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The black cells.

There wasn't really any other way to describe them; Brandon had seen them before during an earlier stay in the capital, and without any torches (and there weren't any), there was nothing else he could say about them.

Well, there was the smell. But he wasn't sure there were words to describe that either.

"Stanny?" he hissed, then coughed painfully. "Stanny?!"

It was no use. Some mad part of him protested, he hates it when you call him that! but the more sensible part, small though it was—as Stannis reminded him so often—remembered that Stannis wasn't there.

His head hurt. Some bastard had knocked it to shut him up, pitiful as his outburst had been, and he must have lost consciousness. Why had he been making such a racket?

Then he remembered they'd taken Stannis away. They'd been saying...

Gods, they'd been saying they were going to kill him.

Brandon began struggling. The chains rattled and shook with his attempts; his pathetic attempts, Stannis always preferred people to call things what they were, and thankfully he wasn't strangling himself like he'd been doing in the Red Keep. But everything on his body hurt like seven hells all at once, and it felt like he was choking. Again.

"Guard!" he tried to call. "Guard!"

No answer. Why would there be?

He let himself sag after a few more minutes of struggling. The flesh had given out before his will; if he could have still have been working at the chains he would have been. They'd have been screwed into the walls, but surely if he moved around enough one or more of those screws might have loosened? The brick they had bored into was hardly impenetrable—fingernails could make marks in it.

But his body was exhausted before he could make the slightest bit of difference. If he'd eaten anything since they'd thrown him in the cells he'd have remembered, and he didn't remember a thing. Water had been irregular, if that even was what he'd been drinking. No one had tended his wounds.

"Stannis..." he whispered.

There was nothing he could do.

Even if he did manage to pull the chains out from the wall he'd probably have spent hours fumbling about in the straw, crawling over his own shit only to find a locked door leading out into a labyrinth. And beyond that a thousand guards.

Well, that's what Stannis would have told him, and if he had been there to tell him that then Brandon would have kept struggling anyway just to prove a point, and so that's exactly what he planned to do.

Stannis would have been struggling right alongside him. He would have been going on about how pointless the effort was, but he'd have died trying nonetheless. Brandon almost felt himself smile a little when he thought of that.

He couldn't smile in his situation though. Not with what had happened to lead up to this. Not with what was happening elsewhere—in the castle and in the realm. Various names and faces flashed by in his mind; his father, Lyanna, Aerys, Jaime, Tywin, Ned, Robert, Ashara, Rhaegar. Catelyn.

Would she weep for him? She was a sweet girl—not delicate, though, she'd have made an excellent Lady of Winterfell. A brilliant wife. He'd have been a rather unworthy husband, he'd have to admit (to himself if not to anyone else), but then she didn't know him well enough to know that, and she had seemed rather smitten...

Ashara might weep for him; or else she'd weep for not getting the chance to do him in herself. Hell, he'd have let her if she agreed to convince her brother not to get in the way when Brandon put his sword through the Targaryen monster. Both of them.

Imagining the both of them skewered like fish on a stick almost brought a smile again. See how they liked having something shoved in them against their will and then getting roasted over a fire. Justice for his father and sister. For Stannis too, like as not.

He wished he'd listened to him in the first place. If he could go back and do it all over again he knew he'd do exactly the same as before, but still. Well, maybe he'd have told Stannis to stay in Riverrun. Robert may have been betrothed to Lyanna but the mess Stannis was in now was mostly Brandon's fault.

I'm sorry, Stanny, he thought.

He should have been saying sorry to his father. That was the other thing he'd change.

But he'd change nothing just hanging there like a puppet from its strings, so he gathered his strength and began yanking at the chains again; and yelling too, to quench some of his rage.

"Cowards!" he hissed. Hissing was really all he could manage with his throat the way it was. Proper yelling would have to wait. "Come here and fight me!" he continued, undeterred, "We'll see how long you bastards last when I'm not chained to a wall, you snivelling useless sacks of shit!"

By the end of the tirade he could barely hear his own voice, but for a single mad moment he thought someone on the outside must have heard him, because footsteps suddenly started approaching the cell. Armoured men—four of them, and one without. No, two. One being half-dragged. Another prisoner?

The door opened and Brandon's eyes ached under the light that came from the torches beyond the darkness. He wished he could have said it made a nice change from the other aches from the beatings and the chains, but in truth it did nothing to lessen them and was just painful in its own right.

He did see a glint of gold flickering around the shoulders of one of the figures in the doorway though. Goldcloaks then. The gaoler too, like as not. And...

"That's it, lads, chain him back up over there. Let the traitor hang there with his friend."

Any traitor to Aerys was a friend as far as Brandon was concerned, but to be chained back up one would needed to have been chained up there before, and there was only one friend who fit that description as far as Brandon knew.

"Stannis!" he cried. He'd been sure they'd been taking him off for the slaughter before, but even though he still couldn't see anything properly, he heard the other prisoner make a noise of indignation at the chains and recognised the voice. "Stannis, can you hear me? What happened, what did that wretched fucking—"

"You shut up, wolf-boy," snarled one of the other men. "Lest you want to end up like your friend."

"They'll both end up in the Blackwater before the week's out; mark my words."

"And then in a pot of stew in Flea Bottom, like as not!"

The men laughed, and Brandon couldn't even glare at them with his eyes in such poor condition. It set his blood to boil.

"A rare treat for the urchins," remarked the first man. "They eat dogs a plenty down there, but I doubt any of them will have had venison before!"

More laughter. Brandon grit his teeth together harshly and though most of him was concentrating on being worried about Stannis, a mantra had started in his head that went 'Ned and Robert will have the four of you wishing for a fate as kind as that monster gave my father!' And it was a mantra he believed in vehemently.

He knew what he and Stannis would be doing, if the situations were reversed.

"Come on, you useless sons of whores, this place stinks of shit and rot."

"Still preferable to your company," Brandon spat, though none of them heard him. Probably for the best, as he would have had another beating, but Brandon was more than willing to risk it.

The door slammed and swathed the cell in total blackness once again, and as soon as the clanking armour had cleared Brandon's range of hearing, he heard instead a length of quick and heavy breathing.

"Stannis?"

The chains rustled slightly—Stannis', not his own. The breathing continued; Stannis was clearly in distress, and trying to calm himself down. But he couldn't keep the slow breaths up for long before he had to start panting again. Brandon could tell he was trying to be as quiet as he could. Stannis had always hated to be in a weakened position, hated more to have others think that of him. Even Brandon, and since long before he'd met the grim unsmiling child; just short of ten years ago now.

It made Brandon's heart ache with more than the boiling blood that it was pumping. He tried, for the sake of their friendship and the shame of Stannis' pain being his fault, to comfort him instead of raging impotently.

"It will be all right," he said. He knew Stannis hated empty reassurance almost as much as empty courtesy, but he also knew he'd understand what Brandon really meant. "Ned and Robert will retaliate, and we live or die together, as brothers."

Stannis didn't answer. Normally that would be because he wouldn't deign to, but now he couldn't even if he wanted to, and Brandon remembered why with more clarity, and cursed himself for stupidly expecting an answer.

Instead, he said "As brothers," again, as if on Stannis' behalf. Brandon felt it was the sentiment Stannis carried in his heart. In his own way.

But Stannis couldn't say so for himself.

The Mad King had sewn his mouth shut days ago.

~*~*~

SOME WEEKS EARLIER

 

"A moon's turn and I'll be a married man, Stanny, what do you think of that?!"

Stannis rolled his eyes—a slight gesture, but one he often gave to Brandon Stark.

"I don't see how it will make a difference to anything at all," he replied dismissively. "Except that you'll go back to Winterfell for good this time."

Brandon tried to laugh Stannis' words off, but he could hear the resentment as well as anyone who had ears. He liked to think it was Stannis' way of telling him he'd miss him, only that made him feel bad because he knew full well he was Stannis' only friend.

And then again, Stannis also seemed to do well enough on his own. Brandon craned his neck over the top of his horse as soon as they'd passed the hill, hoping to change the subject with his next announcement. The opportunity did not present itself quite yet.

"You'll come and visit all the time," he said instead. "You wouldn't have to go all the way by land—take a ship up to White Harbour and you're a stone's throw away. It'll be fun!"

A glare was sent his way, another gesture he often saw from the Storm Lord's younger brother. For a moment he was worried it was because he'd mentioned way of sea as an easy way of travelling, but it was Robert who'd shunned the sea these past five years, while Stannis sailed it with defiance. It was not for that reason he glared.

"I'd think the future Lord of Winterfell would know his own kingdom better, Stark," he said. "White Harbour is not 'a stone's throw away' from Winterfell. If this is how well you know your own lands then likely you'll be as incompetent a lord as Robert, and Eddard will have to run your lands as I expect I'll do for him, which won't leave much time for frivolous journeys."

Anyone else and Brandon would have punched them. Anyone else. His squire, Ethan Glover, noticed this and moved his horse forward on Brandon's other side, a look of concern on his face. But Brandon was only trying not to laugh.

"Robert and I aren't that bad, Stanny," he said, grinning. "It was just a turn of phrase."

"I despise turns of phrase," said Stannis, though he was wont to use them himself now and again. "Almost as much as I despise not being called by my name."

"Look, my lords!" exclaimed Ethan, "Riverrun!"

Brandon threw one last beaming smile at Stannis and pushed his horse to canter around the last copse of trees that separated him from the sight of the seat of his betrothed's house. Awash with banners of red, blue and silver that he could see even though they were a few leagues off yet, the great fortress of Riverrun stood at the fork of the gleaming rivers it took its name from.

Turning back to see how it appeared to Stannis—this was his friend's first time seeing the castle—he saw him narrow his eyes and peer forward to try and get a closer look, which was high praise indeed from Stannis Baratheon.

"Whenever they're under siege they raise up the great drawbridge and flood the other side of the castle—the whole place becomes an island!"

"I know, Stark," Stannis told him, sounding annoyed that Brandon might think he didn't.

"I hope the Blackfish is there," Brandon went on, as if Stannis had said 'That must be an amazing sight! I can't wait to get there!' as anyone else might have. "I haven't got to meet him yet. Catelyn is beautiful—maybe not amazingly beautiful, but I know you'll approve, and Lord Hoster and his son are very kind." He paused. "Best watch out for Lysa though. Lord Hoster did look in her direction when I mentioned you'd be coming, and I don't think she's your type."

"What you think doesn't matter," Stannis told him. "Robert will arrange my betrothal, if he can be bothered."

"You'll be a free man a while yet though, brother," he replied, "and in that time I'll race you to the gates!"

He urged his horse on before Stannis could claim again that they weren't brothers, as he always did when Brandon called him that. Brandon's laughter had a more teasing tone to it when his horse carried him over the splendid green fields of the river lands, and he didn't have to look back to know that Stannis was following him. But he looked back anyway and saw Stannis glaring at him while he attempted to keep up. It was a glare without malice, and for Stannis that might as well have been a smile.

Ethan and the other men and retainers rode behind them at a more regular pace, the banners of Stark and Baratheon fluttering in the wind. The escort numbered about twenty in all, mostly Stark men, a couple from the Storm Lands and a few from Casterly Rock who Kevan Lannister had insisted go on ahead of him while he waited for Lord Tywin to return.

It was strange to think that after living there so long Brandon would have little reason to return to Casterly Rock again. Stannis' fostering had ended almost three years ago now, but they'd come back whenever they could to see Jaime and little Tyrion, and Kevan who'd been as a second father to them both.

And, in Brandon's case, for Cersei. Maybe not to actually talk to her so much, she had a cruelty within her that he'd never liked, but then he was more interested in her outer parts. She hadn't succumbed to his charms, sad to say, but he'd done his share of admiring her parts.

Now Jaime would be at Kings Landing, and follow King Aerys and Prince Rhaegar after him and even Prince Aegon after him, from now until the end of his days. Brandon soon regretted bringing it to mind, as even thinking of Rhaegar in passing was like to set his anger off.

Ever since Harrenhal...

He grit his teeth and concentrated on the red and blue banners, and on smiling. He had no wish to be reminded of what had happened at Harrenhal, today of all days.

The gates to Riverrun grew closer and closer and soon a party of about twenty was riding out to meet them, young Edmure Tully among them and recognisable in an instant thanks to his red hair and wide bright eyes. He must have insisted on riding out, though he was not yet ten years old. They'd gotten along rather well the last time they'd seen each other.

He slowed down as he approached the drawbridge, checking back to make sure Stannis was still annoyed. Edmure and the Tully men were grinning brightly when they met him.

"Ah, I win," Brandon said, laughing.

"That was pointless," snapped Stannis.

"And yet you rode after me all the same. Learn how to lose with more grace, Stanny."

"How would it have looked if I hadn't gone after you!?"

"My lords," a man interrupted—the captain of Lord Hoster's guard if Brandon was unmistaken—he wished he could remember his name. "You are most welcome."

"Apologies, Ser," said Brandon. "But I could not wait to see my bride. Neither could Stannis, don't let his sulking fool you!"

"Lord Stark," Edmure cried, riding forward. "My sisters and I have been watching for you from the ramparts!"

Brandon rode forward so he could ruffle the boy's hair. "I wish I'd known; I could have watched you back. Allow me to introduce you to Stannis, of House Baratheon, younger brother of the Lord of Storm's End and my foster-brother. Stannis, this is Edmure Tully, heir to Riverrun and the River Lands, soon to be my brother-in-law."

Stannis nodded towards Edmure. "My lord," he muttered.

"Lord Baratheon," Edmure returned. Brandon could tell already there'd be no love lost between the two of them, but he doubted they'd dislike each other avidly, and with Stannis that was a good sign. Edmure turned back to Brandon a moment later. "My sister is waiting for you in the courtyard by now, my Lord. Elbert Arryn will be with her."

"Let her days of waiting be over at last!" he cried, and as the rest of their retinue caught up he rode ahead and was received, laughing, into the castle.

He saw Lord Hoster first, standing tall at the head of what must have been most of his household. On either side of him were his daughters; Catelyn, beaming at him and prettier than ever, and young Lysa, who seemed like one not trying hard enough to contain her upset. This piqued his curiosity, but he put her out of his mind almost immediately after, he'd gotten to know the Tully girls well enough to know that Lysa's moods were by nature fickle creatures.

"Lord Stark!" Hoster Tully called to him, smiling.

Brandon rode up next to Edmure with a grin and a wink flashed at Catelyn. As he dismounted, he caught Stannis' eye and nodded his head towards Catelyn for his appraisal. Stannis just frowned.

Paying him little mind, Brandon greeted Lord Hoster with a firm arm-clasp. "Lord Hoster," he said. He then turned to Catelyn; for a moment unsure whether he should embrace her, kiss her, smile at her like an idiot, eventually he did what felt right and got down on one knee to kiss her hand. She seemed to approve.

"My Lady," he said.

She smiled demurely, but her cheeks were going red. "Lord Brandon," she replied.

They held eye contact a second longer, before Brandon turned his attention to her sister. "Lady Lysa." He repeated the gesture, with a wink that made the girl giggle a bit, despite her apparent discontent.

"Lord Brandon," she said.

He clasped hands with Elbert next, before introducing the lords of Riverrun to Stannis, who made as much of an effort as Brandon had ever seen him make to observe the usual courtesies. Lord Hoster was undaunted, had probably heard of Stannis' character already, but Brandon saw undeniable disappointment in Lysa's face, and for a brief moment he was annoyed with her.

But then, it wasn't as though he'd been immediately taken with Stannis when they had first met either. There had been close to four years between them, and neither had had much interest in the other. If anything, Stannis had been even more standoffish towards Brandon than he was to everyone else, which Brandon had later theorised was a result of his jealousy of Ned. It was funny how things had turned out.

They feasted in the hall that night and Brandon sat next to his bride-to-be. For some reason Petyr Baelish had been sent away, gods be good, and the Blackfish was absent as well, much to Brandon's disappointment. He spent the night listening to Lord Hoster's tales of campaigns gone by, and seeing how many discreet touches Catelyn was comfortable with—as it turned out, more than he would have thought. She smiled all throughout the feast.

Stannis could tell what he was doing though, and scowled at him several times. He was mostly stony and silent, listening intently to Lord Hoster and every now and then asking a question on a specific point of tactics, which seemed to please Lord Hoster.

He was less pleased when young Edmure asked Stannis if the storms around Storm's End were as fierce as the legends said. Catelyn had covered Brandon's hand—the one he'd rested on her thigh—with her own at that point; not to still it or push it away, but just for the contact, only when Brandon heard Edmure ask that question he started, and had to remove his hand before anyone else saw.

But Stannis answered bluntly as ever, relating the circumstance of his parents' deaths in a voice that belied the anguish he'd felt over it when it had happened. Obliviously, Edmure probed further before his father commanded him to silence. Stannis seemed undaunted. Brandon knew well that 'seemed' was the operative word.

The rest of the evening went far better, and Brandon drilled with Edmure on the morrow, while Stannis and Elbert sparred and the girls watched. Ethan, Kyle and Jeffory practised archery with some of the River Folk and later Stannis decided to observe Lord Hoster hearing grievances from his subjects for the sake of the experience. Brandon had to admit his friend hadn't been wrong about the probability of him assuming many of Robert's duties at Storm's End.

Perhaps Lyanna will knock some sense into Robert, he thought. He did like Robert Baratheon, but the man was... well, very much like himself.

Perhaps Catelyn will knock some sense into me. He spent much of the afternoon with her, and, secretly, some of the night—though she was yet a maid when he left her. He opted to leave that pleasure for their wedding night; she probably wouldn't bleed much, but he intended for it to be a memorable event. Everything seemed to be going so well.

But come the next nightfall Ethan brought him a raven from Winterfell.

That raven...

To say 'dark wings, dark words' did the thing no justice.

He was with Catelyn and the others when it came. He remembered her saying they had to tell her father, that they mustn't act rashly, trying to counsel him as she had with Baelish. But this was no case of some worthless boy challenging a man above his station. This was his sister.

He only realised there was even anyone accompanying him when his horse almost collapsed, he rode it so hard towards Kings Landing. It was only Ethan, Elbert and Kyle then, but Stannis and Jeffory caught up with them that night when they stopped to rest, and Stannis had brought him a favour from Catelyn for good luck. He'd also brought a scowl and a load of criticism from himself. Brandon didn't remember what was said but for a few scant words. He hardly remembered anything at all of what happened before or after they got that awful raven.

How could those too few days at Riverrun seem so long ago while the disaster that was Harrenhal was as clear in his mind as if it had been yesterday?

 

~*~*~

"I'm going. That's final. You don't have to ride out with me though, Stannis. The Targaryens are your kin."

"And by blood and by the laws of men Lyanna will be my sister, so if you insist on going then I insist on going with you. Besides..."

"Besides?"

 

~*~*~

 

When Brandon next awoke it was to the door to his and Stannis' cell shutting again. This time the closing of the door had not precluded the light from entering—no, there were men with torches inside the room.

"I'll need more light than this, Ser Jaime," a man said.

Brandon tried to put his weight on his feet to take some off his arms. The pain in both was quite bad, and the chains clinked against each other when he moved.

"Stannis," he gasped out, voice still barely audible.

"Brandon?" It was not Stannis who answered. "Stay still Brandon, I'll bring aid to you as well."

Aid? Stannis likely needed it more, gods knew what that lunatic had done to him when he'd had him taken from the cells. He tried to get this point across.

"Help Stannis," he said. "Help him."

The man who had spoken stepped forward, his white armour taking on the colour of the flames beneath their glow. "I'll help both of you as much as I can, Brandon," he said.

"Jaime?"

"Shh," said Jaime Lannister, reaching out but then holding back at the last second, as if afraid the gentlest touch would hurt him. "I brought Pycelle to tend to your wounds."

"What... what's happened?"

The question made Jaime fall silent, and that was almost answer enough. Brandon tried to crane his neck around to get a look at his wounded friend, the friend who had been wounded through his folly.

Through Aerys' insanity, more like he told himself. There was no use in blaming himself for that or for his father's death while the killer walked free. Still, he was wary of asking what his brother's response had been and decided to ask for something smaller first.

"Elbert, Kyle—the others; are they...?"

Still held prisoner, he wanted to ask. It was what he thought the answer would be.

"Slain," said Jaime quietly.

"What?!"

"All except your squire; Glover, was it? He was sent back to deliver your father's head and news of your execution to Winterfell. Doubtless he went to the Eyrie instead. A lot's happened, and little of it good for anyone."

Thoughts began racing into Brandon's head, like the time the Water Gate had been opened at Riverrun, and all the water had gone into the dyke and cut the castle off from everywhere. Stannis had never had the chance to see it before Brandon had gone tearing off to the capital. Kyle, Jeffory, Elbert... Elbert...

"He can't have... Elbert was heir to the Vale, how could he just...?"

"Lord Arryn called his banners," Jaime announced, his voice louder than before so Stannis could hear him too. Brandon saw him moving in the torchlight, a man he supposed was Grand Maester Pycelle leaning over him. "The king commanded him to send him your brother and Lord Robert, but he refused. The North and Storm Lands have been raised as well."

The sheer scope of what Jaime was telling him near overwhelmed him. Three kingdoms in open rebellion, all because of his impatience? No. This was because of the snake that was Rhaegar Targaryen, and the madman he claimed as a father.

And wait, what had Jaime said just then?

"My execution?"

Jaime looked, if possible, even more uncomfortable than before.

"The king has given out that you and Stannis are dead," he explained. "Few know the truth of the matter, and only one understands it. He... he raves about the blood-ties between himself and Stannis, at first I thought he was afraid to be seen as a kinslayer, but now... I feel it's something else entirely."

He was rambling, trailing off at odd moments, and that meant there was something else on top of everything. Gods, Brandon hoped all was well with Benjen!

Eventually though, Jaime came clean. "Your brother was quick to arrange an alliance with Riverrun," he said. "He's married Catelyn Tully. And Jon Arryn married the younger girl."

Brandon's first impulse was to jape that at least Stannis need have no fear of that match now. Ned marrying his bride? Catelyn marrying his brother? If it was to get the River Lords on their side and they both thought him dead then there was no need for anger, but it was still disconcerting to have the life he'd dreamed for himself dashed and swept away in an instant.

And then Stannis made a pained sound, and he forgot it all.

"Ser Jaime, is it wise to give such information to these traitors?" asked Pycelle. He must have jerked away from his patient without warning and caused him pain, the snivelling worm.

Jamie stiffened when he heard the word 'traitors'. "His grace made no mention of keeping news from them," he said. "And he wants them kept alive, so see to Lord Stannis' wounds and be quiet."

Pycelle stood up furiously. "I am the Grand Maester, boy, and were it not for the love I bear your father—"

"Gods be good," croaked Brandon.

In standing up Pycelle had removed himself from Brandon's view of Stannis, who was chained to the wall much as Brandon was, his arms fastened above his head. But it was not his arms that drew Brandon's attention.

He'd expected the stitches. He'd seen them briefly, as he and Stannis were both dragged into the black cells after they'd first been put in. The wretched pyromancer had a good hand for such work—almost as if he'd done it before. Brandon had seen them again in his dreams, and imagined Stannis reproaching him through them, blood pouring down his face with every syllable.

But even in the poor torchlight Brandon could see that these were now not the only wounds to Stannis' face. At each corner of his thin lips a long and jagged red line curved towards his ears; the mockery of a smile. In all the years he'd known him Brandon could only say he'd seen one genuine smile from Stannis. This... travesty was not to be borne.

"How dare he!" Brandon hissed. Stannis looked at him with exasperation; Brandon could not be certain of the meaning of his look and was too angry to try puzzling it out.

"Hush, Brandon," said Jaime. "I know it looks bad but there's a lot more for you to worry about now. Robert Baratheon made it back to Storm's End and has been gathering his strength, they say he's never embodied the words of his house as much as now but not all his bannermen are willing to betray the Iron Throne, nor are the banners of House Tully or House Arryn. The North will flock to your brother to a man, no doubt, but it will be long before they reach Robert, and by now the fighting will already have begun."

It was still difficult for Brandon to speak through his anger, and for a brief second he was indignant that it could be implied Robert Baratheon had enough to equal his. Then the enormity of what was about to happen—what had already started, really, began flooding his mind to the point of overflowing.

War. Battle and burnings. Thousands would die—thousands of Northmen and more, if things went bad for them, which was likely. How often had the Targaryens been defeated except by other Targaryens in the past three hundred years? What hope had the North, and portions of the Vale, Storm Lands and River Lands against them, and presumably the rest of Westeros?

Or could he presume that? Dorne and the Reach would remain loyal, for Elia's sake and that of their own glory respectively, the Iron Islands weren't all that important away from the sea, but the Westerlands...

"Your father?" he asked Jaime, and then coughed and it took a while for him to be able to breathe regularly again.

Jaime waited for him to right himself before speaking. "He's made no move as of yet. He's not forgotten how the king rejected Cersei for Rhaegar, nor has he forgiven my appointment to the Kingsguard."

Not so long ago Brandon would have said Prince Rhaegar had had a lucky escape. Now he strongly felt it had been the other way around.

"And my uncles are fond of you both," Jaime said.

Well, Stannis and Tygett had never got along, but Kevan was as a second father to Brandon and he knew he looked on Stannis with comparable affection. Brandon and Gerion were friendly too. Had Kevan been Lord of Casterly Rock as Jon Arryn was of the Vale he might have called his banners as well by now, but Tywin had been Hand of the King as long as both Brandon and Stannis had been fostered at his seat and knew them but little.

Maybe Kevan could persuade his brother to join the rebellion.

"Ser Jaime," said Pycelle again, his tone a warning one.

The green Lannister eyes narrowed and turned into a glare; not worthy of Lord Tywin, perhaps, but a fair imitation.

"You're here to tend to Lord Stannis' wounds, so tend to him," he said.

Pycelle sighed. "The cauterisation has fastened the wounds together and appears to be healing. There is no sign of corruption."

"In that case you can feed him, can't you? They've hardly had a thing since they were dragged down here weeks ago, and they're like to remain here for the entirety of the war."

The Grand Maester grumbled but reached for something he'd brought down all the same. Stannis had been observing the conversation with apparent impassivity, but he looked markedly uncomfortable when this happened and Brandon guessed it would be difficult to feed him through the stitches.

Quickly, he searched for something to ask Jaime, to take all of their minds off it. A pertinent question came to mind in an instant, though it was one he feared to hear the answer to.

"What news of my sister?" he asked.

Jaime shook his head.

"Nothing. They say word was sent to Rhaegar, but he hasn't yet returned and all we're certain of is that he's somewhere in the south. Ser Arthur Dayne is with him—perhaps others... the truth is no one knows what's really going on. It's madness."

A few metres away Stannis flinched and made an annoyed noise. Brandon looked over to him quickly and saw a bead of blood well up and trickle beneath his bottom lip, as Pycelle took the drinking straw away with all the care of a bull in a glass house. Though it shamed him, Brandon found himself too grateful for the distraction to be properly angry at Pycelle.

Madness. That was one word for it.

"Can you get word—" he began.

"I'm being watched closely," Jaime said, before he could go on. "More of a hostage than anything else to be honest, though that's not like to stop my father if he does decide to move against the king." He paused. "Brandon... I'm sorry about—"

"You couldn't have done anything," Brandon said, stopping him before he had to hear the words spoken aloud and know them to be more than a nightmare. In truth he could have—Stannis had; but look where that had got him. Brandon had never been as close to Jaime as he was to Stannis, but they were still family, of a sort.

There was nothing else Jaime could say, apparently. It was so strange, so wrong to see the normally arrogant, confident, charming boy beset with doubt and with dark circles under his eyes. Had it not been for the armour instead of the injuries, he'd have looked almost as bad as Brandon did.

Pycelle fed Brandon too, an embarrassing affair. After he was done he turned to leave immediately, and Jaime lingered a few moments to search himself for some kind of reassurance, but he knew as much as Brandon did that Stannis would not appreciate empty platitude, and must have known that was the only kind he could give. He touched them both on the shoulder before he left, his eyes filled with fear.

He took the torches with him.

"Never thought I'd see that look on the face of Jaime Lannister," Brandon said.

He and Stannis couldn't converse, of course, but he liked to think he knew what Stannis' responses would have been, and that they could pass the time as if conversing in such a way. He liked to think it brought Stannis some comfort, to know at the very least that Brandon was trying to give it to him.

"Not since that one time you beat him at sword practice."

That should have been a happy memory for Stannis. Jaime was more than two years younger than him, and to have the younger boy beat him at swords had been embarrassing. (It had been far more embarrassing when it eventually happened to Brandon too). But Stannis had practiced and practiced and challenged him to more and more rematches than Brandon cared to remember.

There'd been no need. Everyone at Casterly Rock had known their future lord was a prodigy at the sword. No one had thought ill of Stannis—not for losing to Jaime at any rate. There'd been some teasing, of course... but then Stannis never took teasing well. The rematches continued as though they'd been Stannis' life goal. They'd got worse after what happened to the Windproud.

Then one day, a day that might have been any other. Stannis had challenged Jaime to another rematch and won. Just that one time, never again, but it had satisfied something in him that Brandon had feared would go unsatisfied forever, and it had made Stannis more stubborn than ever before, as if he now had proof that continuing on again, and again, and again would eventually produce results, simply by the law of probability, and that that was what he had to do with every task that was set before him from then on.

And Tywin had been there that day. He'd actually taken the time to thank Stannis for teaching his son a valuable lesson.

You may win nine times out of ten, but it only takes one time for you to lose your head, and that goes for battle as well. Never take your opponent's strength for granted.

Brandon abruptly thought of Harrenhal, and who had won the day.

He hoped that Ned or Robert could make this war that 'one time' too.

Across the room, Stannis snorted, and Brandon turned his memories back to their days at Casterly Rock.

 

~*~*~

 

"Do you remember when Gerion fell from the rafters with the milkmaid stuck on his... well, you didn't find it as funny as the rest of us. How about the time Tyrion ran away? I mean, that wasn't funny in the least, but I suppose it was where it really all started, wasn't it? Why you're here with me instead of with Robert..."

 

~*~*~

 

The entire castle was in uproar.

What Brandon would remember most later was not the sight of servants hurrying back and forth, the guardsmen forming up into parties, nor Kevan in a rare fit of anger—not even Jaime trying to hold back tears.

No, what he'd remember most would be beautiful, bright and smiling Cersei, her face gone ashen grey and her smile gone. She was pleading, "Don't send for father, Uncle Kevan, please. He doesn't need to know, I'm sure we'll find him!"

"This is no game of hide and seek, Cersei, your brother's been missing for hours."

"He's not my brother!" Cersei shrieked.

Gerion stormed forward angrily and grabbed the girl's dress by the sleeve.

"Is that what you told him?" he asked her. "Or was it that he'd killed his mother again?"

Cersei froze wide-eyed, a good enough confession that whatever it was, it had been something she'd said that had resulted in this. Gerion's face grew more furious, and he turned to Jaime.

"Well, which was it?"

It was a fair bet Jaime knew. But he just froze up entirely, all except his eyes which flickered from Cersei to Gerion to Kevan and in any other direction. At one point they met with Brandon's, and he tried to stare back pointedly, as if to say that Jaime should tell all he knew if it meant the chance of finding Tyrion was increased even slightly. He had no luck of it though, Jaime immediately looked straight back to Cersei.

"Gods be good, girl—he's three years old! He doesn't understand what you mean when you tell him that! He doesn't understand it's not his fault!"

"Enough," said Kevan, waving to imply that Gerion should let go of Cersei's sleeve. This he did, though his scowl deepened. "Tywin must be told of this if the boy is not found by nightfall. In the mean time I want men sent down to the ports and all the nearby towns, he might have hid in a cart leaving the castle. Search the lands nearby as well, he could have slipped out on foot. Offer five gold dragons to anyone who can bring him back unharmed."

Brandon took a step forward. "What can the rest of us do?" he asked.

"I'll help look!" said Jaime quickly.

"You and your sister will stay in the castle," said Kevan, and nodded for two guards to take the twins away before continuing. "Though by all appearances Tyrion left of his own accord, we cannot overlook the possibility that someone took him. Brandon, House Lannister would be much obliged if you assisted with the search, you're a fair hand at tracking. Has a rider been sent to Stannis? He cannot have gone far yet."

"We sent to him," said Gerion, "but I doubt Tyrion left with his party. He could have been in the cart, I suppose, but he'd have had to open up one of the chests and take out the silks we were sending for Lady Cassana and hide in that or he'd have been spotted immediately."

"It won't hurt to make sure," said Kevan.

Hurt? Not directly, Brandon thought, but it would mean the search parties would lose a man to a group who had probably no idea where Tyrion was and wouldn't care anyway. Well, Stannis wouldn't care. Brandon was as friendly with him as anyone could be, and in return Stannis was if anything less friendly with him than he was even with everyone else.

It wasn't that Brandon bore him any ill will for it, on the contrary he felt quite sorry for him. Kevan had confided in him once that Lady Cassana had written to express her hopes that in being fostered he would at last make some friends, but Stannis seemed to have no interest in friends, only in duty.

Brandon was almost seventeen, and though not too young to recognise there was a difference between what 'seemed' and what was, he was not yet old enough to assume that nothing at all was ever as it seemed.

He took a party of Lannister men, eight in all plus himself, to the woods, which were in spitting distance of the castle, growing on the northern side of the hill into which Casterly Rock was carved. It was a risky business; neither he nor any of the highborn youths had been allowed into those woods with such a small escort before; as it was well known that there were real lions within.

Yet they didn't want to frighten poor Tyrion. If there was anyone Brandon felt more sorry for than Stannis it was that poor child. Already a laughing stock—and yes, Brandon had laughed too, but he liked to think his was a kindly sort of laughter—Cersei made his life an absolute misery, and as Gerion had said, the poor thing was too young to understand why.

Still, it wasn't his family, so there wasn't really much he could do for Tyrion. He tried to be good to him the few times they interacted, and made the other boys stop if the teasing got too serious, but at the end of the day he couldn't tell Lord Tywin or any of his inner circle how to raise him.

The sun was setting. Though they were firmly entrenched in the new blooms of spring and heading for summer in proper, the nights were still quite cold, and predators lurked in the darkness. Having had the sense to bring torches their party lost no time, and Brandon soon found signs of something about Tyrion's size moving through the woods.

He was both glad and troubled by this. Tyrion was likely the creature they'd found the signs of, the tracks did prove to be those of a human child, and what other child would be wandering the forest alone? But the lad couldn't have picked a worse direction to travel in, he was walking off the path and deeper into the underbrush.

Brandon had no choice but to split his party up and leave his horse behind to continue following the tracks. The light faded, and he was grateful it was too wet for his torch to set the whole wood on fire—he was a decent hunter, yes, but not so much in the dark. He almost walked into the horse that appeared before him without seeing it.

"Ah!", he said, and the horse snickered at him and bobbed its head, shifting its weight from one foot to another.

Somehow, he'd tracked Tyrion to one of the smaller paths, a goat-track perhaps, and found a horse already tied to a tree. Tyrion certainly couldn't ride, and it wasn't any of his men's horses either, so for the moment he was confused, and then...

"Gale?" he whispered, as if the horse could answer back to confirm its identity. But even without confirmation from the horse's mouth, as it were, he could tell the creature was indeed Gale, Stannis Baratheon's mare. The leather saddle was embossed with antlers on the edges.

What on earth was it doing out here? Had Stannis Baratheon of all people rode to the rescue of his small foster brother? He must have ridden hard, or else he'd somehow known exactly where to go.

Dogs had been barking and howling in the distance for some time, so when the trees fell silent for a minute Brandon turned towards where he'd last heard the noise coming from, peering into the darkness as though he could have seen some answer to his questions in it.

"Who goes there?"

Brandon turned around quickly, hand on the hilt of his sword. Then when he saw who had spoken, he let out a sigh of relief.

"Baratheon," he said.

Stannis cocked his head to one side. "Lord Stark."

In his arms, sniffling, was Tyrion Lannister. Brandon could tell at once though the boy was facing away from him, his head on Stannis' shoulder.

"You found him," he said, with relief.

Briefly, Stannis glanced at Tyrion like he'd forgotten that he'd found him. "Yes," he said. "I have had a talk with him explaining his duty as the son of a high lord."

"... huh." Brandon blinked a few times. "I wouldn't have thought he was old enough to really understand that, but anyway it's good you found him. How did you know where to look?"

"He is fond of this place," said Stannis, shrugging. He walked towards his horse as he went on. "A rockery with a small waterfall that flows from a stream, Jaime brings him there often. If there wasn't so much noise you'd have heard it."

He could hear it, now Stannis mentioned it, and he knew the place well. There'd been a rumour amongst the children at Casterly Rock that it was where House Clegane had been founded. It wasn't; the master-at-arms himself had confirmed it, but it made for a good story.

"I didn't know you knew that much about him."

Stannis shrugged again, but said nothing. He passed Tyrion to Brandon without a word when he mounted his horse, and then reached back for him impatiently when he was settled, which on any other day would have annoyed Brandon, but at that moment he was too grateful to the younger boy for finding Tyrion.

They set off with Brandon walking beside Gale, back towards the main path, or so he assumed.

"Are we far from the others?" Stannis asked him.

Brandon peered into the darkness but saw nothing but the trees. He still heard no shouting either.

"I'm afraid I can't say where the others have got to," he admitted. "They should still be shouting for Tyrion but..." he trailed off. "I'll call for them." He ran forward to avoid yelling in Gale's ear. "OVER HERE!"

There was no answer. Leaves rustled in the wind and a chill passed over him.

"There's something wrong," said Stannis. Brandon might have been mistaken, but he thought perhaps he heard a hint of fear in the boy's voice. It threw him for a moment because he'd never heard anything like that from Stannis, though he supposed the young lord was only thirteen.

More importantly though, he was right. Something was out of place.

When he heard the sound of someone chuckling in a frankly menacing fashion his heart sank and he realised the situation they were in.

"Well, well, well..." a man spoke from behind the bushes on the other side of the path. Brandon swung the torch around at once and was greeted by the sight of a man whose hair might have been blond if it had been clean; a commoner with rags wrapped around hands which were wrapped around a pick-axe.

Two more men stood either side of him. Five more than that dashed out and encircled them.

Fear took a hold of Brandon, and after that anger. Anger, that the son of Rickard Stark should be so cowed by a gaggle of peasants—miners by the look of them. Their weapons were poor, yes, mining axes mostly, and one with an old sword, but he and Stannis were now outnumbered, and by fully grown men at that.

"What's this then? A few little lordlings out for a stroll in our woods?"

"These are Lord Tywin's woods," said Stannis. "Move aside."

Maybe Stannis was braver than Brandon had given him credit for. He felt his lip curl up into a smile—he'd not be outdone by a Stormlands boy four years his junior.

"What, Tywin Lannis-cunt?" said the first man, and the others laughed as though he had said something that was actually funny. "Fuck him."

"Good idea, Jarry," said another, who was now on the other side of the horse. "Anything shoved up that fucker's arsehole is like to come out covered in gold!"

The men laughed harder.

"Move. Aside," said Brandon. "And count yourself lucky Lord Tywin isn't here to hear you say that. You'll not be told again."

"Yool noot be toold agin!" repeated the first man, mocking Brandon's accent. "What are you going to do about it, northerner? Beat your hairy chest and howl at the moon?"

Brandon drew his sword. He was pleased to see fear in the eyes of some of the men who'd surrounded them, one of whom dropped their axe and scrambled to pick it back up again.

"Maybe we shouldn't—"

"Fuck that, Kay—you want to go back and die in those fucking mines you're welcome to it. The rest of us will kill these little fucks and use what they have to get out of the Westerlands."

The men began to advance forthwith. Brandon had no time to see how Stannis and Tyrion would react as the man nearest him swung his axe. It was a poor blow and easily blocked, but another came at him from the right and Brandon had to parry him a second later.

Behind him, he heard Stannis unsheathe his sword, and someone crying out. On his next parry he cut through his first attacker's hand, but had to swivel quickly to face a third, then dodge so that the second didn't hit him. He forgot how to be afraid.

Gale shrieked and reared and Tyrion wailed, while the leader, 'Jarry', snarled, "I'll cut your balls off, boy!" and ran from the bushes. Brandon turned to meet him, only to see him go for the horse instead of him. Two of his men had attacked Stannis, probably thinking him easy pickings. One had half his hand half hanging off, the other an open throat.

But Brandon had to face his own foes before he could help Stannis. He thanked everyone who'd ever had a hand in teaching him how to fight when he made his first kill, the second man who'd come at him, with a sword through his bowels. The first attacked again despite his wound; Brandon elbowed him in the face, and the third was knocked over by Gale as she bolted, giving Brandon an easy opening to stab him in the throat.

However, he'd noticed that Stannis was no longer riding Gale. Jarry had pulled him bodily out of his saddle, yanked Tyrion out of his arms and thrown him to the ground, where a seventh man grabbed him as he screamed. Brandon forgot about his final attacker then and rushed to help.

Stannis had grabbed onto the arm that held the axe to keep it from being embedded in his skull, but he'd needed both hands to do it and Jarry's other went for his throat. Of course, with no hands free there was nothing to stop Brandon from slicing his head off, as he'd seen his father do a hundred times before. Lord Rickard would have been proud of the stroke, he told himself.

Less proud though, would his father have been of how he let his guard down in his triumph. A jet of blood had painted Stannis' face red, but he'd seen the man Brandon hadn't killed yet come at him from behind, pushed Jarry's body off him, grabbed the sword he'd dropped and then shoved Brandon out of the way to stab him in the lungs a second before he would have killed him.

The eighth man ran, disappearing into the woods, leaving only five corpses, one man still sobbing over his maimed hand, and the last man, who held Tyrion hostage.

"Stay back!" he cried.

Both Brandon and Stannis hesitated. Tyrion didn't; he bit down on his captor's hand hard.

With a scream of agony the man flung Tyrion away and dropped his weapon. Brandon dispatched him easily enough after that, and Tyrion ran to Stannis and wrapped his chubby little arms around the older boy's legs. Stannis blinked like he'd never seen such behaviour in his life. It was such an odd look that Brandon burst out laughing, which made Stannis look even more bewildered.

"Lord Brandon! Lord Stannis!"

All of a sudden Brandon could hear the dogs again, and in the distance see torches waving about. His own had been knocked to the floor so he reached to pick it up.

"We're here!" he cried. He took another look around the path, at the six corpses and the one that was like to be a corpse as soon as the Lannister guardsman got a hold of him, if not before with his wound. He'd curled up on his side to sob and whine.

Then Brandon looked to Stannis, who was still staring wide-eyed at the carnage, expression inscrutable. Worried, Brandon sheathed his sword and clapped the free arm on his shoulder. Stannis' arm jerked, but he didn't use his own sword on Brandon, thankfully.

"Are you hurt?" Brandon asked him.

Stannis glanced at him, then at his other hand. "My hand..." he said. "I think it broke when I was pulled from the horse."

There was no way to tell with the glove still on. Brandon did notice a drop of red on Tyrion's arm, and brushed it aside to make sure the child was unharmed. He was bruised and crying, but the blood had come from Stannis.

"Your leg's bleeding," Brandon pointed out.

"A scratch."

All the same, Brandon probed at it gently with his index finger. "I take it that was the first time you killed a man?" he asked. The guardsmen were in sight by then.

"Yes."

"Mine too." He saw how Stannis' eyes widened and he smiled, though he knew in his heart he'd be coming to terms with that later.

The men had probably been runaways, there were as many of that sort as thought they could get away with it, the gold mines were hazardous to say the least—hell on earth, if some were to be believed.

But those thoughts were not for now.

"You did well," he told him. "Showed me what my brother sees in you Baratheons. Your father will be proud to hear you saved Lord Tywin's son's life."

Something utterly astonishing happened when Brandon said that. Stannis smiled. And it was a true smile—his deep blue eyed seemed lighter for a second.

And Brandon knew at once he'd carry that smile with him 'til the day he died.

 

~*~*~

 

"Don't leave me out of the story entirely when you tell your parents!"

"Of course I won't. I would never lie to my lord father."

"Hah! You should meet my father—that's a sentiment I know he'd love. I should bring you up to Winterfell sometime, I think the North would suit you."

"... You would not be unwelcome at Storm's End."

 

~*~*~

 

It had occurred to Brandon that Stannis might not be entirely incapable of speech, even with his mouth the way it was. He'd had a lot of time to think about it, and not much to do in the blacks cells but talk to Stannis and imagine him talking back. He'd probably have sounded ridiculous if he did attempt it, and that was likely why he wasn't attempting it, but Brandon couldn't help but be annoyed.

He felt guilt for the annoyance, yes, but as the days passed and they saw no sign of Jaime or anyone else who was willing to give them news of the war, and hardly anyone who wasn't... well. The denial of even that small bit of comfort seemed unbearable.

And then, much deeper than that annoyance, the invasive feeling that he didn't deserve to have Stannis make the effort to communicate with him had taken root.

They were given water at semi-regular intervals and fed about half as often. When the gaolers brought torches into the cell and Brandon could see Stannis on the other side of the room the torment in his mind became almost physically painful. Stannis was wasting, and with the wounds on his face looked like something from an old ghost story, skeletal and maimed.

On a few occasions Brandon had chanced to look down at his own body. It wasn't that much better.

Time meant nothing. They slept a lot, or tried to; both suffered from nightmares, but no matter what time of day it was it was always black, and they were too far from people to form any kind of familiarity with their schedules and try to tell the time from that. Brandon would talk until his mouth and throat were in agony for lack of water, but he didn't know if he'd talked for minutes or hours.

How long could a body last without water? Did their captors leave it to the last possible moment every time, because that was what it felt like. Given water once a day seemed reasonable to assume, but sometimes the days seemed to last so much longer than other times, if that indeed was the interval that passed.

One time, Brandon tried to count the seconds and minutes between intervals, but passed out three hours into his counting. If he asked the gaolers, they punched him. He tried to tell himself that their still being alive meant at least Ned or Robert were still carrying on the fight.

But he wished, wished like he'd never wished for anything before, that Stannis would try to say something back to him. He prayed to gods that couldn't hear him—he was leagues away from a weirwood, and then tried praying to the Seven as well, just in case, and for something so utterly small and insignificant that it was bordering on pathetic.

He even asked for it out loud a few times. But Stannis didn't respond to those requests. Just made an 'mm' sound for 'yes' and 'mm-mm' for 'no', if he deigned to make any noise at all.

And neither of them said a thing if they heard the other crying.

Although Brandon was quite certain that Stannis only cried in his sleep.

Then one day when Brandon was beginning to wonder if surviving this ordeal was worth it, even for Stannis' sake, as he pissed himself with a lack of care that had stopped embarrassing him weeks ago, the door opened, and that blinding white armour of a member of the Kingsguard stabbed at his eyes.

Cursing, he turned his head towards the light. "Jaime?" he whispered.

Men entered the room one after the other, four, five, six—each carrying a torch that together made the room as bright as it would have been in daytime. And there was a shadow in the doorway that filled Brandon with apprehension.

"They are awake, your grace."

Your grace? The figure in the doorway was a man, and there were only two men who merited that title in the Seven Kingdoms, though neither of them truly deserved to be honoured as such.

In the light of the doorway, Brandon saw the silhouette of his enemy move.

"Come, Viserys," said the voice that attacked him in his nightmares. "Look on the traitors with your own eyes."

To Brandon's shock, the mad king crept into the room holding the hand of his younger son, who hadn't been noticeable before. The prince began coughing almost at once.

"The smell..." he gasped. "Father, what is it?"

"The smell of treachery, my son," said Aerys. He looked at Brandon first, smiling, his hair and beard unkempt, eyes looking almost red in the torchlight; like some kind of demon. Then he turned away without acknowledging him and pulled Viserys towards Stannis. "See how even our kin turn against us. My own cousin's son."

Stannis stared back at Aerys, unflinching.

"Pycelle—his beard is covering the smile we gave him. Attend to it."

It would have been funny to see the Grand Maester reduced to performing the tasks of a simple barber, had Pycelle not borrowed a dagger from Jaime and attended to his task without a hint of indignation.

"You cannot trust a man who does not smile, Viserys. They won't be happy with anything you do for them. Do you understand?"

The boy whimpered. "Father, you're hurting my hand!"

"Do you understand!?"

"Smiles and happiness aren't the same," Brandon hissed at him, then coughed when the mad king turned back around to look at him.

"The Northern boy speaks," he said. "We'd have thought you'd learned your lesson from my cousin, of what happens to those who speak out against me."

"Is saying that smiles and happiness aren't the same thing speaking out against you?"

"No, no, not at all," Aerys' eyes went wide and glints of danger flashed within their depths. Brandon squirmed a little in his chains. "You're quite right, yes, though none of my loyal advisors would tell me. What do you say to that, Varys? Were you bested by a savage with the brain of a common dog?"

The eunuch stepped daintily over a pile of straw, out of a shadow where Brandon hadn't noticed him.

"When I pointed the reverse to your grace," he said, "I was thinking of another man whose smile is seldom seen." He didn't bother to hide his look towards Jaime.

Aerys snorted. "You think so? And do you, Lannister, think your father likely to betray us?"

Jaime looked absolutely terrified to be called upon to answer a question, making Brandon wonder if he hadn't been getting off lightly tossed into the black cells. At least he'd not been forced to endure the company of the Mad King.

"I... I... before we had news of the tragedy at the Trident, I was not so sure, but now I'm certain. My father has not come to save us, your grace."

Come? Tywin Lannister was here, and now? And what was the tragedy Jaime spoke of?

"Lord Tywin called his banners before word of that terrible event reached even us—before the battle had started," said Pycelle, now with his usual huff. "I have known him for many years, your grace; he will not fail us."

"You have known him for many years, but I am his son, and I—"

"Silence!"

The room fell silent, except for another frightened cry from Viserys.

"Tywin will not betray me. My son will rise up against the rebels and destroy them with Lord Tywin's army."

"Your grace... Viserys is not old enough—"

"The child my wife carries will be a daughter—a bride for my son; a true bride," he continued, as though no one had said anything. But Brandon had heard the remark about Viserys, and when he put that together with their talk of tragedy he was too shocked even to be optimistic. Had Ned or Robert really killed Prince Rhaegar?

What would that mean for Lyanna? Or for Brandon or Stannis, for that matter. Brandon could see by the shock reflected in Stannis' eyes that he had come to the same conclusion.

"...a bride worthy of a dragon, not a lesser beast they dragged out of the desert, or a doe-eyed slut from the North."

"Want to say that again so I can smash your face—" Brandon began to retaliate against the insult to his sister, but broke off coughing again.

Damn this fucking throat injury! The lack of water had not made it heal any faster. Or at all.

Aerys just chuckled like a hyena. "The weakness of those who were meant to serve," was his appraisal of Brandon's outburst. "We could hardly not succeed against them, Yes, the lion will rally to our aid, and stag and wolf, and fish and falcon will fall and burn in fire and in blood."

He turned back to Stannis then, shuffled forward and with his free hand grabbed Stannis' face, claws digging into the scars.

"Get away from him!" hissed Brandon.

"Treachery," said the king. "Not what I'd expect from Steffon's boys—your mother's influence, then. Who was she? Varys—Steffon's wife, who was she?"

"Lady Cassana of House Estermont, your grace."

"And has House Estermont remained loyal to the Iron Throne these past months?"

"No, your grace."

"I thought so. Poor Steffon. He was a loyal subject; ensnared, I suppose, by another traitorous whore just as my son was. Why else would she have borne only sons, but to vex the succession; rather than daughters who might have made my son a bride? No matter, I shall destroy them all."

He released Stannis' face at that point, and moved away from him enough for Brandon to see. There was fear in Stannis' eyes; he was breathing heavily.

"Robert Baratheon's heirs will fall before mine do," Aerys continued, more excited now, rambling, "Fire and blood, and all my enemies will fall. All will burn. Yes. The stag will fall—the other traitors with him."

A small sob came from Viserys. "Father..." he cried. Brandon could see Aerys' grip on his son's arm was tightening every moment.

"Hush, Viserys. It is time for you and your mother to go to Dragonstone. Rhaenys and Aegon will go with you, though I will see they do not sit the Iron Throne, I'll have no Dornish whelps muddying our bloodline. Elia will stay, a hostage to her people's good behaviour, but I must protect my own heirs, as Robert Bratheon should have done."

Aerys laughed suddenly, a harsh and broken sounding laugh.

"I suppose you had not heard. Storm's End has fallen to the Tyrell siege, and Lord Mace captured the fawn Baratheon had kept hiding there. I ordered him to slit the little traitor's throat and throw him into the sea to join his parents." The king laughed again. "Lord Tywin will know who he must side with now. Both your families will be burned off the face of Westeros."

Stannis jerked against his chains and looked to Jaime for confirmation, as did Brandon, whose heart had somehow sunk further than before. Jaime avoided their eyes and dipped his head, and that was good enough to say Aerys was telling the truth.

By the gods...

Brandon had seen Renly Baratheon twice before; more Robert's brother than Stannis', all smiles and laughter and reminding him of Lyanna. Lyanna, who was likely lost as well by this point.

He must have been what? Six? Seven? Rage began to boil within him once more.

The mad king kept laughing as he dragged his whimpering son out of the cells. The rest followed him quickly, though Jaime lingered a half-second, and Brandon caught sight of a crushing look on Stannis' near-skeletal face that he'd seen but one time before—and how dare Aerys put another expression on his friend that had no business being there!—before the door was slammed shut and the cells became black once more.

"Stanny..." Brandon whispered.

Silence muted their surroundings as much as did the lack of light. Brandon was being overcome by anger, but had no one and nowhere to release it to.

"Ned and Robert will win," he found himself saying, as loudly and as emphatically as he could. "Tywin won't let Storm's End being taken sway him, Jaime's right. When he gets here the Targaryens will go the way of the Reynes and the Tarbecks and all the others. They will not fail."

Stannis didn't answer—not so much as by simply rustling a chain. The silence prevailed. And this time though he knew full well Stannis couldn't speak, the lack of answer flooded his anger with apprehension.

"They will not fail, Stannis. I know my brother, you know yours. They will not fail."

There was still no answer.

 

~*~*~

 

"Was there no chance of survivors?"

"None. The shipwrecks caused by Shipbreaker Bay are infamous; the bay itself well-named. Storm's End has a new Lord now, Seven protect him. Brandon, where are you going?"

"Storm's End."

"You can't—someone will have to tell Kevan; your father should give permission, you were meant to be returning to Winterfell—"

"Stannis is my friend, Gerion. After we saved Tyrion from those outlaws I named him brother. He'll need to know his friends are with him."

"He has other friends?"

"Don't jape. It only means he'll need me even more."

 

~*~*~

 

So far as Brandon could tell, Storm's End was poorly named. It was a league off yet, but the wind was blowing rain so harshly into his face he was half afraid he'd drown on dry land. Thus it was clear the storms did not stop at the castle.

Still, if ever a castle was to stop a force of nature, that one would. It was smaller than Casterly Rock or the Red Keep, even than Winterfell though the huge drum tower was taller than anything in the North save the Wall. And speaking of walls, the one surrounding the castle certainly put Winterfell to shame. Despite the circumstances, Brandon allowed himself a small smile. He could see shades of both Robert and Stannis in the stones.

"I told you we'd make it before nightfall," he said to the guardsman next to him.

An escort of two had been all he'd taken—Northmen; going along the Goldroad and then through the peaceful Reach was safe enough for three, and it meant there were fewer people to report back in case Kevan had decided to send out a party to retrieve them. The Stormlands were less peaceful, but still safer to travel through than the North. As it was, they met with no troubles all the way to Storm's End.

Upon their arrival they were soaked through, and one of the guards was beginning to shiver. It was somehow colder there than it was at Casterly Rock, even though they were further south. Camps had been set up along the walls; men of the guests from the funeral most like; the interior was probably busier still. A guard on the battlements saw them and hurried to inform the appropriate persons, and Brandon was riding through the walls and from there into the massive tower not a moment too soon.

"Ned!" a familiar voice boomed out across the hall when he arrived. Robert Baratheon came in from the other side of the room with a grin that soon slipped when he saw his guest. "Oh, Brandon? I thought..."

He turned around. And old Maester followed him into the hall, out of breath and struggling to keep up.

"As I was saying, my lord, I fear the guardsman only said 'Lord Stark'."

"Oh," said Robert again, composing himself. It was hard to feel offended, Robert Baratheon was not yet fifteen, though almost as tall as Brandon, and Brandon knew he and Ned were inseparable. It was natural Robert would want him close at this dark time.

But Ned would have asked for permission from their father before riding off to Storm's End, and even if their father agreed it would take much longer for him to get there from the Vale; the mountains were a treacherous path to ride through.

"Surely, my lord, the presence of the heir to Winterfell is just as much of a blessing?" the Maester prompted gently.

"Of course!" said Robert, the volume of his voice rising. "Lord Stark is very welcome!"

Brandon smiled. "It's all right, Robert... Lord Robert."

Robert flinched at the title, but they both knew he'd have to get used to it from then on.

"Ned sent word to say he'd be coming too," he said. "Couldn't make the burial obviously, but he'll miss the funeral banquet too, that's tomorrow." He paused. "Uh, we'd be honoured... by your, uh, presence."

It was difficult to see Robert Baratheon so affected, even though Brandon knew him but little.

"I'd be honoured to attend," he said. "How's your brother?"

"Stannis?"

He's all right, Brandon expected to hear. It was the usual response even if it wasn't true.

But Robert sighed and looked away. "Not good, to be honest." He paused. "Better than he was, I mean—those first few days... well. He'll recover; I'm sure of it. And Renly's much too young to realise what's going on, he only took his first steps last week."

There was a hint of something serious in Robert's words. "What happened those first few days?" Brandon asked him.

There was a pause and a shrug, and Brandon decided not to inquire further. Instead, Robert forced a smile on his face and clapped Brandon on the back, leading him back out of the hall. Brandon followed while Robert changed the subject.

"I heard how you and Stannis defeated those outlaws and rescued Tywin Lannister's son!" he exclaimed. "Stannis told me the gist of it, of course, but he's not the best storyteller around. There were what—fifteen of them?"

"Stannis didn't tell you that," Brandon said flat out.

"Nah, but it's how I would have told it."

"I don't doubt it," Brandon chuckled. "There were eight, so we were outnumbered four to one, and we had better weapons and the only horse but Stannis was holding Tyrion at the same time."

"Did you kill them all?"

"I killed four, your brother three. He saved my life in doing so."

"And you his, as he tells it—you have the gratitude of my house." Robert said the words awkwardly, then moved on. "He also said he only killed two?"

"One died of his wounds later. And the one who ran off was caught and fortunate enough to die in being taken. When I left there were eight heads on spikes above the gates of Casterly Rock."

Robert clapped his hand on Brandon's shoulder, hard enough to hurt though Brandon didn't think he meant to, and let out a great sigh of satisfaction.

"I'm jealous!" he exclaimed. "Ned and I were attacked by hill tribes once when we were hunting in the Vale, but we had a thirty-man escort with us and I barely got to parry a blow. So jealous!"

"I daresay you'll get your chance too," laughed Brandon. He sobered quickly. "Could I see Stannis, perchance? As I said, he saved my life and since then I named him my friend. I know it probably won't make much difference to him, but you never know. It might make all the difference in the world."

With a sigh, Robert turned back to the old Maester. The man smiled and nodded his head, but for some reason that only made Robert look more grim.

"He's up on the ramparts," he said. "He's been there ever since I... well, it doesn't matter. Someone should bring him in before the gales get worse and blow him off the wall; it has been known to happen. We shouldn't have been up there on that day either really, but we'd seen so much worse in childhood it never really occurred to us that..." He took a deep breath. "Maester Cressen will show you the way. Don't take anything he says personally, he won't be—"

"We were living together these past three years," Brandon assured him. "I know how he is."

Barking with laughter, Robert moved to leave. "I'll leave you to it then. I'm sure someone will show you to a suitable room for your stay, I've got to go deal with my bannermen. Now my father... well, now I'm Lord of Storm's End I'll have to sire a few legitimate heirs and they're throwing more daughters at me than you'd throw fruit at a whore on a slut-walk."

Brandon laughed and let Robert return to the hall so the Maester could take him to the staircase.

"I confess, my lord," said the Maester, "I should not be bringing the heir to Winterfell and the North up on the ramparts in this weather. But for Stannis' sake I pray you brave the risk."

"We're as good as brothers now," Brandon told him. "I'd brave worse risks than that." The look on the old man's face brought more trepidation than before to Brandon, as though there was something other than the deaths of Lord and Lady Baratheon going on. Robert's words of a few minutes before still preyed on his mind. "Did something happen?" he asked.

The Maester looked away, guiltily. "Stannis will tell you himself, if he wants to."

Well, that was certain. If he didn't though... Brandon didn't want to start pushing at the boy, but if even Robert was worried then he was too.

They made their way up stone step after stone step, and Brandon was beginning to tire by the end of the climb, young and strong though he was. Storm's End was just as formidable inside as it was outside, it seemed. It amazed him how quiet those howling winds were within the castle wall when they finally made it to the top.

Stannis was staring out to sea and almost swaying with each gust of wind; thin and ragged in the rage of the storm, his broken hand still in a sling, giving no sign as to whether or not he knew anyone else was there. The Maester left them without a word, and Brandon looked at the younger boy for a while without saying anything, wondering how to start the conversation. He just couldn't put a word to the expression on Stannis' face.

The wind attacked him too, but he'd felt stronger gusts before the last time he'd wintered in the North. It was the rain that was the problem, that and the lightning, a huge fork of which struck the sea not far from the castle before he said a word.

"...amazing," he said.

A sharp movement beside him told him Stannis had indeed not realised he was there.

"What are you doing here, Stark?"

Well, if that's how you're going to be... The first impulse was to respond with indignation, but Brandon had told Robert he knew how Stannis was, so he tried to look past the less-than-friendly greeting and cleared his throat so his voice would be heard over the rain with more ease.

"I heard about what happened. I came to offer my respects to your parents."

"Why would you have any respects to pay my parents? You never met them."

Same old Stannis, a small voice inside Brandon's head said. Brandon couldn't help but smile. "I know they were deserving of respect though. But you're right, the truth of it is I came to see you and offer my support."

For a moment Stannis looked at him like he was speaking a foreign language.

"I remember when my own mother died," Brandon went on.

Now Stannis narrowed his eyes suspiciously. "Is that relevant?" he asked.

A huge clap of thunder drowned out Brandon's response, and he almost slipped over when he flinched away from it.

"You should go back inside," said Stannis, rolling his eyes.

"I will, but you have to come with me. You could get killed up here, and it wouldn't be fair to Robert to lose both his parents and his brother within a few weeks of each other."

"Robert wouldn't care."

Now it was Brandon's turn to be surprised. He checked to make sure Stannis actually believed what he was saying, but Stannis wasn't the type to lie to himself so he was less surprised to see the resignation on his face.

"That's not true," he said.

"You think you know Robert well enough to say so?"

"I know he was worried about you when I talked to him in the hall. He was trying to hide it, but not very well."

Stannis just shook his head. "He's concerned about my welfare while I'm alive because I'm his heir and now I reflect on him. But if I died now he'd only be relieved he'd never have to think about me again."

"Stanny, don't say that—"

"What?"

Brandon blinked some of the rain out of his eyes. "What is it?"

"What did you just call me?"

"I—" before he could finish his sentence Brandon cut himself off. Stannis had been looking out to sea the entire time he spoke—not unusual, Stannis had always generally avoided eye-contact unless he was angry—only turning his head a few degrees every time he spoke and then turning it right back before he'd finished his sentence.

But just then he'd turned to face Brandon head on, and there was a huge and ugly bruise on the other side of his face. A protective, brotherly sort of instinct came over him.

"How'd that happen?" he asked, trying to sound casual.

"Robert hit me," Stannis replied, just as casually. "Apparently I..." He trailed off. Doing so right after being so casual made Brandon frown.

"You...?"

Clenching his fists, Stannis turned back away from him to look out over the sea.

"Apparently I didn't move or speak for a day or two. Robert got desperate, and has only ever had one strategy to solve problems anyway. I don't remember any of it, but I suppose it worked. I'm moving and speaking just fine now."

"Stannis..."

"Yes?"

Brandon was taken aback by how sharply Stannis said the word, as though he knew well Brandon didn't really have anything to say that Stannis would have considered worth saying. And he didn't, he'd just said Stannis' name without thinking. So think, he told himself. What could he say?

He looked down the smooth edges of the huge wall and rain streamed onto the rocks below from his forehead.

"They say my ancestor helped build this castle," he said.

"They say mine was fool enough that I'm not surprised he needed the help."

The vain attempt Brandon made to keep from laughing almost brought issue out of his nose. "Really?" he asked when he'd recovered. "I thought building castle after castle in defiance of the gods themselves might be something Durren Godsgrief passed on to you."

"I don't believe in gods," said Stannis. "But if they did exist I'd only oppose them for a good reason."

"And love isn't a good reason?"

"No, it isn't."

"Well, what would be then?"

Another bolt of lightning struck the horizon.

"... I don't know yet."

Again, Stannis looked out towards that same spot, and Brandon didn't have to ask to know why that spot was where he was looking. He put his arm around Stannis' shoulders and tried to ignore the sudden vulnerability he saw in the younger boy's eyes.

"Come on," he said. "Let's go back inside."

"... All right."

 

~*~*~

 

"You really thought Lord Tywin was the king?"

"He might as well have been, before Aerys named Jaime to the Kingsguard."

"Is Aerys really mad, do you think?"

"Madness runs in the Targaryen line; everyone knows that."

"But not like this—not like they say about this. His obsession with fire and burning; last time I had a letter from Jaime he said... well, he said less than he wanted to say, I could tell."

"You're worried?"

"After what happened at Harrenhal I am. I've heard Rhaegar is poised to be the greatest king who ever sat on the Iron Throne, but when you add what he did there to how his father suddenly changed for the worse... Yes. I am worried."

"Like as not you should be. The sooner Lyanna marries my brother, the better."

"You think that would stop him? If he was king, I mean—that Lyanna and Robert were married?"

"... I'd rather not think about that possibility, I have nightmares enough as it is. What are you going to do about Ashara Dayne?"

 

~*~*~

 

If the movement, loud voices and general sense of unease hadn't woken Brandon up, the door slamming open would have. He grunted and shifted about, and could just see Stannis lift his head towards the sound across from him, which was the most lifelike thing he'd done since Aerys had brought news of his brother's death.

Four goldcloaks entered the room while two stood in the doorway. Two went straight for Brandon, the other two to Stannis. Brandon would have made some protest or jape or other at that point—probably not a particularly witty one, but something to show he was still defiant at least—only when he opened his mouth no sound came out and he almost choked on nothing.

"We should forget about them and leave—get out of the city while we still can." One of the goldcloaks announced to his companions, frightened by the sound of it, and by his constant looking about like a squirrel.

A second who was unlocking the manacle from Stannis' left arm responded, "The king ordered us to bring them to the next level. You want to go against a man who burns people alive for no reason and actually give him a reason?"

"You ever heard the Raines of Castamere?" asked the first guard. "Lannister's already in the city, the king doesn't have a hope. I'm getting somewhere safe until this all blows over, I've got a family to look out for!"

"Menas," said one of the cloaks pulling Brandon from the wall, but not soon enough to stop his friend from hurrying away, Brandon heard the armour clinking against the stone floor. "Menas!"

"Maybe he's right," said the one on his other side. "Maybe we should—"

"Maybe you should both shut up and do as you're told!"

The rest of the guards froze up for a moment, then went back to their previous tasks. Pain shot through Brandon's arms like a vice of red-hot knives around each shoulder, and he cried out. Stannis barely seemed to notice aside from a wince and a slightly sharper intake of breath.

Brandon's legs could hardly after everything he'd been through. They couldn't support his weight, so he was half-dragged, half-carried out of his cell, to where the air was fresher, fresh enough that it was a least easier to breathe. He could see Stannis in front of him, shirt hanging off his back and moving in much the same way; his black hair long and limp against his neck. Likely it was crawling with lice, as Brandon's was.

To his surprise, they did not go up the stairs, but down. Brandon had no idea where the goldcloaks were taking them—he'd thought back up above ground so they could finally be executed, but that wasn't where they were going at all, and if Aerys didn't want an audience then why hadn't he just had them killed in their cell?

The shouts were growing louder. There was no doubt now that Lord Tywin was in the city, and on Ned and Robert's side. Thank the gods. Brandon had never expected, deep in his heart, that he or Stannis would survive this war, but knowing that their brothers could not fail now brought him a measure of peace.

He only hoped Lyanna could still be saved too.

No. No, it wasn't 'only' that. He'd been coming to terms with his inevitable fate since the mad king tied that leather cord around his neck, but then Stannis had opened his mouth in protest, and when that hadn't worked he'd cut the cord himself and sealed his own fate. That wasn't fair. None of this was fair—his own death he could handle but to watch Stannis die too? Maybe he'd get lucky and they'd kill him first.

It was cowardly, perhaps, to wish that on Stannis, but Stannis was strong and seeing Brandon die wouldn't break him.

Would it?

They noticed the smell before they were brought into the chamber a horrible, unnatural smell that Brandon didn't recognise. He did recognise the pyromancer standing just within the threshold of the room, the man who'd shoved a needle into Stannis' face and sewn his lips together for speaking against the king, while Barristan Selmy had held Brandon back from trying to save him. He recognised him though he'd been dizzy with the lack of blood going to his head, pulling at a phantom cord that Stannis had already cut and at the knight's arms, screaming incoherently, and inaudibly.

The pyromancer? Did that mean that...?

Inside was a large room half filled with a mountain of jars. Aerys was there, laughing with wide and vacant eyes; and Jaime Lannister, who looked to be near to tears with fright.

"Please, your grace..." he was saying, weakly. "Please, don't do this..."

"The chains!" cried Aerys, ignoring his guard. "Quickly now, the chains—it's almost time!"

Time for what? wondered Brandon. What is going on in that diseased brain of his?

He and Stannis were dragged to the pile of jars, placed on the floor sitting with their backs to the clay. A man stepped forward holding chains the goldcloaks took hold of, and wrapped them around his torso and around the jars, binding him to them—Stannis as well. They weren't the most secure of bindings; though Brandon was weak he could tell he had the strength to knock a few jars over and pull himself and Stannis free if the opportunity came.

And yet Jaime was shaking his head pointedly, as if he could read his thoughts, and everyone in the room but the mad king and his pyromancer looked to be shitting themselves for fear.

The pyromancer...

"Careful now," said Aerys, with a little chuckle. "Those jars are filled with wildfire."

Oh dear gods... Even Stannis jerked his head up at that announcement. Brandon felt his own arms start to shake, as complete incineration was only an inch of clay away.

As if that wasn't enough to think of he suddenly realised that one of the cries he'd been hearing from elsewhere in the castle—a woman's—was getting closer and closer. Footsteps soon followed that sound, and within seconds the still-ajar door was pushed further open, and two more guards came in, manhandling a struggling woman.

"Father!" she sobbed. "Father, please!"

Elia Martell? Brandon barely recognised her, but Rhaegar's wife it was. She gasped and drew back when she saw him and Stannis, as if she'd seen two ghosts.

"I am not your father," said Aerys. "Because of your failure and weakness, my son is dead; and because your brothers have failed to supply adequate support this city is doomed. But it will rise again. Chain her with the others."

Elia sobbed but was not strong enough to give the men holding her any kind of struggle. Chains clanked against each other as she was bound to the pile a few feet away from Brandon and Stannis.

"Prince Doran has betrayed me," announced the king.

"No! Your grace, my brother would never—!"

"Betrayed me as all the others have done," he continued, as though he hadn't heard her and who knows—perhaps he hadn't. "For lesser beasts envy the dragon, and desire its power. Lions, wolves, stags, none of them can face the flames and live. And to that end—a sacrifice."

The room went silent. Brandon felt his heart beat faster; breathed heavier to compensate despite the pain it put him in.

"Fire and blood. Soon the fire will destroy the traitors in the city. As for blood..."

Aerys nodded to the pyromancer, and the man stepped forward grinning. Jaime made a move as if to stop him, but couldn't bring himself to do anything. Damn you, Lannister! Your father has shown his allegiances, why can't you act?! Have you forgotten the words of your house?!

But Brandon forgot his annoyance with Jaime when the pyromancer drew a dagger from his side and knelt down beside Stannis.

"No!" Brandon hissed. "No, what are you doing, stop it!"

His only answer was a stifled snicker. Stannis stared the man down coolly as his weakened arm was lifted, but to no avail. The pyromancer stared at Stannis' wrist instead of his eyes, and brought the blade against it. Brandon could see the bones of his friend's fingers through the skin on his hand.

"I'll kill you," he promised. "I swear to all the gods, old and new, I'll—"

He couldn't think of how to go on when the dagger sliced Stannis' wrist open. Blood welled and dripped down the white skin at once, and the pyromancer turned his attention to Brandon. Princess Elia's sobs grew louder.

"Blood," said Aerys. "When this blood burns, so too will this blood in common."

What in the seven hells does that mean!?

"I have seen it in my dreams!" Aerys went on, more excited now, more vehement. "The blood of the traitors alighting with dragon's fire; when their deaths come their brothers shall share their fate!"

Brandon felt the sharpened steel cut into his flesh, but through his light-headedness he managed to speak.

"Wait," he gasped. "You think that by bleeding Stannis and I and then killing us with wildfire, our brothers will drop dead where they stand, though they may be miles away?!"

"I know it!" cried the mad king, and then he laughed. "The widow too, my Hand—let Doran burn with the rest of them. I shall return! Come, Lannister. I have another task for you."

Jaime was staring into space, but turned and followed the king out of the room all the same. Brandon no longer had the will power to try to defend Elia on top of everything else, though he knew Ashara had loved her.

Ah, Ashara, he thought. I truly am sorry. Who knew that it would come to this?

Rhaegar's wife had the same wound inflicted, eliciting a slightly louder sob than before while the pyromancer scuttled after the king like a spider and left them there. Speaking of spiders, Varys seemed to have vanished. Well, he wouldn't have made it as far as he had if he'd been an idiot.

So this is how I die. Bleeding on a filthy floor beneath a dungeon, with a mountain of wildfire about to reduce me to ashes, unable to save my best friend from the same terrible fate.

More shouting went on above their heads. Something fell. Brandon wished he could have seen the sky one last time.

I am so sorry.

"Stanny?" he whispered. He shuffled as much as he could without threatening to push the pots over; wildfire was notoriously unpredictable and he didn't want to risk the impromptu emulsion without first having one last conversation with the boy who for all intents and purposes was his little brother.

In turn, Stannis tried to move towards him, but he was too weak, and his head lolled onto Brandon's shoulder.

But that was fine. Despite everything it made Brandon smile.

"I'll admit, you've always been the better tactician. What do you think of Aerys' plan to kill Ned and Robert by blowing us up miles away from where they are?"

The sharp exhale Stannis replied with could have said to have approximated a dry snort, which was as close as Stannis ever got to laughter.

"You're right. All hope is surely lost."

Stannis repeated the gesture. Then his shoulders shook again. And again. And Brandon was afraid that Stannis might have been... well, afraid.

"It's all right," he told him. Elia couldn't have heard him over her crying, but he wanted to do what he could for Stannis. "Ned and Robert made it this far. With Tywin on their side they can do anything, I know they can find Lyanna. Robert will marry her and start a dynasty that Westeros can be proud of. You and I will be together, Stannis."

There was another movement, weaker this time. Brandon glanced down and saw blood seeping onto his trousers from his bleeding wrist, and more dripping down from Stannis' wound, mingling with his. It was appropriate, and yet it made Brandon feel sick. He closed his eyes.

"Your parents would be so proud of you..." he said, and wished the same could be said for him. "You won't have nightmares anymore."

He felt Stannis go still; unconscious if not dead. He hoped he'd heard him. Any small bit of comfort was the least he could have done. Without Stannis he'd have died before the Iron Throne, never knowing how this conflict would resolve itself.

In case Stannis could still hear him he said, "Robert... will be proud too," because he knew it was what Stannis wanted. He'd always wanted that recognition from his actual blood brother; never gotten it. But he deserved it. Perhaps now he even had it, or Robert was the greatest fool in all of Westeros.

Brandon was too weak to say that he was sorry again, or to say anything else for that matter, even if Stannis deserved more apologies. Stannis would have been a good man. A better man than Brandon, he felt.

Elia's cries were slower and softer now and the shouting grew further and further away. In defiance of Aerys' ramblings about the fire, the light of the torches was growing dimmer as he faded into darkness.

Before he could wonder if he was already dead, he heard Ned's voice, yelling.

But how could that be? Ned wasn't dead, unless the mad king's blood spell really worked. As if.

No... no, that was Jaime's voice too.

The blood continued to spread across the floor.

 

~*~*~

 

"Stanny? I know that look, what else is there?"

"If you keep calling me that, Stark—"

"My sister has been kidnapped, Baratheon. Tell me there is not more bad news, please."

"... another message came; from the south. The lady Ashara Dayne is with child."

"No."

"You call the lady a liar?"

"No, that is not what I meant. I meant it is impossible, she cannot be... I can't think of this and the matter of that cunt Rhaegar at the same time. Once Lyanna is safe I will figure out some way to..."

"Some way to what, Brandon?"

 

~*~*~

 

The shouts and cries of revelry could be heard all over Harrenhal, as men drank and fought and laughed well past the darkest hour of the night. But Brandon had eyes for only one revel tonight.

"Mm!... Mm!... Mm!..."

Every time he thrust into her, Ashara made a high-pitched whine of pleasure. Her beautiful eyes were screwed shut tightly, her head thrust back so her long pale neck was bathed in moonlight. Brandon leaned to kiss and suckle the skin at her collar bone, and was going to lean her back further so he could kiss her nipples as well, but then suddenly felt himself nearing his completion.

Determinedly, his hands slid down to her hips and he fucked her with all his might for those last few seconds before he came and filled her with his seed. Her whines became shouts of pleasure and her legs squeezed around him as she too came—for the third time, Brandon was proud to say.

Of course there were those who were less than proud of his accomplishment.

"What are you doing, Stark?"

In the midst of getting his breath back, Brandon rolled off of Ashara and onto the grass, reaching for his sword before he realised who was talking to him.

"Stanny? Fuck, how long have you been standing there watching us?"

As Ashara covered herself with her arms—not frightened, but surprised; unable to keep a smile off her face—Stannis scowled at him.

"I was not watching you, Stark, and stop calling me that. Your brother sent me to find you; they all saw you leave with Lady Ashara and Ser Arthur is no doubt livid by now."

"Ser Arthur—shit!" Brandon dropped his sword and went instead for his breeches.

Ashara chuckled as she reached over for her dress with one hand still over her breasts. She needn't have bothered really, Stannis was pointedly not looking at her.

"Don't be afraid, my lord, I'll protect you from my brother's wrath."

Brandon couldn't help but stop panicking to grin for a moment. Then he went back to dressing himself.

"My fair maiden," he said fondly. "Well, a maid no longer now."

"You're betrothed, Stark," said Stannis.

Brandon sighed. It was not that he delighted in dishonouring his betrothal, but he simply didn't see why it should make any difference. He wasn't going to parade other women around Winterfell when he was married or set out to cause massive scandal, and Catelyn's children would still be his heirs even if he sired a bastard or two.

"Betrothed," he admitted, "but not married. I will desist from further adultery and fornication when I am wed." He said the words pompously, with the air of a grand speech, though something told him Stannis wouldn't believe him.

"I don't believe you," said Stannis bluntly.

Brandon just rolled his eyes.

"Come on, Stanny. It'll be sun up soon, and then the Sword of the Morning can come at me during the tourney. Fun for all—you sure you're not going to fight in the melee?"

"Just so Robert can beat me in public? I think not. The whole thing's a waste of time; don't think I'll care if Ser Arthur cuts your limbs off for dishonouring his sister, you'll have only yourself to blame."

"You make your brother enforce the laws of the Storm Lands so stringently the birds are afraid of being done for fornication, but you'd let Dayne make a mince out of a high lord's son with impunity?"

"I wouldn't let him get away with it," Stannis muttered. "I just wouldn't be at all distressed by the outcome."

As he stood up, Brandon reached for Stannis and clapped him on the shoulder. "There's the Baratheon I know and love."

Stannis shrugged his hand off as soon as he said the word 'love'. Ashara laughed at the both of them, but then went suddenly quiet, and her smile slipped.

"My brother will be fine," she said, then added, "as long as you're sure I won't get with child?"

Guilt gnawed at Brandon's heart when he saw how truly worried she was beneath a carefree exterior.

"Don't worry," he said. "Maids never have children after their first time." He smiled at her, leaned down and kissed her on the lips. "I'll see you tomorrow, my lady."

"Lord Stark," returned Ashara with a grin, and held her hand out for him to kiss.

He and Stannis left her to get dressed just as the first rays of the sun were creeping over the horizon. Harrenhal was a mile south from where they were, more eerie in the dim light than it was at night. Brandon couldn't stare at it for long before Stannis began reproaching him. Again.

"Is what you told her something you know for sure?" he asked. "It sounds like an old wives' tale to me."

"No, it's true," said Brandon. He was pretty sure, at least. "I've never got a maid with child. Or a woman, for that matter—at least not that I know of and if I had I'm sure they would have come forward."

"You think Lady Catelyn would approve?"

"You think Catelyn should know?"

That remark got him another glare. "You're hardly known for your great discretion," Stannis told him. "She'll find out if she's not a fool, and you wouldn't want a fool for your wife. Your children are to inherit Winterfell, it would be ill-luck for them to inherit folly from both sides."

"You're not going to let this go, are you? I'll be hearing of my indiscretions with Ashara until the day I die."

"If Ser Arthur kills you this morning that will certainly be true."

Brandon couldn't help but laugh. He threw his arm around Stannis again and this time Stannis let him. For a moment he was almost ready to reassure him again that nothing would come of his liaison with Ashara, but then there was a rustling and the sound of running. Brandon stopped and let his arm fall just before he heard familiar voices laughing.

Two figures came from a smaller path adjacent to theirs; a tall, broad-shouldered man and a young dark-haired maiden, both running; the man in the lead.

"Lyanna!" Brandon called.

His sister stopped and turned around, surprised, and smiled when she saw him. Robert Baratheon turned around too and widened his eyes before returning to his usual grin.

"Brandon!" Lyanna greeted him in turn.

"Stark," said Robert. Then, with less enthusiasm, "Stannis."

"Robert. Lady Lyanna."

"Glad to see you found him, Stannis. With two siblings missing Ned was starting to worry."

What? Brandon thought.

"Hardly missing," said Stannis. "I assume the case was much the same for..." he trailed off and seemed not to know how to refer to Lyanna, nodding his head towards her.

"What do you mean missing?" asked Brandon.

Lyanna laughed; perhaps a bit too loudly. "I stepped out for some air, brother. Ned worries too much."

"Some air? At this hour?"

"Oh, and what did you step out for, Brandon? A liaison with—" she gave a great fake gasp, "Ashara Dayne! Shame on you, Brandon, you could see Ned liked her."

That had also been a guilty tug on Brandon's conscience, but he doubted Ned would dwell on it. His best friend was Robert Baratheon, for the love of the gods—this had to have happened before.

"I don't blame you for looking for some air, my lady," boomed Robert, "What with all the great windbags bellowing their hot air all over Harrenhal. You should have sought out Stannis, he's ice-cold!"

Lyanna giggled a little, perhaps more at Robert's obvious inebriation than at Stannis, though Brandon knew Stannis probably wouldn't take it that way. He was more optimistic than Ned about Robert and Lyanna's betrothal—when he and his siblings had run in to the Baratheon brothers Robert had shouted his joy at seeing the fairest wolf of the North, and Lyanna had pretended like he'd meant Ned and challenged him to a duel for her brother's honour.

Robert had been delighted. With the look that was in his eyes Brandon could tell that he'd never have a serious affair while married to her; sure, he might fuck a few whores now and then, but that was to be expected from any high lord. He didn't think Robert would ever seriously dishonour her, would certainly wish for her happiness.

Stannis was never optimistic about anything, of course. Dishonour is dishonour, he'd say, and intimate that Lyanna deserved better. Then he'd probably question Lyanna's character too and imply they deserved each other—his way of giving them his blessing, no doubt. Brandon smiled thinking about it.

"Cousins?"

Shoes swivelled in the dirt and all three men dropped to their knees before the approaching figure. Lyanna curtseyed, and Brandon didn't miss how she shuffled backwards a few steps first.

Rhaegar Targaryen stepped out of the darkness with two men in billowing white cloaks on either side of him. To Brandon's relief, neither was Arthur Dayne—Barristan Selmy was on the prince's left, Lewyn Martell on his right. Brandon had little time to observe the prince before he bowed his head, but it struck him in the split second before his knee touched the ground that Rhaegar's famous violet eyes looked almost black in this light.

"Prince Rhaegar," Robert greeted, failing to keep his speech from slurring, though he tried.

"My prince," the other three echoed.

That strangely musical voice chuckled, and Rhaegar said, "There should be no need for my kin to bow before me; nor should the children of the esteemed Lord Rickard. Come, stand up."

Undaunted, Stannis was the first to rise, and Brandon next after a brief moment of hesitance. This was the first time he'd spoken to his future king up close. Robert was less steady on his feet, and Brandon could see Stannis start to grind his teeth with second-hand embarrassment, but he also felt Rhaegar was not the sort of man to find something like that offensive. By all accounts, he was a wise and gracious man.

"I hope the morning finds you all well," said Rhaegar.

"Very well, your grace," said Lyanna. There was something odd in her voice that Brandon put down to awe.

Then he saw Rhaegar smile at her, and had to dismiss that there was something in the way he looked at her that Brandon didn't like. Not naked lust, or anything so crass, but something was there that shouldn't have been and for a moment it bothered him.

"I'm glad. Will my cousins and Lord Stark be fighting in the tournament tomorrow?"

"I warrant I'll win the melee, your grace," Robert boasted, "And Brandon will enter the lists."

"I'll certainly look forward to that, Lord Stark. And you, cousin?" he turned to Stannis.

"I don't participate in tournaments, your grace," Stannis replied.

Seeming surprised, Rhaegar raised his eyebrows and Brandon could only hope for the best.

"No? Might I ask why not? I mean no offence, you understand, I'm merely curious."

To anyone else Stannis would have said tournaments were a waste of time, but this was the heir to the Iron Throne he was speaking to, the heir who was pointedly a champion of tournaments, and Brandon hoped Stannis could exercise a little more tact.

"I don't see the point, your grace," said Stannis.

He could have said it worse, Brandon supposed.

Fortunately Rhaegar laughed. "One can hardly argue with that," he said. Brandon wondered if he meant he didn't see the point in them either, which didn't quite fit with the image he'd had of Rhaegar. "I'll see you all there come sunrise," he said. "Mayhap Lord Stark and I will meet on the field. Please don't hold back on my account, should it come to pass."

"You might regret that remark, your grace," said Robert, jokingly. "I've seen him ride."

"Surely not," said Rhaegar. "It befits a prince to know the taste of defeat at least once, otherwise I might become arrogant."

"Your grace could never be called that," said Ser Barristan. Brandon noticed Ser Lewyn failed to concur.

It seemed Rhaegar noticed it too, as he glanced at Lewyn before he spoke again, chuckling. "It's good of you to say so. I'm glad we could meet, Lord Stark—Lord Baratheon, Lady Lyanna." He let 'Lord Baratheon' encompass both the Baratheon brothers.

"Your grace," they replied, one after the other.

With a nod to each of them in turn, Rhaegar passed them the way Robert and Lyanna had appeared from, his Kingsguard following. Not one of the four of them seemed to know what to say of the unexpected encounter—seemed, because as soon as Rhaegar and his guards were out of earshot, one observation was indeed voiced.

"There's something... off about him," said Stannis.

"Why?" laughed Robert. "Because he likes fighting in tournaments? Give it a rest, Stannis. Come, Stark, let's try and get some sleep before we knock some heads in."

Brandon chuckled but he found he didn't entirely disagree with Stannis' observation. Sure, Stannis was suspicious of... well, everything really, but Brandon trusted him. They were as brothers.

And he saw Lyanna give Stannis a look he didn't think Stannis saw, a kind of worried look, but what she was worried about he could not say.

There was something foreboding about the entire situation.

"On our way," said Robert, suddenly snapping Brandon from his thoughts, "you can tell me all about you and Ashara Dayne!" He made a suggestive gesture.

There was something foreboding about that too, but in a different way.

 

~*~*~

 

"Gods be good, Lannister—tell me that isn't..."

"Your brother, Lord Stark, and Stannis Baratheon. Quickly now, there may be time to save them if we hurry."

"Brandon. Brandon, can you hear me? Speak! Lannister, what are they tied to; what is all this?"

"Wildfire. Aerys planned to blow up the entire city with caches like this."

"Stannis' face... what did that madman do to them?!"

"Stark, we must hurry! It's probably too late already, but we have to try. Princess Elia too, for the sake of peace with Dorne. Stark!"

"Oh gods, Brandon..."

 

~*~*~

 

Stannis knew the stitches had been pulled away from his mouth as soon as he woke up.

His arm was heavy to lift—uncoordinated—but he brought it up to his lips as soon as he realised they were gone. The skin was hardly smooth, not with the raised scars where the holes had been, but the cord was no longer there. The false smile was; for the first time he traced his fingers over the lines.

Then he had to drop his arm again, so heavy was it. The other was even heavier, with cloth wrapped around the wrist where the pyromancer had sliced into it.

The pyromancer...

Brandon!

A strange noise escaped his throat and he tried to sit up to take stock of his surroundings. The walls were painted, the furnishings lush—it was a large room with an adjoining chamber that was even larger, he could see another bed within that was much larger, and adorned with intricately embroidered silks.

He too was lying on a bed, a less than helpful observation perhaps, but he had spent the past months waking up chained to a wall, and last he remembered he'd been sitting next to Brandon against a cache of wildfire, and Aerys had been babbling about sacrificing him in order to kill Robert.

A less practical man might have thought himself dead and in the afterlife, but Stannis didn't believe in an afterlife so the idea never even crossed his mind. What did cross his mind was finding Brandon and figuring out what had happened.

His arms were too weak to lift himself into a sitting position, and when he tried to reach for some kind of purchase he knocked a goblet of water over and onto the floor.

Someone in the other chamber heard him. He heard their footsteps, one soft, one louder; he surmised they were walking with a cane, and he was right.

"Stannis!"

Stannis could barely believe his eyes.

"Robert?"

Robert looked about ten years older than he had when Stannis had last seen him; unshaven, pale, leaning heavily on a wooden cane and yet his usual grin that maids were wont to find so charming was creeping slowly back onto his face.

"King Robert now, would you believe it?"

He believed it. As little information as they'd had in the black cells, he'd at least known his brother was pressing his claim to the throne, and that he was winning.

"How are you feeling? Do you need anything?"

Water would have been accepted readily, but it was not Stannis' primary concern.

"Where is Brandon?" he asked. Again he tried to prop himself up, but couldn't. His voice sounded odd too, unused for so many months and with lips that didn't move the way they should.

"Don't try to move," Robert told him. "Maester Cressen said I should let him know if you woke up, I'll get a guard or something to get him..."

Cressen? That made no sense—what would the old man be doing there, how was he even alive after Storm's End had fallen to the Tyrells? If they were willing to kill a seven-year-old boy, and one of high noble birth at that, he doubted they'd spared the rest of the castle's inhabitants. It had been one of the many things he'd had time to obsess over chained to a wall in the black cells.

"Cressen?"

"Lannister said you'd probably rather him than that cunt Pycelle."

The confusion must have shown on his face. Robert's eyes widened and he gestured to someone Stannis couldn't see, though he heard a man in armour walk away right afterward.

"Shit," said Robert. "You don't know, do you? You've only just woken up."

Refraining from glaring from that stupid remark might ordinarily have been much harder. Something made Stannis hesitate to ask what it was he didn't know, likely fear of learning something worse than had already happened. And yet the words that came out of his mouth were again:

"Where is Brandon?"

He prepared for the worst. He had no idea how he was still alive, let alone Brandon. It wouldn't be surprising, really; he'd had his parents and his little brother taken away from him, he supposed he should have counted himself fortunate that he'd been able to spend all that time with Brandon in the black cells, that he'd had someone there at all to drown out the silence.

And yet Robert's face relaxed, and his smile was more knowing now than awkward.

"Dorne," he said.

Well, Stannis hadn't been expecting that. Robert elaborated before he could ask him to confirm what he'd just said.

"We spoke to Elia Martell when we found the three of you down there in the... well, down where the mad king had left you. She told us everything she knew, including where that bastard Rhaegar took Lyanna. Brandon wasn't in the best of shapes, I'll tell you now I think his voice is well and truly buggered, but he insisted. Wanted to make up for his earlier rashness, he said."

Make up for his earlier rashness with yet more rashness, how very like the fool, thought Stannis, as relief flooded him.

"Have you had word?" he asked. Little strings of fear twined inside his chest when he realised what was wrong—he couldn't feel the lower half of his face. He made the effort to bring his hand up to his lips again, and could feel himself touching them, but couldn't feel them being touched.

It wasn't a grave concern, he told himself. He'd prefer that it wasn't permanent, that went without saying, but if it was then it didn't really matter. Why worry about his face when so many were dead?

"Is everything all right?" asked Robert.

"Fine," said Stannis. He asked again, "Have you heard from Brandon?"

Robert went worryingly quiet, took a deep breath and then pulled a chair from the up against the wall and pined it up with Stannis' bed. He sat down slowly, wincing at the wound that seemed to be on his leg, breathing more heavily and clearly worried about something. It was almost as if he ached to tell of some kind of trouble, but didn't know if Stannis was the right person to tell it to.

For his part Stannis was amazed he was being considered, by Robert of all people.

"They found her," he said, but it was apparent his feelings were mixed on the subject. She obviously wasn't dead, or Robert would have been hard-pressed to hide his grief. Stannis could see him clench his fist though it bothered him to turn his head that far.

"Unharmed?" he asked.

"Unharmed?" Robert repeated, incredulously. "The Targaryens kidnapped her and murdered her father! She thought Brandon was dead too, was worried for Ned, not to mention..." he trailed off. Stannis waited for him to finish. "That monster put his spawn in her."

Somehow, Stannis hadn't considered that possibility, even in all the time he'd been suffering against that wall, with nothing else to think of but the suffering of others, and the things crawling on his skin he couldn't shake off, biting him...

"Lannister, that fucking cunt, tried to act as if there was no way I could marry her now. Bloody cowardly bastard, trying to put his whore of a daughter into my bed. I don't care what Rhaegar did; I will have Lyanna as my queen!" Robert's speech exuded confidence that evaporated abruptly, in an instant. "... as long as she still wants to," he said.

Stannis frowned. Was this what being Eddard Stark felt like?

"I'd let her do as she wished with the child, I mean," he said. "Raise it as my own if she asked it of me. Dash its head against a rock if she'd rather that. I love her, Stannis. I don't know that she loves me too, but I hope... she's a strong girl, isn't she? She's Ned's sister, of course she is. She'll be all right."

"It would be in the interests of her family to become your wife," Stannis told him. "And her duty to her late father."

Robert looked conflicted. "Yes, yes, but I want her to be happy, Stannis. And I really don't want to marry the Lannister girl; her father should be fucking grateful I restored the Kingslayer as heir of Casterly Rock instead of sending him to the wall."

"Kingslayer?"

The new king snorted in an undignified fashion. "Jaime Lannister," he explained, "ran his sword through Aerys' guts before he could burn down this miserable city, thank the gods. The rest of the family's fled to Dragonstone; I sent Jon Arryn after them. Everyone else has bent the knee, with the possible exception of the Greyjoys, who don't seem to care either way. But then, that's the Greyjoys for you."

"What's to be done about the Tyrells?"

Somehow, Robert looked mildly surprised that he'd asked.

"Not much," he said, and didn't look at all bothered about it.

Stannis stared at him.

"They were fighting for the Iron Throne, and the Iron Throne is mine now, so they'll fight for me. The Florents were unhappy about it, but I was thinking of getting one of their girls married to Jaime Lannister—having a grandchild on the seat of Casterly Rock should placate them... maybe put one of them on the council, what do you think?"

Stannis still stared at him. Then a kind of realisation came over Robert's face and he held his hands up as if in surrender.

"Oh!" he said. "Oh, bugger me, Stannis, I'm sorry—Brandon told me and I completely forgot to tell you; Renly's fine, he's not dead. The mad king lied to you about that one; or rather the Tyrells lied to him. And, uh, Cressen lied to them—remember that smuggler that was giving you grief?"

Renly was alive?

Renly was alive?

"..smuggler?" said Stannis, faintly.

"Yeah," Robert said, and snorted. "Paxter Redwyne convinced Mace Tyrell to keep their hostages alive until they knew for sure which way the winds were blowing, crafty bastard, but it wouldn't have mattered either way—when the idiots I left in charge opened the gates, that smuggler—Davros or something like it."

"Davos," Stannis corrected, feeling lightheaded.

"Whoever he is, he'd turned up with supplies, and Cressen switched Renly for one of the pages and managed to get the man to smuggle him out of the castle and sail him down to Estermont, where Grandfather sent him back up to the capitol once they knew for sure we'd won. He's been in to see you often."

So I didn't fail him after all.

"Renly has been alive the entire time and you didn't tell me as soon as I woke up?" Stannis snapped to try and release some of the emotion, though it made him feel even more tired than before.

Robert spluttered, "You were asking about Brandon!" he protested.

"You are going to be a terrible king."

"Don't I know it," said Robert, glumly.

His glumness made Stannis hesitate in what might otherwise have been a painful rant.

"Likely Jon Arryn and Lord Stark will pick up the slack," he said, rolling his eyes. "As will I, if by some miracle you decide to listen to me."

"Well, you'll be at Storm's End, so you might not get the opportunity, however much you may relish it."

It seemed Robert was saying a lot that didn't make sense these days.

"Storm's End?" Stannis repeated.

"I'm giving it to you," said Robert.

"Why? It's yours."

This time when Robert brought his hands up it seemed almost as if it was because he wanted to strangle Stannis but then thought better of it.

"It was," he said. "And now I'm giving it to you. You've been half-running it the past couple of years anyway, and the other half was hardly my doing at that. I can't be responsible for overseeing all of Westeros and every grievance that rolls its ugly head around the Stormlands."

"Then why don't you just name me the castellan? You could still give it to your son later, when you have one."

"Look, I'm giving it to you, you deserve as much for all you've gone through because I couldn't get here in a timely manner. And since I'm the king, and your older brother, you have to do as I say."

There was something strange in Robert's voice and in his looks, and it took a moment for Stannis to recognise it as guilt. It was understandable that Robert should feel that way, and yet... it seemed so wrong somehow. Like when he'd apologised for striking him in the face after their parents died, he shouldn't have had to feel sorry about that.

"You didn't know I was alive," Stannis pointed out.

His brother took a deep breath. "There were rumours..." he said, waving his hand. "Lannister men sneaking about everywhere to try to see which way the winds were turning, spreading gossip, Jon Arryn told us not to listen, but..."

Before either Robert could continue or Stannis could ask something else, the door to the other chamber opened and Maester Cressen shuffled into the room, panting slightly. His face lit up when he saw Stannis looking back at him, one hand going to his chain, or possibly his heart.

"Fetch Lord Renly," he said to someone standing in the corridor. "He'll want to see that his brother's all right. Oh, my poor boy! Does anything hurt?"

"Not overly much," said Stannis, and it was the truth. His wrist was sore and his face felt stretched, but apart from that he was mostly just tired. His eyes flickered to Robert as the new king reached for his cane and struggled to get up with a pained grunt.

Cressen walked right over to Stannis and began feeling his forehead for a fever; Stannis batted his hand away at first, but he brought it right back without comment. Robert began limping to the door without a word, and Stannis felt like there was something else he should say.

It was strangely pleasant, to see Robert turn back and look at him before he left.

"Robert," Stannis said, then paused, wondering if it was such a good idea to speak. But, since he'd already started, "You still wish to make Lyanna Stark your queen?"

"I do," said Robert. "Lannister tried to tell me she'd be unsuitable, after what Rhaegar did to her, even Jon Arryn implied the same, but I'm the king now, and terrible though I may be at it, I can have whoever I want as my queen—and will have." He cleared his throat. "As long as... you know. She wants to."

The right response to that didn't come easily, but Stannis tried all the same, he felt he had to.

"That's... good of you, Robert." More than Stannis would have expected, was implied, and Robert seemed to understand that it was but he only laughed.

"Yes, well it was good of you to step in and save Brandon, little brother." He laughed again, looking back from the doorway. "Starks, eh?"

Starks indeed.

 

~*~*~

 

"I thought you were dead, my lord."

"There were many days I wished I were, my lady."

"As did I. Though it sounds silly to say it now. I was only worried about my reputation and my house, and you were rotting in a dungeon at the mercy of a madman who murdered your father. I wish I could have been there; for Elia and for you."

"I thought you might bear me some ill will."

"For this? No. Perhaps at first I did but... would you like to discuss what arrangements might be made; for the child?"

"I thought we might make it heir to Winterfell, and the North."

"... what?"

"Stannis was right, Ashara. I never should dishonoured myself and my betrothal, but Catelyn Tully is married to my brother now, and I have the chance to make things right... if you would have me?"

...

"You're smiling?"

"Stannis Baratheon must be a good friend, Lord Stark."

"Oh, that he is, my lady. That he is."

 

~*~*~

 

The summer sun shone brightly over the Blackwater as the ship carrying Rhaenys Targaryen, and the infant they were naming 'Daenerys', appeared on the horizon, the Martell sun and spear emblazoned on the sail.

"It's almost as if the gods themselves intervened for your family," Brandon was saying. "To destroy the ships carrying the princes in those storms, for the sake of the Storm Lords."

Stannis gave him a scathing look. He didn't mention his parents then, though they were never far from his mind, but his friend's statement was so ridiculous that he didn't have to. "If there were really any storm gods they'd have killed off the girls as well. There'll be succession contests after this, mark my words."

He could see Brandon was put off by his casual wish for the infant princesses to die. Robert had been far more vehement, so much so that the Dornish had been noticeably upset by his words, but in the end it had been decided there was no good enough reason to kill the girls. Stannis hadn't thought there was a reason to kill the girls either, but it didn't stop him from hoping it would happen in order to prevent further war.

The Starks were another matter; both of them. It was a rarity, but for once both sets of brothers had been united against each other in their opinions. Stannis had eventually convinced Robert that killing Rhaenys and the newborn would be unlawful, but both Starks had been able to see that neither Baratheon was happy about this.

They had apparently forgotten the words of the Baratheon house. While they expressed it in different ways, both Robert and Stannis would keep their fury for a long while yet.

But it wouldn't only thing they had.

"You think so? I think John Arryn has a point. Foster the girls at King's Landing so they grow up loyal to Robert and then marry them into the Baratheon family." He paused, seeing the look on Stannis' face. "Not to you, obviously."

"Would that were so. Robert has already mentioned Rhaenys as a possible match; her or her mother, and if not either of them then Cersei Lannister."

Brandon grimaced. "Maybe we could set you up with Allyria," he said. "Then our children would be cousins."

There was a long pause after that.

"It's all right to ask, you know," said Brandon, after a while. He reached for a goblet of water to ease his throat, long periods of talking were much harder on him even now.

"The child?" Stannis asked, reluctantly.

"A girl," said Brandon, and smiled. "We're calling her 'Lemore'. She gets along well with little Robb, Lord Hoster already wants a match, since by Dornish law she's currently heir to Starfall," he laughed. "Poor Hoster. You'd think he'd be pleased enough that Robert is making Ned Hand of the King; someone should be, even if Ned isn't!"

To be honest Stannis didn't really care about that. Soon he'd return to Storm's End as its lord, as Brandon would to Winterfell, and he couldn't help but recall the conversation they'd had a lifetime ago. Winterfell was more than a stone's throw away from White Harbour. Far more than that from Storm's End.

There was hesitation before Brandon spoke again. "I hear you've agreed to take my nephew in." Brandon had two nephews now, but Stannis knew very well which one he meant.

"The queen wishes that he be raised away from the capitol," Stannis said. "But not as far away as the North. I don't think she knows how to feel about him."

"Can you blame her?"

"Lord Tywin wished to take the child in as well," Stannis said, ignoring the question.

There was a harsh laugh from his companion. "Oh, that would have ended well. For Tywin, twenty years from now when he'd killed us and put the last male Targaryen on the Iron Throne. I suppose we should have some kind of loyalty to the man, but in truth it was Kevan who looked after us, not him."

"I know, Stark," said Stannis, with some irritation. "I was there."

"Still, maybe Robert should consider giving him a position on the council, he ran things well enough in the past. Marry his daughter to a son of Jaime Lannister, if he and Lyanna have one. Ned might disagree, but I think Jaime deserves that much"

I want her to be happy, Stannis.

He felt... obliged, to ask.

"Is your sister faring well?"

Brandon blinked at him. "As well as can be expected," he said. "Robert's handling it much better than I would have expected, which is helping."

"And you are also as well as can be expected?"

There was a pause now, and though Brandon smiled there was something dark in his face as well.

"I suppose I am. The maesters say the damage to my voice is likely permanent; no doubt I'll go down in history as 'Brandon the Whisperer' or some such nonsense." He took another sip of water. "If they call you 'Stannis the Smiler' I might have to fall on my own sword."

Stannis had never considered the possibility of something so degrading—it jolted him, and Brandon noticed.

"The scars don't really look like a smile though," he said. "They look like... well, scars."

"Well I can't smile," said Stannis, trying to ignore the thought of being the subject of eternal mockery. "The left side of my mouth is improving, but Cressen says the right may never be as it was."

He'd have to be careful when he dined from now on, if he wanted to avoid an even more embarrassing moniker.

"But other than that, you fare well?" Brandon prompted.

"Not really," said Stannis, not meeting his eyes.

It was reassuring that Brandon asked him, "Nightmares?" so casually.

"No," said Stannis. "Well, yes, but they're not the problem, I've had nightmares on and off since I was a child. The problem is when I wake up, and I'm not in the black cells..."

"You miss the dungeons? They were our home for many months after all, I'm sure we could—"

"Don't be ridiculous."

Brandon grinned. "Then what is it?"

Stannis knew full well what it was, but hesitated to say so. If Brandon had been coping better, well enough not to have the same problem... he didn't want the Lord of Winterfell and his friend to think him weak.

"I'm not going to say," he said.

"You're afraid," said Brandon, "when you realise I'm not there?"

His words made Stannis wince, but they were gentle and held no scorn, so he felt it proper to confirm.

"I often feared the mad king would have you taken away at any moment when we were down there," he admitted. "I knew he was keeping me because of something to do with our blood ties, but he seemed to forget your existence, and I worried what he'd do if he remembered, or if the eunuch or Pycelle reminded him."

He paused, again finding it awkward to continue, and yet wanting to say what he was about to all the same.

"You spoke to me, during those months. Even though it was hard for you. Most of what you said was inane and pointless, as it usually is when you're speaking—" Brandon snorted, "—but you were speaking, and everything else was silence and the movement of insects."

Maybe things would be better once he'd returned to his family's ancestral home and could hear the sounds of the storms battering the great wall. And yet though it sounded like it might help he didn't find himself relishing the prospect of leaving the capitol. Brandon looked at him strangely; a little sad, and yet fond at the same time.

"Well," he said. "You know what that means?"

Stannis frowned. He'd expected Brandon to just accept it and move on, but the other man grinned, leaned towards him and spoke.

"I'm going to have to wake you up by bursting into your room every morning, playing a lute and singing 'The Dornishman's Wife'."

Stannis glared at him. "No," he said.

"You'd prefer 'The Bear and the Maiden Fair'?"

"You're incorrigible, Stark."

The shadows lifted from the room.

"And you're adorable."

He ruffled Stannis' hair, and Stannis didn't pull away as sharply as he ordinarily would have.

"Come on, Stanny," said Brandon. "Our family is probably wondering where we are."

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

"Ah, Lord Stark. This is the new addition to our household, the younger son of Steffon Baratheon, Lord Stannis Baratheon."

"Well met, Lord Baratheon, I've heard much of your brother Robert from Ned. Mayhap we too will become close friends."

"... well met, Lord Stark."