Ned Stark's eldest sons moved stiffly as they shed their outer layers of clothing, brushing dust and twigs from it as they went. They looked as though it hurt them to move, and Robb made a face as he stretched. Jon tossed both of their cloaks before the fire carelessly, not bothering to move them when one failed to even reach the rug before the fireplace. One of the cloaks growled at him, and Ghost's nose popped out from underneath it. Grey Wind crawled out from underneath the other side of it on his belly, cocking his head at Jon reproachfully.
“Gods,” Robb groaned, throwing himself back onto his bed with a force that belied his exhaustion, “that was a long day.”
“I thought it was quite pleasant, actually,” Jon drawled as he perched on the edge of Robb's bed to unlace his boots. “Don't saddle sores make you feel alive?”
“Oh, no, the saddle sores are great,” Robb lilted airily. “It's the bloody arbitration that kills me. Five hours of squabbling over cattle and bricks and whores.”
Jon frowned, kicking off his loosened boots, more careful about the pups, this time. “It is easier for father to come to them,” he pointed out. “At least that way he can see what they're talking about; if he needs to. And it might not seem important to us, but for them it's about their livelihood.”
“So virtuous,” Robb teased, sitting up to muss his brother's hair. Jon grunted in half-hearted protest, but he didn't move to defend himself, glad Robb couldn't see him trying not to smile. When Robb stopped and lay back down, Jon threw a pillow at him. Robb jumped a little when it landed on his face and Jon heard him snicker, but he only stretched his arms up over his head and went slack, like he didn't even have the energy to move the pillow.
“Really, Robb,” Jon insisted. “It is important, you know. If you don't deal with these things while they're small problems, they'll get far worse.”
Robb groaned. “You sound like father. 'You must always show patience, Robb,'” he mumbled from under the pillow. “It would seem the wrong one of us is going to rule. Perhaps I'll speak to father.”
Jon's hurt silence stretched out between them like an accusation and the mattress jerked a little as he stiffened. Robb peeled the pillow from his face, sighing. “Hey,” he said softly, reaching out to set a hand on his brother's shoulder, “I'm sorry. That was thoughtless of me.”
Jon shrugged under Robb's hand, a little too quickly. “It's all right,” he muttered, moving to rise. “I should go to my room.”
Robb held fast, pulling him back down. “We were having fun, before I said something stupid,” he argued. “I really am sorry, Jon. Come on, sit down – I'm not going to be able to sleep for awhile yet, and I have nothing to do.”
Jon sat, facing Robb this time, and Robb wrapped him in a hug. Both had half a second to hear tiny feet padding on Robb's floor, then they felt the bed jiggle, just before Rickon careened into them, pressing his little face in between their heads. His cheeks were sticky and his breath smelled of lemon cakes. He wormed his way even deeper between his brothers, settling against Robb's lap. From the floor, Shaggydog let out a yip, jaunting over to the fireplace to join his brothers.
“You're home,” he cried excitedly, so loudly his brothers both cringed a little. “Mama's busy, and Sansa told me to go away, and Bran was reading and Septa Mordane was making Arya do more sewing practice and,” he stopped abruptly there to breathe, “and nobody wanted to play with me so I got in trouble for stealing cakes and I ran away.”
Over Rickon's head, Robb rolled his eyes and smiled, and Jon couldn't help but chuckle. “It sounds as though you've had quite the day, Rickon,” Jon said lightly. “Shall we take him back to the kitchens then, Robb?”
“Nooo,” Rickon howled in protest, bouncing in Robb's lap and making Robb flinch, anticipating pain. Just then Jon spied the tray of cakes sitting on the chair near Robb's door. He laughed, shaking his head. It seemed Rickon, too, was like their father – he never did anything by halves. He rose from the bed to fetch the tray and held it under Rickon's nose with a poor excuse for a stern expression.
“Rickon, you know better,” Jon intoned. “You should be punished.”
“No,” Rickon repeated sadly.
Robb laughed, reaching around Rickon to pluck a cake from the serving tray. “I think we can let him off just this once, Jon, as long as he shares. I'm starving.”
Rickon nodded eagerly. “I can share!”
Jon was smiling when he shook his head, mildly exasperated, but he set the tray at the foot of the bed, took a cake and settled back against the headboard. Robb shifted so he could stretch his legs, picking Rickon up from his lap and setting him in the centre of the bed between he and Jon. Rickon promptly scurried to the end of the bed to claim another cake.
Jon eyed him dubiously. “How many of those have you had?” he asked. “Robb won't be pleased if you're sick on his bed.”
Robb grumbled, “Would you please lighten up? It's my bed; I'll take my chances.”
Pronouncing the 'j' sound in Jon's name as something closer to a 'y,' Rickon echoed in a childish drawl, “Yeah, Jon, lighten up!”
“It would seem I'm defeated,” Jon muttered, popping a whole cake in his mouth at once. He spoke thickly around the food in his mouth, saying, “You wouldn't let Bran away with that.”
Robb wrinkled his nose. “You're disgusting,” he said with no particular malice. “Close your mouth. And besides, Bran's older, he really should know better.”
As if on cue, there was a shriek from down the hall. “Arya! Don't do that!”
Jon sighed and gave Robb a significant look, and Arya's voice chimed in, “It's not a big deal, you stupid!”
“Thought so,” Jon said wearily, cocking his head at Robb. “It's your turn.”
“It's not my turn,” Robb argued, “we don't even have turns.”
“Bran!” Arya hollered, and now they could all hear the thunder of thumping feet.
Robb groaned, and Jon swore he could hear Robb's joints creaking when he stood. “I hate you,” he told Jon tartly, walking to the door. He stuck his head out, caught a glimpse of his approaching siblings, and shouted, “All Starks under five feet tall, report to my chambers!” Then he moved back to the bed, like he couldn't wait to be sitting down again.
Nymeria and Bran's nameless silver pup tumbled through the door in a ball, first, growling and snapping at one another. Arya followed shortly, breathing hard, and Bran skidded to a stop behind her, colliding with her. They glared at each other, and both began trying to speak at the same time.
“One at a time,” Robb interrupted sternly. “Now, Bran, what happened?”
“She took my book,” Bran whined, “and she threw it out a window.”
“I didn't throw it,” Arya protested, “I was only trying to keep it away from him, and he tackled me and it fell.”
“Arya, why did you take it in the first place?” Jon asked, struggling to sound serious.
“I just wanted him to do something with me,” she replied flippantly. “Sansa's so boring.”
“Arya,” Sansa called imperiously, materializing behind her younger siblings in the doorway with Lady at her heels, “I am not boring! You are uncouth and uncivilized! Now, exactly what is going on here?” Her upper lip curled a little when she looked at Jon. “Why is Jon here?”
“Jon is here,” Robb said smoothly, stopping her before she could get any further, “because I asked him to come. Unlike the rest of you, I might add.”
“No fair, Robb, you made me and Arya come here,” Bran protested.
“Yes, Bran, because you were chasing your sister,” Robb said dryly. “Not that I'm convinced she didn't ask for it.”
Arya made a show of ignoring him, responding with, “Hey, look! Cakes!” She climbed onto the bed and scrambled over Jon's legs to ensconce herself before the treats. Bran followed suit, making his way across Robb's lap with greater difficulty. Rickon giggled and darted between them to seize another sweet. Jon looked as if he wanted to take it from him, but instead he sighed and patted Rickon's head.
Robb laughed. “There's almost room for one more,” he told Sansa ruefully, “if you want a cake and you're not above our company.”
Jon tucked his knees to his chest and nodded, careful to give Sansa the space to avoid touching him. She rolled her eyes in that eminently 'above it all' way she sometimes had and nestled in between Jon and Rickon, taking a cake. Jon and Sansa both kept a tense posture, neither comfortable with the other's proximity, and Bran, oblivious, asked Jon and Robb, “Where were you all day? And where's Theon?”
Robb coughed. “Theon's in town. Nowhere that bears mentioning in present company,” he declared with an air of finality. “We were away all day with father, tending to disputes amongst one of the more distant clusters of the smallfolk. Didn't mother tell you?”
“Mother didn't tell us anything,” Sansa replied. “I think she was mad that Jon...” she faltered. There was no love lost between Sansa and Jon, though both were quick to ask after the other's health if something had happened to one of them, but her ingrained courtesies forced her to stop and say, “I'm sorry, Jon.”
“It's fine,” Jon said quietly, “you're right. She wasn't pleased. I heard her ask father why I needed to come along. I suppose she's right; it's not as if I need to learn...”
“You need to learn whatever father feels you need to learn,” Robb interrupted. “If you're not her concern, then she needn't have any say in your education.”
“I think he knows you need to learn for when you're a knight with lands of your own,” Arya said loyally, “so you can take care of your villagers.”
“I want to be a knight,” Bran chimed in, “but I don't want to have lands. I just want to ride to battle and compete in tournaments. Maybe I can serve Robb or Jon, and they can do the boring things.”
Jon was flushed to the tips of his ears, looking disconcerted. “I don't think...”
“You may only be my bastard half-brother, but you're still father's,” Sansa said, surprising them all. “He'll have to find something for you to do. I suppose you're still better than the smallfolk.”
“I'm sure Jon appreciates your confidence, Sansa,” Robb said dryly, reaching across the three children between he and Jon to squeeze his brother's shoulder. “Though I'm feeling obliged to point out that none of us are better than the smallfolk, only expected to do different things with our lives.”
“I'm small,” Rickon contributed astutely, making his siblings laugh.
“It's not the same, Rickon,” Jon told him affectionately. “I'm sure you'll be bigger than Robb and I, someday. Not that it will be hard to outgrow either of us...”
“You're both much shorter than father,” Bran agreed.
Robb bristled. “I'm not done growing, you know! I only just had my fourteenth name day!”
“Sure,” Arya told him sarcastically, “keep telling yourself that, Robb.”
Jon and the Stark children all laughed at their eldest brother, and Robb declined comment by stuffing another cake in his mouth. They kept talking and the minutes bled together as the pups played on the floor. Eventually they finished the cakes, Rickon snitching the last one out from under Bran's hand. They all became closer and closer as they spread out for comfort, until even Sansa had laid her head back against Jon's collarbone, as if she'd simply forgotten who he was because she couldn't see his face. Eventually Bran elbowed Arya, telling her, “Robb and Jon have gone to sleep.”
Robb cracked an eye, just a trace. “I'm not asleep,” he mumbled, before his eyes slid closed again and the soft puff of his breath betrayed him. Rickon, drowsy too, nestled in under his armpit.
“Leave them,” Sansa said with the commanding air of the oldest conscious sibling. “They had a long day, I think. We should be in bed, too.” She wanted to punctuate this statement by rising to return to her own chambers, but Jon made a noise of protest when she tried to move, curling his fingers around her waist. She blushed beet red, but seemed not to want to wake him badly enough that she stilled, yawning.
“I like it better when you're nice to Jon,” Bran ventured hesitantly, through a yawn. “He plays with us more than Robb does.”
Sansa didn't favour him with an answer, but she continued to relent under her half-brother's grasp.
“He never did anything to you,” Arya agreed, pouting a little. “He didn't ask to be born; he just was.”
“He shouldn't have been,” Sansa said, her jaw set firm. Jon made a sleepy noise and his forehead tilted forward to rest against the crown of her hair and she softened, a little. “I know,” she whispered.
Arya leaned over Robb's stomach to drop the tray on the floor beside his bed and curled up on her side, affixing her head to Rickon's torso. Lady, startled by the clanging noise, gave her an unhappy look. “I'm just going to sleep here,” she declared. “I'm tired.”
“Me too,” Bran agreed dozily.
Sansa continued blushing bright red, but she resigned herself, settling more comfortably against Jon's shoulder. It didn't take any of them long to fall asleep.
Ned was in something of a panic as he made his way to Robb's room with his wife following. He couldn't find any of his children, and Septa Mordane hadn't seen the girls for hours. Had it been only Robb and Jon he couldn't find, he might not have been so worried – it wasn't that strange to find his two oldest boys both asleep in Robb's bed, a book on the bed between them and a candle guttering on the nightstand. If it wasn't that, Jon would be found curled around Ghost in his chambers and Robb would be found in Theon's room. Not being able to find Theon wasn't so strange. The seeming absence of his younger four was a bigger problem. He'd looked in each of their rooms, and now only Robb's was left. He pushed Robb's door open with more force than was strictly necessary. What he found robbed the breath from his lungs and flooded his body with a surge of relief.
All of his children were in Robb's bed, curled close to let them all fit in the small space. Robb was on one edge of the bed and Jon on the other, each of them with a leg leaning out over the edge of the bed. If either of them moved much more, they'd find themselves on the floor. Rickon and Bran were curled under Robb's arm, snoring, and Arya and Sansa were nestled under Jon's reach. Arya had her arms tucked around Bran, and Sansa had her arms wrapped around Arya, her head tucked between Jon's chin and his chest. Every one of them was deep in sleep.
The direwolf pups were resting in a great pile of fur before the fireplace, using Jon and Robb's cloaks for a soft place to lay, a tangle of black and white and grey fur, looking just as contented as their masters. Ned looked at Sansa's copper hair spilling out against Arya and Jon's darker tresses, and he felt a queer tightness in his chest that made it difficult to breathe. He knew Cat might not approve of Jon's presence in their children's dog-pile, but he himself could not help but think it was one of the most beautiful things he'd ever have the privilege to see.
Ned felt Cat arrive beside him; he heard her relieved sigh as she saw the children. She stood for a few seconds beside him, and Ned was waiting for the reproachful remark. Instead, she whispered, “They're beautiful, aren't they? Our children.”
Ned's heart swelled to bursting within him, and he reached out to put an arm around his wife. “Yes, Cat,” he said in a hushed rasp. “Yes, they are.”
His wife's face and the image of his children all nestled together in repose would be the last thing to run through Ned Stark's head as he knelt before the headsman's block.