“Please, don’t go,” Arya said. Her eyes (lighter than his, but shaped like something from a memory) were filled with tears Jon Snow knew she would never shed. He had seen her cry only once in the five years since they had reunited, the day she married that stubborn boy they called Gendry Baratheon now. “We only just got you back.”
That was a lie, and the truth. Five years. He had had five years with what was left of his family. Less with Rickon, who had refused to return to Winterfell, but Jon was a dragonrider, and Skaagos was not far in the air. Nothing was.
“No one else can do this, little sister,” he said. He had called her that to comfort them both, when he’d believed himself to be her half-brother. The day she had learned he was her cousin by blood, she had started calling him big brother, and it had reassured them like nothing else could. “The dragons won’t go by themselves.” They were animals, just as Ghost was. They shared a soul with their riders now, yes, but they were not wise. They could not sacrifice themselves.
Humans could. He could.
“And what about Rhaella?” Arya asked. A stab of hurt pierced Jon, right where Bowen Marsh’s knife had. “What about Aemon? Your babes.”
He could barely breathe, thinking of them. Rhaella had been a miracle, the dead man and the barren woman he married shocked she was born perfectly formed. Aemon was only moons old, a second child brought into the world when they thought they were winning this war.
But even with every Other melted and the rivers running in torrents, the dawn had not returned. They had been horror-struck at the thought that the magic would not release the world, he and Daenerys and everyone still living in Winterfell. Weeks had passed, and Bran had spoken, finally. Jon knew why he had held his silence, and he loved him for it.
“They have never seen the sun,” Jon said now. Arya trembled, and he held out his arms for her. She held him tight enough to hurt, like she could keep him here. She was wiry and thin, not as tall as Sansa. There was a conspicuous bump in her body, and Jon smiled. She had not told them. He brushed loose hairs back into the bun she’d pulled her hair into. “I want my children to see that. And yours. Sansa’s boy, little Sam and Aemon Rayder, they deserve a summer.”
“So do you,” Arya said, burying her head in his shoulder. “It’s not fair.”
“I know,” Jon Snow said. He had been born Aemon Targaryen, Bran had told him. That would have meant his life if it was discovered. Instead, his father had claimed him as Jon Snow, and it still shook him when he thought about what that meant. His foster father’s name, for his foster son. The man who went to war for him. He had not needed to be told what that meant, though Daenerys had. She had been on the run her whole life, with no one like his father to take her in and save her life.
He had, and he only wished that his father had been able to tell him, even once, his mother’s story. He had learned it from Uncle Benjen, and then Bran, and he had been able to tell Daenerys the story of the Knight of the Laughing tree, but still, he wished his father had not lied.
He had once told his son’s namesake that his father would do whatever was right, no matter the choice. He still did not know if that was a lie.
He pulled away from Arya, whose eyes were red but dry. Life has been cruel to her as much as it has to me. He still only knew bits and pieces of her story, but he knew that much. Life had not been kind to the Starks.
“I need you to promise me something,” he said. She opened her mouth, but he pressed a hand there. “It’s more important than anything I have ever asked, Arya. Please, listen before agreeing.”
She made him promise to take you home, Uncle Benjen’s voice echoed in his mind. To protect you from his brother, from anyone who would use you.
This was a different promise.
“Rhaella might remember us,” Jon said. She was nearly three, after all, and a Targaryen several times over. “Bits and pieces, at least. Aemon won’t have even that. I need you to tell them the truth, whatever they ask. No one told Daenerys the truth about her parents, or me, until we were grown and it didn’t matter anymore. And…” He didn’t want to have to ask this. I should be able to do this. It should be me and Daenerys, not my sisters and little brother. “They need parents. Not aunts and uncles.”
Arya stared at him. She was almost a mirror for him. What little they did not share was because of her mother and his father, and that was little enough.
“I promise, Jon. They’ll be brother and sister to Robb or Darra. I promise.”
He could breathe again. He hugged her, to feel her warmth once more.
“Thank you,” he breathed into her hair. She clutched him tighter.
He walked out of her rooms and through the corridors of Winterfell, burned hand holding to the wall. He just wanted to feel it one more time before he left. He found himself outside the lord’s chambers, and he tapped on the door before opening it.
Sansa had not wanted Father’s rooms, but Jon and Bran had insisted she take them. Bran’s chair could not comfortably reach the higher levels, and he had taken chambers with Meera Reed where they were both comfortable. Jon shared his new chambers with Daenerys, when they were at Winterfell. Lady Catelyn would have hated it, but he had not been thinking of that when he brought his wife home. She needed warmth, and he needed warmth, and those were the warmest rooms in the castle.
Sansa’s solar had a chill in the air, and Sansa sat with her son balanced on her knee. The fire lit them up, both with red Tully hair, though little Eddard’s was darker than his mother’s.
Jon had never asked who fathered Sansa’s son. He had his suspicions, but he never voiced them.
“So you’re going off to die, then,” Sansa said dully. Jon let out a breath.
It was the first time anyone had admitted what they were doing. Tyrion had laughed and said that they could not call him a monster now, and Daenerys had closed her eyes and said she would do anything for her children, but no one had said the words. They were about to die, and they all knew it.
“I am,” Jon said. Sansa looked like Lady Catelyn, but she held herself like Father had, and her face was longer than her mother’s had been. She was beautiful, his little sister, a true lady. “Can I hold him?”
Sansa nodded, and Jon accepted Eddard from her arms. His eyes were grey, and they filled with laughter when Jon tossed him in the air. He had done this with Rhaella dozens of times, and he would never do it with Aemon. Arya will, and Gendry and Meera Reed. Not him.
“I love you,” he said, to both of them.
“I know that,” Sansa said. She finally met his eyes. “But you would do it even if you hated us.”
He would never be able to talk to Sansa. They would never learn to navigate the distance that had grown between them when the northern lords had named Ned Stark’s bastard their king. The Wall had fallen, and Bran had still been learning from his three-eyed crow, and Rickon had refused to return, but Sansa was still there, and the North had refused her claim. Even though Jon had not, it still hurt his little sister, and he knew it.
“I would,” he admitted, giving Eddard back to his mother as he held out his arms to her. Sansa was crying. “But I do love you. You’re my little sister just as much as Arya is.”
“I know that too,” Sansa said. “I don’t think I can ever forgive you for this, though. You can’t forgive the dead.” She held her son a little tighter to her chest. Another Eddard Stark, named so by the King in the North (the dragonspawn, some spiteful men called him, not a wolf at all). He would never know his father, whoever he was, but the man Jon thought of had died in the last battle, when they thought they had won it all. His horse had gone with him, the vicious beast.
Jon clutched Sansa’s hand, would have hugged her if she had only risen to her feet. She did not, holding her son close to her heart instead. It was almost enough.
He had to ask after Bran.
“The crypts, your grace,” the guardsman Barth said. He did not know what Jon and Daenerys were going to do. No one did, yet.
Bran was seated in front of Robb’s statue. Meera Reed stood beside him, but she smiled and let them be.
Jon had been older than Robb for years now, but it still ached to see him immortalized at sixteen. Grey Wind crouched beside him. The iron swords on his crown were a match to the one Jon and Bran had worn, but his face was just a bit off. Father’s was too, beside him, but he seemed older, not younger.
“I didn’t want you to have to do it,” Bran said. “I thought, maybe I could warg into the dragons, guide them to the heart of winter myself.” He turned his head. His eyes were bluer for the tears running down his face. “It was too much. Drogon especially. I…” His voice cracked. He is barely a man. He hasn’t even married Meera Reed yet. He was the same age Robb had been. A year younger than Jon when he had died the first time.
“This is our choice, Bran.” Jon held his shoulder. “We’ve made it. It isn’t your fault. I swear.”
He thought he had said something like that, years ago, to someone. He didn’t remember who.
“She’ll forgive you,” Bran said. “And we’ll all take care of Rhaella and Aemon. They’ll have a family. We can do that.”
“I know,” Jon said. He looked at Robb, then Father. He stepped past them both.
When he’d learned the truth, he had come to the crypts for a long night of vigil. Lyanna Stark’s face was the one he had dreamt about for years, with kind, noble eyes. She was fierce as well, and made friends easily, and Bran said she had loved his father when they had married. Loved him enough to be a second wife, to break with centuries of tradition. But she had hated him too, after learning of her brother and her father, of the war her husband would continue. She was his mother.
She had wanted him to live.
I did live, he wanted to reassure her, but Bran was still here. I have a wife, and two children, and I love them all.
I don’t want to die, he wanted to say. He remembered death in bits and pieces, Ghost’s eyes and his soul and the cold, but it wouldn’t be like that this time. Ghost was gone. His dragon would be gone with him, and he had never made another bond. His life would be over forever now. Whatever came next, if anything did, was unknown and unknowable.
He touched his mother’s stone face. She had been Robb’s age when she died. He had outlived her, and that hurt more than it helped.
“Can you see them?” he asked Bran. “Will… will it make a difference, for them?”
Bran rolled toward him, and Jon looked away from the mother he had never truly known.
“It will. Magic will balance itself again, and we will see heroes in an age unlike any in living memory.” Bran’s eyes were far away. “Aemon Battleborn and Aemon Dragonsson; Rhaella the Kingbreaker; Darra the Storm Queen; Eddard Farsight; Sam of the Second Citadel. To name a few. There are more. So many more.”
So many more. Jon closed his eyes, and he nodded.
Daenerys was holding their children close. Rhaella saw him and shouted, “Papa!” always happy, and Aemon fussed a bit. Jon lifted his daughter in the air, all too aware that this would be his last chance. She was so small. It was hard to think that she would be a woman with her own legend one day. Her silver-gold hair was Daenerys’s, but her eyes were grey like his. His heart was full with love for her, and he felt the first tears then.
“I love you,” he whispered to her. “I love you so much.”
She was old enough that she said it back, sure of her father’s love and permanence. He swung her down and took Aemon then. He was so small, hair still a fuzzy down more white than blonde. He blinked at Jon. One of his eyes had recently darkened to purple, the other to grey. Jon let him hold onto his finger, so strong for his size.
“I love you too,” he told his son. He had thought to name his son for Robb, but he could not, not when Robb’s namesake would have killed him and his wife for the crime of their birth. But Maester Aemon, he had always been a good man, and he had counseled Jon when he needed it most. He was my uncle, however many times removed. He hoped Aemon would have been proud to know that they had honored him.
“We have to leave,” Daenerys was telling Rhaella. “Be good for Nauntie Sansa, please.”
Rhaella nodded, smiling. She loved Sansa, and Sansa loved her.
Daenerys and he took the children to the nursery. Tyrion was in the yard, drinking from a skin of wine. He tossed one to Jon and then another to Daenerys. Jon didn’t taste it as he drank.
“Are we ready?” Tyrion asked. Jon laughed shortly and shook his head.
“I doubt we will ever be ready,” Daenerys said. “But it must be done.” She took Jon’s hand and squeezed. He squeezed back.
The dragons waited outside the walls. Jon approached Viserion. His scales could have blended in with the white of the snow, if it had been day. His eyes were molten gold as they met Jon’s. Named for the uncle I never met. Tyrion had once expressed surprise that he had not bonded with his own Rhaegal, but Jon thought Viserion understood him more. They had both lost control of themselves, him to Ghost, Viserion to the dragon binding horn. They had both come back, though.
Only once, though. They would not come back from this.
The saddle had chains that buckled into Jon’s clothing in four places. He was tied to Viserion now. There is no coming back from this. They had left the swords behind, for their children to use. They would not need them anymore.
“Fly,” Jon said, at the same moment Daenerys and Tyrion did. They rose in concert, three dragons flying north. Jon closed his eyes and prayed for light.
Three days later, the sun rose over Winterfell.