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in strife, let us not fall apart

Chapter Text

 

It had been two months at the performing arts school, and life was...different.

 

Arya floated through her days in a half-mad, black-coffee haze, danced until her feet bled, ate too little, did homework in the wee hours of the morning when her brain felt muzzy, explored the stinking streets of Manhattan with a group of vicious little ballerinas, fucked Jaqen hard and dirty, and slept so little she swore she hallucinated sometimes.

 

It was heaven.

 

She existed in a high-stress wonderland where no minute was untouched. It was dizzyingly  difficult most of the time, but she was happy. There was no room in Arya’s head for creeping doubts or teenage confusion. She knew exactly what her life would entail: four more years of this, and then onto the professional ballet corps. Maybe even the New York City Ballet or the Bolshoi Ballet in Russia. Why not dream big? Arya’s instructors were so impressed with her work they regularly asked her to take over teaching. At fourteen years old, she was a better dancer than some of the eighteen-year-olds in the school’s ballet corps. This was met with a fair amount of resentment, why give a fuck? She had a group of friends who were good . They were a group of skinny, savage little ballerinas who just about worshiped her. So maybe it was manufactured friendship, but it felt good to be at the top of the heap for once!

 

She continued this blissful, busy existence happily.

 

Until the phone call.

 

Arya was practicing as many fouetté turns, murmuring, “Hard and fast and hard and fast” so rapidly it was almost a prayer. She was up to seven a time. That was a long, long way to go before she reached the level of Swan Lake. “Hard and fast and hard and fast and--”

 

The door to the practice room slammed open with so much force it just about broke a mirrored wall. There stood Jaqen, still in full stage makeup from The Phantom of the Opera . His face was painted a comical white, his big eyes outlined with kohl.

 

“Christ, Jaq-ass, knock next time!” she snapped. “I could have broken an ankle.” She quickly crossed herself. Every dancer’s nightmare. When she saw his expression, so full of gentle horror and sadness, she quickly sobered up. “What’s -- why are you still in makeup? Is everything okay?”

 

“I think you should sit down, Arya,” he said simply.

 

She slowly sank to the marley floor with no protest. This was the first time he’d never spoken in that stupid foreigner way without correction to her. Ever. “What’s going on?” she said softly.

 

Jaqen ran a hand through his mane of hair. “A girl’s mother tried to call. A girl-- you didn’t pick up.” He appeared to be speaking very deliberately, picking his words as if looking for the ones that would do the least harm.

 

“She knows it’s three hours later here,” Arya snapped. “What’s--”

 

“A girl’s brother fell,” Jaqen blurted. “He fell down the stairs in a girl -- in your home and is in critical condition. A boy is in the ICU.”

 

For a moment, Arya’s brain was quiet and still. She could hear Jaqen’s words, but couldn’t process them. It was as if she was watching a well-acted movie in a language she didn’t speak. She could appreciate the handsomeness of the lead actor, the genuine expression of guilt and trepidation as he delivered his lines, but all meaning was lost on her. She started to unlace one slipper, methodically stretching out her toes after yanking it off. She stayed silent as she pulled the other slipper off. The blood rushing back to her toes was always an unpleasant feeling. Hell, looking at the toes of a ballerina was an unpleasant experience.

 

“Arya...”

 

And then suddenly her mind was flooded with images of little Rickon wobbling about in his high heels, snapping an ankle, and tumbling down the grand staircase. She saw Robb at the bottom of the stairs with his neck facing the wrong way, maybe a result of being late to class for the millionth time and missing a step. She saw Jon slipping on the hem of that ridiculous wolf-skin robe he insisted on wearing and plunging down, down, down. She saw Theon roughhousing with Asha just a little too hard this time, taking both of them down with him.

 

But, no. He has said brother .

 

“Who...” Arya’s voice came out very, very small and very, very frightened. She cleared her throat. “Who is it?”

 

“Your twin,” Jaqen said softly. “Brandon.”

 

All she saw was white for a moment.

 

Bran didn’t fall . He was perhaps the most surefooted of the entire Stark brood. He’d always climbed trees as a kid. He’d gotten scolded more times than she could count for climbing up drainpipes and trellises and out windows and up trees to small to support his weight. He’d never fallen, not when it rained or snowed or anything. His nickname was Monkey, for God’s sake!

 

“But -- but--”

 

“A girl’s mother wants her to come home immediately. She informed a man that your flight’s been paid for and your teachers have been notified.” Jaqen said all this stiffly, almost businesslike. Where was her concerned, worldly boyfriend? What was...what was happening? Arya let herself be guided from the practice room and back to her dorm. To her surprise, Jaqen stayed with her as she numbly packed her clothes. With no idea how long she’d be home for, she just sort of emptied her drawers into her big suitcase.

 

She remembered almost nothing of the next day. It was a mess of pitying glances from her roommates and Jaqen avoiding her touch. He drove her to the airport and then just...left. No hug, no “I hope your brother’s okay.” No “I love you.” But she didn’t have time to focus on all that shit. All she could think about was Bran. She’d called Mom and gotten no new information. He was comatose, apparently. He might be paralyzed from the neck down, maybe from the waist down. It was early days yet. Either way, he’d never climb again.

 

Arya was pretty sure she didn’t think a single intelligible thought on the flight from New York to Washington State. The only thing that made sense was stepping into the foyer and collapsing into Jon’s arms.

 

She sobbed so hard, then, she scared him. They stayed hugging like that in the middle of the foyer or a far too grand and far too empty house for hours.

XXX

“It’s terrible,” Sansa said to Sandor. She’d spent every waking moment either at the hospital or with Sandor this past week, sometimes both. If Ned Stark was the slightest bit suspicious at his daughter’s history teacher giving her rides everywhere, he kept it to himself. “It’s just...it’s just terrible.”

 

“Yeah,” Sandor grunted. They were in his living room in front of the TV. It was playing some stupid Lifetime movie about an Amish woman who was investigating murders. He’d turned it on to see if it could make her laugh -- bad move. The themes of dead didn’t do much for her. Sandor lay with her head in his lap as he carded his fingers through her hair.

 

“How could he have fallen?” she asked for what felt like the millionth time. “He’s so -- you know we used to call him Monkey when he was little.”

 

“I know, little bird.”

 

“I just -- the doctors said Bran would wake up. They promised .”

 

“He will, Sansa, in time. His body needs time to heal itself.”

 

She sat up and gave him a watery smile. “You know, we used to ride down the stairs on mattresses when we were young. We were...never hurt.” Her face paled suddenly. “He didn’t fall, Sandor, someone pushed him.”

 

Sandor Clegane looked at this passionate, silly little girl he’d come to love. In her eyes was all the seriousness of the world. She wasn’t lying.

 

He sighed heavily. “Fuck.”

Chapter Text

Meera Reed was a good student, understand? She had a 4.0!  She’d been on varsity rugby since she was a freshman! She ran lights for the spring musical. She wasn’t just a good student, okay, she was well-rounded. Colleges loved well-rounded girls with pretty sob stories about their dead mommies.

 

So if she was a little rambunctious in her private life, who could judge? If she had a thing for her innocent little sophomore step-brother (whose mom was a royal demon bitch), it wasn’t anybody’s business. And if she ALSO had a thing for one of the freshmen she TA’d for -- yeah, okay, that one was harder to justify. Actually, her relationship with those two was pretty much unjustifiable. But hey, it was fun and hot and everyone was having a good time. The fact that was two years older than Bran kinda weirded her out (by the time he was a junior, she’d be a freshman in college, Jesus ), but -- she didn’t have bad intentions, okay? She actually really liked him. And Jo liked him too, which was all that mattered. She loved Jo more than anyone else in the world -- it was just her and that little weirdo against the world.

 

And now it was her and Jo and -- and --

 

And this beautiful boy in a hospital bed.

 

She watched Jo kneel next to the bed, his hands clasped together like he was praying. He kept his eyes closed for a long time.

 

“It’s -- it’s okay, Jo,” Meera offered lamely. Her voice cracked around the lie like a teenage. boy’s. “Remember, Jon said he would be okay. The coma is medically induced--”

 

“So that his body can heal, I know,” her step-brother said softly. He opened those keen eyes and gave her The Look. The Look was something he’d perfected over the years Dad had been married to his demon-cunt mom -- something like pity, pride, and sheer intensity all mixed together. Plus, his eyes were so green it was startling, which just added to his whole “I know all and see all” thing. “You don’t need to comfort me. I know he’ll be okay.”

 

“Oh. Well, sorry. It’s kinda my job.” She glanced down at Bran and her heart shattered in her chest. She could keep mothering Jojen -- needlessly, she knew -- if it would keep her from having to see Bran like this. He looked so...so fragile. Not even human. His skin was so pale that it was waxy and he looked...cold. Cold and unkempt. He was only wearing a thin-ass hospital gown and, okay, she knew the Starks wouldn’t let their son go neglected. But his hair was too long. Didn’t anyone see that? He looked like a girl! His hair was splayed out on the pillow like a halo, but he wasn’t quite angelic. After all, he was in some sort of neck brace and there were tubes coming out of him like she was some kinda robot! She gritted her teeth.

 

“It’s not, though,” her step-brother said quietly.

 

She tore her gaze from Bran. “Sorry?

“It’s not your job to comfort me. We’re here for each other.” He stood at last and took her hand. Squeezed it tight. “I dreamed that he’d wake up, so I know he will.”

 

She gave a jerky nod. His dreams had a weird way of coming true. The immediate relief she expected didn’t come, though. She looked back down at Bran and just about choked on her tongue. “Do you know when?” she asked.

 

“No. Just that he will. But, Meera, there’s something else.” Jojen gently but firmly drew her face away from Bran. He held her chin in his hand and gazed deep into her eyes. She wanted to grab him up and never let him go. Hug this strange little blonde boy to her chest forever. He was slight and small, but he saw right to the core of things. He knew things. He knew the fear in her heart, alright. At last, he let go of her chin and said, “Three things came to me in that dream. One, he will wake up.”

 

“Okay...”

 

“Two, uh, Bran won’t...” He trailed off. He knelt down next to the bed again, stroked his boyfriend’s cheek. Without looking at Meera, he said, “Bran’s never going to walk again.”

 

There. There was the cool relief she’d been waiting for. Her knees just about gave out and happiness flooded her chest. “Oh, my God, that’s all?” she gasped.

 

Jojen cocked his head. “He’s probably going to be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.”

 

“So what?!” she cried. She took Bran’s limp hand in hers and hugged Jojen hard with the other arm. He buried his nose in her collar bone and God, was she glad for it. He so rarely took comfort in the things she said. They stayed like that, the three of them connected, for a few minutes before Jojen squirmed away. “He’s gonna be a wheelchair user now, and that’s just fine. He’s ours. I -- I know it’ll take some time for him to get used to. I mean, I can’t imagine -- he’s probably gonna be really sad for a while. He’s strong, though. We’ll be there for him.”

 

Her step-brother smiled wanly. “There’s a third thing.”

 

“Oh...oh, yeah. What’s that?” If Jojen thought that the news he’d given her before would destroy her, this couldn’t be so bad. Like, God, of course Bran using a wheelchair was a major change, and it would be incredibly hard on him, but he was going to be alive and well. He would be able to speak and think and feel. To love. Wasn’t that what really mattered?

 

Jojen refused to look at her. He looked at Bran, so stuffed full of tubes -- in his throat and his nose and his arms. “Meera.”

 

“What?” She cocked her head to the side.

 

“Please don’t freak out when I tell you this. Please just take a deep breath and listen.”

 

“Okay...?”

 

“He didn’t fall down the stairs. In my dream, he was standing there -- looking at that portrait of his family, when a giant animal tackled him from behind. And then he fell down. He -- I’m sure he was pushed.”

 

Meera freaked out.



Chapter Text

“Ramsay,” Rickon said, “I’m confused.” The little boy was sitting on top of his kitchen island tucking into a grilled ham and cheese. It was dead silent in the Stark house, as it often was these days. “Can you explain somethin’ to me?”

Ramsay gave a wary nod. He was still no good with kids. The thing was just that no one seemed to be home to babysit the brat these days. So...

“So...Bran’s hurt, right? He fell.” Rickon finished off the sandwich and hopped off the island. He really was getting good at walking in those stilettos these days. He tottered to the sink and washed his plate.

“Thanks for washing your plate, kid. Good call.” It was important Ramsay thought, that the littlest Stark didn’t grow up too spoiled.

Rickon stilt-walked over to Ramsay and held up his arms.

Ramsay scooped him up. Seven was maybe a little too old to be held, but what’d he know? Roose Bolton hadn’t exactly been a paragon of fatherly affection at that age. “Yeah, kid. Bran took a pretty bad spill and that’s why he’s in the hospital.”

“He’s been gone for a long time.”

“Yeah.”

“So how come no one’ll tell me anything?” he whined. “Did you know I’m in Talented-and-Gifted at school? I’m smart! I don’t like that nobody will tell me anything!”

Ramsay twisted around to eye the stove clock. Eight PM. “I’ll tell you anything you wanna know if you go to bed. How about that? You go brush your teeth and I’ll meet you there.”

Rickon seems satisfied with that deal. He scampered off.

“No high heels in the bedroom, brat!” he called fondly.

There was a high-pitched giggle in reply. Ramsay let out a whoosh of air. Well, fuck. He shot off a text to Theon, warning him -- what else could he do? Like, they couldn’t keep the truth from the kid forever. It was cool that the Starks wanted him to be innocent. Ramsay could respect that, especially after the shit childhood he’d endured. It was just -- Rickon had to grow up some time. It did suck to be the arbiter of that, though. But how did one go about explaining to a second grader that someone had snuck into his home and tried to murder his big brother?

Ramsay scrubbed a hand down his face. He eyed the opulent Stark kitchen one last time, sighed, and made his way to Rickon’s room. The kid was waiting for him in a pair of footie pajamas. Rickon had a sweet little set-up: every little boy’s dream. He had pale blue walls, glow in the dark stars all over the ceiling, and a literal race-car bed. A race car bed! He hadn’t even known those things existed in real life until he’d met Rickon. But yeah -- posters of cartoon characters on the walls, like five night lights, even a little TV. Lucky kid.

“Explain,” he commanded.

Ramsay joined the kid on the bed. “Alright, bud.” The fuck? ‘Bud.’ Really? What was this, a Hallmark movie? “Okay, so, what do you wanna know?”

“When will Bran come back?”

“We don’t know. He needs to recuperate -- uh, heal up. It’s gonna take a while.”

“But how long?”

Ramsay sighed. “We don’t know. I’m not lying. I know it’s scary to hear a grown-up say ‘I don’t know,’ but you’ve gotta be brave.”

Rickon giggled. “You’re not a grown-up. You’re a teenager.”

“Semantics.”

“What?”

“Nothing.”

Rickon screwed up his face thoughtfully. “I heard Sansa talking on the phone to Meera. She said, ‘It wasn’t an accident.’ I dunno what it means, but I know they said Bran’s name.” He turned his dark eyes to Ramsay. “I’m in Talented-and-Gifted, which means I’m smarter than everyone else in my class.”

“Uh...”

“So I know things. I know there’s something fishy going on. Nobody will tell me anything.”

“Bran slipped and fell down the stairs. Sansa’s got it in her head that some bad man pushed him. That’s all.”

Rickon was silent for a long time. His face was screwed up again, like he was really mulling it over, or maybe about to cry. Ramsay was expecting an explosion. You know the type -- “Someone tried to kill my big brother!” Or more likely, “A bad man snuck into the house!” How in the hell was a little kid supposed to process that? And why did he think he could explain attempted murder to a second grader? Jesus Christ. He was fucking nuts -- and not just “on every medication in the world” nuts. Real-life-idiot-nuts.

At long last, Rickon sighed deeply. “Does everybody else know?”

Ramsay just nodded, at a loss for words.

“You have to include me.”

“What?”

“I’m gonna help hunt the bad man down -- and then we’re gonna stuff him and put him in your dad’s taxidermy shop.”

Jesus Christ.