls another. Drowning can be a very exhausting experience. Please, help yourself. We’ll talk while you eat.”

He started at the mention of “drowning”, but he was too hungry to really give it the thought it needed. He did stare at the plate a second longer than necessary, contemplating if he was about to taste frog for the first time, but he spied a piece that looked unquestionably like a wing, and he exhaled in relief. He ripped at it with his teeth. He chewed and swallowed for a time, listening to Ghost gobble up his own meal and the cackle of the fire, before he could hold it no longer. “My lord, just how did you know to expect me? And I don’t think I or your daughter ever mentioned any drowning.”

Howland Reed made a careless shrug. “It’s very simple really. My son, Jojen, saw it in a dream.”

What? Before he could recoil again, as it completely slipped his mind in the last fifteen minutes that the strange little boy was still sitting across from him, Jojen began speaking in a flat, sleepy voice. “A white wolf with a broken paw and wearing a black crown with red points is sinking in green water. There are chains wrapped around him, pulling him to the bottom. He has the means to break free, but he refuses to yield its weight. He fears more burdens await him at the surface.”

Jon gaped at him in shock.

“I am judging by your reaction, that you are not denying the dreams themselves,” Lord Howland said, his smile a little sad. “Which infers to me that either you know of someone with such dreams…or you have experienced these dreams yourself?”

He couldn’t deny any of that. He wanted so much for someone to make sense of what was happening to him. To explain to him why in the span of six months he had gone from a just an ordinary bastard to a skinchanger terrorized by bizarre nightmares that seemed to echo both prophecy and memory, and a talking crow that wouldn’t leave him be. He had hidden it within himself so not even he could see, but the truth was he was terrified. “Why?” was all he asked.

Lord Howland’s expression showed complete understanding. “My son is a green seer. The blood of the children flows thickly in his veins, and so he is gifted with dreams of incredible foresight. I myself possess a hint of the gift, but I would not be so bold as to call myself a green seer. While my son has frequent visions of subtle imagery, my own dreams are rare and more direct. They have been of some use to your father during the war.” He leaned forward, his pulsing green eyes locked with Jon’s. “I would hazard to propose that your dreams are neither like ours. Though you possess…other powers in abundance, I sense none of those gifts in you. No, I think your dreams are being given to you. You understand what I mean, don’t you?”

Howland Reed was truly drawing him open now, but he no longer wanted to fight it. He confessed without hesitation. “A three-eyed crow. He’s been…showing me things since my brother Bran woke up from his fall. He told me Bran was going to die unless I saved him. I’m still not sure if I did. He never tells me anything when he enters my dreams anymore, just shows me all these things, memories or visions I don’t even know. I don’t know what any of it means. I saw him today, in the woods, before I fell into the water, and Meera rescued me…”

Lord Howland listened to him in silence, sighing when he was finished. “The three-eyed crow, or a thousand eyes in one. They wrote a song about him, hailing him as a wizard. None of those bards could know how close their song encompassed his power.”

Jon was stunned, which seemed to happen quite frequently in Greywater Watch. “You know about him? You know who he is?”

“Aye. And I know that he brought you here, so I may set you on your path. He knows his words can’t move you, unless they concern those you love, so he looks to me, a dear friend of Eddard Stark. I know he hears us now, his magic flowing through the eyes of the weirwoods.” His hand gripped the gold lizard lion around his neck, the sigil of his house. “But I will not play by his game. He thinks that fate is something to be rearranged, a puzzle for him to solve with his hands. But I know that destiny is something one chooses, a path that may lead to the same destination, but can flow outward in infinite directions, changing all. He means to force that change in you. I don’t believe he should try, and hence I will not let him.”

Jon knew Lord Howland was trying to dispel the confusion in him, but his explanation had only broadened it. Suddenly he was desperate. “You say you all brought me here. That weirwood, your dreams, the crow. Why? What is it that you all want from me? I’m not some puppet that you can all just pull around. I’m no one, just some lord’s get. Why won’t any of you give me a straight answer? What do you want?” He knew he was raising his voice, and to a lord no less, but he couldn’t contain it anymore. So much was happening so quickly and he understood nothing.

“I want you to be your father’s son, and finish what he started.”

Those tender words pulled Jon completely out of his chaos. “What…what do you mean? Finish what?”

He turned away, as if he could not look at Jon anymore. “When your host exits the Neck and ventures south, the crow will no longer be able to reach you. You will be free to be your own man, to discover the truth for yourself. But, your…father, Lord Eddard, one of his greatest flaws is how he holds sorrow to his chest, hoarding it like a treasure, preventing anyone from taking a piece, with the conviction that he’s protecting them…until it’s too late. There are things I believe he never should have kept from you.” 

A memory flashed behind his eyes, and he winced at the sudden pressure in his temples. He saw fleeting images of a bedspread stained in blood and blue petals swirling at his feet. A baby sobbed in his arms. As quickly as they came they were gone, and all that remained was a single tear running down his cheek. He wiped it away with a finger, his eyes fixed on the bead. “You…you were there with me…I mean, with my father…when I…when he took me from Dorne…” He didn’t know why, but his throat was seizing up, and more tears threatened to flow. It was the image of a dead Arya all over again...but only…

When he looked up, Howland Reed’s expression was drawn in sadness, and he could see his own tears beading at the corner of his eyes. “Yes. I was. I was there when your mother laid you in…Lord Eddard’s arms, and I heard her words, urging him to keep you safe. She loved you till the very end, my lad. So don’t ever say that you are no one.”

Suddenly the barriers were washed away, and the tears flowed freely. So she’s dead. Had that been why his father never spoke of her? Because she died to give him life? Did Lord Eddard blame him for that? He knew that the thought was wrong, and he was sure Lord Howland would chastise him if he spoke it. Maybe a part of him had always known that she was gone, which has why his father had risked taking him to Winterfell rather than leave him in Dorne. Still, he never realized how much he longed to know the truth until he did. Ghost came up to him and he wrapped his arms around his head. “Thank you my lord. Thank you…”

“I have something for you.” He rummaged in his pocket and pulled out a small felt case, dropping it in Jon’s palm.

“What’s in it?”

“Something that will not mean much to you now. So I ask that you keep it safe, and only open it when the time is right.”

He rubbed his fingers against the smooth blue lining. It was only big enough to contain a pendant or a ring, and it felt about as light. “How will I know when the time is right?”

“If you are the man I think you are, then you will know.” Howland Reed’s smile was enigmatic.

That made about as much sense as every other thing the man had told him, but he had no more strength to demand answers. He stowed the case into his cloak.

For a while the hall was wrapped in silence; Lord Howland was giving him time to process the truth. When his eyes were dry and it felt like a weight had fallen from his heart, Howland Reed stood up and laid his hands on the table. “Well, Jon Snow, I have said all I meant to say, and your brother must be wondering where you’ve gone. I will not have him questioning our loyalty by having him think we have stolen you. But before I let you go, there is one thing I must ask.” A mischievous glint came over Howland Reed’s eyes, and Jon’s back broke out in a cold sweat. “Would you like to be betrothed to my daughter?”

Meera, who had been standing by the hearth the entire time, listening and watching their exchange with damp eyes, burst red and rounded on her father in a sputtering rage. “FATHER! HOW CAN YOU-AND IN FRONT OF-UGH!”

A blush developed in Jon’s cheeks. It was a shoddy proposal if ever there was one, but his eyes still traveled to Meera of their own accord, assessing her as she seethed and stamped her foot. She reminded her so much of Arya, and yet there was more of Sansa in her too, probably because she was so close to womanhood. Maybe in another life, in another world, if things had been different, he wouldn’t object to a betrothal with Meera Reed. Still, while she was like Arya and Sansa…

She was still no Robb.

Their eyes met and she whirled away from him with a flush. “I don’t know my lord…I’m not sure if it would be proper.”

Lord Howland clapped his hands. “Nonsense my boy. You are a fine young man, despite your modesty. I would be proud to have you for a son, and I’m certain Meera would not long protest to joining with you, considering how she flusters. But unfortunately, this is not the time for such things, as you have a war to fight, and a great man to save. I will hold the Neck for your brother, and know that no lions will cross these swamps while Greywater Watch sails. Soon I will be sending my children to Winterfell to accompany your brother Bran. Jojen has had dreams, and he sees that they will be needed there.” He held out a hand…the left one.

Jon stood and shook it, grinning with sincere gratitude. “It was a pleasure meeting you my lord, and your family. Thank you for all you’ve told me. You don’t know how much it means.”

Howland Reed removed his hand and gripped his shoulder. “Maybe I do. I dreamt about you Jon Snow, the only such dream I’ve had in five years. I’ve seen how heavily your choices have weighed on you, but…it pleases me that we were able to meet. I am glad you chose this path.”

That puzzled Jon. “Through the Neck? This is the only path south.”

“That is not what I meant.” For just a second, a dark cloud passed over Howland Reed’s face, and Jon had a nagging suspicion that this man was holding back far more than he was letting out. Before he could really contemplate it, it was gone, and Howland Reed was sunny once more. He stepped back from Jon. “I’ll have Meera escort you back to your camp. Whatever you do, trust in your wolf, as he is a part of you and cannot lead you astray. Gods be with you, Jon Snow.”

The trip back to the camp seemed to take no time at all, probably because Meera walked ten steps ahead of him at all times and refused to talk to him. She remained behind the forest line as Jon stepped through, throwing him a quick goodbye before disappearing back into the woods. He recalled too late that Lord Howland had never told him what his father started.

Robb was pacing in front of his tent, his hair a mess as he ran his hands through it in agitation. He breathed out in relief when he spied Jon, but it was short lived as he stomped to his wayward brother. “Where in the seven hells have you been? I’ve looked everywhere for you! I marched through all the camps, asking after you like a love-struck buffoon. I sent out dogs sniffing after you, and Grey Wind. I was about to dispatch the rearguard to cleave through the swamp and search for your arse! I thought you might have sunk into a bog and my only hope was that you had your nose above the surface! Well? Explain!”

He scratched the back of his ankle with his boot, guilty. “I was…um…I was in…Greywater Watch…”

Robb snorted in disbelief. “Greywater Watch? If you think I’m going to buy…wait, you’re serious? How the bloody fuck did you find Greywater Watch? All the crannogmen I’ve commanded to locate Howland Reed have said they couldn’t find him, or his damned castle. Lying bunch of frog munchers.”

“I don’t think they were, Robb. I mean, as it turns out, all the stories are true,” he said, a smile brightening his face as he confided, “It really does move.” All of a sudden they were little boys again, exchanging stories and competing for which had the most interesting one.

“Truly? You should tell me about it sometime.” He started pulling on Jon’s collar and the folds of his cloak, batting away clumps of mud and moss like he was some messy child. “Please don’t wander off again, and if you must make sure to take me along with you on your next adventure.”

“Yes my lord,” he mumbled, sighing in bliss as Robb’s hands ventured to his hair, rooting out the dirt. A look came over Robb’s features, one he learned to recognize. He was contemplating kissing him, and Jon shook his head slowly. No. Not here, not now, not while we’re out in the open. You probably shouldn’t even be touching me.

Robb was used to his looks too, and he dropped his hand with a long-suffering sigh. He turned his back to him. “Come, walk with me. Since Howland Reed stole you from me all morning and those petty, nattering old ingrates have had me for as long as I can stand, I plan to spend the rest of the day keeping you to myself. Hope that doesn’t interfere with your wanderlust.”

Jon fell into stride with him, happy to follow him wherever he went after the strange and tiring time he’d had. The point of Lord Eddard keeping his secrets to his chest made him want to bear all to Robb. But of course, only in a quiet secluded place with no one else around. Lately, that was about as attainable as camping on the moon. Therefore, for the moment he resigned him to talking about lighter things. “So…the Smalljon and Theon’s sister. You do know he might just kill her if he beds her?”

Robb grimaced. “That one has my mother written all over it, trust me. You have to admit, there’s some sense to it, and what have we got to lose? I haven’t heard of any whores dying from asphyxiation in the Smalljon’s tent, so he might just do for her yet.” His face suddenly turned into a scowl. “He had the temerity to suggest that I should offer you to this Asha Greyjoy as well, as if I’m about to hand you to those thrice damned squids on a silver platter. The nerve of him…”

Robb’s anger on his behalf brought him a smile of satisfaction, so he knew he could get away with acting a little playful. “Are you sure it’s just concern for my safety that has you all bothered?”

A blush formed to rival his rust red beard. “Didn’t say it was…”

Jon chuckled, elbowing Robb in the side as they walked into another camp. He almost wanted to blurt out that he had practically been proposed to Meera Reed, but that was a topic he didn’t think he could broach without expounding all the other details. “Does this mean we’re sailing into calm seas with the Greyjoys?”

Robb shrugged. “I had a letter from Lady Alyssane Mormont. All seems quiet on Pyke. We all hope it stays quiet when we send out these marriage proposals. There was a raven from Maester Luwin as well. Bran is doing well, more than well. He’s training at how to joust, says you don’t need legs to break lances and that he’s safer than most as he’s tied to his horse. Mother wouldn’t stop crying. I still don’t know what you did, but it probably saved his life. Just wish mother could see that…” He was happy and wistful at the telling, but it died away at his next bit of news. “And…there were some letters from the south too…”

Jon’s momentary joy turned to ice. “Father?” he rasped.

“No, thank the gods. The Kingslayer killed Lord Vance and captured my uncle Edmure, and now has Riverrun in siege. Tywin Lannister is marching east, with a host that’s said to be twice as large as his son’s, and means to take Harrenhal.” Robb’s fist shook at his side. “I hope those games of cyvasse taught us anything, though I doubt we can crush these pieces like moldy cheese.”

Dark wings, dark words, and only getting darker.  

They passed through the camp with the moose of Hornwood flapping on every side. Men dropped down to their knees at the sight of Robb, while dogs and horses drew away in fright at the sight of Ghost. The sun was low over the western line of trees and Jon noticed just how late it had gotten. He had expected Robb to lead him into a tent to talk in private, but they bypassed the line of stakes that marked the boundary of their camp and headed once again for the woods. “Where are you taking me Robb?”

“Just somewhere where we can be alone.”

“Do you really want to risk me getting lost in the forest again?”

Robb smirked dubiously at him. “It’s not far, and we won’t be going anywhere near Greywater Watch if that’s what you’re asking, not that I know where it is.”

Indeed, it wasn’t far at all. They had only been wading through brush for a short time before Jon smelled steam in the air. Robb climbed through a thicket with Jon following after, twigs and leaves clawing at his cloak. They came out unto a shallow green pool that was bubbling hot clear vapor. 

Robb opened his arms at the pool. “See? It’s like we’re at home again. Shame there’s no godswood.”

“How did you find this?” he asked, pleasantly surprised.

“Grey Wind found it while we were looking for you. Turns out he has no nose for you whatsoever, but he has no trouble finding hot springs.”

“Are you sure that isn’t poisonous?” He bent over to get a closer look at the water, his face buffeted in warm steam , and despite himself he wanted so much to jump in that filmy green sludge.

“It’s perfectly fine. Grey Wind got a few laps out of it and he didn’t keel over,” Robb said distractedly, fiddling with the clasp of his cloak.

Jon suppressed a gasp. “You sent your wolf to drink swamp water to see if it wouldn’t kill him?”

Rob narrowed his eyes. “He was already drinking it before I could stop him. For all I know he’s deep in the woods right now gnawing and licking up all manner of things. He’s a direwolf. I can’t control what he does.”

Jon tensed. Actually, you can. He had been meaning to share that with Robb since they had begun the march, partly because he was tired of keeping things from him, but also because he wanted to see if Robb could be a warg as well. He longed to have that connection between them, to dart between the trees as wolves and race as far as their four feet could take them and no one would be able to stop or judge them. But somehow, in the rare moments where he could bring it up, Robb’s lips would mash against his own and he would forget everything. He was determined to give him no such opportunity. “Robb, about that, there’s something I need to…”

He forgot what he was about to say. Robb’s cloak was pooled around his boots along with his leathers, and he was pulling his tunic over his head. “What are you doing?” Jon rasped stupidly, his mouth suddenly dry.

Robb drew his eyebrows together. “What does it look like I’m doing? I’m going in the water, and you’re going in with me.”

“In that thick filthy soup that smells like brimstone? Forget it.”

Robb unfastened his sword belt and worked on the buttons of his breeches. “Look, I need a bath, and after your trek through the mud lands you do too. Stop being such a girl Jon.” Even after saying that he turned around to shove off his breeches and smallclothes. It was strange how they had spent a whole lifetime being comfortable with each other naked as brothers are supposed to be, but one kiss and they had become strangers, needing to learn each other all over again, every detail lit in an exciting new context. They could kiss for hours if time would let them, but neither of them had the courage to rip off their clothes or slip their fingers into each other’s breeches.

But now they were crossing a boundary, a wall they had erected between one another for a month, and it was about to come crumbling down with one last push. At least that was how Jon chose to see it. Robb was still too shy to face him, not giving Jon the chance to ogle him in all his perfect glory as he jumped into the roiling green soup with a splash.

His chest surging with raw anticipation, he fumbled in haste to remove his own clothes, cursing fate once again for leaving him his weaker hand. He slipped into the pool slowly, holding back moans as the hot water uncoiled his frozen muscles. The spring was bubbling with moss and debris, but he could still feel a fortnight of grime seeping out of his pores. He dunked his head, hoping the heat was enough to kill the colony of creatures that had built little castles in his hair.

He stayed under as long as he could before the memory of his recent drowning made him gasp and lunge for the surface. He raked his hair from his eyes and waded to the edge, leaning his back against slippery, moss-covered stone. Robb emerged from a cloud of steam and waded towards him. His torso was above the water, fine red hairs glistening on his chest. Jon had never seen anything more beautiful. He bit his lip when Robb lowered himself down to his lap, spending an awkward few seconds to get comfortable. They gasped in unison when their manhoods met at last, and Jon enfolded his arms around his waist to ensure they would never part. Robb draped an arm about his shoulder, leaning down to seal their lips.

The kissed for a long time, but it was never long enough. Robb drew away to catch his breath. “We probably shouldn’t talk right now. I mean, who wastes time talking when they’re naked. But it’s been eating at me for a while and it’s your fault anyway. Just what did you do with Howland Reed? I’m a little jealous that he kept you for so long.”

Jon made a silly grin as he massaged his fingers through the thick matt of auburn curls, Robb humming in pleasure. He pulled him down for a big wet kiss, still grinning against his lips. “Well, he served me tea, something that might not have been frog, told me a few old stories, got chilling stares from his son, then…he told me about my mother.”

Robb pushed gently against his shoulders so he could see Jon’s face. “Your mother? How would he…oh, I remember. I heard rumors that Howland Reed was the only one there when father took you home. But they also said your mother was Ashara Dayne of Starfall, but no one was ever certain. So where is she? Who is she? When this war is done I promise I’ll come with you to look for her. She can live in Winterfell after I convince father, and damn what mother thinks about it.”

Jon was astonished by Robb’s excitement, and he actually felt bad for having to crush it. He almost forgot he was talking about his mother. “She’s dead Robb.”

His face fell instantly, and the degree of emotions Robb felt on his behalf made Jon want to marry him then and there. “Jon…I…I don’t know what to say. I just…I hoped…I know how much it would have meant to you…”

“I know, Robb.” Jon kissed him again, slow and full of love. “I think I always knew though that she was gone. But I’m alright. I’m just…happy to know that she didn’t leave me because she wanted to, or because father threw her away. I think that’s enough.”

Robb smiled, though his eyes were filled with sorrow, far more than he deserved. “Are you really happy?”

He giggled. He actually giggled. Maybe the steam was cooking his brain. “Yes, Robb, I am.”

“And…are you happy that you’re sharing all this happiness with me?”

He giggled again. Oh gods he couldn’t stop. “Ridiculously so.”

“Good.” He took Jon’s face in both hands and kissed him like he’d never done before. Passion rode through their mouths in waves, coiling through their tongues and into their hearts, chests close enough that they could share their heartbeats. Jon thought he could never feel so complete. For a short time everything was right in the world, and he never wanted it to end. “I’m glad you’re happy. I don’t see it nearly enough. At the next heart tree we find we’ll offer a prayer to your mother. I want her to know that she never has to worry, that you’re safe with me, and that she should be proud because you keep me safe too. Can we do that?”

Jon choked back sobs, but his tears were of nothing but joy. “That would mean everything to me.” He held Robb close and kissed him to show he meant it.

The next morning the floodwaters receded at last and they resumed their march without delay. Another week saw them through the causeway and into the green, open fields of the Riverlands. True to Lord Howland’s word, the nightmares ended as soon as they passed through the last stretch of shadowed swampland that marked the boundary between north and south. The peaceful nights revitalized Jon, and even the random times when he slipped into Ghost and prowled through the grasses hunting for deer were far better than the cackling of crows and blood soaked bed sheets.

Even the imminence of their first real battle could not take away Jon’s vitality. Robb was handling things less well, though only Jon was allowed to see it. Having to sacrifice a chunk of his infantry to lure away Lord Tywin so they could ambush the Kingslayer weighed heavily on Robb’s conscience. But no matter how many times they assessed the map, the cyvasse pieces always went to the same places, and there was no other choice. The lords agreed as well.

Of course, none of those plans would amount to anything if they couldn’t cross a river.

“What the hell is taking her so long?” Robb growled from atop his stallion on a hill overlooking the eastern gate of The Twins, with the drawbridge up and the portcullis down. Lady Stark had been in there for almost three hours, treating with the old man who could end their war effort with a closed gate. “Do you think they’re keeping her captive to hand her to the Lannisters?”

“With an army right outside his walls, I highly doubt he’d risk it,” Jon said. He had heard disquieting things about the Late Lord Walder Frey from around the camps. It was the common opinion that the old man was shrewd to a fault and would not join a cause without receiving something in return. While they were still within the Neck Robb had sent out scouts to see if Lord Walder had already sold them to the Lannisters. Jon stopped one of them and gave instructions to shoot down all ravens leaving the twin towers. He knew firsthand the danger of ink on parchment and treacherous little fingers.

Robb wasn’t the only one shaking with impatience. Half the lords around him were barely hiding scowls and angry looks at being barred from relieving the very realm that Lord Walder ruled in, with the Greatjon being the most vocal and Lord Bolton the least as usual. Before tempers could spill over the drawbridge finally crashed down and with Lady Stark riding across. The portcullis did not descend again as Robb and his delegation trotted down to meet her. “It is done,” Lady Stark announced. “Lord Frey will grant you your crossing. His men are yours as well. But…we have settled on some terms, to ensure that he keeps faith.”

Robb frowned slightly. “I see. And they are?”

“I will need a few of your men to escort two of Lord Walder’s grandsons to Winterfell. They will serve as my wards and will keep Bran and Rickon company. Also, Lord Frey’s son Olyvar will come with us to serve as your squire. His father would like to see him knighted.”

Robb nodded. “Fair enough. And?”

“When your sister Arya returns to us safely, she will marry Lord Walder’s son Elmar when they come of age.”

Jon suppressed a pained smile. Arya wasn’t going to like that one bit. He hoped for this Elmar’s sake that he had thick skin and inexhaustible stamina…and the sense to be worthy of Arya, or he was going to regret it.

“And you are to wed one of Lord Walder’s daughters when the fighting is done. You are free to choose whoever you think is suitable.”

Robb’s eyes widened imperceptibly, but that was the extent of his reaction. Jon congratulated himself as well for maintaining his composure as well as his balance, as it felt like his heart had just fallen out of the sky and crushed his stomach. You knew this was going to happen. You told yourself over and over it was going to happen. Better now than later when Robb is captured and dying without allies and his vows are the only things that can save him. Robb was never supposed to be mine. I knew that. So why does it still hurt so much?

Robb was all calm and regal when he said, “I see. Do I have a choice?”

“Not unless you wish to cross,” Lady Stark replied tonelessly.

Robb sighed deeply. “Alright. I consent…to all of it. I’ll have one of my men tell-“

“I’m not finished,” Lady Catelyn interrupted, her demeanor suddenly stern and cold. She turned to Jon with a cruel glint in her eyes. “You are to be wed as well. Initially Lord Frey balked at the temerity of being offered a bastard, but you are still the blood of my husband, and Lord Walder has a brood of bastard daughters as well as unwed trueborn ladies that he could afford to lose. Do you accept, Jon Snow?”

That’s the first time she’s called me by my name, was his first thought, but that was only because his mind was a confused mush. He felt strangely numb; neither happy nor sad nor angry nor relieved or even shocked. He was so blindsided that emotions completely failed him. He took the time to really see Lady Stark, to feel the hardness of her stare, daring him to refuse. There was something in her eyes that was beyond being caged, and so Robb’s warnings were utterly worthless. She could still hurt him in this way, would always seek to hurt him, and with a sudden spark he understood why.

She knows.

“Of course I accept my lady,” he said without emotion, his eyes meeting Lady Stark’s squarely. She did not flinch; how could she? She had won. A barest smile graced her thin lips before she nodded. He wondered if it was too late to call Lord Reed up on his offer.

Robb was pale and silent. Jon hoped some color would return to his face soon or someone was bound to notice. “Um…good, that’s settled then,” he declared, his voice a little too high. “My lords, please see to your men. We march in two hours. Lord Bolton, you are free to bring your host down the kingsroad. May the gods guide your sword. Jon, come.” He kicked his feet and galloped to their camp half a mile upriver from the Twins. Jon followed without complaint.

When they had walked into the safety of Robb’s tent (not that Jon was really mindful of where he was going at that point), Robb rounded on him and gripped his shoulders tightly. “What is wrong with you?”

“What?”

“My mother just had you betrothed to a complete stranger and you don’t even seem to care! Why aren’t you upset?”

“I am upset,” he asserted without enthusiasm. What was the point anymore?

“No you’re not!” Robb hollered at him, his fingers digging hard enough to leave bruises even through his leathers. Jon couldn’t bring himself to care about that either. “You look like you’re dead! Gods dammit Jon I’m upset enough for the both of us! Say something! Anything! Say that you don’t want this! Say that you don’t want to become a political pawn! Say that you don’t want to marry anyone but…dammit Jon! Are you even listening to me?”

“Of course I am,” he muttered, his head turned away to inspect a peculiar looking stain on the canvas. “Those are all the things you want to do. I’ve always known we were supposed to marry…other people. I’ve always known this was impossible. Why waste energy acting all surprised?”

“That’s not what I…” Robb shook his head, shaking away the tears that were flowing hard and fast down his rough auburn cheeks. “I just want you to…to feel something. To try and fight it. Don’t give up. Gods Jon please…feel something.” Robb’s hands ran all over him, from his face to his back to his hair, his desperation exploding out in unfocused waves. His kiss was hard and sloppy, almost violent, but Jon just couldn’t care anymore. His lips wouldn’t open, so Robb opened them for him, his tongue fighting to pull out his own. Jon was a silent vessel, even when his clothes came off and Robb’s hands reached for cold skin. With no concept of how it happened, he was naked on the bedroll, Robb stripping quickly above him.

“Feel something,” Robb whispered, over and over, his tears running down Jon’s skin. And soon he did feel something. He felt Robb’s teeth biting down his neck to his chest, their legs twining tightly together, his hands combing down his stomach to hold his cock, jerking it awake. They had never done this before, never been this open, this bold.

And maybe they never will again.

Jon let himself go at last, crying as he spilled over Robb’s fist and sought out his lips, the only lips he’d ever want to kiss, even if Lord Walder had a billion daughters for him to choose from. They held each other close, murmuring whatever was in their heads and hearts. Their days were numbered, and they were determined to make every second last.

Fate had other ideas though. They heard shouting and the whickering of horses outside the tent, and boots pounding gravel as a shadow passed over the flap. “Milord? Milord Stark? Are you in there?”

Robb groaned against his breastbone. “I’m here! Give me a chance to get dressed!” He planted a quick kiss on his cheek and told him to stay out of sight as he hurriedly stood up and dressed. He ducked out of the tent, leaving Jon to pull on his own clothes, wincing at the sticky sensation in his underwear. He tiptoed to the tent flap, listening to see if Robb had led his messengers away so he could leave. It seemed that plan was rendered unnecessary when Robb burst into the tent, his face ashen, and pulled Jon outside.

“Robb! What if they s-“

“That’s not important right now. Get on your horse.”

That appeared to be true. Robb’s officers were too busy jumping on their own mounts and shouting at each other to really notice him at all. Robb released his wrist and climbed to his saddle, giving Jon no choice but go along with the chaos.

They galloped back to the Twins, descending the track leading to the east gate. Soldiers made way for them, boots and horseshoes sinking slightly into the loamy soil of the riverbank. Their expressions showed confusion and uncertainty. Robb’s bannermen awaited them in a cluster at the foot of the drawbridge, Lady Stark seeming pale and almost sickly. Robb addressed Galbart Glover who was closest. “Where are they my lord?”

“On the other side. Old Lord Weasel isn’t letting them in unless they pay the toll,” he rasped, clearly biting back curses. “They say they don’t want to cross. Saying they just want some words with you. Mind you we’re not letting you anywhere near them without us at your back.”

Robb nodded gravely. “Much appreciated my lord. Are the Freys going to let us pass?”

“You already paid the toll, Robb. You can ride up and down the bridge and they can’t do nothing to stop you. But again, we’re crossing too. We got superstations in Deepwood Motte. A squid on land can still kill you if you get them close enough to squeeze.”

Jon started at that, but he was given no chance to ask for an explanation as the group filed through the gate with Robb at its head, the Stark standard raised high beside him. Several dozen hooves pattered across the drawbridge, Frey guards seeing them through in silence. They entered the underside of the east tower and were engulfed in shadow, a thousand murder holes gazing down above them. The green fork thundered under their feet as they crossed the span and into the second tower, and at last emerged onto the opposite bank, an hour before they were supposed to.

A party awaited them several paces off, two Greyjoy banners streaming over their heads. There were about a dozen of them, not near enough to invest any army. But the expectation of threat was clear on all of the faces of Robb’s bannermen. This was not going to be a peaceful meeting.

One of them trotted forward. A woman with short black hair, a beak of a nose and a mocking smirk called out to them, “Who among you is the little wolf?”

Robb scowled beside him. “That would me,” he said, flicking his horse forward so they were face to face. “You wished to speak to me? Well here I am. Though I would have preferred if you had sent a letter first.”

The woman looked Robb up and down in a way that made Jon’s insides writhe. “Oh aren’t you adorable. Leading armies when you should be swinging wooden swords and ripping off bodices with sweaty fingers. You’re making me wet my lord. Sorry Qarl! He’s a boy who looks like a man, the opposite of you!” she said to one of the standard-bearers, who looked a little miffed. “Anyway, my name is Asha Greyjoy. Yes, I’m sure you’ve heard all about me. Hide your daughters. And your sons for that matter.”

Robb’s hands shook around his reigns. “Why are you hear? Do you have a message from your father?”

Asha Greyjoy’s smirk suddenly turned feral. “I don’t give messages my lord. I throw an axe between someone’s eyes, that’s how I give a message. No, my father does not know I am here. Have no fear on that account, at least not yet. I have something that belongs to you.” She jerked her head to one of her men, who hopped down from his horse and unbound a large sack from its rump. He carried it in his arms and dropped it by the foot of Robb’s horse, and they all saw with gasps of shock and outrage that it wasn’t a sack at all.    

“Ally!” Dacey Mormont screamed, she and her mother running to what must have been Alyssane Mormont, tied up like a pig for slaughter. Her face was blue and bruised where it wasn’t caked in dirt, her limbs thin and clearly underfed. Thankfully she was alive, her mother and sister quickly loosening her bindings.

The Smalljon’s ruddy face was green with nausea. “She’s not nearly as adorable as I thought she would be. A cute little squid…what was I thinking…”

Robb stared down at Alyssane, his face a mix of rage and fear. “What is the meaning of this?”

Asha quirked her head, clearly impervious to the hatred directed towards her. “You know how I don’t like giving messages? I also don’t like having messages sent about me, or about my father and whether he’s calling his banners. We boarded their ship and put most of their men to the sword the moment they sent out a letter. To you. Oh yes she put up a fight, wouldn’t tell me what she was doing spying on us even after I turned her face purple. So, I turned one of her friends red, slowly. When that didn’t work I threatened to expose this plot to my father and have him decide what to do with her, you, and Bear Island. That got her talking. It’s a bit strange really. Apparently friendship is nothing to the blind loyalty for some lord I’m sure she’s never even met. I’ve never been loyal to anyone in my life, so what do I know I suppose.” She shrugged. “Then it was as simple as anchoring our ships a few leagues south of Seagard and riding for the Twins, knowing you will have to leave the Neck and cross eventually.”

“I’m…sorry…my lord…” Alyssane muttered through broken teeth, her head cradled in her sister’s arms, who was glaring at Asha with suppressed fury, waiting for the order to attack.

But Jon knew it wouldn’t come. They couldn’t afford to attack them, no matter what they had done. Not unless they wanted blood to flow in the home they had just left behind. Clearly Robb knew it too. “What do you want?”

For the first time Asha Greyjoy’s eyes hardened, her tone deadly serious. “I want to know why you killed my brother. And don’t give me any fables about wildlings and white walkers,” she spat. “Clearly two brothers wasn’t enough for you, so you had to take one more. I will learn why, one way or another, even if it means I have to ride with you to King’s Landing and slay some lions along the way. You better keep me alive though. You wouldn’t want to explain that to my father, and don’t bother mentioning wildlings. Now where’s supper?” 

Chapter Text

A Hand For A Hand

"Are you a skinchanger, bastard?"

Jon's jaw clenched, his grip on his reins tightening. His expression remained neutral, for if Asha Greyjoy's eyes were as hawkish as the rest of her face, then she would know the truth in an instant. And if she was as perceptive as Meera Reed...

"The frogeaters seem to think so. They say they can sense you running with your wolf every night, feel the barrows and the ancient spirits within stir at your passing. They say the old gods look on in amazement, red eyes following you with blessings. One of them even claimed to be a skinchanger himself but admitted his power is nothing to yours, and so he would not dare challenge you." She threw back her head and laughed, the sound mocking and derisive. "What rubbish. It only took half a tankard to draw that out, if you can believe it. You'd think these bog fiends have never tasted ale before."

Jon glowered in silence. She was taunting him again, which had become her favorite hobby during their slow and careful march through the woodlands on the way to Riverrun. At first, she had contented herself with juggling her axes upon sight of him, to the cheers and guffaws of her crew, the sharply honed edges glittering with menace. When that failed to get a rise out of him, she traded her weapons for words. She didn't dare throw her barbs at Robb—clearly her intended target—who was ever surrounded by his protectors, none of whom could abide the Iron Islanders. To further complicate the matter, Alysane Mormont refused to return to Bear Island, vowing to regain her honor at Robb's side and one day repay the "kraken bitch" in full. While hard and firm in matters of war, Robb was a stuttering imbecile at the prospect of mediating between two vengeful women, so he retreated from the issue as much as he could.

Unfortunately for Jon, that left Asha Greyjoy only one outlet.

"What say you, bastard? Are you or are you not a freak who runs with beasts?" She veered her horse, colliding it with Jon's and shoving her face into his, her breath hot against his ear. "Was that how you killed my brother? Did you rip his throat out with your fangs, bastard? Lap up his blood? Did it taste like iron?"

Jon wrenched away from her, ducking under a low branch at the last second. "No," he growled. But the wildling...

"I've heard other tales, bastard. They say you were with Theon when he was murdered." Her horse inched beside his again, but she came no closer than that. She didn't need to. He could feel the accusation in those metallic gray eyes. "If you didn't kill him, did you let him die? Did you just stand by while these deserters and wildlings butchered him?"

Yes, his heart answered. Traitor, said his head. Jon couldn't share that conversation with her, so he said nothing, bile rising to his throat.

"Why so silent, bastard? Are you guilty?"

"No."

"Did you kill him?"

"No."

"Are you lying to me?"

"No."

Faster than he could blink, an ax appeared in her hand and was thrust to his cheek, sharp enough to cut a few of his beard hairs in half. His horse whickered in alarm, but somehow he maintained his seat. From the corner of his eye, he saw the steel glint in the moonlight. Greyjoy sneered at him. "Then why are you shaking?"

The only sounds were the steady clop of horseshoes and the rustle of vegetation. The line of march extended before and behind them, but no one made a move to intervene. The darkness and Greyjoy's body did well in hiding her assault and, for all the onlookers knew, they could be trading kisses under the moon. He wasn't sure whether that made him more angry. "My lady," he whispered, calm and measured, if only so her ax didn't break skin. "I advise you to remove your blade this instant. I will not hesitate because you're a woman." His hand drew two inches of dagger to prove it.

Greyjoy was not impressed. "I took you for a mute, but now you talk too much. Have you killed anyone? Let alone women?"

"Two," Jon answered. He shut his eyes with a silent curse when he realized his mistake.

Greyjoy tilted her head. "How odd. The drunken louts claimed you slayed only one. No matter. Whether you killed two or two hundred, I assure you I am more than a match for any wildling host. I have killed scores, Jon Snow, and none of them were savages from some mud heap in the frozen wastes. I won't fall like one... Especially not to a cripple. It's no wonder my brother is dead." Suddenly, her ax shot away along with her body heat. She wheeled her horse around and trotted back to the rear of the line, no doubt returning to her pirate crew. For some reason, the ironborn had elected to join them in the coming battle.

Jon scowled when she was gone. He could feel Ghost's hackles rise a quarter of a league away, a mirror to his rage. He tried to soothe himself, forcing his breaths to even out. Doubts and regrets he'd thought long buried rose to the surface at Asha Greyjoy's onslaught. I don't need this now. Damn it... Damn her. He ran his fingers over his cheek but found no blood. Either her blade was duller than it seemed or she was more capable with an ax than he realized.

Another rider pulled up beside him, and his momentary annoyance burned away when he looked up to find Smalljon Umber's bushy, fuming face. "What do you think you're playing at, Snow?"

Jon sighed and slipped his dagger back into its sheath. Whatever grievance the Smalljon had with him, he doubted it could be resolved with threats. "Whomever you're going to accuse me of killing, I swear it was purely accidental. Can we not do this now? I'm not in the—"

"Where do you get off kissing my betrothed?" the Smalljon spat.

Jon gaped at him in astonishment. "Come again?"

"You heard me. I saw you two with your faces pressed together and whispering. What else could you be doing?" Even in the dark, Jon could nearly see the big man's face purpling, his shaggy mane radiating heat.

Jon held back the urge to roll his eyes, as no doubt that would make matters worse. "Actually, we were discussing murder, and the only thing I was close to kissing was her ax. Trust me."

"Ax? Is that supposed to be a word for her... If you weren't my friend, I'd challenge you to a duel here and now." The Smalljon huffed at Jon for a time but, all of a sudden, the anger and jealousy seemed to blow right out of him to be replaced with an almost childlike desperation. "Do you think she'd like me more if I dueled you?"

That threw Jon off-balance for a bit, but he was once again grateful for his friend's simple nature. "I don't know. She has a taste for violence, though, and she'd likely marry the man who killed me. Lannister or no."

The Smalljon pursed his lips. "Nonsense. She can't seem to stop looking at you. I see it... since I'm always looking at her. There's a fire in her eyes. The same kind Pa always told me Ma had when they first met. She gave him more bruises than the snow bear did, and they were betrothed right after. Do you think she'd accept me if I let her bludgeon me a little?"

That drew a much needed chuckle from Jon, though he soon felt bad for his friend's obvious discomfort, especially when the other was baring his heart like this. "I don't know what to tell you," Jon said quickly. "I'm as lost about all this as you are. But please understand that you are welcome to her. Truly. In case you've forgotten, her family wants nothing more than to wipe out mine, starting with me if she has her way. There's no romance in it. And besides... I'm promised." He grimaced. It made his chest contract whenever he thought about his betrothal.

A scoff answered him. "To a Frey. It's said that weasels are easier to look at, but I reckon them who say that have never seen a squid like Asha Greyjoy. I've seen leather and armor on my sisters and the Mormonts, but they're all either stocky or straight as tree branches. The way leathers fit Lady Asha..." The Smalljon's gaze became heavy-lidded and faraway, like he had left the forest entirely.

Jon couldn't hide his disgust. "Whatever you're thinking, kindly keep it to yourself."

The Smalljon shook himself back to reality, chagrined. "...right. I should be getting to my father. I was supposed to relay to him the condition of our troops when I saw... Never mind. I'm sorry I snapped at you. We're minutes from finally becoming men, and I guess I took my swings too early. And at the wrong enemy, too. Us Jons need to stick together. Gods watch over you, friend. If you, I, and Lady Greyjoy survive this war, I might take you up on that duel, whether you agree to it or no."

Jon smiled weakly as the Smalljon kicked his poor little horse into a trot and disappeared towards the head of the column. Jon felt rather sorry for him. It was obvious to everyone, including the Smalljon himself, that the tentative engagement plans had officially died with the bride-to-be's appearance. Still, that did not stop the stubborn giant from trying to fashion the betrothal himself. Maybe the only times Jon had ever seen Asha Greyjoy without a smirk on her face were when she stared in bewilderment at the Smalljon's earnest attempts to woo her. Her silence probably discouraged him more than outright rejection... or a clobber to the skull.

Well, anything that could distract Asha Greyjoy from tormenting him was all for the better in his opinion. Her words left him feeling raw, and it couldn't have happened at a worse time. Robb led the vanguard that would meet Jaime Lannister's host, and it was likely they would clash face to face. Scouts they had sent to monitor the siege of Riverrun had brought back some useful information: the Kingslayer was restless. With the help of a map and a few cyvasse pieces, Robb had sent a small force disguised as a raiding party to lure Lannister into the foot of the valley, where they would await him.

Within the confines of his armor, Jon could feel the burned letter crinkling inside his breast pocket. That piece of paper had saved his life once and might do so again. He prayed to whatever gods Rhaegar Targaryen believed in to guide him in his first battle, to make his new sword arm swing as hard as the old one and keep Robb safe. Not for the first time, he wished Theon was with them. It would not have been odd to have their sparring lessons during the long march south, and he felt that his arm had gotten soft without their training. He had almost asked the Smalljon to assist him, but he quickly realized that was absurd. The Smalljon wielded broadswords like feather dusters. He simply had no need for the adaptive cunning that Theon had and would have no idea how to help Jon.

Continuing his training with Robb was, of course, out of the question. Robb was often occupied with the countless demands of an army on the march or planning strategy for the war in council with his bannermen and in private with Jon. When he wasn't, they were so desperate to feel the press of each other's bodies that they could think of nothing else except falling onto the nearest sturdy surface, naked, to relearn the bounds of their desire. Jon would not trade those moments for anything.

So, he made do with hacking at tree branches alone, the way he knew Arya must have done before Father brought her a dancing instructor. He prayed for her, as well, prayed that she knew when to use her sword and when not. Jon didn't want to think of what Joffrey would do to her if she struck him again. Jon hoped that she would keep her hand long enough for him to punish Joffrey himself.

The sound of hooves on loose stones pulled Jon out of his reverie, and he reined his horse to a stop. Robb's honor guard was assembled at the edge of the small clearing under a cover of soldier pines, moonlight splashing on their shields and helms. Jon grabbed his own helm from his saddlebag and slid it over his head. The cheek guards were too snug for his jaw, and the visor would make him half blind once he lowered it, but it was good Winterfell forged steel and would at least keep the lions from mauling his face.

Ghost slunk out of a hedge, his white fur muddy and tangled with leaves. Jon's horse skittered at the sight of him but was too used to the wolf to do much more than that. Jon's mouth began to water as his wolf came close, and he bit his lip hard to suppress the bloodlust. Ghost could sense murder ahead.

Grey Wind loped towards them down an incline, all silver and sharp teeth, with Robb close behind. His squire, a mousy lad who was two years older than they were, had already suited him up. Robb cut a powerful figure on his stallion, polished armor gleaming with his thick white and gray cloak billowing over his horse's hindquarters. He reined up before Jon and raised his visor so they could see each other, close enough to share a few quiet words. "This is it."

"Yes." Jon found he could say no more, his eyes tracing the well-loved lines of Robb's figure beside him, too aware of how easily a life may be lost.

"I thought I'd give our troops a rousing speech about justice and honor, exhorting them to keep faith in our cause, for the old gods will surely fight with us this day." Robb smirked slightly, tilting his armored face to the light, though only Jon could see it. "Then I'd remind them of how brilliant and charming I am, how dashing I look in my first breastplate, inflaming them all to fight to the fullest. I realized, though, that you'd probably flog me if I said any such thing. No matter how great I look in armor. Which you must admit is very great indeed." Robb flexed his metaled arms in what Jon assumed was supposed to be a sensual gesture, steel plates creaking.

Jon smiled despite himself. He's the one leading a host to confront the Kingslayer, yet he's cheering me up. He shook his head at how absurd that was, how absurd everything was. "You are correct about the flogging. Commander or no, I won't have you shaming the North and the father who bore us with your vanity."

Robb scoffed. "My vanity? You're the one who's never met a girl you liked more than your hair. I'm surprised you can manage to keep that helm on, as the mangy hedge upon your head is no doubt trying to break free as we speak. Give it a sword, and let it fight for us when it does. Hopefully, it won't think you're having it cut."

As a reply, Jon sighed in exasperation, but it was all in jest. He'd missed the way they needled each other like this. It brought back to him easier days when they were simply brothers and death did not await them around every corner. Even in the rare blissful moments when they were alone together, Jon reminisced. It was hard to remember themselves as brothers when they were ripping each other's clothes off to get their hands and lips on as much skin as possible before the next march. Robb certainly doesn't complain about my hair then... If he's capable of complaining at all when my hand's on his cock... Jon flushed at the memory, forcefully expelling it from his mind. No, this banter was much more comforting. They didn't have to hide being brothers. They didn't have to hide...

Thankfully, Robb was oblivious to his thoughts, though at times Jon expected Robb to know what he was thinking before he was aware of his thoughts himself. "That wasn't all a bunch of lies. I am very dashing— Don't laugh!" Robb mock scowled at the chuckle Jon muffled with a hand, then continued, "There's a rumor spreading amongst the crannogmen that borders on sacrilege. They seem to believe the old gods do walk with us, through our direwolves. They're quite fanatical about it, too." He cocked his head at Jon with a quizzical expression. "Now, what in the world made them think that?"

Jon grimaced but, beyond that, he didn't know what else Robb wanted from him. "Why are you asking me? I didn't tell them to get down on their knees and worship us because we're personally blessed by the gods..." And then he understood. I, alone, spoke with Howland Reed, lord of the crannogs. You think I somehow planted this idea to bolster morale. You think I did this for you. The assumption that he'd blasphemously used the old gods to strengthen Robb's war effort was so galling, it left him speechless. Though... I've done crazier things for Robb, haven't I? Is he so wrong to assume I'm doing the same again?

Robb seemed to take Jon's silence as confirmation, his lips quirking. That appeared to be the end of it as Robb's cocksure manner suddenly changed into timidity. "However much I want to keep talking, our father's bannermen will be cross if I dawdle any longer. Look... I... I know this will be a first, for both of us, and I know you'll likely have a harder time of it than I will but, as dearly as I want to, I can't watch you nor can I force you to sit this battle out. So..." Robb was practically stuttering when he reached into the edge of his greaves, pulling out something Jon hadn't noticed was there. "Here. Keep it. Or throw it away. Whatever you wish. If... you do keep it... think of it as good luck. It... reminds me of you, strange as that may sound. You can give it back after the battle if you don't want it."

Jon's hand fumbled when Robb tossed whatever it was at his chest, nearly crushing it in his grip. His cheeks instantly heated when he saw what he held. His fingers brushed along the petals, the chain mail gloves impervious to the thorns lining the stem. A blue rose... Why in the bloody hells did he give me a blue rose? He didn't know of any winter roses growing this far south, and he had only ever seen the flowers in the glass gardens of Winterfell. Either Robb had been fortunate enough to find one or he had picked it all those months ago in Winterfell and somehow kept it alive through that entire time. His mind reeled at the implication. Did he just give me a lady's favor? Why else would he ask me to return it to him after the battle?

It was a gesture that would have made Sansa blush and everyone else gag, and he couldn't decide which reaction to assume as he gaped, slack-jawed, at Robb's token. By the fiery color on Robb's face, clearly, he was cognizant of his actions but too embarrassed to try and explain himself. "Good luck then." He quickly wheeled his horse about and trotted to the edge of the clearing where his entourage awaited.

Jon sat frozen for a long moment, staring at Robb's rose. He debated what to do with it, agonizing over how sickeningly sweet and inappropriate it was to receive such a gift from his own brother. He felt tempted to throw it down and grind it under his horse's hooves.

Instead, he looked about, hoping nobody was watching, and gently smoothed away the thorns between thumb and forefinger. He then slipped the flower into his breastplate to rest beside Prince Rhaegar's letter and his heart. He felt a woman for doing so, but it was Robb who had made himself the girl first, and Jon figured he came out ahead no matter what he did.

Robb's protectors formed up around him. Dacey and Alysane Mormont already had their morning stars swinging in their fists, daring any man to dispute their right to be there. No less than five Freys surrounded their Young Wolf, together looking like a pack of muskrats in mail. Patrek Mallister was present, as well, after having recently brought up the levies from Seagard only to be summarily shamed by Asha Greyjoy for failing to notice that she had slipped through his father's territories.

With his shield fastened tightly to his right arm, as he couldn't grip it, Jon flipped down his visor and pulled out his sword, letting his hand get used to the sensation again, squeezing the hilt firmly. Sweat dripped down his neck.

They faced north. And waited.

Hooves pawed the earth. A stream sighed in the fissures, and night birds warbled from the swaying branches. Metal scraped against leather, the smell of fear permeating the air along with the promise of blood. Jon was unconsciously drawing on Ghost's senses again, but this time he did not stop. There would be no Theon Greyjoys here. No one but Lannisters was going to die by his hand, even if he became a beast.

Ghost sank to the ground with a silent snarl when they saw their prey enter the clearing. The Kingslayer was the golden tip of a blood-drenched spearhead, his army fanning out behind him in rows of crimson. Like most of his men, he was helmless, conversing unguardedly with his second. Jon could almost hear his words and his laughter, drowning out the whispers in the woods and the hammering of Jon's heart.

When Jaime Lannister's stallion stepped into the center of the clearing, Jon knew their time had come. The two direwolves threw back their heads and howled.

He knew the effect that sound wrought on friend and foe alike, threading through their chests like ice, filling them with dread. A horn thundered from the west in answer to the wolves, followed by another far to the east. A cascade of birds billowed from the treetops as the last horn winded from the south, at the rear of the Lannister host. The Kingslayer was trapped.

The enemy troops did not have time to recover from their shock and confusion before Robb raised his sword and ordered, "Loose!" Crossbows thrummed one after another from the trees on every side of the glade to rain death upon the Lannisters, biting through chain mail and skulls, shields brought up too late. Screams tore the air to shreds, and the smell of blood and death was enough to make Jon gag. Before they had even registered what was happening, a quarter of the Kingslayer's cavalry lay dead or dying.

"Winterfell!" Robb shouted as he charged, Grey Wind dashing ahead of him, the herald of northern vengeance.

"Stark!" "Winterfell!" screamed thousands of bloodthirsty throats as horses pounded into the clearing after the Young Wolf.

Jon kicked his horse into motion, using his thighs to navigate while his hand held his sword. He had spent the last few rests between marches retraining his mare to solely follow seat position and leg pressure when steering without reins, forcing him to recall all he'd learned of horse breeding. He chided himself for being so thoughtless. It should have occurred to him earlier that he would need a specialized mount like Bran's if he were to have any hope of fighting effectively on horseback. But dwelling on such errors now was a waste of time and quite possibly deadly. He had veered off the line by several degrees and was bolting to one side of the clearing, well away from the battle. Cursing, he jerked his legs sharply against his horse's sides to get himself back on course.

Robb's vanguard crashed into their enemies in a wave of pelts and Stark banners. Swords and battleaxes bit through foes still too dazed to have brought up their own weapons, their dying screams piercing the night as shields and limbs flew into the air or were trampled under hooves. Most broke and ran from the rout, only to find themselves skewered by a fresh volley of crossbow bolts. The direwolves lunged after those trying to escape. Ghost snatched one deserter right from his saddle, the man thrashing feebly as his arm was ripped from its socket.

"Winterfell!" Jon hollered, the cry echoing inside his helm. He had yet to make a pass, precious moments wasted reorienting his charge. Luckily, he sighted a soldier directly in his path breaking for an unguarded treeline, surcoat branded with the sigil of House Marbrand. It would take but one pair of legs to reach Riverrun and warn the besiegers of the ambush. He readied his sword.

The pass was perfect. He swung his blade in a wide arc, the soldier's armored face turning towards him half a second too late. Even before the blade made contact, though, he knew something had gone wrong. Vibrations raced up his arm as he clobbered the man's head with the flat of the sword. Cringing, he slowed his mare to a trot, waiting for the numbness in his shoulder to subside. He looked back and found his victim face down in the dirt, head still connected to neck. The man seemed unconscious, and maybe Jon had managed to cave in his helm and puncture his skull with that ill-done hit. Jon debated on whether to ride about and make sure the man was dead.

His horse suddenly shrieked in agony and reared back onto her hind legs, a spear protruding from her neck. He reached for the reins, but his fingertips came up short as he slid from the saddle and clattered painfully to the ground. Stars swam before his eyes. Jon could feel a lump growing at the back of his head where it had smashed against his helm. With no time to even groan, a wild and manic face appeared before the slats of his visor, bearing an ax down upon him. "For Joffrey!"

Jon whipped his shield around and caught the blow that would have sliced his head in two. Pain exploded in his elbow, and he knew it had dislocated. His attacker pulled back the ax for another blow, and he would have succeeded in doing so if not for Jon's shield, which came away, too, the restraints binding it to Jon's forearm coming undone. For once, Jon thanked the gods for his disability and used the momentary confusion to knock the man down with his legs.

As he clambered up and loomed over his victim, right arm hanging bonelessly at his side, his mind was inundated with visions of his teeth grinding into the wildling's neck, snapping through skin and muscle and pulsing arteries. Yelling through the images, Jon raised his sword and shoved the point through the Lannister man's throat, his limbs convulsing uselessly as blood gushed down the front of his hauberk, staining the boar of Crakehall in red. He shouldn't have tried to rise. He should have rolled away to the side. Then I wouldn't have spit him like a pig.

Panting, Jon leaned on his sword hilt for support, unmindful of the corpse under his knees. His elbow was aflame in agony, and he wondered bitterly if he would lose the whole arm now. He heard his horse dying pitifully beside him, the spearhead lodged in too deep for blood to flow out and grant a quick death. He limped to his faithful mount's side, dragging his sword through the mud before pushing it into what he hoped was the animal's throat. This would not be the last time he'd lose a horse in this war.

As he forced himself to breathe and tried to ignore the pain in his arm, Jon watched the fighting around him. He could see the Greatjon surrounded by no less than four Lannister men. He looked like a great big bear and the soldiers circling him hunters too wary to get close. He bellowed and punched one of them in the mouth with a mailed fist when they refused to heed his taunts and attack, cutting down two more with a single swing of his hideous, rusted broadsword. The fourth dropped his blade and ran, the Greatjon rumbling after him with a roar and string of shouted insults about the size of his manhood.

Asha Greyjoy's men cut down anyone who dared to get in their way. Their eyes were red-rimmed and their lips frozen in ugly grins as they did their butchering, half drunk. But somehow they remained surefooted, dodging and shrugging off every blow that came their way to counter with their cutlasses. They must have mastered their balance fighting in close quarters with a deck tilting beneath their feet. For the first time, Jon was grateful to have them as allies, however unwanted.

The heir to Pyke herself seemed to be doing well, though a bright red gash scored her light mail on her left side and her helm was missing. She blew a sweaty lock of hair from her eyes, throwing axes in each hand dripping with the blood of the man she had just slain. Jon nearly called out to her when a figure in crimson plate emerged behind her, raising his sword to strike across her shoulder blades. But before he could plunge his blade in, a hulking brown mass tackled him to the ground, leveling a man-sized broadsword at his helmed head, splitting it in two in a mash of bone and brains.

"You should watch your back, my lady," the Smalljon panted, his breaths gusting like bellows as Asha Greyjoy turned to him in surprise. "You're fortunate I'm always looking—"

Far from kissing his hairy cheeks in gratitude, Greyjoy kicked the Smalljon's legs out from under him, dropping him to the ground. She bent over his middle and hurled one of her axes, grunting as it struck the center of a soldier's forehead perfectly, his hauberk emblazoned with the yellow pyramid of House Lefford. His spear—which had been only seconds from skewering the Smalljon's massive backside—fell from dead hands, its owner shortly following it to the grass. "You've been staring at my arse a little too closely, Umber. I'm not interested in watching yours. Get that into your skull, unless you'd prefer my ax there instead." Greyjoy made sure to step on the Smalljon's stomach as she went to retrieve her ax from her victim's skull with a sickening plop.

Jon sighed in relief and looked elsewhere, his spine stiffening when he found Robb.

Robb seemed to have mislaid his horse, too, as he fought for his life at the crest of a small mound. To Jon's relief, the Mormont sisters were at his back, morningstars swinging and caving in helms, so he would not make the mistake Greyjoy and the Smalljon had nearly made.

But none of that mattered at all when Jon saw who was trying desperately to reach Robb. Newly mailed farm boys in pot helms were nothing to fear, but Jaime Lannister was an entirely different nightmare. His helm was gone, his shield a chipped ruin, gilded plate gouged and smashed in several places, and his hair was a wild and blood-soaked mess. Yet he was smiling as his sword danced in his hands, a trail of bodies lying in his wake. His latest challenger, Eddard Karstark, could do no more than parry against the Kingslayer's savage onslaught and, with blooming horror, Jon knew Lannister was sure to reach Robb.

Jon rose and limped to the foot of the mound, right arm dangling uselessly. Ghost was on the other side of the glade and would never get there in time. He didn't know what he could do that six others could not as Lannister carved his bloody path. The count went up to seven as the Kingslayer sheathed his sword in Eddard's bowels, wasting hardly a moment before kicking the dying boy off his blade and engaging another man unfortunate enough to be in his way.

Maybe there was nothing Jon could do. He'd failed to even cut a man's head off on horseback. Perhaps the only thing he could do was be there. If his death gave Robb a few more seconds to get to safety or for someone skilled enough to protect him to arrive, then that would be worth it. What is my life truly worth? Jon had never really stopped to consider that question until he finally resolved to lose his life. He prayed his father would be proud to know his bastard, his greatest dishonor, had died honorably.

His eyes were locked on Robb and the Kingslayer as he scrambled over the trail of corpses. There was no one left in the Kingslayer's way, and Robb's back was completely open. Robb never even noticed his danger, too busy grappling with more farm boys. Jon called out to him. Robb must have heard for he looked back, those blue eyes Jon loved so widening in terror when he saw his doom approaching. Jon found the strength to vault to him, ready to leap in the way and die as a bastard should for trueborn brothers. And then his hand tightened around the pommel of his blade, lips drawing back from his teeth in inexplicable, beastly rage. Robb was too slow, and Lannister too fast. Time stood still as the golden man raised his sword for one last glorious kill.

There was no uncertainty in Jon's movements now. He would not strike with the flat. He stepped into the Kingslayer's space and whipped his sword up in a massive arc that should have dislocated his shoulder, meeting the Kingslayer's stroke as it began to fall. Jon didn't feel the steel cut into metal, flesh, and bone as it sliced through Jaime Lannister's wrist. For a few silent moments, one of the greatest fighters in the realm looked confused that Robb remained unharmed, his amputated hand rolling across the ground for several long seconds before the realization and screams finally came.

Jon let go of his sword and dropped to his knees, more tired than he thought was possible as he watched the Kingslayer scream and writhe in front of him, blood beginning to flow from the stump. Lannister didn't seem so powerful anymore. Just a man who had never known pain and believed himself immortal until Jon proved otherwise. Jon stared at the scene with naked glee, uncaring if it was monstrous. Robb lives. Nothing else mattered.

He expected a look of gratitude from his brother, if not the warm press of kisses. But after Robb slipped off his helm, the only expression on his face was shock. His eyes widened when he glanced at Jon's face. "Jon..."

The battle had ended the moment Jaime Lannister's hand hit the ground. The once vibrant glade was choked with corpses or the slowly dying. Off to his side, Jon could see no less than four horses piled in a heap, and a fire was burning deep inthe trees, but no one was rushing to put it out. It seemed to Jon that he had been kneeling there for a long time, the Kingslayer's cries having since receded to whimpers, the man cradling his stump against his chest pitifully while begging for the pain to go away. He had soiled himself. Jon would have laughed if he had the energy.

He noticed without much interest that he was surrounded by grim faces, mostly of the high lords. Far from praising him for saving Robb from the Kingslayer, their expressions ranged from disapproval to mild hostility, all kept in hushed silence. Even the Greatjon seemed worried, though his son was grinning at Jon, uncomfortably as he was not blind to the troubling atmosphere around him. Asha Greyjoy peered at Jon with a mixture of awe and pity. It figured. As a bastard, he wasn't allowed to relish his victory, no matter how great the deed.

Strangely enough, the only one who wasn't regarding him in discomfort was Lady Catelyn, who had reined up to them shortly after the horn blew signaling their victory. Her eyes went to him, the Kingslayer, and Robb, and it wasn't hard to see her piecing together what had happened. She gazed at Jon with grudging appreciation. He wondered how long that would last.

Lord Galbart Glover stepped forward, his left eye covered in a sheet of dried blood. "Gods, the Kingslayer. Do you realize what this means? If the—"

Robb found his voice, and it was authoritative, if somewhat shaken. "This is not the time to discuss that, my lord. We have hostages to round up and wounds that need mending." He looked down at the sobbing figure of the Kingslayer with equal parts disgust and fear. "Someone get the wretch on a horse and take him back to camp. Have a maester examine him immediately." Robb turned his attention to Jon at last, and it was clear that he preferred not to. "You. With me."

They were given the nearest horses that could be found as both of theirs were dead. Robb and Jon rode back to the camp in deathly silence, Robb's band of protectors following far behind once they had secured their own mounts. Robb refused to look at him, and Jon couldn't bring himself to ask what he had done. He was so tired. His thoughts were jumbled, and nothing seemed to make any sense. The burst of clarity that had burned in him when he attacked the Kingslayer was down to ashes, and they clogged his heart and mind. What's happening to me? Why did everyone hate him?

The fraction of their host tasked to stay behind and man the camp cheered and crowded around them when they arrived. Robb smiled stiffly as he was slapped on the back with shouts of "Winterfell" and "Stark" echoing into the fading night, and even Jon was met with adulation as he was helped off his horse. Robb wasted no time extricating them from the crowd and dragging Jon to his tent. His brother pushed him through the flap but did not follow inside, marching off back through the camp. Jon collapsed on the thin carpet, wanting nothing more than to close his eyes and sleep for a fortnight.

Ghost slipped into the tent, white fur stained pink and reeking of death, but Jon threw his arms around his wolf. His forearm was twisted at a painful angle, but his elbow was no more than a dull throb. He was too tired to really feel it. "I didn't lose myself this time. At least I don't think I did," he murmured into Ghost's smelly coat. "And yet it looks like I still did something terrible. Why do I always make things worse..."

Jon's lips quirked upwards despite himself when Ghost nipped at his neck.

"Thanks for the encouragement."

A squat, balding man wearing gray robes and a dangling chain stepped through the tent flap. In his exhausted state, Jon almost called out to Maester Luwin, longing for the old man's advice. "I am Maester Durham, servant of House Dustin. Your brother sent me to treat your wounds."

Without waiting for permission, the maester hauled him up and proceeded to pat him over for injuries while giving Ghost a wide berth. Jon directed the man to his arm, which sagged flaccidly in the other's restless hands. No warning was given before Durham wrenched Jon's elbow with a loud snap, making him and Ghost growl in alarm. The maester assured him that there was no lasting damage and fashioned him a sling to keep his arm in. Durham's attention lingered on Jon's nearly fleshless hand, but he explained it was an old injury that nothing could be done for.

As the maester prepared to depart, Jon stopped him and asked, "Maester, about the Kingslayer... Ser Jaime Lannister. Is he...? Has anything been done for his...?" It was beyond awkward asking after the health of one of their greatest foes, the same who had killed Jory and crushed his father's leg under a horse. But guilt seemed to creep out at strange moments for Jon.

The maester averted his eyes. "Ser Jaime was being treated by three maesters before Lord Stark sent me to you. He lost a lot of blood, and I fear his hand cannot be salvaged."

I know. I cut if off, Jon thought sarcastically, but there was no point in mocking the man.

"Nonetheless, I have every faith that he will live. His injury is still fresh and... quite precise, so all that is needed is to sew a flap of skin over the wound, and it should heal itself in time. My fellows are likely performing the operation at this very moment, but there are many hundreds who require our attention. Rest well, my lord." Maester Durham stepped outside, clearly relieved to be free of Jon.

The morning sun painted the beige tarp of his tent in bright orange by the time Robb finally returned to him. It felt like Robb had been gone for hours and, with each passing minute, Jon's stomach contracted with dread, imagining Robb with the lords bannermen, deliberating on his fate. His brother's demeanor did nothing to reassure him. Robb's skin was pale, mouth turned down in a grim line. He had yet to wash the grime and blood from his face and hair or change his armor. Formidable as the suit of layered steel was, the pieces seemed to be hanging loose, battered and in danger of falling apart. Robb himself was doing no better.

Jon rose and met Robb's eyes squarely. "What have you decided to do with me?"

Robb showed no emotion. "What I should have done hours ago." Then he pulled Jon into his arms and kissed Jon full on the mouth. Jon couldn't even fathom resistance as his lips slid willingly against his brother's. If Robb decided to execute him, it was enough to know that Robb didn't hate him. They had only been stealing each other's breaths for a few seconds before Jon closed his mouth with a wince, teeth nearly taking a bite out of Robb's tongue when it was slow to unwind from his. Robb finally noticed the sling mashed between them. "I'm so sorry! Your arm..."

"It's nothing. No lasting damage," Jon mumbled. "It will heal." He left unlike my hand unsaid.

"Good." Robb's relief filled Jon's heart with hope.

"You didn't seem so pleased to see me after the battle," Jon said casually, though he never could hide his true feelings from Robb.

Robb stepped back, though his hand still clasped Jon's uninjured arm. His expression was one of rebuke and anxiety again. "Jon, I know you didn't mean to. And if you did, I know it was with the best of intentions."

Yes! Such as saving your life! Jon's mind ground out, but he let Robb continue.

"Yet you maimed one of the most valuable hostages we have. Even if the Lannisters won't give up Father for him, we could have brokered a prisoner exchange for anyone else in the realm. If Lord Tywin or the Queen learns of what we've done to him, what's to stop them from lopping off a hand each from Arya and Sansa? We might have gotten the girls for him if this war drags out, though my bannermen wouldn't like that much. Lord Karstark, at least, feels that what you did was justice for the Kingslayer killing his sons. Only he wants to chop off the other hand, too. Now, I'm afraid of even letting the Seven Kingdoms know that we have him for dread of how King's Landing will react. Do you understand, Jon?"

Robb's hand was like a vise around Jon's wrist. His brother's tone was pleading, and it was apparent that Robb hated having to berate him for an act he should have been honored for. This speech was mostly from Robb the Lord, who loved no one but the game—Jon didn't miss the words "my bannermen." Still, Robb felt his anguish as acutely as he did.

And anguished he was. Why hadn't he realized? This was war, and so much was at stake that he couldn't cut down everyone with impunity. Did all the others know that but him? A part of him remained defiant, though. "I acted without thought, true... but only because he was about to kill you! His hand held a sword, and that sword was about to strike you down! I couldn't stop and take my time to pick which part of him to plunge my blade into! When I thought you were going to die, I..." His throat closed up, and he was furious at himself when he felt tears gathering in his eyes. Why did he always lose himself like this with Robb?

Robb was quick to fold Jon back into his embrace. "I know, I know. Gods, Jon, I know that I would have died if it weren't for you," Robb whispered into his hair, and Jon raged anew when he realized Robb was now an inch taller than him. "When I saw you running up to me, I wanted to scream because he was going to kill you, too. I saw it in his eyes. He wanted to see me dead, and I didn't want to live to see him cut you down. Then you were right there and..." Robb rubbed careful thumbs over Jon's wet cheeks and held his face in both hands, staring deeply into his eyes. The gaze was analytical instead of affectionate, and it made Jon go cold. "Jon, in truth, I was afraid of you. The Kingslayer was out for my blood. But I was afraid of you."

The words were like a blow to the head. It was everything Jon feared Robb would say if he learned what Jon was, what he had been doing inside Ghost's skin. Did Robb see? How could he know?

"I thought you looked like a beast. For a moment, I feared that when you finished with the Kingslayer, you were going to turn on me. And your eyes..." Again, Robb's gaze probed Jon, searching for something that had been there.

Jon turned his face away, unable to bear Robb's scrutiny. Too many people had already stumbled upon his nature just by looking at him. "What about my eyes?"

Robb did not pull Jon back around, but he could hear the measured, troubled tone of Robb's voice, and it was as if the sound were slowly twisting in his guts. "I've never seen them that color. It was only for a few seconds, but I swear they looked... almost blue like mine. I don't know how to explain this, Jon. It's so strange."

Welcome to my life. Jon didn't know how to respond to any of that. A part of him thought this was the perfect moment to tell Robb everything, but a larger part of him held back. Robb was afraid of him. How would Robb react if he knew the full truth? Would he expel Jon from the war and send him to the Wall for fear that he was dangerous? And what did his eye color have to do with anything?

Jon was lost, and it seemed Robb was in much the same state and needed an answer from him, so Jon gave the only one he could think of. "Maybe it was the light."

"Maybe," Robb said, clearly skeptical. "Whatever happened, there's something else that can't be denied. I've been meaning to talk about it with you for months." Suddenly, Robb took Jon's left hand in his and ran his fingers across the veins. "Jon, I took a look at the Kingslayer's wrist. The maesters are beside themselves in wonder. The cut you made was so straight and perfect, the fastest sword arm in the land wouldn't have been able to do it with Valyrian steel. You sliced through his gauntlet like it was cheese. If I had any notion that you know what you're doing, I would ask you for training. I know you didn't get so good from sparring with me. Or Theon, for that matter."

At this point, Jon had no idea what Robb was saying anymore. Better than Valyrian steel? Me? Did I truly do that? He noticed that what Robb said didn't add up in another way. "Months...?"

Robb nodded. "When you slew that deserter, you pierced chain mail like nothing was there. It would have taken anyone else several lunges to cut through to the back as you did but, no, my brother stabbed straight past leather, mail, flesh and bone, then out again in one try with his left hand. It was quite impressive. Mikken couldn't stop talking about how one of his own swords did that."

Now Jon really wasn't following Robb. "What are you talking about? He wasn't wearing mail. I felt it. He wasn't..." Did he? He was unsure. He hadn't thought about that deserter in weeks—the one who killed Theon, the one he paid back in kind.

It was Robb's turn to look confused. "Yes, he was. I examined the body myself when the guards brought it back to Winterfell while you were resting. The wounds were perfect. I thought you were being modest when I said how easy it was for you and you acted like you didn't know what I was talking about. I thought you knew."

Jon shook his head. He didn't. He wondered what else he didn't know that others did. All at once, he felt very small, and the world was one giant eye peering at him through a looking glass, watching him and following him, exposing him. He didn't much like being exposed. Not when his whole life he'd thrived on being ignored.

Robb was at a loss for words himself. "I... I don't know what to say. If you don't know what's happening to you, then there's little hope I could. I don't like not knowing you."

Closing the space between them, Jon placed his head on Robb's shoulder with a sigh, reassuring himself that Robb wasn't as far away as he felt. "Same here."

The sound of horses pawing the ground and men entering the camp brought them out of their shared but uneasy silence. Robb drew away slightly, taking most of his warmth with him. Jon missed it desperately. "I think the men have returned from the battleground. The maesters will have their work cut out for them. You can rest here if you like, get yourself cleaned up, or go grab a tankard of mead or two. I'm giving our soldiers a day to celebrate before we march for Riverrun."

"I don't think I've ever had a drink without you," Jon said tentatively, trying to coax Robb into staying with him, though he knew it was no use.

"That sorry morning in the brothel..." Robb chuckled bitterly. "I think we both need a second chance at that day."

Before Jon could ask what he meant, Robb landed a quick kiss on Jon's lips and ducked out of the tent to return to his duties. That one kiss was of more value to Jon than he could quantify. It was good to know that, despite the doubts that hadgrown between them and the secrets they suspected of one another, nothing had really changed. Robb still loved him, even if they no longer knew each other as they once thought.

Jon slowly and with much difficulty, considering his arm was in a sling, divested himself of his armor. Robb's token fell to his feet. He had completely forgotten about it. The flower was a little flattened but otherwise none the worse for wear. He considered returning it to Robb, but instead he smiled sadly and resolved to dance with fate. He would give it back when the fighting was done, no matter how many weeks or months or years that took. He shoved it into his satchel with his fewother precious possessions and cleansed himself with water from a jug on the tent's small table.

He needed sleep, but Jon didn't want to be alone with himself even in his dreams, regardless of how his entire body shook with exhaustion. Ghost had slinked out without his notice, hopefully not to feed. The thought of flesh, any flesh, turned his stomach inside out. Some mead might take care of that.

The camp was a center of revelry and celebration despite the dark work that remained to be done. Dozens of white tents had sprouted throughout the morning to serve as triage and hospices for the injured troops. Before him, an officer on horseback trotted past pulling along a chain of bound and ragged Lannister survivors. They were likely the sons or brothers of lords from the westerlands and would no doubt be useful currency in the days to come. As far as Jon was aware, theyhad yet to hear word of what had become of Roose Bolton and the host he took to the Green Fork to distract Tywin Lannister. There was no doubt in Jon's mind that they would need these hostages if the feint had gone sour.

The hot morning sun beating down on his messy hair, Jon trudged past laughing soldiers with bowlegged whores hanging on their arms and rows of campfires burning spits with slabs of meat to break their fast. He ignored it all and headed for the wooden structure that stood by a stream at the fringes of the forest. The lodge had been abandoned when they found it—probably a result of the Lannisters' presence—and they had wasted no time converting it into a mead hall. Bodies were already passed out in front of the entrance with bottles and mugs clasped in their hands. Jon skirted around them and pushed through the door.

The place was packed to the last centimeter, men squished together on the benches with each table singing its own drunken victory song. He could barely see past the smoke of brewing hops that furled across the ceiling like black clouds. He looked on in approval. The noise and smells, the choking heat, the inability to see past a few feet, and the promise of an endless supply of mead—the perfect conditions for smothering himself.

He had not taken even two steps on the stained hardwood floor when a glint of silver sped end over end towards his face. Without thinking, his hand shot up and caught the ax by the handle.

A booming chorus of claps and cheers went up from the table nearest him, which was occupied by Asha Greyjoy and her crew. Startled glances and whispers followed from the other drinkers, at least those sober enough to comprehend what had happened. "See, boys? I told you he knew how to dance the finger dance. It's a shame the Kingslayer did not." Greyjoy's mocking voice pierced over the din. "Come and have a drink with us, Snow. We have much to talk about."

He knew the sort of talk Asha Greyjoy had in mind—the kind that involved a dozen pints of mead for starters—and he wasn't in the mood for it. Jon walked calmly to their bench, one of the sneering sailors making room for him beside their smirking mistress. Instead of putting himself at their mercy, he brought down the ax on a clay pitcher filled to the brim with foaming, amber fluid. The ax lodged in the table, and the pitcher split in perfect halves, its contents flowing out in waves, causing a round of curses and retreating bodies.

One scowling figure with an eyepatch and thick arms inked in tattoos loomed over him. Jon stood his ground, daring the brute to try him. Something on Jon's face must have convinced the man of his folly for he jumped away in alarm, tripping onto the sodden bench.

Satisfied, Jon showed the ironborn his back and proceeded down the cramped aisles to the rear of the hall. An almost reverent silence followed his passing. A party of northern knights, few as they were, immediately fumbled over themselves for the honor of handing him their table. Jon took it without comment. If he was going to be notorious, might as well reap the benefits. Also, more mead for him.

Jon grabbed a pitcher and funneled a quarter of its contents down his throat and over it, staining his tunic. The sweet honey taste coupled with the searing heat spreading through his limbs and brain made him feel light and muddled. His empty stomach roiled in protest, but that was fine. Anything was preferable to seeing the Kingslayer's severed hand fly across the air, only to shrink into Arya's just as it fell towards the ground. His imagination was doing an admirable job of making him retch. Better mead or nothing rather than food.

The hours ticked by. Soldiers and camp followers came and went as he leaned back against the wall, chugging down another sweet mouthful whenever his tongue felt parched, which was often. He barely registered the curious and awed glances, but no one approached him so he let them stare. Someone must have braved his presence, though, for his pitcher was always full. Maybe it was magic. What use is skinchanging? He wanted his mind cleared of everything, not to have it turned into an animal's, and an infinite fount of mead was far more practical.

Through his haze, he heard the door slam open and yelling emanate from the front of the hall. He heard men getting on their feet, shouts and anguished cries. Fists slammed against tabletops, and necks strained to hear as the news spread out in ripples. Something had happened but, if it had nothing to do with him, Jon didn't care.

There was pointing. Whoever had brought the news was now turning his way, and other faces soon joined in. Everyone was looking at him. Even in his drunken state, a shiver ran down Jon's spine at finding most of the men's eyes wet with tears, the rest consumed by desperate anger.

A short man in traveling leathers came up to Jon anxiously. He had moss under his fingernails that reminded Jon of the crannogmen. There was much fidgeting, misuse of the greeting "milord," and stuttering. Jon was about to tell the man to get on with it or leave him to his drink when the words "Lord Eddard" and "beheaded" breached his consciousness, burning away the mists to leave horrifying lucidity. It couldn't be true. This was a nightmare. Jon had passed out after his fourth pitcher, and his mind was taking its revenge.

He beat his palm against his temple, but it was no use. When he opened his eyes, he was still in the mead hall, the words still ringing in his head.

He had to get out. His legs shook under him as he stood. Jon wanted to retch, but all that came out of his mouth were choking gasps. Their eyes followed him, and every set brimmed with pity and unimaginable loss. He could hear several of the others sobbing. For the first time ever, Jon felt like one of them. How ironic that it had only happened after the one who bound them together was dead.

The felicitous atmosphere of the camp was gone, having practically reversed in but a heartbeat. Wails could be heard from all corners, men shouting at no one in particular, threatening retribution on the Lannisters. In the distance, he could see a mob forming by the corral where they were keeping the hostages. Guardsmen held their own comrades back with shields and spear hafts, protecting their enemies from the consuming rage they no doubt felt themselves. Jon hoped Robb had placed men he trusted around the Kingslayer, though immediately Jon wondered why he even cared.

It was then that the howls came. The sound left no soul untouched, freezing the blood in the veins of those listening. The wolves had made the same requiem after Bran's fall. Jon never wanted to hear it again, though he knew there would be no escape. The dirge was within him, and so it was within Ghost, too.

He shambled about, with no care as to where he was going. "He promised to tell me about my mother," he mumbled to the ground. Was his father already buried? Or did the Lannisters stake his head upon the castle gates to feed the crows? "You promised..."

What were they fighting for now? Would their banners still march for two little girls, one of whom was likely dead? Jon had shied away from the possibility before, but there was no way to shake it off now. If Joffrey and the Queen had no qualms about butchering the Lord of Winterfell and Hand of the King, how could they resist killing Lord Eddard's skinny, boyish, and fierce daughter? Always running around with skinned knees and hair that Jon would never be able to muss again...

Jon stepped onto the crest of an embankment and noticed that there was nothing ahead of him but a twenty-foot drop towards the river. He made to turn back but saw that he had known where he was going, after all.

Robb was standing under the eaves of a tree, deep gouges in its trunk from where he'd attacked it with his sword. He was holding tightly onto his mother, never before looking so lost, vulnerable, and fifteen as he did then. Jon would remember the sight for the rest of his days, for he suspected this was the last time he would ever see his brother so young. Childhood and simple days were over. For both of them.

Lady Stark whispered a few final words into her son's ear and kissed his tear-streaked cheek before hiking up her skirts and returning to camp, no doubt to share her grief with her Seven.

After she left, Robb simply stayed there, motionless, not picking up his sword to resume his savage onslaught on the tree. He didn't even seem to know that it was Jon coming up to him, but he reached out to Jon all the same when he was close enough, an instinct. Robb clung to him, sobbing into his neck, and Jon bit his lip to block out the pain of his crushed elbow. Twice, they had fallen into each other's arms during the day, though their roles were reversed. The difference being that Robb had done nothing wrong. Jon was suddenly racked with guilt. "Do they know? Did they find out? Is that why they killed Father? Because of what I—"

"No," Robb breathed, his hold on Jon strangulating. "There were no ravens. They couldn't possibly know. You didn't do this, Jon."

Jon had never agreed with that particular assessment, but he ignored it for now. This was a time for despair, and it went beyond him.

"But Joffrey did. Father confessed to a treason he didn't commit but was still killed." Robb shook in his rage, but soon he was again overcome by sorrow and sagged into Jon's one-armed embrace.

That won't do. "Then we'll destroy him. We'll tear apart that ugly castle stone by stone, and we'll rip his head off his scrawny neck with our bare hands, if necessary. Together. We've earned our retribution, Robb. That family has hurt ours for the last time." Something hot bubbled up inside him, and he returned to a moonlit glade, the woods full of whispers, his reflexes sure and strong and fueled by an almost supernatural fury. He saw the Red Keep ablaze in fire and blood running in the streets of King's Landing.

To Jon's surprise, Robb smiled wetly against his chin. "That's exactly what Mother said. She sounded as wise as you."

Jon smiled, too, but his held deadly promise. "Then your mother and I have one thing in common." Like Lady Catelyn, he would murder for his family and for Robb especially. He hoped Lady Stark knew she had a comrade in that.

They marched immediately that afternoon. After an hour, there was nothing left of their passage but cinders and five thousand hoof prints as they rode south to Riverrun. Far from succumbing to despair, their entire host was invigorated with purpose, a fire burning in the men's hearts that assured that they would march straight to King's Landing and set it aflame if they were commanded to. The lords sang encouragements to their troops, the Greatjon's voice in particular rising above the others in terrible songs of vengeance and retribution, paeans to the valor of the Starks, unheard since the North became no more than a dependency. Something was brewing there, but Jon could find no reason to discourage it.

Breaking the siege of Riverrun was a mere formality. After a night of ceaseless marches with barely any rest in between, the northern host unleashed all its pent up energies like wildfire. As there was no real way to surround Riverrun without dividing the army between three riverbanks, the Lannister forces were grossly disorganized and broken. Even so, it was almost pitiful how easily they crumbled, the Kingslayer having left no scouts or spiked trenches, no defenses of any sort aside from green boys so unprepared that they strolled around camp in their smallclothes. Slaughter had never looked so one-sided.

Robb forbade Jon from joining the battle as his right arm was still useless, not that it had been of much use before. Jon reminded Robb that there was no one among the besiegers whose hands he wouldn't be allowed to chop off, so he should be set loose. Robb had only given him a dry look before riding down to order the sortie.

Now, Jon watched disinterestedly as the broken remnants of a siege tower and several bodies floated down the Tumblestone past an outcrop he shared with Lady Catelyn. He could sense Ghost tearing his way through tents on the northern bank, but Jon didn't feel bloodthirsty enough to borrow his wolf's eyes to see it.

"Most of the lords feel you committed a wrong when you maimed the Kingslayer." Lady Stark spoke suddenly, startling him. The silence had just started to get pleasant. "The boisterous ones say it's a great crime to cut off a warrior's sword hand and leave him alive, while the shrewd ones say you damaged the Kingslayer's value. I am more sympathetic to the latter group, as the Queen yet holds my girls. But I will not lie to myself and forget that you saved my son. To me, that is more important than preserving some pawn for the game. I thank you." Her deep blue eyes were surprisingly open for a change, and there was no denying that she meant what she said.

In another time, in another life, he would have lapped up every last dreg of praise she gave him and asked for seconds. No more. "Is that truly gratitude, Lady Stark? Does this mean you've arranged a new betrothal for me?"

She had the grace to flinch at his words, but it was clear she had not expected the degree of loathing that dripped from his tone. "The betrothal... I only thought—"

"I know what you thought. You thought to reward me for protecting half your children by brokering a beneficial marriage, one a bastard like me could only dream of. I thank you for that, Lady Stark. But, in the future, if I end up saving another member of your family, please try to keep your gifts to yourself." He kicked his horse and wheeled away, leaving her stunned behind him, unable to bear another minute of her company. He was no longer the love-starved child she could string along with kind words only to bully him. Those days were done.

Sadly, the gods thought his contact with Lady Stark wasn't quite so done, as Robb took them both in his boat on the row under the gates of Riverrun, newly liberated. She did not try to engage him in conversation again, but it was obvious that she was sulking. Even Robb seemed to notice, looking between them curiously. I suppose I now know how he comes by his petulant streak, thought Jon.

The boat came to a stop at the edge of a stone pier. Their wolves leapt out first, startling the group sent to receive them. Strong arms pulled Lady Stark across the underwater steps. Robb remained behind to help Jon out, as his balance wasn't as keen as it used to be. He flushed in embarrassment, but he was mature enough to know when he needed the help.

Edmure Tully was a stockier, bushier, and jollier version of Robb with the same fiery hair and deep blue eyes. In short, he was nothing like Robb. Then again, perhaps Jon was biased. Lord Edmure embraced Lady Catelyn tightly, lifting her off her feet, all the while whispering comforting condolences for the death of her husband. He thumped Robb on the back and gave thanks for his rescue. He even shook Jon's free hand energetically with none of the animosity his sister bore. Jon liked him already.

They were ushered into the foyer. Inside, Riverrun was not so far different from Winterfell, except for the dampness. A straight-backed older man with salt and pepper hair awaited them there, a black version of the Tully sigil emblazoned on his surcoat.

"Uncle Brynden?" Lady Stark said with pleasant surprise. "Why are you here? I thought I left you at the Eyrie."

"You did, little Cat. But it was not long before I came to rue my error in staying. Your sister was not content to see you leave without someone suffering for your visit, so she chose me to heap her scorn upon. She blames me for letting you ride up her mountain with your little hostage in tow and drawing the ire of the Lannisters to her, despite the Imp never setting foot in her drafty halls. I surmised that she no longer had need of my service, so here I am. I made it just in time to help brace the castle against the siege, burning whatever Gregor Clegane and his lot managed to miss."

Lady Stark took his strong hands in hers. "I am so relieved to have you here, Uncle. And with Father ill... Do you think Lysa will help us?"

Brynden Tully's lively blue eyes were sympathetic. "I'm afraid not, Cat. She has made it perfectly clear that you should clean up your own mess. Her words."

Lady Catelyn deflated. "I suppose I hoped for too much."

"Do not fear. I will try my best to make up for the loss of her banners. Ned was my friend, too, and I intend to see that Cersei and her spawn live only long enough to regret his murder. The Riverlands support the North without question." He stood up straighter and started speaking like the hardened battle commander he was. "Much and more has happened in the south since the beheading. We have three kings in the realm now."

"Three?" Lady Stark gasped for all of them.

"Yes. The Baratheons are at war. Renly has the allegiance of the Stormlands and Highgarden, and he is amassing his host there as we speak. Mace Tyrell's daughter is to be his queen, and that puffed up pillock she calls a father could not be more delighted. Stannis has also claimed a crown on his seat in Dragonstone, though no one knows how many banners he's managed to scrounge up in that dismal place. He announced his claim with this." The Blackfish took out two pieces of parchment and handed one each to Robb and Lady Stark.

As they read, Jon could see increasing levels of shock dawning on their faces. Lady Stark was still staring at hers when Robb handed his copy to Jon. He then addressed the Blackfish. "Cersei and the Kingslayer... Could this be true?"

Lord Brynden smiled darkly. "We are inclined to believe it."

Jon couldn't believe what he was reading, yet as his mind took in the information, the pieces began to fall together even before he knew what they were. Joffrey was a bastard. All of King Robert's royal heirs were bastards. He recalled his first dream as a warg, that night he padded into Tyrion Lannister's quarters and heard the words that shook him to his core. Jaime and Cersei Lannister had pushed Bran from the tower because he... saw something. Something they wished no one to see. Something they would murder children over before letting others find out. And Joffrey is their bastard.

His thoughts were spinning so rapidly he never noticed the others had already finished their discussion. Lady Catelyn was speaking to her uncle. "I would like to see my father, Uncle. It has been too long, and I'm afraid there's not much time." She turned to her son. "Robb?"

"Another time, Mother. I wish to visit the godswood before I convene a war council." His eyes went to Jon's, beseeching. They had not prayed at a heart tree since they learned of their father's death.

"You go ahead. I have a matter I need to take care of first," Jon said, giving Robb his most reassuring but solemn smile.

Robb looked like he was about to argue, but he eventually returned the smile and nodded, letting the castellan lead him away to the godswood. Lady Stark slipped her arm into her brother's and went up a flight of steps to visit Lord Tully. The Blackfish seemed like he was going to follow but instead regarded Jon with a look that immediately made him want to improve his posture. The Blackfish was renowned for his role in the War of the Ninepenny Kings. Jon felt like such a fool with his arm in a sling and minus his sword belt.

Though Brynden Tully appeared by no means unimpressed. "I hear you're the one who crippled the Kingslayer. Those louts tottering behind your brother wouldn't know honor from a sack of beans, conveniently forgetting that in war the only thing that matters is to cut down as many of the other bastards as you can. That's how I fought, and nobody complained, at least in my hearing. If they vilify you, it's because they couldn't land the blow themselves. Good work, son."

The Blackfish was paying him a compliment. Jon felt like crowing, though fortunately he stifled it. Maybe later in private. "T-Thank you, my lord. It was nothing."

Lord Brynden scoffed in annoyance. "Please spare me your courtesies. I'm no lord. I just prop up those who are while doing all the dirty work. I'm assuming we share a similar vocation. Your brother is lucky to have you under him."

Jon could only nod, holding back the traitorous blush that dared to erupt when he imagined being under Robb. The Blackfish left him like that, and he cursed himself for being such a flustered, fat-tongued maiden.

A maester suddenly emerged from the shadows, and Jon jumped back in alarm. "I am sorry if I startled you, my lord. You are Jon Snow, I presume? I did not want to present this to you with his lordship and his guests present. If there are explanations, it would be better if you offered them instead of any being asked of you. Or me."

Jon's brows drew together in confusion. "What do you mean?"

The gray-robed man bowed. "I am very sorry. I am not usually this bewildered. A letter came for you from King's Landing not a day past. I thought there was a mistake, for I didn't know of any Jon Snows in the entire castle. Fortunately, Lord Edmure mentioned who you were when I let slip your name. And, even more fortunately, he didn't ask me why I needed to know." The maester thrust a parchment into Jon's slack hand and slinked away, not wanting to be seen talking to him.

Excitement recently buried bubbled back up inside him. Did he even dare hope? Jon looked the letter over. Aside from the generic red seal of the capital and his name, there was nothing else on it, no indication of who it was from. If his father had written him a letter, however, there would be no signs. Driven by nothing else but that hope, he cracked the wax with his fingernail and unfolded the parchment, expecting to finally learn who he was or simply read a few warm words from the only man he truly respected, now gone forever.

After the first sentence, his jubilation quickly fell to nothing. That it was not even in his father's hand was apparent by the first word. But Jon still hoped.

Though his hopes were dashed, other emotions soon crowded in when he realized who the writer was. He braced himself for the blow.

Jon Snow,

You are perhaps wondering how I knew you were in Riverrun. To tell the truth, I didn't know but, as you are reading this missive, let us assume that, yes, I indeed knew you were in Riverrun. Huzzah! If, however, you are not Jon Snow, stop reading right now! And may goats chomp off your cock! If you are a woman, then may goats chomp off your husband's cock! Though, if you happen to like his cock intact and in place, feel free to ignore me as I am drunk and, worse yet, wasting ink.

As much as I love my brother, it was but a matter of time. Riverrun is a fucking nightmare to besiege, and my dear Jaime has never possessed the temperament for idle warfare. If there were any gods worth my piety, I'd pray to them that you'll treat him gently. He's the only brother I have and, if you harm him, I'll be ever so cross. I might even ask for the return of my friendship, but only if you cooked him into a pie and fed him to your wolf.

What I've been carefully not saying is that this will likely be the last letter you shall receive from me. Times have changed drastically since Ilyn Payne beheaded your father. I did not wish that, believe me, and I did everything I could to keep Lord Stark from that fate. Nobody expected it. Not even my sweet sister and Varys with his whispers. There's a saying that only the stupid can truly surprise you, and Joffrey surprised us all that sorry day.

My father was not pleased. Joffrey needs to be reined in and, for some strange reason, Lord Tywin believes me to be the one for the task. He has appointed me Hand of the King. I suppose long before you hear of this news we will already be enemies. So, think of those days past when you considered me an ally and erase them from your heart. It will be easier this way. Remember that I have a father, too, and we lost boys desperately seek the approval of such men no matter the cost. Mine still lives.

I could have assumed my new title and never sent you a word. Yet I feel our friendship, so few do I have, deserves a better epitaph than that, so here I write. You will be glad to know that the minute my chain of office settled around my neck, I sent out warrants for Petyr Baelish's arrest. However, you will not be so glad to know that he was one step ahead of me and has vanished into the city. I have the gold cloaks scouring the countryside for his treacherous hide, so I don't think he's left King's Landing, but you can never be certain with rats. I will pass him on to you as soon as I catch him, though I presume you won't mind receiving him in separate boxes.

That is all. I hope that someday, when we meet again, we will not need to destroy each other. As I valued your trust in me more than I could count, I offer you one final boon in fair exchange.

Lady Sansa is here, safe and sound and as pretty as ever, at least for the moment. Don't read that as a threat from me. With Joffrey, nobody is truly safe, but I will do the best I can. As for your younger sister, she is gone. She is not dead, so far as I know, or her head would no doubt already be decorating a wall.

Find her before we do.

Tyrion

After he was done, Jon sighed in something resembling relief. Arya had escaped. He could hold on to that. It was too bad Littlefinger had escaped, too, and he felt lonely now that he could no longer depend on Tyrion except as an enemy who had to be fought. He might meet the clever little man in battle someday. He hoped he wouldn't be the one delivering a fatal blow.

He would need to give the letter to Robb, but there were questions he needed to ask first. After being directed by a guardsman on where to go, Jon ascended the steps towards the western tower. Northern soldiers stood at each side of the door to the topmost room, so they recognized his face. They did not turn him away and instead let him inside without even asking what he intended to do since he wore no weapons.

The Kingslayer's cell was bare but still contained the minimum amenities befitting one of his rank and birth. He was leaning against the headboard of the bed, skin clammy and drawn from pain and fever, eyes glazed from milk of the poppy. He wore a sling similar to Jon's, and it hit Jon how alike their circumstances were. The thick linen wrapped tightly around Lannister's stump was pink with blood, but only because it hadn't been changed as it was no longer bleeding. Despite his delirium, his cloudy green eyes were sharp. "A visitor? Did you perchance bring any wine? These trouts are niggards when it comes to drink."

Jon came straight to the point. "Joffrey is your bastard."

The Kingslayer narrowed his eyes. "You're not one for idle chitchat, are you? You would beat your words into the heads of your listeners with a hammer until nothing's left but fine powder. Has that little tidbit been going around? Nowonder everyone's been staring at my face. I thought it a welcome reprieve from everyone staring at my stump. Things were starting to get familiar again."

"Do you always deflect hard questions?"

"Only if hard questions are asked. Did you ask me a question?"

"I'll take that as a yes. Did you push my brother Bran off a tower?"

The Kingslayer beat his head against the headboard. "We've barely met, and you're already my worst nightmare."

"We have met, and I am your worst nightmare. I'm Jon Snow."

Lannister's mouth twitched, and an emotion flashed in his eyes that looked remarkably like hatred. "Ah, I thought as much. Nobody else could have driven me to anger quite so effortlessly. What makes you think I would answer any question of yours?"

"I already know the answers to all my questions, and you'll see that we are not so different."

The Kingslayer barked out a laugh, cold and bitter. "That I'd like to see. My sister would no doubt notice a difference."

Jon untied his sling and let his arm flop to his side. He had only slight mobility in his elbow, but it was the hand that he would never feel sensation with again that he wanted the Kingslayer's attention on. "Notice anything wrong, Kingslayer?"

Lannister frowned, though whether it was from the sight of Jon's hand or the vehement use of his infamous title Jon couldn't be sure. "There are ninety-year-old maesters with more flesh than that." The man looked up to Jon's face, his expression still vaguely hostile. "I remember seeing you spar with your brother during our hapless stay in Winterfell. I would have taken note if you had been using your left hand. Different reflexes and so forth. Realizing that you overpowered me so completely with your off hand makes me want to kill you all the more. Is that why you're here? To mock me? Do you plan to tell me that you crippled me to even the score?"

Jon tried not to be offended. "No, I crippled you because we were fighting, and I could do nothing else to stop you. That's not why I'm here. Your son sent an assassin to cut my brother's throat after you left Winterfell. I managed to stop him, though I lost my hand in the effort."

"Ah, so it was revenge. I spawned Joffrey, he sent the assassin, and the assassin took your hand, so you took mine to balance the scales. How righteous of you."

Jon gritted his teeth. "That's not..." But is it? He could have cut the Kingslayer anywhere. Why did his sword go for the hand? He shook the doubts away. "Don't try and act like you were an innocent bystander in all this, Kingslayer. Joffrey sent the assassin to cover up your incest."

The Kingslayer smiled beauteously at him, and Jon's temper rose another notch. "Did he? How kind of him. A boy after my own heart. Do you have any proof of this?"

"We brought the assassin with us. He's in the dungeons right now. Would you like to meet him?"

"And you didn't cut off his hand? You certainly have a skewed sense of justice."

Jon was tiring of this. The man was infuriating. "Why did you do it? Bran's a little boy. I should take your legs, too. That would truly even the score. Why?"

For the first time, the blond man's expression was serious. "Have you ever had something you'd kill to protect? Someone? That's why, boy."

The response struck so close to his heart that Jon gulped. His first thought was of Robb. He tried to imagine what he would do if another's brother saw their incest. Would he kill a child? Would he push that child from a tower to ensure their secret and their very lives stayed safe? He told himself that he would never resort to an act so despicable. So evil. But if he truly was faced with such a choice...

No, I wouldn't choose as the Kingslayer did. We are not so different, Jaime Lannister. I only hope you'll never know just how much we are the same.

There was nothing else he needed to know. It was clear that Lannister had no idea why his son sent the assassin. With no more to say, Jon turned and headed for the door. Before he could knock on the wood, the Kingslayer called to him. "As befuddled as I am by this visit, I think you owe me for my trouble. Assuming I'm alive when this war ends... Who do I talk to for a left arm like yours?"

Jon had not expected the humble request and felt a little sad that a man as proud as the Kingslayer had once been would need to resort to pleading at all, his whole identity severed. "When we defeat you, maybe I'll give you a lesson or two then. Though you'll have to ask nicely."

The blond man smiled, and it was quite handsome when genuine. "Hard questions. If you do, I may consider giving you the answers you seek."

Jon knocked on the door and left him.

The council had commenced by the time Jon descended into the great hall. Four trestle tables were formed into a square to seat all the lords of the North and Riverlands. Every spot was taken, so Jon had no choice but to stand at the back and wait for the proceedings to end before handing Robb the letter from Tyrion. The lords discussed matters from their future plans and available resources, the ransoms they could demand, to how they would defend the Riverlands. The debates were loud and lively, in turns ferocious and sedate, horns of ale flowing freely. Robb listened to it all and rarely put in a word edgewise, soaking in arguments and rebuttals and only giving judgment when it was needed, just like Father would have done. It was all remarkably predictable as far as war councils went.

But then the topic moved on to kings and fealty, and that's when things changed forever.

Robb sat stunned as the Greatjon got down on his knees and laid his monstrous sword at Robb's feet. Jon remembered Lord Umber's songs on their march to Riverrun, and he realized that had been leading to this. The big, loyal beast of a man had already swept up the men's hearts with tales of kingdoms gone by before they ever met at the council table. And Jon wasn't surprised to see the Smalljon beside his father, hailing Robb as a king. Soon all of Robb's bannermen were on their knees, the riverlords following after. Jon didn't know when he sank to the floor, but at some point he had. He did not have a sword to offer Robb at the moment, but he had his heart and his love, and hopefully Robb would be content with that.

The ensuing celebration was a blur in Jon's mind. There was a King in the North again after three hundred years, and the whole castle shook with reverence. Tankards of ale were being thrust at him from all sides. He was no longer just the bastard of a great man but the brother of a king, and the others made sure he felt as ecstatic about it as they did.

Wylis Manderly was performing his own version of "The Bear and the Maiden Fair" upon a table when a hand tugged on Jon's arm. It was Robb, hair a mess and face red from excessive drink. His movements were stiff as he led Jon out of the crowd. It was incredibly easy for kings to slip out of their own coronations when the world was half mad and fully drunk.

Robb took Jon to his quarters—the king's quarters now—where they simply stood at the foot of the king's bed and stared at the wall for the longest time before Robb finally said what they were both thinking. "What happened out there... Was it truly..."

"It was."

"I'm a king."

"You are."

"Good gods."

"I know."

"The blacksmith is making me a crown right now. A real crown that I will wear on my head because I'm a king." Robb couldn't seem to stop saying the word, and Jon couldn't blame him. Never had they imagined that word would have such meaning for them both. "What do I do? Do I keep doing the same things I've been doing? Only reminding everyone to call me 'Your Grace'? What do I do, Jon?"

"I suppose you need a queen now," Jon said drily.

Robb stared into Jon's eyes, and Jon stared back, neither so much as blinking, daring the other to break first. In the end, they both lost themselves to guffaws at the same time and fell in bed wrapped in each other's arms. "One thing at a time, Jon."

"Lord Frey may die of joy when he learns one of his daughters will be a queen," Jon said, rather hoping it'd prove true.

Robb caressed Jon's bearded cheek. "And yours will be a princess. Prince Jon Snow."

Jon grunted and rolled onto his back. He didn't think bastards could be princes, but he saw no reason to spoil Robb's mood when his brother merely wanted to include him where he couldn't be included.

"And now Sansa can be the princess she's always wanted to be without having to marry that little shit Joffrey," Robb grumbled, running his fingertips along Jon's collarbone.

"That reminds me." Jon fished Tyrion's letter out of his pocket. He'd completely forgotten about it in the recent hysteria but now handed it to Robb, who sighed and sat up on the bed, sensing it wouldn't all be good news.

Robb's eyes darted quickly across the words and, when he was done, he folded the paper and handed it back to Jon before standing. "Your trust in the Imp is finally starting to pay off. Littlefinger has fled, and Arya has long since escaped." Jon sat up, too, relieved to have those facts confirmed.

"Yes, and Sansa is trapped in King's Landing." Jon pondered on how he should phrase the next statement but decided it would be best to say it outright. "You need to trade the Kingslayer for her." He had already worked out the details in his head.

As a threat, Jaime Lannister had lost all value along with his sword hand. The truth was the man was an abysmal commander, impatient and reckless. His prime asset was as a fighter, and there was no hope of him recovering his strength anytime soon. He would not be able to inspire armies to fight behind him any longer either, not while unable to swing a sword, so his usefulness to the Iron Throne was nil. But the Queen and Tyrion would readily trade for him. There was no doubt of that. And the Lannisters would not risk harming Sansa when they had already killed Father and lost Arya. They had no choice now.

He expected Robb to see things the same way. How could Robb not? But it took many moments for him to give his answer, and Jon almost thought Robb hadn't heard him, until Robb said, flatly, "No."

Jon couldn't believe what he was hearing. "No? What do you mean no?" He stood slowly, every muscle weary.

"I meant it exactly as it's meant," Robb bit back, suddenly defensive. He ran his fingers through his hair, a sure sign of turmoil. "How could you even think to treat with them? They have tried to destroy us again and again and again. They killed Father. And you still want to bargain with them? No, you may believe in your friend Tyrion Lannister, but I don't. Especially not now that he's Hand to a bastard usurper."

The way Robb spat out that word stung, but Jon didn't let himself rise to it. "She is our sister. How could you leave her there knowing you've the means to rescue her?"

"There is a way to save her, and that's by breaking down the gates of King's Landing and shoving a sword down Joffrey's throat. I'd be a laughingstock to my bannermen if I submit now to any demands the Lannisters make after what they've done. And I noticed your little friend never offered to even send us Father's bones. Yes, Sansa is my sister, and I know the value of her life better than you."

Never had Robb made a point of how Jon was only half related to his siblings. Jon's throat felt raw and dry in his shock as he said, "Apparently, it's not worth more than your pride."

Robb turned his back on Jon, signaling the end of that particular discussion. "Tomorrow, we march. I can't stay here one day more knowing Tywin Lannister is crawling through my grandfather's lands," he said without inflection. "We don't have the numbers or the sea power to assault King's Landing directly and, if we try, Lord Tywin will bloody our flanks. I intend to take our host through the Golden Tooth instead and attempt to divert Lord Tywin back into his own lands, hopefully leaving Lord Bolton poised to take Harrenhal."

Jon was silent. It was a sound plan, and there was nothing he felt like contributing to it. He knew Robb was leading up to something else, though, so he stood stiffly and waited.

Inhaling sharply, Robb spun around to face Jon again, his eyes strangely hollow. "I'm sending you south to treat with King Renly. Stannis is the rightful heir, but he's holed up in Dragonstone, and I can't think of any safe way to send you there."

Jon couldn't comprehend the turn his life had taken. Only a few hours prior, he was nothing but a bastard, and now he was supposed to treat with kings in service to his own. "Me? Why me?"

"I proposed it to Mother, but she refused. She'd rather stay with her father. So I leave it to you, the only one I trust. And since you're so good at making friends, I thought this would be the most optimal use of your talents."

"But..." Jon was stammering. "There has to be someone else. Anyone... No one's going to want to—"

"It must be you." Robb's face hardened again, his tone firm and brooking no argument. Though his crown was still at the forge, he was wearing it nonetheless, nestled heavily in his auburn curls. "And if it's your birth that you're so concerned about, I plan to make you my Hand. The blacksmith is forging your chain as we speak. A chain of wolf paws."

A Hand without a hand. How droll. "I don't know what to think of these honors. Surely there are others more deserving?"

Robb shrugged, as if that hardly mattered. "Perhaps. But the men worship you and would follow you as readily as they would me. Some of them even think you're the old gods incarnate. As long as it makes them fight harder, I don't care if you're the red god's nephew."

Jon couldn't miss the resentment in Robb's tone, and the presence of it made him sick. Is that what this is about? Robb was banishing him. Robb was giving him the highest honor conceivable and punishing him at the same time. Jon was a threat to Robb's newly minted title, and the only thing Robb could think to do about it was to have him gone. Jon felt betrayed in every sense of the word, and the worst thing was that Robb probably thought the same of him.

His king had not finished. "...and that story with the crannogmen. I must admit that was a level of cunning I didn't know you were capable of. A perfect quality for my Hand."

Jon smothered his scowl. Let Robb think whatever he wanted. When a king commanded, even lies became truth. They had been right. Littlefinger and Ellys both. They had foreseen what Robb would become long before Jon had. And he’d vehemently denied it back then. How childish he was. How stupid. Had Father played the game, too? Is this what he had become before the court consumed him? No, Jon couldn't think that his own father would be so lost to honor, but he couldn't imagine it of Robb either.

And yet here Robb was, playing the game, sacrificing and pushing away his family to satisfy his ambition. Jon wasn't naïve. He knew the burden Robb carried and the sort of choices his brother would have to make, had even discussed it with Robb all those months ago over a game of cyvasse. And now that Robb was a king, Jon knew he couldn't fathom the weight on Robb's shoulders. But Robb didn't wish to share the load. Would rather see Jon gone than give him a chance to help.

Or maybe it was because Jon was the brother he secretly loved. Maybe Robb thought of Jon as a threat because he didn't want to become Cersei, the same way Jon didn't want to become Jaime.

This beloved stranger looked at Jon with eyes he no longer recognized, eyes duller and lonelier than he had ever seen them. But kings were seldom happy, and if Robb was willing to bear that alone, then so be it. His Robb was gone. Even Robb the Lord had vanished into the ether. King Robb regarded Jon with one last commanding gaze. "You will leave at first light. A delegation of twenty lords will accompany you to lend credence to your status as my Hand and envoy. Asha Greyjoy and her pirates will also be joining you. I have no use for them here, and they'll only stir up trouble with the Mormonts. According to the washerwomen, the lady may be sweet on you, so I doubt that she will object to spending more time with you. Is that understood?"

Jon swallowed down bile, his stomach roiling, and said the words that would tear them apart for good and all. This was how Robb wished it to be. They were done. "Yes... Your Grace."

Chapter Text

Lost in the Reach

 

They rode beneath the shadow of mountains. Snowcapped peaks punched the sky to the west where the sun made its slow descent behind them. Little streams broke up the unusually flat but soggy grassland that stretched out to the south. Jon's latest mount snorted, hooves flicking off globs of mud as they climbed out of another reed-choked pond, troops of dragonflies billowing in their wake. It would be well into the night before they reached Stoney Sept. Jon caught a glimpse of a structure rising out of the lip of the crescent-shaped mountain range where the ancient town was situated. If he strained his ears, he could almost hear the bells, distant echoes from Robert Baratheon's first victory in the Riverlands against the Iron Throne. Jon hoped that by stopping there he could borrow a little of that success for their own rebellion.

His party was looking forward to civilization. Ever since they left Riverrun, they had avoided all roads leading to King's Landing and trudged straight through the wilderness for the Reach. It had been a month of damp soil, frequent rains, and tiny creatures crawling into their tents, old discomforts that had somehow become magnified without an army surrounding them. Jon would not risk the gold or red cloaks finding him, as he could not expect honorable treatment regardless of the white pennant held aloft as his standard over the direwolf banner of House Stark, marking him for an envoy.

Jon didn't put much stock either in the pathetic gold chain clamped about his neck. Robb had been serious when he said it was supposed to look like a chain of clasped wolf paws, but perhaps it had been left in the forge too long as each link looked like a misshapen golden blob, all in varying sizes, etched with lines for claws. It was shoddy even for a night's work, and Jon pictured with sadistic glee what Robb's crown must look like.

Worse yet, the chain was too small. The blacksmith must have thought Robb had given the position to Bran. But Jon didn't dare yank the damn thing off. Like it or not, he was a king's Hand now, despite how ridiculous that seemed, and he would be the Hand always until he or Robb perished, or his king banished him like Mad King Aerys had Jon Connington after the Targaryen defeat at Stoney Sept.

Fortunately, Jon's tolerance did not extend to his clothes. Robb had been kind enough to load Jon with some of his best cloaks and finery, even a few brocades from his Uncle Edmure's wardrobe, to give Jon that expensive, glimmering Hand look. He hurled all but Lord Edmure's, which Jon planned to give back upon his return, into a muddy river the moment they were out of sight of Riverrun. There was no law that said a Hand couldn't wear riding leathers. And he refused to don Robb's castoffs, feeling like a castoff himself. He didn't want anything of Robb's on his skin.

The other "gifts" Robb had given that he couldn't dump into the nearest body of water was his entourage. An equal delegation of young northern nobles and riverlords would escort him to King Renly, symbolic of King Robb's new dominion, which now included the Riverlands. Jon had heard their introductions with only vague attention and, after a month, he still didn't know most of their names. He didn't care to learn. All he really knew was that there were now banners displaying water creatures around him when there had once mostly been furry mammals. And he was again swamped by his future relations, the Freys, of whom there was always an infinite supply.

That was not the worst of it, for adding to his perpetual frustration were...

"Think you otters can live in the North?" the Smalljon quipped suddenly. He was unusually resplendent in his father's most regal cloak. It was too small for him.

Asha Greyjoy groaned. She was once again caught in the Smalljon's continuous attempts to start a conversation. "Why in the Drowned God's fucking watery halls are you asking me?"

The Smalljon appeared unperturbed by her agitation, though Jon had rarely seen him perturbed by anything. "I just thought since you're an accomplished captain of the sea that you would know something of them. You must have had plenty of adventures, sailing across the Narrow Sea upon your own ship."

Despite the Smalljon's efforts to butter her up, a vein pulsed in Greyjoy's temple, the leather of her gloves squeaking around her reins as her grip tightened. "First of all, otters have nothing to do with the sea. They are freshwater rats that infest rivers and lakes, so you'll have better luck wasting the time of one of the puddle lords trailing in our wake. Second of all, no, I will not tell you about my adventures, so stop asking, you dim, oversized mammoth."

The Smalljon blinked at her, dumbfounded, as they crossed a narrow ford to wade through yet another shallow marsh. "I am sorry if I have offended you, my lady. I should have known you disliked otters." A chorus of groans erupted at that. "I only asked because Ma saw an otter on a southron house's banner once and said how much she wanted one, though we've never seen one in the North. She has a muscular neck that she's a mite conscious of, so Pa's always bringing her small furs to cover it up. There's a butcher in the Dreadfort town who flays little furred animals—dead, of course, as the Starks outlawed flaying a thousand years ago, Pa told me—and who stuffs their skins with wool. I don't like him much. He scares me, same as Lord Bolton. And—"

Greyjoy suddenly pounded her fist on her horse's shoulder, startling the animal. "By the Drowned God's mercy, I can't take any more! Qarl, shut him up!"

Qarl the Maid, who had been following silently behind his lady, jerked up to attention. His smooth cheeks sagged down in a frown as he sized up the Smalljon, who leered at him, daring him to try it.

"I refuse," Qarl the Maid said, throwing up his hands. "Fight this battle by your damn self, milady. I want to die on the sea, not under some bloody aurochs. And stop looking at me like that. You're not that good in bed." His hairless, handsome face paled when a row of teeth flashed behind the Smalljon's beard. "...I think I'm going to sleep in my own tent tonight." Qarl pulled on the reins and wheeled his horse about, splashing water from his path as he galloped to his mates.

A dark energy seeped from Greyjoy's eyes as she bowed her head, fingers inching to her trusty axes, and whispered, "You cost me my bedmate."

The Smalljon stuck out his chin. "Good. A craven like him is not worthy of you."

"I want to crack your skull open with my ax."

"That was how Ma got Pa's attention. He still has the scars in his hairline to prove it."

"Your mother is a fat cow, and your father no doubt finds her ugly."

The Smalljon puffed up his cheeks, pouting indignantly. "That's not true. Pa's ever found her beautiful. 'Even if she does have udders for teats,' he always says."

Greyjoy gaped at him, her rage giving way to stunned astonishment. She turned to Jon and asked, "Is there no way to provoke him? I was sure that one could make him fall off his horse and hopefully die."

Jon gave her the barest attention when he said, "Not like that. A thick frame is considered attractive in the far North." Before she could ask Jon what she could say about the Smalljon's mother to make him angry, Jon kicked his horse and galloped to the head of the line, passing his standard bearers and ignoring their attempts to converse with him. His new mount wasn't as adept at understanding his commands as the last had been. Then again, it didn't matter much. King Robb had ensured Jon would not need to fight again. How fucking nice of him.

The sounds of the Smalljon and Greyjoy's bickering could still be heard. That, the lack of peace, the fact that they were an hour or two from Stoney Sept yet, and the constant thoughts of Robb and their last miserable meeting were making Jon’s head pound. He hated the pounding, almost as much as the thinking. Shaking fingers pulled out a wineskin from his pouch and unscrewed the cap, squeezing the contents into his thirsting mouth.

All he got was a drop. Cursing, Jon held out the skin. As if by magic, his squire appeared beside him, bright-eyed and eager to please his master. It's much too early to retch. "Ale. None of that Free Cities rubbish. Be quick about it... you..." Jon tried to conjure up the boy's name. Pate? Patrek? Partridge? All he cared to remember was that the boy was some grasping riverlord's fifth son. Or is it nephew? Cousin? His temples started beating. "Just get on with it."

The nameless squire snatched the skin and held it to his chest reverently. "Right away, my lord Hand!" He sped down to the baggage train to fetch Jon's drink.

Jon sighed, closing his eyes to quell the drumming in his head. He supposed he truly was a lord now. He held no lands and had no incomes to speak of, but those were nothing to the second most powerful title in the realm. Though in reality he was only one of four, among them his onetime friend and ally Tyrion Lannister. He wondered what the little man was doing right then. Probably fortifying the Red Keep while amassing a host to destroy them or...

Holding my sister prisoner.

Jon was gritting his teeth and sweating by the time his squire returned. He took the skin—now fat and filled to the cap with brown fluid—and downed half the contents into his throat. The foul, bitter taste was immediately offset by the fire in his belly, coming alive to choke his brain in blessed smoke. No wonder so many sad sods lost themselves in drink. If Robert Baratheon's brothers had been anything like his, he could almost empathize with the late king.

So lost was he in joyous silence that he never noticed the Smalljon riding up to him until the man started speaking. "Jon... How many skins have you had today?"

Jon squinted at his overlarge friend, his gaze somewhat lopsided. "I don't know... One?"

The Smalljon crossed his arms and glared at Jon sternly. "I think you've had a lot more than one."

Jon smiled dazedly, though he had no real control over his facial muscles. His friend was so stupid. "I had one skin... but I had it refilled ten times. See? It was a joke. You fell for it." He laughed, until he forgot what he was laughing about. It must have been quite humorous. He drank to his own wit.

The Smalljon tried to reach for the wineskin, but Jon darted away. "Jon, stop that! Everyone is staring at you! They're starting to talk..."

He lowered the skin from his lips and sneered at the ground. "They've been talking about me my whole life. Always talking. No matter what I do, someone somewhere is ever talking behind my back, spinning tales about me. I just want the talk to end. I want the pounding to stop..." He squeezed the wineskin and a brown plume shot out, coating his fingers.

The Smalljon looked at Jon like every word said caused him pain. "You must know I'm not the best at this sort of thing, what with all you've seen between me and Lady Asha. I don't know what's wrong with you, and I don't know how to help. It's not a fair fight. I have to know what I'm up against so I can swing my sword at it. Just tell me where to swing my sword, and I'll do it. You're supposed to tell me what to do. But you're scaring me, Jon."

Jon rounded his head to look the Smalljon in the face—or at least in what he assumed was the other's face. How can any man see through so much hair? He flapped his arm a few times before he was able to drape it over his friend's huge back. "There's no need to get so emotional, Jon. I'm fine. Trust me. I'm just having a little trouble easing into this whole Hand of the King business. It's a lot to take in."

The Smalljon nodded slowly. "We all used to empty a keg each every night in Last Hearth, I suppose. Even my sisters. But it's so cold up there, you can barely feel your lips from your teeth. You look cold, too, Jon, but not like that. I'm afraid you're overdoing it."

"It's not like that. Well, maybe it is. A little. But I know where my limits lie, and I only drink enough to keep myself warm." Jon patted his friend on one hair-covered cheek and pulled his arm back. "I'll be well. Truly. No need to fuss. Now go back to your betrothed."

It was clear the Smalljon wanted to do nothing of the sort, but Jon stared him down with a remarkably lucid gaze. Those cold, gray Stark eyes always won out in the end. "O-Okay. If you really think you're going to be fine." The Smalljon didn't seem to think so, but in the end he reined his horse around and trotted back to his place.

Jon waited until his friend was out of sight before downing another surreptitious mouthful. I just lied through my teeth while completely drunk. I might make a good Hand, after all.

He was sketchy on the details, but eventually they made it to Stoney Sept. Predictably enough, the townsfolk swarmed around him to greet the Hand of their new kingdom, the famous bells tolling in the background. The town was in a celebratory state. One, because the war had not yet reached it, which compelled its residents to empty as many kegs as possible before the inevitable came and, two, because Stoney Sept still bore the pride of directly aiding another king thwart the Iron Throne of old. Robb would find no stauncher allies in the Riverlands than the rebels of Stoney Sept.

Jon noticed that the villagers were composed mainly of women and old men, so most of the fighting force was already with Robb, raising hell in Lord Tywin's lands. A mob of colorfully dressed women helped Jon down off his horse and escorted him to the tallest inn in town, giggling and lavishing sweet sentiments into his ears. The older ones could have been among the whores who hid an injured Robert Baratheon from Jon Connington long enough for him to heal and defeat the Hand of King Aerys. All this history was making Jon feel heady. Or maybe it was just the ale.

A flurry of tankards and song assailed him within. Faces swam before him, hands patting his back and places he might not have approved of sober, mugs of cloudy brown thrust up to his nose. Jon took every proffered tankard, felt the sticky liquor dribble down his chin before emptying each and throwing it onto the floor to take another. Bards sidled up next to him, leaving the whores offended, to present him with their creations—stirring odes to the Young Wolf's courage and strength.

He did not criticize the lyrics. Jon did not point out that Robb had never ridden his direwolf, that he did not have the strength of twelve men, nor did he turn into a wolf himself to savage his foes. That was Jon. He was the skinchanger. But it wasno matter to him. Robb wanted all the glory for himself, and Jon was happy to let him have it. There were no songs about the Bastard of Winterfell and the Kingslayer; the King had given every command to keep that secret. Jon sang along heartily, anyways, swilling his drink with the rest of them.

At the corner of his sight, he could see his delegation nursing their own drinks sourly, eyeing him with disapproval, though the Smalljon's gaze was tempered with concern. Jon's behavior was not becoming of a Hand of the King. He drank deeper to drown out their judgments.

Somehow, Jon managed to find his room later, and he shut the door when one of the whores tried to follow him inside. After shedding his sweaty leathers, fingers slow and inept, he tumbled into bed, his head missing the pillow by a few feet. In a moment of sudden clarity, it occurred to him that both his and Robb's namedays had gone by. It had been almost a year since King Robert came to Winterfell and Bran fell from the tower. He could remember just as vividly the months prior to the royal visit, when half the North came to Winterfell to celebrate Robb's birth. No one knew exactly when Jon had been born, so his father had dated it to three days after Robb's. That was probably so both his eldest sons could celebrate together, but Lady Catelyn put a stop to that before Jon even knew what a nameday was or that it mattered.

When the festivities had died down and he lay alone in his quarters, Robb would sneak into his bed and share with him all the gifts his brother had received—toys and coloring tools when they were younger, books and practice weapon sets when they got older. Robb had to make second trips to carry back the foods he had pilfered for Jon. They stuffed themselves with cakes and pies and smeared their faces with pudding, all the things Jon never got to eat at the servants' table, laughing about the foreign mummer Lord Manderly had brought or when Arya had thrown a lemoncake at Sansa while she giggled with a squire she fancied. Robb shared everything with Jon.

But it was different now. Robb finally wanted something just for himself. He had gotten a crown and a kingdom for his nameday, and Robb would rather banish Jon than let his brother touch his gifts. Jon still remembered the day after he burned his hand, when Robb had made him promise never to leave. Jon wasn't sure which of them broke that promise, but he couldn't help feeling guilty. Should he have fought? Refused? Or begged? Slapped Robb across the face to bring him back to his senses and risk losing another hand for striking a king?

Lonely and in despair, Jon's fingers quested down to the front of his breeches. Jon tried to think of Robb as he had once been, conjuring up his face, his skin and hands, his breath, the heat of his kisses. It was no use. Jon kept seeing the emptiness in Robb's eyes when he said his goodbyes. He would not shed his kingly raiment, as if the crown were already molded to his head.

Unable to wake his manhood, Jon buried himself in the covers and succumbed to restless sleep. Robb never slipped inside his room to wish him a happy nameday.

The next morning, Jon continued drinking his way through the Riverlands.

A fortnight later, they set up their camp on the border straddling the Riverlands and the Reach. While Jon had been lying in a drunken stupor at Stoney Sept, his companions had probed the villagers about the state of the war. Though Robb had long since begun his journey west, there were no reports chronicling his whereabouts, which was the best news Jon could have heard.

On the other hand, conditions in the east were not so favorable. Lord Tywin and his dog, the Mountain That Rides, were burning and raping every field and maiden within a hundred leagues of Harrenhal. That caused a few grumblings of dissatisfaction about Robb's decision to march west instead of east and Roose Bolton's disinterest in using his army to protect the villages. Jon had not been there, so he couldn't act on his natural inclination to defend Robb. The King was only leaving his realm in order to lure the Lion and his pillagers out of it. Had the townsfolk never played cyvasse?

Not all the news was grim, though. Bolton's apathy had given rise to a band of outlaws calling themselves the Brotherhood Without Banners, and they were utilizing their simple means to thwart Gregor Clegane and his monsters at every pass. Most astonishing of all was that the Brotherhood was led by a southron lord and a red priest. Jon didn't know what those men were about, and he wished he could have heard the tale himself but, if he ever came back from the Reach, he would have to find those outlaws and thank them or even aid them. That was the least he could do as Hand of the Northern Dominion.

But they would have to survive the weather first. Entering the Reach, there were no villages or holdfasts for leagues, and they quickly pitched their tents on the runny ground as they stood battered by torrential rains. Mud slipped beneath their boots, and it was an effort just to find someplace flat and solid.

Jon's companions assisted him in hammering down the pegs for his tent and finding a spot to tie his horse, as was their duty, but even hidden in cloaks dampened by the heavy rain, he could sense their icy demeanors. They had ceased trying to engage him in conversation for days and even his squire had become discouraged by his coldness. The Smalljon no longer knew how to talk to him either. Jon couldn't deny that he relished the peace, but it was hard to ignore the vacuum it created. Nothing could fill the emptiness, no matter what he did.

Jon was still cold, damp and shivering, as he lay on his cot with only the ale and memories to keep him warm. He twirled Robb's rose above his head, just to give his fingers something to do, listening to the endless battering of the rain against the tent canvas. One petal had come loose to land softly on his chest. The rest were already starting to wilt. Whatever Robb had done to keep the flower alive, Jon could not guess. Maybe his hands could give only death.

He threw every piece of apparel he had on top of his body to seal away the chill. Suddenly, he regretted throwing away Robb's clothes.

But what he regretted most was letting Ghost run off. The wolf had been traveling on his own for close to a month, and Jon couldn't think of any way to call him back. Perhaps even Jon's other half had grown sick of his company, but he suspected that Ghost was searching for something, leagues and leagues away. Jon could always sense that he was alive somewhere, even if Jon couldn't pinpoint his location or consciously slip into his skin. Jon would know if Ghost was hurt.

Jon wasn't worried, but he still longed for the direwolf's warmth. He carried that wish into his dreams...

...only to find more damp and cold. Dirty water flowed in thick rivulets down the muddy embankment. Large chunks of grass-topped earth slid from the mound, giving way to the force of the rains. He felt every pinprick on his sensitive fur, shaking the moisture off in turns only to be soaked again like a pale, drowned rat. Shivering, he whined under his breath and thrust his nose into the ground, trying to catch the scent before it washed away. His ears perked up, thunder rumbling in the great black sky.

Far in the distance, his keen red eyes saw the fire. Another village was being set ablaze, men on horses circling and stoking the flames so that not even the rain could put them out. He had almost gotten used to the sight during his trek through the war-torn landscape. The smell of charred wood and cooked flesh assailed his senses, but a familiar presence within his soul commanded him to suppress the hunger. Eating men was bad, unless there was a battle. Perhaps the men burning the village... He turned his head away when the screams came. Screams were bad, too.

His snout returning to the scent, the faint trail brought him to the hill's edge. The drop was pitch black, and all he could make out was the sound of running water, which didn't tell him much.

Seeing that the only way was down, he coiled his body and leaped into the darkness. As he fell, he extended his legs downward and braced himself for impact. His paws crashed onto slick mud, the speed of his descent blowing back his jowls as he slid down the frictionless slope. After a while, the ground leveled out, and he rolled into a riverbank, ice cold water lapping at his back. He jumped onto all fours, shaking the moisture off before the rain soaked him again. Instinct could be such a bother sometimes.

A terrified squeak made him shift around. A rodent-like animal stared at him with huge black eyes, a wriggling fish clutched in its little clawed hands. Otter, his human half supplied. Slaver dripped between his fangs. He had been running nonstop for days trying to stay on her trail, and the animal was right there, paralyzed by fear. Surely he deserved a quick meal?

Something rustled, and again he twisted around. He could sense them, their scents and growls emanating hunger, reverence, and fear. Lightning flashed and, for a second, a hundred eyes emerged in the light, peering at him through the tall grass. It was the largest pack he had ever seen, and he knew he would not survive if they decided to attack all at once. At last. I found them.

He heard a splash from behind him and the sound of limbs paddling away. His prey had escaped. Dammit. Everything swims in this place.

Silently lamenting his empty belly, his ears perked and his tail started wagging when the one he had sought for more than a month padded out to him from the grass. The wolves closest to her shrank from her path, snouts bowed and tails lodged between their legs like cowed dogs. She had broken them, each and every one of them. He felt pride and joy for his brood mate, though he couldn't express it in sound.

The other direwolf was less happy to see him. Her amber eyes, so familiar, glared at him like a stranger's. Her fur was thick and mangled, and it was clear human hands had not touched it in a long time. She had grown huge during her blood-drenched odyssey down south and was even bigger than he. Her teeth were longer than his, too, and had torn far more live flesh.

He did not shrink away. Sister. Your mouth reeks of man blood.

She snapped at him, but it was only a reflex, an automatic display of dominance. We eat what we will. Your breath is hardly fresh, little brother.

He pulled back his lips indignantly. He did not like being reminded that he was the odd runt of the litter. I only eat enemies.

Everyone is my enemy, she howled, long and resonating with menace. If there had been any men nearby, their hearts would have burst in terror in their dash to get away. Even her pack cowered from her. She was no longer the precocious little pup he had once rolled around the leaves of the godswood with. This creature was filled with hate and sorrow.

I am not your enemy. He took a step towards her, but she crouched low to the ground and bared her fangs, daring him to come closer. Her subjects began creeping around him, their paws treading the shallow puddles lightly, wary of confronting another direwolf. He ignored them and licked his chops, eyes on hers. Where is your human, sister? Mine misses her and wants her near. You were supposed to protect her.

Emotion flashed in her bestial eyes, but it was quickly smothered as her hackles rose at the accusation. The bravest of her pack barked at him, mirroring her rage. How dare you! I should rip you apart!

He was not impressed, nipping at his hindquarters to show it. Why have you not found her, sister? Why are you here playing queen with these dogs?

Said dogs snarled in offense, but she gave their mewling no attention. Do you think I wanted this? She was the one who sent me away! She wished me gone!

Impossible.

I do not lie! she bayed, drowning out the thunder. Her yellow eyes were manic and fevered with unspeakable loss. She struck me! Threw stones! She was afraid of me! All I did was as you said: protect her. But she banished me.

It was clear his sister was in pain and had been for all this time. She did not even sense him inching nearer, so lost was she in tortured memories. It can't be as you say. Perhaps she thought she had no choice. My human turned me away, as well, once, when one of his pack died and he was hurting, but I waited by the blood-eyed tree, and he came back for me. You have forgotten, sister. We are them, and they are us. They can't rip us away, nor we them.

She swung her large head from side to side, ears flattened against her skull. Her pride prevented her from accepting what he was saying, but inside she was desperate for it to be the truth. Her denials were a betrayal of her nature—of her existence—and her spirit was fighting against her, tooth and claw. Her response came out as a whine and, for that moment, she felt a pup again. What do you want?

He moved into her space, dipping his nose to nuzzle against her neck, but she flinched out of his reach. I want you to come with me. We can search for her together. Our sister may be gone, and her human trapped with no one to help her. But you're still here. You can still save your human. That is what the trees with bleeding eyes and the Other put us in this world for.

He almost had her, but suddenly she stiffened, a growl echoing inside her teeth. The Other does not care about our humans. Only yours.

He could not argue that. Maybe so. I was made different because my human is different. They gave me eyes the color of blood like theirs, so my mother and siblings pushed me away. You were afraid of me. You don't remember, but I do. I see things that you and the others cannot. I see your pain, sister. Come with me, and let me lick your wounds. Let your human slip inside you again, so you will know where she is. You don't need to run alone any longer. He extended his left paw without thinking. It was a human gesture and had no meaning among wolves, but he thought she might understand.

"Take my hand..."

By then, the rain had mostly abated, with only light showers trickling through his fur. A faint orange glow rose up from the east, painting the blackened remains of the burned village in stark relief. He could smell the dispersed stench of charred wood and cooked flesh in the cold, moist air, and he blew out of his nose to rid himself of the smell. Their spectators—who he had long since stopped noticing—had their tongues lolling. They clearly had a different opinion of the smell than he did.

Storms still raged in her eyes. When he thought one had finally defeated the other, she turned her tail to him and padded to the border of tall grass, to her pack. He thought she might be shaking. It is too late for me, brother. She would not want what I have become, and neither would you. Do not follow me again. Do so and you will face my pack. And they are always hungry. Without another glance, she vanished into the foliage with her dogs receding after her. They loped in the direction of the ruined village.

Sunlight was streaming into his tent when Jon opened his eyes. He did not move for a time, staring blankly as the canvas changed from white to pink to orange with the glare of the rising sun. He could hear activity outside, firewood being tossed and horses being fed, preparations for another long day of riding.

The dream had been different this time. Jon had never understood so vividly what Ghost was thinking, not once, and certainly not the thoughts of the creatures around him. The words of the pack had been vague and utterly insignificant, but Nymeria's had been as clear as the common tongue. Had Ghost allowed him that understanding? Or had their bond changed somehow, and he had at last become a wolf, truly and completely?

Jon looked at his hands, one alive and one broken. Both had a similar set of fingers with clearly defined veins under the skin. But his right hand, unlike the other, was thin and wasted, covered in pale, white scars with stiff, bony joints locked in place. It looked more like a bird's claw than a wolf's paw. So, he was still himself. He would always be himself.

Inevitably, Jon's thoughts settled on Arya. Ghost had gone straight to finding her, even as Jon rode on, filling himself with drink, trying to forget that she was out there and alive. He didn't do a thing for her. "I had no choice. Robb commanded me to abandon her..." No, that isn't fair. Robb never used those words, though it amounted to the same thing. Their sisters did not have pieces in Robb's game, so they were expendable. Once again, Ellys's prophetic words swirled in his mind like bits of ice in a hailstorm.

Whatever the circumstances, Jon could not look back. Robb had done just as he had promised when he turned Jon away from the Wall; Robb had given Jon a place, and that place was far to the south, away from the people who needed him and whom he needed.

And, so, Jon drank his way into the Reach, too.

Moving from the Riverlands to the Reach was like emerging from night into day. The leagues of shallow streams, thick woods, and loamy silt gave way to acres of green plains stretching as far as the eye could see. The most marked change was the lack of ash in the wind and of the smell of rotting carrion that pervaded Jon's senses no matter how far they fled from the fighting. The stench followed Jon from his dreams into his waking hours, forcing him to take more swills from his wineskin. It was a relief to see blue skies again, unmarred by plumes of smoke that seemed to cover the heavens themselves with blood when the sun shone through red.

Jon had never seen so much color. Flowers beyond counting covered the earth for miles, their scents assaulting his nostrils with an entirely different aroma. At times, he would find himself at the center of a vast ocean of white and purple, and he would halt to watch the wind roll across the endless gardens, bending the stems, hiding the buds for a second before they popped back up again. They reminded him of twinkling stars.

Not for the first time, Jon ached for Winterfell. In all his travels, he had never seen a night sky as clear as it looked from atop the keep. He and Robb would climb up there to watch the stars arc across the sky and escape the rigors of their lives. Somehow, Bran always knew where to find them, sidling between them to keep warm. They would giggle sleepily as they listened to Arya's shouts as she stomped through the castle searching for them, Sansa trying to drown her sister out with her harp. Though even then Jon had struggled with his existence, he never thought anything could ever hurt them or rip them apart, up there on that roof.

They made camp out in the open on a carpet of wildflowers beside a brook. The horses had begun to lather, and they decided to stop for a day to give all a chance to rest as well as to secure oats and provisions. There was no fear of harassment, as even the proudest of King Renly's vassals expressed no quarrel with King Robb or his subjects. Every holdfast and town south of the mountain pass beyond Stoney Sept had displayed the stag of Baratheon beside the flower of Tyrell, but the people gladly allowed the direwolf of Stark to pass beneath their arches, offering them food and shelter and even news.

Apparently, even the folk of the Reach marveled at Robb's victories and eagerly cheered him on. The North had landed a crushing blow against the Iron Throne by wiping out the entire force from Lannisport and slaying Lord Tywin's cousin. No one knew how Robb's host made it past the Golden Tooth but, even so far south, the Young Wolf's strange abilities were oft the subject of drunken fables. However, for some reason, Robb had veered to the south without striking Casterly Rock or Lannisport. But Jon did not doubt him. Certainly, Robb had his reasons, and it likely proved too great a risk to siege a castle as formidable as Casterly Rock while surrounded by enemies.

They were now six days from Bitterbridge and King Renly. Instead of enjoying the yet undefiled bounties of the Reach, Jon lay bleary-eyed on his cot inside his pavilion. Beyond his meager walls, he could hear the Smalljon's booming voice followed by a large splash and then laughter. Jon was pleased they could enjoy themselves. If only he could be so uninhibited.

Without getting up, Jon began his morning ritual and reached for his wineskin. Empty.

Before he could call for his squire, a figure appeared at the tent flap. Jon leaned up on his elbows. "There you are. Arbor gold, and boil some cinnamon into it," he commanded groggily.

His squire stepped into the tent uninvited, and Jon saw it was actually Asha Greyjoy. Her short black hair was windswept and her mouth contorted in distaste. "You look like shit."

Jon blinked rapidly, but his vision and thought processes remained misted. "Good morning to you, too, my lady."

"Are you truly the King's Hand? More like the Kingslayer's hand. After it had been left in the sun to rot."

"Yes, I slept well. Thank you for asking."

"You are pathetic." She kneeled down beside his head. She smelled like leather and mead and a faint aroma that reminded him of the sea, though Jon had only smelled the last during a trip to White Harbor. "Is this the man who bested the Kingslayer? Maimed one of the greatest fighters in the realm with a single swing? We must have all been dreaming that day. You're just a drunk and a fool."

"I've always been a fool," Jon whispered, reclining back onto the cot and shielding his eyes with his forearm to stop the pounding of his head. "To what do I owe this kind visit?"

"To your dear friend, the Smalljon, who wouldn't stop babbling about what a mess you've become. Honestly, it's getting insufferable." Greyjoy roughly pulled back the blanket covering Jon's body and tossed it away. "Get up."

Jon removed his arm and tried glaring at her, though his eyes didn't seem to work correctly. "I'm warning you. You're talking to the—"

"Yes, I know what your brother named you." She rolled her dark eyes to show what she thought of it. "But if he could see you now, he'd pull that ugly chain off himself, and you'd be just another crippled bastard again. Now sit up."

Jon debated how much trouble it would be to call his guards and have her expelled from his tent, but that would probably be enough time for her to pull out an ax or two. Grumbling, he pushed himself up and fought back the urge to retch as the world tilted beneath him. Greyjoy watched him struggle pitilessly, her hands clasped on her lap. "What now?" Jon said, clearing his throat.

"Take your shirt off," she said flatly.

He choked and coughed. "What?"

Greyjoy rolled her eyes again. "Stop being such child." Powerless to stop her, he could only endure in silence as she lunged and yanked the black tunic over his head, short fingernails raking against his torso. The frayed cloth tore when it caught on the jagged links of his necklace of wolf paws, but it was nothing a sharp tug couldn't fix, before Greyjoy tossed the shirt carelessly away along with the blanket. Jon shivered when a sudden breeze met his skin, but he visibly quaked when Greyjoyshoved her face into his, a dangerous grin plastered on that wide mouth. "You need that off for what I'm about to do to you."

His breath stopped. Jon could count the pores on the bridge of her sharp nose and the number of lines under her eyes that hinted at a lack of sleep. He couldn't recall anyone's face ever being so close to his before... aside from Robb's. "Do... to me... What..." he sputtered. His head felt heavier than usual. And why couldn't he say what he wanted to?

Jon was too entranced by the single strand of hair between her eyebrows to notice the ax until it was pressing against his neck. Oh... That's what she has in mind... She's going to punish me at last...

Greyjoy's face was still flush against his, though, and somehow he didn't sense any malice from her. The slight sting of the blade was almost comforting. She drew closer, her cheek smooth against the wiry hairs of his beard, her grip on the ax never wavering. Jon admired her easy grace, as always—so similar to her brother's—even as she whispered, deep and flirtatious, "We are days away from meeting King Renly. That might not matter to you anymore, but your friends are pissing themselves, and it's starting to annoy me. Also, I will not bear the embarrassment of being seen with you like this, so you will let me shave you. Do not bother resisting, as you don't want my blade to slip."

Jon didn't think his face could feel heat anymore after all the ale he'd ingested, but apparently it was still possible as Greyjoy's lips parted from his ear. He reached for his beard, and he was almost stunned to find how thick it had become. He had barely touched or seen his face in the three months since they had ridden out from Riverrun. He couldn't really remember seeing much of anything at all in that time, if he was brutally honest. Still, that did not mean Asha Greyjoy had any right to his well-being. He opened his mouth to say so...

...when a handful of water struck his face. He coughed and wheezed to expel the fluid that went down his throat. He was still blinking away water when a thin, wet, callused hand gripped his hair, pulling his head back. "Hold still," she muttered, angling the ax under his chin. "The last time I saw it, your face was as pretty as a Lysene whore. Wouldn't want to nick that fair northern skin. It's one of the few things about you I like."

Jon attempted to speak without moving his lips. "Leave this instant or I will—"

"Or you'll what?" Greyjoy said blandly, her eyes focused on the ax and a spot on his neck. "Call your guards? Command them to rescue their precious Hand from the cruel and filthy wanton, Asha Greyjoy? Do that and you will never live down the shame. They are already fed up with you as it is. The last thing you want them to see is the brother of their king overpowered by a woman. Or do you plan to deal with me yourself? Even if you could look past your vaunted honor to strike a woman, in this state I doubt you could hit the Wall if you were standing in front of it. You are so weak a small breeze could knock you down, if the ale hadn't done so already. So, please feel free to decide on a course of action, and we'll see if you can make it to Bitterbridge with your pride and your luscious cheeks still intact."

A miserable silence followed her words. Defeated and disgraced, Jon could think of nothing to do but to let her shear him, his beard falling off in clumps along with his manhood. He wished he had gotten at least a gulp of bitter brown before her appearance, as he was feeling unbearably lucid. Greyjoy's smug smile burned itself into his vision, and the only sound in the tent was the gentle scraping of steel on skin as Greyjoy raked up from jaw to chin and back again, biting her tongue in concentration and dipping the ax in a tub of water every now and then to wet the blade.

After several long, wordless minutes, his lap was covered in masses of dark brown hair, and the blade had reached his face. Their faces were level, her breaths and scent overwhelming his senses. The ax sawed the hair from his cheek gently, and he could feel it brush against his lashes. Greyjoy's dark gray eyes were narrowed, her movements sure and methodical, treating his face like it was something fragile and sacred. She was showing far more care than he deserved.

"Why are you doing this?" Jon said softly, as Greyjoy soaked the blade again before moving to his unshaven cheek, one hand cupping the other.

She didn't answer for a time, seemingly engrossed with her work. Jon thought she had not heard him, before her lips curled up slightly. "One Smalljon is enough, and the same goes for that lice-infested hedge he calls a beard."

He frowned but immediately drew his bottom lip back when he remembered there was an unreasonably sharp blade on his face. "I don't look like the Smalljon."

Greyjoy's smile widened, and Jon thought it was uncharacteristically genuine. "No, more like the Drunkjon."

"Your men drink as much as I."

Her smile dissolved. "My men are rapers and pillagers, and no one expects anything of them besides killing, so they drink to stay alive. My men can piss their ale into a cup on the other side of the Mander, while you would just fall in and drown with your mouth open, thinking it was more ale. You are no raper or pillager, Jon Snow, and I had you pegged as a different sort of bastard. Perhaps I was wrong."

They descended into silence again. Jon's face felt increasingly cold as Greyjoy's ministrations laid his skin bare. With one last swipe up his cheek, she laid her weapon down and grinned at her creation. "All done. Don't you just feel lighter with that burden off your face?"

Strangely enough, he did. Jon felt his face with his fingers, wincing at the spots where the blade had dug too deeply into the flesh. But, aside from a few rough patches, his cheeks and chin were smooth once again. Though Greyjoy had left his upper lip alone.

She must have seen his expression and the place his fingers stopped. "I thought you would look handsome with a mustache. Apparently, I was correct."

Jon didn't know how to respond to that other than to flush. It was inconvenient that he no longer had a beard to hide it in. He diverted his eyes to the piles of hair on his lap, which he brushed away. He muttered, "Though I never asked for your assistance, I suppose I should still tha—"

She kissed him.

Her eyes were closed while his were wide open in shock. Time seemed to stop with the meeting of their lips. The kiss was cold and stiff, and neither of them moved a muscle, least of all Jon, whose mouth was clamped tight. He had no clue what he was supposed to be doing, and Greyjoy made no move to help him. A hundred voices screamed inside his head, shouting at him to push her away, to smash her face into the ground for daring to touch him like this. Only one person had done this to him. Only one person whom he cared about enough to do this with. This now was a betrayal of the memory of those kisses...

Kisses I will never have again.

Jon shut his eyes tight before the tears could flow in earnest and opened his mouth slowly, pushing his tongue out against Greyjoy's hard, closed lips, willing them to open. The way Robb did with him.

She jerked away and slapped him. The sound of it rang in his ears as the damp and sensitized skin of his cheek burned. His face had been whipped to the side, and he couldn't even muster the strength to look forward, to see the damage he had wrought. He didn't need to look to know that she was angry.

"You disgust me," she said, her voice shaking with hate. "I wasn't sure before, but I am now. Who is she, Snow? The wench who broke your heart? I know that no trifling bitch could have possibly reduced you to the miserable little creature you are now, so she must have been something special. Am I wrong?"

He couldn't look at her. He couldn't move his eyes away from the floor, from burning a hole into the old carpet that would be big enough for him to fall and die in. Why did she care who "broke his heart"? Why was she even here at all? Why couldn't she go and leave him to his agony? His temples were pounding.

He barely registered the sound of crinkling leather, of her shifting closer. It was the harshness of her voice that caught his attention. "Why aren't you fighting me, Snow? I say all these terrible things, and you don't even look at me. What is wrong with you? Do you enjoy pain? Or only so much when you have a wineskin in hand? This is just like when I goaded you about Theon."

Jon's eyes widened. ...Theon?

Her fingers cupped his chin, newly shaved by her hand, and lifted his gaze to meet hers. There was no rage in her expression. Only sorrow and unbearable torment. Her eyes were almost like a child's as they brimmed with tears. "You are guilty, aren’t you? I know the look. I've seen people waste away from it, as you waste away now. I've seen them drown their brains in drink or hide where they think no one can hurt them. But I never saw them die. No, you robbed me of that. My family is dead because of you!"

Jon could not make sense of her words. Why? Why did she have to bring up Theon, just when he had buried the other boy in his mind and soul? And what was she accusing him of now? How much guilt was he supposed to bear?

She pushed him to the ground, her ax flashing out in an almost familiar gesture to once again press against his neck. This time it did break skin, as Greyjoy's hand was shaking and she no longer cared if she hurt him. Jon could not even wince, his eyes caught frozen by hers. She choked back a sob. "You bastard! Your whore was wise to desert you, you worthless shit! I won't let you forget, and I won't give you the easy escape of killing yourself. You don't deserve that. Do you want to die? Is that it? Answer me!"

Suddenly, it was Theon straddled atop him, glaring down at him with teary eyes, demanding answers that he couldn't possibly give. It was all so close, and it hurt so much. Jon's face broke, and he whispered a single, pain-streaked word. "Please."

Greyjoy pressed the blade a little harder, and he knew blood was welling up, spilling onto the gold chain underneath. Her face was anguished and determined, clearly at war with itself. "You bastard... You weak, pathetic, crippled bastard..." Both her hands gripped the ax handle, and they were quaking. She closed her eyes and, with a suppressed scream, pulled the ax from his neck and rolled away. Jon blew out the breath he didn't know he had been holding and watched as Greyjoy fled into the bright summer sun, her hand covering her mouth.

Jon was alone again, and the aching silence within magnified the world without. The sound of a rushing river was clear behind his tent, and the crackling of firewood heralded the smell of the morning meal. He could not remember the last time he had eaten or if he had eaten at all. He felt incredibly ashamed about that.

His movements more sluggish than ever, Jon sat up and pulled in the basin that Greyjoy had used to wet his face. Though the water was slightly choked with bits of hair, he was able to make out the reflection of his neck. The cut was wide but shallow and would scab over by the time he treated with King Renly, covered by the hideous gold chain. He used the water to assess his face, too, something he had not done in months. He was freshly shaven, just as he had preferred back whenhe lived in Winterfell. But everything else was strange to him. His skin was pale and sickly, his eyes bloodshot with deep gouges underneath. His hair was an untamed mess that reached his shoulders. Jon would have to search for someone to cut it. He knew Greyjoy would not want to touch him again.

Seeing himself like that, it was as if something within him had woken at last. What happened to me?

He shook his head, a bitter laugh bubbling up inside his scorched throat. It was a stupid question. Greyjoy had been right. He was pathetic and weak, wishing for a quick release with each swallow. There was no excuse for what he had done. In his heart, Jon had hoped that he would never make it to King Renly alive, and his death would have served nothing. Robb was many things, but he didn't deserve that on his conscience, especially when he still felt the agony of another's death on his soul every single day of his life.

Jon would have to thank Asha Greyjoy for reminding him of that.

Chapter Text

Brave New World

“Look Jon! A tourney! A tourney”

“I see it Jon,” said Jon Snow to Jon Umber, with a hint of exasperation in his tone. Truly, it wasn’t the Smalljon he was cross with, but with the way he was bouncing up and down on his long-suffering mare, you would think he had never seen grown men plowing each other with wooden sticks before. Then again, growing up in the icy nothingness of Last Hearth, he probably had never seen a tourney before.

Well, neither had Jon. And maybe in another world he could enjoy it with his oversized friend. But there was something about holding pretend-fighting matches in the midst of an all too real war that grated just a slight bit on his nerves.

Maybe he was finally becoming a Hand after all.

The Smalljon stood on the stirrups to get a better view of the tourney grounds, which was still a quarter of a league away. His horse’s knees nearly buckled from the weight. “Who do you think would win, Jon? I hear the Knight of Flowers has almost never lost a joust, but Lord Randyll Tarly skewered three stormmen with a single lance during Robert’s rebellion. You think he could do that with a tourney lance?”

“I don’t know Jon. Perhaps you can remain there and see, while I talk to King Renly and hopefully salvage this war,” Jon spat, unable to stop. “In fact, why don’t you enlist with Renly’s army? I heard he holds a tourney thrice a fortnight.” He regretted it as soon as the words left his lips. His temples throbbed with the beat of the drums from Renly’s camp and the cheers of the hundred thousand soldiers, and the lack of mead in the last few days was making him testy. He was no better company without the drink, it seemed.

Instead of looking hurt as he was wont to do, the Smalljon regarded him sourly. “You’re just mad because you look stupid.”

Jon’s impending apology evaporated as he gaped at the insolence. “How dare you. It’s not my fault Edmure is wide at the shoulders.” And really, where does he get off insulting my clothes, when he likely stripped his off a baby mammoth?

“You didn’t have to wear them. You could have worn Robb’s, since you’re both the same size. Why not wear his?”

Jon paled. “That’s…that’s because…” Because I threw Robb’s clothes into a muddy pool somewhere near Riverrun on account of an angry fit, he thought.But as he still valued his male pride, he saw no reason to share that, so he merely said, meekly, “Because I thought Edmure’s clothes are more appropriate for treating with kings.” 

The Smalljon wasn’t buying it. “So you like having the Tully trout jumping out of your tunic, do you? That’s good. Our rivermen were happy to see it.”

Cringing, Jon looked down at his chest. Is it that obvious? He and his squire had spent half the morning trying to make him presentable, but with Edmure’s attire the only fancy wear available, it was a choice between working around Edmure’s girth or going back to Riverrun to fish out Robb’s clothes. Surprisingly, his squire knew how to work needle and thread (with obvious chagrin), so they didn’t have to resort to the latter. The Tully sigil embroidered on each breast was a problem though, and they only had a single direwolf pin to cover them with. So he looked very much like the trout and direwolf’s bastard.

Lady Catelyn would tear out her eyes if she could see me now…

For all that though, the result wasn’t a complete disaster. The silver of the Tully fish blended quite well with the Stark colors, and was thankfully more prominent than the blue and red background. And no one would ever need to see the parade of trout on the shoulders or the fact that the waistband of his breeches was designed for a healthy ale gut, so long as he kept his cloak and belt on. Surely that wouldn’t be too difficult.

The Smalljon was still waiting for an answer, and he had none to give. So he stuck his nose in the air and did his finest impersonation of a highborn twit. “I’m the Hand of the King, and I can wear whatever I damn well please. Drop this subject this instant, or I will ship you back to Last Hearth in fetters.” He kicked his horse into a gallop, listening to the Smalljon’s hearty laughter recede as he sped on ahead, his standard-bearer laboring to follow while balancing his banner. Hopefully that performance had gotten his friend’s mind off his clothes. It was usually fairly easy to distract the Smalljon, so he didn’t have much to worry.

While he slowed into a canter to allow his party to catch up, Jon wondered why they cared at all. What did it matter what sigil he wore? He was neither Stark nor Tully, while his king was both. The Smalljon tended to forget details like that. Everything would be easier if he could just rip the whole thing off and present himself before King Renly naked, eliminating all confusion.

They had finally entered Renly’s territory when the Roseroad became flanked with tree stumps. The most fertile land in the Seven Kingdoms was a barren wasteland for miles around. Beyond the ravaged forests was Renly’s kingdom: a nation of tents and banners and black smoke, bordered and divided by the Mander. A warm southron wind tumbled through Jon’s freshly oiled hair while slapping his nose with the combined stench of horse, cooked meat and human waste. And I was just starting to like the constant smell of roses and honeysuckle too.

At the back of his mind he could sense Ghost sniffling at the air a distance away, in between a grove of splintered trees. Ghost had been trying in vain to search for game, but the Baratheons and Tyrells had hunted the land clean. The lack of fresh meat soured Ghost’s already bitter mood, which of course had a toxic effect on Jon’s. Times like these he regretted their connection.

Ghost had been distant since his return from the Riverlands. Nymeria’s rejection still weighed heavily on his soul, making him snappish and irritable. He had nearly torn the Smalljon’s hand off when he had tried to pet him, but thankfully he was made of stronger stuff than most humans and merely laughed, thinking they were playing a game.

Now they had both been rejected by their siblings, a fact that seemed to magnify their shared sensation. Jon didn’t much enjoy feeling pain from two perspectives, especially on some nights when he awoke cold and shivering, as if he had just been sitting under pounding rain, yellow eyes all around him. He wondered what sort of dreams Ghost had. Probably of a room in Riverrun, and a bed where his brother’s arms surrounded him. Jon thought that warmth would never leave him, but then his brother removed his arms, so as to place the crown on his auburn curls...it was so cold…

A distant boom like crashing wood and the ensuing roar of Renly’s subjects jerked him back to reality. The Smalljon was cringing beside him. “That sounded like it hurt,” he said, and Jon stared at him blankly before he realized he was talking about the joust. “I hope that wasn’t Lord Randyll giving that blow, or someone is going to need a new throat.” When Jon failed to give anything more than a grunt, his friend continued. “It’s a shame Lady Asha couldn’t be with us now,” the Smalljon said, eyeing Jon carefully. “She would have wanted to see a tourney, after all the leagues of rolling hills and shallow streams.”

Jon’s eyes narrowed. This was becoming a pattern with him. Anytime Jon seemed noncommittal, the big oaf would then use the opportunity to bring up Asha Greyjoy, as if that would somehow cheer him. And it wasn’t just the Smalljon either, but Jon’s entire retinue kept giving him knowing glances, even the ones who staunchly despised Asha. It was funny, and extremely annoying, how a haircut could change their perceptions like that.

“We can’t force her to come. She’s not well,” was Jon’s automatic response. And anyway, it was true.

“Really,” grumbled the Smalljon. “When you say she’s not well, do you mean when she…um…”

The Smalljon was trying so hard not to ask about his last encounter with Asha that he was nearly purpling from the strain. Everyone seemed to have their own version as to what happened before Asha ran out of his tent in tears and he had stopped drinking. The canvas walls were thin after all, and northmen were never known for keeping their voices down. Fortunately none of them had stumbled onto the truth, or anywhere close to it, but all he could do was grit his teeth when they began painting him as a lover so inept that he made a woman cry, a “fact” that quickly reached consensus. It took all his willpower to convince himself the snickers were preferable.

Although, it wasn’t what was said that truly worried him, but what was not said…and by whom. Only one man had not piped up to laugh at him that night. The one person who probably did not find the whole situation all that humorous. 

“I’m sure you know her best…I mean…no one else but you did…uh…” the Smalljon stuttered, which was so alien to him that he started banging at his head to try and get the words out. “I’m not making any sense right now…um…did you…uh…did you…ask her to go to the tourney? No that’s not it…”

His friend was losing his mind, and he was the cause of it. Jon wanted nothing more than to reveal everything, to say that it wasn’t what he thought, that he had not betrayed the only friend he had left in the Seven Kingdoms.

Instead Jon ignored him, keeping his face directed at the nearing tourney ground, hand tight around the reins. He wasn’t going to say anything unless he was asked a direct question. It’s not that he wished to keep things from his friend, but he suspected that Asha might feel otherwise. Though…if he was honest, they both had lost themselves that afternoon, breaching a door that neither of them had wanted opened. He still did not understand what had lain on Asha’s side of it, but he did try to find out.

“How did you find me?” she had said earlier that day, her words slurring. Five empty bottles lay strewn around her legs with one still sloshing in her hand, her back against a wide oak. At least she had the presence of mind to lean on the side away from their camp, so no one would find her. Or at least she hoped.

“Ghost is back,” he said, looking down at her and mentally cringing. Oh gods. It’s like looking at a mirror. “It wasn’t hard for him. All he had to do was follow the ale.”

Asha directed one bloodshot eye at Ghost, who was relieving himself on a bramble. “Oh. I had wondered what that smell was. I thought it was you,” she cackled, which caused the stream of ale to miss her mouth by inches. The bottle was long empty before she realized what had happened. “Fucking hells. That was my last one…”

Jon hissed in annoyance. “You mean to tell me you’ve drunk through my entire stash? Everything you stole?”

Asha rolled her eyes and groaned from the pain it caused. “Don’t flatter yourself by calling that little box a stash. I’ve put away more bottles when I was twelve. And if you didn’t want anyone to take them, you should have hidden them better.” When it finally sunk in that she was all tapped out, Asha scooped up a bottle at random and hugged it to her chest. His favorite Blackwood stout, which he had been saving for a special occasion. Jon could have cried.

He shook off the urge to slap her…especially since he should be thanking her. He had intended to hurl his entire cache into the nearest river anyway, though it seemed Asha had thought of a more convenient place to dump them into.

When he had come to his senses after her barbering, she had already ridden away with all his vintages in tow. For some reason she had left her merry band of ironborn behind, and none of them would say where she had gone. Not even after the Smalljon had threatened to spit Qarl the Maid on his greatsword, a threat he would have readily gone through with had Jon not stopped him. In the end, and after three search parties, all at the Smalljon’s insistence, it didn’t seem her men were all that concerned for her whereabouts, so Jon didn’t see any reason to be concerned either. Clearly she had just needed time alone.

 “Come on,” Jon said, nudging the woman with his boot. Alone time was over. “We’re going to see King Renly, and I could use your birthright.” She needed to change first though. She was still wearing the same leathers she had on when she fled the camp days ago. The same leathers she had worn when she sheared him.

She cracked an eye open. “You want me to accompany you to your royal get-together? Are you joking?”

Jon blinked. “Well, no. But when you say it like that, then maybe I should have been.”

Asha sighed, which also caused her to wince in pain. “Have you any notion the sort of trouble we’ll all be in if my father finds out where I am? The only reason he hasn’t ravaged your precious North already is because I seem to be missing, the only heir he has left.” She raised the stout to her lips, letting off a ‘dammit’ when she realized again that it was empty. “And if this King Renly sees me in your company, what’s to stop him from assuming the ironborn and the Starks have lain in bed together? Good luck trying to get your alliance after that, stupid bastard. Fortunately for the North, I have business at present, and have no plans to return home as yet.”

What business, he nearly asked, but he had an inkling she wouldn’t respond. Anyway, he had other mysteries in mind.

In truth, he had already known most of that, as he had given the consequences of her presence much more thought than Robb ever did when he thrust her on him. But…

She must have seen something in his lack of surprise, as her lips curled up like a cat. “But you already knew all that did you? So why are you here, Lord Bastard? Have you come for retribution? I hate to spoil your fun, but I don’t possess much of a beard right now.” Her right hand went to her belt and clumsily pulled out one of her knives. The blade’s edge quivered five inches from Jon’s nose, more from the ale than actual fear. “Go on. Do it. But be considerate. I happen to like this cut.”

Jon swatted the knife away and it fell to the ground in a quiet thud. She made no move to retrieve it. Her gray eyes, so similar to his but darker, were strangely lucid. Expectant.

“Why?” he said.

That one word hung between them like a curse, and with every moment the questions raced through Jon’s mind, only adding to the silence. Why did you help me? Why are you still here? Why did you cry? Why didn’t you kill me, even though you wanted to and I deserve it? Why did you almost kiss me? Why didn’t you kill me?

Their eyes remained locked for a long time, and for a moment Jon thought she was going to answer, but in the end she glanced away, and that was that. “Go to Renly, Jon Snow,” she whispered, all signs of drunkenness gone. “I can’t give you what you want. And it seems…you can’t give me what I want either. There’s no point…no point at all. I’m such a weakling.”

He wanted to say that she wasn’t weak. That she was the strongest woman he had ever met – not that he knew many to compare her to. But he doubted she would have heard him even if he did. She was back in her secret world again, and the door was shut and barred.

After a while her gaze returned to him, and her expression was as sharp and obstinate as it had ever been. Her hair was an unwashed bird’s nest, her skin smeared in grime, her clothes tattered and reeking of vomit. But she exuded a strength and confidence that drew all attention and was her own kind of beauty. Jon had never noticed that in a woman before.

“They will lie to you, Jon Snow,” she said gravely. “Renly and his courtiers – they will hook you like the fish you are, cut you open and strip out your bones. And worst of all they will make you think it was your idea, laughing as you flounder and bleed. Let’s be honest Lord Snow – you are far too honest. You might have proven yourself in the battlefield, somehow, but in a king’s court you will never be more than prey, because that’s just who you are. A bit of advice. Take it or shit on it. I care not.”

Jon frowned. He had never denied that making him Hand was the stupidest thing Robb had ever done; even worse when it was his first decree as king. But there was something rankling about receiving political advice from a Greyjoy. “Why do you know so much about how a court works? You don’t seem like much of a lady to me.”

To any other woman (save Arya) that would have earned him a slap. But from Asha Greyjoy he only got a grin; wide, lewd and completely Asha. “I learned from the best. My father has lied to every lord and lady who were ever seated in his watery halls. Since his head still hasn’t been put on a pike – not one of Robert and your father’s brighter notions – I assume he’s very good at it.”

Jon could think of no argument to that. The more Jon heard of Balon Greyjoy, the more thankful he was that Asha chose to reap vengeance on him personally instead of leaving it to her father.

With an exhausted sigh, Asha leaned back heavily against the tree and shooed him away. “Move along now. You have an appointment to make, and you still need to get changed. I’ll be staying right here. Perhaps I’ll learn how to make mead from tree sap….”

Jon’s emerging smile fell once again, confused. “What? This is what I’m wearing.”

Asha cocked her head, staring at his clothes with disbelief. “Either I’m still drunk, or you’re actually dressed like a fish. Forget his courtiers, Renly will bone you himself.” Her laughter followed him long after he stomped away.

“…so just what is wrong with her? Tell me at least that much,” the Smalljon’s conflicted voice broke through his reverie, and he remembered where he was.

“The pox,” Jon said suddenly. His friend had asked him a direct question, and he blurted out the first thing he could think of.

The Smalljon gaped at him in shock. “The pox? She has the pox? That’s why she’s been hiding from us? But…how?”

Jon raised an eyebrow. Did he really need to explain the process? “How would I know? She probably got it from Qarl the Maid.” He felt a little bad for lying yet again, but he also felt some satisfaction, after she insulted his attire.

The Smalljon’s entire face scrunched up in deep thought, which he maintained for several seconds before deciding that he wasn’t satisfied with Jon’s answer. “But you…you were with…in the tent…and if she…then…Jon you have the pox!”

Before Jon could react to that absurd outburst, a group of riders brandishing Baratheon and Tyrell banners trotted up to them, revealing themselves as knights of King Renly. Jon didn’t care to argue when one of the knights corrected him after he introduced himself as Hand to King Robb, saying that there was only one true king. He envisioned having to endure many more such tedious arguments as the days went on.

The ancient stone bridge where Bitterbridge got its name was one of the landmarks of the South, so Jon would have liked to see it at least once. Unfortunately the structure was buried so deeply inside Renly’s host that he gave up trying to find it, even with his eyes following the Mander. It must have been nearby though. Most of the power of the Stormlands appeared to have been segregated on the eastern side of the river, while the strength of the Reach had crossed on over to the west. Those were just some of the things Jon’s mind dwelt on when about to treat with a king.

But why bother himself over bridges? There was a tourney to watch.

The escorts lead them towards the wooden palisade that ringed the castle’s tourney ground. Thousands of shouting bodies and their horses blocked their path, but that was nothing a moody direwolf couldn’t handle. Soldiers gaped at Jon and Ghost in wonder as they passed, even the ones who had been thrown off their mounts. Sometimes Jon needed to remind himself that direwolves were a novelty in most places, as he had gotten used to soldiers taking a fierce pride in their wolves.

The simulated carnage wiped all thoughts of Asha from the Smalljon’s mind, who cheered as loudly and enthusiastically as the rest of them, despite not knowing who any of the combatants were. “By the old gods the Lotus is going to lose an arm! Look out! Now the Milkmaid’s fallen off his horse! The Eagle Lion Beast will not soon forget that. Oh the Moon and Suns smashed his shield. Isn’t this exciting Jon?”

Jon grunted. Though he had never seen a tourney before, he was certain it wasn’t that. Apparently the joust had devolved into an all-out melee a while ago. Broken pieces of tourney lances, mail and even an entire breastplate littered the ground where the remainder of the fighters fought. A knight with a griffin sigil and a splintered shield lay unconscious, dragged away by his squires. Horses became optional at the end as the last two combatants wrestled each other in the mud.

It was a close fight until the cobalt knight rolled atop the rainbow knight and pushed a dirk against his face (a sight that made Jon shudder, his own neck stinging in remembrance), ending the match. The cries of dissatisfaction that erupted as Cobalt helped Rainbow to his feet were deafening, made no less puzzling by shouts of “The Beauty! The Beauty!”.

It all made sense when the cobalt knight removed his helm and…revealed a woman. The masses laughed and jeered at the sight. Jon could barely contain his disgust. Here was possibly the strongest fighter in Renly’s army, able to defeat man after man in fair combat, and all her accomplishments were rendered worthless on account of her sex. Even the Smalljon let out a gasp of astonishment, and Jon resisted the urge to hit him. Asha is a woman too you dolt! And she’s better in a fight than any of you! Perhaps it was good fortune that she hadn’t come after all. Her and the Mormont sisters.

A surpassingly handsome, smiling man in a bright green tunic with a golden circlet around coal black hair descended the gallery to congratulate the winner. Renly Baratheon didn’t seem to care that the cobalt knight was a woman (even if she did overtop him by a few inches), fixing a rainbow cloak about her shoulders that brightened her face like nothing else had. It appeared that Renly had formed his own kingsguard, judging by the six other men in rainbow cloaks behind him. The number included the Knight of Flowers, which Jon recognized after taking a good look at his sigil. They were clearly of the same age, though Jon wasn’t happy to admit it with how Loras Tyrell was sulking. More like wilting.

“I will present you to the King, my lord,” said the escort, beckoning him to follow.

Jon was about to do just that when a large, meaty hand grasped his forearm. “Jon, I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to see King Renly,” the Smalljon whispered into his ear. “What if he catches the pox? We’ll all have hells to pay.”

Annoyed and quite baffled, Jon tore himself from the Smalljon’s hold and glared at him. “I do not have…the pox,” he hissed. There were a hundred thousand men about them and only one needed to hear. “And even if I did, you can’t catch the pox by talking.” Really, what had gone into him? He found himself missing the truncated conversations about Asha.

Somehow that made the Smalljon look even more worried, and, for some reason, revolted. “I know that, but…there are rumors about King Renly and…maybe he’ll want to do more than just…he’s a king after all so…um…”

As much as Jon enjoyed listening to his friend when he got like that, he really didn’t have time to indulge him at that moment. “We’ll talk about this later.” Or not. He kicked his horse and sped away before the Smalljon could call him back. Hopefully there would be a dancing bear at the feast and his friend would forget all about their “chat”.

As they made their approach, Jon realized that everyone was staring at him, most notably the nobles sitting at the gallery. They were like a flock of exotic birds, all in different ages and sizes and not one of them wore the same garments as the others. Different sigils, mostly of animals or plants, gleamed on their richly clad breasts, and Jon learned with a start that he didn’t recognize half of them. If only he had studied southron sigils more closely with Bran and Maester Luwin. Perhaps he could whisper to his squire if he needed help.

For the moment he dispelled those worries from his mind. Only one sigil mattered right now, and at least he recognized that one.

The escort was quick to dismount and kneel before his king. “Your Grace, I have the honor of presenting you Jon Snow, Hand to Robb Stark, Lord of Winterfell.”

“That’s King Robb, ser. Of Winterfell and Riverrun. Lords can’t have Hands,” Jon corrected, stumbling from his horse to dirty his own knee. He hoped bowing his head was sufficient to hide his blush, after it caught on how stupid the last point sounded.

“No hands? Then what will they use to shove lemoncakes in their mouths? Our cooks will be grateful for the rest.” King Renly guffawed, taking the rest of his court with him. Even the larger lords chuckled along, chins juggling. “That was just a jest, my lord. Don’t look so sullen. Come on, up with you.” Renly hauled him to his feet with one surprisingly strong arm, eying him while he dusted his breeches. “So you are the illustrious Jon Snow, brother to the King in the North himself. To be true, I imagined that you were taller, with more meat in the chest and arms. And battle scars. And an eye patch. With an axe filed from a mammoth’s tusk strapped to your back. Any of the things we had envisioned of the man who crippled the Kingslayer.”

Gasps erupted all around, the king’s words starting a fresh wave of pointing and whispers. But Jon was mostly numb to the attention, reeling from shock. How did he know?

King Renly at least had the grace to look sympathetic, as befitting one so highborn. “We’ve known for quite a while Lord Snow. Cut off every man’s tongue, but a raven can still tell the tale. Why don’t you take it as a compliment? Your people were so proud of what you did that they could not wait to share it with the rest of the realm. Although, we had no idea that you were made Hand.” Jon could not muster the energy to respond to the backhand, but Renly gave him no pause anyway. “I did pray for your sisters when I heard. When we tear down the Red Keep and put every Lannister to the sword, I promise to deliver them to you or your brother personally.” No matter what condition we find them in, his tone said. “I will even arrange profitable marriages for them if they wish. Our victory will provide no shortage of highborn heroes.”

Clearly Jon was supposed to respond to that, but he couldn’t stomach anything beyond: “Thank you, Your Grace.”

“Oh where are my manners,” Renly said, finally noticing the cluster of guards and flatterers that stood at his back like a shadow. “There are many introductions to get through, but it would bring me most joy to present you to the first knight of my Rainbow Guard, the Knight of Flowers himself, Ser Loras Tyrell. You look so much alike, I was almost shocked. Surely you’ll get along well. Now where is…”

Several shrieks went up from the king’s right, the crowd dispersing in fright. One of Renly’s guards pushed the king away, sword drawn. It seemed Jon had already made Ser Loras’ acquaintance…through Ghost.

“Get this damn beast away from me!” the First of the Rainbow Guard shouted, pulling his colorful cloak away from Ghost’s curious teeth. A mailed foot kicked out, nearly connecting with a snout.

Jon disliked him instantly.

The king was quick to calm his knight, whispering a quiet word into his ear before setting his attention to his “attacker”, against the warnings of his guards and lickspittles. Luckily Renly made a much better impression on Ghost, kneeling down to eye level to “address a noble beast as it deserved” and play with his fur. When his silly cooing earned him a lick, that was enough for the rest of the court to come closer and admire Ghost themselves. Renly shared to them the tragedy of Lady’s death, and the madness that must have consumed Cersei to slay such a majestic creature. He vowed again that he would make Cersei pay for that crime, and though it was likely horseshit, it raised Jon’s respect for him considerably.

More introductions were made after that, and Jon’s brain nearly sputtered out from all the names. He kissed one hand after another, the Queen’s in particular lingering in his memory; soft, small and fragrant and so unlike another woman’s whose hands he’d seen too much of.

“Now that’s done, I’ll be honored if you and your companions join us for dinner, Lord Jon,” the king said, beaming at him as if they were old friends. He had certainly grown fond of Ghost, bending down to ruffle his fur. “And I’ll have the cooks prepare a whole aurochs especially for you. Rare and swimming in its own bloody juices, just how we like it.” Jon had to clamp Ghost about the neck to keep him from throttling the king in gratitude (which could easily be construed as an assassination attempt) while Renly laughed. Once Ghost settled down Renly regarded Jon. “You must be exhausted. Why don’t you freshen up and get changed? The feast won’t be for a while yet.”

Jon was ready to correct him, but after opening his mouth he thought it easier to just keep it shut. What was the point? Perhaps he really should just traipse around naked.

The king turned to his newest protector, looking up at her without any semblance of shame or discomfort. “Brienne, please escort the Hand to his tent. One of the vacant ones around the pavilion. See that he is attended to.”

“At once, Your Grace!” she said with enthusiasm, but Renly had already wandered off with Ser Loras by his side, talking amiably with his highborn followers who trailed behind him like ducklings. They were discussing about the winner of the archery competition and whether Renly should award him a holdfast in the westerlands. Apparently most of the castles in Lord Tywin’s lands had already been quartered off as prizes in previous competitions.

While Jon listened to their conversation trail off into the gallery, he did not miss the lingering gaze that Lady Brienne leveled on their backs. Her shocking blue eyes were large and heartbreakingly honest, filled with an almost childlike longing.

Oh, so that’s how it is. Jon had wondered what would possess a woman, even one as gifted and capable as Lady Brienne, to join a kingsguard knowing she would be reviled. Perhaps she really did not realize the full implication of what she was doing, but by her manner she didn’t seem bothered or even surprised by how she was treated, so maybe that wasn’t true. But judging from that look, maybe the culprit was that one insidious parasite that made them all happily do stupid things and make fools of themselves for no hope of reward…

Love.

Jon felt sorry for her, even though he couldn’t understand what she saw in him. Then again, he probably couldn’t think of one good, won’t-send-him-to-the-gallows reason for why he loved Robb the way he did, but at least he wasn’t Loras Tyrell.

“With me, my lord,” said Brienne lifelessly, snapping out of her stupor faster than he left his own. “You don’t need to ride ahorse. It’s not far, and there’s a stable nearby.” Without another word she turned about and marched off in huge strides, without so much as checking to see if he was following. At least she wasn’t ingratiating. Jon waved over his squire and his companions, bidding them to follow before pulling his horse along by the reins.

Most of the spectators had dispersed upon the completion of the tourney and returned to their duties, which didn’t include much besides playing with their swords and harassing the camp followers. They also had plenty of time to hurl insults at Brienne as they passed, though they were more hesitant and less aggressive outside of the palisade. Jon figured that was either due to the rainbow cloak swaying from Brienne’s broad shoulders, or Ghost. Though Brienne didn’t give them so much as a glance, Ghost was not averse to startling them with a red glare every now and then.

Lady Brienne was a woman of very few words, even in comparison to himself. Jon was fine with that, but there was something troubling about her dark silences. Even complimenting her for her victory got him no more than a hollow “you are kind to say so”. In a bizarre realm fermenting inside his head, he found himself comparing her to Sansa.Perhaps because she was so courteous, and she wore armor as naturally as Sansa wore gowns. As strange as that was, it made it easier for him to rationalize Brienne fancying Loras Tyrell. He was sure Sansa would have adored him too, as he was handsome, lithe, fashionable, and a complete shit.

He thought back to Brienne’s triumph over Loras Tyrell, how she had whipped out a dirk and pressed it against his throat. Perhaps that had been a display of affection? It brought a hot flush to his cheeks to think that had been Asha’s intent when she did the same to him. He would have to talk to a woman long enough to ask them why they were so befuddling one of these days.

Brienne left them by a large tent standing in the shadow of the King’s pavilion, which itself was larger than Howland Reed’s Moving Castle, twin banners of crowned stag and golden rose dancing like carpets at its head. He could spot more modest-sized tents in the vicinity, each trying to out-lavish the other with its banner; the Tarly huntsman, the grapes of Redwyne, and the fox of Florent, to name a few. He was in impressive company. His tongue already felt heavy and knotted at the thought of speaking to any of them.

At the moment Jon was just grateful to get out of the relentless southron sun. Before he had even ducked through the flap, servants appeared bringing tubs of steaming water to soothe his aches and platters of bread, cheese and fruit, more food than he had even seen in the last few days. He would never get used to this treatment, no matter how often he was subjected to it. But that didn’t mean he couldn’t take advantage of it.

As he lay back on the complimentary Myrish rug and listened to his men unpack their baggage and settle into their own quarters outside, Jon mentally readied himself for the night ahead. Even though it was futile to think he could secure an alliance in just one day, he still wanted to get it over with as quick as possible so they could go home. That was futile too. There was little chance the war would just sort itself out and Robb would be ready to bring them all home once Jon made it back to Riverrun. There wasn’t even a guarantee that Robb would return from the west at all, but he gave that thought no opportunity to take root.

From what little interaction he’d had with King Renly, the man appeared easygoing. Jon could see no reason for him to outright reject the possibility of an alliance, especially when it was entirely to his benefit. No doubt he would wish to keep governance of all Seven Kingdoms, but Robb may not have any trouble relinquishing his crown if it meant Joffrey’s head in a bucket. Or at least the old Robb would not. This new King Robb was alien to him, and Jon couldn’t begin to guess his mental process. But the Hand did speak with the King’s voice, right?

Damn it all. Robb might prove more problematic than Renly, now that he thought on it.

As for Renly himself, everyone said he would prove much easier to deal with than his brother Stannis. But they also said Stannis was brutally honest, and would reject him without preamble. Did that mean Renly was dishonest, and would string him along with jests and promises? How much of that charming smile was just for show?

They will lie to you, Jon Snow. Renly and his courtiers – they will hook you like the fish you are, cut you open and strip out your bones.

Jon ran a hand down his face. He never thought he would miss being a bastard in Winterfell. I shouldn’t be here. This isn’t me. I’m not made for these intrigues. With a heavy sigh, he looked down at his chest. And speaking of fish…

It was hopeless. Renly had provided food, carpets, and candles deftly carved into exotic creatures, but no clothes. He was tempted to slip into Ghost and go snooping in one of the larger tents, but he doubted any other animal but direwolf would be an improvement over trout. He wrapped the cloak more tightly about his upper half and prayed that that would be enough to save the north from destruction.

Jon exited the tent to find the setting sun, smothered as it was in smoke. Most of his party was missing, out in the less refined section of the camp and enjoying the constant festivities. Jon thought they had earned it for getting him that far. He noticed the Smalljon was gone too. Perhaps he had found the dancing bear.

“Are we ready to attend the feast, Lord Hand?” said his squire, dragging along Jon’s horse; freshly fed and lathered.

“I suppose there’s no use prolonging it. Let us be off then…lad.” He really would have to learn the boy’s name one of these days. Though it wouldn’t be good sense to ask him directly. He at least knew that much diplomacy.

The feast was held in the great hall of Bitterbridge, which Jon learned belonged to a Lord Caswell. It was modest as far as castles went, but after three months of rain and bare earth, it was practically a palace to Jon. The great hall wasn’t near large enough to seat all the fighting nobility of the Reach and Stormlands, but somehow they managed it whilst lining the walls with chairs so the less important guests could eat off their laps. Jon was seated in a place of high honor next to the queen, with Loras Tyrell at the king’s right. The Highgarden siblings looked so much alike that they were like twin bookends, holding the king in place. Perhaps in some abstract way that was true.

The feast was so rich in song and debauchery that it was as if it didn’t occur every time Renly’s host came across a dwelling. Pipers and fire dancers walked along the aisles. Maids dropped their dishes more often than not when they were pulled unto a lord’s lap, laughing and serving their treats. All the trestle tables still managed to remain full though, and when a dish was in short supply it was quickly replaced by a fresh batch. Jon wondered if these people had looked outside and saw how much just one of these feasts cost. It annoyed him even further to imagine that Robb was probably gnawing on dried rations somewhere, living off the stores they had stolen from the Lannisters before burning their fields, and then scurrying off before they got caught.

The wine appeared to be endless as well. No one’s goblet was ever half full, as if a magic spell kept them permanently supplied. It was a wonder how they even marched at all in the morning.

The smell of grape and cloves twisted Jon’s stomach, so much that he swatted away the goblet they had set for him. Just looking felt like a crime. But a fresh chalice had found its way beside his plate while his back was turned, making him jump. Renly’s servants were well trained. It was probably easier to just ignore it. As long as none met his lips, he wouldn’t have to become a weepy madman.

While he piled his plate with potatoes and pheasant wings, Jon had a distinct feeling he had forgotten something, but then instinct drew his attention to the end of the table and he spotted Ghost gorging on an entire aurochs.

“It took a lot of effort to find that aurochs, Lord Hand,” Renly said above the din and over his wife’s bosom. “Deer are more numerous in these parts, but I don’t care for the symbolism. I’m not a religious man by any means, but I’m particular with appearances—as you may have noticed—and the sight of a direwolf feasting on deer…well, that wouldn’t help with morale.” He laughed, which predictably triggered a chain of laughter from those around.

“Ghost is grateful for your generosity, Your Grace,’ Jon said. “Though we’re both a little disappointed you couldn’t spare some lion.”

Renly roared at that, which also sent everyone else into sobbing fits, grown men clapping Jon in the back and praising him for his wit. He felt a little off-put by their enthusiasm.

Once that had died down and Renly went back to Ser Loras, Jon could finally focus on his food. He tucked into his plate with a little more gusto than he had intended. All shame was forgotten though once the potatoes were shoved in his mouth, and he could almost feel the butter melting on his tongue. Unintentionally the flavors of a mildly cooked aurochs flooded into his spiritual mouth, and he groaned. Neither of them had eaten so well in a very long time. He slowed down once the guilt finally set in. He had just criticized Renly and his sluggish war machine for stripping the land bare while Robb starved, and here he was stuffing his mouth like a glutton. Tomorrow he promised to return to horse jerky and dried fruit again, but tonight he figured he had earned the right to forget himself a bit.

He was too busy ballooning his cheeks with beef stew, spiced squash and roast mutton to notice the Queen looking at him until he reached for a slice of pumpkin pie on her side. “Hello. I don’t believe we’ve really met. I’m Margaery.”

If he opened his mouth right then, a partially digested feast would have fallen unto the Queen’s lap, which was a one-way trip to exile. He turned away and forced the bolus down his gullet, the pain bringing tears to his eyes. He blinked wetly at the prospective queen of the Seven Kingdoms. “Your Grace. Jon Snow. Hand.”

The Queen giggled at his plight. “I am so grateful to have someone genuinely new to talk to. These slow marches through my father’s lands have been awfully dull. Not to mention I’ve always been much more fascinated with the North and all who dwell there. Oh, and please, call me Margaery. We are of an age, you and I. My brother would say different, but we are really just children. Let the adults compare the size of their titles while we babes laugh at their folly.”

Once the agony in his throat had subsided, he cast the Queen a genuine smile. “You have no idea how relieved I am to hear that, Your…Margaery.”

She giggled again, the mirth reaching her large brown eyes. She had a heart shaped face and shimmering brown hair that bounced along her fair shoulders. Her smile was sweet and pretty. It lacked the deadly bite that Asha’s always bore, or the coyness of Ros and Ellys’. It was just…pretty. Free of guile and pretense. He thought he could tell her anything…not that he ever would.

“So you are King Robb’s Hand. It must be difficult, taking your father’s place in these dark times.” She reached for his bad hand, and though he couldn’t feel it she knew her grip was firm. “It saddens me that I never knew the man. It’s appalling what Joffrey did to him, especially after he confessed.”

“My father was not a traitor, Your…Margaery,” he said, trying to suppress the coldness from his voice.

“Oh? I always thought so. Robert always spoke fondly of him when we supped together. I don’t need him to tell me though that Lord Eddard would have been a far better Hand than that vile Imp.”

Jon didn’t know how to respond to that. He found himself caught in an odd position where he naturally wanted to assert that his father would have been the greatest Hand who ever lived, but he also wanted to defend his friend, Tyrion. Seeing no compromise that wouldn’t reveal he was chummy with a Lannister, he simply changed the subject. “My brother is fighting as hard as he can to avenge him. What do you know of the war, Margaery?”

The Queen retracted her hand and shrugged, which seemed a little too dismissive for his liking. “Absolutely nothing. I barely even know where we’re going. My function is simply to look pretty and bear my loving husband plenty of black-haired children. Though truth be told we haven’t really gotten started on that front, if you know what I mean.” She giggled, her nose tinged a light red. She had been taking an increasing number of sips from her crystal goblet. “In short, I leave those matters to my husband.”

And who does he leave them to? Jon made a cursory glance around the room, and realized he had not seen the striding huntsman of Tarly at all since their arrival.

She pinched his thigh, wringing his attention back to her. “I’m afraid I know embarrassingly little about the North. My father would rather have me tour Braavos than go past the Neck. ‘There are lizard lions and bog wraiths’, he says, “and the North is too big and you could get crushed by a block of ice and we’d never find you’.” Margaery made an impatient noise and rolled her eyes. “As if that could ever happen.”

Jon chuckled. “Actually, that’s a more common mode of death than you would think.”

“Really?” Margaery pushed away a half-eaten bowl of raspberry soup and rested her head on her hand, watching Jon with interest. “Tell me about the other modes of death, Jon. Or just about the North. I want to see it in my head.”

Jon leaned back against his seat, deciding where to start. “Well, it’s pretty much everything you’ve heard. Its large, cold, more snow than you know what to do with. And in some places you wouldn’t find a holdfast in hundreds of leagues. But there’s beauty too. I’ve never been, but they say the Wall will take your breath away. And the glass gardens in Winterfell is the only place I know where the blue roses glow. Sometimes they don’t even bloom at all, and no one really knows why. Maester Luwin says they only appear when the summers are long, but he’s not really sure. When they do come, they are so tough that you can roll around on them and not break a petal. That’s what my sister Arya did when she first saw them, Sansa screaming at her to leave them alone. How she cried about the thorns.” Jon snickered at the memory.

At that moment he couldn’t even see Margaery anymore, his mind’s eye covered by images of Winterfell. “Winterfell…there’s no castle like it. Water from the hot springs flow through the walls you see, and sometimes I even thought Winterfell was alive. When my father got angry—some dispute with his bannermen—it felt like the entire castle became hotter, as if Winterfell itself felt his rage, their hearts as one. But I know now that was just some stupid childish fantasy. Robb clogged me in the head when I told him, and then we went back to playing. That day the snows got so thick that we made snowballs in the parapets. Each of us would command one side of the gate, and every time Fat Tom walked under it we would throw snowballs at his bald head. He never guessed where they were coming from. Fat Tom is dead now though, so I guess he’ll never know…”

Suddenly Winterfell crumbled around him, and once again he was back in the South. There was moisture in his eye, and he dabbed them away with a finger. How embarrassing.

Margaery was not laughing at him though. “That’s a lovely story, Jon,” she said, her voice thick. “You will have to take me to see Winterfell someday. My father never has to know.”

Jon nodded, unable to say more. He knew that would never happen, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t be polite.

Margaery snapped her fingers and a maid rushed to her side, a steaming goblet in hand. The Queen offered it to Jon. “Here you go. The best from the Arbor. None of that swill they’re making you drink.”

“Thank you, but I really shouldn’t. The swill is enough for me.”

“But I insist.”

“Alright…” He had once heard that denying a queen twice was tantamount to stabbing her with a dinner fork. Reluctantly, he took the goblet and tipped it against his closed lips, conscious of her stare. When he was “done” he sat the goblet down where she couldn’t reach or see it. “That was good. Such a rich combination of flavors.”

“You think so? All we ever drink in Highgarden is Arbor gold or Arbor red, so I haven’t really noticed.” She took a long pull off her crystal chalice, licking her lips when a red bead ran down her chin. She scooted her chair closer to Jon’s, so much that their knees were touching. “I’ve always wanted to ask another northman this, but as you can imagine they are few and far between this far south. What are your thoughts on the Knight of the Laughing Tree?”

Jon could smell the Arbor on her sweet breath. He could think of no way to forge some distance between them without offending her and getting himself thrown in a dungeon. “The Knight of the Laughing Tree? Who is that?”

Margaery squinted at him. “The Knight of the Laughing Tree. The mystery knight in the Tourney of Harrenhal? Surely you’ve heard of him.”

Jon shook his head. “Sorry, I really haven’t.”

She crossed her arms and pouted at him, obviously perplexed that he had no clue what she was talking about. “That’s odd. I thought every northman knew of that story. It was actually Robert who told it to me, and said it was Lord Eddard who told him, who was told in turn by some crannogman in the Neck. Who did he say it was? Lord Howler? Or was it Lord Howling? Lord Towel...?”

“Lord Howland Reed of Greywater Watch?” Jon guessed, leaning in with sudden interest.

“No, I don’t think so. But never mind that! So, the Knight of the Laughing Tree. I know something about the North that you don’t! How exciting!” She clapped her soft little hands to show it, brown eyes aglow. “So, let’s begin with the Tourney of Harrenhal. Surely you know of that, at least? It was only the greatest tourney ever held in the Seven Kingdoms. Oh to have been born twenty years ago… Anyways, the entire realm had come to attend. They say the number of guests was so great that every single room in Harrenhal was occupied, and the steward even died from the strain of assigning them all. Some say his spirit still wanders the halls to this day, searching for rooms still vacant. Frightening! But anyway, the only one who was not there was King Aerys himself, due to some quarrel with his Hand. But that doesn’t matter. What matters was that Prince Rhaegar was there, as well as his wife, Princess Elia of Dorne, and Lady Lyanna Stark, the woman he would then crown the Queen of Love and Beauty. The scandal that must have been! Surely you know of her? I take it you’re both related.”

Jon nodded his head vigorously. His attention had piqued to dizzying levels at the mention of Rhaegar and Lyanna, and he had a feeling that what she was about to say was extremely important. He was probably going to be tried for treason for invading the Queen’s space.

Thankfully she didn’t seem to mind. “But forget that, I’m trying to tell you about the Knight of the Laughing Tree. So there was this crannogman. He was very small, wore no emblem and came to Harrenhal on a boat—all these things made him a very enticing target to three no good squires. They stole his adorable little frog spear, threw him to the ground and mocked him whilst kicking him in the stomach. Boys can be such pigs. Then out of a veil of pure white light came Lyanna Stark! It was at this point in the story where Robert regaled us at length as to the extent of her beauty, but I won’t bore you with those details, especially since she’s your aunt. Suffice to say she shooed them away with a tourney sword and tended to the poor little crannogman’s wounds. There was still a problem though: the little bog man was still missing his spear and Lady Lyanna was very cross about that, but that will be addressed later. I want to tell you something Robert never told me, though I’m sure he knew it well, poor man. A servant in my father’s service was there at the tourney, and she saw all. Well, almost all. You must promise not to breathe a word of what I’m about to tell you to anyone!”

Jon thought his head was going to fall off from the nodding.

Margaery grinned conspiratorially, her eyes darting from side to side, though it was clearly just for fun. But she did make an effort to lower her voice while still being heard over the noise. “One night, Prince Rhaegar played a song so beautiful that Lady Lyanna wept. If my father’s maid is to be believed, everyone and the stable boys were bawling, including herself, by the time the Prince set down his harp. But none were moved quite as profoundly as Lady Lyanna. It took her ladies half an hour to calm her down. She even earned the stares of Princess Elia, and they were less than friendly. It must not have helped much when her husband crowned Lyanna, so…”

As Jon listened to her gossip, questions he hadn’t asked about in a long time surfaced once again. A song? It made her weep? Could it be…that song? He patted at his chest, but of course the burnt letter wasn’t there. He hadn’t been carrying it around since his first and last battle in the Whispering Wood, and was probably sitting cold and forgotten in his luggage along with the crushed up blue rose. Rhaegar’s words came back to him in broken pieces, but he still remembered the essence of what they meant. The song made her weep…it can’t be a coincidence.

Margaery was still going on with her tale, not noticing that Jon’s attention had skipped. “…I can’t begin to imagine how you must feel about Prince Rhaegar. Stealing Lady Lyanna and then starting a war. But, in spite of all that, don’t you think how tragically romantic it all is? That he was so desperately in love that he stole a woman he knew was betrothed to another, while he was wed himself? It’s so sad.” She clasped her hands to her breast and blinked up at the ceiling, eyes dreamy and moist, as if trying to imagine that she herself was being kidnapped and killed whilst a mad prince warred with her family. “Doesn’t that just make your heart ache, Jon?”

“Yeah…” Strangely enough, he didn’t know what he felt about it. There was no question that Rhaegar’s actions had been monstrous and selfish, and the damage he’d done to the Starks was irreparable. But why couldn’t Jon hate him? Blame him? The Starks were his family, right? So why did he only feel…sorrow?

Maybe it was because if Rhaegar had not done what he did, his father would not have come south and hence—he would never have been born?

But all those lives…Lady Lyanna’s…that’s not a fair trade at all!

“Oh, I did it again. I keep diverting the story. Blame a woman’s heart…Jon? You look sad again. I’m so sorry.” Without warning the Queen took his dead hand again, the squeeze ghostly and insignificant. Her eyes were wide and contrite. “I shouldn’t have said anything about your family.”

Jon parsed through her words in confusion. “What? Oh, no. It’s not your fault, Your…Margaery. My mind went to places it…shouldn’t have, all on its own. Please, continue with your story.”

Her pretty little lips widened, and inexplicably he felt calmed. “Alright. Don’t fret anymore, for this tale has a happy ending. Remember those three squires I mentioned? Well, their knights entered the lists. They were of House Haigh, Blount, and Frey, if I recall. They were doing quite well too. At least, until the mystery knight appeared. That’s right, it was the Knight of the Laughing Tree!” Margaery exclaimed with flourish, and Jon smiled at her display. “No one quite knew what to make of him. He was short—just like the crannogman—and his armor was comprised of odd bits and pieces that were ill fit on his small frame. A helm too big for his head hid his face. But his most striking feature was the image of a weirwood with a laughing face painted on his shield, and that was how he got his name. Against the castle’s scoffs, he challenged each of the three knights, and won each round. All he asked in return for his victories was for the knights to discipline the squires who wronged the little crannogman and for the return of his spear. Can you now guess who the Knight of the Laughing Tree was?”

Seconds went by in bated breath, before Jon realized the question wasn’t rhetorical. Sweat was trickling down his neck, which was probably due to the fire dancer walking around the dais, twirling his flaming batons in dazzling formations that impressed no one. He had probably been performing the same routines since Highgarden. Jon looked away from him and said, throat dry, “the crannogman?”

Margaery smiled, but did not confirm his answer. “That seems to be the common opinion. But you know what? Robert thought—and I agree with him—that it was actually Lady Lya-”

“What are you two whispering about?”

They both jumped, and for good reason. The king had just shoved his head into their little space, looking between the both of them suspiciously.

While Jon’s heart was still racing, his mind rifling for an excuse to explain their proximity, the Queen had long since recovered, flicking her hair behind her shoulder airily. “Just ancient history. And we were having such a good chat about it too, until you joined us. Are you jealous, my love?”

Jon blanched. Is she trying to get my head lopped off?

Surprisingly the king didn’t appear the least bit concerned that his wife had been in snogging distance with another man, which was probably attributed to the fact that he was bleeding drunk. His face was beet red, dark blue eyes dilated and out of focus. His hair had gotten impossibly tousled and his crown was skewed and practically hanging by an ear. The top two buttons of his tunic were undone, which was likely a response to the sudden heat.

Renly gave his queen a calm smile to match her own. “Not at all, star of my sky. Loras just wagered that Ser Willem couldn’t fit his head in a turkey’s arse, and he did, so now we’re trying to think of something else for Loras to fit his head into, with the stipulation that it not damage his hair.” The king blinked, his expression far-off, as if trying to remember what the conversation was about. “I was just checking if you and our guest were enjoying yourselves.” He blearily faced Jon, nearly collapsing unto his wife’s lap in the process. “Are you enjoying yourself, Ser Hand?”

“Uh, yes. Of course, Your Grace. Her Grace has been excellent company.”

The king bobbed his head—crown hanging on for dear life—already losing interest. “Very good, very good. Carry on then!” And with that he turned back to his companions, just in time for the arrival of four of the kingsguard heaving a massive roast boar between them. Ser Loras loudly sputtered that he had changed his mind. Renly declared that either he keep his vow or lose his cloak, to a round of drunken laughter.

Jon found himself snickering at their folly. The queen on the other hand did not find them so amusing. Her gaze was impassive, almost heated as her eyes bore into the king’s back. Jon looked away, as he was probably seeing something he shouldn’t have. Before he could excuse himself to escape to the privy, the queen’s fingers pinched his shoulders a little harder than necessary. “So, what were we talking about?” she said, her expression wild and a somewhat frightful.

“Um…you were about to reveal who the Knight of the Laughing Tree wa-”

“Oh yes, of course. What are you doing here?”

The random question threw Jon off guard. “Your...Your Grace?”

“Why are you here? Surely you didn’t come all the way here just to sample our cooking,” she demanded, her manner bordering on confrontational.

When did this become an inquisition? Jon thought. How much could he say to her? He only planned to deal with the king, not with his wife. But he feared that if he didn’t tell her what she wanted to hear, she would exercise her royal right to claw his face off. “I’m…my brother wishes to ally with King Renly…”

Margaery glared at him with a severity that was inexplicable. “I see. You’re here for an alliance. Of course you are,” she said coldly. And then just like that, the smile materialized back unto her face, and she was the bubbly little queen he had first met, brown locks bouncing on her dainty shoulders. “Why didn’t you say so? I’ll be glad to help you!”

This transformation was as puzzling as the previous one, so his response was, “what?”

“I said I will help you! Who knows the king better than I? I’ll make it so he wouldn’t think to reject you.” She clasped both of his hands in hers and bounced him along, her exuberance disturbing. Jon was too flabbergasted to form a reply, let alone an enthusiastic one.

“Alright, first things first,” she plowed on, without giving either of them an opportunity to breath. “You’re so tightly wound. You have to open yourself up, Jon! Well, not completely, for that will be obscene, but enough to let some air in.” Her fingers dove unto his chest, giving him no chance to protest.

This was the second time a woman had assaulted and lain hands on him. Did he exude a scent that made women treat him this way? However, he did recall Theon doing something like this as well…

She tugged open his cloak and paused when she caught sight of the Tully patterns, but she just shook her head and resumed her actions without comment. She must have felt him stiffen when she began fiddling with the buttons of his tunic, for she chastised, “Don’t soil yourself. It’s just the top two buttons. My husband is very perceptive to how people present themselves. Bundle yourself up and he’ll think you have something to hide. How will he share his plans with you then?”

Vaguely, Jon could understood her logic, but… “Does it really matter to him so much what we wear?”

The queen paused from her worked and stared him down like he was a slow child. “Has my husband, at some point today, made a snide remark in regards to your clothing immediately upon meeting you?”

Jon wanted to argue that he did not, that no king could ever be so petty, but he knew better. “Point taken.”

She smiled at his wisdom and backed away after successfully exposing his collarbone. She looked him up and down with scrutiny, tapping her lips with a finger. “It will have to do”

By ‘it’ do you mean me? “So, am I now presentable enough to discuss politics with the king, Your Grace?” he said sarcastically, his chest puffed out with fist against his waist, giving the situation the gravity it deserved.

“Not quite,” muttered the queen. “You first have to offer him the second thing he values most after fashion…flattery!”

“Flattery,” Jon said flatly.

“Of course! He loves to be buttered up. Especially when you talk about his hair. Oh it’s quite fortunate that you have brown hair. He never could resist the color. It’s one of the reasons he chose me to be his queen, don’t you know? When we kiss, he likes to wind my hair around his finger while his other hand sneaks down my back and... Oh but you don’t need to hear that. Sometimes I think it’s revolting that we show our love whilst there are eyes upon us, but I can never say no…”

Jon was nodding along sedately, but inside his head he was screaming himself hoarse. Was this really the way to win favor with a king? Compliment his hair? He had expected to discuss policies, governance, mutual benefits, concepts he hardly understood himself but was willing to take a stab at. More and more he was starting to wonder how much help Renly was really going to be to them. Was he going to flatter Joffrey to his death? If he was truly serious about this war, shouldn’t his one hundred thousand already be outside the gates of King’s Landing by then?

The queen of course was ignorant to his mounting doubts. “Alright, what else…oh yes! You should praise his leadership.”

That caught Jon’s attention. Finally! Something that makes sense. “How would I go about doing that?” He really needed to know, as he hadn’t seen anything from Renly as yet that resembled leadership.

“Oh no not his leadership,” Margaery said, as if it was obvious. “No, no, he’s very modest about his capabilities, as far as ruling goes. He hates it when people make him out into something he’s not. You have to talk about your capabilities.”

My capabilities?” Jon echoed, confused. “Which are?”

“Which are? Are you saying you’re entering into this alliance empty-handed?” Margaery splayed out her hands and shook her head sadly, as if disappointed in him. “What are you going to offer us, Jon?”

Jon pretended that her reaction did not squeeze his heart into a pitiful, quivering mass. “Oh, um, well, our armies, for one, and the eternal friendship of the enti-”

She stopped him again. “No, what are you going to offer us?”

“Me? Just me, singular?”

She nodded.

The conversation was sliding back into incoherence again, but Margaery did know the king best. Jon considered his answer. “Well, as I’m sure His Grace is aware, I am quite new at this, so the only thing I can say that I personally can offer is-”

The Queen cut him off once again, something that was beginning to annoy Jon severely. “I’ll tell you what you have to offer. Tell him that you like to be on top of things,” she said, hovering her hand over the other hand, an apt visual representation. “Tell him you like to take control. The King prefers not to make the decisions himself. It makes him feel secure when another takes the reins and directs him where to go. Tell him that.”

Jon was shocked. “Truly? That’s not a very good attitude for a king-”

“Secondly,” the Queen interrupted excitedly. “You have to offer him more than you’re willing to receive. Give him land, give him armies, give him everything, and don’t ever make him think that you’re only interested in his title and assume he has all. Consider that he has needs as well, and he’ll never say no.”

He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “I can’t promise any of that! I have to consult with my brother fir-”

“Lastly, say that you prefer to enter these things slowly. Renly Baratheon doesn’t like to be rushed. The longer you prolong, the better, and make sure that he knows that you will wait as long as it takes for him to make good on his end. Patience and delayed gratification will make him see that he has a good friend in you.”

Jon was gaping by that point, too horrified and bewildered to speak—not that Margaery would have let him get a word in if he could.

The Queen snuck a look at her husband, then stood, giving Jon an encouraging grin. “My brother is about to stick his head up a pig’s arse. Now’s your chance.” She reached for his dead hand again and gave a useless squeeze. “Good luck, Jon. I look forward to having our Houses bound. Perhaps not by marriage, but by a bond that will not be easily severed. Please consider taking me along when you go up North. Now if you’ll excuse me, I must retire to my chambers.” She called into the back wall and one of the Rainbow Guard came to escort her away to her room.

Jon watched them disappear up the stairs, and all Jon could think was, what in the hells? That had been one of the strangest encounters he had ever experienced. Were highborn girls always so touched? He couldn’t recall even Sansa being so incomprehensible. And why was she so certain she was never going to see him again? He had only just arrived.

He sighed, looking down at his plate, the food barely half-eaten. For some reason he didn’t feel hungry anymore. More and more he just wanted to go home.

Looking to his left, Jon could see Renly drinking from his gold chalice in between bouts of laughter. Ser Loras was beside the table, bent over and steeling himself to shove his head into a boar’s hindquarters. His brothers in the kingsguard and a number of young lordlings (and a few ladies) stood all around, cheering him on.

Jon slid into Margaery’s vacated seat. He may as well take her advice, and there would probably be no better time than then. “Excuse me, Your Grace?” he called, not too close and not too far from his royal neck.

The King spun around like he had been struck by lightning, but his expression calmed when their eyes met. “Oh, hello there.” Renly narrowed his eyes. “You’re not my wife.”

Drunk. So bloody drunk. Perfect time to negotiate an alliance. “Um, yes—I mean, no, I’m not. Queen Margaery left to her quarters some time ago.”

Renly followed his words like Jon was telling a sad story. “Yes, I figured she would. Never could stand these functions for long. Oh well, there’s nothing for it.” He rubbed at his eyes and for a moment Jon was afraid that he was dabbing away tears, but then he removed his hands and regarded Jon like he was just seeing him. “So, how can I help you?”

Jon subconsciously picked at the thread of his breeches, more nervous than he had ever been in his life. The fate of Winterfell rode on this discussion. “Actually, I was hoping we could negotiate an alliance between our kingdoms, to create an even stronger force that will surely topple the Iron Throne.” His heart was frantic. Had he laid it on a little too thick? It may have been dramatic, but it was no less true.

He had no idea what Renly thought of it, for it didn’t appear he had even heard. He was already making to turn away. “I have some important business to attend to. Loras and the boar…someone has to judge the victor…”

Jon had to stop him. He wanted to scream at him that Joffrey would wipe them all out if they didn’t band together. That Tywin Lannister would crush Robb if they didn’t come to help. That Casterly Rock would put Winterfell to the torch. Renly had to listen!

He had many things to say, but all that came out was “I like your hair!”

That stopped him. Renly gave him a hard look that betrayed no emotion. “What did you say?”

“I said…” Jon cursed every god in existence for making him resort to this. So he bit out, every word a torture, “I. Like. Your. Hair.”

The King stared at him, not blinking, and Jon was afraid he had broken him and he had just made a monstrous fool of himself, but eventually a dreamy smile crept up his cheeks that was equal parts encouraging and alarming. It’s the drink doing that. It has to be, Jon told himself. But it was welcome, as long as it meant Renly was interested. “You do, do you?” the King purred. Actually purred. “What do you like about it?”

Something was wrong here. Jon could feel it in his bones. But he had no choice but to trudge and use it to his advantage. “Uh, its…” He actually looked at Renly’s hair, immediately feeling like a pervert. “It’s…very black. And straight. My own hair is curly though…and brown…” Jon punched his own thigh, a sign that his body was rebelling against the words that were leaving his mouth.

“I know. I’ve noticed.” Renly fingered a lock over Jon’s ear, making him shiver. “It’s very familiar. Just like…”

“Lady Margaery’s?” he supplied, his body stock still while Renly twirled his hair.

“I suppose so,” he muttered dazedly, taking back his smooth, decidedly feminine hand so Jon could breathe again.

This was getting him nowhere. He slammed his fist against the table, causing the sliver to clatter and a pheasant leg to roll off his plate. He wasn’t sure why he did that now. Probably to catch that infuriating man’s attention, or probably just to vent some frustration. It seemed to have worked for the former, as the King was blinking at him, startled. “Look, Your Grace. Yes, you have fine hair, but what I’m really interested in is your authority. I mean…” Jon took a deep, long breath, bracing himself for the nonsense that was about to come spewing out. “King Robb and I, if you join yourself with us, we promise to get right on top of things.”

Renly blinked even harder. “Wait, your brother, the Young Wolf? He’s not here is he?”

“No, of course not. But I think I speak true when I say that he’s very determined, driven, and while stupidly stubborn most of the time, that only means he won’t be reluctant to exert his authority in order to get what he wants…” No matter what anyone thinks… “If you join yourself to him, he’ll be so on top of things you’ll never have to think. As will I, if you prefer.” He wasn’t sure if he was painting Robb, or himself, in a good light, but Margaery had said that was what Renly wanted to hear. Also, the King had not called his guards to take away the madman, so perhaps he was on the right track. “And if you agree to this, King Robb and I will not hesitate to…pull the reins.”

“Reins…” the King murmured, eyes heavy lidded.

“And we promise, anything you desire, we are at your mercy. We have much to offer you, and we require nothing in return right away aside from your presence.” He involuntarily cringed after saying that. He would have to have a long talk with Robb if Renly ever took that part to heart.

Renly appeared catatonic, though his chest was clearly moving—and rather quickly. Jon decided that was a cue to keep going.

“And…” He tried to remember what else Margaery had told him to say. “Oh, right. There is no pressure, Your Grace. We are willing to hold out for as long as you deem necessary. Your pleasure is our highest concern, and we of the North are nothing if not patient and selfless.” That wasn’t entirely true, but his lips were planting so firmly against Renly’s arse it didn’t really matter what he said anymore. Asha told me to watch out for their lies, and yet I’m the one spewing horseshit. I’m a Hand at long last. “Well, Your Grace, what say you?”

Renly coughed into a fist. “Are you certain your brother is not present?”

For the good of the realm Jon held back his temper. “No, Your Grace.”

Renly sighed, as if it was such an unfortunate loss. “I see. He’ll have his chance when’s he’s available. But you make a very impassioned proposal, Lord Hand. You and your brother must want this…alliance…very badly,” he whispered, sneaking his hand into Jon’s left. He could feel the pressure. “How can I ever say no?”

Jon was much too distracted to realize or care that Renly was tracing his fingers against his palm. I did it? He said yes? After I said all that crock? He said yes? He could barely comprehend it.

“Why don’t we discuss the finer details in my pavilion?”

Renly could have invited him to dance naked into a vat of lizard lions and Jon wouldn’t have had the presence of mind to deny him. “Anything, Your Grace!”

That made the King smile obscenely for some reason, but Jon was given no opportunity to contemplate it as Renly rose from his seat unsteadily. He gave a passing glance to his knights’ shenanigans—Loras had finally gotten his head inside the boar and was attempting to stand—before looking to the other end of the table. “Lady Brienne!”

Dutiful to a fault, the azure knight came at once. Renly nodded to Jon and excused himself from the table. Jon followed him out, but not before directing a fond glance at Ghost, who was napping beside the bones of an aurochs.

The cool night air was like a balm against Jon’s skin. The fire dancer had made an already hot, cramped space into a furnace. But at least he had kept the food warm, from what little Jon had tasted of it.

They took the same path that led back to Jon’s tent, which he remembered was only a hundred yards away from the Royal Pavilion. He thought it was passing strange that Renly made quarters in a tent while Queen Margaery slept inside the castle. It was probably just because girls are averse to lying on hard earth.

They made the trek in silence, while stopping every now and then so the King could acknowledge each person that bowed to him, trading words and laughs. Say what he wanted of Renly, but there was no doubt the people loved him. It didn’t matter if they were his bannermen or had ridden in from Oldtown, every man that had joined his cause worshiped him and would fight to make him their king. Jon couldn’t imagine him winning over all the families in the Riverlands who’d lost their homes and fields to the war, but if he could manage it perhaps he was meant to be king.

As garrulous as he was—even to the washerwomen—he gave Jon little attention during their walk. Perhaps he was saving all he wanted to say for their discussion at the tent. Jon did notice him giving him quick glances, but they were over so soon he wondered if he had imagined them. Renly had a somewhat nauseous expression on his face. Maybe he was still drunk.

Lady Brienne was as talkative as always of course, walking at a respectable distance behind the two men, the metallic clank of her armor the only sound she made.  

Jon heard the laughter and a loud roar before he spied the source. On the side of the path were a number of his northmen and some of the rivermen, all pointing and laughing at a display that was very hard to miss. The happiest bear Jon had ever seen was lumbering on two legs while singing what sounded a growled version of “Bear and the Maiden Fair”. A man with a colorful beard—probably Tyroshi—that could have only been his trainer looked on with amusement. Once the group caught sight of Jon and the King they fell to their knees while exclaiming “Your Grace” and “Lord Hand”…except for one person.

“Jon!” they both shouted in unison.

The Smalljon was perched on the bear’s shoulders, looking for all to see like the bear’s oversized cub. After the shout he lost his balance and rolled to the ground, his landing greeted by a round of laughter. The Smalljon got to his feet and threw Jon a worried gaze as they passed by. Jon should have ignored him, for he looked just long enough to see him mouth the words “the pox”.

Jon, disgusted, mouthed “shut up” and paid him no more mind. The roars of the bear followed them to the Royal District.

“You walk in very amusing company, Jon,” Renly said suddenly. The words were not unkind.

“Don’t mind the big one, though. He has the pox.”

The King looked at him like he was joking—or perhaps crazy—but to his credit he did not ask.

The Royal Tent was as massive as Jon remembered; big enough for five dancing bears and an entire circus troupe. Jon could see the silhouette of two giant banners fluttering fifty feet above. Lady Brienne held the flap open for them as they slipped inside. “You may remain without my lady,” the king said to his knight. “At no ”

The interior of Renly’s tent was exactly how Jon had imagined it. Elaborate Volantene carpets covered the floor in mosaics depicting tigers and elephants in fierce battles. Candelabras hung from poles crisscrossing the ceiling, bathing the room in an orange glow and setting the various colored glass ornaments lining the shelves into dances of color. In contrast to the rich atmosphere, a conference table lay at the center of the pavilion with the map of Westeros stretched out on its surface. To the side stood King Renly’s battle armor, which could easily have been half his weight. Now that Jon had seen it with his own eyes, it seemed Renly was planning to go into war after all.  

To the side, half concealed by pink silk curtains lay an emperor-sized bed.

“Please, make yourself comfortable,” Renly offered without looking at Jon, unclasping his cloak and throwing it unto the bed.

Jon didn’t know where to start. Almost everything seemed comfortable. He settled on a plush couch that was shaped into the form of a swan. He ran his fingers across one of the wings, which served as part of the backrest. It was a thoughtless action, but it served to occupy his body while his mind busied itself with the terms of the alliance. In all his ingratiating, he had tipped the North squarely in the light end of the scale. That didn’t mean he couldn’t inch some things in their favor now that the king had, for all intents and purposes, agreed. But first, more harmless flattery was in order. “Your Grace, if you don’t mind me asking, where did you f—”

A hand pushed him back into the cushions, and one of his first instincts was to level a badly coordinated punch. His arm stopped dead though when he saw it was the King on top of him, eyes wild and chest heaving. “When I said ‘make yourself comfortable’, I meant with your clothes off,” he purred, tracing a finger along the fish pattern on his breast. “Show me what a northman really looks like without all that fur.”

An extremely small, irrational part of Jon’s mind screamed, do you dislike my clothes that much? The rest of his mind though, the parts that were aware of what was happening, which he didn’t want to give any attention to, but threatened to overwhelm him anyway, merely thought, what what what WHAT?

“Why do you look so surprised?” the King breathed against Jon’s neck, making him shiver. Or was that convulse. “I know you said that you’d prefer to be ‘on top of things’, but I just couldn’t wait, and it seemed you needed help getting started.” Renly ran a hand up and down his thigh, and it was a testament to how stunned Jon was that his immediate reaction wasn’t to kick that hand away and stomp on it. “Worry not. I prefer to have my ‘reins’ pulled myself. Most men never get to ride a king…” Renly’s lips descended upon Jon’s, and all he wanted to do was explode and take Renly with him.

“I KNEW IT!”

Jon’s face got a slap of hair with the force of Renly’s head turning at the new visitor. Jon blinked rapidly before he could see who had joined them, and it was none other than Loras Tyrell, First of the Rainbow Guard. His expression was crazed, air flowing hot and angry out of his nostrils, his appearance made even more frightening by the brown mess that covered his face and hair. Clearly he had finally gotten his head out of that boar.

Jon expected Ser Loras to do several things. He expected him to wrench Renly away from his perverse hands and behead him right there for daring to lock lips with a married monarch. Or, turn right around and let his king get on with his business. Or, slit his own throat, and perhaps die with the dignity of never having to see that scene again. What he did not expect him to do was…

“HOW MANY HAVE YOU DONE THIS WITH?! TRAITOR!” Ser Loras shouted, his tone furious but his face heartbroken, all his fury directed at…Renly. In what Hell had Jon found himself in this time?

Metal footsteps ran into the tent. “Forgive me, Your Grace. He just ru-” Lady Brienne froze as solid as a sapphire statue when she caught sight of Jon and Renly, entangled. Jon didn’t think eyes could get that big.

Renly rolled off Jon at last and stood up looking twenty years older. For someone who had just been ready to take Jon’s manhood, he seemed extremely tired right then. “Loras, you don’t under-”

“Don’t you dare give me that! I’m not a child who wouldn’t understand what I saw! You made sure of that yourself! And on that couch!”

That was when Loras fully noticed Jon, leveling him with a glare that should have melted the skin off his bones. Unfortunately, it only made him leap off the couch, skin crawling.

Loras rounded back to Renly, his eyes watering. “Dammit. You promised me I was more than that. And after we did it on my cloak…” His quivering hands took hold of his rainbow cloak, holding it like a lover. “You said that was binding…as good as being wed…”

Jon’s head was spinning. He thought he was going to retch. How had he not seen any of this?

Renly looked crushed. “Loras, please, you really don’t get it-”

“STOP LYING!” Loras pulled out his sword.

That was when Lady Brienne snapped out of her horrified daze. “NO!” She grabbed at Loras from behind trying to pin his arms, but he broke free and smashed her in the face with the hilt. He turned his rage fully on her, raising his sword in the air and preparing for a slash.

The King moved to stop him, but Jon was too fast for him. He caught Loras’ wrist with his left hand in a powerful grip. “A knight never harms a lady,” he hissed, gritting his teeth.

“Let go!” Loras screamed desperately. “This cow needs to learn respect!”

“I crippled the Kingslayer with this hand,” Jon whispered so only Loras could hear, close enough to smell the boar stuffing. “Do you really want to lose yours trying to hurt a girl?” He gave his wrist a good squeeze, feeling bone slide against bone.

Ser Loras dropped his sword and made a sound that was a good impression of Arya, jumping away from Jon and cradling his wrist against his chest.

“Are you alright, my lady?” Jon said to Brienne. A drop of blood slid from her likely broken nose, glistening in the candlelight. Her face revealed an agony that was disproportional to her injury. That made Jon’s own blood boil with renewed anger. He hurled a glare at Ser Loras, who flinched from him in fright. “Is this how you treat a lady who fancies you?” he shouted.

Complete silence. Everyone gave Jon strange looks, as if he had gone mad. The most severe came from Lady Brienne, whose face had reddened from pink to flaming scarlet. “I thank you for your assistance, my lord,” she said, voice quaking. “But I would appreciate it if you did not spread hideous lies about me.” As if it was involuntary, her gaze swung slowly to King Renly, her eyes reenacting the look Jon had spied earlier that day.

Oh, he thought, feeling like an utter fool. Have I been wrong about everything?!

Loras saw where her eyes were directed, and used that distraction to mouth off—after inching as far away from Jon as he could. “Yes, she fancies him. Always has. It’s the only reason she even cared about joining the kingsguard. I bet he’s already fucked her too as a second prize.”

Renly let out a long-suffering sigh at the accusation, gazing at Loras like it was painful. “Brienne has never lowered her dignity to one such as I. So let go of your petty hatreds and leave her be. I’m the villain here.” The king turned his look at Jon, but his words were still directed at Loras…his lover. “Please, leave me. I have things to clarify with the Hand.”

Ser Loras bristled. “That’s it? After what you did, you’re dismissing me?”

“I will explain all to you soon. Just trust me.”

“Trust? You had my trust!” Ser Loras wrenched the rainbow cloak from around his neck and threw it on the ground. “That’s where my trust is now. You can have it back.”

The knife twisted in Renly’s gut, and it showed plainly on his face. “Fine. Don’t trust me. But I will come to you, whether you want me to or not. And…I do love you.”

Loras scowled and spat on the cloak, grinding it under his heel before turning around and shoving past Lady Brienne to duck out of the tent. One of the candles blew out when he left.

No one was capable of saying anything for a while, content to just stare at the floor and hope it would consume. King Renly was the first to realize that would never happen, so he drew a blank stare at Brienne and said, “Lady Brienne? Please?”

Brienne returned the look. “At once, Your Grace,” she said curtly and bowed out of the pavilion as well. There was no indication that she was still outside.

Renly fell back into the swan couch, burying his face in his hands and looking like he had aged another few years. He unveiled his face and laughed, dark and bereft of humor. “I suppose I’ll never know if the North is really ‘patient and selfless’.”

That was it. Jon looked down at the pitiful man who called himself king with all the loathing, confusion and rage he could summon. Unfortunately, that brew did not translate well into language. “Why did…how did…why did you…what is…”

Renly sighed and leaned back against the backrest, his head right under the carved swan’s neck. He looked up at Jon patiently. “There’s much to talk about tonight. I’ll start with what I’m sure is causing you the most distress right now. You were just the latest pawn in my wife’s game.”

Jon ‘s legs grew weak. It was just as he feared, but there hadn’t been any time to really let the suspicion bloom. He sank down to the floor, his bottom landing on one of the many cushions strewn around the pavilion. He needed to ask, “Why?”

The King shook his head, gazing at Jon with sympathy. “She has nothing personally against you. This is just her revenge, for all the wrongs I’ve done to her. You are the fourth man she’s tried to send into my bed. She prepares them with some speech to supposedly catch my attention, then has them drink from a chalice she’s had poisoned with some mind dampening concoction.”

The chalice! And she tried to make me drink that right after I told her about Winterfell! Margaery Tyrell had played him like a lute, but fortunately his motivation to resist his own weakness had saved him from an even more shameful fate. Another debt to lay at Asha Greyjoy’s door.

“I still don’t know where she gets it,” Renly went on. “My beautiful wife is a master at acquiring things she shouldn’t. I would think she stocks up on tansy if she wasn’t so desperate for my seed…”

Jon couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He hated Renly. He hated Margaery. He hated the South and he hated being Hand. But most of all he hated himself for thinking any of this was shocking. “I came here to negotiate an alliance…” Jon mumbled blankly. “I came here to help my brother’s country. And you just made me into a fool, dancing to your tune as you laugh.”

Renly sounded guilty, but Jon couldn’t bear to see if he actually was. “Jon, nothing was ever going to happen to you-”

“You just said she sent three others to your bed! You let this happen so you could play this twisted game!”

“No, that’s not-”

“I’m leaving,” he announced, tripping over his own feet in his rush to put on his cloak, which he couldn’t remember removing. This was a mistake. All of this was a mistake. I’m not made for this. This was how his father had lost his life, trying to do his duty in a cage full of snakes. None of them were interested in mending Westeros, only in furthering their own selfish ambition while backstabbing each other. And Jon had been caught right in the middle of their petty squabble. No more.

“Jon, please sit and listen.”

Renly tried to take his forearm, but Jon pushed him away. His arms were shaking, and he couldn’t put the damn cloak on. He threw it over his shoulder and stomped to the entrance.

“As King of the Seven Kingdoms I command you to sit down!”

The order froze him in his tracks, a mere foot away from the cold wind outside. Suddenly, Jon remembered where he was. He was in the center of an army of one hundred thousand men. Renly could shout in any direction and have him arrested, and there would be nothing anyone could do about it. And even if he was allowed to leave, what would his men think about fleeing in the dead of night, just after arriving at their destination? The North would mock him for a craven as well as a bastard. And what would Robb think? Would he sympathize with him for being played by a young girl? Would he care that Renly…touched him?

No, he certainly wouldn’t care about that.

Jon took a deep, shaky breath.

Already Renly was apologizing. “I’m sorry for that. My brother Robert always had that ready when he didn’t get his way… I have no right giving you orders after our hospitality turned out so poor. You have my blessing to leave if you so-”

Jon spun around and marched past the King—who had stood up and moved after him at some point—and dropped unto a cushion, arms crossed and eyes leveled at Renly. “Explain yourself.”

Renly blinked at the change of events and nodded, returning to the swan couch with hands clasped. Even though his eyes were bloodshot and lined with exhaustion, his skin pale and wrinkled, and it looked like his hair had not been held down in over a day, he was still the most handsome man Jon had ever seen. And yet the memory of his touch only brought him only revulsion. “Well, the reason nothing was ever going to happen to you was because…” he began, looking away in embarrassment. “…because it never happened. I never touched any of the men my wife sent me. Though it always got close.”

Jon felt himself softening at the answer, but he couldn’t bring himself to forgive this man just yet. “Why?”

He let out a breath, clearly hoping he didn’t have to explain that far. “Because up to a time it came all too clear that they weren’t Loras.”

Jon opened his mouth before closing it again, not knowing what to say. Obvious pain racked the King’s youthful visage as he said Loras’ name, making it impossible to deny his sincerity. It was really as simple as that. He’s not the one I love.

Renly continued. “I knew it was Margaery’s doing as soon as the first one landed haplessly on my bed and told the truth in a drug fumed haze. I never confronted her. I just let her do what she pleased if it makes her feel she has power.”

Power? he thought, baffled. How can a queen need more power?  

“You must be asking ‘how can a queen need more power?’.” The King correctly read his puzzlement, smiling sadly. “Think about it, Jon Snow. I, her husband and soon-to-be King of the Seven Kingdoms, is in love with her brother. The fact that she is not yet with child is no accident. In my naivety, I had thought she was happy to wait, that she had accepted that I did not love her. Or perhaps I only fooled myself into thinking those things. The truth was the sight of Loras and I together…I can’t even fathom her pain.”

“When we kiss, he likes to wind my hair around his finger while his other hand sneaks down my back” she had said…of Renly and Loras. Jon couldn’t help feel a slight twinge of sympathy for Margaery. When he and Robb were betrothed, he didn’t spare one thought for the prospective Lady of Winterfell, immediately feeling sorry for himself. Perhaps it was yet another blessing that he had been sent away.

Renly released a deep sigh and clasped his hands about his knees, his expression somewhat lighter than before. Perhaps he was just waiting to talk all along. “I am really sorry this happened to you, Jon,” he said with a crooked smile. “If you had only been a woman, none of this would have ever happened and perhaps we would be on our way to becoming one kingdom now. Not to say this is your fault. I just never expected she would cast her eye on you.” Renly cast his eye on him, as if looking for whatever it was she had seen. He shifted in his seat. His gaze still made him uncomfortable. “She only ever used her spell on minor nobles. I just did not expect…” He shook his head ruefully. “Or maybe I did. There’s probably a part of me that wished to be caught, so these games can end. She always planned for Loras to find me like that. And now that he has…” Renly closed his eyes, letting out a long breath.

Jon didn’t know how to comfort him, and he wasn’t really sure he wanted to. So he remained where he was while Renly dealt with his loss. He had already been there before after all.

After a while Renly opened his eyes again and regarded Jon with contrition. “I really hope you don’t think too badly of us.”

Jon spared him a small smile, just a little. “It can’t get worse.”

Renly chuckled, and it was as if some of the years chipped away. He even hazarded to look playful. “You know, I’ve been wondering. You are taking the truth about my relationship with Loras surprisingly well. Is it because you’re…?”

There was no way to misconstrue his meaning, and Jon flinched despite himself. “Are you asking if I’m…if I’m…” Gods, how do I even say it?

Renly’s grin spread wide. “No need to say anymore. The truth is written plain in your startled face.”

That made his cheeks burn even hotter. He couldn’t believe he was found out like this, and just from talking.

Renly patted his shoulder. “Don’t hurt yourself over it. It’s nothing you did. Though perhaps it is. I actually have a very bad sense for my own kind. Margaery on the other hand…” Renly saw Jon’s eyes go wide at the name. “Yes, Margaery has a very good eye for these things,” he said warmly. “It was actually her who first knew that Loras was…that way, even before he himself did. She would introduce him to one boy after another that she felt was good enough for Loras, and each time he would just stare blankly, wondering what she expected him to do, or challenge them to a spare. He was never the sharpest tack in the box.”

Jon smiled, knowing where the story went. “And then you and Loras met.”

“Yes,” he said, smiling blissfully, reminiscing. “We met, and…he just knew. I won’t claim its anything special on my part. It was probably just the right time. Margaery couldn’t have been happier.” It was as if all the happy memories came to a halt at that point, as Renly’s joy instantly soured. “Robert died not long after that, and I made myself king…and her queen. She could never know then the sorrow it would bring her, so happy she was for the night. And then she found out we had conspired to offer her to Robert. She will never forgive me for that.”

The conversation had sailed back into dark territory, and Jon could think of no words to make things lighter. He had never expected he would have this kind of talk with King Renly. It was almost surreal. It made him almost want to talk about Robb…about the many things that weighed heavily in his heart that he could share with no one…

Sadly, Renly was also having similar thoughts. Renly asked him, trying to lighten the mood, “Are there any boys close to your heart, Jon?”

The question immediately ground his brain to a halt.

“Though, from that little charade you played for me in the dining hall,” Renly chuckled, surely remembering the horrid speech Margaery advised him to give. “I’m almost hoping it’s your brother. Mind the blasphemy.”

Jon couldn’t stop it. He drew in a breath so sharply that it sounded like a whistle. No one could make a sound like that in response to a jest.

Renly knew it, too. He stared at Jon, his mouth hanging open. “No…”

Jon stood up, unable to stay still, his heart beating as fast as a hummingbird’s. His feet trailed between the lions and the elephants, back and forth. All his secrets had been blown right into the open. What did he have left that wasn’t held firmly in a strange king’s hands? What was stopping Renly from exposing him and Robb’s perversity to all and sundry? What in the seven hells had he done?

Vaguely, beyond the ringing in his ears, he could hear Renly standing behind him, saying soothing things. “Oh you poor man. I never…I’m so so-”

Jon rounded on him. “Don’t you pity me!” he shouted. “Don’t you dare pity me!” There was no use holding back the tears then. Everything returned with the force of a stampeding mammoth. Everything he’d been suppressing since he rode from Riverrun and had been clouding ever since with drink. His hand was gone. His father was dead. His sisters were missing, and likely dead as well. Robb didn’t want him anymore.

Strong arms encircled him, and the warmth was so nice he couldn’t bring up the strength to push him away. Renly just held him, not saying anything while he let himself go on his shoulder.

And that was how they stayed, Renly rocking Jon slowly on the Volantene carpet, candelabras flickering above them. Jon didn’t how much time had passed when his eyes finally became dry and crusty and he regained the energy to move himself out of Renly’s hold. “Thank you…” He couldn’t look Renly in the eye. It was bad enough that he had lost control of his emotions, but in front of Renly Baratheon himself. What he wouldn’t give for the tigers on the floor to come alive and swallow him whole.

He was unconsciously lurching away. To where, he did not know. Somewhere where he wasn’t completely exposed. As always, Renly had other ideas though, gripping him tightly by the shoulders and looking straight into his eyes. Renly’s expression was so full of compassion, it was all he could to not start up again.

"Jon, when I take my throne, I will likely be branded a heretic," he said, voice thick with resolve and conviction that clashed with the pessimism of his words. "Do you know why that is?"

"What are you talking about?"

He continued without pause. "Because, as things are, there will never be a future for me and Loras," he explained, as if that made more sense. "When I take my throne, he will always be out of sight, even less than a common whore, for kings always have whores. But I want a future where I have him by my side in broad daylight and not fear losing my right to rule, or my life. Do you know how I can make that possible, Jon?" Renly did not wait for a guess. "By ending succession."

For a moment, Jon thought he had misheard him. “End succession?”

“Yes, at least succession as we have it. I’m only talking about the Iron Throne, of course. Lordships, and hence my support, cannot exist without their families. But what of Westeros? Who’s to say that one man’s spawn, and his spawn’s spawn, are the only ones who should be kings? We’ve had more mad kings and incompetent kings than we’ve had good kings, and why should the people suffer for them?” Renly went on, his eyes alight with excitement. “The people should have the right to choose what monsters to put on the throne, and if they’re smart, no monsters at all. There are some righteous fools right at this moment twaddling about how Stannis should rule and not I. But do they love Stannis? Do they look forward to his dominion? He will thank them for placing him on the throne and then execute them for all the men they killed to get him there. The land will have another tyrant, and aren’t we already sick to our stomachs of tyrants?”

Jon’s mind was spinning with all the concepts that were suddenly being hurled at him. One point in particular stuck out to him. “But…if children don’t have to succeed…then that means you…”

Renly nodded, his enthusiasm mesmerizing. “Yes, I will not have to marry. I will need no heirs. Whoever succeeds me will be whoever the people think should succeed me. Margaery will never have to suffer by being married to me. And Loras…” He left the rest unsaid, but it was clear whatever fantasy he had imagined was very pleasing to him.

Jon felt a tad more practical. “If you are so sure of this, why haven’t you declared yourself wed to Loras already?”

And that had sobered him, but Renly had already returned to the earth before Jon had finished. “Because I’m not stupid, Jon. For these changes to happen, I need to be king first, and to do that I must first play by the rules already set out and not scare my subjects away before I had even begun.” Renly released Jon’s shoulders, pacing around the room, his energy boundless with his ambition. “I understand that I may never live the way I wish. Perhaps I will have grandchildren before anything ever happens. But I know that if I don’t make the first step, no one ever will, and we will be overrun by usurpers and evil bastards, and no man will think to stand against due to the poison that is rights.

Jon frowned. He did not bother pointing out the irony of Renly using his own rights as a Baratheon to begin a system without rights. But Jon couldn’t deny that there was something…appealing, about his philosophy. “Is anyone supporting this idea of yours?” he had to ask.

“What do you think I’ve been doing this entire time?” Renly said. “I’ve not only been building my army while I make my leisurely way through the South, I’ve also been talking to lords and ladies, helping them see my point of view. Some scoff and call my notions blasphemy, some take a more critical opinion and don’t see the profit in my system, some couldn’t understand why things had not been that way sooner. Especially the women, when I pointed out that they will be able to rule themselves as queen.” Renly faced Jon, their eyes meeting. “And even a bastard can rise high, Jon.”

Jon scoffed. “As if I will ever wish to be king.”

“No, but in time it won’t be just the Iron Throne. Soon even lords will be chosen, such as if a family line dies out, then they will have no choice. Some will simply adopt this system because its preferable.”

Jon shook his head, unable to grasp it. A word where he could rise high. But hadn’t he already risen high? He was the Hand of a King, after all, what more could he wish for? Perhaps something he wanted for himself, and not a role that was thrust on him so he would disappear? Robb never found him his place in the world, but if he could seek that himself…if the onus of being a bastard would become obsolete…

Renly stood in front of Jon, a fire burning inside his eyes that was impossible not to be captivated by. “Jon, in this world, you will be free to love anyone you choose, without having to worry about all these silly things like birth and heirs and, someday, even sex.”

It was just too good to believe. A world where he did not have to worry about his birth? A world where Robb did not have to worry about heirs? A word where a king did not need a queen? Was that a world where they both could live in, together?

“I don’t have Robert’s strength, or Stannis’ brilliance, but this is what I have, Jon. Do you still wish to make an alliance with me?”

Before Jon could even begin to form an answer, a man burst through the tent flap, panting for breath. “Your Grace! Riders, from Storm’s End! Stannis has the castle besieged! And he’s calling himself king.”