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The Cat-king; the beggar boy

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He turned to look north. "I have a mile of Wall to guard. Will you walk with me?"

"If you walk slowly," Tyrion said. 

--Tyrion III, AGoT

 

 


 

 

 

Slowly, at a pace of about ten miles per day, Jon Snow makes his way down to the Wall.


Ghost is tracking beside him, his keen nose sniffing out the trail, picking up a new scent, a warm wind blowing in from the south.


Jon breaks camp at last when he sees the familiar walls of Castle Black looming above the treetops, with Queensgate beyond them to the west, and the stone towers and the span of the great keep, currently draped in the red and gold banners of the Hand of the King.


Ghost, a few paces forward from Jon, climbs a stone outcropping and pauses.


Jon lets out a breath he can almost see-- in Westeros it is high summer, but beyond the wall, the chill of winter never fully leaves.

 


“Come on,” he tells Ghost, with a nod they descend.


It is not as easy to see as it was from a dragon’s back, but on the journey downward Jon takes in as much as he can through the wall. The Wall is not what it was-- parts of it are charred to cinders-- reminding Jon why he is here. Money. He is here with his begging bowl in hand, and if the thought galls him less than it should, it is because he is not the prideful boy he once was either, or the stubborn man.


The wind picks up, and Jon can feel its warmth creeping up the back of his neck.


Jon’s commander’s eyes count one hundred of the Lannister host-- a light force, all things considered, far from the fourteen thousand men that descended upon Pyke to defend King Bran the Broken some nine years ago.

 

It has been ten years since the burning of King’s Landing, and ten very full years they have been, both above and below the wall.


Above the wall, after a sleepless year of exile at Castle Black, Jon followed the free folk. The wildlings had tasted the stores of Winterfell, now, its wine and its wealth. Changed by their time with the kneelers, they began to settle in towns, even some of the raiders, like the Thenns before them. And Tormund Giantsbane had nursed them all like a mother with her children, keeping them warm and fed, with Jon at his side.

 


Below the wall, rebellions had sprouted like seeds during the early years of Jon’s brother’s reign.


The least successful campaign had been in the Iron Islands. The Lannister army faced them almost decimated, but the westerlands were a damnably populous region, and when reserves arrived from Highgarden, the king's forces smashed the squids between them.


Whenever Jon had closed his eyes in those days, he saw a king or a queen-- either it was Daenerys, and if not, it was his brother Bran speaking to him through the green dreams, telling him, Sleep, Jon.


Sleep.


It had been hard for Jon, to be in the north, while his brother defended his rule.


News had reached Castle Black slowly, and Jon avoided Mole’s Town once he started to hear echoes of Queenslayer, Queenslayer just out of his range of hearing everywhere he would go.


Bran had won the battle, but lost the war.


Soon Asha Greyjoy retreated to Dorne under the sigil of the sun, married the prince and made a play for Dornish independence.


So Bran’s six kingdoms turned to five, and the people began calling the Five Kingdoms by the name of Westeros, or the Kingdom of the Reach.

 

 

--

 

 

 

Yet to the smallfolk it was all the same. There is a Stark in the north and a Stark in the south, went the saying. But no bread in the hand for me.

 


A Stark in the north and a Stark in the south, yet everywhere you look there is red and gold.

 

Jon is close enough now to Castle Black to hear those banners fluttering in the breeze and the shriek of the whetstones as swords are sharpened in the yard.


He has brought his own armor-- why, he is not sure-- though the warm wind in the trees, the dappled sunlight in the yard, makes him consider laying it down. But he doesn’t. Instead he carries it with him as he makes for the oak and iron door of the King’s Tower.


Immediately he is swarmed by Lannister guards.


They draw their swords, but it is Ghost who seems to concern them, far more than Jon. The commander of the guards-- hardly more than a boy, really-- bids them to lower their weapons with an outstretched hand.

 

“Who are you?” he demands Jon.

 

“Nothing and no one,” says Jon curtly. “Let me inside.” 

 

The commander exchanges glances with his men. Jon can read them easily. 

 

So this is the bastard. 

 

Jon has been called by so many names but in the end, only that one seems to stick. 

 

“Follow me,” says the commander, and Jon wants to remind him that he knows this castle inside and out. But the boy is green-- probably not even onto a training sword during the wars. There is no way he could know the history here. 

 

As they climb King’s Tower Jon’s head swims so thick with memories he can’t see straight. 

 

The Lannister commander leaves Jon at the door of the solar at the top of the stairs, where Jon once received Stannis Baratheon all those years ago. 

 

“The Lord of Casterly Rock and Warden of the West, Shield of Lannisport, and Hand of the King,” he says by way of introduction, as if Jon needed one. 

 

Titles and titles. But his hands and face are tingling.

 

“Be quick about it,” adds the commander. 

 

I won’t be. 

 

“Ghost, stay outside,” Jon tells his wolf-- he will not risk the usual interaction between the two of them. The guardsman looks at Ghost with apprehension. 

 

But Jon’s attention is elsewhere now. 

 

The door swings open and ten years fall away in a second. 

 

“Jon Snow,” says Tyrion Lannister softly. 

 

Jon moves forward with blood pulsing in his ears and throat, wanting to embrace him, but Tyrion only offers him his hand. Jon inclines his head and kisses that hand, counting the ruby rings on those fingers: four.  Somewhere on the edge of his vision Jon takes in the cloth of gold on his doublet, the bright smirk that flits across Tyrion’s face. 

 

He is sure his own face is making all sorts of expressions, few of which he’s consented to, but he knows he is smiling, smiling like he thought he would never smile again in all the dark days after the wars. 

 

You give me joy to take away my pain, Jon thinks, And pain to take away my joy. And I am a child and a fool, just as Sansa told me I am. 

 

Jon lets his lips leave Tyrion’s hand but the moment he withdraws, Tyrion seizes Jon’s hand and looks up at him. And Jon looks everywhere but at his face, he can’t look into those eyes yet or he’ll go blind. 

 

Dimly he is aware the door behind him is open and the Lannister men-at-arms are watching the scene with curiousity. 

 

“I’ve known this man for more than half my life,” says Jon loudly, turning his head. “Leave us.” 

 

They look to Tyrion. 

 

“Do as he says,” says Tyrion. 

 

When the door swings shut Tyrion sits back in his chair and Jon sits down in his, the desk between them drenched in scrolls and parchment.

 

“A warm welcome I received from your men.”

 

“You’re dressed for a war,” says Tyrion, his gaze looking over Jon before returning to his face. “I can hardly blame them. What could you possibly need all that steel for? Are you going to cut off my head?”

 

“I’ve thought about it,” Jon says. 

 

“I wish you would. It would bring an end to my torment, and a fitting one at your hands, don’t you think?”

 

He folds his hands expectantly. 

 

“My boy,” Tyrion says, “what can I do for you?”

 

Jon fishes out the half-empty purse he has brought and lays it open on the table. 

 

“This is my only official business,” says Jon. “I want to repair the wall. I’m not sure when you arrived but from the looks of things you’ve had time to cast your eye on it.”

 

“It is in poor shape,” Tyrion admits. 

 

“I want ten thousand crowns, nothing more,” says Jon. “I can find the stones myself to build the rest.” 

 

Tyrion gives him a sour smile. 

 

“You are not the first to call in my debts of late, as it happens. You should come down to Highgarden, I think you and Bronn would get along nicely.”

 

“I only ask ten thousand,” says Jon, shrugging. “Sell one of your rubies.”

 

Tyrion draws back his hand with mock pain. 

 

“Not a chance,” he says. “To tell you the truth, you are nothing next to Bronn of House Blackwater. That sellsword has proven to be one of the most expensive purchases I have ever made in my life.”

 

Truly? I can think of a few more. 

 

“That’s what all this parchment is for. I have a small back, but Bronn is very able with a knife.”

 

Jon smiles inwardly. “I don’t doubt you’re up to the task.”

 

Tyrion waves a hand. 

 

“Very well. Is that all? Ten years of icy silence and you ask me for coin to rebuild the wall. I would think you’d have raised it yourself by now. I am surprised to find you are not King-Beyond-the-Wall. The northmen loved their Lord Snow.”

 

Jon laughs. “Not as much as the wildlings love Tormund Giantsbane.”

 

“Is that one of your redheads?”

 

Jon rolls his eyes but Tyrion blinks at him, a show of innocence. 

 

He is exhausted, Jon thinks, meeting his eyes. He hides it well, but…

 

He has gained weight, gone plump in the middle, and his white-blond hair is thinning at the temples. 

 

If this sellsword of his stabs him in the back, I will open his throat. 

 

Jon is horrified but not surprised by the thought. He has already committed one murder for this man-- what is another? Ten years ago he had been dizzy from the blood-letting but time and distance has made it all so agonizingly clear.

 

“You are a hard man to reward.”

 

Tyrion has been studying Jon, as Jon is studying him. 

 

“You don’t want lands or titles, you care nothing for gold-- and if you wanted a wife, well, with that face of yours, I imagine you could walk outside and find one.” 

 

“I am in exile,” says Jon. “Do you remember? That is how you rewarded me. I will inherit no lands, take no wife, father no children….” 

 

Tyrion gives him a chastising look. 

 

“Didn’t your sister ever tell you not to listen to me?”

 

“Often."

 

Their eyes meet-- green and black and grey and grey-- and they both break out into laughter.

 

“Right you are, Jon Snow. You do get there in the end.”

 

Tyrion smiles indulgently. 

 

“I never imagined you would remain in exile when I sent you to the wall,” he says. “I only wanted to get you out of King’s Landing before the mob called for your head.”

 

And there it is: the honey dripping from the lie. 

 

Jon knows him well enough to spot it, now, though it has taken him half a lifetime to see. 

 

Tyrion had many concerns that day but Jon’s fate hadn’t been one of them, he’d only wanted Jon out of the way. He preferred Jon alive, of course-- but if fate had called for another Targaryen heir to die to further Tyrion’s ambitions, Tyrion might well have let him die. 

 

And how I looked at him as he sent me away…

 

And pain follows joy. 

 

Tyrion is watching him with his head tilted to the side.

 

Some of the cold rage Jon has been suppressing for ten years comes up in his throat but Jon swallows it down, and forces himself to smile. 

 

A knowing smile answers him.

 

Then Tyrion sighs, dropping his gaze to the table. He is abruptly interested in his papers again, and Jon knows he is being dismissed. 

 

“You look exhausted. I’m sure you’ve been wandering for days and would like a rest. As for me-- Highgarden is calling.”

 

Jon nods, caught in the glint of the light on the ruby rings on Tyrion’s fingers. 

 

“I hope I have not caught you right before you are leaving.”

 

“Oh no,” says Tyrion. “I think I shall be at Castle Black for a while. Meet me on top of the wall.”

 

--

 

 

The day is bright outside but the banners flapping against the windows turn the sunlight streaming in to something dark and red. And it seems to Jon as he moves through the castle, towards the quarters prepared for him in the Lord Commander’s Tower, that each pool of light and shadow brings a new memory.


And here is deaf Dick Follard wielding a crossbow, with Satin spotting for him off to the side.


He crosses the courtyard to the old Flint Barracks. The Lannister guardsmen are giving him a wide berth now-- a small mercy. Ghost has been waiting for him in the armory, and gets up soundlessly to follow Jon.


There is Donal Noye, clenched like a child in the giant’s fist.


That memory still hurts.


And there is Hardin’s Tower, where he first stayed as a boy.


He has the strangest feeling as he walks, as if he is going back, through names and faces and battles, back through time, to the beginning. He sees Benjen’s face in a shadow.


Gods damn Tyrion, did it have to be Castle Black?


Here is the Lord Commander’s Keep.


Jon waits for some old ache to rise, but this is fresh pain-- he came here his first year in exile, when he drank himself into a stupor, seeing Daenerys’s face every time he closed his eyes. He had missed Arya like a wound. Sometimes--or so he imagined--her face would appear in his dreams too.


A knock on the door from Tormund had saved him.


“Little crow,” he had said, taking in Jon’s grown-out beard, the shadows under his eyes. “This is no place for you to die. You were meant to go out in battle, under an open sky.”


First there was his kindness. Then there was sex, the first sex Jon had ever had with another man. Soon Jon left his post at the wall to follow Tormund.


In Jon’s absence, and with Tormund’s blessing, wildlings strayed into his sister’s kingdom.


“They are free people,” Jon had argued. “I am not their king. It is not my place to tell them where to come and go.”


In those early years, he briefly served as Sansa's hand, before she snatched it back, to offer it to someone more politically advantageous.


There were times, and it was difficult to admit but true, when he thought Sansa’s marriage to Tyrion had failed not because of their differences-- but because they were so much the same.


He’d said as much to Sansa once, and she’d not spoken to him for half a year.


Do you see, Jon? Even he admits he never intended you to stay in exile, she would tell him if she were here.

 

But given the choice, Jon would have chosen exile -- he’d been war-weary and battered and wanted a rest. Tyrion had known; there was no doubt in Jon’s mind on that count. Tyrion knew him better than Jon knew himself, at times. if Jon hadn’t been sent into exile, he would never have seen Tormund consolidate the northern clans— or been there to give him counsel when he needed it.

 

A small role, perhaps, but one that suited him. Not much more than a fortnight ago Jon had been leaving Tormund at Hardhome, where the other man is rebuilding the village stone by stone-- or perhaps, building something new.


The separation tears at him every day.

 

He wonders what Tyrion would make of Tormund these days, or of little Aemon Steelsong getting on in the years and far from his homeland, the ghost of Mance Rayder that possessed the north still.

 

But then there is his sister’s voice again, calling him fool.

 

Don’t tell him anything you want, or anything you fear, she had told him those years ago, once Jon finally told her what had happened in King’s Landing, with Daenerys, with his exile. Or you are a child, or a fool. I don't know which is worse. 

 

Jon stashes a dagger in his jerkin.


Not the one he used to kill Dany but close enough—Tyrion wouldn’t miss the symmetry.

 

A wave of nausea rises to his gut as the afternoon fades into night.

 

 

 

--

 

 

After nightfall a woman is sent to him—little more than a girl, but tall for her age—with fair hair and blue eyes.


“Lord Snow,” she says. “The lord sends for you.”


“Who are you?”


“No one, ser,” the girl says, lowering her eyes.


“He couldn’t send for me himself?”


Jon has been in his cups for several hours now, stifling resentment at being discarded in favor of Bronn of Highgarden, and the girl doesn’t help. There are always women around Tyrion. But this one is younger than most; he finds it appalling. He knows he should find it even more appalling.


“No ser, he was busy.”


“Busy,” Jon says. “Suppose I am busy now. Do I jump at the Lord Hand’s command?”


The girl stares at him.


Jon sighs. “I suppose you do, in the westerlands. Lead the way.”


“Is he a good lord?” Jon asks, to fill the silence.



The girl distracts him from the scenery of Castle Black; her presence is good for his nerves.



“What do they say of him, where you are from?”


The girl looks enthralled by Jon, her gaze remaining fixed on him as though he is fascinating.


“I don't know what men say, my lord. But I used to think he was the king, when I was little-- until my mother told me he wasn't."


Jon grimaces, thinking of Bran and Tormund.


My mother.


Then Jon puts it together. Here is a nameless girl with only a mother to claim, fascinated by Jon Snow, the bastard.


He smiles at her, trying to erase any earlier impression he may have made.


“You don’t have to call me ser or lord,” he says.


But that only makes her little face crinkle in confusion.


They stop at the King’s Tower and the girl runs inside, only to emerge alone and empty-handed.


“He must be up there already. I wanted to come but Lord Tyrion said it would be too dangerous, and I might fall off.”

 

“He is right," Jon says. 


He leaves the girl at the foot of the tower, watching her until she is a small pink spot on the ground.


The winch was the first thing Jon had repaired on the wall-- he and Tormund, working side by side and steadily for months, until Jon felt he had sweated out the last of his delirium, and rejoined the world of the living.

 

 

--

 

 

When Jon steps off, the night sky is as clear as the day was, but the chill of nightfall has set in.

 

Tyrion is already there, just as the girl said, a few steps from the lift, inspecting the damage to the battlements with a black cane.

 

Jon watches him for a moment. 

 

Draped around his shoulders are matted black furs too large for him. Jon will have to remind himself to find a better cloak for him later on.

 

“You see why I asked for money for the repairs,” says Jon.

 

The sound of his voice breaks Tyrion’s reverie and he looks up at Jon.

 

“Yet you never mentioned why,” Tyrion says. “The Others are returned to ash and bone; from what I hear you don’t hold this boundary against the wildlings. Why have the wall repaired?”

 

Tyrion grins.

 

“Unless, of course, this means something to you.”

 

He taps the stone with his cane for emphasis.

 

Jon rolls his eyes and sits down. 

 

“Hello.”

 

“Hello Jon.”

 

Tyrion sits down beside Jon.

 

Seated, it is easier to get a closer look at the cane.

 

“Where did you get that?”

 

Tyrion takes in a breath. 

 

“Your brother gave it to me as a present.”

 

Warmth blooms in Jon’s chest. That was just like Bran, to find a way to help him by framing it as a gift; he likely knew all the ways around Tyrion’s pride by now.

 

“How is Bran?”

 

“He is well. And he told me, when you asked me that question, to remind you that you are always free to write to him and ask for yourself.”

 

Jon has no answer for that-- he is well past the point of owing Bran a letter but every time he sits down to write something he can only think of questions, of the sort he is not sure he wants an answer to. 

 

“I never imagined how much of my life would be spent forcing the Starks to talk to each other.” 

 

Tyrion’s voice is heavy with irony. 

 

“Your brother and sister have each asked me about you; I am here in part to find an adequate reply.”

 

Jon takes out a flask of ale. 

 

“They asked you about me?”  

 

“They seem to think we are in contact.”

 

He puts on a chiding expression.  “I did send you letters, you know.”

 

Jon had put them all in the fire.

 

This is the man who betrayed and lied to you, Tormund had argued. What do you care for what he has to say?

 

Jon shakes his head.

 

“You saw Sansa?” 

 

“I paid the Queen a visit once several years past, yes. We were having a dispute. I felt the use of the roseroad should be adequately taxed in trade with the north. She felt differently.” 

 

Jon stifles a laugh.

 

“My sister is a formidable woman.”

 

“I have never thought otherwise.”

 

Restlessly, Tyrion shifts under his furs beside Jon, who can read that easily enough. His legs are cramping. Jon can see it on his face too, a grey cast descending over his features. He also knows Tyrion will never say anything about it. 

 

Jon forces himself to think-- politics is strange to him, particularly the form of it practiced below the wall. The ale is beginning to make Jon’s head spin and his thoughts sluggish. 

 

“So there is no tax on the roseroad now, I take it?” 

 

“Oh, there still is. Lower than it used to be, though I had one good year of the higher rate before your sister demanded I lower it.”

 

Jon snorts. “A trade war. What did Bran make of this?”

 

“I was trying to feed our people.” Tyrion smiles. “His Grace understood that.”

 

At the look at Jon’s face, he laughs. 

 

“So quick to ascribe nefarious motives! You and everyone else. I don’t like to see the smallfolk starve, if I can prevent it.”

 

“But it doesn’t matter to you if our people starve.”

 

Our people? Do you mean the freefolk beyond the wall?”

 

Jon clenches his jaw. 

 

“I am a northerner born.”

 

“Are you? I wouldn’t have expected you to be loyal to your sister over your brother in the end.”

 

Jon wonders if he’s made some misstep. 

 

“There are no sides--we’re all northerners. Even Bran.” 

 

“Of course.” Tyrion relents. “And why not, it is a fine place.”

 

Jon throws him another doubtful look. 

 

“What? I like the north. I like complaining about it. How cold it is, how damp it is, how the whole place smells like moss and rotting leaves….”

 

Tyrion gives Jon a long searching look.  

 

“And I read every letter that passes between your brother and your sweet sister. Trust me when I say there are sides.”

 

There is a bitter taste in Jon’s mouth. 

 

“If there are divisions between them,” says Jon, “then I can’t help but wonder who put those there.”

 

He can feel the outline of the dagger beneath his clothes. 

 

“Or why.”

 

Tyrion takes out his own wineskin and drinks down a long sip, looking out at the vivid darkness beyond the wall. 

 

“You’re full of accusations these days.”

 

Jon turns to stare at him. 

 

“I’ve had ten years to think about it. Or did you think I never would?”

 

Tyrion lifts an eyebrow.

 

“Closer to eleven now. And I would have preferred you to have thought a moment longer about it back then. I never took you for a fool.”

 

Jon slumps over, his anger spent. 

 

“You would be the only one who doesn’t.” 

 

Tyrion watches him for a moment and then ventures again. 

 

“I have heard what you are doing with Giantsbane. You’re trying to build a throne for him.”

 

He tips his wineskin at Jon.

 

“Or whatever it is you have up here.”

 

This subject should worry him, but Jon is too numb from ale and the chill winds at the top of the wall to care. 

 

“Suppose this redhead of yours does become King-Beyond-the-Wall, as I have heard he is making a bid to do. Where does that leave you? Why support him?”

 

Because he deserves to be king, even though he says he doesn’t. 

 

Because I loved him. 

 

Because he loved me. 

 

“He doesn’t want to be king,” Jon says, reaching for his ale. “What do you know of the land beyond the wall anyway?”

 

“I have my sources,” says Tyrion, maddeningly vague.

 

He laughs then, the rich, silvery laughter Jon remembers from his childhood-- a sound he would know anywhere. 

 

“If this Giantsbane doesn’t want to be king, why then, I imagine he is secretly plotting for you to become king-- while you plot on his behalf. That would be too good. And here I thought the far north was dull.”

 

Jon can’t help but laugh too. 

 

“I doubt that’s what he’s planning.”

 

“Have you asked him? Or do you imagine you can read each other’s minds, without actually speaking, the way your brother and sister do?”

 

“One of our many talents here in the north.”

 

Jon keeps his face solemn for a moment before he starts laughing again. 

 

Tyrion looks startled. 

 

“You are drunk,” he observes. 

 

“I had to be for this conversation,” Jon mutters, regretting the words as soon as they are out of his mouth. 

 

Tyrion’s eyes flash at him; and the warmth between them vanishes again. 

 

“Drunk enough to push me over the edge of this wall of yours, perhaps?”

 

Jon returns his gaze with a chilly look of his own. 

 

“I wouldn’t let you die that fast.”

 

“Oh, it would be slow for you. You’d hear my screaming all the way down. I have never liked high places. Ask Sansa sometime about the Moon Door of the Vale.”

 

“Not a push. A knife.”

 

“In the front or in the back?” Tyrion lowers his voice, its usual brightness turning soft and dark.

 

“Front. The same way she died.”

 

Tyrion leans away from Jon, his hand finding his cane. Jon leans toward him, searching for his dagger beneath the jerkin. 

 

“Well, as I told you before, I know what happens to men like me after we die.” 

 

Pointed at him, the end of the cane looks sharp. 

 

Jon stares at it, feeling the stones of the crumbling battlement shift under his feet.

 

“Take me over the edge with you and I suppose we’ll both find out.”

 

Neither of them moves. 

 

Tyrion sighs. “What do you want from me, Jon?”

 

Jon is staring at Tyrion without seeing him, his mouth suddenly dry. 

 

“A lot of things.”

 

“And yet I don’t believe even one of those things is killing me.” 

 

Tyrion’s voice is tender as velvet.

 

“No,” admits Jon. 

 

His hand falls away from his dagger.

 

“You asked to have your wall repaired. You think if you can repair it, you can go back to your life before.”

 

Somewhere in the distance a plume of dark blue smoke is rising from a bonfire. The wind blows toward the wall and it stings Jon’s eyes, seizes his throat. 

 

“If you could just return it to the way it was, you could set it right-- and everything else as well. And it will all be as it was then, the day before you did the one thing you can never undo.”

 

Jon turns away. “Don’t.”

 

Tyrion is smiling crookedly.

 

“You think I don’t understand, boy?”

 

Jon doesn’t want to think about what Tyrion understands. 

 

“Be quiet.”

 

To his surprise, Tyrion listens to him and does not speak again for a while, while Jon cries silently in the dark, tasting salt at the corners of his mouth. 

 

“How do you live with it?” Jon says at last.  

 

His hand gropes for Tyrion’s. 

 

“You who loved her too?”

 

Tyrion allows him a forearm; Jon cannot help but trace his fingers up and down the soft silks and fur.

 

There is a long pause filled with the sounds of the forest. 

 

“I don’t,” says Tyrion finally.

 

Jon frowns, failing to understand. 

 

“I do not love anyone.” 

 

--

 

 

 

Jon wakes, addled and still drunk, and struggles to his feet. There is a caw ing sound from some beast outside, like Mormont’s damn crow.

 

He doesn’t remember much , especially towards the end. He remembers looking into the harrowing drop off the face of the wall, some threats exchanged, being closer than he’d planned to be. About what he’d expected. 

 

At the foot of Jon’s bed Ghost lowers his muzzle to his paws and glowers at Jon. 

 

Jon sighs. “I know. You warned me.”

 

He reports to the King’s Tower like a boy turning up for an assignment. Or perhaps, seeking one. He needs to get out of the castle. 

 

When he enters Tyrion’s solar the commander of the guards is there in his bright livery, breaking his fast with Tyrion. 

 

“Snow!” says the boy.

 

Jon doesn’t wait for an invitation to sit down in the other chair, irritated and disheveled. 

 

“How was the top of the wall, my lord?” The boy’s green eyes are still watching Jon. 

 

Tyrion’s glance lands only briefly on Jon; he is slicing the head off a pomegranate. In front of him there is a tray loaded with eggs and sausage and fruit. 

 

“Less pissing than I would have preferred,” says Tyrion after a moment. 

 

The boy takes a bite of apple and guffaws. 

 

“Marbrand, would you bring me some wine?” Tyrion asks him. “Arbor gold, I think.”

 

“It is not even noon, my lord.”

 

“I don’t pay you to tell me that.” 

 

With an amused look, the boy gets up and fetches a jug of wine, leaving Jon alone with Tyrion. Tyrion seems no worse for the wear from the night before, but he takes in Jon and frowns slightly. Jon sighs and slumps lower in his chair. 

 

The boy returns after a moment to pour a glass for Tyrion, who pushes it away. 

 

“It’s not for me, it’s for my friend here,” says Tyrion. “It’s been some time since Lord Snow has seen the wall and he seemed in the mood to celebrate.”

 

Celebrate was not the word Jon would have used for it, but he is grateful for the wine -- it eases his pounding head. 

 

With an ivory knife, Tyrion slits two gashes in the pomegranate and pulls the skin back. Jon tries not to watch him. 

 

Then Jon smiles, as a memory comes to him. 

 

“Do you remember the crab fork duel?” 

 

The blank look on Marbrand’s face is blissful to Jon.

 

“How could I forget?” Tyrion’s smile spreads slowly across his face. “The look on Ser Alliser’s face! What was it you said, that incensed him so?”

 

Tyrion hands him the platter of pomegranate and Jon takes a quarter. 

 

“I’d love to see Ghost juggle.”

 

They both start laughing, a little too bright, a little too loud, and Marbrand gets up from the table. 

 

“I’ll take my leave, my lord,” the boy says. “We’ll leave this afternoon with a dozen men.” 

 

“See that you do. Thank you, Marbrand.”

 

As soon as the door closes behind them, the cheer drops from Tyrion’s face, replaced by something more thoughtful. 

 

“That was a long time ago,” he says. 

 

“It was,” Jon agrees. 

 

The juice from the pomegranate is burning down his throat. He leans back and puts his feet against the side of Tyrion’s desk. 

 

“Ah-- Ah-- The ink is not yet dry.” Tyrion pushes Jon’s boots off the desk, away from a stack of books and parchments balanced precariously on the edge. 

 

“Sorry,” Jon mutters. 

 

“You’re not with your wildling friends,” says Tyrion, his voice full of light resentment.

 

Then he leans forward. “And you don’t like him.”

 

“Marbrand?”

 

Tyrion nods. “Why?”

 

Jon considers. “I don’t know. There’s something about him, he is just-- so--”

 

“So fresh and green? The way you remember yourself, when you were a boy?” Tyrion clucks his tongue. “Gods, but you remind me more of my brother every day.”

 

That gives Jon pause, even with his mouth full of arbor gold. 

 

“That’s not funny,” he says at last. 

 

“It wasn’t meant to be,” says Tyrion, his tone brisk and measured. 

 

Jon lets it drop. 

 

“Is he your squire now?” Jon asks, idly. “What happened to that boy-- Podrick Payne?”

 

“That boy has become a man grown, with a lady wife and three lovely children. He is with them.”

 

Jon frowns. He had not known Podrick very well, but he had liked him, particularly the way he hovered protectively around Tyrion.

 

He doesn’t miss the wistfulness in Tyrion’s voice when he speaks of marriage. 

 

“I thought you would be married by now.” 

 

Tyrion smiles ruefully. “How do you know I’m not?”

 

No clever answer comes to Jon’s mind for that question, so he lies. “I imagine you would have told me, in one of your letters.”

 

“It would have been hard to find out, since you didn’t read a single letter I sent.” 

 

Jon’s gaze drops to the table, where the remains of the pomegranate look tempting again. “No, I didn’t.” 

 

“You did not,” echoes Tyrion. 

 

A faraway look comes over his face. “No, I am the last of my house.” 

 

Jon gives him a sharp look. 

 

“What about that bastard girl of yours?”

 

“Mine?” Tyrion looks astonished. 

 

“Or is she your bed-warmer? Gods, Tyrion, she is a--”

 

“--Child, yes.” Tyrion sits back in his chair. “And if you tell anyone of her existence, I swear it, I will save my slowest poisons for you. That child is all I have of my brother.”

 

Jon looks up, stunned. “Jaime Lannister?”

 

“Haven’t got any other brothers, as far as I know. Yes, she is Jaime’s seed.”  

 

“So you do have an heir?” 

 

Tyrion inclines his head, smiling. There is a sudden light in his eyes. Jon savors the sight of it.

 

“Of a sort,” says Tyrion after a moment. “If I am the last of the old house, then she is the first of the new. She came to me from Tarth, where her mother raised her to be far better than her Lannister blood. His Grace will legitimize her when she comes of age and she will inherit the Rock when I am dust.” 

 

The cool light of the morning falls across Tyrion’s face from the window behind him, illuminating a brilliant green eye and a patch of sunken yellow skin. He is nearly forty and five , Jon realizes. 

 

Tyrion pours himself a glass of wine. 

 

“Took you long enough. I thought they’d replaced you with someone else.”

 

Tyrion chuckles. “No, but His Grace pours my wine on the floor when he’s had enough of me. I am trying my best, for his sake.” 

 

Tyrion is a southron lord through and through, and never lacks for courtesies, but there is something different about the way he refers to Bran as His Grace , even thousands of miles away. 

 

“You care for Bran,” says Jon, oddly moved. 

 

Tyrion tilts his head in acknowledgement. 

 

“Intriguing even as a boy, but he is fascinating as a man. I sit with him and his good friends the Reeds in the evenings, and would you believe it? Sometimes I can listen more than I talk.”

 

“Bran is a very good man,” Jon says.  

 

Tyrion’s voice softens. 

 

“That reminds me. Your sister is returning soon, within a few years, perhaps. Bran has seen it. I know you miss her. If you come talk to him, he will tell you all he has seen of her. He sees her often, in his dreams.” 

 

Jon’s throat feels suddenly tight. 

 

“I will think on that.” 

 

Jon stands up. 

 

“Where are you going?” Tyrion asks. 

 

Jon brushes Tyrion’s furs with his hand. “I have half a mind to skin you another one of these.” 

 

Tyrion looks touched.

 

“Thank you. I believe I identified a maggot nestling in this one only this morning.” 

 

“I’ll be back in a few days from ranging. Ghost will be with me,” says Jon. “When I come back, meet me on top of the wall.” 

 

“Perhaps, by then, my legs will have recovered from our last look at the edge of the world.”

 

Jon takes a last sip of wine, thinking. 

 

“There is a hot spring a few miles from here,” he says after a moment. “The heat will be good for you, I think.” 

 

Another startled look from Tyrion.

 

Jon reaches out and squeezes his hand. 

 

“I’ll be back in a few days.”

 

“See to it that you follow Marbrand’s party, if you can,” says Tyrion, recovering himself. “They have a task that might interest you.” 

 

Jon looks back and nods; and Ghost is waiting for him on the other side of the door. 

 

--

 

 

Jon Snow leaves Castle Black smiling like a child. Fool, fool, fool, he tells himself, and Ghost’s red-eyed stare seems to echo the litany. 

 

“Arya is coming home,” Jon tells his wolf, hoping to appease him. 

 

Ghost sniffs Jon’s fingers and then frolics ahead on the trail, already on the scent of some small creature or another. 

 

The air of the morning is fresh and heavy with mist. In a nod to the summer sun, Jon has dressed lightly for ranging, bringing only a few short daggers and a bow and arrow that--for a moment--makes him think of Theon. 

 

Another reason he hasn’t returned to Winterfell in half a dozen years-- the ghosts. He doesn’t know how his sister lives with them. Several days at Castle Black and he’s climbing the walls.

 

 

Jon still wears black like a man of the Night’s Watch, although the order is gone. 

 

Half the men he served with have taken wildling wives and sworn their oaths to Tormund Giantsbane; the other half wander, like him, over the crooks and edges of the rocky north, looking for lost things. 

 

I am the last of my house , Tyrion Lannister had said.

 

“But Arya is coming back to me,” Jon murmurs to himself. 

 

Along his path in the woods there is a rowan tree flowering, and Jon starts to cry. 

 

He comes closer to it, picking a white cream flower off the branch, and for a moment there is only the trees and the light, and the dust swirling in the beams of sun falling through the crown of the forest. 

 

“Arya--” 

 

He takes off his gloves and runs his hands along the weathered bark. 

 

There are trees like this in Winterfell, he thinks, in the godswood amidst the weirwoods. 

 

“Come back to me.”

 

And he knew now he had seen his little sister in his green dreams, hidden behind Dany’s face.

 

Every time he caught a glimpse of her he had cried, Come back to me , and one time she had heard him, and touched his cheek with her hand. 

 

What a ghost I have become , Jon thinks. I’m a dead man. 

 

Another mile and Jon’s legs start to burn with the ascent; a mile more and the tears start to dry on Jon’s face, under the sun. 

 

--

 

Jon has climbed high enough now he can see the valley. 

 

He can see the small party of men Tyrion mentioned setting out for the day, heading east. Jon watches their slow progress,  not sure whether to follow them. The good ranging land is to the west. Perhaps he will circle back and pick up their trail. 

 

“We’ll find them later,” he tells Ghost, who looks wherever he looks. 

 

The morning looms into afternoon, and the sun burns the haze of mist from the treetops. 

 

Jon finds a stream high in the hills, where he washes his face and wets his hair and drinks. Beside him Ghost lowers his head and drinks too, his eyes never leaving a spot in the distance downriver. 

 

“What are you looking at?” Jon says softly. It’s not a good idea to startle him when he’s narrowed in on a scent. 

 

He follows the wolf’s gaze.

 

Two stoats, their coats still white from the last of the cold spring. Summer has only begun to touch these mountains. 

 

Jon Snow smiles. 

 

It’s been some time since he’s killed an animal for its furs, but if these are skinned, their pelts will be white and lovely and soft.

 

He nocks an arrow. 

 

What do you want from me? Tyrion Lannister had asked him. 

 

The larger stoat has sensed him, its nose sniffing the air. 

 

Never tell him anything you want, or anything you fear. 

 

Jon lets the arrow fly. 

 

It settles into the creature’s little body, making a wound that leaves a trickle of blood, sending the other screaming. 

 

And pain follows joy.  

 

Jon is sad to hear the little one’s screams but it makes him so easy to find in the brush, and as Ghost prances beside him, Jon kills the second stoat. 

 

His hands shaking, he approaches the two dead, his fingers brushing over the silvery-white blood-matted fur. 

 

Jon knows. He’s always known. From Ghost’s rueful stare, even Ghost knows it too. 

 

Perhaps it was Tormund who made him see, or the sweet-smelling Satin before him, who had made Jon look at the past in a new light. 

 

And even with Tormund buried in Jon to the hilt, his chest hair tickling Jon’s back, even once Tormund was asleep, sated and dozing beside Jon, Jon looked back and saw what he wanted, then and now, even as a drunken boy in that courtyard, even as that green boy new to the wall, which was Tyrion Lannister at his back, to feel the other man pressed against him, flesh against flesh. 

 

It had taken Jon years to admit what he wanted from another man, even one as simple as Tormund, and it would take many more years to say what he wants from Tyrion Lannister.

 

If he is ever going to say it at all. 

 

This is a thought for midnight , Jon thinks, brushing it aside. Not for the light of day. 

 

Years have softened the edge of his desire, perhaps, but in Tyrion’s presence it has been returning, insistent, nurtured by the way Tyrion holds on just a second too long whenever Jon touches him. 

 

Gods, he is lonely. 

 

The loneliest man alive. 

 

He wonders if Tyrion feels it. But he knows that too.

 

He will not let himself feel anything. He has sealed himself off from that pain.  


--

 

 

 

Once, Jon had seen the same pain in someone else-- in a woman, who lost everything, and couldn’t bear to lose anything more.

 

 

 

He traipses towards Eastwatch with the stoats slung over his shoulder, and for the first time in a few long years, he thinks about Dany. 

 

Her face grows less vivid by the year, compared to the beginning of his exile, when she came to him every night. In his dreams she was always crying, or she was laughing, and she was holding the faces of children, nameless children Jon did not know, with both hands-- comforting them with her touch. She had been beloved in Essos. 

 

He wishes, still, that she had stayed there. 

 

Jon opens a skin of wine with his teeth. 

 

He is headed towards the small abandoned stone house he and Tormund once used for ranging, somewhere he can rest and cure the pelts before he returns to Castle Black or searches for the Marbrand boy’s party. 

 

It is a colder night than most with hints of rain on the edges. 

 

There she is in his mind’s eye: a child-queen with a warlord’s braid, who carried herself like a woman twice her age. 

 

Sometimes Jon feels like he never really knew her. 

 

Jon comes to the cabin and pushes open the door. 

 

The house smells like Tormund-- to a degree that knocks Jon out of his reverie. 

 

He and Tormund had stayed here when Aemon Steelsong returned north, wanting revenge on the man who’d put an arrow in Mance Rayder. Jon had learned to hunt in that time; he and Tormund had lived on their catches. When Steelsong hadn’t been able to find Jon, he’d retreated south below the wall. 

 

The gods alone knew where Aemon was now. 

 

Tormund had always protected him-- even in the nights when Jon would remember her, when he dreamed she had come back to him, to kiss him with one hand and with the other to slit his throat. 

 

You’re carrying another man’s guilt , Tormund had told him once, when Jon had told him the whole story. It was the dwarf that killed her. That friend of yours. The one I don’t like.

 

In the cabin by the fireplace there is a butcher’s table. 

 

Jon slings the stouts onto the stone slab and hacks off their heads, feeding them to Ghost one by one. 

 

Then he rolls the edges of the pelts back, scraping off the fat and gristle.

 

Tyrion had known Dany better than he had, in all likelihood. They were always going off together, shutting themselves in her solar on Dragonstone for hours at a time. They sat together in their cups, his white-blond hair against her silver making them look almost like twins. 

 

It was almost a shock to Jon to discover it was him she wanted instead. 

 

Pinning the furs to the table, Jon coats them with salt. 

 

Rather less successfully than you did

 

Jon remembers that day-- resentment dripping like acid in Tyrion’s voice. It had made the hair stand on end. 

 

It still does. 

 

Ghost whines, looking at Jon. 

 

“We’ll be here for a few days,” Jon tells him. It is not the answer Ghost wants to hear, not with a storm setting in. 

  

 

--

 

Jon is no great hand at stitching, but even he has made a winter cloak before. When the skins are cured he laces them together, admiring the finished cloak in the light of day. 

 

Almost finished-- it wants tanning, and perhaps a chain, Jon thinks, but it will keep until Tyrion reaches King’s Landing, where surely he will find someone to finish it off. 

 

The sun is shining when he leaves the cabin; the rains have moved on. 

 

Jon has spent most of the past few days drunk, staring into the flames of the fire he’d built. Ghost, he has set free to run the woods. The wolf is restless after being cooped up at Castle Black, and in any case, while Ghost is away, they can share their green dreams. 

 

He is never far from Jon. 

 

Coming to the rocky edge of a cliff, Jon can see the shape of the valley beneath the fir trees. 

 

He looks into the gorge. There, in a thin line between the treetops, Jon spots the path he saw Marbrand’s men taking the other day, and hand on his bow and arrow, he follows it. 

 

They can’t have gone far-- at least, not farther than Jon can track them. These men don’t know this terrain, and Jon does. 

 

Yet without Ghost, it is a challenge. After almost a day wandering in the bush, Jon is almost ready to abandon the search and make for Castle Black. 

 

Then he hears it: men laughing, full of their own youth like boys on a summer day. 

 

Jon has no trouble finding the source of the sound though the men themselves remain hidden by the trees. He hears a voice, ringing through the clearing. 

 

“The lord couldn’t go himself?” 

 

“You know he can’t ride that far,” says a second voice. 

 

“Be quiet,” someone says. A different voice, sharper than the other two. Marbrand. 

 

Jon sidles alongside the party, keeping himself hidden-- unwilling, for reasons he can’t name, to reveal himself just yet. 

 

“What is his name, this wildling?” 

 

“Giantsbane,” says Marbrand. “They say he’s none too friendly.” 

 

“Should be about another day or so, tramping in this wilderness.”

 

“They said the north was cold,” one of the men complains. 

 

“Should be colder closer to Hardhome,” says Marbrand. “It’s just beside the sea.”

 

Jon steps on a branch. 

 

“Who goes there?” Marbrand calls out. 

 

Jon stays still as a stone. Hardhome. They’re riding for Hardhome. 

 

He waits until the group passes. The men investigate for a moment, deciding to leave alone the sound they heard. 

 

When they leave, Jon whirls around and faces south-- drawing his dagger just to have it in his hand-- and heads toward Castle Black, as fast as his legs will carry him. 

 

On the horizon the sun is sinking behind the trees, the sky a shade of gold, deepening to blue.  

 

--

 

 

 

The evening sky is streaked with violet when Jon trudges into the yard at Castle Black, his heart hammering in his chest and his hair damp with sweat.

 

 

He doesn’t bother to lay down his armor or return to the Lord Commander’s Tower; instead he heads right for the King’s Tower, crossing the courtyard in a few furious strides. His footsteps echo on the steps as he passes the guards.

 

“Who is it?” calls out a girl’s voice when Jon raps his knuckles on the door. 

 

The bastard girl. Jon doesn’t wait for an invitation to push the door open. 

 

The solar is a warm sight after the cold-- a fire roaring in the hearth and the girl kneeling in front of it, playing with a wooden toy dragon. 

 

Tyrion is bent over his desk but from the array of cups in front of him Jon can see he has been drinking more than working. He looks up when Jon walks in. 

 

“Lord Snow has returned to us,” Tyrion says. “He must have found his grumpkins and snarks.”

 

The bastard girl giggles, her little face lighting up with delight. She looks as if she wants to throw her arms around Jon, but restrains herself. Behind her, Tyrion studies them both. 

 

Children adore him.

 

Jon would know, for he had been one of those children once. 

 

Tyrion meets Jon’s eyes, reading the cold anger there, and then a strange light comes into his face. 

 

“Off to bed, child.”

 

She makes noises of protest, but stands up and plants a kiss on his cheek. 

 

“Goodnight, uncle,” she says. “Lord Snow.” She passes by Jon, blushing to her hair on the way out. 

 

Then the door closes and she is gone. 

 

Tyrion lifts an eyebrow and takes a long sip of wine. 

 

“Well?”

 

“Marbrand,” Jon spits. “He and his men are headed to Hardhome.”

 

“Yes?” 

 

Jon fumes for a moment, unable to speak. 

 

“Do you know what’s at Hardhome?”

 

Tyrion swirls his wine in his glass; the corners of his mouth turn up. 

 

“I do.”

 

Jon’s blood is thundering in his head, and for a moment he has a wild urge to unsheathe his dagger and take a good long swing at Tyrion, to silence that tongue once and for all. 

 

Tormund is at Hardhome.” 

 

Tyrion rubs his temples and sighs, looking at Jon’s daggers and mail.  

 

“Lay down your armor.”

 

“You were the one who told me to put it on.” Jon smiles, arch and cold. “If I recall.”

 

Their eyes meet and Tyrion holds Jon’s gaze for a long moment, over silence broken only by the crackling of flame in the hearth. Tyrion looks away first. 

 

“What do you want with him?”

 

“I want to talk to him.”

 

“To talk to him,” Jon echoes. He sits down heavily in the chair in front of Tyrion’s desk, then turns to Tyrion’s stores and pours himself a glass of wine as well, leaving his daggers in their holsters. 

 

“What do you want to say?”

 

Tyrion appears to be considering his words carefully. 

 

Good

 

“I want to offer him some lands below the wall.”

 

That is not the answer Jon expected. 

 

“Why?” 

 

“It appears someday soon the freefolk will form their own kingdom. More of them appear to have settled and given up raiding than ever before.”

 

Jon narrows his eyes. “Yes.”

 

“And when they do, I hope they will remember the generosity of King Bran and the Five Kingdoms and choose to join us.” 

 

Jon rubs his face tiredly. 

 

“He is a sweet, simple man. Leave him out of your games.”

 

But he should have expected this-- it was only a few nights ago that Tyrion had plied him, half-drunk, for information about Tormund when they were on top of the wall. 

 

“Or I could talk to you,” says Tyrion pointedly. “Are you not his hand?”

 

Jon shakes his head, shrugging off his belt and daggers. “He is my friend.”

 

Tyrion’s eyes light over Jon’s face. 

 

“More than friends.”

 

Jon almost chokes on his wine, the breath knocked out of his lungs. Gods, where did Tyrion learn that? 

 

He sits back in his chair with his head spinning. 

 

“Are you jealous?” 

 

Tyrion’s face is impassive. 

 

“Perhaps.”

 

“Then I should be afraid for him,” Jon says, feeling the blood drain out of his head. “I know you, and I know you kill for jealousy.”

 

Tyrion’s eyes are shining. “I won’t touch your friend.” 

 

“I hope you mean that.” Jon laughs joylessly. “I brought you a gift, Tyrion, and you make me not want to give it to you.” 

 

He lets out a breath. 

 

“But I will.” 

 

Tyrion gets up and comes around to the other side of the desk, looking wary as Jon unwraps the black cloth with the cloak inside.

 

Underneath are the furs Jon stitched together, each one silvery with the black-tipped tails, soft as silk and thick as velvet. 

 

“Ermine,” Tyrion says softly. 

 

His hand hovers over the skin. “My sister had one just like this.”

 

Something has changed in his voice. 

 

“Why did you do this, Jon?”

 

There is nothing left to say but the truth. 

 

“Because I wanted you to wear it.”

 

With your cloth-of-gold, as you drink your dark red wine and sit in every chair like it’s a throne.

 

Jon watches as Tyrion’s hand with all its gold rings traces a slow path through the ermine.

 

“Can I put it on you?”

 

“Yes.” Tyrion sounds almost shy. 

 

Jon lifts up the cloak with one hand and pulls it around Tyrion’s shoulders.

 

“It needs a clasp.”

 

“It’s no matter,” Tyrion says, his voice thick with something Jon can’t name. 

 

They lapse into silence, and Jon can do nothing but gape at him. 

 

Even in the dim light, lit only by the fire, he looks changed.

 

He looks more a dragon than she ever did, Jon realizes, terrifying and almost beautiful with his ash-white hair and one green eye and one black.

 

Tyrion smiles. 

 

“Are you afraid of me?”

 

Jon doesn’t see any point in lying. 

 

“Yes.”

 

Tyrion turns to look at the fire. “Clever boy.”

 

Jon’s anger flashes. “You lied to me.”

 

“I’m afraid I do that sometimes.”

 

“You betrayed me.”

 

“That as well.” 

 

“Everywhere I go, they call me queenslayer,” Jon says. 

 

His throat is so dry it feels like it will bleed. 

 

“And they call you Hand of the King.”

 

“Would you have it any other way?” 

 

Tyrion draws himself up to his full height, looking away from the fire at last. 

 

“Would you now be king? Would you have raised her children? Would you be waiting, forever, for the other axe to fall?”

 

His cloak slips off one shoulder. Almost delicately, Tyrion drapes it back over himself and holds it there, where it falls over his chest. 

 

“Or would you be here, in the north, with your wildling love and your ever-faithful wolf?” 

 

Jon shakes his head, a hard line forming between his brows. “I don’t know.”

 

“I think you do.” 

 

Tyrion pats Jon’s hand and turns as if to leave-- but Jon is standing in front of the door. 

 

“You owe me,” Jon says. He can hear the hurt in his own voice. 

 

But Tyrion’s voice is gentle, patient. 

 

“What do I owe you?” 

 

“Everything.”

 

Tyrion’s breath hisses through his teeth then; he stands watching Jon. 

 

“Get on your knees.”

 

On the edge of tears, Jon does as he is told, and sinks to the floor with a clank of mail. 

 

Then Tyrion tucks a curl of black hair behind Jon’s ear, lifting his chin with a finger so that Jon is staring up at him.

 

“You remind me of my wife.”

 

“Sansa?” 

 

“My real wife. The first one.” The rebuke in his voice is sharp is as any steel.

 

Jon doesn’t know this story, but he supposes it begins with lies and ends in bloodshed, as do most of Tyrion’s stories. 

 

“Would you believe that someone once loved even me?”

 

Jon doesn’t get a chance to reply before he feels the bite of Tyrion’s kiss landing on his mouth. 

 

Jon kisses him back, drowning in the bitter taste of wine, as thick and dark as the blood of animals Jon kills in his wolf dreams.  

 

Then suddenly Tyrion arches away, forcing Jon to lean towards him. Jon feels his hands drift towards his hair, his jaw, before coming to rest on the scarred side of his face. And there is the shock of Tyrion’s tongue, as bold as it ever is. 

 

“Is that what you wanted, boy?” Tyrion murmurs against Jon’s mouth. 

 

Jon can only nod.

 

Tyrion kisses him again with the fire casting light down his face, lighting up the gold flecks in his green eye. 

 

Jon groans in his throat. He is grasping at his collar, the laces of his jerkin, and his armor falls to the ground with a clatter. 

 

“Good boy. Come closer .”

 

He reaches for the small of Jon’s back and tightens his grip like a cinch. 

 

Jon gasps as his touch hits his old stab-wounds. 

 

“Oh, I’m sorry,” says Tyrion in his ear. 

 

“Don’t be.” Jon grits his teeth. “Just-- get me out of this armor.”

 

“Hasty, are we?”

 

He sinks his teeth into the line of Jon’s jaw and Jon nearly cries out. 

 

“Tyrion-- let me.”

 

Jon rises to his feet and pulls off the jerkin, leaving him standing in only his nightshirt. 

 

He slips the ermine off Tyrion’s shoulders, but Tyrion holds stubbornly to his tunic, looking hesitant for the first time. 

 

“Oh no,” says Tyrion. “There is nothing under here like what I will find under there .”

 

He nods to Jon’s nightshirt, and Jon pulls that off too, reveling in the rush of cold air over his skin. His torso is slick with sweat from the heat of the fire. 

 

To Jon’s astonishment, Tyrion starts to laugh. 

 

“The wolf pup,” he says, sounding almost breathless. “Hardly a pup anymore.”

 

His hands stroke up and down Jon’s chest, and Jon lets him, using the distance to get closer to Tyrion, finding the tender slope of his stomach. Tyrion pushes him away, pressing Jon’s back against the marble of the fireplace with the force of another kiss. 

 

Tyrion’s hands start to unlace his own trousers. 

 

He takes one last look at Jon. 

 

“Yes,” says Jon. “There’s oil-- in the drawer.”

 

Jon and Tormund fucked in this solar once, a memory that at the moment makes Jon wince, but Tyrion doesn’t ask any questions. Nor does Jon offer any reply, as there is Tyrion’s cock, driving any semblance of thought out of his mind. 

 

His own groin aching, and his knees protesting the stone floor, Jon takes Tyrion in his mouth, listening to the whistle of breath Tyrion releases above him that seems to come from deep within his chest. 

 

As if he has been waiting for this for a long time.   

 

Jon is careful to go slowly himself, to savor it.  Soon he tastes salt under his tongue. 

 

“The oil--”

 

Tyrion nods and pulls away with a shudder.

 

Jon has the strangest urge to cry. 

 

When he returns, Jon kisses him, feeling the stubble of Tyrion’s beard prickling against his. 

 

I love you , he wants to say, but that would be the dream of a child.  

 

Tyrion takes Jon’s face in his hands. Then he touches his forehead to Jon’s, his eyes shut against some unbearable pain. He sways on his feet, and Jon finds his body following his.

 

“We should have done this years ago,” Tyrion says. 

 

Jon feels the same pain lance through his chest. 

 

Yes, they should have. Perhaps things would be different if they had.

 

Would it be three of us here now? With Dany too?

 

It is startling in retrospect, as obvious as a blow. 

 

Tyrion squeezes Jon’s hand and bids him to bend over. 

 

Even with the oil, Jon gasps as Tyrion pushes his way inside-- joy following pain like a streak of light across the world. Then all thought is gone from his mind, replaced by the fullness of the cock inside of him and the heat of their strange bodies colliding.

 

“Good boy.”

 

He leans forward to lick a long drop of sweat from Jon’s side. 

 

“Sweet boy.”

 

The pressure builds and builds, and Jon closes his eyes and shivers. There is nothing but this, at the bottom of every last dream of his, as a boy, nothing more than this: Tyrion inside him, silk rustling against skin, Tyrion’s quickening breath behind his ear. 

 

He is taking what he wants , Jon thinks, and the thought makes him hard to the point of agony. 

 

Tyrion latches on to Jon’s hair just before he comes. 

 

Then those hands, still oiled, reach around to stroke Jon clean. 

 

 

--

 

 

 

 

Afterwards, Jon feels the weight of all of his thirty-three years in his knees, and every stab wound besides. 

 

“It is only a short walk to the Lord Commander’s Tower,” Tyrion says, watching him.

 

Jon looks at him.  

 

“I hoped you might offer me your bed.” 

 

That earns him a sharp glance, and Jon is astonished again. 

 

He already wants to pretend it didn’t happen. 

 

“I suppose I could,” Tyrion allows.

 

Jon regrets pressing the issue already, on the way to the king’s chambers, but he’s not walking back to the Lord Commander’s Tower like a dog slinking back to its den. 

 

--

 

 

 In the middle of the night, still half-asleep, Jon turns to face Tyrion. Jon can tell from his breathing he isn’t asleep. 

 

He wraps his arms around him and pulls him close. 

 

For a moment Tyrion goes perfectly still. You need this. Take it,   Jon begs him silently.  

 

Then Tyrion softens in Jon’s arms. Before he can say anything, Jon feels a wave of heavy calm wash over him and he is asleep again. 

 

 

 

--

 

 

 

When he wakes their positions are reversed, with Tyrion flat against the bed and Jon buried in the crook of his shoulder. 

 

 

“Good morning,” says Tyrion as Jon drifts into awareness. 

 

He is smiling down at Jon, with a warmth there Jon hasn’t seen for many years, deepening the lines around his eyes and mouth. 

 

Jon feels himself flush. They lie there as Tyrion brushes each strand of hair away from Jon’s face, and Jon lets his eyes fall closed again.

 

“I thought we might go to the spring today,” Tyrion says after a long while. 

 

“Will you be able to ride?”

 

“I should manage. Then again, if I should fall, you would have an excuse to pick me up, and you’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

 

Jon opens his eyes and throws Tyrion a sharp look.  

 

Tyrion grins at him.

 

It takes some time for Jon to recover his clothes. 

 

Tyrion brings him his mail from the solar, buckling his belt and sliding his daggers into their holsters. 

 

“You ought to try squiring.”

 

Tyrion snorts. “I leave the swords and mail to fools like you.”

 

He sends one of his men to saddle horses for them in the courtyard. 

 

“It was hot,” Tyrion says to Jon as they mount their horses. One of his guardsmen helps him up, a boy of about nineteen with a ruddy face. 

 

“That’s what I remember most about my time in mail. All of us were broiling like a harvest-day goose.”

 

The man helping Tyrion snickers. 

 

“Don’t laugh,” Tyrion admonishes him. “That was the Battle of Green Fork. No doubt you were still at your mother’s breast.” 

 

“I was weaned, my lord,” the man protests. One of his fellows laughs and pats him on the back. 

 

Tyrion gets a devilish look in his eye.

 

“Only just,” he says. “But then, I suppose you were seven.”

 

A roar goes up in the yard.

 

Jon feels breathless for a moment, the sound of boyish laughter echoing over the stones of Castle Black throwing him back to another time. 

 

“Well, we must be off,” Tyrion tells his men. “Be good.”

 

“Be good,” his friend echoes to the ruddy-faced boy, and then the whole group is off again, hooting at each other and running and laughing in the yard. 

 

--

 

“Are you alright?” Tyrion asks him when they are out of earshot. 

 

Jon shakes his head. 

 

“Tell me. Was I ever that young?”

 

Tyrion gives Jon an appraising look from his saddle. 

 

“You were once,” he says at last. “And yet-- by their age, you were commanding the Wall.”

 

Jon smiles, his throat tight. 

 

“Do you know why they are so young? I can’t find a man over twenty in the westerlands. Their fathers and brothers are all in the ground.” 

 

Jon clears his throat. 

 

“It is the same in the north. Above and below the wall.” 

 

Tyrion is watching Jon with gentle curiosity. 

 

“I know you will never sire a child, Jon,” he says after a while. “But I hope you find yourself in the company of children sometime. It could be good for you.”

 

--

 

 

 

When they reach the hot spring an hour later, Jon can tell Tyrion is tired. He doesn’t even object when Jon helps him off his horse, wrapping his arms around Jon’s neck. 

 

 

The spring is not hard to find-- its heat is wafting up from a clearing at the bottom of a cliff. Tyrion leads him to the water’s edge, as if it was he who knew the way and not Jon. 

 

Jon starts to take off his armor. 

 

Tyrion watches as Jon pulls off the last of his clothes and piles them to the side of the spring. 

 

He looks up at Jon. Jon can read the old fear there, the same old pain. 

 

“Tyrion,” Jon says, both irritated and sad. “I’ve known you since I was four and ten.” 

 

Jon gets in the water. And slowly Tyrion removes his silks one by one until he is as naked as his name-day, and lowers himself in the water beside Jon.

 

Jon turns and kisses him.

 

He hears Tyrion stifle a gasp as Jon lowers his hands to trail over Tyrion’s body. Tyrion’s breath is sour after a night of wine, but even then, his tongue is still sweet . As is the feel of him beneath Jon’s hands, and knowing he is the first man to touch Tyrion Lannister like this-- and probably the last. 

 

Tyrion breaks the kiss, breathing hard.

 

“I want you. The gods alone know how much. But I--”

 

I went too far , Jon thinks, shame stealing over him. 

 

He settles with his back against the other side of the spring, facing Tyrion. 

 

Tyrion’s face is crumpled and white-- and as angry as Jon has ever seen it.  

 

“I wish you would think-- just once. I wish I did not have to do all your thinking for you.”

 

Jon is silent. 

 

“To you, this is nothing.” 

 

Tyrion looks on the verge of breaking down. 

 

“To me, it is everything. Can you give me everything?”

 

Jon holds his knees to his chest, huddling in the warmth of the water, trying to make himself small.

 

“I have a white cloak for you, Jon,” says Tyrion quietly. “A place on the Kingsguard. You could even divide your time between north and south if you wished to protect your sister as well as your little brother. I doubt either would object to such an arrangement.”

 

Jon sits, in shock over the words white cloak

 

“You want me to go to King’s Landing with you?”

 

That terrible light in Tyrion’s eyes now-- Jon shrinks away. 

 

“Yes.”

 

Jon sits back against the stone, rubbing his beard with his hand. 

 

“I need a moment, I--” 

 

Jon casts about wildly for a reason.

 

“I’m a queenslayer.” 

 

“Oh, and there’s hardly a precedent for that.” 

 

Jon should have known he would say that. Gods, but you remind me more of my brother every day. 

 

Has Tyrion been waiting to offer him this? Jon’s head is spinning.

 

A white cloak-- Jon had been a boy of eight or nine at the most, the last time he’d wanted one of those, younger than he’d been when he’d met Tyrion, even. A bastard knew his place by the age of ten, and it wasn’t in the Kingsguard. 

 

The dream is so remote it might as well be Daeron Targaryen offering him the conquest of Dorne.

 

But it is being offered to him all the same.

 

Jon feels heavy, resigned. “Where you go, I will go.”

 

“But that is not what you want, is it?” 

 

Tyrion’s tone turns chilly, precise. 

 

“I am not such a fool that I couldn’t catch another man’s scent. I am sure he is fretting over you right now, praying his little crow returns to him.”

 

Jon feels his temper flare. 

 

“Don’t say those words.” 

 

“It appears I already said them.” 

 

Jon sets his jaw and hisses through his teeth. 

 

“I hate you sometimes. You make it so easy. I let you in, I trust you-- and then I regret ever letting you near me.” 

 

“There’s your mistake.” Tyrion smiles, lifting his chin. “You don’t know me half as well as you think you do.”

 

Jon looks away. 

 

“Better to go home to your kind, simple man.” 

 

You’re kind,” Jon says sharply, looking back at him. “When you want to be.” 

 

Tyrion laughs. “I used to think so too.”

 

Jon listens to the steam bubbling up from the spring. 

 

“King’s Landing,” he says, to himself as much as Tyrion. 

 

No. That is not what Jon wants. 

 

Jon wants Tormund, and Hardhome, and a life where he never has to look out the window and remember the smell of burning. 

 

And Tyrion--

 

Tyrion is King’s Landing, Jon can’t imagine him anywhere else. He is its proud gates and its walls and its palanquins, the whispers and lies, he is the silks and gold and the jewels and all the shit in its streets, and there too, looming over every dark corner. He is the smell of the Blackwater, rising off of the bay. 

 

He is watching Jon with his eyebrow quirked.

 

 

“How did you know about Tormund and me?” Jon asks him. 

 

“As you said, I have known you for quite a long time.”

 

 Jon laughs. 

 

“I know you too. I suppose you’ll be going home to that sellsword of yours.”

 

“Bronn?” The arch in Tyrion’s brow deepens. “Bronn wishes he was fucking me-- the better to reach my gold. He fancies himself the next Lann the Clever and myself the Casterlys.”

 

Below the water, Jon's hand finds Tyrion’s thigh. 

 

Tyrion lets him. 

 

“Tell him if he hurts you,” Jon says, “I’ll slit his throat.”

 

The look of pure adoration Tyrion gives him then hits Jon like sunlight.

 

Jon feels his throat close up. 

 

“So this is it, then.”

 

“Yes it is.” 

 

For a moment, someone else is looking out of Tyrion’s eyes-- someone younger. The boy he once was, Jon feels the hairs prickle on his skin, the man he might have become, if life had not been so hard to him.  

 

Then it is gone. 

 

“As I recall, you wanted to ask me a question,” Tyrion says, his usual mask dropping into place. “Well, it has been ten years. Ask it.”

 

It takes Jon a moment to place what he’s talking about. 

 

“No,” he says. “Don’t drag this out. Not now.”

 

“I trust you know the answer by now.”

 

Jon does. The sick waste of her life is what will damn him in the end, far more than any man he killed in battle. And I did it to save your life, that I bloodied my own hands for you-- 

 

But it is becoming harder to hold onto his anger. 

 

Tyrion glances at Jon, his expression suddenly shrewd.  

 

“There are rumors,” he says, “that she is alive in Essos.”

 

Ice floods Jon’s veins. 

 

“No.”

 

“I’m afraid so.” 

 

Jon covers his face with his hand, his jaw dropping open. 

 

“My brother--”

 

“Will be well-defended.”  Tyrion interrupts him. “I promise you. And they are only rumors. of course, and for myself, I always knew I’d meet my end by dragonfire. It is you I am worried about.” 

 

He gives Jon that same calculating look. 

 

“Yes, perhaps it is better if you stay in the far north.”

 

Jon leans back, thinking of Bran. 

 

His protection is another of Tyrion’s promises, just as liable to break as to keep. Jon hopes Bran can see far and wide in his crow dreams-- far enough ahead to spot a dragon flying in from the east.

 

But then--

 

What if Dany should move against Sansa instead?

 

The thought almost makes him want to join the Kingsguard, which-- he supposes, as they climb out of the water and get dressed-- was the whole point of Tyrion telling him. 

 

Jon shakes his head in amazement, helping Tyrion back onto his horse.

 

He is willing to let me go. But not before he can make it hurt. 

 

But Jon hurts enough as they ride back to Castle Black. 

 

 

--

 

 

He still remembers the day Tyrion left, when he was a boy. 

 

Tyrion had come north with him, to see the Wall, while Benjen deposited Jon at the Night’s Watch. Watching Tyrion read or listening to his acerbic comments had become, in the span of mere days, a comfort to Jon-- like balm for a scared boy of fourteen. 

 

And still for the man of thirty-three. 

 

There is an old ache in Jon’s chest. 

 

--

 

 

 

When they reach Castle Black, the bastard girl is waiting for them in the courtyard. 

 

“Oh, I quite forgot,” Tyrion says to her with a dramatic flourish, pretending to give himself a slap on the cheek. 

 

Jon smiles at her, as he helps Tyrion down for the last time. 

 

“We were going to go to the top of the Wall today. You promised.”

 

And indeed, the girl is dressed in her best linens, as if she has been standing there for hours waiting for her uncle to return. 

 

“Indeed we are.” Tyrion sighs. 

 

He puts a hand on the girl’s shoulder. 

 

“Alysanne, sweetling, please put on a cloak. It is cold on top of the wall.”

 

 

The girl--Alysanne, the Bastard of Tarth--goes inside to fetch her cloak. 

 

 

“You are invited, if you would like,” Tyrion says quietly once she is inside. 

 

Jon would like to. 

 

But he knows by now what is on top of that wall, and in the end, it is only pain. 

 

Tyrion smiles sadly and pulls his gloves off, offering Jon his hand. 

 

Jon doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. 

 

“Friend.”

 

“Friend,” says Jon, his voice half-swallowed by the wind. “When will I see you again?”

 

“When you answer my letters,” Tyrion says, a dog with a bone. Or perhaps a cat, with a mouse.  

 

“And as for where, where else other than Eastwatch-by-the-Sea? I liked the look of you on that cliff.”

 

Jon nods, biting his lip. 

 

“A Lannister should never be too far from the sea,” Tyrion says, and Alysanne comes out of King’s Tower with her fur cloak on, her cheeks burning bright with childish fervor. 

 

Her face looks to Tyrion and back again, to Jon. She looks wary when she meets Jon’s eyes, her chin suddenly firm, her little fists balling up, her eyes accusing. 

 

You hurt him , she seems to say to Jon. 

 

No, child, Jon thinks, weary. He hurt me. 

 

Tyrion is watching Jon. 

 

“You can keep the horse,” he says, voice soft. “Go home, Jon Snow.”

 

“It was nice to meet you, good Alysanne,” says Jon. Queen . He kneels to shake her hand-- it is all too obvious now what Tyrion’s plans are for this child, his brother’s only heir.  

 

 

Breaking his mare into a canter, Jon rides north for Hardhome, the wind stinging in his eyes the whole way. He will have to beg Tormund’s forgiveness, he knows. The thought bothers him less than it should. In a kinder world he would never have left at all.

 

If things were different , he finds himself thinking. 

 

 

If only--

 

        If only--