Robb hadn’t meant to end up working in his old school’s library, had never meant to stay, period. And he certainly had never meant to come back. It just happened.
Winterfell is about two hundred kilometres further north of anything that could be called civilisation even with a lot of good will, it’s perpetual twilight for more than half a year and the high point on the thermometer is sixteen degrees on a good summer’s day and frankly, there is nothing left. What used to be steady industries even when he was growing up are dying.
All the fisheries have been closing within the last years, either going bankrupt or getting the hell out of dodge before they have to declare bankruptcy and he’s fairly certain Euron Greyjoy is only hanging on by pure stubbornness and spite. Or maybe his books have been so muddled up that he’s bankrupt and hasn’t even noticed. Even the Umber lumberyard, steady work provider for teenage boys during the holidays since time immemorial, is closing down by the end of the year, the Greatjon choosing an early retirement over settling his son with the burden of a dying company. After all, there isn’t any business if nobody’s fixing houses or ships, let alone building them, and the cost to ship further south has gone up monumentally since the river’s been drying up further south (and becoming ever more unpredictable with any snow melt up here) and everything has to be done via land route now. Considering there’s hardly any roads, and what there is, is covered in snow nine months of the year, that’s … less than ideal.
That his mother is still operating the inn is pure madness. The last time the inn has had more than a couple of rooms booked at any given point in time was that time that TV show had been filming a couple of scenes up at the old castle and even the tourism brought in by that has dried up. Winterfell is dying, the younger generation fleeing as soon as possible, and there is no way around that or even any way to make it sound prettier.
And yet, here he is again, the ink on his degree not even dry. He’d planned on getting his PhD, had even already filled out all the paperwork to transfer to Skagos University, where he’d got the funding for it – just as miserable there as the rest of the North, only with added biting sea wind, so at least he’d feel right back at home. And then, while filling in a couple of sessions while his mentor went on a dig, teaching nothing more than the basics of Ancient Westerosi to a couple of almost interested Bachelor’s students – realised he couldn’t possibly do that for the rest of his life, stand in front of a crowd and teach. He’s passionate and he’s interested, and he has a knack for cutting through all the biased bullshit so present in the Citadel sources, but whenever there’s more than six pairs of eyes focused on him, his heart starts beating so fast that his throat starts closing up. While Sansa still regularly wakes up from nightmares of having to take her final school exams again, he still wakes up from nightmares of standing in front of a filled auditorium, mixing up The King Who Lost The North with Brandon The Shipwright or something equally ludicrous.
So now, here he is, back home, where it all started, trying to figure out what exactly one does with a degree in Ancient Westerosi History with a minor in Classical Archaeology – with a focus on Northern History and a superfluous knowledge of Northern runes and several Ancient Northern dialects that no one is quite certain how to pronounce – that doesn’t boil down to stay at university for the rest of your life, desperately scrambling for funding, you knew how this goes when you started. It’s ironic, really, that there’s so much history here, hidden beyond every corner and under every stone, and there’s no use for his degree whatsoever.
It’s five in the afternoon and the school janitor is making his rounds, closing the building for the rest of the day, what with afternoon activities shrunk down to a mixed football team, half a debate club, a choir that only exists because the music teacher still manages to put the fear of the gods into her students (and Robb, too, if he’s being honest, Ms Mordane hasn’t changed a bit in the eight years he’s been gone), and the ill-fated tabletop club Jon and his friend Sam started back in the day, which doesn’t even actually meet at school, all mostly because the graduating class holds all of thirty-one kids. There’s talk of merging the elementary and secondary school, to justify the cost of keeping the doors open.
According to Dr Maegyr, the only person to move here of her own accord in years, to replace the retiring Dr Luwin, there’s twelve kids starting school this year. Robb is surprised it actually is that many, since practically everyone he’s finished school with and would be of an age to have kids in the way people start having kids early when there’s nothing else to do has left. He knows one of the kids is Jon’s friends’ Sam’s and Gilly’s second or third, but other than that, he has no clue who is mad enough to start a family up here.
He nods goodbye to the janitor, who seems just as ancient as the school itself, and turns up his coat’s collar against the biting wind that’s surely about to assault him immediately after he leaves the building. “Wait up!” someone calls after him, and as he turns around, he’s surprised to see Tormund Snow jogging after him.
He knows who the man is, they work together after all, but they haven’t actually spoken to each other one on one. Robb even knows half his life story, or at least the twisted version of it spread by town gossip. It’s hard not to, when him and his daughters are one of the few new arrivals in town. New in this case meaning, they moved here six years ago and people still can’t shut up about it. His family is much more interesting to the town gossips than even Dr Maegyr is, even though she’s “Properly Foreign,” while Tormund is just “one of those Other Northerners,” audible capital letters included.
“Do you mind heading to the pub for a drink?” he asks like it’s no big deal and Robb has nothing better to do anyway, so he shrugs and agrees. Tormund is a head taller than Robb is, with a wild mane of red hair and beard to match, some grey mixed in, and tattoos curling up the side of his neck and coming out of the seams of his sleeves, and he’s wearing a long black leather coat, so of course he sticks out like a sore thumb and Robb is acutely aware of the stares they’re getting, taking a couple of deep breaths to calm himself down again. He gives Mrs Dustin a half-hearted wave as she glares at them crossing the street to Seaworth’s pub. She turns back to Mrs Glover before he’s even taken his eyes off her, town gossip saved for the next week at least. The snow is turning to slush in the road, the first cars have snow chains on their tyres and it’s not even properly autumn yet.
Seaworth’s is always full, on account of it being the only pub in town, and when there’s no work to be had, people tend to congregate in the local watering hole. That the owner is actually a nice enough fellow helps, of course. Robb nods at Davos behind the bar while him and Tormund both stomp off the snow clinging to their boots in the entryway, which is a mixture of grey and wet.
“Just so you’re aware, apparently you and Dr Maegyr are A Thing now,” Davos tells him in a stage whisper as he starts to fill up a pint without even asking, just as soon as him and Tormund reach the bar.
“Fucking hells,” Robb answers and Tormund snorts. “I talked to her about twice.”
“And apparently you did it in public.” Davos grins at him. “Or possibly it’s because you’re the only two unmarried people of different sexes under thirty-five within the town limits. Either, or.” He puts the first pint on the counter between Robb and Tormund and starts the second one. “Sorry,” he adds in Tormund’s direction.
“No, you’re right, I’m definitely not under thirty-five,” Tormund replies good-naturedly and winks at Robb. Seven hells.
“Can we get a table in back? I don’t like being in the middle of things that much.” He doesn’t add that he also doesn’t like having his back to the door because that would be weird and he doesn’t want to alienate the first person he’s not related to that’s actually started talking to him instead of about him since he got back.
“Sure, go ahead. First round’s on me, considering I dragged you here.”
“There wasn’t actually that much dragging involved, but okay,” Robb agrees, then grabs the pint and heads for an empty table that oversees the back alley. Tormund follows him just as soon as he’s got his pint. “So, any particular reason you wanted to hang out?” Robb asks, smooth operator that he is.
Tormund shrugs, taking off his coat. He’s wearing a black long sleeve. Robb wonders how many identical shirts he owns. He’s seen him in black, grey and off white, so far. “Not really. I just wanted to talk to someone who has more than two brain cells to rub together and simultaneously isn’t below the age of ten. Or over sixty.”
“And how the hells do you know I’ve got more than two brain cells?” Not that he doesn’t appreciate the thought. Arya always said him and Jon shared a single brain cells between them growing up. Gods, he misses her.
“People say you’re a big shot,” Tormund replies, sounding for all the world like it’s all the same to him.
“You know that people here have nothing better to do than to run their mouths. I’m fairly certain that half of what they’re saying about you isn’t actually true either.” Robb shrugs. He isn’t certain why he’s being this confrontational. Nothing Tormund has said has actually been negative. He’s just feeling defensive for no logical reason.
“Are you actually complaining I didn’t call you a complete idiot?” Tormund asks, his brows knitting together in what could potentially pass for amusement.
“Sorry. It’s just … weird, being back here. I don’t think I’m used to it yet. Again. Whatever.” He takes a large drink just so that he doesn’t embarrass himself further.
“Why did you? Come back, I mean? I didn’t really think that’s what people did.”
“People don’t actually move here, either and yet, here you are.”
“If I answer your question, are you going to answer mine?” Tormund leans forward, elbows on the table. His sleeves slip up, uncovering more of the tattoos. Now that he’s getting a closer look at it, he realises it’s a floral design, not actually the skulls and bones he’d expected. Gods, he needs to get out more (or possibly less), the likes of Mrs Dustin are getting into his head.
Robb sighs. “Yeah, sorry.”
Tormund chuckles at him. “You apologise a lot. Anyway, I’m sure the basics already made their way to you in some form.”
Robb nods, motioning with his beer for him to go on. “Yeah, but ‘some form’ usually has quite a bit of embellishments attached to it.”
“Fair enough. I’ve got two daughters, nine and seven. Their mother died six years ago. Boating accident. I’m sure you know how it is.” Boy, does he. His father still isn’t legally dead, because they haven’t managed to find his body after two days of searching the river. “We’re Free Folk, or Other Notherners, as you people so charmingly call us, so there weren’t really that many opportunities. So, my predecessor had that heart attack, there were financial incentives to teach in the backwoods and I didn’t really fancy going too far south, so here we are. I can still take the girls out camping in the wilderness on weekends, so they know where they come from. It’s not too bad, once you get used to people always fucking talking about you.” Tormund takes a drink, looking at Robb like he hasn’t just bared his soul to him. His eyes are piercingly blue. “Just so we’re clear, I don’t want to hear any sorries or condolences or anything. It’s been six years and I’ve made my peace, but it’s how I ended up here.”
“So. What about you?”
Hells. His story is going to sound lame in comparison and like he’s whining. “Anxiety, mostly, some depression,” he starts, and gods, he desperately needs a better way to tell that, to not sound this pathetic. But he promised a story for a story, so he presses on. “Couple of other mental health issues I’m still trying to figure out.” He stops, looking at Tormund, already expecting the judgement he’s seen all too often in the folk around here. Instead, he’s just listening to him, fingers tracing the rim of his glass. Right. “Well, as I’m sure you know there isn’t really that much to do with a highly specialised degree if you’re not in the right state of mind to teach. Hence, me freeloading at my mum’s, embarrassing my younger brothers by working at their school.” He takes another sip, to signal he’s done.
“Small town gossip sure is a fascinating thing,” Tormund comments quietly.
Robb groans. He doesn’t even want to know what Mrs Dustin has come up with behind his mother’s back. “Right. Out with it.”
“I don’t want to sound insensitive,” Tormund says carefully. “It’s got something to do with your father.”
Robb braces himself. Of course it does. Everything always comes back around to his dad, or Theon, and sometimes, on particularly slow days, Sansa’s first boyfriend. “Yeah, go on. I’ll hear it eventually.”
“Mrs … Poole, I think?” Tormund looks at him as if to check, like he hasn’t spent the last six years here, which means his knowledge definitely trumps Robb’s own.
Instead, he confirms, falling right back into the old habits. “Yeah, I know her. My sister Sansa was friends with her daughter Jeyne in school.”
“Mrs Poole told Mrs Dustin that you apparently had some sort of mental breakdown after your father died, on account of one of your friends vanishing while you were still at school? It didn’t make much sense, but I don’t know if it’s because I’m missing some sort of context or because it’s as idiotic as it sounds.”
Robb can feel the migraine coming and instead of being a reasonable person and leaving, he almost completely empties his beer. “Gods, this is so much more bullshit rolled into one than I even could have imagined.”
“I figured. Sorry for bringing it up.”
Robb shakes his head. “Yeah, no. Separately, that’s all sort of true. My father did die, though he’s not legally dead yet, only six more years to go, can hardly wait.” Gods, now he’s starting to sound like Jon, covering up his feelings with sarcasm. “And I guess you could call it a mental breakdown if you lack better terms for it or just don’t care, and the bit about my friend vanishing is also true. It’s why it’s weird that Mrs Poole is talking about it, because her daughter disappeared around the same time.”
Tormund opens his mouth to reply, but Robb shakes his head. “No sorries here either. I’m dealing.” Less than well, right at this very moment, but he is.
“Anyway, it’s great that we had this talk, but I should be heading home.” Fuck. He needs to stop, and he needs to talk to his therapist soon. He’s starting to get into his own head too much again.
“Hold on.” Robb stops in his tracks while he’s shrugging on his coat.
“I really meant it. I want to talk to someone grown-up that isn’t mindlessly repeating everything they hear. Maybe something less … volatile next time around?” He almost sounds pleading and it’s not really Tormund’s fault that this has taken such a terrible turn, anyway.
He forces himself to smile. He’s sure it looks as forced as it feels, but Tormund looks thankful. “Yeah, sure. I still owe you a beer, anyway. Don’t mind me, I’ll be right as rain tomorrow.”
Tormund looks at him sceptically, but he doesn’t take the bait. “Alright. See you.”
Robb waves in Davos’s general direction as he leaves the pub, and heads to his mother’s inn on foot. Not that he has much choice, anyway. He hasn’t bothered getting a car, it’s not like there’s anything worth visiting that is not within walking distance. There is not much worth visiting within walking distance. He ignores Mrs Dustin and Mrs Glover and why the fuck haven’t they moved from the spot? What do they even do all day?
Instead of getting in their faces like he wants to, he ducks his head to light a cigarette, probably giving them even more ammunition, that he had been such a nice, good boy, but what does it matter? They make their own version of everything anyway.
Of course, word has reached his mother before he gets to the inn to join her for dinner and not for the first time he wonders if she really enjoys talking to those bitties or if she’s just got used to it. “Barbrey Dustin saw you with that Snow fellow,” she starts. He wonders where Bran and Rickon are and if their presence would actually make this conversation less uncomfortable or if that’s just wishful thinking.
“And?” he asks around a mouth full of potato.
Catelyn raps her knuckles on the table sharply. “Don’t talk with your mouth full. I’ve raised you better than that.”
He swallows obediently before he talks again. “And?” he repeats.
She wrinkles her nose at him. “Just be careful with that man.”
“’That man’ has two daughters below the age of ten and teaches high school history. What kind of trouble could he possibly be?” he replies, which is completely reasonable in his opinion.
But of course, his mother has heard the same things he has. Has been hearing them for a lot longer, too, has heard the rumour mill as it turns, day by day. “Nobody really knows what happened to his wife, why he lives alone with those girls.”
“Possibly because no one’s asked him to his face. Mum, I’ll say this once, because I know you talk to them on a regular basis. Be careful with Mrs Dustin and her little knitting circle. They come out with their own version of the truth, just based on appearances.”
“They don’t knit, Robb,” she admonishes him.
“You know what I mean. They’re talking about Dad.”
Catelyn’s face turns white in rage, as does the hand that’s suddenly grabbing her fork and knife a lot harder. “Those cunts.”
Yep, he is very glad Bran and Rickon aren’t here. He doesn’t know if Catelyn would like them to hear her using that sort of language. He still hasn’t recovered from the first time he’s heard her curse properly. Considering the context was him, Jon and Theon beating Joffrey Baratheon into a bloody pulp, he doesn’t exactly blame her choice of words. And they truly had been a choice.
“Yeah, well. Apparently, they’re saying I had a mental breakdown because of what happened to Dad.” And Theon, but he doesn’t tell her that. She doesn’t need that on her conscience, too.
“Oh, love, no.” Her face melts into an expression of hurt as she reaches across the table, just lightly touching her fingertips against his hand, mindful of his boundaries. “I know that’s not true. You know that’s not true. And your brothers know it, too.”
“Yeah, but half the town probably believes it, so again: Be careful with them.” He takes her hand in his hand and squeezes, very lightly. Her wedding band presses against his palm.
He can see her face working while she’s thinking, before she looks up from their interlocked hands into his face. “Right, then, I guess you should hear it from me instead of that knitting circle. Theon Greyjoy has turned up again.”