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The World That Never Was

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He speaks with ghosts when he adds drink to his sorrows. A glass of strong wine or two and all his old friends come to Jon Connington. A third, he chats as if they’ve never left him. A fourth, he begins to beg for their forgiveness. A fifth, he says he understands why they can’t give it. He’s yet to find the right amount to add to get them to speak back.

Jon’s lost count tonight. The shades of Elia and the children have already parted his company in disgust. Aerys Targaryen likes to linger, always holding up a hand to point at Jon. At first, he thought it was in accusation. Now Jon realizes it’s in recognition. The Mad King knows the path he’s on. Six men in white armor and cloaks pass him by. Jon wonders if their seventh brother ever shares his shame of having the impudence to keep living long past them. Fellow knights, lords and ladies, his father, his mother (so long gone, she’s little more than a wisp of smoke and regret) - they all come, they all go. Even Aerys has the decency to give him peace.

Only one stays. He never leaves. In truth, his presence is the reason why Jon drinks. Jon would endure shades from all the seven hells if that is what is needed to bring him forth. What’s the cost of a few drinks and a morning spent aching and in shame when he has these nights to spend with his oldest, dearest friend? Jon could speak for hours while Rhaegar sits still and listening. That Rhaegar never answers, never turns to look at him does not matter. This longing from afar is not a stranger to Jon.

Death has not changed Rhaegar; Jon would not allow that. He does, sometimes, will the years to fall away so his company reverts to his younger self, back when Jon could still dreamed that a day would come when he would, he could, speak the feelings he kept buried inside. Deep into his drink, Jon lets time slip back and draws out the ghost of the hopeful boy he once was.

***

Those were the days of discovery, of Jon piecing together and admitting what the drop of his stomach and the cold, nervous sweat on his brow that always came alongside contact with Rhaegar meant. Jon was but one of a dozen boys vying to be by Rhaegar’s side at their fathers’ behest. Jon was the only one of that flock of followers that was there without any expectation of political return. To be there at all was its own reward, his only goal, and the desperation to achieve it was as confusing as it was exhilarating. The others pushed and clamored; Jon waited and listened and watched and won. How the other boys hated him when Rhaegar turned his attentions to Jon. How they cursed him when Rhaegar chose Jon, over and over, to spar with, to sit by, to speak what few words he would speak with. Jon embraced the hate because it was proof of the affection he sought and they did not have. Because it allowed him to shut all those other boys away and let him sink deeper into the fondness he first took as only friendship until he couldn’t deny what it truly was.

For all the reflection Jon poured into uncovering why his friend consumed so much of his thoughts, the realization came in the middle of training, on a day of no note. Willem Darry had worked them relentlessly under the summer sun. Jon felt a mess, sweating and smelling with his skin freckling and burning pink. Rhaegar, save for a few strands of silver hair clinging to his face and the back of his neck, looked untouched. He liked the heat, did well in it. So well, he’d disarmed Jon twice and thrown him an equal number. A third of one appeared to be coming but Jon was able to shift his feet and use momentum so that it was Rhaegar being forced to the ground.

The other boys would never have done such a thing. Their obsequiousness made them lose deliberately and they never understood that was precisely why Rhaegar did not favor them. Jon loved him for that. As he bent down to give Rhaegar a hand to help him, as Rhaegar took it with a compliment to Jon for his move, as Jon pulled him up and close to him, as Jon reached out unconsciously to push a silver strand away from those dark eyes, he finally understood how deep that love ran.

The words, so thrilled was Jon to have finally learned them, leapt to his tongue but faltered at his lips. Rhaegar had mistaken his gesture and thought perhaps he’d gotten a cut as they’d scuffled. In confusion, the moment was lost. In trying to explain, Jon’s foolishness became complete idiocy. In returning to the Red Keep in awkward silence, the brief blossom of shame Jon had brushed away began to take root.

***

It grew, Jon thinks, when everything else rotted away, that still grew. It was slow growth, one of those poisons too weak to kill a man with a single dose yet as he swallows it day after day, will eat his insides hollow. Gutted he is now, denial and loss and failure the toxins that did for him. He will never blame Rhaegar or the love he felt for him. He will never wish it gone. How could he? All that was lost was preceded by being at Rhaegar’s side, having more than a proud lordling could expect to have.

The ghosts shift and change. No longer boys, these are the phantoms of men nearly grown by the measures of Westeros. So young though, still so innocent, Jon aches for the youth he was, arrogance and all.

***

They talked of becoming knights. Or rather, Jon talked of it while Rhaegar divvyed his attention between nods of agreement (or concern?) and tuning his harp. The harp was winning the contest, Jon knew, which only made his talk more daring.

“There’s a tourney coming up at Highgarden. Lord Tyrell’s throwing quite a bit of coin at it to mark the birth of a new son, so it’s bound to attract the best.”

Jon’s line of thought being as clear as glass, Rhaegar gave him a thin smile and tested a string. Jon hadn’t been able to tell a sweet note from a sour the whole morning but Rhaegar’s ears seemed to hear more clearly. He fiddled again with the pins while dragging Jon’s lofty dreams to more realistic heights. “And the best are bound to perform at their best when there’s a large purse to be had. I would wager that best is a sight better than what two young squires could muster.”

“We’re four and ten, just a few moons shy of five. Younger have won tourneys before. Barristan the Bold entered his first at ten.”

“And his tale of that tourney ends in resounding defeat.”

“I wouldn’t call being branded ‘the Bold’ by the crown prince a defeat. A legend started that day.”

“Hmm, this crown prince could give you any number of names though should a legend spring from them, I doubt they’d be the sort you’d find much pride in repeating.”

Any other that had said that to Jon would have had much harsher words returned to them, but the teasing from Rhaegar meant he was in one of his rare light moods. Jon didn’t see them often and few in King’s Landing could claim to have seen one at all. Oh, they might have seen the courteous and kindly air Rhaegar gave to all his interactions, but this relaxed japing was reserved for only a chosen few. And Jon was one of the chosen.

Pride and joy brought the arrogance into his next works. “We’ll see what names you speak when I do well enough to win my spurs.”

The thin smile widened into full and Jon had never been so glad to be a braggart. “I suppose it’s in your favor that you’ve settled for a good performance over winning the whole tourney. You haven’t taken full leave of your senses.”

But in a way, he had. “We should go together. Mock all you wish my skill with the lance, but don’t deny your own. Both of us on the lists, at least one of us will return a knight I would think. Ah, if the name you gave me were to be ‘Ser’.”

Absent strumming substituted for Rhaegar’s thoughts on the matter. “Trying to drown me out,” Jon accused. “While you’re playing perhaps you can think of a song, something perhaps about a gifted squire vanquishing opponent after opponent to win fame and glory.”

“I’d rather sing ‘The Bear and the Maiden Fair’.”

The thought of his ever-so-proper friend singing the highly improper tavern song was too much and Jon let out a deep laugh that was quickly followed by a devious thought. “Let’s make a wager. If you win more tilts at the tourney than I, you can call me all the names you wish and I’ll happily respond to them every last one. But if I win, I’ll have both the song of the squire and the Maiden Fair.”

Rhaegar wasn’t fooled. “It seems either outcome requires that we attend the tournament. Simply agreeing to the wager grants you a victory.”

Jon played as innocent as he could, which wasn’t much considering how animated the thought, no matter how unlikely, of a trip to Highgarden and the tournament by Rhaegar’s side was making him. He felt a bit like a pup bouncing on his paws over a fresh bone. A fool, in other words, yet Rhaegar did not call him such. He was most solicitous instead.

“Consider the wager made then.”

“You’re serious?”

“I’ll need to speak with my father,” Rhaegar said with a shrug. “But the birth of an heir to one of the great houses certainly appears to be worthy of the crown’s attention. He should believe the excuse.”

Gods, Jon had just been throwing out braggadocio and bullshit to get Rhaegar’s attention. He hadn’t truly believed he would get more than extended banter to savor. But here they were, Rhaegar setting aside his aversion for the pomp and publicity of tourneys simply for Jon’s sake.

“You’d truly go for me?” It was a whisper not necessarily meant to be heard let alone answered. But Rhaegar did all the same and in a manner the left Jon flushed and flustered.

“It’s clearly important to you and you’re my friend, a dear friend. I think the time away from King’s Landing in your company would be well and enjoyably spent.”

The brave talk that had come so easily moments before would not come. It was Rhaegar’s words that tumbled though Jon’s mind. Rhaegar did not give his affection freely or insincerely and to be its beneficiary drove all rational responses back until the only thing Jon wished to say was the measure of his own affection. Being a fool had worked well for him this day, had it not? He had his own affection to give, honest and truly felt and beating in his heart and catching in his throat. To say it would be a kind of relief, to him surely, and perhaps to Rhaegar, for wouldn’t the notion of love from a dear friend be welcomed?

But not yet. Jon had gotten all he had a right to hope for and some affections were more free to give than others. Thanks were what he gave to Rhaegar now and that gratitude was received with a hand upon his shoulder, a small contact better than the recoiling that occupied Jon‘s fears.

There’d be other days to test his nerves anyway. Days on the road, days at the tourney, days that were his because Rhaegar had chosen to give them to him. That was enough. More than enough. It would be the favor he would carry into battle that would give him more courage than any ribbon from a maid and if it carried him all the way to the end, then, maybe, Jon would consider it a sign that his silence was not necessary.

He promised that to himself and reaffirmed the vow every day on the road and then on the morning of the first day of the tourney. It had taken longer to don his armor than to lose his match. Jon saw the sign in that too.

***

The barmaid is quick. Jon’s emptied cup spends but a tic on the table before it’s swept away and replaced by its fuller double. Jon raises the glass to the shades swirling around him. He offers a toast to the knight that felled him in the first round of that Highgarden tourney so long ago and to the other that broke four lances to Rhaegar’s one in the second. Such poor performances all around, the wager was forgotten. The only victor either of them saw that tourney was the knight who took all of his tilts until there was no one left to challenge him. Ser Arthur Dayne.

Was there ever a more gallant knight? Jon mutters into his wine. Well, there isn’t one now. The bitterness drags a hoarse laugh from his throat. Arthur has already come and gone with his white brothers but Jon’s thoughts drag him back. Or he comes back of his own accord to sit with better company.

They were a fine sight in life, Rhaegar the Silver Prince and Arthur the great Sword of the Morning, a well matched set of dark purple eyes and ashen blond hair complimenting the silver. Of a look, of a temperament, of a nobility that had nothing to do with their birth, they seemingly belonged together. The deep friendship that emerged between them over the years was a kind of inevitability happily embraced by a court that longed for the pageantry of the Targaryen rule of old and by both men.

In death, Jon still sees what to everyone was so obvious. Shades whose awareness never touch the living can speak freely to their own kind. Phantom lips move to speak silent words and however hard he strains to hear, this conversation is not for Jon to share. An old disappointment. Arthur was closer to Rhaegar while they all lived and Jon’s too much of a coward to follow them into the grave.

Not that Jon fears dying. What he fears is being lost along the path after and trailing forever behind ghosts who have no need of him. That’s another old sentiment. Petty then and now, Jon wishes there is something he could say to call Rhaegar’s attention back to him.

Once, he thought he could try…

***

As far as Jon could tell, the primary duty of the Kingsguard, as grand as it was when it actually required action, resulted mostly in the men of the white cloak standing about doing nothing. He voiced this opinion to Arthur Dayne one morning as they sat with Rhaegar while breaking their fast. It was meant as a jape and intended to have no edge but a slight sharpness crept in nonetheless.

If Arthur heard it, he paid it no heed. He agreed with Jon. “But the important part is being vigilant whilst doing all this nothing. One never knows when there will be more nothing to do.”

“Such a grave duty,” Jon replied, keeping a firm check upon his tone. “I think all that nothingness would put me to sleep.”

“That’s why we stand while on duty. The moment we begin to drowse and tip over, we wake right back up.” Arthur tipped a slice of black bread towards Jon to emphasize the cheek of his comment and Rhaegar, at the other end of the table, smiled.

Jon did the same. He knew he should like Arthur, and in truth, he did. It was only that if he had his way, a certain other would not like Arthur so well. It was childish and beneath a knight and lord as well as unbefitting of a man who called Arthur friend, yet a twinge of possessiveness rose whenever he noticed Rhaegar favoring the other man over him.

It was an occurrence that was growing in frequency, Jon was sure. He marked them attentively enough to know. There were reasons for this, logical, sensible reasons, but reasons meant little to Jon when he disliked the results. He was a lord’s son, which gave him the rank of birth to be able to keep Rhaegar company when he was on his own, but once King Aerys became part of the equation, a lord’s son was sent off to the edges while a prince and Kingsguard could remain at each other’s side. Perhaps if Aerys wasn’t so peculiar about those permitted to see him in person, Jon would fare better. But Aerys was so Jon didn’t and more and more it had become difficult to have a moment of Rhaegar’s time without Arthur Dayne also sharing those minutes.

It was to the point where Jon had come to count and covet those rare occasions when it was just him and Rhaegar. He fished for such a possibility today. “So will your day be spent startling yourself awake or might you be able to do something productive?”

“My vigil’s not until evening. You’ve something in mind?”

Wonderful. The response he didn’t want and a responsibility to think quickly and supply an answer that hid his original intent. “It seems a waste, is all. There’s certainly more interesting things to do in King’s Landing than having to stand around in full armor. Sparring in it mayhaps.”

Jon had added the last sentence only to fill in space, not to give a suggestion. Naturally, Rhaegar took it for one and invited Arthur to join him and Jon for their training. “I’m unused to opponents wielding great swords. It would be a useful experience.”

“Can’t strike a member of the royal family,” Arthur reminded him.

“Then I’ll watch you spar with Jon. You don’t mind do you, Jon?”

Jon did as he had to. He lied. Then he trudged out to the courtyard for a humiliating demonstration on why Arthur Dayne was considered one of the finest swordsmen in all of Westeros because of course a knight as ardent as he wasn’t content with merely lecturing. Arthur had to put Jon through all the paces while lecturing.

Rhaegar always attracted a crowd wherever he appeared. With Arthur Dayne dispensing his wisdom on swordplay while the prince watched, the numbers of the crowd swelled until people were standing three deep. The large audience appreciated the sight of Jon being disarmed and knocked to the ground repeatedly and Arthur‘s teachings were punctuated by cheers and cries for more. Jon forced himself to take it with humor, gritting his teeth, gripping his sword and praying the next blow would go to him. For once, the Warrior graced him. Jon landed one good strike that knocked Arthur off balance and a follow through that saw the Sword of the Morning’s ass hitting the dirt for a change. The crowd booed at their champion going down but they could have thrown nightsoil at Jon and he wouldn’t have cared because Rhaegar, ever the one to find the romance in those that continue to fight against impossible odds, chose to applaud the maneuver.

With their prince clapping, the crowd had to follow suit. Arthur didn’t need the prodding. He was up on his feet and giving congratulations. “Well done,” he said. “Let’s see if you can do it again.”

It was genuine curiosity that drove the challenge, not any animosity for being bested. Jon couldn’t refuse. He didn’t wish too. It was - all bitterness set aside - a blessing to learn from a knight as skilled as Arthur. It was bliss to have Rhaegar cheering him on during the duration.

While the songs loved painting heroes as infallible beings that could only be felled against the most grueling of opponents, any knight of any experience knew that circumstances and luck could turn quickly in a battle. Even a man such as Arthur Dayne, thought invincible by the crowd before this match started (and thought nigh invincible by Jon if he were being honest) could find himself on the losing side. It was those pragmatics that played in Jon’s mind as he fought Arthur to a standstill on their next exchange and then disarmed him on the one after.

He’s moving slower, favoring his left. Perhaps he hurt his leg when I threw him and is holding back to keep from injuring himself further,” Jon thought, trying to keep a level head. That didn’t last. When Rhaegar clapped again, louder and more enthusiastically this time, more fanciful explanations began to bloom. Because the songs also told of the amazing strength and skill that could be bestowed by the bequeathing of a favor and no bit of fine silk or flower could compare to the token that was Rhaegar’s shouts of approval. Jon’s blood sang with every word and all logical, lesser explanations fell away under his certainty that the next round would go to him.

That round was delayed a moment while Arthur went to retrieve his sword. He spoke a few words to Rhaegar and received the same in return. Jon didn’t hear them. The crowd had become restless with this turn of events, obscuring anything lesser than a shout. Jon saw Arthur shrug and Rhaegar smile and he was too flush with his three small victories to imagine their exchange being anything but gentle teasing. Arthur was stern, or at least, Jon thought him to be, when he took his place opposite Jon. He dipped his sword and reminded everyone that this was supposed to be a training exercise.

The crowd mumbled as this admonition. They wanted this upstart that was challenging their beloved Sword of the Morning put back in his place. Jon wanted to show everyone, Rhaegar most of all, exactly where his place was.

Arthur Dayne at a slower speed was still a damned bit faster than other swordsmen at their swiftest and hit just as hard. But Jon was determined. He blocked every blow that came his way, each blow reverberating through the already strained muscles of his arms and into his chest. He willed that pain away and concentrated on finding an opening to take shots of his own. Arthur had to be tiring too. Surely it took more energy to attack than block.

Proof of that theory came in a strike that slid heavily off Jon’s sword and towards the ground. Arthur couldn’t possibly bring it back up in time to deflect a high attack. He didn’t. Jon rested the tip of his blade atop Arthur’s white cloak where it fastened to his armor on his right shoulder to signify what would have been a lethal strike had they been fighting for real.

Jon could barely believe it. The crowd certainly did not want to. In the seconds it took for Jon to come back to his senses and put away his sword, he heard half a dozen accusations of cheating and several more curses at his luck. It was Arthur who shouted at the crowd to calm themselves. With a look back to Rhaegar, he grabbed Jon’s arm and lifted it aloft to settle any doubts about who he considered the victor of this match.

Without the predicted and desired outcome, the crowd soon dispersed. Jon was happy to see them go and had several taunts upon his tongue with which to send them away but kept silent. His victory spoke for itself and Rhaegar misliked braggarts. Besides, Jon was sure all the praise he wanted was forthcoming. He turned to Rhaegar and played as modest as he could muster.

“Gods, I’ll be feeling that match for days.” Jon rubbed his arm even though at the moment, he wouldn’t have registered the slightest pang of pain if Arthur had cut the limb in half.

“I imagine you’ll be hearing about for it far longer,” Arthur said. There wasn’t a hint of animosity. He was as gallant in losing as he ever was in victory. The perfect knight.

That might have rankled Jon if not for Rhaegar giving his own assessment of the match in glowing terms. Well, glowing was perhaps a step too far as Rhaegar was never too effulgent in anything, but Jon took his compliments in only the brightest light.

Going back into the Keep, Rhaegar and Arthur discussed the match while Jon half listened. True to form, Rhaegar was interested in reviewing each move to uncover the lesson he’d been seeking that morning. Arthur gladly obliged, spelling out things both he and Jon could have done to improve their performances.

Mine didn’t need much improvement, Jon thought, realizing how dreadfully arrogant he was being and not caring. He’d earned some arrogance. He’d earned other prizes as well. While Arthur had to leave their trio to return to duty at the White Sword Tower, Rhaegar offered Jon usage of the royal baths to soothe the aches and pains that Jon still wasn’t feeling. Not that he’d turn away an offer like that for any reason.

They’d shared the baths before, since they’d served as squires together. The baths being royal and the royals who owned them being Targaryens, the water had a tendency to be kept towards the scalding side. Rhaegar never noticed the heat, nor did he ever notice – or at least Jon prayed he didn’t – any indecorous looks from his friend, though they’d increased in both indecorousness and frequency over the years. It wasn’t out of lack of effort on Jon’s part to reign himself in. It was an honor to be invited and he’d spent many nights repeating that and being ashamed for marring that honor by turning it into something lascivious. Then he’d fall asleep and what his waking mind chastised him for, his sleeping mind indulged and made even darker.

Normally this brought forth more shame, but Jon was so flush with his victory, he didn’t give a single thought to it. There was nothing unseemly here. There were only two friends with some years and more affection between them. He’d proven his worth, if but for one bout, and with Arthur safely away, there was no one to bother them. For once, the steam coming up from the water was nothing but refreshing. Jon breathed it in.

“No complaints about the heat today,” Rhaegar asked as if reading his thoughts.

“I do believe all complaints have fled me.”

His friend laughed at that. “You realize that was only a training session, not the final round of a great tourney,” he teased.

“You should have told that to the crowd. They nearly wanted my head for having the audacity to defeat their favorite.”

“Arthur didn’t care for that either.”

“Must be so tiring having everyone fawn all over you and proclaim you the greatest knight ever to have lived.”

“It’s nearly as tiring as everyone falling at your feet for simply being born a prince.”

Rhaegar meant it lightly, Jon thought from the tone, but underneath was the weariness Jon knew he felt from one who was constantly surrounded by many when he’d prefer to keep company with but a few. Jon had seen it often and apparently Arthur Dayne was privy to it as well, and not just as a shared confidence but as a shared experience.

No one, not even as a boy growing up as the next lord of Griffin’s Roost, had ever bothered Jon with that degree of affection.

It was the falseness of it all that truly bothered Rhaegar. Affection sincerely given was always well received. Jon had that to give in ample supply. “Ah, let them cheer and hiss at whoever they please. Their favor changes like the wind. It’s only the estimation of those who always stand by you regardless of station or fame that matters.”

“True enough, though finding people that fit that description is a rare occurrence.”

“You know I’m one,” Jon said. It came out more forcefully than intended yet it felt right. This had been his day. Perhaps he could carry that spirit into this evening.

“I know and I appreciate it. Friends like you and Arthur mean everything to me.”

Arthur again. And he wasn’t even here. Yes, he was undoubtedly a good a friend as he was a knight but Arthur didn’t have the same devotion to Rhaegar that Jon did. He couldn’t. Jon had bested the man today with a sword; he could easily best him again in the depth of his love. He just had to speak it and make Rhaegar understand.

“Some friendships run deeper than others,” Jon began. A sweat that had nothing to do with the heat of the baths broke out across his whole body, but he had to go on.

But Rhaegar wouldn’t let him. “Arthur’s grown rather fond of you as well. He was so angry with everyone jeering you after you knocked him down when they should have been applauding the hit.”

How kind of him, Jon thought acidly. The gallant knight taking pity on his lesser. And then it hit him. “He let me win that match.”

“No, no,” Rhaegar insisted. “You fought well. As did Arthur.”

“But not as well as he normally does.” Jon cursed himself a fool. He’d known Arthur’s speed was off but he’d so wanted to believe it had been his own doing that he’d chosen to be blissfully ignorant of its real origin. Is that what Arthur had said to Rhaegar during the match? Let’s see how long it takes the idiot to realize this is all a farce?

All of the pain Jon had pushed aside came rushing in. His cheeks burned red in embarrassment but he did what he could to save his pride. “I think the heat is getting to me. I’ll go find a bath that won’t poach me.”

“They’ll cool in a while. Just stay…”

“No, you like them hot. I’ll go.” He did, turning quickly and striding off with his head down, ignoring Rhaegar as he called after him.

“Jon, wait.”

Sometimes, waiting seemed like the only thing Jon did for Rhaegar. But not that night.

***

He finds the bottom of this cup more quickly than the others. Round’s done, time to go he thinks without having any intention of listening to his own advice. Jon looks to Arthur’s ghost and hopes he’ll heed the call instead. Fortune favors this particular fool for once and Jon hefts a wobbly hand to mark the Sword the Morning’s departure.

The bile of jealousy still rises. The night only lasts so long and soon Rhaegar will take his leave back to the Seven Heavens and Jon will be left here alone in the eighth hell of living. He’ll toddle back on staggering legs to the company of the Company, the only people who will have him and only because Jon knows how to put a sword through a man’s belly and every other part of his body and sellswords will tolerate much for a companion who’s more like to help them live than die. He doesn’t call them friends and they won’t volunteer the term themselves, though Myles Toyne seems to have taken a certain pity for him. The situation hardly aggrieves him. What he wants is beyond his grasp and the notion that there could be an alternative sickens him nearly as much as the loss.

Even before the end, his cares never much matched that of his fellows. Jon takes a moment to watch the other tables in the tavern, all of them occupied by men in pairs and trios and the occasional woman earning some coin by laughing along with them. For them, Jon feels nothing. Envy never comes for their camaraderie. That’s waiting back Rhaegar’s table, where the handsome prince has added another year and another returned guest, one who isn’t used to tarrying, and Jon feels his stomach churn.

This isn’t your place. He’d shout it if he didn’t know the rest of the tavern would call him mad. That same fear stilled his tongue time and again at King’s Landing. In truth, Elia might not have disagreed. Her ghost certainly stands out amongst the drunkards and whores, her Dornish silks and finely braided hair giving her the look of a lady and her delicate posture the bearing of one. Not your place the thought echoes. It may only be years since it first sounded, but when Jon thinks back to that day, he feels he ought to be a child.

Ought to be one still with the way he sulks into his cup.

***

Jon’s first thought upon hearing of Rhaegar’s betrothal to Elia Martell was not charitable to his friend’s future wife. An instinctual reaction he could have called if not for his second and third thoughts being harsher still.

He tried believing that his ire was with the choice itself, not that there had been a choice at all. He had cause. The whole of King’s Landing was talking of the betrothal and offering reasons of their own for why it was puzzling. The numerous rumors of her health painted a picture of a sickly and frail woman whose each year was a miracle of survival. Jon knew the foolishness of placing faith in idle chatter but there had to be something of the truth in that talk for a daughter of a great house to reach the age of one-and-twenty without her hand already being claimed. For that alone, Elia Martell seemed a poor choice for the crown prince who needed heirs of good health and number. That was the worry that drove the questioning that ran throughout the city. That had to be Jon’s worry as well.

There was some logic to Aerys’s choice. With only one living brother to show for the numerous attempts by the king and queen to produce a female sibling for Rhaegar to marry, Aerys had desperately searched for a woman of suitable Valyrian heritage to be the bride. That search had sent the Lord of Storms End to Essos, only for the venture to end in failure and then in tragedy as a shipwreck took Lord Steffon and his lady wife’s lives. That surely must have caused the king’s desperation to grow if his next act was to look to Dorne and the faint trace of Dragon’s blood that ran in the Martell family. So yes, some logic, but was a bit of diluted blood really enough cause for Rhaegar to marry?

Jon thought to broach these concerns to Rhaegar but then thought again when he found him in his solar deep in discussion with a confidant whose information of the Martell woman came from actually having met her and not rumors. A confidant whose opinion held more sway over Rhaegar.

Arthur Dayne gave praise of Elia freely. Not that he doesn’t have his own biases, Jon thought darkly. His sister, Ashara, currently served as a lady in waiting to the Dornish princess and Elia was the daughter of Arthur’s lady liege. He mostly spoke of kindness and a wit that could run sharp. Her brother, the infamous Oberyn Martell, and her closeness to him was listed as another positive quality. Jon thought that was best suited to being called another fault. A man known for poisoning his enemies and siring bastards on women ranging from a whore to a septa would be a dubious good brother to the future King of Westeros. There was other talk too. Talk that said Oberyn bedded with men as much as he bedded with women. Talk that Oberyn not only failed to stifle but more oft helped to spread. That a man could be so brazen, Jon could not fathom. Surely the gossip amongst nobles and commoners alike would say he was not fit to call Rhaegar his brother.

There was enough honestly in Jon’s bitterness to acknowledge there was a thread of jealousy in his assessment of the Red Viper. No one could ever say Oberyn Martell did not pursue what he wanted or cared what talk resulted. It wasn’t proper. It wasn’t honorable. It was true though, truer than Jon had ever been.

Truer than he was now as he dressed his real, selfish concerns behind the finery of talk of future heirs, whether they would exist at all and what sort of health they would have. Even poor Queen Rhaella wasn’t spared as Jon found the most delicate way to point out Elia Martell was only in consideration at all due to the difficulties Rhaegar’s mother had had in those regards. Perhaps it would be best to wait and look for a woman of heartier body.

It was so shameful, Jon was almost grateful for Arthur’s quick rebuttal cutting him off. “If Princess Elia is anything, she is a fighter. She fought for her own life as a babe and has never listened to a word of pity. And I daresay no one can question the spirit of a woman who keeps in step with a man like Prince Oberyn. She can tame his wildest moods with a look.”

That was all well and good but it hadn’t been her spirit that Jon was questioning. Not aloud, at least. He’d made enough of a fool of himself though so he simply nodded to concede the point. Pettiness reared again when Rhaegar gave his own opinion of Arthur’s little speech and seemed impressed – intrigued at the very worst.

Jon scarcely listened. If this discussion did not take place today about this particular woman, it would be held on another day in some other woman’s name. Someday soon, Jon’s own father would want to have his own talk with him. Jon was an only child and Lord Armond’s health was not what it had been when Jon had first left for King’s Landing.

Alliances and heirs were the primary duties of men their age in this time of peace yet easy as they were in theory, Jon could not fathom doing them. He’d become so comfortable in the life he’d made now, he never thought of any of it changing. Marriage was a distant task meant for a never arriving later. But later had come for Rhaegar and it was likely bearing down on Jon.

Once wed, he’d be required to spend the majority of his time at Griffin’s Roost. The rumors in King’s Landing had Rhaegar going to Dragonstone.

The seat of the Crown Prince was not far from King’s Landing but once Rhaegar was there, there would be little reason for Jon to follow. King’s Landing offered myriad excuses for an enduring stay. Jon was making connections. He was learning the ways of ruling. The speech he’d given his father begging for the chance to go had gone on and on and Lord Armond had nodding along with each new point. Jon didn’t think there would be much nodding if he requested relocating to a castle whose only true merit was its place in Targaryen history, especially given that only possibly valid excuse – continued currying of the Prince’s favor – was too close to the truth for Jon’s comfort.

There would be visits, surely. Once or twice a year spread out for as long as he could make them. Those visits, though, would ultimately be fleeting. And they’d be spent in company of this Elia Martell. Jon broke his internal reverie long enough to hear Arthur hadn’t yet run out of virtues to extoll.

Seven hells, he’ll break into song next. By Arthur’s words, Elia was the most perfect being to have walked the Dornish sands. Or hovered above them in godlike splendor.

He should feel ashamed again at the resentment flooding into him. Elia Martell was doing him no wrong. It was the world itself and its insistence on changing. Alas, it was easier to curse a Dornishwoman than the world and Jon let his bitterness stew with each proclamation from Arthur.

Thankfully, the world saw fit to give Jon some charity and Arthur had to end his sermon to begin his shift guarding the king. Jon welcomed the silence in the room.

“He thinks highly of Princess Elia,” Rhaegar said and Jon was unable to suppress his laughter. Rhaegar conceded the understatement but wondered why Jon found it so humorous.

“It just struck me, is all,” Jon covered quickly. “I know he’s Dornish and proud of his Great House, but he sounded like a merchant selling his wares.”

“I think he wanted to reassure me this will be a good match.”

“Oh?” Jon latched onto the word ‘reassure’ and held it close. “Are you having reservations?”

“None in particular but this marriage will bring quite the amount of change.”

Jon chose to interpret that as Rhaegar having the same fears he’d just been musing about. Good friend that he was, it was only natural that Arthur had made such an effort to squelch them. Jon, an even better friend, should as well, yet he found it easier to share them. There’s comfort to be had in that, he told himself.

“I know it’s the way of things, but marrying a stranger and making them a part of your life always struck me as odd. After all, hard to forge an alliance with a House when you can’t stand the person who’s supposed to be a symbol of how nicely you get along.”

“I would say knowing your mate beforehand is no guarantee of any happiness,” Rhaegar said with a frown. He seldom acknowledged the strife between his parents and no one spoke of it in King’s Landing until they were certain only friendly ears were listening. Then they spoke a great deal - none of it flattering.

Jon held no great affection for the king and a degree of pity for the queen. That was a common enough opinion in the gossip he had heard but Jon never added himself to the number sharing it, even to Rhaegar. It was treacherous ground, literally in that speaking anything critical of the king could readily provoke Aerys’s ire. Moreover, Rhaegar kept his own feelings so close to his chest that Jon doubted anyone truly knew them. Jon had expressed vague sympathies at the handful of comments Rhaegar had made over the years in that regard but had pried no further. Some things cannot be asked of a man; one must wait until the other is ready to answer of their own accord.

Another line I cannot cross. Yet should he at least not try? For his friend’s sake?

For my own. He could admit that. And Elia Martell was leagues away in Sunspear not a few echoing walls away in the throne room. He need only chose his words carefully. That was a skill he’d honed well.

“I suppose one can never know how a marriage will be. I do have to wonder if misgivings at the start can poison the well.”

Rhaegar didn’t answer with words. Instead he looked at Jon for a moment longer than was comfortable. Jon realized he wasn’t as skilled as he thought and he’d overplayed his hand. I’ve only questioned the judgement of the king, the worthiness of a daughter of a Great House and predicted a doomed marriage. Why would Rhaegar think I’m acting strangely?

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard you speak of marrying anyone yourself. You don’t seem to have a favorable opinion of it.”

A deep pit of fear blossomed in Jon’s stomach. Rhaegar wasn’t jesting. There was an edge in his words that suggested whatever lines Jon had drawn for himself, Rhaegar did not fear to tread over them. Does he know?

“I suppose you’re right,” Jon began. He had no idea where to go next but he had to continue. Better that than Rhaegar drawing conclusions of his own. “I’ve not seen any that live up to the songs, for certain. And I enjoy my life here in King’s Landing. I don’t care to see it change.”

“Everything changes. And all of us have our duties.”

“Yes, true enough. I came here to learn to be a better lord to my people. Can’t have everything be tourneys, drinking and songs for the rest of my life.”

“Some would say that’s what lords and their ladies do best.”

Gods, he is leading me into a corner. “I wish to be a better lord than that.” It was not a lie, nor was it the answer Rhaegar deserved to hear.

A good deal of meanings that word ‘deserve’ had. Did he deserve to know why his friend was being so petty? Hard to say no to that until Rhaegar had the truth. Then the question became did he deserve to be burdened with that truth. And a burden it would be, wouldn’t it? Were Jon’s wildest dreams to come true and Rhaegar held a confession of his own that mirrored all the ones Jon had written in his heart, what would come of it? Aerys would not be amused. Princess Elia, from the sound of Arthur’s praise, would be, but mirth would not keep her from King’s Landing and away from Rhaegar’s side. Only a fool would reject the hand of the crown prince.

How much of fool then was he, to long for it? To try to dissuade Rhaegar from letting anyone take it?

An enormous fool,. Truly, after all this time, could Jon call himself anything but?

“A better lord,” he repeated. “And I think the best lords are marked by the company they keep. Not the status, mind you, but the sort of person they are.”

“Ah, and you fear a match of low character.”

“Don’t you? I noticed you did not tell Arthur to stop even after he’d nearly talked himself hoarse.”

Jon wouldn’t quite call it a frown, but there was downturn of Rhaegar’s lip indicative of some sort of unease. “I’ve heard enough of Princess Elia to not have that fear. I was merely curious to know more. Yet even with Arthur’s account, you seem to have doubts still.”

“It’s nothing to do with her,” Jon said. There, one truth out. He felt his heart quicken in his chest as he began to speak a second. “I said I mislike change and this change for you will be a change for me as well.”

“We’ll still be friends.”

“Distant friends. And then the company I’ll keep…I’ve been around nobles at home and here at King’s Landing. None of them I would say has been as great of company as you.” Gods, he was sweating so much Jon feared the Stranger would take him before he could finish. Feared and almost hoped.

“I know I sound like all the other lordlings fawning at your feet,” Jon continued, “yet I think our friendship is better than that. More than that.”

And then the not quite a frown changed into something more confused for a brief moment before settling into the neutral mien Rhaegar used for those lordlings Jon had disparaged. “Yes, you have been a dear friend, just as Arthur as been. Hopefully, you can be a dear friend of Elia’s as well.”

Enormous fool or not, Jon knew this discussion was at an end. Knew that it shouldn’t have started to begin with. I’ve always known that. To salvage what grace he could, Jon forced a smile. “It’s good to hear you say that. It’s all I could wish for.”

***

Elia lingers. Whether to spite his earlier claims of this not being her place or out of pity is hard to sort. For the truth of it is, Arthur’s praises were more accurate than Jon’s doubts. He is certain Rhaegar never repeated a word of what Jon said of Elia that day but jealously and shame always colored the handful of meetings he had with her into awkwardness yet the princess never showed him anything except a kindness that was more than simple politeness. Now she simply sits, come back from the ether, a silent reminder of all he never had.

And then through his misery and drunkenness, Jon finds a small piece of sympathy to give. You never truly had him either, did you? he thinks. A year ago, he would have meant that as a taunt. Today, with Elia’s ghost fading again, he means to show her that he understands.

Did you love him?. Jon has never asked this of Elia, living or dead. The answer never mattered before. How could it, when clearly she couldn’t have as much as Jon did? Does. Will always.

He laughs then, bitter and harsh. If Elia’s love never mattered, Jon’s matters even less. For whatever love Rhaegar may have returned to either of them, it wasn’t of the same kind nor was it enough. Another had that claim.

That particular ghost has never come to Jon. He doesn’t try to summon her. Let her haunt the North with her father and brother. Jon wants no part of her. Elia neither it seems as the last of her disappears. He can’t blame her. He remembers the gasps at Harrenhal. He remembers the cold that spiked through him when he first heard news of the girl’s disappearance. The rumors were false, naturally. Rhaegar did not have it within him to abduct anyone, to harm anyone. And yet…

Jon does not know what really happened between Rhaegar and the girl. He can guess enough that knowing would not be a mercy. Knowing would not change anything. She disappeared, Aerys’s madness surged to depths none had thought possible, a war was fought, and many died. Too many. How many less if Jon had not failed at Stoney Sept?

That is Jon’s punishment. He gets to live and keep count of them night after night. He shouldn’t have accepted the banishment. It was kinder than he deserved. It was crueler.

***

He shouldn’t be here. Aerys had pronounced his banishment in response to his failure at Stoney Sept and a mercy that banishment was considering the fates of the others who had not served Aerys well.

In truth, Jon had never served him at all. He had only accepted the duty of the Hand of the King to preserve the throne so Rhaegar could return to sit upon it. Jon had been as horrified as anyone at the fate of Lord Stark and his son. Brandon Stark had been an arrogant idiot certainly, storming up to the Keep and calling for Rhaegar’s death, and Jon would have gladly brought his sword to bear against the Wild Wolf in a fair trial and called it justice when the blade ran red, but the trial that had occurred…. Fair was as far from an honest description of those proceedings as a man could get.

So Jon knew exactly what he faced by tarrying here in King’s Landing. Aerys had chosen and spared him solely because of his friendship with his son and in that friendship’s name, Jon couldn’t leave until he had a chance to speak with Rhaegar himself, to explain, to offer some way to try to make amends, to just see him one last time before setting forth to his uncertain fate in Essos. To that end, he’d kept hidden in Fleabottom, mingling amongst the smallfolk with a dirty cloak and enough coin to keep his information current but not enough to attract the attention of those who’d take a fallen lord as a target too tempting to not aim for.

Jon was a poor mummer, his speech alone marking him higher born than everyone around and his mannerisms betraying him as well. He faced twin dangers. One was becoming a victim of the robberies common in Flea Bottom. The other was in being recognized and reported. He’d told no one of his intentions of tarrying, save perhaps for the clue he gave Princess Elia when he refused to answer her question of where he thought he would go. Being robbed was the danger he preferred to confront if one had to be confronted. It was definitely the more common. More than once, he’d heard steps behind him and it was only the deliberate flashing of the knife by his side that caused the steps to fade. Growing as paranoid as Aerys he thought, but he still took pains to keep that knife sharp.

It was honed to a keen edge while he waded through a thicker than usual crowd. Jon would have been annoyed by all the pressing and pushing he had to do to take a few steps but once the reason why so many were out became clear, the crowd became the least of his concerns: Prince Rhaegar had come back to the Red Keep late last night.

Some decided this meant the end of the Rebellion was soon coming; others only cared to speculate about the Stark girl and Princess Elia. Whatever they were arguing, it all centered around a single truth. Rhaegar was here. Jon could see him, speak with him.

How he would find him remained a problem. Jon could hardly go back to the Red Keep and request a meeting. There were myths of a vast system of tunnels in the Keep that would take one in and out of Kings Landing undetected but other than a few secret rooms Rhaegar had pointed out to him over the years, Jon had no idea if they were real let alone how to traverse them. He’d have to get word to Rhaegar somehow and hope his friend would come to meet him, a ridiculous notion given all the burdens that would have been placed on Rhaegar’s shoulders the moment his returned. Jon had to try though and found who he hoped was a suitable messenger and plotted what he hoped was a suitable path for the message to reach Rhaegar. Then he did the only thing he could do – wait.

Two nights passed with nothing and Jon took to plodding through the streets again in impatience. Despite a mien that quite explicitly warned any would-be attackers of how poorly any of their actions would be received, Jon once more heard the heavy steps of a pursuer. When a show of knife failed to garner its usual response, Jon drew it out entirely and spun around, eager for a confrontation that would vent his frustration.

“I thought you would be more pleased to see me,” a hooded figure said amicably over the knife pointed at his throat. Jon nearly dropped the knife entirely, disbelief and relief overwhelming him at hearing the voice he would always know.

“You got my message,” Jon breathed.

Rhaegar shook his head under the hood. “No message, but Elia had a feeling you had stayed and Lord Varys was strangely accommodating in tracking you down.”

Gods, the Spider. He probably knew where I was going before I did. Jon shoved his returning paranoia aside and took a moment for guilty gratitude towards a woman he’d never given any reason to do the first kindness for him. But that was Elia. Gracious to a fault and certainly more gracious than I. To whomever Jon owed this bit of fortune and whatever their motives were, he didn’t have time to dwell. They needed to be off the streets.

Jon showed Rhaegar back to the meager room he’d been renting. It was a far cry in size and condition from the rooms of the Red Keep. Jon was embarrassed all he had to offer as a place to sit was a rough carved stool. At least the lack of a window and the dirtiness of the lantern kept the room too dark for Rhaegar to see just how far Jon had fallen.

Though he had a good notion of it. “I heard about the battle at Stoney Sept. I understand we lost Myles during the fight.”

“Killed by that bastard Baratheon. I should have –“ Jon stopped. Ordering Myles Mooton to keep closer to his fellow knights was one of an endless list of things Jon should have done. The Battle of Bells had been fought in refought in his mind so many times that Jon needed only to close his eyes and he was back at Stoney Sept. Opening his eyes never brought him anywhere but here, a back room in a hovel in Flea Bottom, a lord of nothing.

“You can’t blame yourself. If we counted our sins by things we could only know in hindsight, we’d all be damned. Myself more than anyone.”

A reassurance of blamelessness was on his tongue, but Jon kept it to himself. For all he did not fault Rhaegar for Brandon Stark’s rank stupidity and Aerys’s shocking cruelty, Jon did not care to dwell on what had set it all into motion – Rhaegar’s involvement with the Stark girl. The she-wolf had more than he ever would, by Rhaegar’s choice, and he could feel a resentment taking seed that could bloom larger than what he held against Elia.

To keep it down, Jon simply shrugged. “None of us thought it would go this far.”

“I never thought my father would. I knew Duskendale still took its toll on him, but I never dreamed he’d fallen so far. I thought once to remove him from the throne for his own benefit. Now I realize I should have done it for Westeros’s.”

Such talk was treason, but it was also the only just course of action. It wasn’t as if Jon Connington was a man of Westeros anymore anyway. “You mean to depose him? Or…”

“A council,” Rhaegar said quickly to keep all thoughts of ‘or’ at bay. “Once the Rebellion’s settled, I’ll be able to call a council. Until then, I have to fight for my house.”

Jon didn’t care about the politics. He heard the word ‘fight’ and volunteered to lend his sword to it. “So many men in an army, one more wouldn’t attract notice,” he argued after Rhaegar rejected his first offer.

“You can’t. Your exile order will stand until it can be rescinded and I can’t do that as long as my father still sits the throne. If you were caught –“

“I don’t care.”

“I do! Myles is already lost and the gods know how many others, I won’t have you risking your life again. If anyone wishing to curry my father’s favor were to see you, if he were to learn you disobeyed him…”

“I’ve known how dangerous it was to stay here from the moment I made the decision. I accepted it then and I accept it now.” Heartened as he was by Rhaegar’s concern, Jon would not be sent away. He had to redeem himself. He needed Rhaegar’s admiration, not his pity.

Yet Rhaegar wouldn’t listen and he would not allow debate. “I don’t accept it. This is not a battle, Jon. If we were to ride out tomorrow, it would be different, but we must wait. I must strengthen our army and try to repair the bonds my father has broken. That will take time that leaves you vulnerable.”

I know how to wait in silence, Jon wished to say. It felt queer to be arguing that Rhaegar should care less about him, but slinking away from Westeros when Rhaegar needed him most would never make him care more. “It’s my risk to take.”

“But not your risk alone. My father’s suspicions fall on everyone these days. If you were to be found out, who else would he question? You spoke with Elia before you left the Keep.”

“He wouldn’t,” Jon said, but he knew there was no longer a definite line between what Aerys would and would not do. Simply by being here, Rhaegar was risking retribution from his own father. Being of the same blood wasn’t proof against the king’s paranoia. Robert Baratheon was a cousin after all. And Rhaegar’s plans, should they come out, would damn him. By leaving, Jon would give him one less secret to keep, one less sword hanging over his head. Was that better than one more sword at his side in a fight between thousands of men?

“I’ll go where you need me to go,” Jon finally said. If he could not help, at least he could still serve.

“Go to Essos. Lord Varys has contacts there. Much as it pains me to rely on him, he’ll be able to get you out of Kings Landing. I’ll have him keep track of you and call you back once it’s safe.”

So that was it. He would go into exile while letting others fight a war he should have ended. The thought of touring the Free Cities while Rhaegar fought for his life sickened him but if that was what Rhaegar wanted from him, what else could he do? He had one last reckless notion of how he could stay, how he could persuade Rhaegar as to how devoted he was. It made some sort of sense though Jon could admit that desperation was coloring his perception. But what other choice did he have? He was to leave Westeros and Rhaegar behind. If he could stop this, he had to. If he could not, at least he would leave with the truth out.

“You know there is nothing I wouldn’t do for you,” Jon began. “If leaving you is the best way to serve you, I will go and I will wait for whatever word you will give me so I can serve you again. I will never turn away from you.”

The intensity of his vow made Jon’s voice shake and Rhaegar took the faltering for a need to speak for him. “I know the strength of your loyalty. I only question if I truly deserve it. My absence cost you everything and I can do nothing yet to undo my father’s decree. But I will make it right.”

“No, don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine in Essos for the meanwhile. A chance to travel really, until I receive your word to return. Might be a bit of fun, more than trudging across Westeros to battle certainly.” He was trying to lighten Rhaegar’s mood, to keep him open for the confession Jon was about to make but something in his levity carried the moment away entirely and Rhaegar was saying his goodbyes and telling him to wait for a message from Varys on when to leave.

“You’re a dear friend,” Rhaegar told him.

Those words again – “dear friend” – both a knife in his heart and the greatest comfort he could get. He should take the comfort; reaching for more would only twist the knife as it always had. But things were different now. This might be my final chance, Jon thought. The notion was terrifying in all ways – the old fears of speaking the truth and what would greet it were now added to a new fear that he might never see Rhaegar again.

That was the greatest horror of all. How small it made the other fears seem. How strange that it let him muster some courage then, to let Rhaegar know all of what he meant to him, to let him know he would always hold Jon’s devotion no matter what was to come.

“As you are to me. I’ve always -” Jon began. Noise from outside took both of their attentions and Jon was unsure of whether to be relieved or annoyed. It was nothing more than drunken yelling from the lowly sorts that staggered through the rough streets of Fleabottom. Jon could have dismissed it and resumed his confession but when Rhaegar wondered if he should take the interruption as a sign to leave, Jon merely nodded. While his mind and heart stumbled over freeing the secret he’d held so long, his mouth remained firmly shut.

When his lips finally parted, it was to a closed door and an empty room. Even if he could have uttered the word ‘love’, there was no one to here to hear it.

***

Jon’s lost track of the time. The tavern’s emptied as all other patrons leaving just him and a ghost. Jon would like to stay. Rhaegar’s never remained this long. Going now would be an insult to this surprise sociability.

The tavern owner cares not for ghosts, nor is Jon’s coin sufficient to keep the man from his sleep any longer. He sends one of his workers, a monster of a man, to tower and glower over Jon until Jon gets the message that his welcome has been rescinded.

Jon looks up only to see a thick neck. He doesn’t feel like stretching his own neck further to get a look at the brute’s face. He pictures it as the face of another man instead, or rather another beast, because Jon would never grace the Mountain with the designation of ‘man’. Not anymore. This not-a-Mountain grunts at him to start moving. Jon imagines pulling a dagger and driving it through that bulging neck over and over again until it’s half severed. He imagines finishing the job with his bare hands.

Jon smiles bitterly into the remnants of his last drink. It’s a pointless fantasy. The object of his rage is leagues away and his poor substitute innocent of any crime. Besides, murdering the help will get him kicked out for good and where else can he drink his nights away as cheaply?

So he holds up a hand, a coin between his fingers, and asks for a few moments. To clear his head, he claims. Jon sways in his chair and the brute is inclined to agree that some time is needed for Jon to get steady. He’s also inclined to take Jon’s drink from him while saying that he won’t be this accommodating five minutes from now.

It’s time enough for Jon to say his goodbyes. He makes an attempt to stand and is for the most part successful. Rhaegar’s ghost blurs in his vision, either from the alcohol or because he is ready to leave. Jon breathes in, forces himself to focus and looks again. Everything is clear. Rhaegar’s grown a bit younger again. He’s staring out to the door, his lips downturned. Sad to see me go Jon thinks. But there’s no need for sadness. Jon will return to this tavern, the ghosts will come to greet him and this cycle will go on and on until it’s Jon’s turn to haunt the living.

Except I’ve got no one to haunt. It’s not entirely true. Jon’s done a fine job of being a shade to himself. There’s a questions for the septons. How long can a man already dead go on living?

He takes a few faltering steps. He needs to put a hand on Rhaegar’s table to keep his balance. It’s progress enough that the tavern keeper and his brute ignore him. Their indifference will not last but Jon will take all the time he can. Rhaegar’s still here, at an age when Elia Martell and Lyanna Stark were only names to be remembered in courtesy to the High Houses, when Jon’s future held a lordship and dreams of valor. Jon’s not so old yet but there’s a weariness in him that goes down to the bone and he knows every step he takes away from this table will age him days upon days. He’ll go to his bed an old man with all dreams lost and a nightmare of memories to replace them.

Seven hells, I’ve gotten so lost. Jon just wants something of the boy he once was, something of his old hopes.

The barkeep and his brute already think him a drunken fool. Perhaps they’ll think it a fine show for him to prove them right.

The steps he takes don’t age him, they only draw him closer to Rhaegar’s phantom. Jon slumps into the chair beside him, raising a hand to the unwanted members of his audience to let them know he won’t be long. Jon has but a few words to say. Words that have taken years to pass his lips but now that there is nothing to stop him, words that will be out and done in a breath.

“I love you,” he whispers. There’s more than that, so much more. Jon has longings and sentiments that would fill the heaviest of tomes but nothing ever written on those pages would have the weight of the words just spoken. Set loose at last, Jon could scream them until his throat grew cracked and raw but there’s no point. Jon’s testimony heard, Rhaegar has gone back to the dead. There’s only the living to hear.

So it’s back into the night, back to the Golden Company and the life he will have to live until the Stranger sees fit to claim him. He has battles to fight and men to command. It could be a good life if he wished to make it so, with friends of a sort to be made and wealth to be earned. But as he looks back into the tavern as he stands at the door and sees the space left hollow without its ghosts, Jon wonders if he’s wasted so much of his life wishing that he’ll never be able to wish for anything again.

He’ll have the morrow though and later the night and wine and old friends. What else would he even want to wish for?