“You should just come with us,” his father tells Robb for the umpteenth time, his voice sounding still so very noble and so very sad, and Robb would scream.
If ghosts could scream, anyway.
“No,” he answers for the umpteenth time. “I can’t.”
Ned looks at him with something that resembles pity as he shakes his head. They’ve been having this conversation over and over since Robb and his mother showed up in Winterfell’s ruins – it seems like such a long time ago.
She cried, or would have cried if ghosts could cry, the moment she saw her husband.
Robb doesn’t begrudge her for having taken his hand at once, her eyes closed as she did it.
She had looked real to him, before then. Her clothes had been covered in blood, and her throat had been cut, but the moment she took that step, all the blood disappeared, her clothes became different, and she had looked five and twenty all over again.
You have to move on, his father had said.
And he had seen everyone else stand behind his parents. He didn’t recognize most of them because he couldn’t have known them in real life, but he has learned the names.
There they were. His grandfather, his grandmother, his uncles, his aunt, every Stark that was ever buried in the crypts was standing there, just waiting for him.
“No,” he had said back then. He still had been angry, he still remembers dying twice, and while every person haunting the castle has someone else with them except maybe his aunt and uncle, and he’s on his own. There’s not even Grey Wind. And he wants to scream at seeing their castle in ruins while – while no one else seems to care.
No one else tried to convince him after then except for his father. Which Robb finds touching, he really does, but –
“You’re just making it harder,” Ned says softly. “The more you wait, the more difficult it will be.”
“I can’t,” Robb replies. “I can’t. It wasn’t time. I didn’t have time. And look at this. Look at this, aren’t you all upset? Don’t you want to do something about it?”
Ned shrugs. “That’s for the living. We’re dead. Just move on, Robb, it will be for the better if you do.”
Ned gives him a sad, sad stare and then disappears.
Robb walks around the empty practice yard and he wants to scream.
If only anyone could hear him.
The thing is that maybe he should just give up, but –
But he was never given the chance to put things right. Jeyne is the gods know where. He was robbed of his chance when he had just been trying to do the best he could. He just can’t give it up and accept that he just failed so horribly. And maybe he should stop and leave, but – but he sees his parents and his relatives look so unreal from here, he sees them just going on with their business and not caring at all, and maybe they’re happier but it just looks like giving up from where he is.
He never wanted to give up. He never would have if only –
He misses Grey Wind. He misses people. He misses his home. And he hasn’t failed to notice that he’s the only son of Ned Stark in here.
Arya isn’t here. Bran and Rickon aren’t here. He’s the only one, when they thought all of them were dead or lost.
He’s glad for that on one side, but on the other –
On the other it’s just so damned lonely.
He doesn’t know how long it is between his death and the Boltons arriving in Winterfell.
He knows his father has asked him to come plenty of times and he refused all of them.
But the moment they do come to Winterfell, for the first time he goes into the crypts looking for all of the others, because –
Because it’s not how it should be. It’s not, and they should all be angry, they should all do something, and –
“You can’t just stay here and watch,” he says as he’s met with blank stares. Everyone but his aunt. She’s not here. She’s usually in the godswood.
“It’s not our problem anymore,” Rickard Stark says, shaking his head.
“This is your home,” Robb protests.
“This is our home,” some great-uncle of his says. “These imposters will eventually leave. How they do it or when, it’s not our concern. In the long run, it will come back to us.”
His mother isn’t around, Robb sees, but she isn’t much these days, and he can understand why, and he doesn’t go looking for her – he was told, just seeing you stuck over on the wrong side makes her suffer even more.
He looks at the twenty or so faces staring back at him. They all look sorry, but not – not enough. Not enough to act.
Robb storms out of the crypts.
The thing is – he doesn’t know how to make himself seen. There’s probably no way he can make himself seen. He can’t even interact with anything else outside the other ghosts, and the moment he touches one of them he’d move on, and he won’t be able to do it.
The first time he walks inside the kennels and finds the cage they’re keeping Theon in, Theon’s sleeping restlessly – at some point he screams, and wakes up with tears in his eyes, and he says I should have died with you under his breath, and then his eyes go wide in horror and he starts telling himself a list of words that rhyme with reek as he cries and hides his face against his knees.
Robb thinks he knows who’s the you in that sentence.
He kneels in the filth, his clothes remaining clean, and tries to put a hand on Theon’s shoulder.
It goes right through it and Theon doesn’t look like he actually felt it.
Robb wants to scream. He does.
No one hears him except his uncle Brandon, who shakes his head on the opposite side of the room before disappearing.
Theon goes back to sleep a moment later, his entire frame shaking.
Robb lies down on the ground and puts an arm around him – he doesn’t feel it, of course, and eventually it doesn’t make anything better.
If only they could talk.
He spends the next few weeks just following Theon around, which is not an eventually good choice.
By the end of the second week, he’s not going to the crypts to ask for help just because he knows that if no one moved a finger for their ancestral home they won’t for the person who betrayed him, but the more Robb sees the more he just – he can’t even be angry. He understood enough from the way Ramsay Bolton speaks, and he’s seen enough, and he just wants to strangle the man with his bare hands, but –
If only he could.
If only he could.
And whenever he sees Theon scrubbing the fucking floor or serving them dinner he thinks why did I ever think trusting Roose Bolton was a good idea. I never asked for that, who ever told them it was what I wanted?
Then again, didn’t they scheme to send him to the place he is right now?
“You deserve better than this,” he says one night as he stands outside the cage in the kennels.
“Didn’t he betray you?” Brandon Stark asks appearing next to him. He also sounds as if he’s merely curious.
“He still didn’t deserve it,” Robb replies. “And I don’t think he wanted to do it in the first place.”
“Stop killing yourself all over again over this,” Brandon keeps on. “You should come with us. You don’t know how good it feels to move on until you’ve done it.”
“No,” Robb says at once. “I’m not leaving until I see these people dead.”
“Then you might be waiting for a long time.”
Brandon shrugs and he leaves.
If ghosts could cry, Robb would be doing it right now.
Then the Vale soldiers arrive.
“That’s Sansa,” Robb shouts – they’re in the godswood now. It’s more than twenty people. It’s all of the Starks buried in the crypts.
“We can’t do anything,” his grandmother says. She sounds sorrowful. That’s about it.
“They’re going to marry her to that – to that – how can we just stand here and do nothing?”
“Your sister always had more steel in her than one would have thought,” Ned says softly. “She will see herself out of it.”
“No she won’t. She doesn’t know. That – that Baelish doesn’t know either. Just – please, we can’t just stand here and do nothing, we can’t, we can’t –“
And then he just stops talking, because there’s sixty faces staring back at him and telling him no. His parents are holding hands and look sad, but that’s about it.
He closes his eyes and wills himself to go back to the crypts.
Where Sansa is talking to Petyr Baelish about his aunt.
If only Robb could tell them that she’s right over their heads.
“Come,” the man says, “let’s speak somewhere the dead can’t hear us.”
As if I can’t hear you, Robb thinks, and follows them. He notices that Sansa put light to a couple of candles that aren’t in front of any specific grave.
If only he could cry.
And then –
“You can’t leave me here,” Sansa pleads.
“I know how hard it is to live with people you despise, believe me. But it won’t be for long.”
Robb would like to say, I would know how hard it is to be dead and surrounded by people you despise. But he doesn’t – not that they’d hear him.
“How do you know?”
“Stannis Baratheon garrisons at Castle Black. He’ll march south to King’s Landing before the winter snow block his way. But first, he has to take Winterfell.”
“You don’t know that,” Sansa says.
And Robb not only agrees. Robb is thinking, is he seriously betting that Stannis will be enough to solve this fucking situation?
“I do. Once he liberates these lands from the Boltons he'll rally your father's bannermen to his cause. With the North behind him, Stannis can finally take the Iron Throne.”
“You think he'll defeat the Boltons?”
“He has a larger army. He's the finest military commander in Westeros. A betting man would put his money on Stannis. As it happens, I am a betting man.”
Gods, and he’s going to do all of this because he’s a betting man? With whom did you end up? Why couldn’t I go straight to King’s Landing? , Robb thinks as he wishes he wasn’t hearing this conversation. It’s just – too – how can anyone think it’s a good plan?
“And if you're right?”
“Stannis takes Winterfell, he rescues you from the most despised family in the North. Grateful for your late father's courageous support for his claim, he names you Wardeness of the North.”
If that works out, Robb thinks, which might as well not happen, since she’s marrying a man who hunts people for fun. He has to do something. If only he knew what.
“But I... I wouldn't... Wardeness of the North...”
“You are the last surviving Stark,” Baelish says. Robb snorts. No she’s not but no one but him and Theon would know.
“He needs you.”
“What if you're wrong? What if Stannis never attacks Winterfell, or he does and the Boltons defeat him?” Good question, Robb thinks.
“Then you will this Bolton boy, Ramsay, and make him yours.”
“Really?” Robb shouts into the void. Of course no one hears him, but – really? “You can’t will that kind of man, the Others take you!”
“I don't know how to do that.”
“Of course you do. He's already fallen for you.” Robb can’t – can’t honestly believe this. Fallen for her? He thinks about what he saw Ramsay do to Theon the first night they arrived here and – if he was alive, he’d be throwing up all over the floor right now.
Fallen for her. As if he’d fall for anyone.
“His father frightens me.”
“He should, he's a dangerous man. But even the most dangerous men can be outmaneuvered. And you learned to maneuver from the very best. I will return before too long. You'll be strong without me. The North will be yours. Do you believe me?”
Robb just stands frozen as he kisses her, and then –
“I expect I'll be a married woman by the time you return.”
No, no, no, no.
The more this nightmare goes on, the more Robb is sure he has to do something.
Except that he doesn’t know what, and of course there’s going to be no bloody help anywhere, and they have no clue, and when he puts his hands on his sister’s shoulders she doesn’t even notice he’s there.
Baelish has been gone for a day and Robb has already resolved that if he ever figures out a way to interact with living people, the kennel master’s daughter is the third on his list.
A surprise in the kennels.
Gods, the moment Sansa had left Theon had started sobbing in earnest, clutching at his maimed hand, and Robb wishes he hadn’t gone with him later when Bolton summoned him.
By the time he’s standing in the corner of the dining hall, observing the situation and feeling rage build up beneath his skin he’s boiling with it.
But then –
“I’m sorry for killing your brothers,” Theon says in a broken voice, and Sansa’s face goes blank, and –
“He never killed them, you bastard,” Robb says, for nothing. All over again.
No one hears him.
Theon looks as if he’s about to cry and fall to his knees, and instead he serves Sansa her dinner while she recoils from him.
And they’re getting married in days.
He needs to find a fucking solution. And he needs to find it now.
He asks. He pleads. He about pesters every single one of his ancestors.
He doesn’t get an answer until the wedding day.
Lyanna Stark comes up to him, looking sad and more solemn than a girl her age should (wasn’t she a bit younger than him when she died?) and like someone who thinks he’s fighting a very stupid war.
“You really want to help them, don’t you?” She asks softly.
“Please,” he answers. “If you know anything –”
“I might,” she says, “but it’s not something you should do lightly.”
“I don’t care,” he says, “as long as I can help them –”
“Very well. I will tell you, as long as you think about it and you promise you will do something for me when you go back to the world.”
He nods eagerly.
“What is it about?”
“Your brother,” she says. “Jon. There’s one thing you have to tell him.”
Then she leans down and whispers in his ear, and when she moves away she looks as if she’s about to cry.
“But –” Robb starts, trying to digest what she just told him.
She shakes her head.
“Don’t say it. I was not supposed to tell you. And you won’t tell anyone until you meet him again, if you do.”
Robb just nods. “Very well. What do I do?”
“You still haven’t moved on. So you can – go to the godswood. Find one of the heart trees. The older, the better. See – the old gods are there. And you can make a deal with them.”
“I – I can?”
“Find a tree and ask. But they don’t deal easily. They will ask a lot of you. And they won’t bring you back permanently. They will be straight with you, but that’s about it – if you go through with it, you won’t be able to undo it or to come back with us, most probably. Think about your options.”
“Thank you, but I already decided,” he says.
“Very well. Good luck then.”
She disappears a moment later.
Robb heads for the godswood, just in time to witness the damned wedding and to hear Ramsay whisper in Theon’s ear, you should have taken her arm, don’t think I will forget it.
Robb waits until the entire party has left.
Then he stands in front of the heart tree they just got married at – it’s one of the oldest.
It should work.
“I want to make a deal,” he says.
For a moment, no one answers.
We hear you.
He shudders at the voice. He couldn’t tell if it belongs to a man or a woman or neither, but he understands every single word. It’s as if someone is speaking right inside his head, and for a moment he feels disoriented as a thick mist encloses him. He can only see the bark of the tree in front of him, and for a moment he feels afraid, but then he stands up straight and goes ahead.
“I need a body. I don’t care for how long, I don’t care how, just give me one.”
You are asking for a lot.
“I know. And I will take whatever deal you give me. But I need to go back.”
There’s no answer for a bit that seems like an eternity.
Robb Stark. You ask to go back to the world of the living. You may, but there is a price.
A life for every day you spend between the living. A life to be given to us in the godswood, in front of this tree. When a day passes and you haven’t taken one, you will go back to what you are right now. And you will not be able to move on. This will be your existence from then on. Do you understand the terms?
Robb thinks – well, Ramsay and Roose Bolton and damned Myranda mean that he already has three days under his sleeve. And he wasn’t planning on being merciful. If it amounts to at least two or three weeks in the world – yes, he can do everything he had planned for and there’s a chance he might do what his aunt asked him.
And if it means he spends an eternity restless, it’s not as if the alternative looked that much better or as if he hasn’t done exactly the same up until this point.
“I understand them.”
Do you take the deal?
“I take the deal.”
You need to seal it with blood. Yours.
And suddenly a wound opens up on his hand, even if he shouldn’t be bleeding.
Robb puts his palm against the three’s bark.
Everything goes dark.
When he opens his eyes, he’s sitting under the heart tree, and he’s cold. He’s cold because he’s wearing the torn and bloodied clothes he had on the day of the Red Wedding, and the cut on his hand is bleeding profusely.
It’s not hurting, though. He places his palm on his heart.
For a moment he thinks it’s not beating, then he realizes that it’s just a lot slower than usual – well then. If this is how it’s going to be, he should be quick.
And he should pay his first price so that he’s sure they don’t take it back, never mind that he’s not going to do away with the Boltons quickly. He stands up, brushes snow away from his clothes and sees two Bolton soldiers coming his way. They’re also drunk.
“Did you see her face at dinner?” One of them says.
“Oh, it’s going to be such a bedding,” the other snorts. “I don’t think she realizes what Lord Ramsay is really like.”
“Well, she’ll find out soon enough.”
All right, Robb thinks, he’s not going to feel guilty about this.
“I don’t think so,” he says, stepping forward.
“What,” one of them starts.
He never finishes – Robb grabs him by the collar and breaks his neck in one swift motion, and throws him under the tree. Then he looks at the second one.
“This is not – you can’t be – I’m drunk, it has to be –”
“I’m sorry,” Robb replies, “you’re not.”
Then he does the same thing. Whatever the gods did, certainly he’s a lot stronger than he used to be – he won’t be the one complaining. He throws the second body under the tree – he has two days already. Good. Now he has to go stop the bedding.
First, though, he stares at one of the still lighted candles next to the tree.
He’s not sure, but maybe –
He glances at it with intent, and then he thinks, stop.
The fire goes out.
Interesting, he thinks. He hadn’t asked for it, but he’s not going to complain about that.
He smiles, steals a cloak from one of the dead soldiers, and walks back towards the castle.
For a moment he considers going to the dining hall and taking care of Roose Bolton first, but then he decides that if the bedding is happening already he should go there instead. He ties the cloak around his shoulders, brings up the hood and walks through the yard – no one recognizes him.
Why would they? He walks inside the ruins of his childhood home and gets inside the castle just in time to see Ramsay Bolton glaring at Theon as the latter has to escort Sansa upstairs.
Right. He waits for them to start climbing the stairs, and then he runs towards the other end of the corridor – if they’re using his parents’ bedchamber, which Robb is sure of since he heard enough planning during this last week, there’s a quicker alternate way. No one notices him as he climbs a different set of stairs – also considering how slowly Theon has to walk, maybe it’s going to take them more than it will take him.
He was right. He’s already there when they finally arrive upstairs. He stands in the shadows until the door opens and closes.
No one turns the lock, though.
He waits a moment. He listens, and then –
“Oh, no, no, no. You stay here, Reek. You watch.”
The door handle goes back up.
“Do I need to ask a second time? I hate asking a second time.”
Robb knocks on the door.
“Who’s there?” Bolton asks, sounding not very pleased. “I said that I didn’t wish to be disturbed.”
Robb pushes the handle and walks inside the room.
“Too bad,” he just says, and then he pushes down the hood.
Sansa’s eyes go so wide in what looks like a mixture of surprise, fear and hope, Theon’s face goes pale at once as he scrambles away against the wall, and Bolton just stares at him for a moment before he shakes his head once.
“No,” he says. “My father killed you.”
“That he did,” Robb says. “Too bad that it wasn’t enough to stop me.”
And then he moves forward and for a moment he entertains the idea of just snapping his neck here and now, but it would be a waste and he needs as much time here as he can. So he just punches him in the side of the head hard enough that he hits the wall opposite them and passes out at once.
For a moment he can only hear silence and Bolton’s erratic breathing.
“Robb?” Sansa asks in a tiny, shaky voice. “Robb?”
He turns towards her and hopes that he doesn’t have blood on his face – he hasn’t had time to actually see how he was brought back.
“Turns out the dead can hear you even outside the crypts,” he says, and that wasn’t what he had thought he would tell her first.
He can see her eyes filling up with tears as her hands clutch at his cloak.
“But – how – how,” she just sobs.
“There are ways. Not – not permanent. But. There are. And I’m sorry it took me so long,” he says earnestly, because he is, he should have found her a lot earlier, and when she crumples against him and throws her arms around him he holds her back tight enough to hurt, and gods but it feels so good to finally touch someone again, and he doesn’t know how long it is but he holds on to her for quite a bit, until he realizes that maybe they should secure Bolton so he doesn’t try to escape, and that he also has something else to do.
“Sansa? We should tie him up,” he says, “I need him to be alive until tomorrow.”
“But – oh gods, his father is downstairs, his army is downstairs –”
“Oh, we can worry about that later. Don’t think about it for now. There’s something else to do first.”
He lets go of her to go grab Bolton, drags him up on the bed with a lot less effort than he’d have thought, then he takes his already opened belt from his breeches and uses it to tie him against the headboard, securely enough that he couldn’t leave without making noise. Never mind that Robb punched him hard enough that there’s blood coming out of his nostrils, so he doubts he’s in any shape to fight back if he should try.
“Very well,” he says. “For now that’s done. Hold this for me in case he wakes up.” He hands Sansa a dagger he had on him, not that he could use it during the wedding.
“All right. But – what are you –”
Robb nods towards Theon.
And she probably reads his intentions on his face, because she shakes his head.
“Robb, he betrayed you. He killed our brothers, for –”
“I know he didn’t,” he says softly, staring at the other side of the room – Theon is still shaking against the wall and resolutely not looking up at him. And then he walks towards him very, very slowly.
“He didn’t? But he said –”
“Sansa, every dead Stark in existence is haunting the crypts. Or the godswood,” he keeps on, kneeling on the ground. “And neither Bran or Rickon is there. Nor Arya, for that matter. You didn’t kill them, did you?”
He receives no answer, and of course he wouldn’t – not that Theon’s looking at him.
He moves closer and puts a hand on Theon’s wrist.
“You can look at me,” he says, keeping the tone as even as he can. “I’m not here to have your head. Well, I’m here for his, but definitely not yours. And it really is me.”
“I can’t,” comes a moment later.
“You can’t, what?”
“I can’t say, if he knows – if he knows –”
Robb gets that even too well. He’s seen enough.
He moves closer so that no one else can hear it.
“I know you think you should have died with me,” he whispers, and he can feel Theon go completely rigid. “I’ve been here since before you got here with them. I know everything. I tried to talk to you all along and I couldn’t. And I’m not here for your head. You can look at me. Even if he knows, he can’t do anything.”
Not least because I’m not even technically alive, he doesn’t say.
Nothing happens for another beat, and then Theon tentatively looks up at him, and good gods he was crying already from what he can see. His eyes go wide all over again as he presses back against the wall – he’s not even thinking about it. It looks like an innate reflex. Robb isn’t really planning on being merciful with Bolton once he finally gets down to it.
“So. We already both know that answer, but just so it’s clear. You didn’t kill them, right?”
“No,” Theon whispers, barely audible. Then he shakes his head once. “They escaped, and I couldn’t find them, and they were commoners, and I shouldn’t have – I didn’t even – I’m sorry, I’m sorry – I’m not him anymore, I’m not –”
“I knew,” Robb just says, his other hand going to Theon’s wrist. He keeps the touch as light as he can. “I knew. I just had to hear it.”
“He said you died,” Theon sobs, his voice breaking on the last word.
“… I did,” Robb has to say. “And – I don’t know how long I can stay, but for now I’m not.” It’s really the best he can do right now. But damn it, the way Theon is still shaking and moving away as if he’s afraid Robb might snap his neck at any point might really be what makes him cry.
“You know,” he says, “once I spent one night next to you. In the cages.”
At that, Theon goes completely still. “You – you did?”
“I didn’t think you’d notice. But that was to say – I’m not here to kill you. You don’t have to think I would.”
“You shouldn’t even be touching me.”
“Who says?” Robb replies softly. “I said it. I know everything. I don’t care anymore.”
“I can’t –”
“What if I say that you can do whatever you want?”
He doesn’t know if he’s overstepping his boundaries, but at that he reaches out and moves his fingertips along Theon’s cheek, feeling how ruined the beard is beneath them, and that does it, because a moment later Theon’s head falls against his shoulder, even if he stands completely still throughout the rest.
Robb’s shoulder is also covered in dried blood, but it doesn’t seem to matter for now.
Robb puts a hand to the back of his head and looks up at Sansa, who’s been watching the scene with tears in her eyes and holding on to the dagger with both hands.
Maybe he should have thought it out more, but –
He holds out his free arm.
When she drops on the ground and throws her arms around him again, he knows that whatever happens now, or whatever happens to him after his time is up? It’s going to be entirely worth it.
They don’t move until he hears groaning from the other side of the room and he feels Theon go even stiffer against him all over again.
“Right. Hand me the dagger?”
Sansa does, and he runs a hand through Theon’s hair again before he stands up and moves to the bedside.
He waits for Bolton to open his eyes, and then the moment he does he puts a hand on his mouth.
Ramsay does try to bite, but it doesn’t hurt at all.
“You can try to do it as much as you’d like,” Robb says, “but it’s not going to work. Now, I think I should make sure you don’t try to do anything stupid while I cleanse this place.”
Ramsay tries to bite his hand again.
Robb just snorts and moves his other hand downwards, pressing down on the man’s throat so that he can’t scream if he tries to talk.
“Please, do say your piece.”
“You’re alone,” Ramsay croaks. “Do you think you can take an entire castle?”
“I think you’re missing a fundamental point. Six months ago, I couldn’t have. Now? I’m here on loaned time. And it means that as long as I’m around you can’t do a thing to me.”
When he sees the man’s eyes go slightly wider in what could seem like fear, Robb just knocks him out again. He needs him to not be a distraction.
And he also needs him to be out of the way.
“Robb –” Sansa starts, “you don’t mean that, do you?”
“About what, taking care of the situation myself? Of course I mean it.”
“… if I tell you that it’s probably better that you don’t know?” He isn’t sure he wants her to see it.
She stares at him for a moment, then at Ramsay, then at Theon who’s still kneeling next to her and looking down at his hands.
“So what do we do now?” She asks, her voice trembling a bit but steady enough.
He glances out of the window. He could jump without a problem, and the yard is empty. And the entry to the kennels is right there.
Robb smirks and throws Bolton over his shoulder – he’s not going to wake up anytime soon anyway.
“Can you two meet me downstairs? Just say that he sent you to do something if anyone tries to stop you. I think they’ll buy it.”
He doesn’t wait for either of them to answer and jumps.
He lands on his two feet without any further pain and then he runs towards the entry to the kennels – damn, now that he can smell he can’t imagine how Theon even slept in there this long. He doesn’t have to wait too long – Sansa appears in the yard and Theon follows her more slowly.
“What are we doing here?” She asks.
“It was the last cage, wasn’t it?” Robb asks Theon instead, not hiding that he knows the answer already.
“Yes,” Theon breathes. “But what –”
“Sansa, do you think you might be so nice to make sure he doesn’t get out while I worry about his father?”
Her eyes widen in understanding and she gives him a tiny nod.
“Good. And you don’t have to come if you don’t want to,” he tells Theon. Theon just swallows once and shakes his head.
Robb walks inside the kennels, arrives at the last cage, throws Bolton inside it and locks it back, then he hands Sansa the key. “You can also not be inside, but maybe it’s a better idea.”
“I think I can handle it,” she replies, her hand closing around the dagger all over again.
“Good. I won’t be long.”
Then he glances at Theon, who seems about to faint. Well, Robb can guess why easily enough.
“You’re coming with me,” he tells him, and grabs his arm before he can refuse.
When they’re out, Theon just takes in deep breaths, and Robb can see the trail of tears turning into ice over his cheeks.
Robb should really get going and get this done and over with, but instead he shakes his head and puts a hand on Theon’s cheek again. “I didn’t mean that you have to come inside with me. You can just stay here and wait it out. The gods know you don’t need to see what I’m going to do.”
“Why?” Theon just blurts out, and the thing is that he should wonder what is he asking it for, but Robb knows it even too well.
“I told you,” he says, wondering if half-dead people can cry, “I know. I didn’t hear you talking in your sleep since you came here for nothing, Theon.”
He thinks he will cry when the moment Robb uses his name he bites down a sob.
“That’s not my name,” he pleads. “And I don’t think I can – I mean, I’d just be useless, I can’t –”
“You can wait here. And I don’t know if it was clear already, but I came back for the both of you, regardless of what you think your name is,” Robb says, and presses his lips to Theon’s hair for a moment and then stalks away towards the dining hall. He notices that Theon starts crying again, but he has to be quick here.
Until he has the element of surprise, he might as well use it.
It’s sad, he thinks, that the only people that aren’t in the dungeons by the time he’s done are old servants that were alive from before Robert Baratheon and his blasted court came into Winterfell.
He also manages it with minimal losses, which is a good thing since he has to buy himself some more time.
“My lord,” Sansa’s old maid asks, her voice full of awe as she stares up at him while they leave the dungeons. “What should we do now?”
He thinks about it one moment. If Stannis is coming, let him come. Maybe Baelish’s plan did have some merit.
“For now let’s just all pretend that it all went according to their plan,” he says. “I won’t be here for long. And people shouldn’t know.”
“So – so we don’t say anything?”
“Not for now.”
He looks down at his bloodied hands and clothes.
Maybe he should change, shouldn’t he?
Well, later. Theon gasps out loud when he comes back into the yard.
“It’s not mine,” he says, before he can be asked.
“But – where –”
“The dungeons. I need them to die in the godswood, if they have to.”
“Why?” He asks with a feeble voice.
“I said I made a deal. But don’t worry about it. Did Sansa come out?”
“No. No, she’s still there.”
Robb takes a good look at him. He seems completely exhausted, and he shouldn’t be out, but he also doesn’t want to leave Bolton unattended, and Sansa shouldn’t stay there.
Never mind that he kind of wants for Bolton to taste some more of his own medicine.
“I will take a minute.”
He walks inside the kennels – Sansa is still there, watching Bolton like a hawk.
“Robb, what –”
“It’s not my blood. Did he wake up?”
“He stirred a short while ago.”
“Good. You can leave. I’ll come in a moment.”
“But – should you leave him?”
“I think I have a solution.”
Sansa leaves, her white bridal dress getting stained with dirt. Robb unlocks the cage and walks inside, and just in time because that’s exactly when Bolton wakes up.
“I thought you might find it comfortable. It’s relatively warm, isn’t it? And I know you might want to try to leave. I wouldn’t do it – everyone else loyal to you is in the dungeons.”
“Sorry, your time to ask questions is over. And by the way, you aren’t going anywhere.”
“Really. How do you know that?”
Robb doesn’t smile as he leans down and reaches for Bolton’s right leg.
“I’d like to see you try,” Robb replies calmly as he locks up the cage not long later. “And if you’re wondering since when I’m the kind of person who does what I just did, you can only blame your lord father. Enjoy your stay.”
He doesn’t even pay attention to the insults shouted his way.
“What did you do?” Sansa asks, sounding slightly worried.
“He’s not going to try to run with two broken legs. And with that, I think we should all go upstairs.”
Sansa lets out a relieved breath and starts for the door, but Theon stays behind.
“Aren’t you coming?” Robb asks, going back to where he’s standing.
“Wait – I’m – I’m coming?”
“What’s the alternative?”
Theon swallows once, twice. Then.
“I thought – I don’t have to go back in there?”
“Your room is already occupied and I don’t think you need to share it.”
Robb doesn’t know how much his attempt to make it sound as if it’s no big deal is working. Probably not that well, because he’s just getting a lost look in return.
“I – I don’t?”
“Contrary to what a lot of people think,” Robb says under his breath, “I always cared about what happened to you, you know? Of course you don’t. I didn’t –” He stops, wondering if he should say it at all, but then – maybe he should just tell the entire truth. “I didn’t make a deal with the old gods that requires giving them human sacrifices just to throw you back into a dog cage.”
He tries to not say anything about how Theon’s openly crying by now.
“I – I don’t deserve it,” he blurts out.
“Too bad, because I don’t agree. And no one is spending the night in a kennel except him.”
Then he figures he should just go for it and holds out his arm. And that’s when he notices that Theon’s wearing a replica of his own clothes, albeit less worn out and bloody.
He’s going to worry about that later.
And then Theon takes his arm with the face of someone who can’t believe it.
That’s fine. He has at least another week to make things even slightly better.
“So – so you’re saying that everyone is here?” Sansa asks him in a feeble voice as she puts on her nightgown. The white dress is thrown in the corner of the room and Robb is standing in front of her mirror, washing blood away from his face and chest – they really did bring him back the way he was when he died, didn’t they. He has a gaping knife wound all over his heart. Good thing he’s giving her his shoulders.
“Everyone. And – Arya isn’t with them. Bran and Rickon aren’t. Looks like I was the only one who really died when I thought you and I were the last one left,” he answers, still dabbing at his chest with a cloth that’s now completely red.
“I don’t regret it. Whatever happens when I go back, I don’t care. I just want to fix things before I have to leave.”
He heads for the wardrobe – thankfully there’s a clean shirt inside. He puts it on and then joins Sansa on the bedside, making sure that his chest wound is fully covered.
“How long do you have left?”
“How many Bolton men are left?”
“That’s how the trade works. And – I took it, but I don’t want to kill innocent people. At some point I will have to leave. And I’m not doing it until I’m sure things are settled.”
“How do you want to settle them?”
“I have a plan, more or less, but – it’s late. We can talk tomorrow and I can think some more about it.”
She still seems a bit unsettled by the revelation, but she nods and moves under the covers. He considers it for a moment, then he moves and sits down on the edge of the bed.
“I’m really sorry I couldn’t come straight to get you,” he says, his fingers covering her wrist. “I had a plan. It just – quite never worked out. And – I just – I got it all wrong.”
“Seems to me like you did come eventually, didn’t you?” She smiles just a bit, closing her eyes, and he keeps on stroking along her pulse point until her breathing evens out, and even then he doesn’t move for a long time.
He doesn’t know how long he waits it out, but when he’s sure she’s not waking up anytime soon, Robb stands up, takes a breath he didn’t strictly need and heads straight for the next room over.
Where, as he has imagined, Theon is on the floor and not on the bed – it’s still made.
He’s not even sleeping, for that matter.
Robb ponders the situation for a moment, then he drops sitting next to him without trying to get him to stand up first.
“What – I didn’t – you shouldn’t be here, you should be with her –”
“I think I can be with the both of you if I please.”
“You can’t want to.”
“Says who? Ramsay Bolton? Too bad for him, I’d know what I want. Now, what you want is an entire other problem.”
He tries to not let show on his face how angry he feels when Theon’s face goes completely blank the moment he mentions what he might want.
“I don’t – what I want?”
“I don’t know, do you want to sleep on the floor?”
“It’s not – that’s where I should sleep.”
“Says who again?”
“I don’t know,” Theon sobs all over again, and – well, the others take this entire situation.
“That’s fine, I guess. So should I just do what I have been wanting to do for a few months?”
Theon gives him a few nods, not even looking up at him.
Robb just hopes that he can’t feel the wound through his shirt as he moves behind Theon and closes his arms around his waist.
Theon goes completely still and he stays like that for entirely too long.
“That was it,” Robb supplies a moment later.
“This was it?”
“It’s not the first time I do it. But if you couldn’t feel me it was wasted, right?”
At that, Theon turns in his arms enough so that they’re facing each other.
“You – already did that. But – you should hate me, you should, it makes no sense, it –”
“I never hated you before I got that raven from Winterfell and I stopped the moment I knew what was going on. I don’t. And you didn’t deserve any of this.”
Theon’s frame suddenly shakes so hard Robb is almost taken aback.
“I did,” he whispers.
“No you didn’t. And if I had known before the wedding – you didn’t. You deserved a trial, not – not that. And by now I think it’s been enough.”
“You shouldn’t be here.”
No answer comes, and – Theon just doesn’t move at all as Robb keeps his arms around his waist, and Robb just waits for more of a reaction. It never comes.
By the time Theon passes out against his shoulder, Robb isn’t feeling particularly guilty about what he did before. He stands up slowly, lifting Theon along with him, drags them both to the bed and lies down, bringing Theon too – he’s so exhausted he won’t probably wake up.
Good for him – Robb doesn’t think he could go to sleep even if he needed it. He stays enough to be sure that Theon is really sleeping, then goes to check on Sansa and stays there until the sky turns violet.
He walks back inside Theon’s room just in time to hear him start whispering under his breath, no I’m sorry it rhymes with freak it rhymes –
Robb lays down on the bed and shakes Theon’s shoulder gently until he opens his eyes.
At that, Theon just jerks away from him and huddles against the wall.
“I’m – I’m not – it wasn’t me, I didn’t get here, I’m sorry –”
“The bed looked more comfortable,” Robb cuts it, and at that he leaves one of his hands on Theon’s cheeks while he puts the other on his hip. He tries not to push, and Theon doesn’t move.
“You can stay here,” he says as he moves a bit closer. “It’s fine.”
“This can’t be real,” Theon says, looking down at the hand Robb’s keeping on his side, and – and the way he says it, with a voice so tiny Robb can barely hear it and as if he’s not letting himself believe for a second that it might last, is about to make Robb do something very stupid. Which he shouldn’t do, not when the situation is this delicate. Robb just moves his hand away and holds up his arm, not prompting or saying anything, and when Theon rolls over in his direction and rests his head lightly against Robb’s collarbone as if he’s afraid it will disappear the moment he moves, he just presses a kiss to his hairline and runs his other hand up and down his spine, and thinks even if I can’t fix this before I have to leave I’m not letting that piece of shit get off so easily.
“You don’t have to come with me,” he tells his sister the following morning. Theon is standing in the corner of the room, hands grasping at his own sides, and he hasn’t said a word since he woke up before. Sansa instead is just staring at him – she’s fully dressed but she hasn’t braided her hair.
“You already told me what was going on yesterday. Just be more specific.”
He breathes in. He might as well say it as it is for the definitive time.
“I told you I made a deal with the old gods. I have to kill someone for every day I am to spend here. I killed two guards yesterday, so I have until tomorrow. And if you think I was planning on leaving either Bolton alive, or that woman who sent you to the kennels, you’re wrong.”
Her eyes go wide, slightly, and she bites down on her lip but she doesn’t move her stare from holding his.
“And I have to go now. I won’t take anyone underserving, if I can.”
Sansa seems to consider his answer a moment, and it’s obvious that she’s trying to reconcile his plan with what she thinks he’d have done before – of course. He’d have never done this back when he was alive for real.
Good thing she doesn’t know why he’s not having a conscience crisis right now.
“Fine. But I’m coming.”
Robb merely shrugs – if she wants to see it, then she can see it.
Then he turns towards Theon, who just takes a couple steps looking down at the ground.
“That offer was valid for you, too,” he says, keeping his voice as soft as he can.
“If you don’t want to see it, you don’t have to come.”
The blank look he gets in return is honestly frightening.
“I – I don’t?”
“I’m not going to force you to watch it if you don’t want to.”
Theon’s face keeps on looking completely blank.
At which Robb realizes that he might not be coming to terms with having a choice and when he glances at Sansa she looks plenty damned horrified as well – well, at least it’s not just him having that impression.
Robb wishes he could save the Boltons for later – possibly a time when Theon could fully appreciate Robb bringing him Ramsay’s head –, but he has no time and he can’t afford to let them stay alive for much longer.
“You know what,” he says, “you can just stay here until we come back and get some rest.”
And then Theon’s fingers reach out and wrap around his wrist – it’s not strong at all, but it’s obvious he’s trying. “But you are coming back, aren’t you?”
“I will,” Robb promises, and then Theon lets his wrist go and just – his face goes completely blank again and he leans back against the wall.
“Fine. We’re going to be back soon,” he says again, and then walks out of the room with his fingers closed very tightly around his dagger.
Sansa’s face is so pale it’s almost ghastly as they walk down to the dungeons.
“Robb, you’re not going to fix that in a week,” she says gently as they stop at the bottom of the stairs.
At least she isn’t telling him that he shouldn’t try.
“I need more than a week anyway,” he says sadly. “But I know that.”
He knows that, indeed.
When Robb has in front of the heart tree all three of them and another five guards who he’s plenty sure spent a lot of their turns guarding the kennels and having a laugh about who stayed inside them, he dismisses everyone else and waits for what men he has to leave. Sansa is the only person remaining on the side.
“It’s nothing personal,” he tells the first guard. “But maybe showing some common decency wouldn’t have hurt you or your friends over here,” he says, and then snaps the man’s neck. Then he moves on to the next guard, and then to the next, until all five of them are on the ground.
Good. Then he grabs his dagger and moves on to Roose Bolton, who’s the only one standing. And who at least is holding his stare, because his son certainly didn’t even try before.
“Lord Bolton,” Robb says, “if there is ever a next time for you, I’d advise you to choose your alliances better. You’re lucky I don’t have time to waste. And for the record, Catelyn Stark sends her regards to you.”
And then he thrusts – no point in dragging it any longer. It doesn’t feel half as satisfying as one might think it could be, but Robb wasn’t planning on feeling satisfaction here.
Then he kneels in front of Ramsay, forcing him to look up. His face is contorted in a pained expression, but then again anyone forced to sit down with two broken legs that haven’t been set would look like that. He’s also sending Robb a look of such hatred, Robb almost wants to laugh. As if he’s in the position to judge anyone.
“I guess you’re lucky that I can’t afford to drag this much longer,” Robb finally says after a long moment of forced staring. “You deserve a lot worse than what I’m about to give you.”
“I think your father might have thought he already did. And it’s your own fault you’re here in the first place. Do you think I would have gone as far as doing what I did just because I missed being alive? Please.”
Then he leans closer, so he can speak low enough that Sansa can’t hear him.
“He doesn’t know that yet and he won’t for some time, I guess, but Theon Greyjoy sends his regards, Snow.”
He doesn’t wait for a reaction – he grabs the dagger again and thrusts forward.
Then he moves to the girl, who is looking up at him with a fairly terrified expression.
“What I just told him? That’s valid for you as well.”
“I didn’t –” She starts, but he grabs the back of her neck and cuts the sentence there.
“I know perfectly well what you did. As I said, I’ve been around. Hunting people in the godswood is hardly doing nothing. A year ago I’d have recoiled at the idea of doing what I’m about to do, but beggars can’t be choosers I suppose. As I told that guard before, showing some common decency wouldn’t have hurt and I need time. Goodbye.”
And then he reaches forward and snaps her neck as well – he doesn’t need to make a point here.
He looks at the eight bodies covering the snow, which is now stained with red.
It can’t be enough, but at least it’s something.
He stands up, brushes away snow from his clothes –
And looks towards Sansa to see that she’s not alone.
He doesn’t know when Theon did get here, but at some point he must have. And he’s staring at the bodies on the ground with an expression that Robb can’t quite put it into words – Sansa is sending worried looks at the both of them, not that he doesn’t understand why.
“I’m done,” he says, figuring it’s time to leave. “For now, anyway.”
Theon looks up at him, shakes his head.
“I’m sorry,” he says with a dejected voice.
“You told me to stay back.”
“I said you could do whatever you wanted. That was a suggestion. And – it didn’t look like you wanted to come.”
“It’s – it’s that – I don’t know much but – I should have been with you before and – it was wrong that I wasn’t now,” Theon says in a voice so tiny you can barely hear it.
Robb doesn’t try to wipe away the stray tears burning in his eyelids.
He puts an arm around Theon and steers him back towards the castle, waiting for Sansa to fall into step with him, and thinks, now it’s time to plan.
“So,” he tells her later, when Sansa’s sitting next to him at the dining room table and Theon’s fitfully sleeping on the ground near the fire, which Robb was not fine with but there had been no means to convince him that he didn’t have to, and so for now he’s letting it slide, “I think I have a decent plan here, but I obviously can’t write the ravens and people can’t know I’m here. Not in the least because the gods know how much longer I can stay.”
“What’s the plan?” She asks, her hand covering his – he squeezes back and goes through it all over again.
“I don’t know if Stannis is still at the Wall or not, but at some point he will get here. And that part of Baelish’s plan was the only one that actually made some sense if you don’t count that I’m not so sure that he would side with Stannis out of everyone. Regardless, when he gets here just let him in and try to bargain with him – no one needs a kingdom in the North anyway. Still, make sure that you have terms. Mainly, that he leaves you free to do what you wish and that being his warden doesn’t mean that you’ll do anything he says. Other than that – I’ve seen things,” he says, his voice suddenly going lower. “When I was – when I was haunting the place. And – if the Wall falls, we’re all in danger regardless. Well. You are.”
“Wait. Do you mean that all those stories Old Nan used to tell us about the Long Night –”
“They weren’t just stories. You should write Jon and tell him that you’re willing to help out as much as you can with as many men as you can, and if he’s gracious enough to come down here to talk to you it would be best. Also because I have a message for him and I can’t trust it to anyone else.”
“From – from someone else. But I can’t say it. I’m sorry, she made me swear. Still, I’ll tell you if he’s not here by the time I have to leave.”
“Robb – how long do you think you have left?” She asks, her voice slightly trembling.
He shrugs. “How many more Bolton soldiers can I kill? That’s how much time I have left.”
Sansa’s pale face goes even paler at that. Robb just squeezes her hand and tries not to think about what’s in store for him the moment his time is indeed over.
It takes Sansa three days to reach a decision.
Then, one morning when Robb is down in the dungeons assessing the situation, she goes looking for Theon, who’s currently holed up in Robb’s room and hasn’t set foot outside it since the day Robb killed both Boltons.
When she walks in, he immediately looks down at the ground.
She takes in a deep breath and doesn’t try to kill the spark of pity blossoming in her chest.
“You heard him,” she says, figuring there’s no point in sugarcoating it.
“What for?” He answers cautiously.
“He’s not here for the duration. And he made a deal to be here. I want to see if there’s a way to change it so he doesn’t have to be here on loaned time. Do you want to come with?”
His head jerks upwards and he stares at her for a moment, his eyes so wide in fear that for a moment she thinks he just won’t answer.
Instead he stands up and joins her.
“Yes,” he says without adding anything else to it.
Well, that went better than she had pictured.
Neither of them says anything as they head to the godswood and look for the tree – the bodies have been buried somewhere Sansa doesn’t know, no heads on any spikes because no one has to know for now, so now it’s all white snow.
Theon stops a few steps behind her. She doesn’t try to tell him he can move at her side and looks straight at the heart tree.
“I am Sansa Stark of Winterfell,” she says out loud, “and I want to know what did my brother actually ask you.”
For a moment she hears nothing, and then a thick fog appears all around the two of them, the temperature drops all of a sudden, and then she hears a strange voice all around – or maybe is it inside her head? – and it says –
He wanted to live again. He traded a human life for each day between you. And he has lived up to the bargain for now. What do you seek?
She swallows as she looks upwards. “What will happen to him after he’s done?”
He’ll go back to being what he was. Only he won’t be able to move on and he will haunt this castle forever. He was aware of that.
Of course he was. “And is there some way he could– he could stay and live out his life?”
For a moment no one answers. And then –
It’s a life for a life, but it has to be freely given.
“What do you mean exactly?”
Someone else needs to take his place willingly. Someone else has to say they wish to trade their life for his.
“And could they – move on?”
No. He stays, he lives out his life and then moves on, but whoever steps in his place will never be able to. Why, Sansa Stark, do you wish to take his place?
For a moment she feels horrified – an eternity stuck haunting a castle without any company or being able to move forward is no way to exist, and Robb accepted such a deal for her sake, too, and gods but he doesn’t deserve that. And –
“I will do it,” Theon says quietly from her side.
“What?” She interrupts, and he flinches back in fear at her tone. She takes a breath, then shakes her head. “What, wait, you didn’t just say –”
“It would be the least,” he says, his voice still so tiny she can barely hear it. “I ruined everything for the both of us, if I hadn’t – if I hadn’t – if I had just come back, maybe this wouldn’t have happened. I’m no use to – to him or to anyone now.”
“Did you hear what they just said? It means – spending the rest of – of your existence alone haunting this place without anyone else to share it with. You can’t undo it.”
He almost laughs, but he stops himself before his lips curl up in a sneer. “My lady,” he croaks, “as if it would make much of a difference to me. Besides – he’s worth it,” he says, and then he really does smile just a tiny bit, the corners of his mouth curling up ever so slightly.
Sansa vows to herself to ponder what he’s just said later, because as if it would make much of a difference – she thinks she knows what he means, and for a moment she feels terrible. What if Robb hadn’t been his only friend back then?
And then she realizes that there’s no need for him to sacrifice himself like this.
She grasps at his arm.
“Wait,” she says, “there’s no need.”
“There is,” Theon says. “And it would be the least –”
“No. No, as long as he can stay for another couple of weeks, you don’t have to.”
Theon shakes his head in confusion.
“They said someone has to offer themselves in his place freely. They didn’t say how freely. And my father is coming back from King’s Landing at some point.”
At that, Theon’s eyes go wide again in understanding and is there hope she’s seeing?
“You mean –”
“If Robb doesn’t want to convince him to make that trade, I will.”
Theon takes a step back, still not looking convinced, and Sansa figures it’s time to make sure he doesn’t do something stupid. She turns towards the tree again.
“We’ll be back,” she finally says. “With someone else. Not him.”
Sansa Stark, we do not care who is it as long as the request comes from them. We will wait for either your brother or someone else. As long as the debt is paid.
Then the air isn’t so cold anymore, and the mist lifts to give way to the pale winter sun.
Sansa takes in a few deep breaths, wipes cold sweat from her brow, and then looks at Theon, who’s more or less trying to stand up instead of kneeling on the ground – when he does, he doesn’t look at her.
“After you. My lady.” He nods towards the path back to Winterfell.
She thinks about how readily he had stepped up to the task before. And about how much he just – seemed to truly mean everything he said.
She thinks she wants to cry, but instead she holds out her arm.
“No,” she says, “I think there’s no need.”
“But – but you said –”
“I changed my mind. Shall we?”
He swallows and holds out his own arm. She takes it, trying not to wince openly at the sight of his maimed left hand, and they head back.
She hadn’t noticed that he winced whenever taking a step until now, but he does that until they slow down, and then he stops, but never says a word. He’s also resolutely not looking at her.
“If I ask you what did he do to you, what happens?”
“Do I have to answer?” He replies after too long of a time.
“No,” she says at once, feeling something blocking her throat.
They don’t speak as they get back to the castle and she doesn’t comment on how his face contorts in pain by now with every step he takes.
Maybe she really doesn’t want to know.
“What happened in the godswood?”
From the way Sansa looks straight down at the parchment she was writing, Robb guesses that he’s guessed right – something that she hasn’t told him did happen there.
“What do you know?” She finally asks.
“What one of the guards told me.”
“And – why did you ask them?”
“Because Theon’s been – worse than usual?”
Well, it’s not like the situation is good, but at least before he did spend time in the same room as Robb. And he has counted days here. If he wants to help out, they can’t be in a situation where Theon doesn’t even answer when he knocks on the door.
She breathes in. “I went to talk to your old gods.”
“It was to see if there was a way you could stay permanently.”
“There isn’t –”
“There is, actually,” she says softly. “Someone has to take your place willingly.”
For a moment, Robb feels flabbergasted, and he doesn’t even contemplate telling her that she didn’t need to go to the godswood. He wasn’t looking for a way out. “And I can’t exactly ask anyone to do something like that, so why is this even a –”
“Except that he offered and I stopped him.”
“He did what?”
“He said he’d take your place right then. I stopped him because I – might have had a better idea. If you will hear me out about it.”
“Sansa, I told you, never planned to ask anyone –”
“Yes, but who made me come here in the first place?”
She stares at Robb, and he understands what she means. For a long time neither of them speaks. “Are you sure?”
“If you don’t convince him to do it, I will,” she says, her voice sounding hard as steel. “Were you going to spare him, anyway?”
“I wasn’t,” he replies at once.
“Then you might as well gain something out of that.”
He can see the merit in the idea. He can. And Baelish is bound to come back at some point soon.
That said –
“So wait, he just – said he’d condemn himself to haunt Winterfell for eternity so that I could stay?”
“That’s what he did.” Sansa puts down the pen, walks up closer to him. “And – I don’t want to – I mean, it’s also his fault if we’re in this situation, but – he was just – he didn’t even think about it. And I wondered –” She stops, breathes in, speaks again. “It was always just you, wasn’t it?”
“How was it always just me?”
“Giving him a chance, I guess.”
Robb doesn’t want to say yes, it was always just me, because it’s not the right moment or time. Still –
“Maybe, but I suppose it’s not too late now, is it?”
“You – you really don’t care?”
He shrugs. “Sansa, I’ve been dead all this time. And I’ve been here since before the Boltons arrived. I’ve seen enough of what happened to him. No, I really don’t care. That – that puts things into perspective. I have more or less another chance and I can’t afford to care. I think he’s paid for it enough – we all did. There’s no reason to linger on that.”
“And what if you’re too late?”
This is a notion he has entertained.
“Then I am, but at least I did try. And now I guess I will have to go convince him to at least talk to me.”
“You could just go in,” she says softly. “I mean, he wanted to die for you, I doubt he doesn’t want you to be there.”
“I’m not going to force him to do anything,” Robb cuts, and when she nods and squeezes his hand before going back to her parchment he heads back upstairs.
He knocks on the door and receives no answer. Of course.
“Hey,” he says, “it’s me. You don’t have to let me in. I just wanted to tell you that – Sansa told me about the godswood.”
“And – thank you. I didn’t – I mean, I didn’t go through all that trouble just so that you could take my place, and I’d never want you to, but it’s still appreciated. Also – I’ll go if you’d rather be on your own but I’ll have someone bring you some dinner up later. Just – that was all I had to say. I’ll go if –”
The door opens abruptly a moment later and he finds himself face to face with Theon, who’s not looking that much better than he did the last time they saw each other – the only good thing is that his old, torn clothes are at least clean and that he’s obviously not refusing the baths Robb sent up to his room for the past few days, but the way he’s hunching on himself and obviously forcing himself to look at him is hardly encouraging.
“You shouldn’t thank me,” he says, looking straight at the ground after a couple of moments of holding Robb’s stare.
“I don’t see why not,” Robb replies.
“It’s the least. That’s about – not like I’d be useful for something else.”
Robb has a clue that saying you’re worth a lot more than that wouldn’t help at all right now.
He breathes in, tries to phrase it somewhat better. “Not if I have to be the judge of that,” he says. “Can I come in?”
When Theon immediately scrambles to let him in, he doesn’t move.
“I didn’t mean let me come in. I’m not walking inside if you don’t want me to.”
“I want whatever you want,” Theon tells the ground beneath his feet.
“And I don’t want what you don’t want,” Robb says, and when Theon looks up at him in complete puzzlement he realizes that if his target was not confusing him further, he’s not doing a great job of that.
“I’m sorry,” he says, “that wasn’t clear at all.”
Theon shakes his head, his shoulders trembling. “It shouldn’t be you.”
“I should know what you want. It’s – it’s my fault if I don’t know.”
“I can’t expect you to guess what I’m thinking when I can’t even say it straight.” Robb ends up walking inside and closes the door, not locking it, while Theon just – presses up against the corner, still trembling like a leaf, and that’s when Robb realizes that not only he’s not wearing proper clothes or a cloak, but – no one took that collar off him yet. He curses himself – he should have done that the first night, but he had been so distracted he hadn’t thought about it.
Robb swallows. “Theon –” He starts, and mentally kicks himself when Theon flinches all over.
“Please don’t,” he sobs. “Please don’t, I’m not him anymore, I swear I’m not, I can be better, I can do better –”
“Right. Right, I swear I won’t, I didn’t mean it, but – let’s just – how should I call you then? I can’t call you – that other way. I just can’t.”
“It’s not – I don’t get to – I can be whoever you want, I will be whoever you want, I learned my lesson. I swear I did, I –”
Robb thinks he doesn’t throw up just because there’s nothing he virtually could throw up. The advantages of not being really alive, aren’t they? He swallows, moves closer and puts his hands on Theon’s wrists as gently as he can make them.
It does stop the flow, and it does make Theon tentatively look up at him.
He really hopes he doesn’t get this wrong.
“That’s – I appreciate the sentiment, but – see, I can’t tell you that. And – how is it that you still have this on?”
He touches the collar. Theon shudders. “Lord R – I mean –”
“Ramsay Bolton,” Robb supplies. Theon shudders again.
“He had the key.” He says nothing else. Obviously no one knows where it is and no one else had a copy, and Robb figures that Theon wouldn’t have asked someone else to break it off.
Robb moves his fingers on the lock and presses on it with thumb and index, concentrating on it the way he had done with the candles in the godswood and like he had done in the mess hall when he left his parents’ room a few days ago, and moments later it breaks – when the collar falls off, he sees that the skin under is completely chafed all over. Never mind that it’s less clean than the rest, but when the damned thing is on the ground Theon lets out such a relieved breath that you’d think Robb had just lifted some kind of unbearable weight off his shoulders. Robb debates it for a moment but then doesn’t reach out to touch his neck. He does, however, lift Theon’s face up just a bit so they can look at each other.
“Case is,” he says, “you could be whatever I want, I don’t doubt it, but – I was plenty fine with Theon Greyjoy already. I don’t think I want anyone else. And before you tell me it’s the only thing you can’t give me, fine, then we just find out what is it that you want now, but it’s not my place to tell you who you should be. And he had no right to do that either. If you want me to leave so you can think about it –”
Theon’s nails suddenly dig into his wrist.
So maybe he doesn’t have to leave. He moves his hand from Theon’s face to his neck, brushing at the chafed skin underneath.
“Should I clean this up?” He asks gently, but Theon doesn’t budge or let him budge. Then he shakes his head once, twice, and his forehead falls against Robb’s shoulder as he shakes all over.
Robb manages to drape his cloak over the both of them so at least he’s warmer. He closes his arms around Theon’s waist gingerly enough, so he doesn’t risk crowding him, but – this is different than the previous times. The previous times it had felt like Theon was just letting him do whatever he liked. This time, he’s actively pressing up against him even if he’s shaking all over, and when Robb experimentally cards at his hair what he gets in return is a sob while Theon pushes up into the touch like someone starved for it, and for what Robb knows he is.
Robb breathes in, hoping that Theon doesn’t notice how much slower than normal his heartbeat is.
“It’s fine,” he says, his fingers still carding through Theon’s ruined strands. “You – you don’t have to hold back. Just do it. It’s over.”
He waits for it a moment, and when he finally, finally feels hot tears on his shirt he is almost relieved himself. Good, there was a limit to everything, and he remembers how much he’d have liked to unload himself with someone back just before the wedding, and – no, he’s not going to think about it. But then –
“Please,” Theon blurts against his collarbone, “I know I can’t ask you anything, but please, if the plan – if the plan doesn’t work out – if you have to leave – if you have to leave bring me with you. Wherever, I don’t care, just please do it, I can’t – I don’t – I don’t care if it hurts or if I have to pay a price, I don’t –”
“I will,” Robb interrupts before he really does cry as well. “It’s fine, you don’t have to beg me, I swear I will but I’ll try not to let things come to it. You don’t have to beg me for anything, all right? Don’t worry about it. You don’t have to worry about anything right now.”
It’s probably worrying in itself that Theon just goes quiet and cries it out against his shoulder from that point on, but Robb can worry about that later.
And he needs to take another tour in the dungeons. If they have to wait for Baelish to come back, he needs more than the few days he has left.
It takes the man another two damned weeks to finally appear on the road to Winterfell – and it’s good timing, because by now everyone that’s left in the dungeons is commoners who were in the Bolton army just because they come from that area, not because they chose that allegiance. And Bolton’s wife, but Robb is not going to kill a pregnant woman regardless of what he thinks of her illustrious father. Also, since Robb knows that he can’t exactly stay in the castle after this is over – he can’t surely let anyone know that he’s not dead, not when he has a perfectly good plan and not when he absolutely does not want to play a game that he has already lost once, when Sansa told him that her mother’s knight might be around to help, he agreed to have her called here. Brienne of Tarth showed up not long after they lighted the candle, and she had been fairly surprised at seeing what had happened, but she had taken things pretty much in stride and had sworn all over again that she only wanted to keep her vow to his mother. And it had been nice to hear the entire story of how she was going around with a Lannister sword – Robb figures that maybe he can reevaluate Jaime Lannister at this point. What does he know. Anyway, at least he had been sure that his sister was in good hands while he worried about what to do with Baelish and about convincing Theon that he really did not have a single problem with the way he used to be back before this horrible, bloody mess started.
“Are you sure that you want to come down?” He asks Sansa as they see Baelish approach the gate. “You don’t have to. I can deal with him myself.”
She shakes her head. “Father used to say that if you say the sentence, you had to swing the sword. I imagine there will be no swords to swing, but it was my idea and he should know from me. Actually, I should go downstairs on my own. You can wait in the godswood.”
“Very well. I imagine Brienne will not be with you – be careful.”
“I will see you at the heart tree,” Sansa says. “Also,I had a raven from the Wall this morning.”
“Oh. And what did it say?”
“That Jon would be glad to visit in a month or so.” She smiles at that, and Robb does as well, and when she throws her arms around him he’s quick in holding her back.
“I was sure I would never see either of you again,” she says against his collarbone. “And now – if it goes as it should –”
“It will,” Robb reassures her. “You should go. And I should leave. Or – well. We should.”
“Wait, is Theon –”
“He insists that if it doesn’t work out he should leave this world with me. Considering that he seems to be very sure about that, I’m hardly going to tell him it’s not a valid choice.”
Sansa stares at him as if she gets it but doesn’t think either of them is making entirely sound decisions.
“Robb, if the first choice he makes for himself is committing suicide with you, I don’t think it says much about this entire situation.”
“I know that. Hopefully he won’t need to, will he?”
“Hopefully. Go then, I will join you,” she says, pulling her cloak over her shoulders.
Robb smiles and heads back for his room.
Maybe, before, he wouldn’t have done this so lightheartedly.
Maybe, before, the look of uttermost terror showing up on Baelish’s face when he sees Robb leaning against the heart tree would have made him think, what am I becoming?
As it is, he glances at Theon, who’s huddling against one of the other trees and just staring with the face of someone who’s resigned if the outcome is bad.
Also, he knows everything the man has done. His father might not have been hung up on it anymore, but he did tell Robb what happened in King’s Landing back.
“Well,” he says, coming closer, “my lord, I think we need to talk. Now, I was told that you used to fancy my lady mother? Because if it’s like that, I’m sure you will be ecstatic to know that you might see her again very soon.”
“… She’s dead,” Baelish replies, not sounding so sure of himself anymore.
“About that.” Robb smiles. “That’s true. But it doesn’t mean she’s not here. And if you do exactly what I say, you will have an eternity to try to apologize to her. If she’s willing to listen to you.”
“… an eternity?”
“Right. I hadn’t disclosed the entire deal.” Robb smiles all over again, knowing that Baelish is staring at the scar across his heart. He didn’t put on a cloak also for that reason. “So, you can either let me kill you, and you can be sure I will not be merciful, because after what you almost did to my sister I don’t really feel like I should be. Or, you can willingly tell the old gods that you wish to take my place on the other side and there you might have your chance to talk to my lady mother. And I will make you do that anyway even if I am not merciful first, because I would quite like to stay. What is it going to be? Because my lord, rest assured that you are not walking out of this clearing alive.”
And of course Baelish looks somewhat relieved when Robb discloses the second option.
“Of course,” Robb keeps on, moving closer, “it implies haunting this place for eternity, and I don’t know what company are my relatives to outsiders, but you’re either going there painlessly or painfully. I should hope it will be the first option?”
Baelish swallows, then looks up at him.
“I should hope as well,” he finally says. “But – how. How, you were dead –”
Robb moves right in front of him, puts a hand on the man’s throat, moves closer. “I was, but seeing my sister having to marry a man who hunted girls through the godswood and flayed people if they displeased him might have made me decide that it was time to see if there was a way I could not be. And maybe I would have done that anyway, because I don’t think I could have borne seeing that bastard treat my best friend like a dog for that much longer, but if you hadn’t thought of bringing her here, you wouldn’t have been part of this story. I’m very sorry, my lord, but I was listening to you down in the crypts, and there’s one thing I can tell you for sure. That thing is sometimes gambling doesn’t pay off. Now, shall we get started? Because I would hate to kill some poor commoners who only had the dubious luck of wearing a Bolton uniform so that I can stay in this world a little while longer.”
Baelish’s eyes go wide in utter fear.
Robb merely pushes him towards the tree.
Maybe before he would have felt at least somewhat guilty.
Now he doesn’t.
“I wish to change our deal,” he says out loud.
The air turns colder and the mist surrounds them both.
We’re listening, he hears.
He opens his eyes and he feels cold.
Never mind that the scar on his chest hurts, and he groans as he rises to his feet – he’s definitely not stronger than usual anymore, he thinks, and then –
Then he puts a hand on his heart.
It’s thumping naturally now, not just one single beat every handful of seconds. Every single one of his muscles hurts, but it’s good, it’s good, it means he’s back in between the living for real – and Baelish’s completely gone. There isn’t even a body anywhere.
Well, one thing less to explain, Robb figures. He smiles to himself and looks ahead, and – well. He’s surrounded in a thick mist, the same that came down whenever he talked to the old gods, but it’s all right. If it goes the way he thinks –
You have your second chance, Robb Stark, he hears.
And then the mist is gone, and Sansa is standing a bit ahead of him and her eyes fill up with tears as she runs towards him.
“Did – did it work?” She asks, her hands reaching for his.
“Yes,” he says, “I think it really did.” And he can feel his eyelids burning as she throws her arms around him – he lifts her up from the ground and twirls her in the air same as they used to do back when they were children, and of course his legs don’t hold up and they fall to the ground in a pretty undignified mess.
And then he looks at his right – Theon’s still there, looking at the two of them strangely. On one side he looks so relieved he could cry, on the other he’s just standing still like a statue, his hands stuck to his sides, as if he knows he shouldn’t try to intrude, and –
Fuck this, really.
“Hey,” Robb says, “it worked. No need for any of us to commit sacrifices. Are you coming?”
And then he holds out his arm the moment Sansa gives him a tiny nod, and for a moment Theon just looks flabbergasted, but then he makes his way towards the both of them and maybe he cries when Sansa’s arm crosses with Robb’s against his back, but neither of them is going to point it out.
Robb smiles all over again.
One month later
Out of everything Jon had expected after dismounting in the yard, Sansa throwing herself into his arms wasn’t on the top of his list, but he’s hardly going to be the one complaining about it happening – for a moment he freezes because she had barely raised her arms in greetings before doing it, but he had held back not long later. Maybe some of the soldiers around them sent them strange looks, but all the old servants he still recognizes send them fond looks instead, and so he just holds her close until he can’t feel his hands because of the cold anymore.
“You really did make a name for yourself, didn’t you?” She asks him as they walk inside the castle and up to their father’s solar.
“I might have,” he admits, and he knows his cheeks might be flushing as he says it. “I still think they all went mad when they elected me, but –”
“Don’t. I’m sure you’re doing a lot better than you’re implying. Come on, we should talk in private.”
He follows her upstairs, not trying to stop himself from smiling.
“So,” he asks when they’re finally alone, a plate of lemoncakes in front of them, “I imagine you wanted to know about the situation at the Wall more in depth?”
“Actually – actually I don’t need to know it. I know enough on my own. But – I needed an excuse for you to come here.” She sounds a bit sheepish, but not because it might be bad news.
“I couldn’t trust a raven with the real news. So – what do you know about what happened here since the sack?”
“That your mother’s sworn sword came to rescue you when Baelish tried to marry you off to Ramsay Bolton?”
“Well, yes, that’s what we let everyone believe.”
“Why, didn’t it go like that?”
Sansa swallows. “No. No it didn’t.”
And then she tells him the truth.
When she’s done, Jon can barely believe his ears.
“You’re telling me that –”
“Don’t say it out loud – there are some of Stannis’ men around here and even walls have ears. But yes. That’s exactly what I’m telling you. And – he said he had something to tell you in person, other than wanting to see you again.”
Jon can’t even begin to guess what’s going on here, or what it could be, but he swallows the last bite of his lemoncake and stands up.
“All right,” he says. “Where is he?”
“Outside. Do you know that old keep outside the gates?”
“The one outside the godswood? Yes, but wasn’t it abandoned?”
“It’s not anymore.”
“… isn’t it a bit too far though? I mean, if the servants here know about him, he wouldn’t need to be that far out.”
“In theory, but – you’ll see. And I’ll tell you on the way there. It’s really better to say that part of the story where no one can hear it.”
Jon doesn’t question her decision and follows her outside the castle – when they’re finally outside of it and walking through the godswood, she glances at her surroundings and starts speaking in a hushed voice.
“The thing is – he’s not on his own.”
“I guess it’s good for his peace of mind, but who’d be with him?”
“Did you ever wonder what happened to Theon after the sack?”
For a moment Jon is so taken aback by the question that he just stares at her. “Uh, sometimes I did, but we never received any news about it. Never mind that I wasn’t even at the Wall when it went down. Why?”
“Bolton took him prisoner,” Sansa says. “And – let’s say that the treatment wasn’t befitting of his crimes.” She shudders as she speaks, shaking her head.
“… As in?”
“He slept with the dogs, and that wasn’t even the worst part of it.”
Jon isn’t sure he wants to know the rest. “Anyway, it looks like – me coming back here was what made Robb decide for good that he had to do something, but I think witnessing that treatment was what had started him on that path. And – well. I don’t think he – I think he already had forgiven him when he came back to life the first time. Now – well. I did tell you it’s two people in that tower, didn’t I? He’s the other one.”
“You did,” Jon agrees. “But – you mean he doesn’t care?”
“Not really,” Sansa says. “If he ever did, it was before he came back. I just meant to say – at the beginning, whatever they’re doing might floor you for a moment but – when you’re adjusted to it, it’s… really not that strange, I suppose.”
“Why, what are they doing?”
“Let’s say that our brother has something to occupy his time with. Which would be – well. Getting Theon to refer to himself by his own name again without issues, last that I knew.”
“That is the target? What in the seven hells happens to someone that they want to refer to each other by a name that isn’t theirs?”
“Jon, you really don’t want to know. Anyway, it’s not going to take him a month or even two, probably. And – he’s just died, resurrected and then come back for good. Robb, I mean. He’s – actually, he’s not that different at all, but in some things – he just is. It’s not bad. Unless you count that I don’t think he feels guilty for the people he had to kill in order to stay here, but that’s another problem.”
The more Sansa says, the more Jon feels like the ground is opening under his feet. This is too much information in too little time.
“Well, if he’s been dead for six months if not more before coming back I suppose he can't be exactly the way he was. Still, different how?”
“I think you just have to see them to understand what I mean. Just, if Theon’s actually around don’t call him by his name until either of them does that first. If they do. Trust me, you want to remember that.”
“… All right.” If he thought the situation couldn’t get stranger, he probably was wrong. Regardless, he follows Sansa up until they reach the keep – she looks up at the top of the small tower.
“Oh, good, they’re not inside.”
“Wait, is it good? And how do you know?”
“It is. And I know because Robb lights a candle on the window when they’re inside. Well, they should be nearby – follow me.”
Jon does – she goes behind the tower, a bit further into the woods, and he follows until she stops abruptly.
“Are they –”
“Yes. That was what I meant.”
Jon moves next to her and –
Seven hells, he thinks, now I get it.
He doesn’t know if the scene looks jarring because it wasn’t like his brother and Theon ever indulged in this kind of thing back in the day, or at least not in public, or because of how different they look now from how they were when the all last saw each other.
Still, for a moment he can’t help wondering what the hell is going on and what did happen before. Robb looks – well, older, and a lot wearier, and there are a few streaks of white in his hair, and he there are wound scars on what’s he can see of his neck from here, but – it’s him all right. He’s also dressed remarkably lightly for the weather – he’s only wearing heavy boots, breeches and two shirts, and a cloak that could be heavier. Jon is bundled in furs and he’s still somewhat cold.
They’re standing next to one of the trees, and he can’t help noticing that not only Theon is wearing a lot more layers than Robb is, but – good gods, Sansa was right, he doesn’t want to know what happened to him at all. He’s holding himself a bit weirdly, as if standing up somewhat hurts, and his hair isn’t as dark as it used to be – it’s of a lighter brown now. And cut a lot shorter than it used to be, even if it’s still long enough for someone to run his fingers through it comfortably – Robb, in case, since it’s what’s happening right now. He’s also visibly thinner than he used to be – his cheeks look too hollow for it to be healthy. And he’s missing a finger on his left hand.
Not that it’s making Robb look at him any less fondly, which for a moment feels so surreal Jon doesn’t know what to do with it.
But then –
“Aren’t you cold?” Robb asks, sounding slightly concerned.
Theon shrugs but doesn’t reply.
“What did I tell you yesterday?” Robb asks again, but he doesn’t sound reproachful or anything.
Theon looks up at him, swallows, shakes his head. “It could be warmer,” he finally says, “but it’s – it’s fine like this. I’d rather be out. Unless you think –”
“I don’t think anything,” Robb cuts the conversation. “I don’t mind the cold. Well then, maybe this will do.”
Then he shrugs off his cloak and puts it around Theon’s shoulders and ties it neatly.
“You don’t have to –” He starts.
“I’m fine like this. I can be out a while longer.”
“… thank you.”
“I can live without it for a bit. Oh, and I was forgetting –”
Jon can feel his eyes go progressively wider as Robb leans close to Theon and kisses his temple first and his cheek later.
Theon’s cheek flush ever so slightly but he doesn’t move at all.
He also doesn’t say anything else, but then he sits down against the tree’s bark and Theon follows suit, his head falling on Robb’s shoulder as he burrows against him.
“I – I think I get it,” Jon whispers a moment later. “You mean – they’re always like this? And – what was with the kissing?”
Sansa’s cheeks flush a moment. “I, uh, never quite managed to ask Robb about the kissing though I think it has a pattern. But yes, they’re – kind of always like this. On good days.”
“Should we –”
“Just wait it out a moment.”
Jon doesn’t move, and leaves them be for a short while – at some point, Theon’s shoulders start moving up and down evenly, his face still hidden against Robb’s collarbone.
“All right, stay here,” Sansa says, and walks out of the path and into the clearing.
“I see you’re having a good time,” she tells Robb after he sees her. Robb just smiles back and stands up, careful to leave Theon leaning against the tree without waking him up.
“Seems like it’s the day for it. So, what’s going on?”
“Nothing, we just have a visitor.”
Then she motions for Jon to come forward.
Jon does, figuring that at this point he might expect just about anything.
He hadn’t expected Robb’s eyes to light up the moment they meet his own, but he knows his expression can’t be that much difference – after all, whatever happened, it was obvious that this is not a stranger wearing Robb’s features. It’s him all right. He’s ready for it when Robb’s arms close around his back and he holds back just as tightly, and – yes, they changed, but it doesn’t feel that much different from the last time they saw each other, doesn’t it?
“Look at you,” Robb finally says when they move apart, “black was really your color, wasn’t it?”
Jon laughs, unable to keep it in. “Maybe it was. And – gods, when Sansa told me I couldn’t believe it, but –”
“I’m here for good,” Robb says softly. “Given that the Others don’t take us all first.”
“Wait, how do you know – is that why she said –”
“I’ve spent a lot of time being dead,” Robb cuts him. “You learn a lot of things over there. And – that was also why I needed you here in person. I have a message for you.”
“For – for me?”
“Yes. Now, just one thing – did Father ever tell you about your mother?”
Jon swallows, remembers that last conversation they had. “No. Back when I left for the Wall and they were headed for King’s Landing – he said that the next time we saw each other he would tell me. But – well, we never saw each other.”
“Very well. All right, listen, I wasn’t the only one over there.”
“You mean –”
“I just was the only one who took a deal and came back. But – all of our relatives are in Winterfell.”
“So – wait, did Father tell you –”
“No. Father didn’t tell me a thing. The message – it’s not from him. It’s from our aunt. Or better. Mine and Sansa’s.”
“Our – Lyanna Stark? Wait, why wouldn’t she be mine as well?”
Robb shakes his head, leans closer so that his lips are next to Jon’s ear –
“Because she was your mother.”
For a moment, Jon can’t breathe. He looks straight at Robb, holding his stare and feeling like he’s going to faint.
“Wait. Wait, if she was – did she also tell you who was my – oh. No. No, you’re – this is a jape. Isn’t it?” He realizes that he sounds frantic right now, but Robb just shakes his head.
“She told me. But I understand that you figured it out for yourself.”
“No. No, there’s no way it could – I can’t be – is there anyone else who’d even –”
Robb shakes his head, his hands gripping at Jon’s shoulders tighter. “She said Howland Reed knows, if you ever want someone to support that claim. But – I don’t think anyone has to know if you don’t want them to. I promised her I’d tell you and I think you deserved to know, but you should do whatever you wish with it. And that said, it doesn’t change anything. I mean, it’s not as if we’re not brothers anymore, right?”
Jon just hugs him again and doesn’t think about how much his eyelids are burning with unshed tears. He also sees Sansa dabbing at her eyelids over Robb’s shoulder and doesn’t hold his own back anymore.
He doesn’t know how long they stay like that, but it’s probably some time. When they move away, he has to wipe his eyes – his cheeks were so wet it’d have been absolutely embarrassing if anyone else had seen them.
He also can’t help noticing that Robb’s neck is a crisscross of scarring of various degrees, but he’s not going to ask about it if he can help it.
“So,” Robb asks Sansa, “do you two have to head back before someone notices you’ve been gone too long?”
She shakes her head. “Stannis won’t be back until tomorrow – he was scouring nearby villages to see if he could find some men that might stay at Winterfell for the time being. Most of your old bannermen did give us their support, but I already said that they should send men with Jon when he goes back, and he thinks there should be a better garrison here. And I told Brienne to look things over and come get us if there’s the need.”
Robb smiles. “So if I say you could go up to our humble abode maybe we could talk things over better?”
“I’d say why not,” Sansa smiles. “So, uh, should we all –”
“No, you two go ahead. We’ll be there in a moment.”
At that, he turns his back on them and heads for the tree – Theon’s still passed out against it and hasn’t woken up throughout their exchange, and Jon doesn’t know if it’s a good thing or not.
Sansa takes his arm and leads him towards the small keep they had passed before.
“It’s better that we go first,” Sansa just says.
“But – isn’t it dangerous for the two of them to be on their own outside the walls?”
“Believe me, if there was any danger Robb would take care of it.”
Jon doesn’t ask further. When they reach the small keep, he follows Sansa up to the room at the tower’s top. And – well. It’s – almost cozy? He doesn’t fail to notice that there’s just one bed, covered in quilts. The ground is all covered in furs, some embers are dying in the fireplace – Sansa goes to rekindle it at once. There are a few half-burned books lying around – he figures they’ve been salvaged from the library’s destruction. There are also a few pitchers full of clean water around the room, and there’s quill and paper on the desk.
“Well, they certainly seem to have settled,” he says, glancing at the paper on the desk’s surface. He takes one piece which is fully covered in writing – he had expected a letter or something, but instead it’s just sentences obviously copied from some history book. What’s strange is that each sentence is written twice, and one is in a pretty neat penmanship. The other is barely understandable, though looking down at more parchments beneath, it looks like it becomes more understandable with each passing sentence.
“And it’s a good thing they did,” Sansa agrees.
He’s about to ask about the parchment, but then he doesn’t – he can imagine what is it about.
By the time he hears footsteps on the stairs, the fire is burning strong and they both have taken off their furs and sat down in front of it – good thing the furs are covering the entire floor. For a moment he thinks that this could as well have happened long before the royal court set foot in Winterfell.
Then the door opens – Robb goes inside first and Jon doesn’t fail to notice that Theon has his fingers wrapped around Robb’s wrist.
“Oh, thanks for rekindling the fire,” he tells them. Then he doesn’t budge when Theon asks him something, but he’s keeping his voice so low Jon can’t hear them.
“Why should you?” Robb replies. “If you want to, all right, but there’s no reason why you should.”
Theon glances their way, then at Robb, then he reaches out for the kettle Robb has in his hands, but Robb moves it out of the way.
“No, I am going to brew some tea. You get there when you feel like it.”
Jon stares helplessly at Sansa who just nods and sends him a stare that says just go along with whatever they do.
So he tries not to look at his back while Robb brews the tea and he and Sansa have a talk about mundane things happening in Winterfell. It’s not until a while later, when Jon has gone through two cups and they have been quietly sharing everything that’s happened since the last parted ways, that he hears a noise at his side.
The noise being, Theon sitting at his side, in between him and Robb, though he’s staying a bit behind them. Obviously he’s not joining the conversation any time soon, and he’s also looking down at his hands and resolutely not at any of them. Robb doesn’t take his eyes off his sister as she tells them about Lysa Tully’s death but the one time he glances at Theon, he looks kind of satisfied with the development.
Jon has also noticed that there’s a fourth empty cup next to the kettle, but no one has reached for it yet.
And since Theon’s staring at the ground and not in his direction, he chances a better look – and gods, now that they’re close he can see that he’s a lot worse off than he looked in the godswood. He can see that his hands’ nails were almost all torn off and are growing back just now, never mind that once upon a time he only had the kind of callouses you get when you practice with bows most of your time. Now he can see that his fingertips have much rougher skin. And on his right hand there’s a patch of skin that’s – not the same shade of pink as the part surrounding it. That’s just for the hands – it’s not counting the fact that Theon always used to sit up straight while now he’s making himself smaller on purpose. Or that he’s tense as if he’s assuming that he might have to leave at any point.
Once Jon thought he’d have liked a long explanation from him.
But thing is – if Robb doesn’t care, and if he decided that somehow it’s all forgiven, then he’s hardly the one who can disagree. And he knows enough of what transpired in Winterfell in the first place when Theon seized it, because Sansa wrote that down in the letter she had sent him the first time.
Also, while Arya, Bran and Rickon are the gods know where, it means that the four of them are the only ones left from – from before, and Robb shouldn’t even be here in the first place, and –
It’s not really worth to hold that grudge now.
He refills his own cup, then grabs the fourth, empty one and pours some tea in it.
For a moment he ponders what to do, then he decides that the less ceremonies the better, and he opts for pretty much shoving it under Theon’s face.
“Well, I was getting one for myself, so – do you want any?”
Sansa stops talking abruptly. Robb just looks at the two of them, but Jon can’t exactly pay attention to them, not when Theon has looked at him in the eyes at last.
Gods, Jon thinks, he really is too gaunt still. He also looks as if he completely had not expected it.
Jon just keeps on holding up the cup.
He doesn’t know how long they stare at each other, but then finally Theon’s fingers wrap around the cup, taking it fully. He looks like someone who’s about to cry in gratitude, and then he opens his mouth and closes it abruptly.
“Oh. Yes. Thank you,” he finally blurts out, but from the tone it would sound as if Jon had just gifted him some kingdom rather than, well, handed over some tea.
“You’re welcome,” Jon simply says, and takes a sip from his own cup before turning towards Sansa. “So, what were you saying about the Vale?”
“Oh. Yes, well, so I thought it was a better plan to just stop pretending I was someone else,” she keeps on.
Good. At least now everything is back on track.
At some point the conversation goes back to what he did see beyond the Wall, which is obviously nothing Robb doesn’t know already since while Jon is talking to Sansa he moves a bit to the side.
Jon pretends to glance at the side while trying to remember what Sam had told him about the army of White Walkers he had seen, and – yes, Robb has definitely kissed the back of Theon’s wrist while he assumed the two of them weren’t looking their way.
He takes another sip of tea before talking on.
This is not a situation he had ever imagined he would find himself in when he left, but as it is? He thinks he has absolutely no issues with it.