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You Can Never Be Mine

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Daenerys Dayne was a wisp of a girl, not much taller than Sansa or even Arya, who was all of six and practically still in her swaddling clothes. As far as Jon Snow could tell, the only discernible thing about Daenerys was her silver-blonde hair. And her big, violet eyes.

Other than that, he didn’t get all the fuss about her arrival to Winterfell. She was accompanied by her mother, Lady Ashara Dayne, and Lady Ashara’s husband, a lord from a lesser Dornish house. Lady Ashara was beautiful, Jon could grudgingly admit, but her husband seemed a simpering fool with his wispy, ash-colored hair and weak chin, and Jon disliked him on sight.

He disliked Daenerys, too, though he hadn’t spoken one word to her yet. Robb was already smitten with his betrothed, the small Dornish girl who was to become his wife. Not for years yet, but Lord Eddard Stark had thought it best to foster Daenerys as his ward at Winterfell, where she would gradually come to know her betrothed while learning how to be a proper Northern lady and the perfect wife for the heir of Winterfell.

Which would never be Jon, not that he was like to forget that anytime soon. He was younger than Robb, only by a matter of months, but he was base-born, allegedly sired on some common woman by Lord Stark. Jon was largely ignorant on the details as his father refused to discuss it; he only knew that Lord Stark had felt honor-bound to bring his bastard son to Winterfell and raise him alongside his trueborn children.

As Lord Stark made the introductions between his ward and his children, Daenerys didn’t speak. She curtsied dutifully, offering each sibling a timid smile. Not even her betrothed got so much as a hello in greeting, so Jon didn’t feel quite so slighted when she barely looked at him, her purple eyes sweeping over him before darting away just as quickly. Then, she huddled close to her mother’s side as everyone who’d gathered in the courtyard to welcome the Daynes dispersed. They would reconvene in the Great Hall for a feast later that night, where Jon would be relegated to a table far away from the true Starks, as he always was during these big feasts.

Sullen and sour-faced, Jon turned to follow his siblings to the Great Keep, when Robb fell in beside him. His smile was sly as he nudged his half-brother in the ribs.

“What do you think? Pretty, isn’t she?” he whispered, staring at the back of Daenerys’ head and her long silver hair.

Jon shrugged. “I guess. Kind of strange-looking, don’t you think?”

Robb snorted and gave him a playful shove. “You’re just jealous.” He said it jokingly, like he always did. Still, something dark and ugly stirred inside Jon. With a scowl, he shoved Robb back.

“Am not!”

With a chortle, Robb stuck his tongue out and trotted away, close on the heels of his stupid betrothed

Jon and Robb slashed at each other with their wooden sparring swords, dancing around the courtyard. Their training concluded for the day, Ser Rodrik Cassel had dismissed them moments ago before retreating to the armory and leaving them to do what boys would do. Jon was dirty and sweaty, and his body ached everywhere, but he refused to yield before Robb did.

They raced to the Great Keep, laughing and half-heartedly jabbing at each other, dodging servants and guards. Inside, Robb leapt up a couple of steps and turned around. He came to an abrupt halt, his attention drawn elsewhere. Jon craned his neck to follow Robb’s gaze and fought a frown at the sight of Daenerys. She listened patiently as Septa Mordane spoke briskly and quietly to her, Sansa, and Arya, who stared wistfully at her brothers at play. Daenerys’ purple eyes kept darting over to the boys as well, though she nodded politely when prompted by Septa Mordane.

Robb puffed out his chest and pointed his sword at Jon. “Halt where you are! I’m Ser Ryam Redwayne!” he crowed, even as he panted for air.

Similarly winded from their exercises, Jon rolled his eyes at his brother’s obvious ploy for Daenerys’ attention and whacked his sword with his own. “No, more like you’re Florian the Fool.”

Robb’s face colored almost as red as his auburn hair, and he huffed, slapping his wooden sword against Jon’s. They beat their sticks together with a couple more forceful clacks before Robb knocked Jon’s sword aside, hard. The force jolted Jon’s wrist and arm, but he managed to maintain his grip. “How dare you insult the great Aemon the Dragonknight!” Robb declared dramatically.

“If you’re the Dragonknight, then I’m the Lord of Winterfell!” Jon shot back, ducking around Robb’s reach and starting up the steps, but Robb dropped his arm, all humor gone from his expression.

“You can’t be Lord of Winterfell,” he said matter-of-factly. His words seemed to ring through the Great Keep. “You’re a Snow. My mother said you can never be Lord of Winterfell.”

Blood rushed through Jon’s ears, and his face burned hot with humiliation. Of course, he knew that. He’d always known that, but Robb had never said it out loud to him, had never acknowledged the fact of Jon's bastard birth before. Jon couldn’t bring himself to look at the girls to see if they’d heard Robb’s admonishment.

“I know. It’s just a game,” Jon muttered, his tongue and face stiff. Robb relaxed, a smile returning to his face. He was oblivious to Jon’s distress and resumed his fighting stance, sword raised.

“Come on. Race you to the top!”

Then he took off, disappearing up the stairs. Reluctantly, Jon followed his brother, as he always did.

Sometimes, Jon liked to brush the horses in the stables. It was thoughtless, methodical work not much different from cleaning his weapons, just as Lord Stark and Ser Rodrik had taught him to do. But unlike swords, the horses responded when he stroked their flanks and brushed their manes, nickering softly in pleasure. Elsewhere in the stables, Hodor chattered mindlessly, just a soft refrain of his own name, as he shoveled horse dung and stacked bales of hay.

It was calming to Jon. A temporary escape from the constant activity and demands of castle life.

“That one’s my favorite.”

Jon jumped at the soft, sweet voice, whirling around to find Daenerys standing at the entrance of the horse’s stall. She was draped in a cloak made of wolf hide; underneath, she wore a lavender gown and boots. Her silver hair was braided over her shoulder.

He looked back at the white palfrey he was brushing then scowled at her, feeling oddly defensive at being discovered in the stables. “He’s not yours.”

She’s a girl,” Daenerys corrected, stepping closer. Jon glanced between the horse’s legs and blushed when he found the evidence of her claim—or, rather, the lack thereof. “I know she’s not mine. I don’t mean to claim her. I just think she’s the prettiest one in the stable.”

“Horses aren’t pretty,” he said, exasperated. “It doesn’t matter what they look like. It’s about what they can do.”

Daenerys’ mouth turned down into a small frown as she moved beside him to pet the mare’s flank. Her silver tail flicked. “I guess I wouldn’t know about that. No one will let me ride her. They only let me on the ponies because they’re small, and even then I can only ride them within the castle walls. Back home I was allowed to ride beyond the castle.”

Jon stared at her as she talked. In the year that she’d been at Winterfell, they’d never spoken so many words to each other before. She mostly kept company with Sansa and Arya, and occasionally Robb when Lord Stark and Lady Stark encouraged them to converse. Jon purposely kept his distance—what would he have to say to her, anyway?—and she didn’t seek him out, either.

Her eyes were really quite striking. Like amethysts.

“Well…perhaps I can take you,” he offered boldly, before he could think better of it. She turned her wide eyes on him, and more words came tumbling out of his fool mouth. “I could take you out riding beyond the castle. They let Robb and I go on hunts sometimes. We know the woods well. Do you have trousers? Gowns aren’t really good for riding.”

Her face brightened. It struck him then how sad she always looked. “I have one pair, but Septa Mordane always chastises me when I try to wear them and makes me change.”

“She does the same to Arya,” he said, and she smiled at that. He found himself smiling in return, but then she pursed her lips into a thoughtful frown, her forehead scrunching.

“Why does everyone call you Snow?”

Jon went rigid, his smile slipping away. He looked away from her, staring hard at the silver mane of the horse. “They call me that because I’m not a Stark.”

“But you’re Robb’s brother, aren’t you?”

His face turned warm, and he turned his glare on her. “Half-brother. I have a different mother. Which means I’m a bastard.”

“Oh. I know what a bastard is,” she said, shrugging. “In Dorne, they call them Sand. It’s not a big deal where I'm from, but my mother always told me the rest of the kingdom was different. It’s not common for noble families to take in their bastard children, is it? Do you know who your mother is?”

“You ask too many questions,” he snapped at her, his hands shaking. She fell quiet, and Jon turned away. “It’s none of your business, anyway.”

He stormed out of the stables, leaving Daenerys and her stupid questions behind.

Dany hid a yawn behind her hand, attempting to appear interested in Maester Luwin’s daily lesson. Judging by the keen expressions on Jon’s and Robb’s faces, the material was far more fascinating to them than to her. Today they were learning about Robert’s Rebellion and the roles the different houses had played in the War of the Usurper. It was a topic Dany was quite familiar with; growing up, she’d heard many tales about the deaths of her kinsmen at the hands of King Robert’s men.

The death of her uncle, Ser Arthur Dayne, had been particularly painful for her mother. Dany had no illusions about why she’d been fostered as Lord Stark’s ward, why she’d been promised to the future Lord of Winterfell; no doubt, it had everything to do with Lord Stark’s guilt over having been the one to slay Ser Arthur in battle.

“Many houses had turned on House Targaryen, though some stayed loyal during the war. Including—” Maester Luwin hesitated as he glanced at Dany, likely afraid of upsetting her. She was never afraid of the truth, however; she merely folded her hands on the table and smiled sweetly at him. He returned it, briefly, and cleared his throat. “House Dayne stayed loyal to King Aerys. As you know, Ser Arthur Dayne, your mother’s brother, was in King Aerys’ Kingsguard. He was considered a highly skilled fighter. But he was chivalrous, as well. A true knight. And he was a close friend of Prince Rhaegar.”

Solemnly, Dany nodded. “My mother loved my uncle dearly.”

Again, Maester Luwin shifted uncomfortably. Eager to participate in the discussion, Robb recited, “Ser Arthur was the Sword of the Morning and wielded the greatsword, Dawn. It’s said to have been made from a falling star.”

“My mother still has it. Lord Stark returned it to her after he defeated my uncle in battle at the Tower of Joy,” Dany said. Unsure how to reply, Robb fell quiet, his mouth pulling into a rueful grimace. Maester Luwin turned a page in his dusty old book, as if to move on, but Jon spoke up.

“Our father killed Ser Arthur because he’d helped Prince Rhaegar kidnap our aunt.”

Dany’s face turned red as she looked at him from the other side of the table, but she tried to keep her voice even and indifferent when she responded. “My uncle would never kidnap a woman, nor would he help anyone else do so. He was honorable and valiant. Prince Rhaegar and Lyanna Stark were in love, my mother told me—”

“Your mother is wrong,” Jon said simply, and Maester Luwin sucked in a sharp inhale in warning. “The war started because Rhaegar stole Lyanna from her betrothed, King Robert. Our lord father was devastated when she died.”

You’re wrong,” Dany retorted in defense of her mother, inexplicably angry. She wasn’t sure how he always managed to do this, why only Jon seemed to irritate her so. It was like he made a point of getting under her skin. She’d always known he’d disliked her; she just never understood why. “Did your father actually tell you my uncle had taken Lyanna? Or that Prince Rhaegar had, for that matter? Did he tell you how Lyanna died, or that Ser Arthur had hurt her in any way?”

Jon opened his mouth but had no answer. His brow furrowed in thought. “, but Father never talks about his sister. It’s too painful for him.”

“Then how can you say for sure what happened?” she huffed. Jon scowled at her. Maester Luwin coughed and rapped his knuckles on the table.

“We should get back to our lesson,” he said lightly. “Lord Stark wouldn’t be very happy to hear that his sons were squabbling with his ward.”

I wasn’t squabbling with her,” Robb said hastily, giving Dany a reassuring smile.

“I wasn’t squabbling,” Jon said petulantly. He was a boy of two-and-ten, but Dany thought he sulked more than his younger brother Bran did.

“Be that as it may, House Dayne has sworn fealty to King Robert and House Baratheon, thanks in part to Lord Stark’s efforts to restore amenity between Winterfell and Starfall.”

“Do you think House Dayne was loyal to House Targaryen because they’re related?” Robb asked suddenly, looking to Dany. “They have similar features, don’t they? Like the purple eyes.”

Maester Luwin shook his head. “Common misconception, but no. The Daynes are an old house; they were here before the Targaryens. Not everyone who looks Valyrian is Targaryen, and neither does every Targaryen look Valyrian."

“Just like not every Stark looks like a Stark,” Jon said quietly. Robb blinked and looked at him.

“What does that mean?”

Jon didn’t meet his brother’s eyes when he shrugged. “Nothing. Only take after your mother. You have the Tully look.”

Uncharacteristically, Robb scowled. “So? What are you trying to say? Maybe you look like your mother, too, but you just wouldn’t know it, now would you?”

Jon blushed, and Maester Luwin sighed grievously. Dany blanched as she looked between the two brothers, her stomach clenching in discomfort. She’d never seen them argue before. Robb was normally so jovial, he could make a jest out of anything. And Jon always looked at him with such blatant admiration in his eyes. She couldn’t stand it, even if she was upset with Jon.

She blurted the first thing that came into her head. “Maester Luwin, can we learn more about Valyria? And Essos, too. I’d love to know more about Essos. What’s it like? We hardly hear anything about the people there. It must be like a whole other world,” she said with false brightness, staring across the table at Maester Luwin. “I know dragons are thought to be extinct, but do you think it’s possible there could still be some in Essos, perhaps?”

Maester Luwin stroked his chin in thought. “Of course, I wouldn’t say anything’s impossible, but I think it’s highly unlikely they still exist. There haven’t been any documented sightings in over a century now,” he said before launching into what his studies at the Citadel and his readings had taught him on dragons and Old Valyria and Essos. 

As he continued his lecture, Jon and Robb fell into brooding silence, avoiding eye contact with each other. Sighing to herself, Dany settled into her chair to give Maester Luwin her full attention.

Dany stared at the entrance of the crypts uneasily. “Are you sure it’s…allowed?” Safe, is what she wanted to ask, but then Robb would think she was scared, and she wanted him to think her brave.

And believing in ghosts was just silly. Something only children did.

His smile was reassuring. “Of course. Father goes down there all the time to visit his family’s tombs. Sometimes he takes us down to pay our respects.” He handed her her own lantern to hold and offered his arm. She took it, and he grinned. “Don’t be afraid. I’ll be with you.”

“I’m not afraid,” she objected stubbornly. She liked Robb, she did. He would be her husband one day. He was handsome, and kind, and funny. But sometimes...sometimes he talked to her as if he were talking to Arya or Bran, like she was a child, and he was only just barely older than her. It was rather irritating. She huffed as he guided her down the narrow, spiraling steps. “Only, I’m not family, not yet, so perhaps your father wouldn’t like me down here.”

“You will be one day,” Robb insisted, holding his lantern ahead of him to see the stone steps. “You are. My mother already thinks of you as one of her own daughters. She might like you better than Arya, actually.”

“Oh, don’t say that,” Dany pleaded, frowning at the thought. Arya fit in better with the boys, certainly, and Lady Catelyn often seemed exasperated by her youngest daughter’s dirty clothes and scraped knees. But Dany knew she would be heartbroken if anyone dared suggest her mother loved anyone more than her, even in jest. She'd been in Winterfell three years now, and while she missed her father and her siblings, she missed her mother the most.

Robb chuckled, the sound carrying down the long crypt that stretched before them. The light from their lanterns only reached so far before the darkness swallowed it. Stone statues rose on either side of them, ominous and threatening with their rusted swords and unnaturally blank faces. Dany’s heart climbed into her throat, and she tightened her hold on Robb, who swung his lantern arrogantly as he led her farther into the crypt.

As if oblivious to her anxiety, he began to rattle off the history of his long-dead ancestors as they passed each statue. She nodded, trying to appear as if she was interested, but fear crept up her spine, making it hard to listen when she was alert to every single noise she heard in the shadows. Only rats, Robb tried to assure her. She tried to believe him.

Until she heard a faint moan. “What was that?” she demanded, swinging her light around into the darkness and finding nothing.

“What was what?” Robb asked with a frown.

“It sounded like…” A ghost, she thought but chastised herself silently. “A person.”

“I didn’t hear it.”

Another moan—louder now. Dany gasped and whirled around, holding her lantern out in front of her as if it could shield her. “There! I heard it again!”

“Strange.” Robb’s frown deepened, and he peered into the darkness. To her dismay, he seemed as disturbed by the sound as she was.

The wailing came once more, a haunting sound full of pain and dark things that sent a chill through her. It grew closer, closer still, until it seemed to be right on top of them.

“Robb!” Dany cried, huddling close to his side. He clutched tightly at her hand.

Suddenly, a shadowed figure lunged at them from between two stone pillars. Dany shrieked in terror, getting a glimpse of the white-faced ghoul in the glow of her lantern before she dropped it to cover her face

Then she heard laughter. Great gales of laughter. Dany’s peeked through her fingers to find Robb bent over in hysterics. And the white-faced ghoul—now that she was really looking at him, she could see it wasn’t a demon at all. Just a boy. With curly black hair and flour streaked over his face.

“It’s only Jon,” Robb wheezed between laughs. Straightening, he gave his brother a good-natured shove. “Well played.”

Dany’s temper flared, her face blooming red-hot with embarrassment and anger. They had tricked her. And now they were laughing at her!

“Jon Snow, you—you—” She couldn’t think of a word strong enough to curse him. Instead, she stepped toward him and hit him. Or tried to, at least, a half-closed fist to his shoulder. It was enough to startle him, his laughter abruptly dying in his throat. “Others take you, Jon Snow! Others take you both!”

With that, she snatched up her lantern and spun on her heel to race for the stairs, catching the dumbstruck look on both their faces as she went. Then Robb’s triumphant shout followed her down the crypt.

“Did you hear that, Jon? She's sounding like a true Northerner now!”

He found her in the godswood, sitting on a rock by the black pool of water under the heart tree, her knees pulled to her chest. Her silver hair was loose and wavy, almost white against the dark cloak she wore over her shoulders.

Jon let out a breath, screwing up his courage before he approached her. He wasn’t scared of her—but she’d been rather angry in the crypts. He wasn’t sure how she was going to receive him now. What if she was crying? The thought made him feel sick to his stomach. Damn Robb for making him do this. It’d only been a joke, one he and Robb used to pull on their younger siblings all the time.

A twig snapped under his boot, and he froze when she looked over her shoulder at him.

No tears. Only the nastiest glare he’d ever been on the receiving end of. Nastier than the time he’d accidentally gotten mud on Sansa’s new dress. For some reason, that glare made this easier. Much more preferable to tears.

“What do you want?” she demanded.

He shuffled his boots uneasily, folding his arms over his chest. “Robb told me I should apologize.” And, because he was reluctant to completely admit defeat, he added, “He thought it was funny, but I’m sorry you didn’t. He also wanted me to tell you that he had nothing to do with it.” Jon rolled his eyes.

Daenerys continued to scowl at him. After a moment, she gave a very unladylike snort. “You looked better with your face covered in flour.” Sticking her nose up, she turned again to the pool.

Strangely enough, Jon grinned. He swiped a hand through his hair, certain some of the flour still clung to his temples and eyebrows. He’d hastily tried to scrub it off at the forge before setting off to find her, splashing his face from one of the buckets of water Mikken used to temper his weapons.

Jon stepped closer to her side. “Your punch could use some work.”

She shot him another sharp look, tipping her head back to see his face. “Pardon?”

“You’ve never hit anyone before, have you? Your stance was all wrong. And you need to close your first. Here, stand up. I’ll show you.”

“Like you promised to show me how to ride the horse?” she reminded him.

He rolled his eyes upward, despite the pinch of guilt in his chest. He was surprised she still remembered that. “I’ll show you that, too, I swear it. Another time. Sparring will be a quicker lesson.”

With a huff, Daenerys clambered to her feet, stubbornly crossing her arms over her chest as she faced him. He pressed his lips together to fight a smile but failed. “You can’t hit me standing like that.”

“Maybe I don’t want to hit you.”

“You definitely want to hit me,” he told her, and her nostrils flared. He gestured for her hands. “Come on. You should know how to defend yourself, at least.”

This time, she was the one to roll her eyes, even as she dropped her arms to her sides. Jon took up a fighting stance, his hands fisted and raised in front of his face, feet spread. “Like this.” Half-heartedly, she mirrored his posture, but it was all wrong. With a sigh, he reached out and curled her fingers into her palms, tucking them under her thumbs. Then he lifted them high in front of her face. “There. You don’t want to break a finger. And you have to protect your face.”

“Really, Jon, who am I ever going to need to protect myself from?” she argued, but he ignored her, kicking at her foot to widen her stance. She made an indignant sound.

Satisfied, he stepped back. “Throw your fist across your body. Not straight out. You’ll get more force that way. Use your whole body.” He demonstrated for her, her violet eyes watching as he jabbed across his body. “Got it?”

Yes,” she said impatiently.

Jon held up his hand, palm facing her. “All right, then. Hit my hand.”

With an exasperated sigh, Daenerys struck at his palm, but there was no strength in it, no anger, not like before in the crypts. He shot her a dubious look, and her cheeks colored pink. “Harder than that. What are you doing, swatting a bug?”

Her mouth pinched, Daenerys reared back and punched his hand, this time with more force. He smiled. “Better. Now hit me like you mean it.”

She struck him, again and again, until his palm was smarting and her face had flushed from the exertion. She paused to catch her breath, and he shook out his hand. “Good. Now if you ever encounter a ghost in the crypts, you can fight back.”

She rolled her eyes again, reminding him so much of Arya. “Don’t be absurd. You can’t hit a ghost.”

He laughed. “Aye, guess that’s true. But you can hit any idiot who might play as one.”

She thinned her lips at that. He was sure she was biting back a reluctant smile. Blowing out her breath, Daenerys raised her fists. “Let me try again.”

Her eyes were bright with excitement now, like she was actually enjoying herself. It would’ve been impossible not to indulge her, so Jon held up both his palms and instructed her as she jabbed at his hands in alternating fashion, slow to start, then fast, praising her, correcting when needed, just as Ser Rodrik did with him and Robb.

Until she got a little too excited and missed his hand, her little finger ricocheting off his thumb. Her fist connected with his chin before she could pull back, and she gasped in horror, immediately clapping her hands over her mouth.

It didn’t hurt, not really. Except his bottom teeth had nicked the inside of his lip, and he could taste blood. He grimaced as he touched his lip, tonguing the tender welt.

“Jon,” she said despondently, her voice muffled.

He managed a smile. “It’s fine. At least, now you can tell Robb you got your revenge for the crypts.”

He said it in jest, but she looked genuinely contrite, lowering her hands. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean…” She trailed off and reached for his mouth. He flinched out of reflex, and she hesitated at his reaction before pressing her fingers to his bottom lip. Jon went utterly still at her touch, her soft fingertips trailing over his lip. His pulse quickened as his groin tightened unexpectedly. Shame immediately washed over him.

No one had ever touched him so tenderly before.

Daenerys looked startled when he abruptly pulled away from her, turning his body so she couldn’t see his erection. “It’s fine. I’m fine,” he said gruffly, unable to look at her any longer. What would his brother think if he knew that Jon had reacted so lustfully, so lasciviously, toward his betrothed? It was unacceptable. Despicable.

She shouldn’t have touched him. Southron girls were different from Northern girls, he reminded himself. Especially the Dornish. They were too free, took too many liberties. It wasn’t his fault.

“I have to—I have a lesson with Ser Rodrik,” he lied. “I’m sorry, again, about the crypts.” Without waiting for a reply, he hurried out of the godswood.

With a whoop of excitement, Robb raced his destrier ahead of Dany and Jon, disappearing over the hill in a spray of grass and dirt from the horse’s hooves. Dany squeezed her knees against the white palfrey’s sides, encouraging it into a gallop, but even then she knew overtaking Robb was hopeless.

Still, she laughed, her hair whipping in the cool wind that kissed her face. Her palfrey crested the hill and went down the other side. Robb was even farther ahead, leading his destrier over a stream and toward the wolfswood that loomed ahead. Once she reached the stream, she slowed her mount to a canter, steering the palfrey to a spot where she could drink from the trickling water. Curiously, Dany looked behind her. Jon had slowed as well, leading his black destrier up to the stream to water the great steed alongside her.

Dany arched an eyebrow at him. “You don’t have to watch over me, you know. Your father’s men can keep an eye on me just as well,” she said, watching Jory and a couple other household guards ride over the hill. They always hung back to give the Stark boys and Dany a chance to ride without much supervision, though they were never far. She had a feeling the guards were more for her benefit than either Robb’s or Jon’s.

Jon made a face. “What makes you think I’m hanging back because of you?” he asked. She rolled her eyes.

“I know that destrier can run a lot faster than this palfrey.” Still, Dany leaned forward to lovingly stroke the silky mane of the white palfrey. Silver, she liked to call the filly, at least to herself; Dany wasn’t very partial to the palfrey's actual name, Snowflake. “Robb would probably appreciate a real race.”

Jon scoffed out a laugh. “Robb appreciates competition only when he’s like to win.”

Dany cocked her head, biting at her lip. “Do you know many people who enjoy losing?” she asked, and he rolled his eyes upward. Despite herself, she smiled. His dark hair was wild and wind-ravaged, made curlier by the ride, and his cheeks and nose were red from the chilled air. His nose always turned red on these rides, she’d noticed. It was rather endearing, not that she'd ever tell him that.

Jory and his men were almost upon them, though they proceeded at a leisurely trot. Robb was long gone. Dany turned in his direction, squinting into the distance, then back at Jon. “You’re so sure you could outride Robb, are you?”

He glanced at her, turning his black destrier her way. “I didn’t say that,” he said evasively, eyes flicking ahead of them. She smiled again, lifting her eyebrows.

“You didn’t not say it,” she pointed out. Pulling on her palfrey’s reins, she pointed Silver in the direction Robb had gone. “I’m not so sure you could beat him—especially if you can’t even beat me.”

With that, she kicked her heels into her palfrey’s sides, sending Silver splashing through the shallow stream before she lunged into a gallop on the other side. Behind her, Dany heard Jon’s curse as he followed suit, and she laughed, leaning low over her mount.

It didn’t take Jon long to catch up to her, but he didn’t overtake her, his destrier racing neck and neck with her slower palfrey. She didn’t even care that he was purposely keeping pace with her, refusing to push ahead. She laughed, relishing the grace and power of the horse between her legs, the wind on her face. She felt free, something she knew so little of in her time at Winterfell.

When she looked over at Jon, he turned his head toward her. The knot in his brow eased, and he flashed her a grin.

It was a rare and beautiful sight, making her heart trip in her rib cage. As frustrating as he could be sometimes, Dany felt a swell of gratitude for him, for fulfilling his promise. Robb might have been the one to convince his father to let her out of the castle for rides, but she knew it was Jon who’d fed the idea to his brother.

Finally, they caught up to Robb, who waited at the edge of the wolfswood. Before they reached him, Jon pulled his destrier back, letting Dany beat him.

“About time,” Robb said as she slowed to a stop beside him. “I almost thought to set up camp and wait for you two.”

“Jon wanted to show me how much he enjoyed losing,” she laughed, twisting in her saddle to fix him with a mocking glare. “You might think it’s chivalrous to let a lady win, but it’s actually rather patronizing.”

He feigned a puzzled look. “‘Patronizing’? Is this a Dornish word? I’m afraid I’m too simple for such large words, my lady.”

“Oh, you’re so irritating!” She huffed and turned away, her mouth split in a laughing grin. It faded when she caught the frown on Robb’s face, his suspicious gaze shifting from her to linger on Jon. Rattled, she took a deep breath and pushed her palfrey past Robb into the forest.

“I hope you two aren’t planning on killing any rabbits today,” she called over her shoulder. “Sansa almost cried the last time you brought some home and told her she had to skin them for supper.”

Impatient, Jon fidgeted under the weight of his leather gambeson and heavy fur cloak as he gazed at the gates of Winterfell. The watchers on the turrets called down, and men swung the inner gate open to allow the carriage passage.

Robb nudged Jon with his elbow, shooting him an anxious smile before he sobered his expression and lifted his chin high to greet his betrothed. Once again, they were all lined up to welcome Daenerys back to Winterfell. She’d been away at Starfall to visit with her ailing father. When he’d taken ill, they hadn’t been sure he’d survive, so Daenerys had been permitted to return home and spend time with him. Miraculously, her father had recovered, and after more than half a year away, she had returned.

A groom opened the carriage door and reached a hand inside to help her to the ground. Jon tried to remain indifferent to her return, but his eyes watched hawkishly, awaiting a glimpse of her. When she emerged, he clenched his teeth shut to keep his jaw from coming unhinged.

Seven months were nothing in the grand scheme of a person’s life, he supposed, but they seemed to have made all the difference on her. Daenerys had grown taller, her figure filling out her long-sleeved gown in a way it hadn’t before. She’d blossomed in Starfall, her silver-blonde hair glowing as if infused with sunlight. Even her pale skin was sun-kissed. She was 16, a woman grown now, and it showed.

When she smiled, Jon bit his tongue inadvertently, grimacing at the pain that lanced through his mouth.

First, she greeted Lord Stark and Lady Stark with a curtsy, until Lady Stark embraced her in a hug, lovingly kissing her forehead.

“I hope your father and mother are faring well,” she told her ward with such affection, the sound made Jon’s throat tighten with envy. Daenerys’ voice was too soft for Jon to make out her response. She turned to Robb next, who greeted her with the kind of smile all the maidens swooned over. After she curtsied, Robb reached for her hand, clasping her fingers in his as he lifted them to his mouth for a kiss.

“You look well, Lady Daenerys. Your return has been much anticipated.”

Daenerys dropped her eyes, her pale lashes fluttering against her pink cheeks. “Thank you, my lord. I’m very pleased to be back in Winterfell. I have…” Her eyes glanced down the line of Stark children waiting to greet her, lingering on Jon a second too long before returning to Robb. “I have missed you all.”

Next, she moved in front of Jon and curtsied. He swallowed, curling his hands into fists at his back, then bowed stiffly to her. “Welcome back, my lady.” His voice was gruff, hoarse.

He didn’t understand immediately when she held her hand out to him and looked up into her face with surprise. She merely waited, her eyes twinkling with amusement. She was teasing him, he realized with a start. He risked a glance at Robb then Lady Stark, who watched him disapprovingly. Before the moment could stretch on too long, Jon took Daenerys' hand in his and placed a quick, close-lipped kiss on the back as Robb had done.

She drew her hand away and smiled at him. He felt dumbfounded by the sight. Somehow, she was more beautiful than he remembered. “You look...different,” she noted curiously, glancing between him and Robb. Her eyes narrowed on Jon. “You grew a beard.”

Self-consciously, he rubbed at his jaw, which was covered by whiskers. After she’d left, he hadn’t bothered shaving it, eager to see what the once-faint dusting of facial hair would grow into. “Aye,” he said stupidly. Robb chuckled and slapped a hand on his shoulder.

“Don’t be offended, Lady Daenerys. Jon's never met a girl he liked better than his own hair. I don't think he'd let the barber near him even for the king.”

Embarrassed, Jon shot his brother a quelling look but crooked his mouth in a tight rictus of a smile. He flicked his gaze back to Daenerys. “Forgive me. I’d figured Robb had primped enough for the both of us.”

Which was true. Robb had been equally scruffy in Daenerys’ absence but had gotten his auburn locks shorn short and his beard shaved only earlier that morning.

If Robb was insulted by Jon’s words, he didn’t show it. Instead he shot Daenerys a wide grin. She only shook her head, smiling faintly, before she carried on to Sansa and Arya, who abandoned all decorum to engulf her in happy hugs.

“You move very well, my lord,” Dany told Robb as he led her around the Great Hall. He smiled at her.

“Only because my partner is an exceptional dancer herself,” he said, earning a wry smile in return.

“We did learn from the same tutor, so I suppose it makes sense.”

Robb laughed and twirled her around, his hand firm on her back to keep her upright and steady. And close, but not too close it would scandalize the guests gathered in the Great Hall. Winterfell was hosting a few of the great Northern houses for a meeting of the bannermen. In honor of their visit, Lord Stark had thrown a big feast to welcome them and feed their voracious appetites.

Dany had only been back in Winterfell a few weeks. Since her return, Robb had become more forward in his courting of her. Which was to be expected, she supposed. They had both reached the age of majority. A wedding would be expected soon.

The thought shouldn’t fill her with as much anxiety as it did. Robb was kind and honorable, and he would be the Lord of Winterfell someday. House Stark was an ancient house, long revered by the people of Westeros. She was a lucky woman.


Unbidden, her eyes swept around the hall until she found Jon beyond Robb’s shoulder. There, at a table far away from the family table, watching her and Robb dance. Her breath caught in her throat.

His face was dark, the skin between his brow pinched in displeasure. She supposed he always looked like that. As long as she’d known him, he’d always been a sullen boy, only truly given to fits of happiness when he was with Robb or Arya, or when he had a sword in hand, leading a dance in the courtyard as steel and metal rang around him.

And even, sometimes, with her.

When he was with her, he seemed to fluctuate between the two extremes. It was as exciting as it was infuriating, and she despised how unbalanced he made her feel. Yet, she craved it. Craved his presence. Craved his hard-won smiles and laughter, craved the sharp looks and words he gave her, heated by resentment...and something else, something she assumed not even he understood, or rather, something he wouldn’t admit to himself.

Sometimes, she wasn’t even sure she understood it.

It was wrong. It didn’t make any sense, what she felt for him. Not when she was promised to Robb. But when she’d been in Starfall, she’d missed Jon most of all. Her thoughts had often turned to him, particularly when she was alone at night, in bed. She thought about how he teased her, how he challenged her. How gallant he looked astride his horse. How rough his hands were, and how surprisingly soft his lips.

She wished he’d dance with her, at least once, but she knew he’d never cut in. He wasn’t allowed to, not under Lady Catelyn’s watchful gaze. Regardless, he was too honorable to interfere, even for one dance. Not with Robb around.

Dany drew in a deep breath and expelled it quietly. Aware of Jon’s heavy gaze on her, she directed her eyes back to Robb and smiled at him, more brightly than necessary. And, perhaps, more sweetly, more coyly, too. Despite what the Northerners no doubt assumed of her Dornish heritage, she wasn't a wanton by nature, though she was guilty of lustful thoughts, she supposed. Still, she didn't typically flirt with Robb; it seemed unnecessary, given their betrothal. She'd never felt the need to ensnare him with any feminine artifice. Even so, she'd learned how to play the game at Starfall and the handful of times she'd been at Sunspear, and right now, emboldened by a chalice or two of wine and Jon's stormy gaze, she felt like playing.

She stroked her hand over Robb's shoulder, from his neck outward, letting her fingers just graze the skin of his throat above his collar. She let her eyelids droop before lifting her gaze to his. His throat constricted with an imperceptible swallow, but he maintained his faint, strained smile. “So, tell me, my lord—”

“Oh, please, call me Robb. We’ve known each other since we were children.”

She laughed lightly. “Then none of this Lady Daenerys nonsense, I beg you.”

He grinned, moving her backward with the music, careful not to step on her gown or feet. “I suppose that’s only fair. Daenerys.”

She smiled, though it didn’t quite reach her eyes. She fought the urge to look over his shoulder again. “So tell me. You’ve gotten taller and—” she squeezed his shoulder, “stronger while I was away. Is it owed to the dancing or Ser Rodrik’s vigorous training?”

Pleased with her compliment, Robb laughed. His arms tightened around her, pulling her that much closer. He'd gotten bold, as well. “I’ll wager my lord father and lady mother deserve a good bit of the credit, but I think all my tutors are responsible in some way or another.”

Her smile widened. “How very diplomatic of you. You’ll make a good Lord of Winterfell some day.”

Movement in the corner of her eye caught her attention, and she glanced over Robb’s shoulder. Jon brought his tankard to his mouth and quaffed a healthy gulp of his ale. Then, abruptly, he stood and shoved away from the table before stalking off.

She felt the cramp of disappointment in her stomach as she watched his retreat, until the doors of the Great Hall closed on his heels and took him completely from her sight.

Huddled under his cloak, Jon stood sentinel in the turret on the wall. He squinted into the darkness that stretched out beyond the gates of Winterfell, his breath misting in the air. He took another swig of his ale to empty it then leaned over the edge of the turret. The ground was far below, a light dusting of white on the ground. Snow fell around him, fat, fluffy flakes that clung to his cloak and his sleeves.

Drunk and angry, he dangled his tankard over the side before he let it slip from his fingers. The sound of it shattering against the hard ground was satisfying, only barely mollifying his sour mood.

A sound came from behind him, and he froze, holding his breath to listen carefully. It sounded like someone coming up the steps to the top of the turret where he was, someone light of foot and trying not to be heard.

A soft, feminine curse came next, and Jon spun around as Daenerys stumbled on the top step, just barely catching herself from falling to her knees. She straightened with a hiccuping laugh.

“Guess I had more wine than I thought.” She spoke in hushed tones, and his eyes widened as she approached him.

“Bloody hell, what are you doing up here? How did you find me?” he demanded, his heart rate picking up just at the sight of her. Why had she left the feast? Last he’d seen her, she was in Robb’s arms, laughing prettily while he no doubt tried to charm her smallclothes off.

Daenerys shrugged, pulling her cloak tighter around her shoulders. “You always come up here to brood,” she said, her lips pulling into a mocking pout. Naturally, he scowled at her.

“I do not.” He flexed his jaw before conceding her point. “Not always, anyway. Sometimes I go to the godswood or the stables.”

She laughed and sidled up beside him. He stiffened, fighting the urge to step back. Or pull her closer, gods help him. He didn’t understand what she was doing here. His brain was foggy from the ale. And from her perfumed scent, something floral and womanly that filled his nostrils and lungs.

“What are you doing up here?” he asked again, curling his hands at his sides. She looked too bloody tempting right now, her hair as bright as moonlight, her cheeks flushed and pink lips puffy, her bosom on display in her low-cut gown as her cloak slipped off her shoulders. It was an effort not to stare.

She puffed out a breath, watching the air crystallize before her. She tugged at her cloak again. “You left the feast so abruptly, I only wanted to make sure you were all right.”

“I’m fine,” he asserted, and she squinted doubtfully at him. “What?”

“Then why are you here ?”

He huffed. “I needed some air. Those feasts get so bloody stuffy.”

She laughed. “And you get so foul-mouthed when you’ve been drinking. Bloody this, bloody that.”

Jon swallowed. The crude word on such a sweet, delicate mouth was all wrong. Wicked. Even so, it amused him. He had to press his lips together to stop a smile. “You really shouldn’t be wandering the grounds alone out here, not when everyone’s in the hall.”

“Are you saying Winterfell is unsafe?” she asked with wide, unblinking eyes. He rolled his own.

“You’re in the safest place you’ll ever be in the North. But still. Anything can happen in the dark.”

At that, Daenerys hummed in the back of her throat, not breaking eye contact. When she smiled, slow and secretive, he grew hot under his collar. “That’s true, I suppose,” she said softly, then her smile morphed into a grin. “Don’t worry about me, Jon. After all, someone taught me how to take care of myself.”

With that, she took up a fighting stance, her fists raised before her. Bewildered, he watched her as she lightly jabbed his bicep and chest, before he burst out laughing. “Seven hells, you really are drunk, aren’t you?” he accused, grabbing her hands to stop her.

“No more than you, I bet,” she said, stepping closer. He clamped his mouth shut, going still as she invaded his space. For some reason, he couldn’t bring himself to let go of her hands.

“Daenerys,” he started, but she interrupted.

“Call me Dany. Please. That’s what my family calls me.”

He blew out a breath. “I’m not your family,” he said fiercely. She looked stricken, and he instantly regretted his harshness. He tried to temper his tone. “Not yet, anyway.” Not till you marry Robb. But he couldn’t bring himself to say those words. They tasted vile on his tongue.

But the sadness still haunted her expression. She dropped her gaze and swallowed. “I...think of you as my family. Sometimes...sometimes more than the others.” When she lifted her violet eyes to his again, imploring, his breath stuck in his chest, his sternum tightening. Inadvertently, he squeezed her hands in his.

“Don’t,” he said thickly. “Don’t look at me that way, Dany.” He shook his head. “I’m not Robb.”

She made an incredulous sound. “You think I don’t know that? Of course, I do. I’m aware of that every day I’m here. I wish—” She broke off and heaved a watery sigh. She pushed closer, forcing him to release her hands and grab her by her shoulders to halt her forward movement. Still, he didn’t push her back like he should have. Instead, he held her there, and she fisted her fingers in the front of his cloak.

“I guess it doesn’t matter what I wish. I can’t change anything,” she whispered, her eyes fixed somewhere below his chin. She spoke so softly, he wasn’t entirely sure she was still talking to him. “I’ll do my duty. Follow the path laid out for me, as decided by everyone but me. Be the good daughter and the dutiful wife. A proper Northern lady. But…”

Daenerys trailed off, lost in thought, and her teeth sawed at the pink flesh of her bottom lip. He watched the motion, mesmerized, feeling hotter than he had a moment ago. The air was suddenly stifling and steamy, their breaths hot between them.

Releasing her lip, she tipped her chin up. “Kiss me.”

Blood rushed into his ears, making him dizzy. His voice sounded distant when he spoke. “What?”

She tugged at his cloak. She stood so close to him, her slippered feet brushed the toes of his boots. “I want you to be my first kiss. If nothing else. Please, Jon. Kiss me.”

“Dany—no. No, I can’t. I can’t do that to Robb,” he said, panic constricting his throat. Suddenly, it was hard to catch his breath.

“It’s only a kiss. Boys kiss girls who aren’t to be their wives all the time. I hear the soldiers and the grooms laughing about it, like it’s all some game. It means nothing to them. It’s the same back home. It doesn’t have to mean anything, if you don’t want it to. I only...I only want this one thing for myself. I want this one decision to be mine.”

Her parted lips trembled in the cool air, her eyes big and bright as they peered up at him. He felt paralyzed with indecision and guilt. And lust, so much of it. He wanted her, Others take him. He’d always wanted her. It wasn’t fair, it wasn’t bloody fair that Robb got to have her.

It was a petulant thought, something Jon knew deep in his heart...yet, greedily, selfishly, he seized on it. Robb would have everything of her in only a matter of years: her maidenhead, her love, her children. What did a kiss matter?

Daenerys’ face was so close to his, he could taste the wine on her breath. Could taste her lips before he’d even touched them. His throat dry, Jon swallowed, trying to wet it. When he licked his lips, her eyes darkened at the peek of his tongue, eyelids drooping hungrily. His groin tightened, growing heavy and hot.

Struggling with himself, Jon dipped his head to hers, slowly, oh so slowly. Daenerys lifted her mouth, her rosebud lips puckered. Petrified, he grazed his lips against hers then held his mouth still. Her little puffs of breaths were quick and hot on his face. She made a quiet sound, her plump bottom lip sliding between his lips.

Awkwardly, their mouths pressed together, close-lipped with uncertainty. Eyes closed, she breathed out a laugh. “I don’t—I don’t know what I’m doing,” she whispered. Her soft lips moved against his, and he drew in a juddering breath.

“Me neither,” he admitted. He felt her smile more than he saw it. Daringly, Daenerys parted her lips to fit them around his. He could taste the inside of her lip, the wet, tender skin there. His grip tightened on her shoulders, drawing her against his body.

He felt the tip of her tongue next, a tentative entreaty on his upper lip to enter. Head swimming, Jon opened his own mouth to mimic her, his tongue touching to hers. Her gasp was sweet and musical, making him tremble as an answering groan rattled through his chest. Their tongues brushed together, stroking and retreating experimentally before growing bolder, dipping into the other’s mouth.

Daenerys was shaking against him so badly, he wrapped his arms around her to hold her close. His mind was so overrun by arousal, he didn’t even care that his erection was pressed against her belly, that she could feel it, that she would know just how much he wanted her. All he cared about was the taste of her, the wet silk of her tongue in his mouth, the firm press of her breasts to his chest, the way her hands clutched so desperately at him.

It was his, all of it, this moment, if only this moment. She was his.

Sneaking away from Septa Mordane was nearly impossible as she’d become practically military in her oversight of the girls, especially after Arya’s one-too-many escapes. Normally, Dany was rather dutiful in obeying Septa Mordane’s lessons. She sewed, she sang, she played the harp, she learned the proper etiquette for every occasion. But, lately, she was sick of it all. Mostly, she was heartsick for Jon.

Fortunately, her longing for him manifested in a general malaise, and she was able to convincingly fake a stomach ailment that excused her from Septa Mordane’s sewing lesson. After she offered her profuse apologies, Dany slipped from the room, all the while dodging Arya’s mournful gaze. She forced herself to not run down the halls of the Great Keep, keeping a measured pace. Once outside, however, she broke into a brisk walk, peeking over her shoulder and ducking her face to avoid detection on her way to the First Keep.

The drum tower had stood abandoned for centuries, the lichyard surrounding it and the gargoyle statues above giving the keep an ominous feeling. No one dared venture inside it now, not even Bran who used to climb all over the towers until a nasty fall a couple years prior had broken his arm and grounded him—permanently, if Lady Catelyn had anything to say about it. These days, Dany supposed only she and Jon were foolish enough to enter the keep. As she pushed open the door and loped up the winding steps inside, she prayed Jon was still waiting for her as they’d planned.

At the top, however, she found it empty. Her stomach sank; the nausea from before didn’t feel so false now. “Jon?” she called, surveying the dark and dusty interior of the keep. Stone had crumbled, but the walls and ceiling still stood. Cobwebs clung to abandoned furniture and empty shelves.

He must have been held up in his lessons with Ser Rodrik, she assured herself. Still, she was crestfallen.

Turning to the steps, Dany gasped when someone grabbed her from behind. A quiet voice shushed her, and strong arms pulled her against a firm, solid chest. Instantly, she relaxed.

“Why were you hiding? Why didn’t you reveal yourself when I called your name?”

Jon shook his head, his nose and mouth pressed at her neck. “You just looked so pretty in the light of the window, your cheeks red from the cold, your hair wild from your dash here. It seemed a pity to disturb the scene.”

Her heart fluttering at his sweet words, she twisted in his arms to face him. “I didn’t know you were a poet,” she teased, staying close to him. He smelled of sweat and dirt, leather and oil. It was a heady aroma that only intensified her hunger for him.

With a gruff, self-derisive laugh, Jon shook his head. “Hardly. You just make it easy to find the words.” He spoke softly, one hand resting on her hip. The other came up to touch her face, his thumb tracing the shape of her brow.

Dany tipped her face upward. “Enough wooing. Kiss me already.”

His throat convulsed, and he licked his lips. Even in his hesitation, she saw his pupils thicken with desire. Ever patient, she waited, closing her eyes when he finally complied. His lips missed the mark, however; instead, he pressed gentle kisses to her forehead, her cheek, her nose, her chin. She whimpered, both pleased and frustrated with his dalliance. Only then did his mouth find hers. He kissed her lips open and stroked his tongue inside.

Boldly, she met him with her own tongue, trembling at the scrape of his beard on her skin, at the wanton thrust of his tongue. She loved the taste of him, the uncertain yet needy way he kissed her, the way his breath quickened and his fingers tightened on her, betraying just how ravenous he was for her. She loved that he didn’t know what to do anymore than she did, and she loved learning with him. She’d been his first, just as he’d been hers.

“Jon,” she murmured against his mouth, rubbing her nose on his. He grunted, trying to deepen the kiss. But there was an unbearable ache in her breasts and between her thighs, a wetness spreading along the crotch of her smallclothes. “Jon, let’s lie down.”

He went still against her, opening his eyes. They’d only ever kissed before, hands kept at more respectable areas of the body. But she longed for the weight and pressure of his hand on her breast or between her legs, something, anything.

Blowing out an unsteady breath, Jon looked around the keep. There was nothing but the floor and chairs, so he pulled his cloak off his shoulders and spread it out, holding her hand as she sat down before he settled beside her. She didn’t wait for his move this time, grabbing his face to pull him into another kiss. She held tight as she lay back, Jon’s arms bracketing either side of her to ease their descent, until she was stretched out underneath him.

Their tongues tangled together again, growing more frantic. He bit at her lips, his breathing ragged. Dany panted and squirmed with the discomfort of her growing arousal, foiled by his hesitation to go further.

But no, of course he wouldn’t make the first move. He was too good, too honorable, too consumed with doing the right thing. He’d deny himself any happiness or pleasure, even when offered up freely.

Dany lifted his hand and placed it on her breast, feeling his body jolt when she wriggled his hand under the bodice of her gown and her shift to palm her bare breast.

“Dany,” he ground out, the sound tight with astonishment and disbelief. Her face burned as she pulled the neckline of her bodice down over her other breast, the nipple constricting in the cool air. As she encouraged his hand to knead her breast, she watched his face raptly. Shock and lust darkened his eyes, slackening his jaw.

Soon, he needed no assistance from her at all, eagerly playing with her breast, drawing his calloused thumb over her nipple. The pink bud tightened even more. She let out a shaky breath, the sound grating into a guttural moan when he boldly took her other breast in his mouth, soothing the sensitive peak with his tongue. At her gasp, he froze, waiting, until she arched toward him in encouragement. He sucked until her nipple was tight and wet inside his mouth, her skin prickling all over with gooseflesh.

She said his name, straining as she reached down and tugged her skirts upward. Releasing her breast, he craned his head to watch what she was doing then reached down to help her, pulling the hem up to her hips. She guided his hand underneath the bothersome layers, guiding him between her thighs, pushing his fingers through the slit of her smallclothes.

At the first touch of his fingers on her feminine flesh, she keened, shaking beneath him. Jon’s breathing grew labored, his pants loud and rough as he touched her slick folds reverently, tracing the outer lips then the inner ones until she was sopping wet. “Please,” she gasped, thrashing her head side to side. She felt empty and hollow, not sure herself what she wanted. Pressing his hand against the swollen apex of her cunt, Dany bucked upward with a cry.

With a throaty groan, Jon turned his face to hers and seized her mouth in a desperate kiss, his teeth biting and scraping as his tongue thrust against hers, his fingers rubbing the spot she held him to. She was so wet and swollen, a string pulled taut; it was no time at all before she snapped, pleasure and light cascading through her body. She cried into his mouth, and Jon swallowed every sound as she quaked against his hand.

Sitting up on his elbow, Jon continued to move his fingers between her legs. Her flesh was too sensitive, every nerve ending alight with fire, and her thighs closed reflexively to stop him. Understanding, he gently pulled his hand away. His fingers were glistening as he rubbed his thumb over the tips in awe. The musk of her cunt was pungent, though he didn't seem bothered by it. Embarrassed, she turned her face toward him, burying it in his shoulder.

Her brain was hazy, her limbs lethargic, but she rolled into him and brought her hands to his trousers, clumsy fingers tugging at his laces. He grabbed her wrists to stop her, breathing hard. Pressing his forehead to her hair, he shook his head. “Don’t,” he rasped, though she could feel the hard length of him through his trousers. “You shouldn’t.”

“I want to. I want to make you feel good.”

But he resisted, gently pushing her hands away. “It’s...I'll make a mess. We shouldn’t.” She could hear him blushing, his words laced with chagrin. Taking a deep breath, Dany nodded and cuddled up to him, tucking her face into the crook of his neck. Jon righted her skirts as best he could in his prone position before he settled down with her. His hand stroking her hair was the last thing she remembered before she dozed off.

They were growing reckless, meeting in the First Keep several times a week. But she couldn’t stay away from him, couldn’t deny herself the mind-drugging effects his touch had on her, the pleasure that rent her body with the gentle press of his fingers between her legs, or, more excitingly, his tongue. He seemed to love that most of all, feasting on her as if he’d discovered the most bountiful banquet in her cunt until she was wild and crying with pleasure.

He let her touch him as well, giving in to the insistent pawing of her hands at his cock, letting her pull his beautiful, thick shaft from his trousers to explore with her fingers and her mouth.

It wasn’t enough, though, the urgent fumblings and pettings in the secrecy of the tower. She could sense the encroaching threat of her marriage to Robb, the eventual dissolution of whatever this was with Jon. She couldn’t bear the thought. It made her even more brash and foolhardy, desperate to cling to her time with him, to savor as many of these intimate moments as she could.

He lay on top of her now, his mouth working hungrily at her neck. He normally eased up, conscious of leaving any evidence of their encounters, but he seemed to be of the same mind as her today, his hands pulling her gown down and tearing seams in the process to bare her breasts. Dany struggled out of the sleeves and her shift until her torso was naked, the gown at her waist. The rough fabric of his tunic teased her tender nipples, and, kissing down her chest, he took each breast in his mouth, sucking them into stiff, pink peaks.

She gasped, sliding her hands under his shirt to flatten them along his sinewy back. “Jon,” she whimpered. “Please. Now.”

He dragged his swollen lips up to her ear, his breath hot and moist, making her tremble. “What do you want me to give you? Mouth? Or fingers?”

His honeyed words, roughened by his Northern burr and with the strain of his need for her, made her quiver, her cunt leaking and ready for him. Hiking her knees up, she wrapped her legs around him and squeezed his hips between her thighs. “I need—I need more than that, Jon. I can’t wait.”

He’d been unconsciously rutting against her, his hips juddering into hers through the layers of his trousers and her skirts. He stopped abruptly, lifting his head to meet her eyes in question. “More?”

“Yes.” She cupped his cheek, pressing her hips up to his. “It should be you. Take it. I’m yours. You’re mine.”

His face contorted with pain, her words plainly torturing him. He gave a vigorous shake of his head and dropped his forehead to her shoulder with an ugly groan. “No. No. I can’t. Gods help me. I can’t do that, Dany. Not to Robb.”

Tears stung her eyes suddenly, spilling over to trickle down her temples. “This—this isn’t about him. It’s about you and me. maidenhead should be mine to give. And I want to give it to you. I want to be yours. I—I love you, Jon. You. No one else.”

His breath was shredded when he blew it out on her neck. She could feel him trembling in her arms. After a long, torturous moment, he lifted his head again. “You love me?” he croaked. His eyes were shiny. She nodded, sucking her lip into her mouth to hold back the tears. With a groan, he kissed her, lips opening hers, teeth clacking together, his tongue in her mouth. She returned the kiss just as fiercely.

His hand fumbled between their bodies, hastily unlacing the front of his trousers. She tried to assist him, but her hands were shaking just as badly as his. When he pulled his cock out of his smallclothes, he broke the kiss to catch his breath.

“This is mad,” he said weakly. A last-ditch effort to stop the trajectory of their doom. “It's too dangerous. What if—what if I get you with child?”

Her fingers stroked his beard, the delicate shells of his ears, his silken hair. She wanted him too much; she was beyond rational thought. “Can...can you stop yourself? Or…” Her face turned red, which was silly, considering their current state. “You can spill on my thigh...or the floor…” She bit down on her lip as he considered her words, the conflict obvious in the depths of his eyes. Finally, he nodded.

“Aye...I’ll stop...I can stop before.”

She felt the blunt tip of his cock prodding between the slit of her smallclothes, slipping between her wet folds as he pressed forward. Then he was splitting her open, sinking inside her. Dany grunted, the pain sharp, her walls clamping around him in resistance. Jon blanched, halting his forward thrust. “Gods. Are you all right?”

Squeezing her eyes shut, she nodded. She held him close and canted her hips toward his, opening her legs wider in an attempt to make room for him. “Yes. I’ll be fine. Keep going.”

She took deep breaths as he pushed into her, his thick length stretching her open. It hurt more than she was expecting. Her lady mother had warned her it wouldn’t be pleasant. At the time, she’d been preparing her daughter for what she thought would be her wedding night. The memory now made Dany want to laugh. She couldn’t understand why any woman would willingly lie with a man if pain like this were the outcome...yet, she thought she was beginning to understand better. Her body was wet, as if to ease his breach of her sex, and despite the pain, she thrilled at the thick slide of his cock inside her, the gentle, jerky push and pull of him as he tried to seat himself in her cunt. Once he was buried to the hilt, the pain wasn’t any less, not really, but even so, she felt deliciously and wholly full.

“Jon,” she gasped, taking shaky breaths against his cheek. He was just as unsteady, his muscles jumping with strain.

“…” He broke off in a groan when she rippled around him, moving her hips under him out of an instinctive need for him to do the same. Jon followed her lead and thrust into her, a gentle rocking of his hips, his cock barely moving inside her.

Gradually, the pain eased, the burn of her walls stretched around his girth lessening, until she was panting, desperate for him to scratch some itch deep inside her. She bucked underneath him, clawing, scoring her nails across his back. He arched on top of her, head rearing back as he released a guttural noise into the rafters of the keep.

And then he was rutting into her with abandon, his cock plunging in and out of her until she was moaning and squealing like some stuck sow.

Suddenly, Jon gasped and notched his hips to hers, his face dropping to her shoulder. Dany felt the pulse of his cock that signaled his crisis, the hot flood of his seed inside her cunt that normally dampened her hand or her tongue.

“Dany—gods, Dany, I’m sorry, I can’t,” he grunted, still thrusting, still in the throes of his pleasure.

She was delirious too, wrapping her legs around him to hold him close. Though her own release had been stymied, she was oddly sated, her cunt tightening around his cock as if to milk his seed from him. Yes, she thought, wildly, desperately. Yes, let me grow big with his child. Give me a little girl with curly black hair, or a boy with his kind eyes. Nearly manic with the fervent wish, she held on to him.

Until Jon’s trembling subsided, and he began to groan miserably into her neck. “Oh, gods, Dany...What have I done? What have I done?”

Just as quickly, her own ecstasy dissipated, doused with the cold reality of his words. She bit her tongue and gazed at the ceiling overhead while he bemoaned his mistake, until her neck grew damp with his tears. Her own eyes became wet once again.

Eventually, they untangled their limbs and sat up. Hands shaking, Jon tried to wipe up with his cloak the spillover of his seed and the pink blood from her torn maidenhead, as if it could erase the damage done, but they both knew it was futile. He slumped against the wall, his knees pulled up. Dany clung to his side, her head on his shoulder. She didn’t bother to pull up her dress, her bare breasts resting on his arm.

“I’m so sorry, Dany,” he said hoarsely, staring at the floor. His following words were blunt. "I fucked up."

She shook her head. “You didn’t do anything I didn’t want you to.”

“You might be with child. My child. A bastard child.” He let out a ragged breath. “Gods help us both. What have I done? And to my own brother? I’m everything they’ve ever accused me of. Treacherous, wanton, fucking rotten to the core.”

She grabbed his arm, hugging him close. “You’re not. You’re not, Jon. You’re good. And kind.” He snorted with disgust. For some reason, the sound brought fresh tears to her eyes. “Stop it! It’s my fault as much as it is yours. I did this, too. Robb can't blame you alone.”

Jon winced, his mouth contorting in a sneer. He lifted his hands to drag them down his face. “They’ll send me to the Wall now.”

Alarm shot through her, and she pulled back to look at him. “The Wall? But—that’s where castoffs and criminals go.”

“They’ll send me for cuckolding the future Lord of Winterfell, my own kin. Surely, that’s a crime.”

“That’s absurd! The Wall is for, for real criminals. Like murderers and thieves and, and rapists. Your own family wouldn’t—”

He gave her a dark look, stealing the words from her mouth. “No, Jon. No. You’re didn’t rape me. I won’t let them say that about you!” She shook his arm, trying to get him to listen. “Besides, you could be worrying for nothing. Surely...surely, one can’t get pregnant the first time, right?” she asked. Jon shrugged, helpless. She swiped at her eyes, determined. “Then...the Others can take them. We’ll run away, you and I.”

“Dany, don’t,” he said in warning.

But she seized on the idea. “We can go to Essos. They won't follow us there. You’d liked to go, wouldn’t you? To explore a different world? I would. We can go together. Live together, free to love each other.”

He stared at her, his eyes sad and distant. When her eyes watered hopelessly, he pressed his lips together and cupped her cheek. “All right. Essos,” he said quietly. “If...if you're with child. We’ll go. Just you and I. Get away from this all. Be a family.” His smile was tight. He spoke as if he didn’t believe it, as if he only meant to placate her, but she clung to his words.

Promise me, Jon.”

“Aye. I promise you, Dany.” His thumb swept back and forth over her cheekbone, his eyes fixed on her as if memorizing her face. Dany surged forward to take his mouth in a kiss, sealing the promise with their lips.

They were supposed to stay away from each other. That time in the First Keep was meant to be the last; he’d sworn it, and she’d agreed, albeit reluctantly.

He really shouldn’t have been surprised to find her sneaking into his chambers in the middle of the night. Jon stirred when she slipped into his bed, sliding under the layer of furs. Her toes were like ice, making him hiss when they came into contact with his.

“You shouldn’t be here,” he told her, though contrary to his words, his hand came to rest on her waist. Her eyes looked wide-awake in the light of the candle she’d placed on the table beside his bed.

“Couldn’t sleep,” she murmured, wriggling close to press against him. “Missed you.”

He swallowed, closing his eyes as he rested his chin on top of her head. Gods be good, but after a couple weeks abstaining from her, it felt good to hold her again. “Anyone could catch you in here.”

“No one’s awake. I’ll leave soon, I promise. Just...let me hold you for a bit.”

He almost laughed. Why would she leave when he couldn’t even muster the will to send her away? Why was he so weak when it came to her? How was he ever going to be able to let her go when the time inevitably arrived?

His stomach twisted at the thought, and he wrapped his arm around her protectively. He’d have to watch her marry Robb someday. He wouldn’t be able to stomach it. But what could he do? Where could he go?

“Dany,” he said suddenly, his throat tight. She hummed in question, her breaths loud in the cocoon of his body around hers, under the fur. “What if...what if we didn’t wait to go to Essos?” His heart began to pound at his daring.

She tipped her head back to find his gaze. “You mean, you want to run away now?”

Jon swallowed. “I don’t know,” he hedged, mind racing. “I just...I can’t give you up. I don’t know what to do. I won’t be able to stay here and watch you—with him—I can’t—”

Daenerys grabbed his face, and the words died in his throat. “All right, Jon,” she said, soothing him with gentle kisses to his lips. His hand spasmed on her waist, fingers digging into her back through the silky fabric of her bed gown. He caught her lips in a kiss, deepening it to suck on her tongue with a desperate urgency that left him shaking. Daenerys made a sound of surprise but gave in instantly, kissing him, winding her fingers through his loose curls. Her knee came up around his waist, hiking her gown up to her hips. He could feel the heat of her through his tunic. She must not sleep with smallclothes on; the realization made his thickening cock even harder.

With a groan, Jon broke the kiss and pushed the covers away, rolling her onto her back. His hands grappled with the hem of her bed gown, pushing it up to her breasts, then over them. Daenerys lifted her arms and shoulders so he could pull it over her head, her silver-gold hair slipping through the collar.

For the first time, she was fully naked beneath him. In his bed.

It was a bad idea. A very bad idea.

Yet, he found himself scrambling out of his own tunic when she pawed at it. Jon sat up to throw the covers aside entirely, then sat on his haunches as he silently admired her. All her beautiful, feminine curves were limned in the candlelight, her skin deliciously supple-looking. The pebbled tips of her breasts were dusky rose, awaiting the first tease of his tongue. But the silver thatch of hair at the triangle of her thighs was much more enticing at the moment, and he parted her legs to find the trove in between. She was flushed and slick already, the gloss of her nectar shiny on her nether lips.

He set on her like a wolf on prey, his tongue parting her and dipping inside. She gasped and clutched at him, her whines of pleasure spurring him on as he lapped at her sweet cunt. Her delicate flesh quivered when he took her swollen bud between his lips, sucking gently, tonguing it deftly until she was writhing and shaking.

Her cries were too loud, and he had to abandon his task even as her climax was upon her. Jon pressed his hand to her mouth, silencing her panting moans. He pressed his head to her temple and waited till she quieted down, though her breathing remained ragged. Confident he could finally move his hand, Jon settled between her parted legs.

“You’ll have to be quiet, love,” he whispered in her ear. Daenerys nodded, her fingers scraping down his back to cup his arse. At her encouragement, he braced his arms around her and angled his hips until the blunt head of his cock found her entrance. Slowly, he pushed inside her. Her soft flesh gave way, her thighs cradling his hips. She muffled her gasp on his shoulder, biting down, and he sighed as he sank into her hot, wet cunt.

Then he was fucking her, quick and hard, unable to find a steady rhythm with the way her walls clutched at him. He had to cover her mouth again, gritting his own teeth against his primal urge to throw his head back and roar as he pounded into her. He only hoped she’d been right about the castle being asleep, that there were no guards wandering the halls, as there was nothing to be done about the loud slap of flesh on flesh or the wet sounds of his cock moving inside her.

It was over too soon. When he came, Jon buried his cock inside her and spilled his seed at her womb. It was foolish and careless, but the haze of sex was potent, and the promise of running away with her a temporary balm for his fears.

They would leave this place, together. Free of the restrictions of the North, free of the limitations of his bastard birth, she could be his, completely.

Jon was pulled from his sleep by his chamber door slamming open. It hit the stone wall so hard, the wood actually splintered. Heart racing wildly, he shot up in bed and gaped at the shadowy figure stalking toward him. Only when hands seized the front of his shirt did he glimpse the enraged face of his father. Panicked, Jon glanced to his left, to the spot in his bed Daenerys had occupied of late, but it was empty. He vaguely recalled her waking him before she slipped away and only had a brief moment of relief before his father spoke.

“Did you do it?” he demanded, shaking Jon by his fisted shirt when he didn’t get an immediate reply. “Answer me! Did you do it?”

Jon’s heart sank like a stone to the pit of his stomach. Even half-asleep, he understood: His father knew.

When Jon opened his mouth to answer, no words in his defense were forthcoming. Ashamed, he averted his eyes. It was answer enough. Ned growled out a curse and shoved Jon away from him, stepping back. “How could you do this to your family? To your brother?”

Jon licked his dry lips. “I never meant to hurt Robb. I swear, Father.” He ran a shaky hand over his face, his eyes still sticking with sleep. Ned exhaled a loud, tremulous breath, shaking his head, but before he could respond, someone else appeared in the open door.

Lady Stark. Out of reflex, Jon grabbed at the coverlets over his lap, bracing himself.

Her hair looked wild, glowing like fire in the torchlight behind her. She clutched at the front of her bedrobe and looked between him and Ned. “Well? Did he confess?” she asked, her voice whip-sharp.

Ned shot Jon a grave look. “In so many words. Aye.”

Catelyn strode to Ned’s side. “I told you. I warned you this would happen. The moment you brought him here. I warned you he would betray Robb like this! It’s in his nature, Ned! And you brought him into our home! Let him live among our children! This—this selfish bastard child!”

Jon flinched, sick climbing up his throat, and he turned his gaze down. The weight of his self-hatred felt as if it were suffocating him.

Angrily, Ned turned on Catelyn. “Quiet! I won’t have you speaking ill of him! He’s still just that, a child, Cat, they make mistakes—”

“He’s a man grown, Ned!” Catelyn shrieked, her hands gesturing wildly at Jon, her jabbing finger accusatory. “He’s treacherous and wicked. What else of Robb’s will he try to take? He can’t stay here! You must know that!”

Enough!” Ned roared. “Get out! I will thank you to let me handle my son!”

Her face red, Catelyn shot Jon one last mutinous glare before pivoting on her heel and storming out. Jon didn’t dare move in the silence that followed till Ned blew out a breath. As he sank down on the edge of the bed, he didn’t speak or look at Jon, his head dropping into his hands.

“This is my fault,” he murmured, as if he were speaking to himself. “Perhaps she was right from the start. Perhaps I never should have brought you back here. But what else could I have done? I couldn’t just leave you—”

With every word his father spoke, Jon felt his heart being flayed open. Tears stung his eyes as he listened to Ned give voice to every fear Jon had ever harbored. But he held the tears back, swallowing convulsively until the urge passed, until his eyes were dry.

“It’s not your fault,” Jon said flatly. “It’s like she said. I’m selfish. Wicked. It was always in my blood. It was only a matter of time, wasn’t it?”

Ned raked his fingers through his loose hair. “Jon…” he trailed off helplessly, his voice thick with emotion. He dropped his hands to his knees and stared at his open palms, as if they held the answer. “You’re my blood. But Robb is—he's my firstborn.” His fingers flexed, then he turned his hands to spread them over his knees. Still not looking at Jon, Ned spoke quietly. “You can’t stay here. Catelyn will never allow it, not now. And once Robb finds out…”

Robb didn’t know yet, Jon realized with a start. It lit a small flame of hope in his chest before Ned’s next words smothered it.

“I think...perhaps the best solution is for you to go. To the Wall. Your Uncle Benjen is there. He can...look after you. Perhaps better than I ever could.” Ned stared vacantly ahead of him. “You’ll be safer there.”

Of course. He’d known it would come to this, hadn’t he? Dazed, Jon nodded. “Aye. That’s...that’s probably for the best.”


He jolted at the sound of his name coming from Daenerys’ lips, his eyes darting to the door. He heard her bare feet slapping on stone before she stumbled into view, gasping. “Jon.” Her face blanched at the sight of Ned, then crumbled. Her cheeks were wet with tears, and she moaned. “No.”

Ned stood up straight. “Daenerys, you shouldn’t be here. Go back to your room.”

Septa Mordane appeared, short of breath. “I’m sorry, Lord Stark, I tried to stop her—” She grabbed Daenerys’ arm, but Daenerys jerked out of her grasp.

“No! Don’t touch me! This is your fault, you evil wench!” Daenerys yelled. Septa Mordane flinched away at the bite of her words, her cheeks turning an angry, mottled red.

“Don’t speak to her like that,” Ned snapped. “This is your fault as much as anyone’s.”

“Yes! It’s my fault!” Dany turned to him to plead. “You can’t blame Jon! He never—he didn’t even want to touch me. I made him!”

“Dany,” Jon interjected harshly, alarmed and bewildered.

Her large eyes darted to him then back to Ned. “I made him do it. It was all me. I—I seduced him. I laid with him, many times.” Septa Mordane gasped in outrage, and Dany lifted her chin high, defiant. “It’s what you always feared, isn’t it? What you always thought: the wanton Dornish whore who would besmirch your sons' precious honor. Isn’t that what you expected?”

“I expected you to honor your betrothed, to honor your family,” Ned said coolly.

Dany glowered at him. “Honor? What do you know of honor? You bedded another woman while your own wife waited for your return, pregnant with your child. You killed my uncle, and then you forced my mother to give up her eldest daughter to you, to make amends, to soothe your conscience.”

Ned looked stricken. Jon closed his eyes, holding his breath.

“That’s not...there are things you can’t understand, Daenerys,” Ned said quietly, his voice tightly laced.

“I do. I understand some things. I understand you have no right to judge your son, not after what you've done.”

“Daenerys, enough of this." Ned sounded older than his years. “What’s done is done. You will marry Robb, if he can forgive your transgressions. And Jon will go to the Wall.”

That took the wind out of her sails. She turned her wide eyes on Jon. He met her gaze but said nothing. “The Wall? No—you can’t!”


“That’s a death sentence, you know it is! How can you be so cruel?”

Ned's poise fractured once again. “Get her out of here," he told Septa Mordane, then turned back to Daenerys. "And If I hear so much as another word from you, so help me, I’ll make sure this gods-damned wedding takes place tomorrow, even if I have to drag you before the heart tree myself!”

Dany struggled against Septa Mordane’s arms, which had locked around her torso. She begged and pleaded with all of them even as she was dragged back to her own chambers. Jon was too ashamed to look at her, to witness what he’d reduced her to. Ned shut the door, tremors passing through his arm as he turned to Jon. Distress and weariness lined his face, his voice softer than before.

“I suggest packing your trunk now. We’ll leave at first light, before the others awake. I will spare you the shame of having to tell your siblings what you've done.” He paused, his eyes sad as he took Jon in. “For what it’s worth...I’m sorry, Jon. I’m sorry I failed you.”

Anger flickered inside him, a brief raging of spite and resentment, but it died a futile death, swallowed by the gaping maw of his guilt. Lips pressed together, Jon gave a curt nod. “I’m sorry I failed you, too, Father.”

Dany waited till the guard turned his back before she made her dash across the rampart. She stayed low, her hood pulled over her silver hair so as not to catch anyone’s eye. Mercifully, the moon was waning, a mere crescent in the inky sky, but even so, her silver hair would be a beacon in the pitch-black of night.

She ducked under the cover of the nearest turret, stopping to catch her breath. She’d made sure to count the guards earlier in the night. There weren’t enough on watch to fill every turret, doubtless an unnecessary precaution in times of peace. From her chamber window she’d made note of which turrets were empty. Then, once the castle was asleep, Dany had grabbed her canvas sack containing only a few meager belongings—her coin purse and a rope from the stables, as well as some hard cheese, bread, and a skin of water she’d squirreled away from the kitchens—slung it around her shoulders, pulled on her cloak, and made her escape.

Jon had been gone for a week, gone before she could even say farewell. She’d cried herself to sleep that night of their discovery, certain she’d at least get to see him off to the Wall. But no, of course honor would have Lord Stark send him away before the castle could wake and learn what happened, to witness the bastard son being banished by his own father for defiling his ward. Dany just thought it despicable and cowardly to send Jon away under the cover of night, denying his siblings the chance to say goodbye.

For days after Jon’s departure, Septa Mordane wouldn’t let Dany out of her chambers. She'd been locked inside her room to think about what she'd done and repent for her sins. Perhaps it was a small blessing, as she didn't have to face Robb or the other Stark children, didn't have to discover what they thought of her now. Still, Dany hated the septa, more than Ned, more than Catelyn. It was Septa Mordane’s fault Jon was gone. Somehow, she’d realized Dany hadn't had her blood for the month; perhaps one of her handmaids had been instructed to keep the septa abreast of Dany's moon blood. That was the only explanation Dany could surmise for why Septa Mordane had been waiting for her outside her empty chambers on the last night she'd visited Jon.

When she’d been interrogated by Ned and Catelyn, after Septa Mordane had dragged Dany before the lord and his wife, waking them from their slumber, Dany had foolishly thought that if she confessed, they’d have to do the honorable thing and let her marry Jon. To do right by their child, the one surely growing in her womb at that very moment. But the Starks were a more ruthless bunch than she'd realized, and she'd all but sentenced Jon to death on the Wall with her naive hopes and illusions.

Crouched in the turret, Dany pressed her palm to her flat belly. She couldn’t stay here in Winterfell and suffer the judgments of these people, the loathing of the Starks. She wouldn’t let her child be raised the way Jon had been, in this cold, unforgiving place.

She thought to go to him at the Wall, but they’d surely turn her away and send her back to Winterfell. She could go home to Starfall, she knew. Bastards weren’t treated the same there as they were elsewhere in the Seven Kingdoms, and Dany knew her parents would love her child regardless of his or her parentage. Still, she couldn't bear to have let them down, to suffer their disappointment the rest of her life.

No, she would go to Essos, she decided. She'd procure a horse from Winter Town and make her way to White Harbor. Hopefully, she’d be far enough away before Lord Stark sent his men out to hunt her down. She’d pay for passage to Essos, Braavos most likely. It was the closest Free City. Before she set sail, she’d send a raven to Jon at the Wall. Come find me in Braavos, and we can raise our child together, just as we’d planned.

He’d come for her. He’d come for their child, she knew he would.

Taking a deep breath, Dany scouted the wall again to ensure no guards had seen her. Then she pulled her sack off and unraveled the heavy rope inside. Shakily, she looped one end around a battlement and knotted it as securely as she could. Hiding her sack beneath her cloak again, she climbed onto her belly atop the parapet, heart in her throat, rope gripped in her hands. Her booted feet gripped the wall between her legs to steady herself. It took her a few minutes to work up the courage to continue over the side. She gave a few sharp tugs on the rope to see that it held, then, wrapping it around one hand, she gripped the battlement in her other hand and twisted her body to hang her legs over the side.

Her boots slipped on the stone wall, and she gasped as she slid down the side, losing her grip on the battlement. Quickly, she grabbed at the rope with her free hand and held it tightly, dangling against the wall, high above the ground.

Her palms burned from the scrape of the rope, her arms shaking with the effort to hold herself. Sweat was making her hands slick, trickling down the small of her back. She let the rope slip between her hands an inch at a time, ever so slowly lowering herself toward the ground. She gritted her teeth against the shredding of her flesh, her palms turning raw and bloody as the rope tore off layers of skin, and notched the toes of her boots on jagged stones to slow her descent.

After what felt like hours, she reached the end of her tether and risked a glance down to survey her progress. To her dismay, she saw how much distance remained between her and the ground. The rope only reached so far. She’d taken the longest one she could find, and still it wasn’t enough. She’d have to drop the rest of the way.

It could mean death. It could mean a shattered leg or two. It could mean she’d never make it to Essos. It could mean she'd never see Jon again.

But she had to try. For herself. For him. For the baby.

Closing her eyes, Dany took a deep breath.

And then she let go.


Chapter Text


Jon was tying up his mount in the stables when Satin found him.

“The Lord Commander would like a word with you and Benjen.”

Jon glanced at the Lord Commander’s steward, his brow furrowing with puzzlement. As First Ranger, Benjen regularly convened with the Lord Commander, advising him on matters when it came to defense of the Wall and wildling raids. While Jon participated in the rangings beyond the Wall, often at his uncle’s side, he didn’t typically join the two for these private chats.

He let out a grunt, his breath misting in the cold air. “Can’t even let a man get warm first before it’s right to business, can he?” he asked with a wry twist of his mouth. Truthfully, what Jon wanted most at the moment was a chance to sit in the common hall with a plate of hot food. Even mushy turnip stew would be welcome, as long as it was hot.

“I’ll get you a cup of hot spiced wine while you three talk,” Satin suggested as Jon fondly patted his black garron’s flank. He couldn’t quite feel his fingers yet, the digits frozen stiff from his weeks-long patrol in the frigid cold despite the thick leather gloves he always wore. He hoped the Lord Commander had a nice, roaring fire going in his chambers.

Resigned to the inevitability of a delayed meal, Jon nodded. “Benjen’s in the common hall. I’ll go get him,” he said. Satin left the stables, leaving Jon to retrieve his uncle. They had only just returned to Castle Black, and it was already well past supper time; after a steady diet of salt mutton and stale bread the past couple weeks, Jon did not look forward to pulling Benjen away from his meal.

Inside the common hall, he found his uncle bent over a bowl of stew, sitting with his fellow rangers.

“Come on. Grab yourself a bowl. It’s venison stew. Three-Finger Hobb has really outdone himself tonight,” Benjen said when Jon came up behind him.

“Or perhaps anything would taste good after two weeks of stringy mutton meat,” Jon said with a crooked smile. “The Lord Commander wants to see us.”



With a queer look, Benjen shoveled down a few more bites of his stew before shoving the bowl toward Pyp, who all but moaned in gratitude before he began scarfing it down like a pig at a trough. Pyp had been one of the rangers with Jon and Benjen on their recent patrol, and had helped pass the long unbearable nights huddled around campfire regaling them with vivid descriptions of Three Finger Hobb’s finer dishes. Jon had thought it something more akin to torture, personally.

Together, Jon and Benjen made their way to the Lord Commander’s Keep, acknowledging their sworn brothers they passed along the way, recruits and builders and stewards alike. No one spoke beyond stilted greetings, casting them solemn, assessing glances. Jon frowned. All of a sudden, there was a tightness in his chest, a foreboding slowly creeping over him, a feeling he couldn’t shake.

When Benjen knocked on the door to the keep, Satin permitted them entry. Mercifully, the small confines of the keep were warm and cozy, a fire burning strong in the small hearth. Jon swallowed a sound of pleasure as the heat leached into his skin, his extremities already beginning to tingle with the return of warmth to his blood. Crossing to the hearth, he peeled off his gloves and flexed his hands before the fire. As he and Benjen sat down beside the fire, Satin poured a couple mugs of wine then handed one to Jon and the other to Benjen. Once he stuffed his gloves into the inside pocket of his cloak, Jon sipped his wine gratefully while the steward retrieved the Lord Commander from his sleeping quarters.

A moment later, Satin returned, and behind him Donal Noye emerged, broad-shouldered and whiskered with a salted beard. The former blacksmith and armorer was looking older by the day since having been elected to command following the Old Bear’s death. He'd only been at the post going on a year now. Jon did not envy the weight upon the new Lord Commander’s shoulders.

“Good to see you two alive still,” Donal Noye said in greeting.

“Missed our pretty faces that much, did you?” Benjen asked, smacking his lips after a swig of his hot spiced wine.

“Not as much as I missed that smart mouth of yours,” Noye retorted, and Benjen chuckled. Jon cracked a smile, curling his fingers around his mug, working the stiff joints. Satin offered the Lord Commander a cup of the wine, but Noye waved it off, a scroll clutched in his only hand. Satin set the tankard on a table and slipped out of the room, leaving the three men alone. “Any problems with the Wildlings?”

“Nothing our men couldn’t handle,” Benjen said, glancing at Jon, who offered a tight smile over the rim of his mug. He felt a twinge of gratitude at his uncle’s words. Our men. Benjen had trained him up from a mere recruit and had been with him since the day he took his vows before the weirwood trees thirteen years ago. Benjen trusted his skills and his opinions, and Jon liked to believe it wasn’t simply because of their shared blood.


“So, what was so important you had to drag us away from Three-Finger Hobb’s stew?” Benjen asked with goodnatured complaint. “It was bloody venison tonight. How often does that happen?”

Noye tapped the scroll on his leg. “I thought you both should see this.” Face somber, he held the scroll out. The jocular nature of the previous conversation evaporated. Sharing a look with Jon, Benjen stood from the fire and strode to the Lord Commander. He put his cup aside and took the scroll, carefully unraveling it.

“A raven from Winterfell,” Benjen said with some surprise, the waxy imprint of the direwolf sigil boldly red and noticeable even from where Jon sat. His stomach dropped as his uncle began to read the missive out loud.

“'Lord Eddard Stark and Lord Robb Stark are dead.'” There was a sharp edge of shock to Benjen's voice as he read, his tongue seeming to form the words without conscious thought. Jon sucked in a breath, but Benjen went on, fumbling over the words in his haste, “'They died as they lived, valiantly and with honor. Their bones have been laid to rest alongside those of their ancestors in the crypts of Winterfell.' Signed, Lord Brandon Stark of Winterfell.”

No one spoke when Benjen’s voice faltered on the last word, a death knell in the stunned silence that followed. Jon didn’t dare move, didn’t dare breathe. In that moment, he felt numb. It was too much to process. Brandon—Bran’s letter seemed so cold. So matter-of-fact. It said so much and yet nothing at all. Jon couldn’t comprehend it. It had to be a lark. A mistake.

After a moment, Noye broke the quiet, speaking gruffly, “I’m sorry. I know they were your family. I wanted you to hear it from me first.”

We have no family, Jon thought, but it was a hollow reflex, and not entirely true, not for Benjen, at least, no matter what his vows said.

Benjen was still staring at the letter, shaking his head slowly. “Dead. I don’t understand. What happened? How did this happen? How could they both be dead? This doesn’t make any fucking sense. And 'valiantly and with honor'—what does that mean? Was there a battle? Some conflict?” Benjen cut an accusing look at Noye. “You must know something. How long have you had this message?”

Noye gave a grave shake of his head, his mouth folding over in a frown. “Only a week or so now. It came while you were away. I only know what the letter says, Ben. Nothing more. I’m afraid we’d be the last to know up here at the Wall. Anything above the Reach might as well be a wasteland, as much mind as those shits down in King’s Landing pay us.”

Jon was only half-listening. His father, dead. No—the man who’d once been his father. That was another lifetime now; Jon was no longer that boy anymore. He was no one’s son. And Robb...When was the last time he’d seen them, either of them? Jon stopped the thought before it could spiral away from him, gritting his teeth. No. He couldn’t think about that. It wouldn’t lead anywhere good. He couldn’t think about Robb...or her

“Bran wrote this,” Benjen said, almost to himself, looking back to the scroll. “But what about the others? And—” He stopped himself and glanced at Jon, seeming to think better of his next words. Jon stared at him, something dreadful curdling in his stomach, scratching at the edges of his mind.

“So what does this mean?” he asked abruptly, shaking his head, trying to clear his thoughts. It was impossible, attempting to think rationally after that kind of shock. “We should do something. We have to. Don’t we?”

Noye looked to him, brow notched with consternation. “Do what, Snow? We know nothing more than what the message says. Lord Stark isn’t asking for any help. And our duty is to the kingdom. We’ve got bigger problems on our doorstep here at the Wall.” He peered thoughtfully out his window and scratched one-handed at his beard. His thick black cloak hung limply where his left arm should have been. “Our fight is with the wildlings. And whatever bloody else is out there.”

Benjen read the letter again, his blue-gray eyes darting back and forth across the scroll as if it could tell him more than it did. Finally, he cursed and tossed the paper aside, his expression stormy.

“Fuck the wildlings,” he spat. “King Joffrey’s a bigger threat to the kingdom than some half-frozen wildlings who can barely feed themselves.” Jon looked to him sharply. He’d never seen his perpetually amused uncle lose his temper before. Not even in battle. By all accounts, King Robert Baratheon hadn’t been a terribly effective ruler, though largely benevolent once his fat arse had been seated on the throne until his death during a boar hunt a couple years ago. His son Joffrey, however, was cut from a different cloth entirely. As vain and indulgent as his father, but thrice as malicious and cruel, if the gossip that reached the Wall was to be believed. And Jon believed it.

But Jon knew Noye had once been the blacksmith for House Baratheon, years ago. He’d lost his arm during the siege of Storm’s End, so the story went, and eventually ended up here on the Night’s Watch. Jon wondered if he’d reprimand his uncle for his sharp tongue, out of some lingering affinity for the Baratheons.

But the Lord Commander merely snorted.

“No arguing there,” Noye agreed under his breath. He took the cup of wine he’d turned down and swigged from it, deeply, then wiped his sleeve across his mouth. “But you don’t know that it has anything to do with Joffrey or King’s Landing.”

“Bugger that,” Benjen swore, punching his fisted knuckles against the table. “Everything bad that happens in this country can be traced back to King’s Landing, you can be certain of it. That throne is a plague on Westeros.”

Shaking his head, Noye took out another scroll from his cloak. “Speaking of. We received this scroll from King’s Landing, two days ago. It’s...well, it’s curious. Read for yourself.”

Benjen ignored the scroll, his eyes cloudy and distant in thought, so Jon stood and crossed to the Lord Commander, snatching the letter from him. If Noye was surprised, he didn’t show it. Only pursed his lips as Jon recited the message aloud.

“'His Grace King Joffrey Baratheon the First of His Name decrees that anyone found to be harboring or aiding a Targaryen traitor will be found guilty of treason and punished accordingly.'”

Jon let out a sound of disbelief, nearly choking on it, and lifted his eyes to the Lord Commander. “What the fuck's this about? Targaryen? That house is gone.” He released the scroll, letting the paper curl around his fingers. His voice pitched louder with his incredulity. “Does he mean Maester Aemon?” Noye shrugged. “He took the black decades ago. Denounced all family ties. Either way, he’s long dead now,” Jon said fiercely and tossed the scroll on the table, inexplicably seized by anger. Maester Aemon had been a kind, gentle man, wise beyond his years and always willing to offer an ear for Jon's troubles. He missed the old man greatly.

His hands were shaking, Jon realized. He fisted them, squeezing so hard his knuckles turned white with the strain. Jon looked to Benjen for some kind of reaction or assurance. His uncle’s face had gone pallid, the look in his eyes troubled. His gaze met Jon’s, briefly, before he turned away to the window, scrubbing a hand down his face.

The following silence was oppressive, swelling to fill the small chambers. Jon couldn’t take a deep enough breath. He was suffocating, the weight of his shock and growing anger crushing his lungs. He needed to leave, to be away from here, away from those scrolls that held only pain and more questions than they answered.

“If you’ll excuse me, my lord,” he said to Noye, his voice hoarse.

Noye dipped his chin in acquiescence. “Take some time if you need it.” He looked between Jon and Benjen. “Both of you.”

With a stiff nod, Jon turned and left, leaving Benjen and Noye in the keep.

Jon thought about going to the common hall for his missed supper. It might be good to surround himself with others and forget about the dark words the raven had brought with it. Normally, after a long patrol through the haunted forest, Jon liked nothing more than to sit with his brothers in black, catch up on what he’d missed, enjoy the camaraderie he’d fought so hard to find here on the Night’s Watch. But after reading that letter, he had no appetite and no desire to be around anyone, not even his friends. He retreated to his room alone, wanting to sleep, to forget everything that had transpired in the Lord Commander’s Keep.

Somehow, Jon had forgotten his aches from days in the saddle, the weariness that had permeated his bones down to the marrow; they seemed distant now, the worries of another man from another time. Shock, he reminded himself. He knew it well, how it could shut down his mind and inoculate his body against further pain. A survival instinct as old as the First Men, no doubt.

Jon went through the motions of his nighttime ablutions: He stripped out of his cloak and jerkin and tunic, naked down to his waist. Lathering a damp cloth with the sliver of hard lye soap he kept at his washbasin, Jon did his best to scrub himself clean of the grime that had accumulated on his skin, behind his ears, under his nails. Once the water in the stone basin turned dingy with dirt, he dried off and slipped a clean tunic over his head before he took off his breeches and lay down to sleep, burrowed under the furs. The mind-numbing exhaustion he’d been delaying finally hit him there on his narrow bed, in his narrow cell of a room.

Still, he couldn’t seem to shut his eyes, his mind racing as he stared vacantly at the dark stones overhead.

Eddard Stark and Robb Stark were dead. Gods. How long had it been since he’d seen them last? Fourteen years ago now, about? When Ned Stark had forced Jon to take the black, after...But, no, it hadn’t been that long since he’d last seen Robb, had it? Robb had come to visit him at the Wall a year after he’d left Winterfell in the dead of night, like a common criminal.

No—not quite a year. Jon hadn’t taken his vows yet, he remembered now.

Jon slammed his eyes shut, back teeth grinding together as he rolled onto his stomach to bury his face in his lumpy pillow. He couldn’t think about it, he knew he shouldn’t—but it was too late. That awful memory surged to the forepart of his mind, so vivid and clear as if it’d been only yesterday that Robb had stood before him, sneering with hatred and disgust.

Jon had been at Castle Black for only six or seven months. He hadn’t ever expected to see the Starks again. He’d received many letters from Arya since he’d left, begging him to come back, swearing she didn’t care what he’d done, that she’d forgive him for it but that she’d never forgive him if he didn’t come back. He’d gotten letters from Bran and even little Rickon. But no one else. Not Robb, not Ned.

Not Daenerys.

He’d told himself to forget them, to burn the letters. It was better if he forgot them all, forgot he ever had a family and a life before the Night’s Watch. There was nothing he could tell Arya that she would understand, that she would accept. She would never understand why he couldn’t come back, not after what he’d done. And he was too ashamed to tell her, anyway. He deserved to be on the Wall. And to be a true brother of the Night’s Watch, he had to forget his former family and life. Uncle Benjen was the only family left to him, and even then it wasn’t the blood they shared but the vows they’d sworn that united them.

One day, after Jon had returned from his patrol atop the Wall, he’d found Robb in his small cell, waiting for him. Jon had been too stunned to say anything—so stunned, he almost forgot to be afraid. Jon had actually smiled at him, until Robb spoke, destroying any foolish illusion that this was to be a happy reunion.

“How could you do it,” he’d said quietly, a thready undercurrent of danger in his otherwise flat tone. “I thought you were my brother. I thought you loved me.”

“I did. I do,” Jon had replied, speaking too quickly.

“But you betrayed me.” Robb shook his head. “You betrayed my family.” My family. Not ours. Jon winced at that pointed omission. “My mother was right about you. Why'd you do it?”

Jon had no real answer, nothing that would satisfy him. So he told the truth. “Because I love her.”

Robb’s lip curled into a sneer. “How can you even say that? How can you even think it? After what you did to her—” Robb caught himself, and his cheeks took on that ruddy flush they always did when he was excited or upset. Shamefaced, Jon dropped his gaze, noticing a piece of paper in his brother’s hand. It crinkled in the tight, angry crush of Robb’s fist. “And what of my love for her? Did that mean nothing to you? She was intended for me.”

She didn’t want you. Jon closed his eyes, biting his tongue, biting so hard he thought he tasted blood. His paltry excuses didn’t matter, he knew it. 

“You’re a coward,” Robb continued stepping closer. Jon held his ground but kept his eyes lowered. “A craven. Running away before the truth could come out. Running from me. Only a coward would sully a lady the way you did then turn tail and run without allowing her betrothed a chance to defend her honor. Then again, you have a bastard’s honor, don't you?”

Jon clenched his jaw. His own outrage flared, however briefly. Ever since Lord Stark had banished him, Jon had been cowed and licked. His own shame and guilt had made him amendable to every cross word and accusation leveled against him. But something about Robb's censure agitated him, riling his defenses. "I didn't do anything to her she didn't want," he said quietly, though he knew the words were ill-advised. He should apologize. Why couldn't he bring himself to even apologize to Robb for what he'd done?

Robb made a choked sound, his blue eyes flashing with outrage. Jon could feel the heat coming off him, as if his rage and hatred were leaking from his pores. Jon braced himself, fully expecting an attack. He didn’t know whether he’d bother to defend himself should Robb strike.

After a moment, Robb stepped back, shoving the crumpled paper into his cloak. “You're not worth it," he said coldly, having successfully checked his temper. "You can rot here on the Wall the rest of your life for all I care. Just stay away from Winterfell, from my home. Stay away from my family. That includes my wife.”

The word was a punch to Jon’s sternum, stealing his breath. But he’d known it, hadn’t he? Their marriage was inevitable. Still. He’d thought...he’d hoped

It didn’t matter anymore. Nothing mattered anymore.

Robb continued, menacing and solemn, “She’s mine to protect now. Mine to love. And I will. Better than you ever hoped to. And if you ever come back, I’ll cut you down myself. Do you understand?”

The threat, from his own brother, shredded his heart into tatters. But it was no less than he deserved. His throat convulsed as he tried to swallow every objection rising in his gorge like bile. Jon began to nod his head but found himself saying desperately, “I won’t, I swear, just—tell her—tell Arya, I mean, and Bran, all of them, that I love them. Please. That’s all I ask of you.”

Jon remembered still, in the darkness of his room, how Robb had spun on him then, with the iciest look in his Tully blue eyes. The absolute disdain where there’d once been only fraternal love and admiration. “That’s all you ask, is it? And, yet, you deserve nothing from me.”

Then Robb was gone, with a snap of his heavy fur cloak, the door slamming shut behind him. It was the last time Jon had seen him. The last time he would ever see him.

And what about Daenerys?

Gods, what about Daenerys? The thought drove him into a sitting position, his chest seizing with a terrified gasp for air. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and dropped his face into his hands, trying to catch his breath, to slow his erratic heartbeat.

This was the first time he’d truly allowed himself to think of her in ages. He couldn’t think about her, at least not in the beginning, or he’d never have been able to go on, to do what he needed to do every day. After he’d taken his vows, he’d tried to shut down that part of him. Tried to cut out the impression she’d left on his heart, as if it could ever really be undone. But he’d tried, desperately; he’d even thought he’d succeeded, eventually. He wouldn’t talk to Benjen about her, refused to hear any news of the Starks over the years. His uncle had offered his ear in the beginning, should Jon decide he ever needed to talk about her, or Robb, but Jon had refused, and Benjen had learned to bite his tongue on the matter.

It was enough to know she was somewhere safe. As much as it’d killed him, he knew Robb would protect her. Winterfell would protect her.

But Robb was gone. Ned Stark was gone. Who was protecting her now? She should be at Winterfell, that was her home with Robb, but Bran’s letter had mentioned nothing of her. Nothing of Arya or Sansa or Rickon.

Were they all right? Were they safe? Were they alive?

Jon raked his fingers down his face. “Others take it,” he gasped then lurched out of his bed. Trembling from the chill and the adrenaline, he got a candle lit and fumbled through his trunk for some clothes to throw over his smallclothes and tunic. Woolen breeches, a jerkin. Hastily, he laced up his boots and pulled his heavy black cloak over his shoulders.

He wasn’t thinking rationally, hadn’t been since Benjen had read that letter out loud. Some part of his brain recognized that, but it was only a distant awareness. Deserting his post meant breaking his sworn oaths, he knew, but he was a ranger. Benjen sometimes left Castle Black to visit Northern houses and noble lords—even Winterfell, though those visits were rare—to spread word of the Night’s Watch, to ask for resources and recruits. Benjen was one of the few remaining men of noble birth on the Wall whom the Lord Commander trusted for such a delicate, politic task. And more often than that, brothers traveled down to Mole’s Town to satisfy their urges with a bevy of available whores.

Jon could make for Winterfell now, in the middle of the night, before anyone would notice he was gone. It was a long ride. He’d have to move fast. Inevitably, someone would realize he was missing. No doubt, Benjen and the Lord Commander would be able to put two and two together and would send someone after him.

Still, he couldn’t stay here, not knowing. She could need help. She could be in danger.

Oh, gods be good, don’t let her be in danger. Don't let me be too late.

His heart squeezed painfully, but he choked down the panic. Forced himself to not think more than he needed to, to pack his sack, which was thankfully still provisioned from his last ranging with dried meat and a water skin. It would be enough for a couple days or so, then he would hunt when necessary, find a source of water on the way. He wouldn’t be able to stop at any town or inn so as not to leave a trail.

Jon strapped his sword belt around his waist beneath his cloak. Sheathing his sword at his hip, he left the darkness of his room behind and made his way to the stables.

He made it to Queenscrown before Benjen caught up to him.

He hadn’t gotten far at all. In fact, it was pathetically close to Castle Black, but Jon hadn’t been thinking too clearly when he’d made the decision to head for Winterfell in the black of night. It'd been later than he first thought, dawn only a couple hours off. He'd agonized in bed too long, brooding over what to do. And he'd neglected to eat anything before he took off, like the fool he was. When he came upon the abandoned village in the Gift, he thought to stop and give his horse, still run ragged from the two-week ranging, a moment to rest. He should have taken a palfrey instead of his trusty garron; they were better for longer journeys such as this.

Benjen appeared before Jon had even finished eating his stale, dense biscuit. When he heard the hoofbeats, Jon hurried to mount his horse in case he needed to defend himself, but he recognized the figure in black immediately. His uncle must have left not long after Jon had.

As Benjen slowed to a stop, Jon wheeled his mount around to throw a withering scowl his uncle’s way. “You shouldn’t have followed me,” he growled. “Only one of us needs be a deserter.”

Benjen shook his head. “Don’t do this, Jon. We can still return to the Wall before anyone notices you’re gone. If need be, we can tell the Lord Commander you went to Mole’s Town.”

Jon almost laughed. No one would ever believe he’d simply been passing his time at Mole’s Town, not when he’d never made the trip before in his fourteen years on the Wall. He looked up at the dark sky, eastward. Daybreak would be on them soon. Already the black sky was turning purple with the first hint of dawn. He gripped his reigns tightly. “I have to go. I have to know…”

“You think I don’t get it?” Benjen interjected sharply. “That was my brother, Jon. My nephew. That’s my home and family, too. But there’s nothing we can do for them. Winterfell is the safest place in the North.”

“Then how are they dead?” Jon snapped, then drew in a deep breath, biting down on his tongue in an effort to rein in his anger. His uncle’s face grew pained.

“You don’t know what you’re walking into, Jon. And it might be nothing at all.”

“You don’t believe that anymore than I do. You said it had something to do with the king.”

By the look in Benjen’s eyes, Jon knew his uncle was struggling with his own desperate need for answers. "I don't know that. I was angry when I said it, looking to blame someone." He shook his head. “At least give the Lord Commander a chance to find out more. He can send out some ravens. I’ll talk to him. I want to know as badly as you do, but we have to be smart about this.”

Jon let out an exasperated breath, growing impatient with his uncle’s placating words. “There’s no time for that,” he said, reeling his horse around in the other direction.

Jon. There are things you don’t know—”

A distant scream interrupted his uncle’s plea. Jon froze, willing his mount to a stop with a commanding tug on the reins as his eyes scanned the distance. It was still too dark, and everything looked like shadows along the sandy bank ahead. Across the lake, where the old abandoned tower still stood sentinel, he saw the faint curl of smoke climbing from the crumbling stone chimney in the ruins of what had once been an inn. Strange, but not entirely unforeseen. A wildling could have set up camp in the inn for the night, having made it past the Wall to raid the nearby villages, as they did from time to time.

Another scream pierced the air. This time Jon knew it was that of a woman.

He shared a look with Benjen. Instantly, they reverted to their ranger ways: His uncle spurred his garron into a gallop, and Jon followed suit, right at his side. Figures moved in the distance, mere black shadows in the creeping dawn. The only reason Jon could see them at all was due to the nearly full moon above, its white light reflecting off the lake.

As they got closer, hoofs thudding in the dirt, Jon counted four—no, five people. Three were small. Women, most likely, though the person perched atop a horse was indecipherable at this distance. Muffled cries and curses rang in the otherwise still night air, getting louder as Jon and Benjen drew closer. They both unsheathed their weapons, holding them tightly in their sword hands while they steered their mounts onward. Their hooves ate up the ground, dirt flying in the wake of the rolling, thunderous earthquake as they charged. Jon was glad for his garron now.

A tall, reedy man snatched up a small girl, silencing her scream of terror with his hand. Steel glinted in the moonlight as the small hooded figure on horseback slashed out with a sword. The girl dropped to the ground as the man reached for his neck then pitched forward onto his knees before collapsing on the ground. The girl scurried away on hands and knees.

Another shout, farther away, and the hooded figure reared the horse in that direction, giving chase to the man who was struggling with the woman in his arms. When he saw the figure on horseback chasing him down, however, he shoved the woman aside and ran.

Jon and Benjen arrived seconds later. Throwing a commanding look at Jon, Benjen split off and raced in pursuit of the figure on horseback. Jon pulled hard on his garron’s reins, keeping his seat even as the steed reared back and kicked his forelegs out. Then Jon swung his leg over the saddle and jumped to the ground, sheathing his sword as he approached the small girl huddled on the ground. She had a dark cloak draped over her shoulders, her pale-colored hair shielding her face.

He reached for her. “Are you all right?” he asked, gingerly touching her shoulder. She jerked away from his touch and turned her face to his.

He was looking at a ghost.

The shock landed like a punch to his stomach. “Dany?” he gasped. But no, he realized even as he thought it. The girl was much too young, younger than the last time he’d seen Daenerys at Winterfell. She couldn't be more than ten or eleven. Her hair was silver though, her eyes violet. No one else had those color eyes, he could've sworn.

Gods, it looked just like her.

“Get away from her!”

Startled, Jon stood and spun on his heel. The other woman who’d been abandoned by her pursuer was instantly upon him, a streak of silver moonlight as she launched herself at him. Her fist hit his mouth, catching him off balance. Stunned, Jon stumbled back, but she kept coming, screaming curses at him.

This time, he knew he wasn’t wrong.

“Daenerys! Stop!” he yelled, blocking her barrage of hits. For the briefest of moments, something familiar flickered across her pale face, but just as quickly it was gone, and she landed another punch to his jaw before he grabbed her wrists to stay her hands. “Stop! Dany, it’s me!”

He shook her fiercely until she fell still, their breaths loud and harsh in the silence, their chests heaving. He stared down at her, paralyzed by the sight of her face, a sight he hadn’t seen in fourteen years. Her eyes were wide and unblinking, lips parted as she sucked in air.

Rational thought fled from his mind then. Dany. He thought he’d said it out loud, but no. His tongue had stopped working, his voice caught on the hitch in his throat. He dry-swallowed a few times, but he couldn’t do anything but look, to drink his fill of the vision he'd been denied for so long. She was more beautiful than she'd been in his memory. Her skin was as fair as it'd always been, but her face was now streaked with dirt and lined with fatigue. And fear, he realized with some alarm. Even in the dark, he recognized that look in her eyes, the way it puckered her forehead and pinched her rosebud lips. It was the last look he’d seen on her face before he’d left Winterfell. It was the look that had haunted him since, the summation of all his mistakes and failings.

Hoofbeats jarred him from his reverie. Two sets of hoofbeats. “Jon!”

It wasn’t a voice he recognized. Confused, he tore his gaze from Daenerys’ face and directed it over her shoulder, scouting for the approaching threat. But it was only Benjen, riding side by side with the hooded figure from before. Definitely a woman; Jon could tell from the nearly soundless way she hit the ground when she launched herself off her brown palfrey before it had even drawn to a stop. Her dismount was smooth and graceful, as if she were moving through the steps of a dance. Then she was sprinting at him. He had a brief thought to grab his sword and defend himself, but his hands wouldn’t let go of Daenerys.

She slipped free of his grasp, anyway, and then his arms were full of the other woman, her hands slipping around his neck to strangle him.

No—she was hugging him, he realized dumbly. Once again he was rendered immobile and speechless, until she whispered his name. “Jon. It is you.”

Arya?” he choked out, craning his head back to peer down into her face. Gods, it was. It was Arya. All grown up, half of her dark brown hair tied back off her face, a worn leather gambeson on her chest, and a sword at her hip. A bloody sword. She'd just cut down two men. He couldn't make sense of it.

She loosened her suffocating hold on him, pushing her hood off and stepping back to look up at him. Her eyes watered, then narrowed in anger, and for the second time in only minutes, he was punched full on the mouth.

“Seven hells,” he snapped, holding his chin. He had to spit out a glob of blood, his lip stinging from the fresh split down the middle. Although her face was contorted in anger, Arya’s eyes flashed with apology.

“Sorry. I’m so angry with you.” Surprising him yet again, she threw herself at him for another hug. “But I missed you, big brother.”

Even with his mouth smarting, Jon let out a breath and closed his eyes as he allowed himself to return her hug. “I missed you, too.” When he opened his eyes, he saw that Benjen had dismounted his horse and stood behind them, observing with a pensive frown.

Jon’s heart lurched suddenly with his next thought. Disentangling Arya’s arms from around him, Jon whirled around. “Dany.”

She had helped the other girl up from the ground and was checking her for injuries. He watched in silence, mystified by how similar they looked. Daenerys kissed the girl’s forehead and wrapped her up in her arms. The younger girl clung to Daenerys’ cloak, her face buried against her breasts. The embrace was protective. Loving. Like a mother with her child.

His heart climbed into his throat, and his breaths became erratic. “Dany,” he said, but it came out too hoarsely. She heard him, though, and turned her eyes to him. She regarded him silently, her face giving away nothing. He swallowed and stepped closer, but his tongue failed him yet again.

"Is Nymeria all right?" Arya asked from behind him, her voice soft, and Jon blinked in incomprehension, looking to the pale-haired girl. Nymeria?

Daenerys’ gaze darted away from him to fix on Arya, and she nodded but glanced around wildly. “Where is he?” she demanded, a quaver in her voice.

“Inside,” Arya answered, her tone still soft and reassuring.

“Who?” Jon asked, but they ignored him.

Arya added, “He was asleep by the fire with me when they grabbed you two. Still was when I came after you.”

Daenerys didn’t look convinced. “What if there are more?”

“There aren’t,” Arya said, and Benjen finally spoke.

“Wildlings,” he said, glancing to Jon. “I only saw the two. Arya took care of them.” Again, Jon looked to the sword on his little sister's hip in amazement.

“Only wildlings?” Daenerys asked. Though she frowned in confusion, Benjen’s words seemed to have eased her fear. Her relief at this baffled Jon. Only wildlings? He looked to the body a few yards away, crumpled in a lifeless heap. In the growing light, he could make out the familiar motley furs of the wildlings, their rudimentary armor made of boiled leather and bones. Woodsmen from the haunted forest, most like. Definitely not a Thenn, thank the gods.

“Aye. Sometimes they get around the Wall. They raid villages and steal women to take back over the Wall. I imagine that’s what they wanted with you two. They had little in the way of weapons. Lucky for you,” Benjen said. Her face turning ashen, Daenerys hugged the girl tighter. Jon felt a kick of rage in his belly.

Arya scoffed, her mouth hitching up at the corner as she folded her arms over her chest. “Guess that explains why they left me alone. Probably mistook me for a boy.”

“Good thing, too,” Benjen said. His face softened with affection as he looked at his niece. She rolled her eyes.


They all turned toward the inn, where a small boy lingered in the doorway of the crumbling structure, regarding them uneasily. “Torrhen,” Daenerys called out in relief and ran to him, dragging the girl with her. She grabbed him in a hug, lifting him into her arms, then turned to pull the girl against her. “It’s all right, my love. You’re all right. We’re all right.”

Jon stared at the three of them. The boy looked so much like Robb when he’d been younger. When he’d been alive. The shaggy auburn curls. The face. The eyes that would no doubt be Tully blue were Jon to peer at them in the daylight.

Jon swallowed against the nausea cramping his stomach, inching up his esophagus. Of course. They were her children. Her and Robb’s children. Nymeria Stark. Torrhen Stark.

Turning away from the intimate scene, Jon faced down Arya. “What happened?” he asked gruffly. “What are you all doing out here? It’s bloody dangerous this close to the Wall. You've heard the stories.” They all had. From Old Nan and Lord Stark and Jory Cassel, anyone who'd wanted to impress upon them the dangers of wandering too far from Winterfell. And here they were, two women and two children, nearly defenseless against the dangers that lurked in the far North. The thought brought a fresh wave of anger, and he clung to it like a rock in the sea of his roiling emotions. Anger was easy, an old friend; it was the only thing that made any sense right now.

Arya shook her head, her face clouding over. “It’s dangerous everywhere, Jon. Father and Robb are dead.”

He pressed his lips into a thin line, his throat spasming with another hard swallow. “I know. We received word from Bran.” His eyes darted to Benjen. “I was...we were coming…” He scrubbed a gloved hand over down his face. Saying it out loud now, he knew how foolish a plan it'd been. He didn't know what he thought he could've done for them. He was no hero. This was no song.

But perhaps it hadn't been so outlandish. Perhaps he’d had the right idea. They were here, after all. Going—where? The Wall? That was the only logical destination from here. And if Jon and Benjen hadn’t come, hadn’t stumbled upon them, who knows what other dangers they might have encountered?

Arya stepped closer to him. The moon reflected off her sad gray eyes.

“They’re coming, Jon. For her. For them.” Her eyes flickered over his shoulder, to Daenerys. He frowned, following her gaze, but before he could ask, Arya said, “I was bringing them to the Wall. To you. It’s the only safe place left for them to go in Westeros.”


Chapter Text



“The Night’s Watch takes no part.”

It was the fifth time the Lord Commander had said as such since Jon and Benjen had set foot in his keep—Jon knew because he had kept count. With gritted teeth, he clenched his fists behind his back, willing himself to let Benjen do the negotiations, as his uncle had bid him earlier before they’d even knocked. It was hard to hold his tongue, but Jon knew if he spoke too adamantly and out of turn, it would only make Donal Noye more suspicious.

“As I said, there’s no part to take here,” Benjen said patiently. Amicably, even, spreading his hands out in a placating gesture. “Noble lords and ladies are known to visit the Wall from time to time. That’s all this is.”

Noye snorted. “Aye, and when’s the last time we’ve had a noble guest, Benjen?” Shaking his head, he tore off a bite of mutton jerky and continued as he chewed, “You expect me to believe that? When we’ve received word of Stark’s death merely a week ago, and then his lady wife, his children, and his sister show up?”

“Admittedly, the timing is suspect,” Benjen agreed with more poise than Jon knew himself capable of, given the utter peculiarity of the situation. The Lord Commander had been in the middle of breaking his fast when Jon and Benjen interrupted with news of their visitors, eager to appeal to him before gossip could reach his ear. “They’re only here for a stay. A brief stay. They can tour the Wall, find out what we do here at Castle Black, how we serve the kingdom. Then they’ll be on their way.”

Jon glanced at his uncle from the corner of his eye but didn’t voice his objection. Noye studied Benjen with a critical look, tapping his finger on the table. Then he let out a grievous sigh and wiped at his mouth with a cloth napkin. “A few days then, and no longer. You need to make plans for them otherwise. I don’t want any trouble, not when we’re struggling for men and resources as it is. For now, we can set them up in the King’s Tower as our honored guests.”

Benjen dipped his chin in gratitude. “No trouble, of course. Thank you, Lord Commander.” He and Jon turned to go, but Noye called after them.

“Benjen. A word alone,” he said, as grave as before. Jon looked to his uncle, and Benjen jutted his chin toward the door.

“Go on. Check on them and get them set up in the King’s Tower. I’ll be along once we’re done here.”

Jon nodded and left the keep, shutting the door to the Lord Commander’s chambers behind him. He took a step but then stopped, letting out a noisy breath. The bawdy banter of his sworn brothers and the ring of metal on metal echoed in the nearby courtyard. White flakes swirled around him as a gust of wind blew through the keeps, shearing off the tops of the old snowdrifts lining the stone walls of Castle Black. He tightened his cloak around his shoulders to stave off the penetrating chill.

Benjen had instructed him to take their guests to the King’s Tower, and while Jon rarely hesitated to follow an order from the First Ranger, he found himself stalling now. At the moment, Samwell Tarly was tending to Daenerys, Arya and the children in the maester’s quarters below the rookery. After the ordeal at Queenscrown, they’d seemed mostly unharmed, aside from some relatively minor cuts and bruises and their muddy, travel-torn clothes. More than anything, they all looked like they could use a long soak in a warm bath.

They still owed Jon and Benjen an explanation as to what in seven hells was going on, but, suddenly, Jon wasn’t sure he wanted to hear any of it. He felt the rising dread in his gorge again, the same feeling that had plagued him upon his return from the last ranging. Back at Queenscrown, before Arya could tell him why she’d been leading Daenerys and her children to the Wall, Benjen had urged them all back to Castle Black before the sun rose, where they could talk in relative secrecy and comfort without the threat of further attack by wildlings—or, worst, hanging for desertion.

So Jon and Benjen had done their best to bury the two wildling men Arya had slain—woodsmen from the haunted forest, as Jon had suspected. Without shovels, all Jon and Benjen could do was carry the bodies to the lake, weigh them down with rocks and watch them sink to the bottom. Luckily, the men hadn’t discovered the two mounts Arya and Daenerys had tied up behind the inn when they’d first come to steal the women, so they were able to ride to the Wall without delay, Jon and Benjen on their garrons, Arya and Nymeria on her brown palfrey, and Daenerys and Torrhen on a spotted palfrey. They rode hard and fast to beat the sun over the horizon, but even returning to Castle Black before the Lord Commander woke didn’t preclude the suspicious looks from their brothers on patrol at the unexpected sight of two women in their company.

Not that Jon blamed the men for their misgivings. He was in too much shock himself to fully process the events of the last few hours. The last twelve hours, really, ever since those damn ravens.

He didn’t think he could be around them right now. Around her. Didn’t think he could look upon her face, and the faces of her children...gods help him.

But he couldn’t ignore Arya, at least. If nothing else, seeing her again had filled him with remorse, and, more than that, shame at how he’d never reached out to her, never written in reply to her letters. What must she think of him now?

He gingerly touched his gloved fingertips to his lip and winced. The cut from where she’d hit him was still tender to the touch. Despite the pain, his mouth twisted into a wry slash.

Well. He supposed he already had his answer there.

Sucking in a deep, fortifying breath, he let the cold prick at his lungs until it burned. Then, he blew it out and forced himself to move. Took the steps leading away from the Lord Commander’s Keep, down the stairs and across the courtyard outside, toward the rookery. He didn’t make eye contact with anyone he passed. Truthfully, he didn’t even see them, lost in his thoughts as he was. At the maester’s keep, he paused outside the door, then abruptly turned away, dragging a hand down his mouth as he stared out over the courtyard. Jon absently observed his brothers at their swordplay, but it was only a diversion, a stalling tactic. How many wildlings had he faced down, giants and mammoths and skinchangers? But now he was getting cold feet about coming face to face again with his sister and—

And his dead brother’s wife.

An agitated breath sawed through his teeth as he spat out a quiet curse, but the door swung open behind him, disrupting his thoughts. When Jon turned around, he had to reach out and grab Sam’s arms to stop him from barreling right over him.

“Easy,” he said. Sam looked at him, eyes bulging wide in surprise.

“Oh! Jon. Sorry. Didn’t know you’d be waiting out here.”

“I wasn’t waiting,” Jon muttered, looking over Sam’s shoulder at the door he’d left ajar. Somewhere just beyond, they waited. He released the maester, taking a step back.

“Oh. What were you doing then?” Sam’s eyes lit up with realization, and he turned sheepish. “Right. Of course. Coming to check on our guests.”

“Aye.” Jon cleared his throat. “How are they?”

“Oh, fine. Fine.” Sam blushed, his face turning as red as a pomegranate. Even his heavy jowls darkened with his blush. His voice dropped into a confidential whisper as he looked around nervously. “I’ve never...well, you know. Tended to...a—a lady before. Or any woman, really. It was different at the Citadel. You know?” Jon didn’t know, staring at him blankly. “Mostly reading. Lots of reading. Any practice was on—well. People who weren’t quite...alive.”

Sam would keep blushing and stammering if Jon didn’t make him get to the point. “So, no injuries?”

“Oh, yes. I mean, no. Just some bumps and bruises, nothing to worry about. They’re very hungry, though. They said they ran out of food during their journey a day or so ago.”

“Have your steward fetch some stew from the kitchen for them,” Jon suggested. “I bet they’re colder here than they’re used to. Should help warm them up. Extra blankets, too, if there are any to spare.” And as the Night’s Watch was perpetually undermanned, Jon was almost certain they had blankets to spare.

“Of course. Yes. I’ll find Clydas.” Sam glanced over his shoulder then back at Jon, a sly, twitchy smile on his mouth. “Your family is quite...pretty-looking, aren’t they?”

Jon went stiff. “They’re not my family,” he said, in a voice that cautioned Sam to watch his tongue. This time, Sam’s face paled.

“No, of course—well, not anymore, yes. That’s what I meant.” Sam was somehow sweating even in the frigid air, and Jon instantly felt contrite. When Jon had been only a recruit that first year, he had regularly found himself in Sam’s company, especially since Sam had spent a lot of time with Aemon before his death and, by extension, with Jon. But now, as Jon spent most of his time with the rangers and was often gone for weeks on end, he and Sam hadn’t really had the time to build on that friendship over the years.

Jon had forgotten, despite his extensive, years-long training at the Citadel to become the new maester of the Night’s Watch, just how bloody timid and easily flustered Sam Tarly still was.

“The stew,” he reminded Sam, gentler now. “If you please. Have it taken to the King’s Tower, that’s where they’ll be staying. And thank you for seeing to them.”

Sam ducked his head and nodded, scurrying away to hunt down his steward. Jon loitered outside the maester’s keep a moment longer before he grew irritated with his hesitation and pushed the door open. Hushed conversation ceased, and at once four sets of eyes turned to him as he stepped inside. He made himself shut the door behind him before he met any of their stares.

Despite his best efforts, his gaze immediately fixed on Daenerys. She stood by the reading table by the window, her hands arrested on top of her canvas sack as if she’d been sorting through it before he’d arrived. Much like that stupid moth fluttering dangerously close to the burning candle on the table, he was drawn to her. Still. Inexplicably, the realization angered him. He tried not to let his gaze linger on her, only long enough to see her face had been wiped clean, her hair brushed and rebraided in a long rope over her shoulder. Her jaw was slightly discolored, purpling with a bruise. She’d likely been struck by the wildling in the struggle. Jon bit down on the inside of his cheek, swallowing the inquiry and the instinctive concern, and met her gaze. She watched him, as keen as one of Sam’s ravens. Wary, if the way she subtly shifted her body to shield her daughter and son at her sides was any indication. Otherwise, she was dead behind those once lively eyes.

Look away, you fucking fool.

Instead, Jon heard himself speak. “Well. Your right hook hasn’t improved any.”

Daenerys blinked, emotions skittering across her face—confusion, then realization. Color flooded her heart-shaped face. Finally, he thought victoriously; a reaction. Her brow pinched together in thought, as if she, too, were remembering that foolish sparring lesson he’d given her by the godswood, so long ago now.

Carefully, she wet her lips before she replied. “I thought you were trying to hurt us,” she said quietly, speaking to him for the first time in fourteen years. It shouldn’t please him as much as it did. “I thought you were one of them.”

“Did you?” he asked, more sharply than he intended. Because he recalled the flash of something on her face by the lake, when he’d yelled her name. Daenerys looked away, a stubborn tilt to her chin, but embarrassment still stained her cheeks pink.

Jon turned to Arya, who sat by the hearth sharpening her sword. Even as she slid the whetstone down her blade, she watched Jon. Studying him, as if she didn’t quite trust him either. His mood rapidly soured. Great. Suddenly, he felt like the bad guy in the room, and he didn’t even know why.

He attempted to temper his anger, packing it down deep, where he kept everything else locked away. “Sam said you all were hungry. I asked him to see about getting you some stew.”

“Thanks.” Arya offered a brief nod in gratitude, but otherwise no one else spoke. Jon glanced at Daenerys—all three of them, finally taking in the children’s faces. Torrhen had buried his face against his mother’s arm, hidden among the folds of her cloak, but Nymeria met his gaze head-on. Tentative, but curious. Defiant, even.

So much like the Daenerys he remembered from their days at Winterfell. For some reason, it hurt to look upon her, a ghost of something he’d lost. Something he never really had.

“Who are you?” she asked him, the query catching him by surprise. Daenerys cut her daughter a warning look, but Nymeria ignored it, her attention on Jon. Arya answered before he could.

“That’s my long-lost brother,” she said wryly, her words reverberating with the scrape of the whetstone on her sword.

He raised his eyebrows. “Not so lost.” He lifted his hands in a mocking display. “You’ve known where to find me all along.”

Arya rolled her eyes, and Nymeria regarded the two of them quizzically. “You’re Aunt Arya’s brother,” she repeated, slowly, as if testing the words. “Would we call you uncle, then?”

A sharp inhale, then, “No,” Daenerys said hastily, her eyes darting to Jon, face draining of color. He glanced at her, struggling to keep his face impassive at her fervent denial. She seemed to flounder for an explanation. “I...he’s…”

It hurt more than it should, but he forced a tight smile for the girl’s sake. It felt like a grimace.

“I’m a man of the Night’s Watch,” he said gruffly. “Jon is fine.”

Daenerys continued to stare at him, a ruddy flush climbing up her neck. She pulled her daughter close to her side, her eyes narrowed, searching, trying to read him. Her scrutiny made him uncomfortable. Uneasy. Jon frowned suddenly, a niggling thought trying to rear its head, but he couldn’t quite grasp it. It was like trying to grab a slimy, fat worm before it wriggled down into the mud to disappear for good.

The door opened then to disrupt his reverie, permitting Benjen entry into the maester’s quarters. In the silence, he took stock of the room and the hostility that acted as a barrier between the five of them. His expression turned grim, and he shut the door. “Everything all right?”

Jon gave a curt nod, clearing his throat before he addressed the others. “The Lord Commander has offered the King’s Tower for your visit,” Jon told them. “I’m afraid he said you can only stay a few days. He doesn’t want any trouble.”

Arya scoffed, setting her sword aside as she stood up from her crossed-leg crouch in front of the fire. “None of us do. But we can’t always get what we want, now can we?”

“You’re a couple of highborn ladies on the Wall, Arya. Some of these men haven’t seen a woman in ages,” he reminded her of their precarious situation at Castle Black. Noble guests were rare, but, around these criminals, noble female guests were even rarer. Though Arya wasn’t dressed as a lady, she would still draw unwanted attention, a bit of an oddity as she was in her breeches and leather armor. Like a wildling spearwife, he thought idly. “And you still haven’t told us what you all are doing here.”

Arya didn’t answer immediately, instead sharing a look with Daenerys, which set him on edge all over again. “You wanted my help,” he ground out, growing impatient. “I can’t do that if I don’t know what’s going on.”

Daenerys wrapped her hand around her daughter’s, squeezing tightly. “I didn’t say I wanted your help,” she told him, her voice low.

Choler warmed his face, and he flared his nostrils, befuddled by her petulance. What was her problem with him? “Arya said she brought you to me,” he said, dropping his voice to match hers.

Her color flushed high as she glanced away. Was he imagining that quiver in her chin? “I never asked her to—”

“It was my idea,” Arya interrupted harshly, her hands on her hips, then she reconsidered her words. “Actually, it was Father’s idea.”

Jon sucked in a breath, momentarily stunned. No one spoke until he finally croaked out, “Father—Lord Stark told you to bring them here? To me?”

Bringing her hand up, Arya picked at her nails. The gesture was nonchalant, but he could see how rigid she held herself, the tightness around her mouth and eyes. “Before he left, he told me if anything were to go wrong—if he and Robb didn’t make it back—to head North. To get them,” her eyes flicked toward Daenerys and her children, “to the safety of the Wall. Then east, if necessary.”

“East? To...Eastwatch? Or to Essos?” Jon asked, dumbfounded. Arya merely shrugged. He was truly and utterly lost. His mounting frustration had been crippled momentarily by her brusque revelation. Ned Stark had sent them to the Wall. To him. Why?

In that pregnant pause, Benjen finally spoke up. “Why don’t we get everyone settled before we have this discussion?” he offered wearily, rubbing his eyes. “I think it’s going to be a long talk, and an even longer night at this rate.”

Daenerys stared at Benjen, her mouth firmly pressed together. “You already know, don’t you?” she asked accusingly. Jon jerked his head around to look at his uncle, who stood solemn-faced. Hands clasped behind his back, he tipped his head forward.

“Aye. I think I do.”

Something like gravel turned over in Jon’s throat as he emitted a quiet growl. “Know what?”

Benjen looked to him, his eyes hooded with sadness. And resignation. Jon didn’t bloody understand that look. “Let’s get them settled first. Then we can have it out.” Before Jon could protest, Benjen nodded to Daenerys and her children. “I’ll take these three to their quarters. You and Arya make sure you’ve rounded up everything from here. I’ll wager you two have a lot to talk about as well.”

He turned a forced smile to Daenerys, stepping closer. Torrhen finally stirred from his mother’s cloak, peering at Benjen curiously, his blue eyes squinted with exhaustion. He looked like he was falling asleep on his feet. “Would you like me to take you to your sleeping quarters? The King’s Tower used to be where the kings of old would stay when they visited,” he said to both the children, then he directed his next words to Torrhen. “King Torrhen Stark, your namesake, even slept in that tower.”

“Really?” he asked dubiously, but a spark of interest had been ignited. It struck Jon then how young the boy was, six or seven years old. Nearly the age Rickon had been the last time Jon had seen him. The thought was a painful one.

“Aye, years and years ago,” Benjen said.

Intrigued, Torrhen looked up at Daenerys for permission. The muscles in her throat were tense, constricting as she swallowed and nodded her acquiescence. She met Jon’s gaze, and this time he was the one who looked away first, his head spinning. At the moment, he would be glad for them to go, to empty the room of her presence, which even now overwhelmed him, like it always had before.

As Daenerys led Nymeria and Torrhen after Benjen, Jon stepped aside, giving them a wide berth, stiffly holding himself apart.

The door closed on their heels, taking the chill with them. Jon had turned to the hearth, his eyes glazing over as he peered into the dancing flames. After a moment of stilted silence, Arya crossed her arms and stepped away from the fire, drawing his attention back to her.

“You never wrote,” she said suddenly.

For some reason, that hadn’t been where he’d expected her to start. Yet, he wasn’t surprised. “No. I didn’t,” he agreed. She turned her grey eyes on him, outrage and hurt flashing in them with his simple acknowledgement.

Why? I sent you raven after raven in the beginning.”

He furrowed his brow. “I was ashamed of myself, Arya,” he spoke to the fire, unable to face her righteous indignation. “I did something...How could I explain it to you? You were a child. There are some things that are too shameful to tell your little sister. Even now...” He trailed off, his dry tongue sticking to the roof of his mouth. He had to swallow before he could continue. “I don’t know how—”

“I already know, Jon,” she interrupted, impatient. “Dany told me.”

That surprised him. His stomach turned over as he glanced at her. “She did?” Arya nodded. “When?”

“Sometime after you left. Rather, after you were forced to the Wall.” Arya turned her head, her eyes clouding over with the memory. “She was...sad. A lot. Even after she and Robb wed. But I was, too. I stayed with her some days, until the septa would run me off. I thought she just missed you. Like I did.” She lifted her shoulder listlessly.

“What did she tell you, exactly?” he asked, alarmed.

Her answer was shockingly blunt. “That you two had lain with each other, like husband and wife, and that was why Father had sent you away.”

He flinched, his face burning hot at his sins being laid bare before him, though she had the truth of it. “She shouldn’t have told you that,” he started, his mouth feeling clumsy with his horror. Arya’s lip curled petulantly.

“It was more than you ever told me. At least she was honest with me. At least she spoke to me,” she said fiercely, unfolding her arms to fist her hands at her sides. “She didn’t just disappear on me never to be heard from again!”

“You think I had a choice? I didn’t come here because I wanted to, damn it,” Jon swore, spinning toward her. “I took an oath. I pledged myself to the Night’s Watch. I couldn’t have a family anymore.”

“Uncle Benjen still talks to us!” she insisted, stubborn as she’d always been. He snapped.

“And I’m not Benjen! I’ll never be Benjen! He came here for honor and duty, and I came here because I shamed myself and my family! I had no choice. I’m not a damn Stark, and I have no damn honor.”

Sadness contorted Arya’s face, and she dropped her gaze, folding her arms again as if to hug herself. His anger deflated in an instant. Why he was yelling at Arya, he didn’t know. She’d never done anything wrong. She’d been his staunchest supporter his entire life, at least up until he’d left. Until the ravens eventually stopped that first year, rather abruptly. He’d wondered at the time, with a pang of longing, why she’d ceased in writing him, but he’d convinced himself it was for the best, anyway.

Well. Now he knew the reason: She saw him for what he truly was.

“I’m sorry, Arya,” he said now, defeated. “If I could undo it...If I could go back and change things, I would. You’re right. If nothing else, I should have sent you a raven. I should have written, to let you know I’d gotten your letters, that I’d read them all, that some days they were the only thing that kept me going.”

She didn’t immediately respond, her eyelashes spiky with unshed tears. After a moment, she simply nodded. All right, the gesture seemed to say. Silence descended between them until she stirred again, dashing a hand across her eyes. Then she weakly motioned to him. “I’m sorry about hitting you. Before.”

He let loose a small smile. “That’s all right. You pack a mean punch, but I’m glad you know how to defend yourself.” His eyes sought out her sword by the hearth. It was smaller than most swords he’d ever yielded, thin and slender, but it seemed suited to Arya’s petite build.

“How did you learn to fight like that?” he asked. “Back at Queenscrown. You moved faster than some of the rangers I know.”

That brought a smile to her face. “Syrio Forel. The First Sword of Braavos.”

He cocked his head. “Come again?”

She looked oddly proud. “Father found him in King’s Landing some years ago, hired him and brought him up to Winterfell. He’s a master sword-fighter. He taught me the Water Dance. It’s the Braavosi-style of sword fighting. Ser Rodrik tried to teach me himself, but his swords and style were too cumbersome for me.”

Amazed, Jon shook his head. “Lord Stark...agreed to this?”

Her face fell, taking on a hard, somber look. “I never wanted to be a lady. I told him that. He pushed and pushed. He wanted me to be something I’m not. He thought it would make me happy. Keep me safe. It was what Mother wanted for me, too. To marry some fancy lord and bear his children. But I wanted to be a knight. I wanted to fight, to wield a sword like my brothers. I wanted to protect myself and others. I didn’t want to sit at home and do needlepoint all day with Sansa. I guess I wore him down eventually.” She pursed her lips to the side before chewing on the bottom one, her eyes darting to him. She hesitated. “I took a toll on him. What happened with you. And...Dany. I think he felt guilty. So he tried to make up for it, with me. With the rest of us.”

That turned his blood icy. Jon clenched his teeth together, curling and uncurling his right hand at his side. He looked back at the fire. “I’m glad for you all, then,” he said coldly. Arya sighed and fell silent. After a moment, she tried again.

“Sansa’s married. To Harrold Hardyng. She was upset at first because he was only a knight, and she wanted to marry a prince or a king. Mother was quite angry as well when Father first proposed the betrothal, after Uncle Jon’s death. Then our cousin Robert died, and since our Aunt Lysa had no other children, Harry inherited the Vale of Arryn. Sansa and Mother changed their tunes then. Sansa, the Lady of the Eyrie.” She snorted. “I do think they love each other, though. Sansa and Harry. She has two boys and a girl now. It’s quite sickening, really.”

“The Eyrie?” Jon repeated, not quite following the thread of the story. “Sansa’s all the way in the Vale?” She nodded. “And...what about Bran? Rickon?”

“Bran’s at Winterfell now. He married Lady Wylla. She’s the daughter of Lord Manderly of White Harbor. Rickon’s still at Winterfell with our mother, but Father was working on a betrothal between him and one of the daughters from House Frey.” Her eyes turned distant. “Before he was killed, I mean. I don’t know what will happen now.”

Slowly, Jon shook his head. “I would’ve thought Lord Stark would want to keep all his children in the North.”

Arya shrugged. “Father used to say it’s good to have allies everywhere.”

He chewed that over, then, abruptly, he frowned. “Allies for what?”

They waited until the children had eaten their stew then had been put to bed in an adjacent room in the royal chambers of the King’s Tower. Jon stood by the lit fire in the hearth as he waited. His leather glove creaked as he clenched and unclenched his fist. Though the room was sufficiently warm by now, he’d left his cloak on, comforted by the protection it lent him, the air of indifference. A sense of being apart from everyone around him. It was a familiar feeling for him. The erstwhile Bastard of Winterfell, he thought with muted bitterness. Arya and Daenerys sat side by side on a padded couch. Benjen had been lounging on a bench while Daenerys tucked her children in, but now he crossed to the hearth, hovering near its warmth opposite Jon.

“You all right?” he asked, voice low but kind.

Jon lifted an eyebrow. “I will be once I know what’s going on,” he said flatly. He felt at a serious disadvantage, like everyone in this room but him knew what was going on. The thought was like a fire iron to his anger, stoking the simmering coals.

Benjen nodded in understanding and turned to look at Arya and Daenerys. But when the two women glanced at each other, Jon couldn’t hold his tongue any longer. “Enough. Out with it already. We’re running out of time the longer you two drag your feet.”

Arya braced her hands on her thighs and blew out a weighted breath. Then she dove right in. “King Joffrey sent some men after Dany and her children. Father and Robb got word they were on their way to Winterfell, took 20 guards and rode out to intercept them.” She chewed on her lip, her eyes misting. Daenerys took Arya’s hand and squeezed it. Jon studied their hands, distracted by the gesture, one born of an intimacy forged over time and through hardship. “They didn’t survive. A lone rider escaped the fray and returned to the castle with word of their murders. Mercenaries, he said they were. Sellswords hired from Essos to track down Dany.”

“Sellswords,” Benjen repeated, a note of incredulity in his voice. At least, that was something he hadn’t already known.

Her brow pinched together, Arya nodded. “But he swore the mercenaries were led by a Westerosi. He spoke the Common Tongue. The soldier didn’t know who he was, but he said Father seemed to know him when he met him in the field.”

“Why is the king sending sellswords after Daenerys and her children?” Jon asked, his hand twitching with his impatience.

Arya deferred to Daenerys to answer this time. Daenerys squeezed her good-sister’s hand again and brought her gaze to Jon’s. She lifted her chin bravely, but he swore he could see a world of guilt hidden in the violets of her eyes. “He wants us dead,” she said softly. She seemed to struggle with her next words, and Jon waited, hardly daring to breathe. “He wants us dead because...because we are the last living Targaryens.”

He stared at her, uncomprehending. “Targaryens? Is that some sort of joke?” he asked in disbelief, but even as he said it, he knew it wasn’t. Looking at her, it was suddenly all so clear. So bloody obvious, he could laugh. The silver-blonde hair, the violet eyes. She couldn’t possibly look any more Targaryen.

She held his gaze. “My husband and my good-father are dead. I assure you, this is no joke.”

He flinched at her words. Husband. Why that should still sting this many years later, he had no idea. Jon shook his head to rid himself of the hurt. “You’re a Dayne,” he said instead, stubbornly. “Daenerys Dayne. Your mother is Lady Ashara Dayne. I met her.”

“Was,” she said softly, dropping her gaze, and he fell quiet. Somehow, he already knew what she was about to say. “She was the woman who...raised me as her own. But...she’s dead now, as well.”

Benjen let out a breath, scrubbing a hand down his face. “Gods,” he swore.

Jon’s throat grew tight as he stared at the silver-blonde crown of Daenerys’ head, her face turned down. Her hands fisted in the folds and pleats of her dark Northern dress, knuckles turning white with strain. He’d heard the quaver in her voice, knew she was trying to maintain a grip on her emotions. He wanted to apologize, to offer some condolences, but the words remained trapped inside him.

“How did they find out?” Benjen asked bleakly.

Daenerys shook her head. “I don’t know. My mother hadn’t mentioned anything in her last raven to me. She’d always been afraid of the Baratheons finding out, of sending someone for me. That’s why she sent me North to Winterfell. She thought I’d be safer with the Starks, far away from King’s Landing. But King Joffrey had her executed, her and my father—her husband. For treason.”

“Who—” Jon stopped, trying to put his thoughts in order. It was too much at once. “Then who? Who are your parents, if not the Daynes?”

Her face was as wan as moonlight, her eyes fixed on a distant point as she answered, her voice hollow. “Rhaella Targaryen and...Aerys. The Mad King.”

Seven hells. His stomach sank, twisting with dismay. He felt helpless. Useless. Needing an outlet for his confusion, he turned his glare and his ire on Benjen. “You knew,” he said. “You knew who she was this whole time.”

Benjen met Jon’s eyes, the haunted look there confirming his suspicion. “Ned told me, aye. A long time ago.”

“Did everyone know?” he asked. Everyone but him?

Shaking his head, Benjen answered haltingly, “No. Not as far as I know. Only a handful of people knew. I...Ned told me in confidence, after...after the war. Not even Ashara’s husband knew who Daenerys really was. At least, not in the beginning. He was told she was just a bastard girl. Ashara’s bastard daughter. She needed someone who would pass Daenerys off as his own, so no one would be any wiser to her true identity.” Benjen’s eyes went to Daenerys, but she kept her head bowed. “Ser Dalt was from a lesser house and wanted to be lord of Starfall, so he agreed to accept the babe as his own. Ned only knew because—” He hesitated and frowned, seeming to struggle with his next words. “When he went to give Lady Ashara word of her brother’s death, she told him then.”

“Why?” Daenerys asked, finally lifting her face. Her cheeks were wet, her violet eyes swimming. “Why would she tell him? After he killed her brother? I never understood. She never explained it to me. Never had the chance.”

Benjen studied her for a moment. “They were friends,” he said simply, his mouth still pursed in a thoughtful frown. “They’d been friends, once upon a time, before the war. Before their loyalties had been split between the Targaryens and the Baratheons. I imagine...I imagine she needed someone to confide in. Someone who could help her.”

“Lord Stark hated the Targaryens,” Jon interjected, growing vexed. “The Mad King killed his father and his brother. Why would he help her?”

“Is a child guilty of her father’s sins?” Benjen asked. “Should she be punished for something she didn’t do? Something she hadn’t yet been born for?”

“No, of course not. I—” Jon’s words faltered as he glanced at Daenerys. She didn’t return his look, but her jaw was hard. He felt like a fool. A stupid, gullible fool. “Did you lie to me, then?” he demanded. Finally, her gaze snapped to his face, eyes wide with surprise.

“Lie to you?”

“About who you were. Back then. Did you know?”

“No!” she snapped, as if he had offended her. “I was only a child! I didn’t know until you were gone. Long gone.” Her words lost their fury before she’d even finished, and she curled her arms around herself, hinging forward over her lap.

“And when did Robb know?” he asked, drawing her gaze once more. “Did he know when he married you?”

She stared him down, the line of her mouth revealing her anger despite how her eyes glistened. When she narrowed them, the tears slipped free. “You think he would have married me had he known? You think he’d want to marry a Targaryen?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” he said quietly, the lightness of his tone biting. “It’s a very powerful name, isn’t it?”

Her lip curled in a sneer, just briefly. With a firm shake of her head, she stood and angrily wiped at her cheeks before she schooled her face back into its mask. “Forgive me. As we’ve been riding for more than a week now, I’m quite tired and would like to sleep now.”

No one spoke as she marched out of the room, Jon’s eyes following her retreat. When she closed a door behind her, he swore under his breath and pivoted to face the fire, bracing his hands against the mantelshelf.

“I don’t recall you being this cruel,” Arya spoke into the brittle silence. Jon felt a flash of guilt, but it was quickly snuffed out by the mantle of his resentment, the one always weighing on his shoulders. He crooked his head to look at her, his stare hard.

“I suppose that’s what fourteen years on the Wall will do to a man.”

With a scowl, Arya turned away.

“Jon. Enough.” Benjen’s voice was quiet but firm. Jon cut his eyes to his uncle. “Have a heart. She’s lost her husband. Her parents. Her life and her children’s lives are in danger.” He shook his head helplessly. “We’ve all lost someone here.”

Jon went rigid. If Benjen was trying to appeal to his sympathy, he’d misstepped. “Come get me when everyone’s ready to continue this conversation.” With that, he turned on his heel and left the King’s Tower, making the long trek to his cold, pitiable cell underground.

We’ve all lost someone here.

No. Not Jon.

He’d lost everyone a long time ago.

Chapter Text


|||Fourteen Years Ago|||


Dany never made it to White Harbor.

In fact, she didn’t get much farther than Winter Town before Lord Stark’s men tracked her down.

The merchants in the market square had all been a bunch of lily-livered cravens, refusing to sell a young woman in need even their most malnourished donkey. All the silver stags in her coin purse couldn’t persuade them. Despite her hooded cloak, her illustrious silver hair and violet eyes had given her away, as she’d feared they would. Assisting the ward of Winterfell in absconding would surely invite Lord Stark’s wrath, something no townfolk was willing to risk.

She’d had no choice but to walk through the lightly falling snow, hobbling along on her lame leg. She’d injured it rather severely after she’d jumped from the castle wall. When she’d hit the ground, she’d heard an alarming pop as she’d buckled to her hands and knees, crippled by a white-hot flash of pain. She’d had to crawl around on hands and knees, skirts and cloak becoming waterlogged with snow as she frantically searched for a sturdy-looking stick long enough to use as a crutch. Now, her ankle felt like it had doubled in size inside her boot, pain radiating up and down her leg. Every shuffling step brought tears to her eyes, but she refused to stop to examine it. She feared if she did, if she so much as glimpsed the damage, she might lose her nerve.

She’d already wasted too much time at Winter Town, first waiting on the outskirts of the village for the market to open, then bartering futilely with the vendors. She should have known it was folly, expecting any sort of aid from these Northern bastards, whose hearts were as cold as the snow that buried them every winter.

The morning sun was still low in the sky when she heard the distant approach of horses, but she needn’t look over her shoulder to confirm what she already knew. When Jory and his men came charging past her on the kingsroad, cutting off her path forward, she didn’t cry, though she desperately wanted to. Instead, she stood her ground as they circled her, their horses whinnying and snorting in complaint at the sharp tugs on their reins.

Jory’s face was grim as he approached her, but when he reached out a hand to her in an overture of peace, she slapped it away, baring her teeth like a cornered animal. With a resigned sigh, he dismounted his palfrey. To her shame, it only took one other guard to wrestle the stick from her hands and wrangle her up onto Jory’s horse. She was too exhausted and in too much pain to put up much of a fight.

“The road is no place for highborn ladies. You’re lucky it was us who found you first,” Jory admonished her as he settled in the saddle behind her.

“Am I?” she retorted. But she didn’t argue further, all her energy sapped by that brief struggle. She could only bite her lip against the throbbing in her ankle and the tumultuous roiling of her stomach as Jory’s horse galloped back to Winterfell.

Lord Stark was waiting for them in the courtyard when the guards returned with his delinquent ward. Jory had to help Dany down from the horse, but she cried out when she tried to stand on her own. All the shock and adrenaline and sheer determination that had kept her going before was gone now, leaving her shaking like a leaf. She was afraid she might faint right then and there.

Alarmed, Ned did a onceover of her and frowned. “Take her to her chambers. I’ll send Maester Luwin to her immediately.” He lifted his eyes to her face and hesitated, like he wanted to say more, but he merely shook his head and took his leave.

Careful of her injured leg, Jory scooped Dany into his arms and carried her into the Great Keep. On the way to her room, they passed harried servants who glanced her way curiously before ducking their heads to resume their tasks. Dany closed her eyes and let her head loll on Jory’s shoulder, grateful, at least, that she didn’t have to attempt the stairs on her own. He settled her in her bed, then directed two of his men to stand watch outside her door before he left. Once again, she was a prisoner.

Maester Luwin arrived within minutes, Lord Stark and Lady Catelyn on his heels. They watched in silence as the maester examined her ankle, gingerly removing her boot, turning it this way and that, his cold fingertips prodding along her leg. Dany gritted her teeth to swallow any sound of protest, too proud to cry, but when she saw how big her ankle had swelled, purple bruising climbing up her shin, her head spun. She closed her eyes and turned her face away, breathing shallowly.

He quickly determined she had broken a bone in her ankle and had Lady Catelyn flag down a passing servant to bring a snow pack and a cup of dreamwine. They helped her out of her winter clothes and coaxed a full cup of the wine into her, though, truthfully, it required little convincing on Dany’s end.

“The fall doesn’t appear to have caused any harm to the child,” she heard him tell Lord Stark and Lady Catelyn in hushed tones when he stepped away to talk to them. At that bit of happy news, her relief was potent, pulsing through her blood as swiftly as the fermented elixir they’d given her.

She spent that first day of her attempted escape in and out of sleep. The maester restricted her to bed rest while her ankle healed, stressing that it was paramount she stay off her foot until then. Lost on the gossamer haze of the wine, Dany was vaguely aware of people coming and going, whether to refresh the snow pack on her ankle or rearrange her elevated leg or change the strips of cloth binding her foot. Sometimes she heard quiet discussions around her, murmurings that sharpened with frustration and were immediately quieted with harsh admonishments. It sounded like Lord Stark and Lady Catelyn arguing, but Dany didn’t care enough to open her eyes and see for herself. Sleep was a welcome respite from the nightmare of the past week.

When she finally came to the next morning, Lady Catelyn waited by her bedside, working on her needlepoint. For a moment, still foggy with sleep, Dany smiled. Her own mother used to sit at her bedside when she was still a child in Starfall, laid low by a headache or an upset stomach. The memory filled her with such an acute sense of longing and homesickness.

Then it returned to her in an instant: why she was there, why she was confined to her bed and trapped in this room. Her mouth twisted in disgust, and she tried to turn away from Lady Catelyn until a stab of pain stilled her abrupt movements. She let out a hissing breath, drawing Catelyn’s attention away from her stitches. Hurriedly, she put her needlework aside.

“You’re awake. Try not to move too suddenly,” she advised, her voice gentle and soothing as she reached a hand toward her. It hovered aimlessly in the air. “Do you need anything?”

Dany huffed and glared at the ceiling, hoping if she ignored the woman, she would leave. Excepting the day before when Dany had been disoriented with pain and dreamwine, this was the first time she’d seen Lady Catelyn since she and her husband had banished Jon to the Wall. Dany was still furious with her. Lord Stark might have given the command, but Dany had no doubt Catelyn supported the decision. Encouraged it, even. She’d always hated Jon, resented his station here among her trueborn children.

After a moment, Catelyn sighed, her fingers curling into her palm as she drew her hand back. She twisted in her chair and lifted a cup from the bedside table, holding it in both hands in offering when she turned back to Dany. Her face was pale, and her lips trembled before she pressed them together to quell the nervous tic.

“I...procured this from Maester Luwin. He promised his utmost discretion. If you decide this is how you would like to proceed, you must take it now to ensure its success.”

Suspiciously, Dany eyed the cup and the honeyed-brown liquid that filled it to the brim. She pushed up on her hands into a sitting position and frowned. “What is it?”

Catelyn’s throat constricted with a swallow, her fingers flexing. The cup shook ever so slightly in her grasp. Licking her chapped lips, she answered in a furtive voice, “It’s tea. Made with tansy.”

Dany stared at her with blank eyes, not immediately understanding. Then, all at once, she did, and an angry flush ignited her face. “You want me to drink moon tea?” she asked, incredulous.

Catelyn didn’t meet her eyes. “I brought it only in case you wanted—”

Dany’s hand darted out, slapping the offending drink from Catelyn’s hand. Catelyn sucked in a gasp of surprise as the cup splattered on the floor, spilling the moon tea across the stones. Quickly reining in her shock, she fixed Dany with a cold look.

“You thought I’d want to kill my child ?” Dany hissed, her heart pounding in her ears. With infuriating calmness, Catelyn folded her hands in her lap. Her knuckles turned white.

“That child will be a bastard, Daenerys. The bastard get of another bastard. Is that what you want?”

“I don’t care about that!” Dany yelled.

“You might think that. You might not care now, but think about what you’re dooming that child to,” Catelyn spoke quietly, urgently.

How dare she! Dany was so angry, so dumbfounded, her tongue grew clumsy and twisted as she tried to refute the woman’s assertion. “You—I don’t—I wouldn’t—”

“I won’t have another bastard under this roof, Daenerys,” Catelyn interrupted, standing suddenly. “You’ve shamed my son enough already with your—your contemptible, wanton ways. I will not have another Snow in my home.”

Dany watched narrowed-eyed as Catelyn stalked out of her chambers. When the door slammed shut, it reverberated with her foster-mother’s anger. Taking deep, labored breaths, Dany willed her racing heart to slow to a normal rhythm. Once her stomach had unwound itself from its knot, she settled back against the pillows, ignoring the pain in her ankle as she curled up on her side, facing away from the door.

Her thoughts turned to Jon then, and she squeezed her eyes against the fresh wave of grief that came with them. Was he all right? Was he thinking of her at this moment, too? He was waiting for her at the Wall, but she had no way to get to him, no way to reach him. Her hand inched down her stomach to cradle her still-flat belly through her gown. A tear slipped through her lashes. She wished she’d had a chance to tell him about their child before he’d left. He deserved to know. He never would have let them force him to the Wall if he’d known she was with child. His child.

She blinked her eyes open, fixating on the spilled puddle of moon tea leaching into the stones, the chipped mug on its side.

He’d had no choice but to go, she knew that. Still, she couldn’t help but wish he’d tried to fight them a little harder, if only for her.

When a knock sounded on her door, Dany didn’t bother to call out in answer, knowing whoever it was would enter regardless. Serving girls came and went as needed, to feed her and tend to her injury. Restricted in her movements as she was, she had to subject herself to rudimentary baths in her bed. Sometimes she read, when her mind wasn’t muzzy with dreamwine. Unfortunately, she often couldn’t make sense of the words in any of the books she had the serving girls fetch for her, her attention drifting to more pressing matters. Most of the time, she simply stared out the lone window in her chambers, lost in her thoughts.

As she’d predicted, the door creaked open. She spared a dismissive glance at her visitor but immediately stiffened at the sight of Robb. All the blood drained from her face, her hands going cold. She hadn’t seen him since before Jon had left. She realized then she had no idea how much he knew, what Lord Stark and Lady Catelyn had told their son of her betrayal. Everything, she assumed.

Did he come to yell at her? To curse her? She wouldn’t blame him if he did. For seducing his brother, for ruining their betrothal and his family. He must absolutely despise her.

He looked uncomfortable as he stepped into her chambers, his gaze lingering on the open door. After a moment, he shut it, only partly, so as to give them some semblance of privacy without entirely abandoning propriety. Turning back to her, he cleared his throat. She held her breath as his eyes perused her—looking for what, she didn’t know.

“Forgive me for intruding, my lady. My lord father told me you’d been injured,” he spoke haltingly. “Are you feeling well?”

She stared at him, her heart beat loud in her ears. “Yes,” she said, speaking through stiff lips.

He nodded slowly, pressing his mouth into a thin line. Then he sighed and raked a hand through his auburn hair. Finally, he blurted out, “Gods, Daenerys. I didn’t know. I had no idea.” Anger flashed in his blue eyes, and she fisted her hands under the coverlet, her stomach twisting with apprehension. “I trusted him. He was my brother. I never thought he could do something like this.”

Her eyelashes fluttered with her rapid blinks, and she finally let out a breath. “He…What?” She fumbled for a response, confused by Robb’s words. “It’s not his fault.”

He cut her off. “Don’t. Don’t feel like you have to defend him. He took advantage of you—”


“He betrayed us all!” he roared suddenly, surprising her into momentary silence. He looked away then, his jaw hard as granite in his stubborn denial.

Her face went hot with indignation. “He didn’t take advantage of me,” she said resolutely, struggling to sit up straighter against her too-soft feather pillows. When he saw her labored efforts, his temper ebbed.

“Daenerys.” His tone turned pitying, and he looked pained as he shook his head. “I understand why you feel that way. When my father told me what happened, I didn’t want to believe—” His cheeks reddened, and he swallowed. “I didn’t want to believe the worst, either. But he fooled us all. He’s a bastard. That’s what they do.”

She gaped at him, unable to comprehend how he could speak so cavalierly of Jon. Of his own brother. “Robb, that’s absurd! How can you be so cruel—”

His eyes flashed ice-blue. “More cruel than what he did to me?” he asked coolly. His question robbed her of any protest, guilt blooming like a prickly rose inside her rib cage. “More cruel than what he did to you?” Dany clutched her hands together in her lap. His gaze tracked the movement beneath the coverlet, and the hard lines around his mouth softened. “You’re...with child. Aren’t you?”

She blushed and averted her eyes, unable to hold his gaze. He swore under his breath, her avoidance of his question answer enough. From her periphery she saw him move closer, though he maintained a respectable distance, didn’t try to reach for her or touch her.

“Daenerys. I want you to know...that doesn’t matter to me. I’ll protect you and—and your child. We can wed soon, and no one need ever know it’s not mine. He’ll grow up a Stark, I promise you that. I’ll do what that bastard didn’t have the decency to do,” Robb swore fiercely.

She was too stunned to be enraged by his bold presumption. “You still want to marry me?” she croaked out, her head swimming. For some reason, she’d thought that he would call it off, that he’d want nothing more to do with her after he found out about Jon, about the child.

This time, Robb closed the distance between them, sitting down on the edge of her bed. He seemed appalled by her doubt. “Gods, of course, Daenerys. You’re my betrothed. I would never go back on my word. Someone I considered family did this to you. It’s my duty to set it right.”

She thought she was going to faint. Everything was spiraling out of her control. Her throat felt pinched and dried, and she pressed the heel of her hand to her forehead. “Robb. No.”

Her rejection jolted him, and he recoiled in surprise. Then his expression contorted once again in sympathy, and he shook his head. “I should let you rest. Father warned me you might still be muddled from the dreamwine. I’m not sure if I’m making any sense to you right now. Just think about what I said. We can talk later.”

He stood and crossed to the door. The words bubbled up in her throat, spilling out in an urgent plea. “Robb. You’re wrong, you’re completely wrong about him! Jon didn’t take advantage of me. He didn't compromise me. I wanted him. I love him. And he loves me! I can’t marry you, not when—not when I’m pregnant with his child.”

His back went rigid, and for a moment Robb didn’t move or speak. His shoulders slumped after a tense silence, and he turned to her. The look of pity had returned. “I’m sorry. I know you want to believe that—I’m sure you do believe that. But you can’t trust a bastard. I know that now,” he intoned soberly. “We’ll talk when you’re more lucid. Sleep well, Daenerys.”

The door swung shut behind him, and Dany choked back her scream of frustration.

Dany was sick of lying in bed, sick of how incapacitated the dreamwine made her and how useless she felt. She was sick of being poked and prodded. The days were slipping through her fingers, and she feared if she let too much time pass her by, she might never be able to crawl her way out of this hell.

Gripped with renewed determination, she ignored the dull pain in her ankle and swung her legs over the side of her bed. Tentatively, she placed one foot on the ground, then the other. With a deep breath, she pushed herself to a standing position.

Too much, she realized instantly—she’d put too much weight on her broken ankle. With a cry, she stumbled into her bedside table but caught herself, holding her left foot off the ground. After a few steadying breaths, she limped on her good foot along the perimeter of her bed. However, there was nothing to assist her between the bed and the door, so she clenched her teeth together and gingerly touched her toes to the ground, hopping as quickly as she could without using her lame foot too much, ignoring the flames of agony that licked up and down her leg.

Sweat beaded on her forehead by the time she reached the door, and she let out a gasp of relief. Triumphantly, she threw the door open and stumbled out into the hall. The guards stopped in the middle of their conversation, shocked into abrupt silence. Her stomach sank: Lord Stark was there, as well, his stern expression giving way to surprise at her emergence.

“Daenerys,” he chided, reaching for her arm. She batted him away, trying to lurch out of his reach, but she lost her balance. The guard behind her caught her before she could hit the ground. Ned jerked his chin toward the room, and the man lifted Dany into his arms to march her back into her chambers.

“No! Put me down!” she demanded, twisting away from his chest, kicking her legs. The motion provoked an agonizing spasm in her ankle, and she grimaced. The man gently set her down on the bed, his eyes shadowed with contrition as he pulled away from her. She deliberately turned her face away, refusing to give him any absolution for his part in shoving her back into her cage.

Ned sighed and directed the guards to leave. “Shut the door behind you, please.”

Once they were gone, Dany shot Ned a glare. “I’m sick of this room! I’m sick of this place! You can’t keep me locked in here forever!”

“I’m not locking you in here,” he began cajolingly.

“No? Then why are there guards?”

He scrubbed a hand down his face. “To make sure you don’t do what you just tried to do. Your ankle needs to mend itself. The maester says that requires at least two months of bed rest.”

She gawked at him, blood draining from her face. “Two months?” Her heart began to rabbit in her throat, and she shook her head desperately. “I can’t—you can’t keep me here that long. I need to—to—”

She needed to get to Jon. How could she do that, laid up as she was in Winterfell? She had to go to him, so she could tell him—he had to know about their child. Before...before something terrible happened. He could die at the Wall and never know. The thought gripped her with its cold hands of dread.

Ned sat down in the chair near her bed, bracing his arms on his knees. “Daenerys. I know you’ a delicate situation right now.” He clasped his hands together, looking uncomfortable. “Things are less than ideal. I know that, too. I don’t want you or anyone, myself included, to...put any undue stress on you. Maester Luwin says the fall you took could have compromised your pregnancy. Thank the gods, you appear fine in that regard.”

She stared at him, her cheeks turning pink. She fought the urge to touch her belly and dropped her eyes to the floor.

“I’m not ashamed,” she said after a moment. “And I only did what I had to do.”

Ned let out a quiet sigh. “It’s my understanding Robb still wishes to marry you. He’s willing to raise the child as his own. To accept it as his own.”

Dany’s mouth twisted into a frown. “I told him I don’t want that. I can’t marry him with another man’s child in my belly. It’s not right, not to him or to Jon.”

Ned dropped his head into his hands and rubbed his temples with his thumbs, then he let out a beleaguered sigh, lifting his face to level his gaze at her. “Consider the situation, Daenerys. You’re an unwed woman of noble birth who is with child. I know it’s different in Dorne, but here in the North, and anywhere else in Westeros, that’s a stigma you can never escape. I tried my best with Jon, but you see how it was for him.”

“Then send me back to Dorne!” she insisted. “Let me go home. My mother and father won’t care.”

His voice was sharp when he interjected, “Your mother wants this marriage as much as I do. If she knew about the baby, she’d want this more than ever, I promise you that.”

Dany shook her head, refusing to believe it. “No. She would never make me marry someone I didn’t want, if she knew how I felt about Jon—”

Aye, she’ll be horrified,” Ned snapped, “once you tell her who the father is!”

Tears of rage pricked at Dany’s eyes as she sneered at him. “How callously you speak of your own son. One born of your sin.”

Pained, Ned shut his eyes and sank back in his seat. “Gods help me.” When he opened his eyes next, his expression had shuttered, icy once again. “I have much to answer for when I die. I’ve no doubt the gods will judge me harshly and justly then, aye. But you’re young, Daenerys. You have your whole life, and your child’s life, before you. I’m asking you to think about that child and what you can do right now to protect him. You’re angry at me, and I deserve that, but Robb hasn’t done anything wrong. You might not love him, not now, but you could in time. You know he’s honorable. He’s good. He’ll honor and respect you, and he’ll love that child. I know that.”

“Like his mother loved your bastard son?” she asked, her words cutting. Ned flinched.

“However Robb feels about Jon now...I know he’d never want another child to be treated that way.” He hesitated, then his voice gentled. “Think about his offer. I’ll send a raven to your parents, tell them they should make their way to Winterfell now, should the wedding proceed as planned. You can talk to your mother then. But I know she’ll want the same for you.”

After he left, Dany lay down on her bed and pressed her face into her pillow. Her parents would come and fix this whole torturous mess, then they would take her back to Starfall. They wouldn’t make her marry someone she didn’t love. Not her mother, at least, no matter what Lord Stark claimed.

And yet, even as she thought it, she suddenly wasn't so sure anymore.

Dany kept the tightly rolled paper under her pillow, biding her time. It took longer than she anticipated; Maester Luwin didn’t himself tend to her often, as he left the servants to change her bindings, wash her, and bring her dreamwine on occasion.

After a few days had passed, he finally appeared in her chambers to check on her progress himself. He smiled as he shuffled toward her bed, his maester chains rattling lightly. “How do you feel today, Lady Daenerys?” he asked, dragging a chair up to her bed.

“Fine,” she said impatiently as he drew the coverlet back to expose her legs. As he unbound her ankle to examine the swelling and bruising, she reached under her pillow. Her hand fumbled for the scroll until she lighted on it, and she curled a fist around it possessively. She nodded or shook her head in answer to his perfunctory questions, wincing when he hit a particularly tender spot while he massaged her ankle.

“The bruising has gone down significantly. The swelling, too,” he told her. “It appears to be healing nicely, which is fortunate news.”

“Will I be able to get up and move around soon, then?” she asked, unable to keep the hope from edging in to her voice. He smiled apologetically.

“Doubtful, no. I strongly recommend a few more weeks before you walk on it again.” He stroked his chin. “We might be able to find a makeshift crutch for you, however. Something that would allow you to get up and walk some, without greatly exerting yourself. Lying in bed for so long isn’t very healthy for the body, either. Or the mind.” With a kind smile, Maester Luwin patted her hand. “Just rest till then. Is there anything I can do for you in the meantime?”

Dany sat up so fast, Maester Luwin reared his head back in surprise. “Yes,” she blurted, pulling her hand from beneath her pillow. She held the scroll out to him as if presenting him with a precious jewel. “Please. Can you send a letter for me?” As there was no way she could get past her guards and to the rookery undetected, she had no choice but to rely on the goodwill of the maester, who handled all the ravens to and from Winterfell. It was a long shot, of course; she suspected he would immediately turn her letter over to Lord Stark, but she had to try. Maester Luwin had always been kind to her. She just hoped that affection was enough.

Skeptically, Luwin reached to take the scroll from her. “Where to, my lady?” She’d tied it shut, but on the outside she’d written Jon’s name. As soon as he read it, he frowned.

She took a deep breath, bracing herself for his objection. “I need to send it Castle Black.”

He sighed and met her eyes. “Lady Daenerys, I can’t…” he started, but she pleaded with him.

Please, Maester Luwin. Please! He should know. I never got to tell him. A man deserves to know if he’s going to be a father, doesn’t he?”

Luwin looked conflicted, his intelligent eyes observing her, dissecting, taking her apart. After a moment, he dipped his chin and looked away. “All right. I will...handle this.”

Relief flooded her veins, and her body suddenly felt limp, as if she’d been tensing every muscle until that moment. “Thank you, Maester Luwin,” she said sincerely. “’ll bring me any letter I get in return?”

“If you get anything,” he agreed, still not quite meeting her eyes. As he stood from his chair, he tucked the scroll into his robes. He hesitated a moment longer, then he turned and left.

It took seven long weeks for her ankle to heal enough that she could walk on it unassisted. That meant it’d been five weeks since she’d sent the letter to Jon. Five weeks, and still no word from him.

That was, if she trusted that Maester Luwin had sent the letter as he’d promised. Which she didn’t. But every time she asked him if he’d done so, his response was firm: “I took care of it, my lady.” When she asked if he had any letter for her, he merely shook his head with sad regret.

Dany didn’t know what else to do. Three months pregnant, she was growing fearful for her child’s life. The weather was becoming precipitously colder, and while cloaks and heavy dresses would conceal her growing belly for a while longer yet, her pregnancy was no longer a plausible deniability. She could see and feel the small swell of her abdomen that indicated the life growing within. And even as the visual confirmation filled her with happiness, with it came a creeping foreboding. She didn’t have much time.

In her fourth month, her parents arrived in Winterfell. Dany knew Lord Stark had sent word to them, but she hadn’t known when to expect them. She wept at the sight of her mother, with her luscious black hair and kind lilac eyes. Lady Ashara immediately wrapped her daughter in a hug to comfort her, but her father, Lord Erac, looked less than pleased to be there—or, rather, by the circumstances that had required their unplanned trip.

In the privacy of her chambers, Dany pleaded with her parents. “I want to go home with you both. Back to Starfall. Can’t I?” She swallowed the lump in her throat, looking between her parents. “I’m sure I’ve upset you, and I’m sorry. I made a mistake. I acted impetuously. won’t force me to fulfill the betrothal, will you?”

With his arms crossed over his doublet, her father spoke plainly. “It’s not that simple, Daenerys. You’re Lord Stark’s ward. We’re lucky he even wants to continue with the marriage, despite the shame you’ve brought his family—and ours.” It was difficult to bite her tongue, but Dany lowered her eyes in deference to her father. Erac continued, his ire growing. “What you’ve have no idea the consequences of breaking an alliance. Especially with as prestigious a house as House Stark. House Dayne’s word is worth little now—and it’ll be worth nothing if we take you home. What of your brothers? Did you think of how your actions would reflect on them? What it could do to their marriage prospects? Did you think of anyone but yourself?”

Stung, Dany clamped her teeth together, blinking against her reactionary tears. Rage and resentment simmered, building to the surface. When she spoke, it was with a bitterness she thought she’d long buried. “Forgive me, father. You’re right. I thought only of myself, as I’d realized my parents weren’t thinking of me at all,” she said sharply, fixing him with a glare. “I figured my brothers wouldn’t mind, considering you already gave them my birthright.”

Her father’s face purpled at her insolent rebuke, but he had no reply. Instead, he turned to the window and left his wife to deal with Dany’s temper, apparently uninterested in relitigating a matter that had been settled years ago, before she’d really understood what she’d been forced to give up.

On the bed beside her, Ashara reached out to squeeze her daughter’s hand, which had curled into a fist. Her eyes were imploring. “Dany. I know it’s difficult, but please try to understand...When I—we made this arrangement with the Starks, it was the best possible alternative. It was meant to be to your benefit.”

Dany stared at her in disbelief. “How?

“By marrying the heir of Winterfell, you would be the Lady of Winterfell. By rights, Winterfell would be your children’s,” Ashara said quietly, calmly. “The North would have to answer to you and your husband, to your children, to your children’s children. The North would protect you as its own.”

Dany felt exasperated. “I don’t need the North to protect me; right now, I need to be protected from the North!”

Ashara sighed and fell silent. When she spoke again, she tried a different tactic, her voice brooking no further argument. “Your father is right, Dany. This is the best way forward for all of us. The Starks are willing to overlook this transgression, and we should be grateful for that.”

Dany’s eyes snapped to Ashara’s, her cheeks going hot. She felt oddly betrayed by her mother, more so than by her father. “But I don’t want to marry Robb. I love Jon.”

Closing her eyes, Ashara shook her head almost to herself. When she looked at Dany again, her eyes were plaintive, a sadness and fear in those familiar purple depths that Dany couldn’t fathom. “I’m sure you think you do, Dany. But young love is fleeting. In any case, Jon’s not here. Robb is.”

Angrily, Dany jerked her hand away, feeling chastened by her mother’s words, as if she were still a child. “I know what I feel.”

“Perhaps,” Ashara said gently. “And what of how he feels?”

Dany flushed. “He—of course he loves me. He wouldn’t have lain with me otherwise.”

Ashara’s face darkened. “My love, believe me, many men would claim to love you just to bed you. Especially as someone as beautiful and noble as yourself. But they lie. And then when you need them, they’re nowhere to be found.”

Indignant, Dany shot up from the bed too fast but halted when she felt a twinge in her ankle. She took a deep breath and blew it out. “You don’t know him.”

“No,” Ashara replied. “But I know you, Dany. And I know how...fiercely you feel, how passionate you are. I know how easy it is to get caught up in a mistake. But you should have left Jon Snow well enough alone, daughter, for both your sakes.”

Her mother’s admonishment rendered Dany mute. She’d known just what regard the Starks, with their slavish devotion to honor and duty, would hold her in—as the immoral trollop from Dorne. She hadn’t been prepared for her mother to make her feel that way, too, however. Tears filled her eyes, but she had no retort, no defense. Because she hadn’t been able to leave Jon Snow alone. She had given in to her worst impulses. It had been entirely selfish to act on her desires.

But how could it be wrong to love someone?

As Ashara studied her, her gaze softened. “This can still be salvaged, Dany. I know you want to do whatever you can to protect your child. Don’t you?”

Overcome with guilt, Dany turned away and wrapped her arms around her waist. More tears pricked her eyes, and she grew angry with herself. Angry for crying, for feeling powerless. For being powerless. For being impulsive and reckless. For foolishly thinking she should have any say in her future.

She wiped futilely at her eyes. “I don’t really have a choice, do I?” she asked, her voice hollow.

“This is the best situation you could have hoped for,” her father reminded her, as stern as ever. His next words were final. “We’ll tell Lord Stark to hold the wedding as soon as possible and hope they will honor their end of the betrothal still.”

It was a bitterly cold day when Dany and Robb were wed in the godswood. Her father presented her to her groom before the weirwood tree, their union canopied by branches thick with blood-red leaves. Its sap-weeping eyes watched them mournfully as Robb draped the bride’s cloak over her shoulders.

Only a handful of people came to bear witness, including her parents. Lord Stark and his wife and children were there as well—save one, of course, the one Dany saw when she closed her eyes to pray at the foot of the weirwood tree. The one who, even as the hope grew bleaker with every passing moment, she still fervently imagined riding to her rescue, galant and handsome astride his horse, to whisk her away from this nightmare. When she opened her eyes again, there was only Robb and the bereft face of the weirwood tree to mock her silly maiden fantasies.

Her new husband didn’t look any happier than she felt, his expression impenetrable as he repeated the simple vows. Still, he wore his chivalry as well as he wore the thick, fur-edged cloak of House Stark, and he dutifully carried his new wife into the Great Hall for the obligatory wedding feast. Lord Stark had invited his bannermen and their families to the celebration. Music and cheerful banter filled the hall as wine and ale flowed freely between courses of food. Dany picked listlessly at her plate, swallowing down bites of food here and there. These days, everything was unappetizing to her, and not simply because of the nausea that assailed her morning to night as of late.

Robb spoke to her sparingly, only commenting on the skills of Gage, their head cook, or asking her if she’d like her wine refilled. Occasionally, he would exchange ribald jokes with the guests who came up to the raised dais where they sat to congratulate them, saving Dany the effort of conversing with them. Even polite smiles exhausted her. She wanted nothing more than to curl up in her bed and weep—no, that wasn’t quite true. Some childish part of her wanted to throw her wine cup at every person who simpered at her, so casually cruel in their obliviousness. Couldn’t these fools see that she was screaming inside?

She accepted the hugs of her foster-siblings but only offered her cheek to her mother and father when they came to kiss her. Ashara smiled sadly at her. “You’ll be happy one day, child,” she whispered. “You’ll see. The Starks are as good as their word.” Dany held her tongue and chugged her wine.

Not until the bedding ceremony was she finally stirred to any emotion. Stupidly, she hadn’t anticipated it, hadn’t thought to prepare herself for the expected consummation, the forced disrobing by the men around her, so consumed in her misery as she was.

Lord Harrion Karstark was the one to initiate it, elbowing his two brothers and sloshing ale left and right in his inebriated state as he stalked to the dais. “Figure it’s about time you and your lady wife get to work on the next heir of Winterfell, don’t you, my lord?” he called, lifting his voice so it carried through the hall. Cheers of agreement followed his question, and he grinned before he knocked back the rest of his ale, slamming the mug down on the table before them.

Dany felt paralyzed with horror as the men swarmed her, the noble ladies tittering and dancing toward Robb. Instinctively, she reached beneath the table to place a protective hand on her belly.

They’ll know.

Robb laughed dutifully as he turned his head to look at Dany, but the sound died in his throat when he caught sight of her pale face, his eyes darting to her hand on her stomach.

Right as Lord Harrion reached for Dany, Robb grabbed his arm to stop him. Standing to his full height, he squeezed in warning, his smile hard when Harrion met his gaze in alarm. “Forgive me, Lord Karstark. I’d hate to have to break your hand for touching my wife on our wedding night before I’ve even had the honor.”

A hush fell over the hall, the singers’ harps pinging to a discordant stop. Nearby, Lord Stark watched with narrowed eyes, ready to intervene should it come to blows. Lady Catelyn hissed something at him, pleadingly, but he merely shook his head.

After a tense moment, Karstark finally let out a bark of laughter, shaking loose of Robb’s grip. “Too right, then! Well, go on, my lord. Don’t keep your lady wife waiting!” Laughter and chatter resumed. Robb took Dany’s hand to help her to her feet, and she rose unsteadily, her knees weak and watery. Her heart pounded loudly still, an unrelenting beat on her eardrums, but she obediently looped her hand around Robb’s arm and allowed him to lead her from the Great Hall.

They left the din of the feast behind as he walked her to his chambers. Once inside the safety of his room, he dropped her hand and shut the door, pitching them into silence. Someone had already lit candles around his chambers and stoked a fire in the hearth in anticipation of their consummation. Dany stood unmoving in the middle of the room, her eyes fixed on the bed. The place where they were meant to consummate their marriage. Sick climbed up her throat, but she swallowed it down.

“Thank you, my lord,” she said thinly. “For what you did back there.”

He stood off to her side and didn’t speak, not immediately. His fingers fidgeted at his sides, curling and uncurling restlessly. “Robb. Please,” he finally said, his tone pleading. Clenching her jaw together, she lifted her eyes to his. He’d removed his heavy cloak at the feast and left it in the Great Hall alongside hers. His wedding outfit was black and sharp, two silver direwolves holding a cape over his shoulders. His jaw was hard, but his eyes were blue and soft.

It was a shame she couldn’t appreciate how handsome her new husband was, she supposed. But she felt nothing for him, not a glimmer of attraction or of girlish preoccupation. It'd been the same when they had been children.

She didn’t hate Robb. She just wished it was Jon in his stead. Wished it was Jon’s cloak she’d been adorned with in the godswood, Jon’s bed she was meant to lie in tonight, his body on top of hers, bearing her down into the mattress as he’d done time and time before.

She closed her eyes, fighting another wave of despair and longing.

“I won’t force you,” Robb swore savagely, and she opened her eyes to peer at him. “I won’t touch you, not until you want me to, Daenerys.”

She should have felt relief at his words, yet all she felt was pity.

He didn’t realize he’d be waiting forever.

Most days Dany found it hard to get out of bed. She felt lost behind a shroud of lethargy and listlessness, and she knew it wasn’t entirely owed to her pregnancy. She slept often, sometimes rousing herself in the mornings to break her fast, though she still had little appetite. More often than not, the food the serving girls brought in went untouched on the trays. She wouldn’t have bothered to eat, if Maester Luwin didn’t gently reprimand her about needing to maintain her health for the child’s sake.

Still, Dany found herself sinking deeper into her melancholy. She left her bed only to use the privy and take a bath when the serving girls wheedled her into it. Most mornings when she awoke, she would simply roll onto her side and stare out the window, absently watching the snow fall. It always made her think of Jon, leagues away on the Wall.

There were no longer any guards stationed outside her chambers. Perhaps with her marriage to Robb, they felt assured she had no more reason to run.

A woman who could barely drag herself out of bed wasn’t likely to attempt escape again, anyway.

Her belly grew bigger. Sometimes Dany felt unexpected ripples in her abdomen that made her breath catch and her head swim. She would put her hand low on her stomach and wait till she felt the movement again. Inevitably, she would, and tears would slip down her cheeks to dampen the corners of her mouth. Her joy tasted salty on her tongue.

Every once in a while, Robb would visit with her, to see how she was faring and to make sure she was eating. She pretended to be asleep for most of those visits. True to his word on their wedding night, he hadn’t pushed her once; he didn’t demand his husbandly rights. He let her hide away in her own chambers and didn’t step foot inside them at night.

Other than her husband, the maester and the serving girls, Dany’s only regular visitor was Arya. One day, after she’d managed to evade the septa for her daily lessons, she sneaked into Dany’s chambers, where she crawled into bed to lay at her side.

“Are you sick?” she asked once Dany had rolled onto her side to face her. Their positions mirrored each other, legs tucked up, a hand beneath their respective pillows.

“No,” Dany said. “Only...sad.”


But Dany shook her head and managed a wan smile for the younger girl’s sake. Arya was her good-sister now, she realized with the first touch of fondness she’d felt in a while, but her next thoughts immediately tainted the moment: If Arya were to ever learn the real reason why she was sad, she would hate her.

“Did they tell you? I’m with child,” Dany said instead, eager to change the subject.

That brought a smile to Arya’s face. “Really? I bet Robb is happy! I hope it’s a girl. We need more girls here. This castle is full of boys.” Her smile slipped then, and she lowered her gaze, chewing on her lip. “I’d trade them all for Jon, though. I wish he’d come back. I miss him.”

Dany didn’t know what to say. She closed her eyes against the threat of tears and whispered, “Me, too.”

“I think he hates me.”

Arya’s quiet confession shocked Dany. “What? Why do you think that?”

When Arya lifted her wide, grey eyes, Dany’s heart stuttered. Arya had the same eyes as Jon; she’d almost forgotten. It left her momentarily breathless.

“Because he didn’t say goodbye. And he won’t answer any of my letters. He must hate me.”

Her throat tight, it took Dany a few tries before she could speak. “No. Arya, no. Jon—Jon could never hate you. He loves you. You were—I know you’re his favorite sister. He probably misses you the most of anyone.”

“Then why won’t he write?” she asked, her pain and frustration sharpening her question.

Dany swallowed thickly. “I don’t know,” she answered, her mind racing. If he hadn’t responded to Arya’s letters, then perhaps Maester Luwin had sent Dany’s letter after all, as he’d said he had. Maybe...maybe it was simply that Jon hadn’t bothered to reply.

But she couldn’t believe that. No, if he hadn’t written anyone, he must not be able to respond. The thought settled like an icy fist in her gut. He could be hurt or...worse.

“He loves you,” she repeated to Arya, more insistent this time, as if she needed to convince her as much as she needed to convince herself. “You have to trust that. He’ll write to you when he can. I’m sure of it.”

That became their routine, of sorts. Arya would climb into her bed and talk to Dany. She ranted about her father, about the septa, about the silly lessons she was forced to share in alongside Sansa. Wistfully, she recounted the rigorous fighting lessons she watched Bran partake in with Ser Rodrik. More often than not, she talked about Jon. In some ways, Dany craved these moments to reminisce about him, to hear stories about his childhood that not even she’d been privy to. In other ways, every utterance of his name tore a new hole in her heart.

“Do you know what you’re going to name the baby?” Arya asked one afternoon, sitting cross-legged on Dany’s bed. Dany sat beside her, propped against a few pillows.

At her question, Dany tried not to frown. The truth was, it felt wrong thinking of names for her and Jon’s child without him here. “No,” she answered honestly, picking at a loose thread in her coverlet.

“I bet Robb will want to name him after Father if it’s a boy.”

Others take him if he tries, Dany thought darkly. “If it’s a boy...perhaps I’ll name him after my late uncle, Arthur. I think my mother might like that,” she said. She hadn't spoken to her mother since her parents had left Winterfell after the wedding. Despite her resentment of her mother's disregard for Dany's feelings in the matter of her marriage, Dany couldn't help but miss her.

“What about for a girl?” Arya asked.

Dany hesitated, searching for a name she thought Jon might have liked. It was a shame he never learned who his mother was. “I don’t know,” she murmured, her eyes going distant as she mulled it over. They lapsed into silence as Arya thought, as well. After a moment, the younger girl’s face brightened.

“Oh! You should name her Nymeria,” she said.

“Why Nymeria?” Dany asked, a small smile tugging at her lips. Arya grinned in excitement.

“She was a warrior-queen from Dorne. She led her people there after fleeing Essos, and she helped unify Dorne,” she recited proudly. “And since you’re from Dorne, I think it would be fitting for your daughter. It’s a strong name for a girl, don’t you think? Like you.”

Unexpectedly, tears flooded Dany’s eyes. She swallowed convulsively to stamp them out, but it was no use. They spilled over and tracked down her cheeks as her face crumpled, and she let out a sob. Arya’s brow puckered in confusion.

“What’s the matter? Is it—is something with the baby?” she asked, alarmed.

Dany shook her head and covered her face as she wept. “Oh, Arya.” She was too kind and unsuspecting, and it was Dany’s fault her brother was gone. It was her fault, why Arya was sad, why she’d never get to see Jon again. It was all her fault. “I’m sorry, Arya. I’m so sorry.”

The bed shifted as Arya moved closer. Dany felt a tentative hand on her arm. “What’s wrong? Tell me,” she demanded urgently. “Should I get the maester? Robb?”

Again, Dany jerked her head in denial, a hiccuping sob catching in her throat. She couldn’t stop the tears. “N-no, please, don’t. I don’t want them.” Another stuttering sob. “I w-want Jon. But it’s my fault. You should hate me, Arya. You shouldn’t be nice to me. Why are you being so kind to me? It’s my fault he’s gone.”

An eerie silence followed her words. Then, “What do you mean, it’s your fault?” Arya asked warily.

Half-heartedly, Dany wiped at her eyes and her running nose and looked to Arya. The young girl was perched very still in the middle of the bed. Dany took a deep breath, her cheeks running wet with yet more tears. “He was forced to take the black be-because of me. Because we—because we lay together, because we love each other, but it was wrong to betray Robb like that. And Lord Stark found out, and he sent Jon away, and now he can’t come back.”

It should have been a relief to unburden herself with the truth, but speaking it out loud only worsened her shame. And as she watched Arya’s face flush red in realization and anger, a fresh wave of guilt swamped Dany.

“…” Arya’s lips trembled. Her eyes glossed over, and she twisted her mouth into a sneer. “How could you do that? To Jon? To Robb?”

“I didn’t mean—” Dany started, but Arya scurried onto her knees.

“You’re the reason my brother’s on the Wall! You’re the reason he could die! You’re here, and he’s not! I wish it was you who’d left! I hate you! I hate you!

As Arya lunged off the bed and flew out of the room, Dany slunk down into her pillows to weep. She curled up on her side, tucking her knees against her belly, and muffled her sobs in the sleeping furs. She deserved it, she knew. She deserved Arya’s wrath, but it hurt all the same. Dany cried for herself, for Arya, for Jon, for their child. She cried until her eyes were red and swollen and there was nothing left inside her to expunge. Then she lay in bed for a while longer, lost in her nebulous thoughts.

Eventually, she came to a decision. Pushing into a seated position, Dany scooted to the edge of the bed and climbed out to use the privy. At the water basin, she splashed her face with the cool water until the puffiness of her eyes eased. When she checked the looking glass, she saw that her eyes were still bloodshot, red splotches coloring her cheeks. It was the best she could do. With her brush, she untangled her hair and braided it back from her face before slipping out of her dress robe into a simple gown that didn’t require another pair of hands to lace up. Then she put on a cloak thick enough to disguise how big her belly had gotten. Once she determined she was presentable enough, Dany left her room to find Robb.

She tracked him down to his chambers, where he was reading over some documents. At the sight of her in his doorway, he clambered to his feet in surprise.

“Daenerys—are you all right?” he asked, reaching a hand toward her in reflex before he dropped it to his side. He stood ill at ease, unsure how to greet her. A troubled frown took over his face as he noticed her red-rimmed eyes.

“No,” she answered truthfully. “I would like to travel south to Starfall. To be with my mother when I give birth.”

Her husband stared at her as he processed her request. “All right. Should I—” Dany cut him off before he could finish his question.

“I would like to go alone.”

His jaw hardened, and in the silence that followed, Robb was unmoving, unblinking as he studied her. Finally, he gave a curt nod. His voice was remote when he spoke again. “Of course. If that’s what you wish.”

Once she had Robb’s approval, securing passage to Starfall was simple. Naturally, the farther along she progressed in her pregnancy, the more apparent it would become to everyone that she’d not been a maiden on her wedding night. Gossip would ensue. Once that happened, it wouldn’t be too far of a leap to make to the child being Jon’s, especially after his abrupt dismissal from Winterfell. Thus, Lord Stark and Lady Catelyn were quite amenable to sending her off to Starfall for the rest of her confinement.

It would take more than a month to make the journey from Winterfell to Starfall, putting Dany well into her seventh month. After the birth, she would stay there to recover and to allow enough time to pass before she returned with her child, hopefully no one the wiser.

On the day she left, Robb waited in the courtyard to see her off in a carriage. The rest of the family was also there, except Arya. Dany tried not to let the sting of her good-sister’s rejection show on her face as she hugged the children farewell, then she let Robb kiss her hand for pretenses before he helped her into the carriage.

As the horses pulled her carriage through the gates of Winterfell, she refused to look back.

In his chambers, Robb fingered the worn paper on his reading table. He’d read the letter so many times, the edges of the scroll no longer curled. It lay flat on the smooth wooden surface, mocking him. He should have thrown it away by now, burned it down to ashes in the hearth. It was incriminating, damning, and if anyone else were to discover it, it could mean the ruin of his wife. His marriage was a sham, and this letter laid bare that mummer’s farce.

Yet he couldn’t bring himself to feed the letter to the flames. A paradoxical compunction born of his sense of honor and duty stayed his hand.

Silently, he read the letter again, though he needn’t bother. By now, he could recite it from heart. The words had etched themselves into his brain, ever since the day Maester Luwin had brought the unbroken scroll to him. I thought this should come through you first, as her husband-to-be, my lord, Luwin had said, with sympathy and apology heavy in his rheumy eyes.           


 Jon, I wanted to tell you this in person but regret I must do so in a letter: I am with child, your child. Come back for me, come back for us. Or send a raven and tell me where to meet you. They might be able to force me to marry Robb, but it’s you who has my heart. I love you, I love you. Take us away so we can leave this place far behind. Let us go to Essos as we planned. I’ll wait for you, always.

Angrily, Robb fisted his hand on the table, battling the sudden urge to rip the letter to shreds.

He hadn’t wanted to believe it. He couldn’t believe it. Daenerys was innocent and kind. Loyal. She was perfect. And Jon...Jon had corrupted that. He’d turned her against Robb, her betrothed. He’d violated her and left her pregnant with his bastard child, dooming them both to a life of ridicule and contempt.

Robb had convinced himself Daenerys had been a victim in everything, merciless at Jon’s whims.

But here it was, in plain, unassailable words: She loved Jon, not Robb. She’d planned to run away with him before the wedding, and even now, Robb suspected she would still elope with him, given the chance. She would shirk her duties as a wife and break her holy vows. For a bastard.

Robb was a bloody fool. He’d been blind to what had been happening right under his nose this whole time. His brother and his betrothed, his now wife, had betrayed him. They’d made a mockery of him.

He’d naively thought he and Daenerys could get past this. That in time, she would come to see Jon for what he really was and would, perhaps, even come to love Robb. But now she was on her way to Starfall, as eager as ever to get away from her husband. To give birth to another man's child.

A man who had no idea. A man who had hurt Robb more than he could possibly know, having fled the scene of his crimes.

He loved Daenerys, but she loved Jon. And, despite her duplicity, Robb didn't want to hurt her any more than she already had been.

His mind resolved, Robb carefully rolled up the scroll and placed it in a pocket inside his cloak. Then he left his chambers and headed to the stables. He found Hodor in a stall, brushing a black palfrey and softly uttering his own name like it was a sacred invocation.

“Hodor. Saddle my horse.”

Dany had never been so happy to be back home in Starfall. It was sunny and warm, a certain remedy to the gloom that had followed her all the way from Winterfell. She shed those shadows as she did her winter cloak, too hot for the climate this far south. The air was fresh and smelled of salt wafting from the nearby Summer Sea.

When her mother came to greet her as she exited the carriage, Dany fell into her arms and promptly burst into tears. After their last fraught meeting in Winterfell, Dany hadn’t quite known what to expect when she arrived at her family’s home, but her mother’s embrace was familiar and welcoming. In it, Dany felt the unwavering love and strength that had ushered her through childhood.

Ashara stroked her daughter’s hair and shushed her as Dany smothered her hiccuping breaths on her mother’s shoulder. “Don’t cry, my love. Everything will be all right, once that child comes. You’ll see.”

Being home with her parents and her brothers, while it helped soothe some of the unrelenting ache in her heart, it didn’t entirely ease her worries, fears that grew as steadily as her belly did.

Dany confessed as much to her mother. “That’s normal,” Ashara assured her as she sat at Dany’s bedside one night. She lifted her daughter’s shift in the back, rolling it above her waist. Of late, Dany had been plagued with pain in her lower back, and her mother had taken to bringing her hot compresses to ease her aches. Ashara dipped a rag into a bowl of hot water and wrung it out, then she gently pressed it against Dany’s back. “Too hot?”

Dany shook her head, the heat a welcome relief. “Were you scared when you gave birth to me?” she asked.

Her mother was silent for a moment, and Dany glanced over her shoulder in question. Ashara’s expression was troubled and distant, but when she looked up, she offered her daughter a smile. “Oh, yes.”

Dany swallowed. “Was it bad? What happened?”

Deep lines crimped her mother’s forehead as she frowned in thought. She stared intently at her hands, kneading the hot cloth into Dany’s back, and it took her another moment to answer. “It was…” She chuffed, shaking her head. “It was so long ago now.”

“Do you not remember it?” Dany asked.

“I could never forget it,” Ashara said solemnly. “I’d never been more terrified than I was the day you were born. Birth is...the most dangerous thing a woman can do.” She reached around Dany to find her daughter’s hand and squeezed it firmly, then she put on another reassuring smile.

“Let’s not discuss that right now. I don’t want to frighten you when you’re about to give birth.” Releasing her hand with one more squeeze, Ashara brushed some hair away from her daughter’s face, with such affection it made Dany’s throat tighten. “Just know that the moment I saw your face, none of that mattered. I loved you right then and there, and I knew I would die just to keep you safe. That will always be true.”

Dany labored well into the night, hours after her contractions first started. Her mother stayed at her side through it all, using cool washcloths to sop up the sweat from Dany’s forehead as she groaned and gritted her teeth through every cramp and spasm. Serving girls ran in and out of her chambers with fresh linens and basins of water while the midwife and the maester helped prepare Dany’s body for delivery with oils and salves.

When it was time, Ashara and a serving girl grabbed each of Dany’s legs and pulled her knees toward her chest. Dany fisted her hands in the bed sheets and bore down as hard as she could every time the midwife ordered her to. Her body felt like it was cleaving in two, yet despite the excruciating pain, she didn’t cry. She screamed and cursed the old gods and the new, but not until the moment she heard the first shrill squawk of her child did she weep tears of sheer relief.

“It’s a girl,” the maester told her after severing the umbilical cord. The midwife hastily whisked the babe away to bathe her and wrap her in swaddling cloths. When the woman placed her on Dany’s chest, she touched her gingerly, afraid to hurt her. She looked so fragile. Dany’s fingers feathered over the silver fuzz on her soft head. Her skull was so small, Dany could cradle it in the palm of her hand. At her touch, her daughter cracked her eyes open, peering up at her with amethyst eyes.

There didn't appear to be anything of Jon in her.

Fresh tears fell as Dany’s heart broke all over again. She hugged the babe tighter to her breast, mourning what she had lost but amazed at what she’d been given in return.

“Do you have a name for her?” Ashara asked, pushing back the wet strands of hair that stuck to Dany’s damp forehead.

Dany stared down at her daughter’s pink face, scrunched with the displeasure and indignity of being ripped from the comforts of her mother’s womb. Suddenly, she knew.

“Yes. Her name is Nymeria.”

Dany had just finished nursing Nymeria and put her down in her crib when a serving girl opened the door to permit Robb entry into Dany’s chambers. She froze at the sight of her husband, unprepared for his arrival. It’d only been a couple months since Nymeria’s birth. Some part of her had hoped he’d forget about her and leave her in Starfall. In some ways, she expected him to be happy to be rid of her. She expected all the Starks would be.

Robb glanced between her and the crib she stood over, the bed a barrier between them. He had stripped down to his doublet and trousers. His hair was a bit longer than she remembered it, and he hadn’t shaved in some time, his beard thick and red.

After an awkward moment in which they took each other’s measure, he cleared his throat. “I’m glad to see you well, my lady.” He nervously licked his lips, gaze darting to the crib again. “And...I take it, the child is also well?”

Dany let out a quiet breath and made an attempt to smooth her hair back. She hadn’t cared to look in a mirror lately, too sleep-deprived and consumed with caring for Nymeria, and she was sure she looked a fright. “Yes. She’s asleep right now.”

His eyes snapped back to her face, brightening at her words. “She?”

Dany nodded. “My daughter.”

His expression clouded at that, just briefly, and she realized belatedly the particular possessive she’d used. But he wiped his reaction away as quickly as it had come. “What name did you choose?”

“Nymeria,” she answered quietly. “It was Arya’s suggestion. I liked it.”

He smiled, a small one, his gaze fixing on the crib again. He hesitated. “May I...Would it be all right if I looked at her?” he asked uncertainly.

With a thick swallow, Dany reluctantly acquiesced, stepping back from the crib to allow him to approach. Robb circled around the bed and crossed to them, stopping a respectful distant where he could still peer inside the crib. Dany held her breath as he studied her daughter, who lay on her back finally dozing peacefully after a fretful evening.

Robb made a sound of surprise and wonder then looked up at Dany with a wide smile. “She looks just like you.”

For some reason, the words cut deep, lashing at her still tender heart. Her chin trembled, but she firmed her mouth. “Yes, I’m sure that pleases you,” she said, hugging her robe around her tightly.

His smile dropped, and Dany almost regretted ruining the otherwise civil moment. Still, she held his gaze. He was the first to look away, his jaw tightening.

“I went to the Wall after you left,” he said suddenly. “I saw Jon.”

Her breath hitched. “You—saw Jon?” she repeated dumbly, her pulse spiking at the bare mention of his name. He was alive! “ he all right? What did he say?”

What did he look like? Was he well? Did he ask about me? Did you tell him about the baby?

Robb’s lips thinned, and he stared hard at a point over her shoulder. “He’s not coming back, Daenerys.” She stared at him until her eyes felt dry and tight. He finally met her gaze once more, indignation furrowing his brow. “He insulted your honor. After everything he did to you...he still had the audacity to speak indecently of you. To disrespect you. To me, to your husband.”

“But he…” She trailed off, her mouth and tongue useless, disconnected from her jumbled thoughts. She tried again. “Did you tell him about Nymeria, though?”

His eyes darted away from hers, his throat constricting with a swallow. “I’m sorry,” he said, subdued.

She shook her head, not comprehending. “But...he knows?” she asked, desperate to understand. “You told him, and he’s not coming?”

“I tried to tell you,” he said, turning his gaze to the child in the crib. “I told you he wasn’t honorable. Perhaps, through service to the kingdom on the Night's Watch, he can one day atone for his grievances, for what he did to you. For what he did to us.”

Dany felt faint. Light-headed, she staggered to the bed and sat down gracelessly. “I don’t understand…” she whispered.

Robb stepped closer to the crib and gripped the side. When he spoke, his words were fierce and impassioned. “Forget about him, Daenerys. He doesn't deserve you. He wouldn’t be the father your child needs. But I will be,” he said. “I will love her as if she were my own. If you let me. I swear it.”

She wasn’t listening. It couldn’t be true, what he said about Jon. She couldn’t believe it. Jon must have misunderstood. He must not have received her letter. He would come if he knew, she was certain of it. But she shouldn’t have to beg him to come for her. If he loved her. Should she?

Already, she felt delirious with exhaustion from too many sleepless nights, and Robb's words were a blow to the last of her preciously held hopes. She’d attempted to run across Westeros; she’d broken her leg trying to get to Jon. She’d been ready to sail across the world just to be with him. What had he done? Had he tried anything? Did he think of her at all? Did he care?

Maybe everyone else had been right all along. Maybe she was a fool, just a silly girl who knew nothing of love.

Chapter Text



Jon broke his fast in the common hall early, before many of his brothers had even dragged themselves out of bed to perform their morning ablutions. Once the first finger of dawn had crooked over the pane of his window, he’d wasted no time in getting up to start his day. As it was, he’d barely slept, and he hadn’t seen the point in lazing around, pretending he had.

The night had been long and restless, and he’d tossed and turned for hours, rehashing everything he’d learned earlier that evening. It was all a mess in his head, but he kept circling back to one thing in particular.

Daenerys, a bloody Targaryen. The lost princess of a dynasty that had been all but annihilated.

His mind still reeled with that crucial revelation. Though he’d stewed in his anger all night, remorse began to worm through the cracks of his pique. Not only had her husband been killed by a sellsword sent to murder her, but Daenerys was also still reckoning with a false identity and a lifetime of duplicity by her own family. It had to be difficult.

And in her grief, Jon had been a complete ass to her.

Gripped by the self-righteous fist of his indignation, he’d felt justified in the moment. But, now, when he recalled the glimmer of tears in her eyes as he’d accused her of being a perpetrator of those very lies, he felt sick with it.

After shoveling down a bland meal of blood pudding and hard-boiled eggs, Jon began the trek to the King’s Tower. In the light of day, he was embarrassed by his biting comments to Daenerys, and he meant to set aside his ego and apologize to her. She and Arya would be gone from here soon, and he would likely never see them again. He didn’t want either to regret their last interactions—their last memories—with him. Not this time around.

Before he could reach the tower, however he ran into Samwell Tarly, who was struggling with a collection of books that towered nearly over his head. One slipped from his grasp, and Sam yelped in dismay, bending over to rescue it from the snow and sending more books tumbling to the ground.

Jon stopped and snatched them up, quickly brushing the snow from the covers. “Don’t you have a steward to fetch your books now?”

Sam flushed pink, smiling his gratitude as Jon carefully wedged the books back into the maester’s arms. “Yes. Well, no. Technically, he could do it for me, but I’m not sure he’d know exactly what books I’m looking for. And I might find something else I’d like to read while I’m in the library. In which case, I’d rather get my own books. No need to bother him when I could just do it myself, you know.”

“Gracious of you.” Distracted, Jon glanced past him in the direction of the King’s Tower. “Don’t forget to eat at some point today while you’re doing all that reading.”

Sam snorted with amusement. “Oh. That’s a good one.” Jon glanced at him, not understanding the joke, but he was too anxious to reach his destination to inquire further. Sam continued, “The Lord Commander asked to speak with me later this morning, so I’ll eat then.”

Offering his farewell, Jon went to step around the maester, but Sam stopped him. “Are you looking for your family—I mean, our guests?” He blushed at his inadvertent slip, but Jon just nodded. “I saw Lady Daenerys walk by as I was leaving the library a few minutes ago.”

Jon frowned. “Where did she go?”

As Sam looked upward, Jon followed his gaze. “To the top, I think. She took the winch cage.”

Alarm prickled along Jon’s spine, and he glanced sharply at Sam. “She went up? Alone?”

Suddenly, Sam looked frightened. “A-aye.”

“And you just let her go by herself?”

“I—I didn’t think it was a problem,” Sam called after him, but Jon was already loping to the cage, signaling with a whistle to the winch men to send the lift down. An eternity later, the winch cage reached the ground, and he wrenched the door open to shut himself inside. As he steadily, tortuously, climbed the 700-odd feet up the solid sheet of ice, Jon stalked the short length of the lift like an agitated wolf pacing his cage. Razor-sharp wind whipped at his face, snapping his cloak around his legs. It was always harder to breathe at the top, the air so thin and cold.

The cage barely groaned to a stop before Jon jerked the door open to step out onto the Wall. When he didn’t immediately see Daenerys, he headed left, hoping his instincts were right. His heart hammered erratically, making it even harder to catch his breath. He didn’t understand why he was so worried, why the need to make sure she was all right. It had been that way when he’d lived at Winterfell, too, though she’d always been perfectly capable of taking care of herself. Somehow, that impulse hadn’t dissipated with time.

He found her at the first parapet, where the wall sloped low, allowing the viewer to step to the edge and peer over the side. His heart lurched into his throat. “Daenerys!” he called out, then cursed his thoughtlessness. If he startled her and she slipped…

But she stepped back before she turned, mindful of the sudden, deadly drop before her. Her hood was up, but her fur-edged cloak offered little protection against the frigid winds of the Wall. Her cheeks were chafed red, eyes watering from the sting of tears as snowflakes whipped around her, and the purple bruise on her jaw stood in sharp contrast to her pale skin. Surprise flickered across her face at the sight of him, but she quickly masked it. In its wake, suspicion crept into her eyes. “What do you want?” she asked. It wasn’t mean or accusing, exactly, but suddenly Jon felt like a fool for chasing her all the way up here.

He groped around for a proper reason to have come after her. “You shouldn’t be wandering Castle Black alone. It’s not safe,” he said gruffly.

She huffed out a droll laugh and turned away. “Nowhere’s safe.” She spoke softly, her words almost lost to the wind, but he caught them.

“Where are your children?” he asked. Her eyes cut to him before skittering away.

“With Arya. Abed still. It’s been a...trying week for them.” She shrugged, the gesture listless. “They saw the Wall with Benjen yesterday. I just...wanted to see it for myself, I suppose.”

He could understand that, though he’d been on the Wall for so long now, its grandeur no longer inspired the awe it once had. Following her gaze, Jon looked out across the land to the north of the Wall, at the white rolling plains and snow-topped trees of the haunted forest that stretched endlessly, beyond what the naked eye could see, and tried to imagine he was looking at it with new eyes. For most viewers, it held a terrible kind of allure, but for Jon, the Wall was where he’d gone to die. He had, in a way, but he’d been reborn. Stronger, but harder and meaner, too.

“We’re seven hundred feet above the rest of the world here,” he said for want of conversation.

She didn’t immediately reply and clutched her cloak tightly around her. “That’s a long way to fall,” she said, glancing down at the ground. He frowned, unsure if she meant the comment in jest. He didn’t remember her being quite so grim. Then again, in fourteen years, he supposed she was as likely to change as he had. After all, he wasn’t the same man she’d known in Winterfell.

“Daenerys, I…” He cleared his throat, and she turned to face him again. “Forgive me. I spoke harshly to you yesterday. I was…I wasn’t prepared, is all. It was a lot to take in.”

She blinked, snowflakes sticking to her delicate eyelashes. After a moment, she said, “Yes. I suppose it was.” Her voice was laced with bitterness, her teeth chattering with the cold, but her expression conveyed understanding, the moment a brief accord between them.

She turned away, back to the parapet, and Jon blew out a breath, forcing the next words past the catch in his throat. “And...I’m sorry for your loss.”

At his condolences, her brow furrowed with a pained grimace. She looked to him again, the look in her eyes queer and indecipherable, but just as quickly, she shook her head and shuttered her gaze. “Thank you,” she murmured, the words stiff on her lips. When she opened her eyes, her face was blank once more, and he was left to wonder whether he’d only imagined that look.

Daenerys shuffled farther away from the edge of the Wall and turned to leave. “I should return to the tower. See to my children.”

His emotions were in turmoil, his head conflicting with his heart. He should let her go, yet he heard himself say, “I’ll escort you.”

They walked side by side to the winch cage, and though their cloaks brushed together with their steps, the distance between them otherwise felt insurmountable. Daenerys stepped into the cage first, then Jon followed her inside. As his brothers lowered them to the ground, Jon and Daenerys stood on opposite sides of the lift, as far away from the other as possible in such a confined space. Even then, he was painfully aware of her, only feet away. After fourteen years of separation, her presence felt more potent and tangible than ever. She was real, not just a figment of his imagination or a relic of his memory.

He closed his eyes, his mind flying back in time to those last precious moments with her, in his bed, before it all went to shit. Despite the arctic winds, a guilty flush crept up his neck as illicit images pushed to the forefront of his mind. He felt like a green boy all over again, the beginning stirrings of his arousal pressing against the placket of his trousers as his body betrayed him. Gods, he was depraved, to still want her this way. Shame at desiring a newly widowed woman helped douse his sudden lechery.

But the Wall was a lonely place, and he hadn’t lain with a woman since her. He knew he could have gone to Mole’s Town with his brothers at any time, relieved himself with any of the whores, but he took his vows too seriously for that. In all this time, he’d only ever had his hand for relief. Mercifully, the pervasive cold here helped act as a natural depressant for his libido.

Gritting his teeth, Jon hurriedly shoved the thoughts away, lest Daenerys notice his inopportune reaction. From his periphery, he saw her shift restlessly from foot to foot, folding her arms over her chest, impatient to reach the ground. And to get away from him, probably. He flexed his fist at his side and forced himself to take quiet, measured breaths, quelling the last remnants of his desire for her.

Finally, when the winch cage jerked to a stop, Jon yanked the iron door open and stepped aside for her. She gave him a curt nod before whisking past him. In her haste, her hood slid back, revealing more of her silver hair as she marched through Castle Black. More of his sworn brothers were up and about now, he realized, and many of them stopped to gawk at her, their eyes tracking her across the courtyard. It was hard not to take notice of her, such an arresting, peculiar sight on the Wall: a beautiful highborn woman with remarkable features.

Unnerved, Jon followed her, if only to ensure her safety on her trek to the King’s Tower. Daenerys seemed oblivious to the leering of his brothers, but Jon bristled when one called out to her in passing. A recruit most likely, young and wet behind the ears.

“There’s a pretty one, lads!” he hooted, earning the sniggers of his friends. Emboldened by their reaction, he kept after her. “Are you lost, m’lady? Lookin’ for a warm bed? I can show you to mine, if you want!”

Daenerys barely spared him a look of contempt before she jaunted up the stairs, leaving the courtyard. Behind her, Jon slowed to a stop at the top of the steps, watching her retreat to the King’s Tower. Once he knew she was safely inside, he turned back to the courtyard. Taking the stairs two at a time, Jon hit the ground and strode across the yard with a purpose. The recruit was laughing with his friends when Jon came up behind him.

“Wonder if her cunt’s silver, too. Bet I can get her to show me,” he jeered, but his friends choked back their laughter when they saw Jon, guiltily ducking their heads. The recruit pivoted on his heel at Jon’s approach and blanched at the menacing look on his face. Still, he jutted out his chin in defiance, his sword raised in a defensive gesture.

“What’s your name, boy?” Jon demanded.

“Barret,” he answered.

“You think it’s fun to threaten women, Barret?”

“I didn’t threaten her!” Barret insisted mulishly.

“No? You don’t think making a woman feel unsafe as she simply goes about her day is threatening?” At the boy’s petulant scowl, Jon nodded to the wooden shield on the ground. “Pick up your shield.”


Shrugging out of his cloak, Jon tossed it aside and grabbed a sparring sword from the nearby rack, then he turned back to the recruit. “Seems to me if you’ve got time to be harassing our guests, you’ve got time to be practicing your sword fighting. Unless you mean to tell me you’re already an expert swordsman.” Barret’s lower lip stuck out even farther, but he refused to answer. “Show me, then. Shield up.”

The other boys fell back, scurrying to the fringes of the courtyard. Pale-faced, Barret scrambled to pick up his shield as Jon fell into his fighting stance, the hilt gripped in both hands. Barret had barely lifted his shield and sword into place before Jon attacked. With a few simple swings of his blade, Jon had disarmed Barret of sword and shield, and knocked him flat on his arse into a puddle of mud.

Jon shook his head. “Perhaps a bit more practice is needed then. I suggest keeping your mouth shut, your head down, and your mind on your duties here.” As Barret clambered to his feet, Jon put the sparring sword back and threw his cloak over his shoulders, turning to leave. At the top of the stairs, he saw Benjen waiting for him.

When he passed his uncle, Benjen fell in step with him. “Picking fights with children now?”

“Maybe if Ser Alliser kept his recruits in line like he should, I wouldn’t have to,” Jon retorted. He knew the master-of-arms was six-and-sixty now, probably too old to be training anyone here how to fight, but he was what the Night’s Watch had.

Still, Jon couldn’t deny it felt good to knock the pompous lad around a bit. He looked about the same age Jon had been when he’d joined the Night’s Watch, maybe a year or so younger, yet Barret had far more arrogance and conceit than Jon had ever had on his side. “Some humbling will do him good. I recall you encouraging similar lessons for me when I first came to the Wall.”

“That’s because I knew you were one of our best swordsmen,” Benjen said. “And I'd been told watching you with sword in hand was quite a sight to behold.”

Jon frowned. “Who told you that?”

Benjen shrugged. “Ned did, at some point. Bragged about it, even. You and Robb were both excellent swordsmen. He was proud of that.”

Those wistful words made Jon’s blood run cold, and he came to an abrupt halt. Benjen turned around, meeting Jon’s hard glare. “Why would you tell me something like that?” he asked, the demand made hoarse by the tightening in his throat.

Benjen’s face fell. “I lost my brother, Jon. The last of my brothers. All my siblings are gone now. I’m sorry. I can’t hate him the way you do.”

Hate. Jon was momentarily stunned by the accusation. He didn’t hate Lord Stark. Did he? He’d never verbalized it, never acknowledged a hatred for the man. Over the years, he’d nurtured a growing resentment toward his late father. For rejecting him. For abandoning him. For being so weak as to lay with a woman not his wife and forcing Jon to bear that shame. And then punishing him for living up to the curse of his bastard nature.

But to hate his seemed wrong, somehow. Profane. Was that how Benjen perceived Jon’s feelings? Did he hate Ned Stark? For some reason, the realization rattled Jon. He didn’t have a ready denial for his uncle’s charge.

Benjen took a deep breath, and when he spoke again, his voice was conciliatory. “Let’s meet in the King’s Tower later tonight. After supper. There are some matters we need to discuss with Daenerys and Arya.” Benjen didn’t dare elaborate on those matters here, but when Jon peered closer, he saw then the dark shadows that bruised the hollows beneath his eyes, the worry lines that creased his brow like deep trenches. Somehow, his uncle looked older than he had the night before.

Still addled, Jon gave a nod. “I’ll be there.”

By midday, Jon was dead on his feet. His lack of sleep the last two days was catching up to him. He’d spent the rest of his morning patrolling the Wall, but once another ranger showed up to take over his post, Jon left to lunch in the common hall, hoping food would wake him up enough to get through the rest of the day.

As he walked through the courtyard, he overheard shouting from the armory. Gendry Waters, a blacksmith from King's Landing, had replaced Donal Noye in the forge after the latter had been elected Lord Commander. The dour-faced smith had been forced to take the black a few years ago, for a petty crime he was adamant he hadn't committed. He was normally even-keeled and kept his head down, turning out some of the finest swords Jon had ever seen. He was sure he'd never heard the smith so much as raise his voice before. Curious, Jon reversed course and headed toward the armory. As he neared, he caught the familiar dulcet tones of a woman’s voice. His stomach sank.

Inside, he found Gendry facing off with Arya, his face red and sweaty despite the northern chill. The armory was the only building in Castle Black that could be called comfortable, at least when the fires were raging.

“What’s going on here?” Jon demanded. Arya glanced at him over her shoulder then shrugged, folding her arms across her chest. Gendry turned to Jon.

“Is this your sister?” he growled. “She says she’s a Stark.”

“Aye, she’s got the right of it,” Jon said. Suddenly, he was on the defensive, his eyes narrowing at the blacksmith. “What’s the matter?”

Gendry huffed, mimicking Arya’s stance. “She’s a bloody know-it-all, that’s what. She comes bargin' into my forge like she owns the place and starts tellin' me what’s what, like she knows best. I’m not takin’ orders from a bloody highborn lady!”

Baffled, Jon cut his gaze to Arya, who scowled. “I wasn’t ordering him around! I simply suggested that when he’s holding his sword, he might consider standing sideface.”

“Sideface?” Jon repeated, clueless. Gendry snapped his fingers and pointed at him in agreement.


Arya rolled her eyes. “Sideways. It creates a smaller target for your enemy. It’s the Braavosi style of sword fighting.”

“We’re not in Braavos, m’lady,” Gendry retorted mockingly. She glowered at him.

“Don’t call me that!”

Jon held up his hands. “Enough. You two sound like squabbling children, you know that?” They both blushed. “Arya, what are you doing in here? I thought I told you to lay low while you’re here.”

“I came to see about getting my armor repaired,” she said stubbornly, pointing to a gash in her padded leather gambeson beneath her cloak. “When I walked in, he was practicing with one of the swords, and I commented on his form, that’s all.”

Embarrassed, Gendry pushed a shock of black hair off his damp forehead. “I was testin’ the weight of the blade.”

Jon ignored that. “What happened to your armor?” he asked.

“One of those Wildlings had a small dagger on him,” she said, as if it were of no concern. Jon sighed, but Gendry spoke before he could.

“You were attacked by Wildlings?”

“Not me. My good-sister and my niece were, but I took care of the men who’d tried to run off with them.”

Gendry looked astonished. “You fought Wildlings?”

Arya frowned at him, placing her hands on her hips. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

He shook his head, glancing at Jon then back at her. His expression eased into one of awe. “Nothin’. It's’re small.”

She bridled. “So? We’re all the same height once we're six feet under the ground.”

Gendry stared at her, any retort dying on his lips. Suddenly, Jon didn’t like the look in the blacksmith's eyes. He angled his body between them. “All right. Let’s get on with it. Gendry, can you fix her armor or not?”

Blowing out a breath, Gendry peered at Arya’s gambeson then gave a curt nod. “Looks simple enough. Shouldn’t take long.”

Pleased, Arya unhooked her cloak and began to shrug out of it. Gendry’s eyes widened, but Jon stilled her hand, alarmed. “Just...bring it back later,” he said through gritted teeth, shooting the blacksmith another gimlet-eyed glare. Red-faced, Gendry turned back to the fires to finish with his weapons. Jon guided Arya out of the armory.

“He’s got a bit of a temper, doesn’t he?” she mused once they were outside. Releasing her arm, Jon turned to her.

“Some men don’t like taking orders from women, especially not here on the Wall.”

Arya’s lip curled in distaste. “That’s stupid. Shouldn’t you take advice from someone who knows more than you do, no matter what's between their legs? I bet I could best him in a swordfight.”

“Probably,” Jon conceded. “But this is why I told you Castle Black’s not safe for you or Daenerys. Gendry’s stubborn as a mule, but he’s nice enough. Many of the others aren’t. They’re rapers and murderers, Arya.” He shook his head. “Look. I’ll send a steward to the tower later to take your armor to get fixed. Benjen and I will be by after supper. Do you think you can manage to stay out of trouble till then?”

Again, she responded with another roll of her eyes. Even so, the hint of a smile ghosted her lips. “I’ll try.”

As promised, after they’d supped in the common hall alongside a few other rangers, Jon and Benjen went to the King’s Tower. Earlier, they’d sent a steward with a tray of bean-and-bacon soup for the women and children to feast on for dinner.

When Arya welcomed them inside, Daenerys was seated on the couch, reading to Nymeria and Torrhen from a book Sam had lent them, the Jade Compendium, a collection of legends and myths from Essos; he’d thought the children might enjoy it, Arya told them in a hushed whisper. Nymeria and Torrhen looked on enthralled as Daenerys read, each snuggled up on either side of her.

Briefly, she glanced up at them, her eyes darting to Jon, but she didn’t pause in her reading until she finished the page. Very gently, she shut the book despite her children’s groans of disappointment. “What happens with the Maid-of-the-Light?” Nymeria demanded.

“We can read more later,” Daenerys promised, standing from the couch. “I think that story is too violent right before bedtime. And Aunt Arya and I need to speak to Uncle Benjen and—and Jon.” She looked to him then away again, chagrined. He held himself perfectly still and said nothing as she gestured for her children to get off the couch. “Let’s get you two to bed.”

Nymeria huffed, folding her arms over her chest. “I’m not tired. Why can’t we stay?”

“This is not a conversation for children.”

“I’m not a child!” Nymeria insisted. “Torrhen can go to bed.”

He looked affronted, even though he’d yawned not even a moment ago. “No! I want to stay, too!”

“Neither of you are staying,” Daenerys said firmly, then turned to Nymeria. “If you want to show me you’re grown up, then don’t act like a child, and do as I say.”

Nymeria scowled, but when her mother gingerly took her by the arm to bring her to her feet, she relented. But as Daenerys reached for Torrhen to take him in her arms, he refused to budge, flailing against her. “No! I don’t want to!” he protested. Determined, Daenerys wrapped her arms around his wriggling body and lifted him from the couch. He began to scream and cry, tears streaming down his cheeks as she carried him off into the room, Nymeria shuffling after her. The door shut behind them.

Jon and Benjen stood around awkwardly as the muffled sobs from the other room gradually quieted. Unperturbed, Arya flopped down on the couch and picked up the Jade Compendium to flip through while they waited. Finally, once all was quiet in the children’s chambers, Daenerys returned, red-faced and weary. Stiffly, she sat beside Arya, who patted her hand comfortingly.

“I’m sorry about that,” she said, avoiding eye contact with everyone. “Since...everything, I’m afraid they’ve been more temperamental than usual, and reluctant to leave my side. I think it’s been especially hard for Torrhen.”

“There’s no need to apologize,” Benjen said gently. He occupied the same bench he’d sat upon the night before, and Jon took a seat in a chair nearby, his cloak thrown over the back. This time, he told himself he would bite his tongue and listen to everything Benjen and the others had to say without interruption.

With minimal interruption, anyway.

Benjen cleared his throat. “As we told you, the Lord Commander has granted you a few days’ stay. I think now would be a good time to discuss your plans for what to do next.”

Daenerys blew out a breath. “And what should we do? Where should we go?” She spread her hands out helplessly. “Forgive me, I haven’t had much time to figure out what happens next. Or even where’s left for us to go.”

“Arya mentioned Essos, or east, as per Ned’s instructions. And I think, unfortunately, that’s your safest option,” Benjen said gravely. Jon braced his arms on his knees and clasped his hands together, managing to stay quiet. Daenerys pressed her lips into a tight, thin line. “We’ll provision you as much as we can. I’ve discussed this with the Lord Commander, and he’s agreed to spare some supplies and aid. We’ll escort you to Eastwatch. From there, you’ll find passage to Essos. There’s a ship that will take you to Braavos.”

“Braavos,” she echoed, her lip pulling back in a sneer. Seemingly amused by this, she huffed out a laugh but said no more.

Benjen continued. “I’ve arranged for Samwell Tarly to escort you and your children.”

Sam?” Jon blurted out, cutting his eyes to his uncle. “You can’t be serious.”

“Sam will travel with them on his way to Oldtown. As he never finished all his studies at the Citadel, this would be an ideal time to do so. The ship to the Citadel will stop in Braavos, and this way Sam can see that Daenerys and her children arrive in Braavos without trouble, before continuing on his way to Oldtown.”

Exasperated, Jon scrubbed a hand down his face. “What good does that do? You know he doesn’t know how to wield a sword. If it comes down to it, he can’t protect them.”

“But I can,” Arya interjected. “I’ve gotten them this far.”

Jon couldn’t argue with that, not after what he’d seen in Queenscrown. Still, Benjen’s plan didn’t sit right with him.

Daenerys shook her head in objection, shifting on the couch to face her good-sister. “Arya. I can’t ask you to leave Westeros for me.”

“You’re not asking me; I’m telling you. No way I’d let you and Nymeria and Torrhen go it alone with someone we hardly know and who apparently can’t even use a bleeding sword.”

Daenerys’ eyes filled suddenly. “But Winterfell is your home. You shouldn’t have to leave it. What about your mother? And Bran and Rickon? They might need you, too.”

Arya’s face clouded with doubt. Benjen looked between the two women, his jaw flexing as he considered his next words. Finally, he said, “Jon can go.”

Jon’s gaze snapped to his uncle’s face. “What?”

“If you want to go,” Benjen amended lightly. “You’re right. Sam’s not good at the sort of protection they might need. So I suggested to the Lord Commander you could travel with him to Oldtown to recruit for the Night’s Watch. That way you can escort them to Eastwatch, then you’ll be on the ship with them as far as Braavos.”

Jon stared at his uncle, unblinking. “ oath. I’m a ranger of the Night’s Watch. You said yourself I’m one of the best swordsmen here. And you want to send me off to recruit?” he sputtered, incredulous.

“Or you come right back,” Benjen said, holding up his hands. “I’d leave it up to you what you do.”

Unbidden, Jon’s eyes darted to Daenerys. Sitting rigidly, she had turned ashen and quickly averted her gaze when they made eye contact. Humiliated, Jon flushed at her implicit rejection of his accompanying her. “She doesn’t want me to go with her,” Jon said bluntly.

A blush darkened her pale cheeks, and she narrowed her eyes at him. “didn’t—” She bit off her words, however, and after drawing in a breath, she donned a practiced lady’s courtesy. “I am always grateful for anyone’s help,” she said, the words stilted and utterly meaningless.

He didn’t understand her apparent animosity toward him, not really, but he couldn’t be surprised by it. That she’d ever taken an interest in him when they were younger, when she’d been betrothed to someone like Robb—that had been the surprise. It’d always seemed too good to be true, and now he knew it had been. He had no doubt she regretted ever allowing him, a bastard, to touch her. Small wonder she had rushed immediately into Robb’s arms to marry him.

And he couldn’t blame her for that. Marrying a lord’s firstborn son was any girl’s dream, and a Stark of Winterfell at that. Who would ever want a bastard?

Jon bit his tongue, literally, willing himself not to get lost on the tide of his darkening thoughts. The truth couldn’t hurt him anymore, not when he’d long ago made peace with it.

“This isn’t about what anyone wants,” Benjen intervened. “We don’t have that luxury right now. I’m offering a way to get you all out of Westeros safely. Jon, you can go or don’t go. Either way, Sam’s agreed to travel with them as far as Braavos.”

Jon shook his head, his mind churning, struggling to be present in the conversation. “Sam’s a good guy. He’s smart, and he means well, but—he needs protecting more than he can do the protecting. It’s not a good plan.” He raked a hand through his hair, staring hard at the ground as he thought. Abruptly, he stood up and began to pace. “It’s not right. You shouldn’t have to go to Braavos. You and your children shouldn’t have to run, like you’re criminals.” He stopped and turned to Daenerys, an inexplicable indignation taking hold of him. “Piss on that. You’re a fucking Targaryen. Your ancestors built this kingdom, they built King’s Landing. It should be yours. Dragonstone is your family’s seat. You shouldn’t have to run from your home. You should stay and fight for what’s yours.”

Daenerys let out a brittle laugh. “Fight? How? And with whom? I am a criminal, at least according to the king, who wants me dead. I’m a woman on the run with two children. There’s a band of hired swords on the hunt for me as we speak. The Baratheons and the Lannisters turned an entire continent against me—against my family. The smallfolk hate the Targaryens. They would never support me or my rights to the throne, if I even wanted it.”

He clenched his jaw. “No, that’s not true. Not everyone hates House Targaryen. At least, no more than they hate the Baratheons. Or the Lannisters or the Starks or the Tyrells. They don’t care who’s in charge as long as there’s food on their tables. And your family wasn’t all bad. Our last maester was a Targaryen, and Aemon was the best man I ever knew,” he swore fiercely.

She stared at him, her eyes glistening. “If it were just me...or if I had the support…” She shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. Right now, all that matters are my children and keeping them safe. People have already died for me. For us. I won’t be the cause of any more bloodshed.”

He wanted to argue further but knew it was futile. He remembered her having more pride, more fire, than this, but he couldn’t blame her for wanting to protect her children, even if he thought she should stay and fight. And she was right; she had no support, no resources. How was a young woman supposed to take back the throne from a mad man like Joffrey and his army? Jon hadn’t a bloody clue.

At his silence, Daenerys turned to Benjen. “We’ll go. On the next ship out of Eastwatch.” Her throat constricted with a hard swallow, but she kept her voice steady. “We sail to Braavos.”

A sharp rap on his door in the middle of the night startled Jon from a surprisingly deep and dreamless sleep. Purely on instinct, he rolled out of bed, by now indifferent to the sting of the cold stones underfoot as he crossed the short distance to the door. It wasn’t the first time he’d been roused late at night, called to action by a fellow sworn brother against an unexpected Wildling attack.

When he swung the door open, his uncle greeted him from the other side, his face grim. Suddenly, Jon was alert. “What is it?” he asked, his thoughts immediately turning to Daenerys and Arya. Already, dread rose in his gullet.

Benjen shook his head to allay Jon’s worries, anticipating his thoughts. “They’re fine. Asleep, as far as I know.” He hesitated. “Get dressed. I need you to come with me.”

Jon stared at him, flummoxed. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” Contrary to his words, however, his voice was distressed. “It’s not urgent. We just...I want to talk with you. Away from here. I’ll be waiting in the stables when you’re ready.” He gave Jon a onceover, noting the threadbare tunic and long smallclothes he slept in. “Dress warmly.” With that final direction, Benjen turned and strode away. Jon watched his retreat until the chill of the outside became too much and, with a shudder, shut the door. Unsure what else to do, he pulled on his usual layers of clothes, finishing with his cloak and leather gloves.

Jon found his uncle in the stables, as he’d said. In silence, they saddled their horses and guided them toward the northern gate through the tunnel. At Benjen’s command, the two sleepy men manning the gate turned the cranks to lift it; they knew by now not to question the First Ranger. A blast of wind and snow hit Jon in the face, and he squinted against the blustery gale, urging his steed after his uncle.

Benjen led him north into the haunted forest, their destriers clopping steadily through snow that cracked like ice beneath their hooves. Jon huddled down in the fur collar of his cloak and tracked his uncle with wary eyes. They traveled half a league beyond the Wall in silence, deep into the dark crypt of the woods, the trees rising high overhead and blocking out the light of the moon. They only had the small flame of Benjen’s lantern to guide them, but he seemed to know where to go, as if he’d taken this path many times before.

They arrived at a small grove, a place Jon recognized instantly by the nine weirwood trees that formed a rough half-circle around the clearing: the makeshift godswood where he’d sworn his vows to the Night’s Watch. He hadn’t been back since—what did he have to pray for?—but it looked the same as it had then, from the ominous carved faces, sticky with dried sap, down to the blanket of blood-red leaves that covered the forest floor.

Benjen brought his horse to a stop just outside the clearing and climbed down. Watching him, Jon frowned, confused as to why he’d been taken to the godswood. “Why are we here?” he asked, keeping his voice hushed in deference to the sanctity of the grove.

For the first time since waking Jon, Benjen spoke. “There are some things I need to tell you, and I thought…” He looked to the heart trees, pensive. “I thought this would be the best place to do so. Come on.”

When Jon dismounted his destrier, his heavy boots sunk into the thick layer of snow. With an absent stroke of the horse’s mane, Jon followed his uncle into the clearing. He waited nearby as Benjen kneeled before the weirwoods and dipped his head in silent prayer.

After a moment, Benjen rose to his feet, dusting the snow from his knees and cloak. He turned to Jon then, his long face more grave than Jon had ever seen it. Another chill, this time independent of the cold, crawled up the back of Jon’s neck.

“Have you made a decision?” Benjen asked. “About going?”

Disarmed by the unexpected question, Jon took a moment to formulate a response. “I don’t know,” he answered truthfully. “My duty is here. To the Night’s Watch. Going to Oldtown would be a waste of a ranger.” And Daenerys can’t stand having me near her, he thought, and it’s too painful to be around her.

Benjen nodded, his eyes going soft. “Aye. It would be a waste. You’re my best ranger, Jon. The best sword fighter here. Better than me, perhaps. Only by a hair, though.” He flashed a small smile before his face sobered. “Even so, I think you should go. Help Daenerys get her children to safety.”

“Why do you want me to leave so badly?” Jon asked, bewildered by his uncle’s seeming insistence that he abandon his home of the last fourteen years, the only place he’d ever really belonged.

Expelling a harsh breath, Benjen pivoted away. “Gods help me,” he muttered to himself. “Ned, what did you want me to do?”

At his uncle’s invocation, Jon stiffened, clenching his fist at his side. “What does he have to do with this?”

Benjen scrubbed a hand down his face and turned back to Jon. “So much. There’s so much to tell you, Jon. So much you don’t know.” He let out an aggrieved laugh, his mouth twisting into an embittered smile. “Damn him. He would leave it to me.”

Jon’s heart pulsed in his ears as anxiety spiked in his bloodstream. He felt on guard, tensing as he did right before an encounter with the Wildlings. He didn’t dare move, finding it hard to catch his breath. “What?” he demanded. “Leave what to you?”

His uncle’s grey eyes, eyes so much like his own, like his dead father’s eyes, regarded him sadly. “When he—when Ned sent you to the Wall, he sent you knowing I would look after you. That I would help keep you safe.”

Jon didn’t want to hear it. He shook his head. “Don’t. Don’t try to rewrite it now. I know why I was sent here—”

Benjen spoke over him, “Aye, but there was so much more to it, Jon. After everything that happened, the Wall was the only place you could go, the safest place for you. It’s why he sent Daenerys here now. Don’t you see?”

Jon’s lip curled. “Safest? When we’re fighting every day for our lives against a hostile people who want to slaughter our men and rape our women?” He scoffed. “He sent me here as punishment for what I did and—” His voice cracked, and he swallowed. “Maybe it’s what I deserved, but don’t try to tell me he did it because he wanted to help me, or thought it was for my benefit. My own father chose his trueborn son over me, his bastard, his great shame.”

Benjen flinched. The last of Jon’s words hung heavy in the silence of the godswood, with only the soft caws of crows to break the tension. When Benjen lifted his gaze to Jon’s, he spoke quietly. “He wasn’t your father.”

Jon was sure he’d misheard. “What?”

“Ned wasn’t your father, Jon. He raised you as his own. To protect you. To keep you safe. But you’re not his son. And you’re not a bastard.”

Jon barked out a laugh, an involuntary reaction, but Benjen’s face remained grim. The sound died in Jon’s throat. “That’s a lie,” he accused. This was some cruel jape. Or maybe Jon wasn’t actually awake; he’d been asleep in his chambers this whole time, and Benjen had never come to wake him. This was only a bizarre dream, brought on by the stress of recent days. “I don’t believe you.”

“It’s not a lie, Jon. You being a bastard, Ned’s bastard—that was the lie. I swear it to you.”

Why was he doing this? Jon’s heart pounded, and every other sound faded away as he struggled to catch his breath. “Why?” he bit out, not sure what he was asking. Why would you lie? Why would you tell me this? Why would he do this?

“I told you. To keep you safe. The king...Robert would have killed you if he’d ever found out.”

Jon stared at Benjen, fighting to make sense of his words. “King Robert? I don’t…”

Benjen moved closer, carefully, like he was approaching a wounded animal. “You know about Robert’s Rebellion. What led to it all.”

“Of course,” Jon snapped, then recited impatiently, “Rhaegar Targaryen stole your sister Lyanna, Robert’s betrothed, and the Starks and the Baratheons went to war to get her back.”

Benjen nodded. “Aye. And my sister died.” He wavered, studying Jon. “But not before giving birth to a healthy baby boy.”

Jon’s vision swam, and he closed his eyes, shaking his head. “No,” he swore, but Benjen went on.

“Ned was too late to save her, but not to save her son.” He added softly, “To save you.” When Jon didn’t immediately reply, Benjen went on. “She made my brother promise he would protect you from Robert. With her dying breath, she begged him. Nothing else mattered to her but making sure you lived. And Ned honored her last wish, taking you North and claiming you as his own, despite the betrayal and shame it would bring his new bride. Because he loved Lyanna. And he loved you, Jon—”

Shut up,” he hissed out. “Don’t you say it.” Benjen obeyed, biting back the rest of his words.

Jon grabbed his head, sucking in shallow breaths. Lyanna Stark. All these years he’d wanted to know who his mother was. And now he knew. Except…He dropped his hands to his sides, fixing his gaze on his uncle. “Who’s my father then?”

Benjen met his eyes, apology and sorrow creasing his brow, and Jon realized he already knew the answer.

“Your real father was Rhaegar Targaryen,” Benjen replied. “He and Lyanna were in love. They ran off together, after he’d had his marriage to Elia Martell annulled. He and Lyanna were wed by the high septon. It was a lie that he had taken Lyanna against her will. Ned didn’t know at the time, before he found you both in a tower in Dorne. But I did. I knew what Lyanna had planned, how she’d felt about Robert and Rhaegar. I told no one. And she died. Because of my silence.”

An incredulous laugh slipped through Jon’s lips. “Is everyone in this family a fucking liar?” he asked. He curled both his fists, squeezing hard until his knuckles popped. “You’re telling me...My father...You’re telling me I’m…” A Targaryen. Something defiant surged up inside him, hard and fast. “No.”

With a pitying look, Benjen stepped toward him, reaching his hand out in a comforting gesture. “Jon—”

He knocked his uncle’s hand away. “No!” he roared, so loud he startled the ravens in the trees. They squawked in protest and scattered into the night sky. Benjen looked up at their shrieks, and Jon shoved him. “You lie!” His uncle stumbled backward, eyes widening in surprise.

“Don’t do this—”

Jon’s fist collided with Benjen’s jaw, snapping his head back. He didn’t stop, lunging at him, fists flying. Caught off guard, Benjen slipped in the snow but managed to keep his footing. Jon landed another blow to his cheek before Benjen got his hands up to block the other punches to his face. Wildly, Jon struck him in the chest, the stomach, the side, wherever he could reach, but it was useless, the thick layers of fur and leather dulling the force of his hits. Their loud grunts and curses sullied the solace of the godswood, and just beyond the grove, the horses whinnied in distress, pawing at the ground and stamping their hooves. The lantern tied to the saddle swayed, throwing shadows across the grove.

Jon swung his fist again, but Benjen ducked the blow then drove his shoulder into Jon’s stomach, knocking him backward off his feet. The two hit the ground. Even with the cushion of snow, the fall was hard enough to knock the wind from Jon’s lungs, leaving him momentarily dazed.

“Jon! Enough!” Benjen yelled, pinning him to the ground. Jon gasped for air and shook his head, dispelling the fog from his brain. Benjen had his arms trapped at his sides, so Jon rammed his forehead into his uncle’s nose. Blood spurted, and on reflex, Benjen released Jon to grab his face. With a mighty shove, he heaved Benjen off him and onto his back. Jon followed, rolling, scrambling to get on top of him, but Benjen threw a punch from below, hitting Jon’s chin so hard he drove his teeth into the fleshy inside of his lip. Blood filled his mouth, coating his tongue with a metallic tang, and he hissed out a breath of pain. Benjen hit him again, knocking him sideways onto the ground. This time, he rolled on top of Jon and wrapped his arms around him, locking his hands at Jon’s back and squeezing hard. “Stop!” he bellowed, even as Jon continued to struggle. His cheek was pressed to Jon’s, not giving him the leverage to head-butt him a second time.

“Fuck you,” Jon spit bloody spittle from his lips. “You lied to me! For thirty years!

He choked on a breath, tears clogging his throat, making it hard to suck down air. He tried to push Benjen away, but his uncle squeezed him tighter. “I know, Jon. I know,” he said, his own breaths ragged and clotted with sputum. The blood from his nose was hot and sticky where it dripped on Jon’s cheek.

Inexplicably, his rage left him in a rush, all his fight sapped as he fell still in Benjen’s embrace. Clenching his eyes shut, he took a shuddering breath and banged his head back on the hard, frozen ground. Then he released a low, guttural moan, disgorging with it all the hurt and anger he’d been forced to swallow his whole damn life. Somewhere in the distance, a wolf answered in kind.

Benjen held him. “I’m sorry. Gods have mercy, I’m so sorry, Jon,” he whispered.

They lay like that until Jon eventually fell quiet. He felt the wet chill of snow and ice seeping through his layers of clothes, soaking his hair. His body trembled uncontrollably. When he pushed on Benjen’s chest to sit up, his uncle cautiously released him, holding his arms to help him into a sitting position. Jon wiped at the the blood on his mouth. The blood from Benjen’s nose had crusted in his beard, and his cheek was already swelling.

“Who else knows?” Jon asked hoarsely, his voice hollow.

Benjen shook his head. “No one. No one still alive.”

“All this time...Why didn’t you tell me?” Jon asked, though his words lacked the heat of his previous fury.

“In the beginning, I didn’t think it was my place. Ned didn’t want anyone to know,” Benjen answered. “The less people who knew, the safer you were from Robert and those who would kill you. I was too ashamed, felt too responsible for Lyanna’s death…” Gingerly, Benjen rubbed his gloved hand down his beard, wiping away the blood. He stared at the red smears on the black leather, then looked away, off into the distance. “Once you were here, on the Wall...I don’t know. Perhaps there’s no good excuse. It was simply easier to continue on as things were. Would there ever have been a good time to tell you? To completely uproot your entire existence? I don’t know. As it was, you wouldn’t hear of anything I had to say about the Starks or Daenerys.”

Jon felt a jolt at her name, his stomach tightening. Yet another ghastly realization pierced the haze of his shock. “Daenerys.” She was his father—his true father’s sister. His aunt. He was too numb to be horrified by that, too numb to even know whether he should be horrified.

“She’s your family,” Benjen said, his voice solemn. He gripped Jon by his shoulders. “Do you understand now?”

He lifted his eyes to Benjen’s question. “But she doesn’t know,” Jon said. His uncle shook his head.

She and Jon both were Targaryens, then. Her children, too. Together, they were the last of their House. And she had no idea.

He released a harsh breath, suddenly aware of a dull throbbing in the back of his skull. He was exhausted, like he’d been emptied of everything and wrung dry. It was too much all at once. He didn’t know how to accept any of this, what to do with it now that he knew.

How was he supposed to tell her? He couldn’t. Not yet. He didn’t even know how to handle this; how could he expect her to deal with it, after everything else she’d been through already? For a brief moment, he thought he could understand his uncle’s secrecy all these years.

He looked to Benjen again. “You should have told me,” he rasped. “I deserved to know.”

Benjen nodded. “You did.” He smiled sadly. “I hope you’re never faced with the dilemma of having to hurt someone you love just to keep them safe, knowing they might hate you forever for it.”

“Safe,” Jon repeated flatly. His tongue touched the tender flesh of his lip, tasting blood again. “In the end, Lord Stark’s lies only got me put on the Wall. And you think that's keeping me safe?”

“Until now, it was,” Benjen said. He frowned then. “But I worry for you now, Jon. Somehow, the king found out about Daenerys. They could know about you, too. If his men come here looking for her and her children…Do you understand now, why I want you to go?”

Jon stared at his uncle, mulling over his words. He thought about the raven from King's Landing they'd received. Anyone found to be harboring or aiding a Targaryen traitor will be found guilty of treason and punished accordingly. King Joffrey wanted Daenerys and any living Targaryen dead desperately enough to send for sellswords from Essos to do the job. Because they were a threat to his rule, a potential contender for his throne.

But Jon didn't give a damn about the king or his men. Let them come for him if they wanted. At that moment, he was too tired to care, tired of the whole damn realm. Suddenly, more than anything, he wanted away from there, away from all the lies and the deceit. Time to think, time to process it all. To figure out what he wanted to do—and how to tell Daenerys.

After a long silence, he finally agreed. “I’ll go," he said. “I’ll make sure they get to Braavos.”

Chapter Text


“Are you ever going to tell me what happened between you and Uncle Benjen?”

Arya’s question jarred Jon from his reverie, drawing his gaze to his left. One skeptical brow arched in challenge, she studied him with shrewd, grey eyes. Lost in his thoughts as he’d been, he hadn’t noticed her sidling up beside him, her palfrey easily cantering alongside his sturdier destrier. They were on the march to Eastwatch, which was a two-day ride from Castle Black, only one if they didn’t stop to rest at all. But with two children—and Sam—they were forced to stop and make camp at night before continuing on their journey.

Eastwatch wasn’t much farther now, just a few leagues up ahead. The Wall loomed tall and impenetrable on their left. Benjen had determined traveling south of the Wall was the most prudent option, as they were less likely to be ambushed by wildlings. Still, there was the threat of the sellswords King Joffrey had sent after Daenerys and her children. How many were still alive after their battle with Lord Stark’s men remained unknown, but Jon knew they weren’t likely to stop until they’d gotten their commission—or, if he had his way, until they were dead in the ground.

Benjen led their motley troupe, with Sam’s horse trotting close at his side, allowing the maester to gab the First Ranger’s ear off. Daenerys and her children rode in the middle, Nymeria and Torrhen astride the same horse. The boy had ridden with Daenerys to start, too young and inexperienced in the saddle to command one of the larger horses from Castle Black by himself. Before they’d set off from their camp, Daenerys had coaxed her son onto his sister’s horse with the promise of two bedtime stories from the Jade Compendium their first night on the ship, once they were safely underway. Arya rode behind her good-sister, and Jon brought up the rear to watch for any danger from the west. He didn’t mind the task, as it gave him a chance to mull over everything he’d learned from Benjen.

A fat lot of good it did him, though. He couldn’t get his mind to focus, to pin down the facts and dissect them, coldly, analytically. He’d always been a bit too hotheated for that, anyway. Every time he tried, his choler would rise, threatening to drown him in his anger, and he would shut down before he could let his thoughts take it any further.

Ned Stark wasn’t his father. He’d lied to Jon his whole life. He’d led him to believe he was nothing more than an thrice-damned bastard—

His mother was Lyanna Stark. She’d died giving birth to him. He’d killed her—

His father was Rhaegar Targaryen. His sister was the only woman Jon had ever loved, the only woman he’d ever made love to—

Daenerys was his blood kin. And she had no bloody idea—

Jon gave a hard shake of his head before he could lose himself to the gloomy thoughts yet again.

“We had a disagreement, that’s all,” he said to Arya, his voice measured and flat. After their tussle in the godswood a few days ago, he and Benjen had returned to Castle Black, looking worse for the wear—Benjen more so than Jon, with his puffy eye and bruising from what Sam later determined to be a broken nose. Sam had to pack Benjen's nose to splint and realign the break, so now Benjen spoke as if congested with mucus. Jon’s lip had swollen fat for a couple days, and he kept inadvertently biting down on the mangled flesh of his lip every time he chewed his food. That’d been the only obvious indication he’d been involved in the fight at all—that, and his black mood.

“Wildlings?” the Lord Commander had asked with some alarm when he’d first seen them. “Just a fight between brothers,” Benjen had said easily enough, and all discussion on the matter had ceased. Arya had been less willing than the Lord Commander to drop the subject, but every time she demanded an answer, Benjen only waved off her concerns with a forced smile. After Benjen’s revelations, Jon had spent most of the time avoiding the others, taking out his frustrations in the fighting yard, until it was time to leave for Eastwatch. He’d hoped he could have avoided this conversation with Arya altogether, but he should have known she wouldn’t leave it alone. She was as stubborn as he’d remembered.

But how could he ever begin to tell her the truth, when he didn’t even fully understand it himself? It was still too raw, too delicate. All his memories of her—some of the only good memories he had left—were built on a lie, and telling her meant tearing his entire childhood out by the roots.

“That’s how you settle disagreements up here?” Arya said with some disdain, drawing his scowl her way.

“I seem to recall you settling your differences with me in a similar manner,” he reminded her, and she immediately turned chagrined.

“Seven hells, I already apologized for that,” she muttered, and he scoffed under his breath. Truthfully, he wasn’t sure his uncle deserved an apology. Benjen hadn’t acted as if he deserved one, either; since their fight, he’d given Jon wide berth, whether similarly avoiding him or just allowing him time to process everything.

With a sigh, Arya shook her head. “Remember when you used to pull me and Bran off each other in the middle of one of our scuffles? Or me and Sansa? You would reprimand us to use our words, not our fists.” She raised her eyebrows. “Is this who you are now, Jon?”

A sharp retort rose on his tongue, but his offense faded as quickly as it had flared. “I don’t know who I am anymore,” he answered honestly.

His rueful response troubled her, and they both fell into silence. From up ahead, Jon could hear Sam’s distant chatter, even all the way back in the rear. He had half a mind to tell the maester to shut it; he was like to draw the attention of a wandering raider or thief—or worse—blathering on as loud as he was. But, instead, Jon stared at the back of Daenerys’ head as her horse trotted ahead of him. Her hair was a silver rope down her cloaked back, swinging with the sway of her mount’s steps. Practical and simple. She no longer seemed to prefer the more intricate braids and styles she’d picked up in Dorne like she had when they’d been younger. Or perhaps with no handmaid to help her now, she couldn’t be bothered.

He found himself wondering about her everyday life before she’d absconded from Winterfell with her children. Before her husband had been killed. Had she gotten up every morning to bathe before letting her handmaids brush and style her hair? Would she break her fast with Robb in her chambers or his? Had they let their children crawl into bed with them on mornings when the duties of Winterfell didn’t immediately beckon? Had she been happy?

A foolish question, he knew. What woman wouldn’t be happy with her lord husband and a castle of their very own where their children could romp and play freely? He was glad of it—or so he tried to tell himself, despite the dull ache beneath his ribs. When he’d left Winterfell, that was all he had wanted for her. A safe and happy life, even if it wasn’t with him.

Arya changed the subject then, her voice falsely bright. “Did I show you my sword?” Jon averted his gaze from Daenerys right as she glanced over her shoulder. At his inquisitive look, Arya pulled the thin blade from the scabbard at her waist, deftly handling the reins of her horse in her other hand. The low-hanging sun glinted off the shiny steel. It looked new.

“Pretty,” Jon said.

“Gendry made it for me.”

At that, Jon sat upright in his saddle. “What do you mean, he made it for you? Our blacksmith at Castle Black?” he clarified, immediately suspicious.

“Yes,” she declared proudly. “He’s pretty good, isn’t he? Truthfully, he might even be better than Mikken. He said he had apprenticed under a blacksmith back in King’s Landing.”

“What the hell is he making you swords for?” Jon demanded. Arya shrugged.

“When I went in to get my armor, I asked him if he could hone the edge on my sword, too. It’d gotten a little bent after I’d stopped those wildlings. He took a look at it and told me he could do me one better and to come back before we left. When I did, he had a new blade ready for me.”

“That bloody fool,” Jon groused. “We’ve barely enough weapons at Castle Black as it is, and he’s just giving them away.”

“I think he’s smitten with her.” Daenerys’ voice was unexpected, and he jerked his head forward. Having overheard their conversation, she’d pulled her horse around and waited for them to catch up before she nudged her horse into step with theirs. She smiled faintly, looking to Arya. “And I think you’re a little smitten with him.”

Blushing, Arya scowled and sheathed her blade. “I am not. Don’t be absurd.”

This time, Daenerys laughed. Gods, Jon hadn’t heard that sound in ages. He felt ravenous for more, as if he were a starving man and her laugh the only sustenance for miles. “Oh, now I know you’re smitten with him! I haven’t seen you blush like that since you met my cousin Edric Dayne when you traveled with me to Starfall that one time,” Daenerys teased. Her eyes flitted to Jon, and she lowered her voice as if sharing a secret. Her eyes twinkled in amusement. “You should have seen her. She was like a besotted little girl. I’d never seen her act that way before.”

“I was not!” Arya exclaimed, offended, and Jon couldn’t help the smile that crossed his face. She huffed. “Anyway, I simply admire Gendry’s talents as a blacksmith.”

“You sure that’s all you admire?” Daenerys asked, her voice lilting as if in song. Her cheeks appled with a grin. “He’s quite comely, isn’t he? Even more so than Edric, wouldn’t you say?”

Jon’s smile slipped as a baffling stab of jealousy arrowed through his chest.

“Gendry’s a brother of the Night’s Watch,” he said, more sharply than he intended. “He took vows. Unbreakable vows.”

His meaning was clear, and the humor vanished from both Daenerys’ and Arya’s faces. Arya’s mouth merely eased into an unhappy pout, but Daenerys looked at him, a storm cloud darkening her violet eyes. “Yes, I’m aware,” she said coolly, jerking her chin forward and signaling the end of the conversation.

In the tense minutes that followed, Jon regretted his harsh words, already missing the jovial discussion, the easy banter. For a moment there, he’d forgotten his own troubles, his plaguing demons. He stifled a sigh. Others take him, was he doomed to always be this sour and glum? All his life, he’d assumed it was just his bastard nature, the taint of his father’s sin darkening his soul as well as his thoughts and moods. But perhaps it was just who he was, who he was always meant to be. Perhaps this was something he couldn’t blame Ned Stark for, after all.

He slowed his horse, letting Arya and Daenerys pull ahead of him so he was bringing up the rear once again. It was better to be alone, where he couldn’t hurt anyone, whether with his fists or his words.

As he rode in silence, Jon became cognizant of a sound in the distance. Gradually, it grew louder. Alerted, he turned his head to locate the source, pulling his destrier to a stop. Holding his breath, he strained his ears to listen intently.

Hoof beats, he realized a second later. And they were coming up fast. Behind him, from the west. He twisted in his saddle, tugging on the reins to sharply pivot his horse around for a better look.

There. Four, no, five riders, mounted on horses, racing toward them, a cloud of snow and mud flying up in their wake.

“Riders!” he called to alert the others, but when he looked over his shoulder he saw Benjen was already galloping down the length of their small caravan to pull up beside him. Arya had turned around as well.

Benjen squinted into the distant in an attempt to discern the riders as friend or foe, but Arya confirmed their worst fears. “It’s them! It’s the sellswords!”

Benjen cursed loudly, then instantly transformed into the First Ranger, yelling commands, giving orders. “Ride for Eastwatch. As hard as you can,” he told the others. Even with his broken nose, he sounded imposing. “It’s not much farther. You can make it. Jon and I will hold them off.”

Sam, Daenerys and Nymeria had stopped their horses and now sat wide-eyed and paralyzed, but Arya shook her head fiercely. “I’m staying. I can fight! You saw me!”

“No!” Benjen yelled, spittle flying from his lips. “You have to take them to Eastwatch. They need you in case riders cut them off from the front.” When Arya opened her mouth to protest again, he cut her off. “Damn it, Arya, I’m not letting my brother’s little girl die today! Go!”

Arya growled, struggling with his directive versus her impulse to stay and fight. Finally, she jerked her head in a nod and wheeled her horse around. “You heard him! Let’s go!” Lifting in her saddle, she barely touched her knees to her horse’s flanks before it was off, taking her into the lead. Her head swiveled over her shoulder. “Nymeria, with me!” Frightened but determined, Nymeria obeyed her aunt, and soon she was flying after Arya, Torrhen’s cries quieting as they disappeared up ahead. Frightened, Sam finally shook himself from his stupor and snapped the horse’s reins, taking off after the others.

Heart pounding, Jon unsheathed his sword and steadied his horse, ready to hold the line once the riders reached them. Benjen did the same.


Starting at the sound of his name, Jon looked over his shoulder. Daenerys had stayed behind, struggling to control her mount as the mare pawed at the ground in distress, shaking out her mane. She wanted to follow the others, but Daenerys held her back.

Jon was incredulous. “What are you still doing here?”

Pale-faced, she looked frantically between him and the approaching riders. Her eyes settled on him, the look in them desperate but otherwise indecipherable. She gave a jerky shake of her head as she struggled with her words. “Jon, I—don’t—”

He couldn’t bear to hear what followed, not right then. “Dany, go!” he yelled, momentarily forgetting himself, the long-ago endearment slipping only too easily off his tongue. “Now! Get to Eastwatch!”

She gave him one last conflicted look before she yanked hard on her mount’s reins to spin the mare around, then she was off, galloping after the others, her silver braid whipping behind her. She didn’t look back.

Jon turned his attention back to the riders, the thunder of their horses deafening as they drew near. Their features were more distinctive now, their attire not the typical wolf pelts and leather attire of the North. A burly, swarthy man led the pack.

“We can hold them off,” Benjen said, sitting tall on his horse at Jon’s right. He tightened his grip on his sword. “Give them enough time to get behind the Wall at Eastwatch. They’ll be safe then. We can at least do that.”

Jon nodded, dread and resolve curdling in his stomach. Two on five. The odds weren’t good. Jon understood: Benjen was resigning himself to likely death at the hands of these mercenary sellswords.

But they’d faced worse odds than this, out in the haunted forest, dozens of wildlings against the rangers’ more paltry forces. Wildlings were undisciplined and unscrupulous—probably not much different than a group of swords-for-hire.

No. He would not be cut down by a few dishonorable cravens who would hunt down defenseless women and children—his kin—for coin. Not today.

Gritting his teeth, Jon sneered as the Essosi swordsmen charged them. He didn’t lift his sword, seeing the men pull back on their mounts and bring them to a stop just out of reach of his or Benjen’s swords. The five men had swords at their hips and daggers at their ankles, Jon noted, but no one made a move for their weapons just yet. They’d left enough distance between them and their foes to spur their horses into action if, when, it came to battle.

“Are you lost, crows?” the stout man called out to them. Up close, Jon could see how hairy he was, like a grizzly bear. Even so, he was balding, as if all the hair had fled from his scalp to take up residence everywhere else on his body. Strangely enough, he had the look of a Northern man but was otherwise unfamiliar to Jon. The others were of varying ethnicities, skin ranging from olive-toned to golden brown, as if toasted and cured by the Essosi sun. They looked like they’d been in recent battle, still-healing cuts on their faces and bandages wrapped around limbs.

“Not as lost as you, sellsword swine,” Benjen answered. His voice was calm, an odd contrast to the harshness of his words.

The man glowered but cocked his head. “Just like your brother, I see. Insufferably sanctimonious, and soon to be just as dead, too.”

Benjen’s face ticked with barely leashed rage, and he narrowed his eyes at the man, recognition suddenly flickering across his face. “Jorah Mormont,” he snarled with some surprise. “I should have known it would be you. You never had much honor, did you?”

Jon tried to contain his own shock, peering closer at the man. Jorah Mormont of Bear Island. The deceased Lord Commander’s exiled son. Lord Stark had wanted his head for dealing in the flesh trade, but the knight had run before Stark could exact punishment for the heinous crime.

Benjen continued, “I suppose hunting down children isn’t too far removed from selling people, is it? It’s equally vile and befitting such a savage as yourself.”

Jorah’s scowl depened, his face turning ruddy with anger. “They’re not innocent. They’re Targaryens. Scum.”

“Scum would recognize scum,” Jon spoke, unable to keep the venom from his voice. Jorah turned his beady eyes on him, taking a moment to size him up.

“Ah. Ned Stark’s bastard son, is it? Of course. You look just like him.”

Jon’s lips started to curl back over his teeth in response before he pressed them together. He doesn’t know, then. “No. I’m not his bastard nor his son.”

Perplexed, Jorah stared at him before shrugging it off. “Doesn’t matter to me who you are. We have a job to do. I suggest you step aside, unless you want to me to run you through with my blade as I did your brother and the last men who stood in our way.”

“Is that why you took the job?” Benjen demanded. “Still upset that Ned dared to punish you for your crime?”

Jorah’s face darkened. “They were bloody poachers on my land. Hardly worth my own fucking head,” he growled, then he shook his head. “The king sent word to all the free companies in Essos. When I answered, he offered me a pardon should I bring him back the dragon spawn. Dead or alive. It’s nothing personal. But killing your prig of a brother was a sweet incidental, no doubt.”

“You’ll never have them,” Jon swore, tightening the reins around his fist. Tensed and ready. “And you’ll never set foot on Bear Island again.”

A powerful whinny rent the air as Benjen’s horse reared back then lunged forward into the group of sellswords. Jon followed Benjen’s lead, their sudden attack momentarily catching the sellswords off guard. Sword drawn, Jorah held his ground to await them, smarter than a couple of his men. One spurred his horse toward Benjen but couldn’t get his sword unsheathed fast enough, too late on the draw to block the swing of Benjen’s sword into his chest as Benjen flew between the two men. The sellsword screamed as he tumbled backward off his horse, but his armor dulled the cut of the blade. Benjen swung his sword to the other side, but the second sellsword managed to bring his sword up to deflect the blow, and Benjen rode past him to turn his horse around.

Jon steered his mount into the left flank, drawing the sellsword at the very end into combat. Steel squealed as their swords collided once and locked together. He snarled and pressed forward, the two horses stamping, circling close in a dance. With a grunt, Jon abruptly pushed off the sellsword’s blade, pulling his own weapon back. Before the man could strike, Jon slashed his sword down across his unprotected elbow joint, nearly severing it in half.

Blood spurted like a fountain. He shrieked, loosening his grip on the hilt. When Jon swung again, he knocked the blade out of his hand. It flipped through the air before clattering to the ground.


The bellow came only a second before the attack. Jon turned to see Jorah charging him and ducked backward just beyond the reach of his sword before it could take his head off, holding fast to the pommel of his saddle. The tip sliced his cheek, just missing his eye. It was so fast, so clean, Jon only felt a distant sting.

Driving his horse to the left, Jon quickly unhooked and discarded his cloak so he wouldn’t get caught in it. He swung one leg to the other side of the horse and dove off, rolling into a ball when he hit the ground, his sword out to the side. His horse sprinted away from the melee, and Jon jumped to his feet, spinning around just as another rider charged him. He twirled and ducked the blade, just barely, and brought his sword up at the last second, slicing the man’s hand off at the wrist.

The severed hand dropped to the ground, the sword still gripped in its disembodied fist. Before the horse could shoot past him, Jon grabbed the man’s boot and jerked hard. His foot caught in the stirrup, but Jon didn’t let go, jumping out of the way when both rider and mount crashed to the ground. Blood sprayed from the sellsword’s wrist, painting the snow-white ground red, and he screamed in agony, his leg crushed beneath the weight of his squirming horse.

Quickly, Jon drove his sword through the soft part of the sellsword’s exposed neck. His screams stopped with a wet gurgle. More blood gushed out, hot and dark, to soak the muddied snow. It steamed when it touched the air. Jon could taste it: sharp and coppery.

With a ragged breath, he yanked his sword free. The man made no other sound. The horse finally struggled to its feet, hauling itself off the rider, and took off, spooked. In the near distance, Jon saw Benjen still seated on his horse, fighting off another mounted sellsword.

Fire ignited in his right thigh, catching him by surprise. Jon glanced down to find a small dagger buried nearly to the hilt in the middle of his thigh. On reflex, he grabbed it and yanked it out, a hiss of pain susurrating through his teeth.

“Fuck,” he grunted and tossed the bloodied dagger aside. He looked up, wild-eyed and alert.

Astride his horse, Jorah charged him. Just before the beast could run him down, Jon pivoted. White-hot pain lanced through his thigh, and he cried out, dropping to his knees. Jorah jerked his horse back, pulling hard on the reins to spin around, then he charged Jon again.

Scrambling on his knees, Jon dove out of the way. He lost his sword as he rolled across the ground. When he staggered to his feet, his weapon was out of reach. Jorah had turned his horse around and was upon him once more. Defenseless, Jon braced for the blow. Instead, steel sang sweetly through the air as swords crashed together. Dropping his arms, Jon looked up. Benjen had rode to Jon’s defense, and now the pair fought, horses dancing together as each man swung and blocked.

They were too close together, Benjen crowding the sellsword so he couldn’t extend his arm for a decent attack. Frustrated, Jorah parried and knocked Benjen’s sword aside, far enough away he could release his horse’s reins and grab Benjen’s sword hand by the wrist. Then he jumped off his horse and tumbled Benjen to the side, the two hitting the ground with a heavy thud. They wrestled and rolled, grunted and cursed. Their horses stamped and chuffed, skittering away from the men.

Urgently, Jon hunted down his sword, finding it feet away. He made a grab for it, but another sword swung down, the edge of the blade just barely missing his finger tips. The force of the blow jarred the weapon from his hand, and Jon swung around. The sellsword whose arm he'd nearly taken off awkwardly gripped his weapon in his left hand, his right arm dangling at his side, soaked in blood. Lifting his sword, he lunged at Jon. It arced down over Jon's head, and with no other defense, he grabbed the blade with his hands.

The sharp edge of the blade bit through the leather of his gloves, but Jon tightened his grip then twisted around, bringing his back to the sellsword. With a hard yank, he jerked the sword forward. The sellsword stumbled into Jon’s back, struggling to wrench his weapon free.

Driving his heel back, Jon kicked the sellsword’s shin again and again until he had no choice but to release the weapon. Jon flung the sword aside then drove his elbow back into the man’s gut. His breath left him in a whoosh as he doubled over. Rearing his head back, Jon bashed him in the chin. Pain reverberated through his own skull.

The man barked something in a harsh, foreign tongue, but Jon didn’t have to know the words to understand the sentiment. Spinning around, Jon tackled him. Once he had him pinned, he raised his fist and hammered it into the man’s face, over and over, until his glove was slick. The man’s eyes were swollen shut, and blood poured from his nose and mouth.

A shout over his shoulder jolted Jon out of his savagery. Breathing hard, he turned around to find Benjen on one knee, his sword locked with Jorah’s, but he was bleeding heavily from a gash in his calf, the blood soaking the ground. His face was pale and damp with sweat, but he snarled at the sellsword, arms straining but holding.

One simple twist, and Jorah could free his blade, kick Benjen back, and drive his sword down his gullet. Jon’s gut tightened as he saw Jorah assess this, eyes calculating. He understood this a second after Jon did.

Diving for his sword again, Jon snatched it off the ground. He could no longer feel the wound in his leg, even as hot blood trickled down his thigh. More blood dripped down his face, weaving through his beard. Adrenaline surged, his heart pumping harder, faster. His trouser leg was soaked now. Gripping his sword in both hands, Jon charged the sellsword.

At the sudden movement, Jorah snapped his head to the side. Eyes widening, he reacted quickly, kicking Benjen in the chest to send him flying backward. But Jon was quicker. As Jorah turned, Jon was inside the sellsword’s reach before the brute could bring his blade up to block him.

With a primal roar, Jon thrust his sword forward, driving the tip through the man’s belly, encased in leather. Deeper still, through flesh and guts, then—nothing—the blade slipped out through his back, before the obstruction of innards and bones ground Jon to a halt.

Jorah made no sound as he stared down at Jon, eyes round and white with shock. The blood slowly drained from his face until he was pallid and sickly-looking.

“No,” he finally choked out in disbelief. They were so close together, Jon could smell his sour breath.

He wrenched his sword clockwise. Jorah let out a grunt, and dark-red blood trickled from the corner of his mouth. With one swift move, Jon yanked his sword free. The sellsword’s insides spilled forward, and when Jon stepped aside, Jorah dropped to his knees before collapsing face-down.

Jon stared at his lifeless body. At his side, a red blossom bloomed on the ground, its petals unfolding and turning brown as his blood seeped into a patch of frozen mud.

With a wince, Benjen clambered to his feet, grunting in pain. Jon dragged his gaze to his uncle. “You all right?” Benjen asked as he hobbled toward Jon, leaving a trail of red behind him. Benjen scrutinized his nephew for injuries, turning a critical eye on his face. Jon touched his cheek, reminded of his injury. The shallow cut bled more than he thought possible, trickling fresh blood down his face. He swiped at it uselessly and dipped his chin in answer.

“Aye. Only a few cuts.”

They surveyed the battlefield. One, two, three, four, five bodies. All dead. No—the rider Jon had beaten to a bloody pulp groaned faintly, still breathing. Benjen limped over to the body some feet away and slashed his sword across his throat to finish him off. Then he dropped his sword and knelt beside the man, stripping him of his armor to get to the tunic underneath. The dead man’s blood still ran warm, but Benjen tore the tunic free before it could stain.

Keeping his weight off his wounded leg, Benjen stood and ripped the tunic into long shreds. He handed Jon one of the strips and demonstrated by wrapping the cloth around his calf to staunch the flow of blood. Jon did the same for his thigh, gritting his teeth against the pain. With the rest of the scraps, Jon sopped up as much blood from his face as he could before tossing the dirty rag aside.

As if in unspoken agreement, both men turned their eyes to Jorah’s prostrate body. Shuffling forward, Benjen crouched down beside him and, with some effort, hefted the thick-muscled man onto his back. “He was always a beast of a man,” he grunted, gasping for breath.

As Jon moved closer, he could smell the stench of shit and piss. He’d killed enough wildlings to know the dead always released their bowels when the time came. Still, it made his stomach turn. Jorah’s front was soaked through with blood now, intestines strung from gut to ground, and his dim eyes stared unseeingly at the grey sky overhead. Standing to his full height, Benjen gazed at the dead sellsword. Then, with a sneer, he spat on him.

“That’s for my brother and my nephew,” he muttered. After a moment, he looked to Jon, and his rage softened. “Thank you, Jon. I’d be dead if not for you.”

“You’re my sworn brother,” he said with a listless shrug. He looked away, in the direction of Eastwatch. “Truthfully, I didn’t do it for you. Not really.”

Benjen nodded then blew out a breath, craning his head around. “Guess we should find where our horses got off to.”

Eventually, they tracked down their destriers some ways off, grazing in a grassy knoll alongside one of the sellswords’ horses. Jon had to shoulder some of Benjen's weight so he could walk that far. Mercifully, Jon and Benjen’s packs were still strapped to the backs of the horses. After tying the reins of the riderless horse to Benjen’s saddle, both men mounted their destriers, slowly and not entirely without complaint. The rag around Jon’s thigh had stained through with red, and he made another futile attempt to blot the blood from his face with his sleeve before they set off.

Once more, the sound of hoof beats brought them up short. They looked to each other in dread.

Unlike before, the riders didn’t come from the west; this time, a cavalry charged them from the east. As the riders neared, relief flooded Jon’s veins when he caught sight of the men’s telling black attire. Their brothers from Eastwatch had come—and Arya was leading the charge.

His little sister had brought reinforcements.

Eastwatch was severely undermanned, more so than Castle Black, but Cotter Pyke, the commander of Eastwatch, had enough rangers on hand to send to Jon and Benjen’s aid. The Night’s Watch might take no part in the political machinations and squabbles of the Seven Kingdoms, but an attack on sworn brothers was something they would not abide.

Arya, Nymeria and Daenerys had reached Eastwatch before Sam, but Cotter had rounded up his riders even before Sam could arrive to confirm their story. Anyone in the North, even those at the Wall, would recognize Lord Eddard Stark’s daughter on sight.

The men who’d ridden to Jon and Benjen’s rescue had been a bit bewildered to find them still alive and relatively unscathed—as well as the bodies of five dead sellswords. Some men stayed behind to strip anything of value from the men and bury the bodies—though the consensus among the brothers was that the hired mercenaries didn’t deserve the dignity of a proper burial—and Jon and Benjen went on to Eastwatch to be tended to by Sam and the Eastwatch maester, Harmune. Arya rode alongside them, begging for the details of the fight until Benjen finally indulged her. She was disappointed that she’d arrived too late to help, but her face shone with pride and dark satisfaction as she listened to their heroic feats.

The sun had set by the time they reached the castle, and they were immediately led to the maester’s quarters, where Arya told them the others waited. When Jon stepped inside, he sagged in the doorway, suddenly feeling weak. It’d been a long walk from the stables, and the adrenaline from the fight had left his muscles sore and his limbs stiff. The fight had drained everything from him.

Daenerys was huddled on the couch with her children, but at the sight of him, she shot to her feet with a gasp. “Jon!”

He took her in, his heart inexplicably leaping into his throat. It was then he realized he’d been certain, when he sent her on to Eastwatch, that he’d never see her again. He hadn’t truly thought he’d survive the fight.  

Judging by the disbelief on her face, she hadn’t thought he would either.

To his shock, her eyes watered. Her throat convulsed, and she pressed a hand to her mouth. He had to swallow against the lump in his own throat.

Mercifully, movement in the corner diverted his attention as Sam jumped out of his seat.

“You’re alive! I can’t believe it,” Sam blurted, then he backtracked, looking sheepish. “I mean, I can, of course I can. You and Benjen are our best rangers, after all. You’re so bloody quick.” Blushing, he looked to Daenerys. “Er. Pardons, my lady.”

She didn’t so much as acknowledge Sam’s apology with a glance, her wide-eyed gaze still fixed on Jon. Benjen cleared his throat from behind, reminding Jon he was holding them up. Releasing the door, Jon shuffled into the room to allow his uncle and Arya entry.

Barely alive,” Benjen corrected airily, collapsing into the chair Sam had vacated.

“You should have seen it,” Arya told the others, hopping up onto the edge of the maester’s table. In her voice was awe. “By the time I got there with the Night’s Watch, the sellswords were already dead. Five of them! Jon and Uncle Benjen had taken them out all by themselves.”

“They got in a few good hits of their own,” Benjen interjected.

“Maester Harmune went to grab some salves and supplies in the back,” Sam offered, wringing his wrists. “He can help with your injuries. We can help.” He cracked a nervous smile when Arya looked at him skeptically. “I’m much better with a sewing needle than a sword.”

“You’re bleeding,” Torrhen said to Jon, squirming off the couch to stand beside his mother. He pointed at Jon’s face.

Jon was exhausted and woozy, but he managed a tight smile. “Looks worse than it is.” He crossed to a bench and, with a grimace, sat down to stretch his leg out in front of him. The wound throbbed and ached. Grabbing a cloth off the table, Sam scurried over to Jon to gingerly pat at his face. The blood had clotted and dried finally, so Jon shooed him away, taking the cloth from him with muttered thanks. He tugged off his ruined gloves, the leather opened by the sellsword's blade. On each palm was the thinnest of cuts, pink and as aggravating as a paper cut. He winced as he clenched and unclenched his fists. 

Nymeria spoke up. “Did you kill them, then?”

She looked at Jon so hopefully that, despite his weariness, he felt his heart swell. For once, he'd done something Robb hadn't been able to do. Robb had died trying to protect his family, but Jon was the one who had finished it for good. No matter what he felt about Robb or Lord Stark now, he'd avenged their deaths, for Daenerys' and Arya's sakes. He could be proud of that, at least. “Aye,” he answered solemnly. “Those men can’t hurt you now.”

She fisted her hands in her lap, her eyes alight with vengeance. “Good.”

Jon lifted his eyes to Daenerys again. She watched him still, the disbelief giving way to amazement. She dropped her hand from her mouth and shook her head. “You came back,” she whispered, so quietly he almost didn’t hear her. Was she glad of it, then? Not trusting his voice, he merely nodded. She let out a quiet breath and composed herself, then reached down to take her son’s hand. “Thank you,” she said, holding Jon’s gaze a moment longer, before she turned to Benjen. “Thank you both.”

“Does this mean we still have to go to Essos?” Nymeria asked, looking to her mom imploringly. “Can’t we stay here now? Please tell me we don't have to leave our home.”

Uncertain, Daenerys turned to Benjen, but he shook his head ruefully. He looked as tired as Jon felt. “I wish it were that simple, but...I don’t think the king will give up that easily. Once he discovers that his hired men are dead…”

He trailed off, sparing Sam a wary glance. The maester pretended not to be listening, fussing over some scrolls and books on Harmune’s table. Sam hadn’t been told everything about their excursion, not the true reason as to why Daenerys and her children had to leave, but Jon could tell he was dying to ask. He expected Sam to corner him at some point during their voyage and wheedle him for answers.

Nymeria’s face fell, and she sank down into the couch. Daenerys sat beside her, pulling Torrhen with her. She wrapped her arms around her daughter’s and son’s shoulders and hugged them tightly, kissing the top of Nymeria’s head.

A moment later, Maester Harmune emerged from the back room juggling jars and fresh bandages, and all conversation about the sellswords ceased for the time being.

The ship to Braavos was ready to set sail on the morrow, giving them little time to rest or recover from battle. Harmune and Sam had stitched up what of Jon’s and Benjen’s wounds needed suturing then slathered them in salves and wrapped them in bandages before sending them on their way. It was still early when the two men made their way to the dock in fresh clothes, the dawning sun hidden by gray clouds, casting a dim, white pall over Eastwatch. This close to the sea, the air was even colder, a salty breeze glancing off the wall and bearing its icy chill throughout the castle.

Despite his limp, Benjen helped carried Jon’s packs to the ship to see him off. Jon also walked with a slight hitch in his step, mindful of tearing the stitches in his thigh. Daenerys and her children were already on the dock, Arya at her side to help coax them on board. Torrhen was red-eyed and wet-cheeked, reluctant to step foot onto the galley that would take him far from home. This was the first time sailing for any of them, Jon included, but Torrhen was the most daunted by the prospect of setting off across the Narrow Sea to a new continent. He clung to his aunt, who’d crouched down to hug him and stroke his auburn curls. Daenerys wiped at her own eyes as she watched them, and Nymeria’s chin quivered, though she put on a brave face.

The wind carried Arya’s voice to Jon and Benjen as she tried to galvanize the little boy into the voyage. “It’ll be fun, you’ll see. The next time I see you, you might just be a pirate. That’ll be fun, won’t it? You’ll have to show me all your treasures.”

Torrhen sniffled and let loose a watery giggle. "Maybe I'll have a peg leg and an eye patch when I see you next," he declared, suddenly more excited for the journey. Arya laughed.

"If you don't, I'll be disappointed."

Once she managed to pry Torrhen from around her neck, she handed him over to Daenerys, who took him into her arms. Arya then turned to Nymeria and hugged her. They spoke, too quiet to be overheard, but Nymeria nodded against her shoulder as Arya whispered in her ear. Jon slowed his step, giving them time to finish their farewells. He felt like an intruder on this intimate family moment.

When Jon and Benjen finally reached them on the dock, Arya and Nymeria parted. She turned to Jon as Nymeria stepped aside to grab her bag at Daenerys’ feet. Arya looked to Jon, her expression forlorn, and he crooked a stiff smile in return.

“Sure you don’t want to come?” he asked, partly in jest. Another part of him was desperate for her to get on the ship with them, to act as buffer between him and Daenerys for however long this journey took.

And because he would miss her, too. Sister or not.

She smiled but shook her head sadly. “I want to. But I need to get back to Winterfell. Back home. I need to make sure my family’s safe.” She glanced at her good-sister. “The rest of my family.” Her gaze went back to Jon. “I feel better knowing you’ll be with them now.”

Jon couldn’t look at Daenerys. “Aye. For a little while, at least.”

Arya blew out a breath then stepped toward him, wrapping him in a hug. Jon hesitated only briefly before he returned the embrace, resting his cheek on her head and squeezing her as tightly as she squeezed him.

“Keep them safe,” she whispered. He swallowed before offering a nod. “And keep yourself safe, too. Send me a raven at Winterfell when you reach Braavos, so that way I can rest easier. Otherwise, I’ll have to hunt you down. Again.”

“I will,” he agreed, and she finally let go, stepping back. Her eyes glistened, but she forced a grin.

“I’ll miss you, big brother.”

I’m not your brother. It was there, on the tip of his tongue, but he couldn’t say it. It was too cruel. And while he wasn’t her brother, not in truth—nor in practice for fourteen years now—he couldn’t think of her as anything but his sister, no matter that their blood said otherwise.

He returned her smile. “I’ll miss you, too. Little sister.”

With a teary scoff, she rolled her eyes and stepped away, lingering by the edge of the dock as Benjen crossed to Jon. He held out his pack to him. “I hope you don’t mind I took the liberty to pack a few extra provisions for you,” he began. Jon took the proffered pack and dipped his chin in thanks, unsure what to say. Despite their camaraderie on the battlefield the day before, Jon couldn’t set aside his resentment, not yet. He was angry, too, mostly at Lord Stark, but with the man dead, he had nowhere to direct it but at Benjen. Maybe it wasn’t fair, but Jon couldn’t help how he felt, not this soon, not with the wounds this fresh. There were too many lies and deceits to look past.

Even so, now that he was on the dock and ready to leave, he felt some reluctance. It wasn’t easy to leave his home and his sworn family of all his adult life.

Sensing Jon’s conflict, Benjen reached out and pulled him into an embrace. With one hand on the back of Jon’s head, he took him by the shoulder and pressed his forehead to his. Jon tensed but didn’t pull away, shutting his eyes against the unexpected prick of tears.

“I know you might hate me,” Benjen whispered fiercely so only Jon could hear. “But you’ll always be my blood. My nephew. My brother. That’s not something time or distance can change. I just hope someday you might be able to forgive me for the hurt I’ve caused you.”

Baffled, Jon opened his eyes to look at his uncle. His blue eyes shone with unshed tears and regret, and his words sounded final. “I’m coming back,” Jon protested.

Sam arrived on the dock then, his heavy tred disturbing the private moment between uncle and nephew. When Benjen pulled back, he let Jon go. “Aye,” he said after a moment, smiling sadly. “I expect you will.”

Chapter Text


Dany was exhausted. The kind of exhausted she felt down to her bones.

It was only their third day at sea, and between the relentless pounding of the waves on Blackbird's hull and Torrhen’s persistent sea sickness, she hadn’t slept much, if at all. She’d sat vigilant at his bunk in their shared, cramped cabin, holding him while he cried or rubbing his back as he retched into a bed pan (which she then had to find time to dump overboard during his brief, fretful naps). The cabin was acquiring a lingering odor of sick, and there was no porthole to let in fresh air.

Nymeria had taken to her own bunk as well, queasy from the rough seas. Her daughter had always been headstrong and self-reliant, even at Torrhen’s age, and Dany knew she was too stubborn to admit to being as ill as she felt. Even so, when Dany could spare a moment to climb up into her daughter’s bunk, Nymeria would curl up gratefully with her head in her lap as Dany applied a tepid, wet cloth to her forehead.

Often, Dany herself felt nauseated and unsteady traversing the narrow passageways in the belly of the ship, but she’d managed to keep down what little she could eat, at least. The maester from Castle Black, Samwell Tarly, wasn’t faring any better than them; every time she ventured above deck for fresh air, she saw him there, clinging to the rail, emptying his stomach overboard.

Even the ever-stoic Jon Snow looked green in the face any time she happened upon him, which wasn’t often, as she felt quite certain he was avoiding her. Or perhaps it was she who was avoiding him.

She didn’t know anymore. Looking upon his face, so familiar to her once—now tempered with time and a life so far removed from her own—was painful, for many reasons. And still she felt like a glutton for punishment, keen to see him, to know where he was at all times, how many steps away, how many doors between them.

She thought she’d quashed that obsession years ago, thought she’d finally disabused herself of those inconvenient and destructive sentiments. And yet, when she’d resigned herself to his death at those sellswords’ hands, she’d been sick with it. Scared and regretful, of a hundred-thousand different things, all left unresolved.

Namely: How could he? How could he deny their child and go on with his life like they’d never existed, like they’d never mattered?

How could he look her in the eye now, with no guilt or shame? It confounded her. It made her so incandescently angry, she could feel her rage like a low-simmering boil just beneath her skin. His indifference to them only confirmed what everyone had always told her, in so many words or in mere insinuations: Jon Snow was a hateful bastard, incapable of loving her, or anyone.

She’d finally accepted this truth. Yet…

He was here now. He’d risked his life to protect her and her children. She didn’t understand. Out of duty? No, that couldn’t be it. He’d refused his duty to his daughter fourteen years ago. Did he really put duty to the Night’s Watch, to the kingdom, above duty to his own family? Why had he agreed to sail with them, to see them safely to Braavos, if his duty to the Night’s Watch was more important?

She couldn’t make sense of it, no matter how many times she turned it over in her mind. Little wonder she couldn’t sleep, even when the seas temporarily stopped churning and the ship ceased its wallowing.

Now was one of those times, thankfully. Both Torrhen and Nymeria were tucked away in their separate bunks, asleep. Stiff-backed and uncomfortable, Dany sat on Torrhen’s bunk, hunched down in her seat so she wouldn’t knock her head on Nymeria’s bunk overhead, as she had a few times already. Torrhen slept beside her, his little fist tucked under his cheek.

Dany felt her eyes grow heavy and tried to push the troubling thoughts away. Years ago she’d sworn to herself she’d never allow Jon Snow to take up anymore space in her head. She’d succeeded then, mostly, but these days he was everywhere.


Dany’s eyes snapped open, and she looked to Torrhen. He shifted restlessly, his face creased in confusion as he blinked awake. Had she fallen asleep? She felt as disoriented as he looked. Instinctively, Dany smoothed his curls back from his forehead, drawing his gaze upward. His face fell when he saw her, tears welling in his eyes.

“I miss Father,” he moaned, squeezing his eyes shut. Two tears trickled out.

Dany’s heart broke. “I know,” she whispered, wiping his tears from his cheeks. “I know, my love. He loved you so much.”

“Why did he have to go? Why can’t he come back?”

Her throat convulsed, and it took her a moment to find the words. She’d already explained to him, as delicately as she could, what had happened to Robb, but she didn’t think Torrhen understood, not truly. He was only six, too young to fully grasp the permanence of death.

“He...he wanted to keep you and Nymeria safe. More than anything. He tried very hard to come back to you.” Her voice cracked, and she swallowed again. “But you have to be brave like your father now, Torrhen. Like he taught you. He wanted you to be as strong as he was. Can you do that for me?”

She’d barely had a moment to say goodbye to Robb before he’d rode off, armed to meet the sellswords alongside his father and their men. He’d hugged the children then her, but in that moment before he’d mounted his horse, he’d looked frantic. Despite his forced bravado, she saw the fear that lay underneath. “Daenerys—the boy—he’s soft. Too soft, I fear,” he’d told her urgently. “I haven’t had nearly enough time to teach him everything he needs to know. Don’t leave him unprotected. It’s up to you now.”

It didn’t register with her till later that he must have known then he would die. When he’d left, she’d been almost angry with him. But she’d been terrified, too. And more than anything, she’d been racked with guilt. It was her fault he was dead. Because of who she was, who their children were. Robb’d had no say in that. She felt as if she had betrayed him somehow, but she’d been lied to as well, about who she truly was. Should she have told him sooner, when she’d first found out? Did her deception, her safeguarding of her secret, get him killed? Would it have made any difference if he’d known sooner? Would he have cast her, and even Nymeria, aside? Would he still have ridden off to protect them?

She didn’t know. There were too many questions, too many ifs, and too many risks she’d been unwilling to take. Now she would never know for sure. Her husband was dead, and she had to live with that.

With a sniffle, Torrhen finally croaked out a quiet “yes” to her question. Dany stroked his hair until she eventually lulled him back to sleep. Perhaps to dream of his father some more.

She forced her eyes closed as well, willing herself to capture what little sleep she could. But now her thoughts were rolling like the oars of the rowers below, and her eyes kept opening against her will.

Frustrated, and aware of a growing, gnawing hunger in her belly, Dany checked one last time to make sure Torrhen was fast asleep before she carefully extracted herself from his bunk. With the ship as steady as it was ever going to be, she figured it was a good time to eat. She made a last-ditch effort to sort out her wrinkled gown and salt-frizzed hair before she left their cabin, heading for the mess. She passed men who ogled her openly, though thankfully none stopped to harangue her today. She and Nymeria were the only two females on the ship—another reason she was reluctant to leave her children’s sides. Nymeria was fierce but still unused to the harsh realities of men. Gods be good, she would never have to find out.

She hesitated in the doorway of the mess, taking in the packs of men sparsely strewn around the bolted-down tables and benches. In no time at all, her gaze landed on a familiar sight: Jon Snow, separate from everyone else, eating alone.

Her heart gave a queer twinge, a confusing wave of pity rising in her, but just as quickly, she stamped it out, making herself look away. Suddenly, she was angry with herself—for being weak, for succumbing to the same compassion that had ruined her all those years ago.

If he was alone, then it was his own doing. He only ever knew how to push people away.

Chin lifted high, Dany swept into the mess, but as she started for an empty table, a man stepped into her path. He was rather bulky for a sailor, probably a part of the rigging crew. His ash-blond hair was shaggy and stringy, and she could see glimpses of his shiny, sunburned scalp through the thin wisps on top. When she met his gaze, he smiled, revealing the gaps between his teeth.

Dany reached into her pocket, feeling for the dagger Arya had given her on the dock at Eastwatch. For protection, Arya had insisted as she pressed it into her hand. But Dany’s stomach sank when she came up empty. In her exhaustion, she’d forgotten to take it with her when she’d left the cabin. Others take her, she was going to be useless in Braavos.

As the man approached her, Dany quickly turned on her heel and crossed to where Jon sat. Better the devil she knew.

When she sat down across from him, Jon regarded her in surprise. Probably shocked by her initiative, as she had never actively sought him out ever since he’d first found them at Queenscrown. Since boarding Blackbird, they hadn’t interacted much, though the few times she crossed paths with him, she got the strange feeling he wished to say something to her. Whatever it was, however, he always thought better of it and retreated.

The shock in his eyes dimmed when he caught sight of the man who’d sent her running to him. Disappointment crossed his face, briefly, before ice shuttered his expression and fire flared coal-black in his eyes.

“Were you wanting to join us?” Jon called out. While his words were friendly, the flat tone of his voice was a warning. He stared the man down, idly smoothing his thumb over the handle of his eating knife. “There’s plenty of room.”

Dany glanced over her shoulder. With a sour expression, the man had turned and was stalking away. She blew out a quiet breath and turned back to Jon. The cut on his cheek was still red and angry, shiny with whatever salve he’d been instructed to put on it daily. Her gratitude stuck in her throat, and it took her a moment to give voice to it. “Thank you.”

He nodded, his face losing its edge. “I’m sorry you can’t walk around unmolested. Not at the Wall. Not even at sea.”

Her mouth twisted bitterly. “Nowhere in Westeros, it would seem.”

“You must miss Winterfell. At least, you were safe there,” he said, surprising her. He seemed to think better of it and added, “For a while, anyway.”

She stared at him, her eyes going dry the longer she didn’t blink. Safe. She wanted to laugh out loud, a strange bubble of hysteria rising in her chest. He must have seen something in her face because he seemed to shrink into his seat.

Perhaps she had been safe—as safe as a bird in a cage. Since the age of ten, Winterfell had been her home, but after her return from Starfall, it had felt more like her prison. She’d been the dutiful wife, mother and daughter, just as the Starks and the Daynes had expected of her. It’d been hell in the beginning, and only her daughter had made it bearable. She’d felt so alone then, isolated from her foster-family and her new husband. No one had understood her loneliness, her despair, how deep it ran. They’d expected her to be grateful, she supposed, for protecting her and her bastard daughter. But she’d felt their hostility and judgment all the same, from the few who knew the truth. Catelyn had never warmed to Nymeria; she’d treated her much the same way she’d treated Jon, the wayward bastard who’d been a blight on her home, except now it was Dany and her child who stained her son’s honor. Ned had readily welcomed Nymeria into his family; he’d loved her, Dany knew, but the moment they had returned to Winterfell with Robb, he’d never quite been able to look her in the eye again, as if the shame of Dany’s transgression was too great. At least, the Stark children, ignorant of the scandal, had happily accepted Nymeria as their trueborn niece.

Earning Arya’s friendship again had not been easy. Her good-sister had been distant and resentful, refusing to speak to Dany upon her return. Arya’s loyalty had always been to Jon, and for a long time she held Dany responsible for his banishment. Dany didn’t blame her, but Arya’s rebuke had cut deep, especially at a time when she’d felt most raw and vulnerable.

Jon had been a painful wedge between them for years. Gradually, however, as Nymeria grew older, Arya and Dany made amends and became close once again. Early on, Arya had taken to her niece, secretly pleased to have had a hand in naming her; she’d been determined that Nymeria live up to her namesake. Too afraid to upset their rekindled kinship, Dany never told Arya the truth about Nymeria's father. And as if by some unspoken agreement, the two of them never spoke of Jon to each other.

No one did, not to Dany, in any case. If it hadn’t been for Nymeria, it would have been as if Jon had never existed. Robb had been more than happy to put him behind them, to assume the mantle of the newly wed Lord and Lady Stark. True to his word, he’d raised Nymeria as his own. She knew it hadn’t been easy for him. Although he’d never said as much, she’d always sensed his resentment of her, especially the longer she’d refused him his husbandly rights.

It was years before she finally lay with him, the guilt at denying him his own heir eventually wearing her down. That first time had resulted in a miscarriage, and she’d had two more failed pregnancies after that. Before she eventually conceived Torrhen, she used to wondered if Robb blamed her, as if the gods had cursed her for giving Jon something that should have been Robb’s by rights.

But with Torrhen, he finally had his heir, and Dany no longer felt like the defective, derelict wife. Robb had been happy. Even Catelyn had doted on her grandson, the fruit of her firstborn son’s loins. Her children were safe, and once more Dany had carved out a space for herself within the Stark family. She had grown content with her life in Winterfell, at least. People learned to love their chains, after all.

Of course, that facade had come crashing down years later once she learned the truth from Ashara.

Shaking her head, Dany swallowed the long-buried resentment that threatened to choke her now. Still, she couldn’t keep the bitterness from creeping into her reply. “I suppose I was safe, yes. But I learned a long time ago that safety is a double-edged sword.”

Her answer perplexed Jon, but she had no interest in continuing the conversation with him. She was too tired, too agitated. And, frankly, too hungry. Before he could speak, she said, “Excuse me. I’ve had very little to eat. I thought I could enjoy a meal before my children wake again.”

She started to stand, but Jon pushed his unfinished plate across the table to her. “Eat, then.” She looked from him to the plate. It consisted of salt beef, hardtack and suet pudding, of which he’d only taken a few bites. At her questioning look, he nodded his chin at the plate. “Go on.”

“I don’t want to take your food,” she protested.

“I’m not very hungry. I can get something later.”

Dany peered at him, trying to suss out his intentions, but he was as unreadable as ever. In her exhausted confusion, she grew flustered. Don’t do this to me. Don’t be kind now. More than anything, I can’t handle the duplicity.

She reached out for the plate and jerked it closer. She would eat the food and leave, she decided. And then pray for merciless sleep. “Thank you,” she murmured. Refusing to ask for his utensils, she started with the biscuit, biting into it. Her teeth felt like they might break in half. Until now, she never thought she’d miss the bland food of Winterfell.

They sat in painful silence, the din of bawdy conversation echoing through the mess making the awkwardness between them more acute. She missed Arya right then, not least of which for the expert way she could handle her brother, even after so many years apart. How quickly the two of them had buried their animosity! In a way, Dany envied her that.

Then again, Arya didn’t know the true depths of Jon’s betrayal.

Through her lashes, Dany watched Jon shift uncomfortably in his chair, his ungloved hands flexing and unflexing on the table. He cleared his throat, distracting her from her single-minded gnashing of the hard biscuit. “How are your children faring? Sailing for the first time?”

She set the biscuit down and grabbed the piece of salt beef. Suddenly, she didn’t care how improper it was, eating with her hands in front of a man. He was no lord, no longer her noble brethren. Just a brother of the Night’s Watch. “Not well,” she muttered, ripping off a chunk of meat. “Torrhen has been ill since the moment we set off.”

Jon nodded, as if he suspected as much. She put the beef in her mouth and chewed. It was almost as hard as the bread, but at least it had more flavor. “Sam gets it bad, too. The seasickness,” Jon mused as she ripped off more bites of the beef. “But he said he learned from his last voyage to the Citadel and has come up with some concoction to help settle the stomach. I’m sure he’d be more than willing to share it with you, if you want to see if it helps your son.”

While she had her doubts, Dany was willing to try anything at this point. She would dance naked on the prow of the ship if she thought it would help her son—and if she didn’t suspect the captain would have her thrown overboard for inviting the wrath of the gods. She’d heard of the outlandish superstitions regarding women on ships. Heard the grumblings from the crew whenever she would walk by, too.

She waited until she’d finished eating the slab of beef before she replied. “I’ll go see him now. Is he in your cabin?”

“Aye. I’ll take you,” Jon said, standing from the table. Dany hesitated, wanting to dismiss his assistance, but he’d already taken the plate from her to clear the table. She was still seated by the time he returned, waiting for her to join him. With a resigned sigh, Dany stood from the table and smoothed down the skirt of her gown before she turned to walk with him. At least, with Jon at her side, she didn’t have to worry about the leers from the other men. Dressed as he was in his black attire, and with his unwelcoming scowl now accented by a nasty scar, he could scare off even the most hardened sailor.

Outside the mess, Dany realized that in her haste Jon had fallen behind. She looked over her shoulder and came to an abrupt halt when she saw how he limped, just barely, taking care with his leg. Of course. His freshly sutured wound. She felt awash with guilt.

“How is your leg?” she asked quietly, mustering her courtesies. His dark eyes snapped to hers in surprise, but he shook his head, shrugging off her concern. He picked up his pace, and in turn she was forced to keep up with him as they made their way to the cabin Jon and Samwell shared.

“It’s fine,” he said gruffly. Liar, she thought, noticing even in the dimness of the lamps lining the passageway the grimace on his face. He’d never been particularly good at deceiving her, his words too plain and devoid of artifice—or so she used to think. She’d spent the past fourteen years gradually realizing he was more false than she’d ever realized, that he’d duped her in a way she never could have suspected.

Except now, looking upon him, she got the same impression she had when they’d been children: Jon Snow was simply not a good liar.

Perplexed, she tried to shake off the disquieting contradiction. “I suppose it’s fortuitous you’re sharing a cabin with a maester,” she said absently, still lost in her thoughts.

When he looked at her askance, the ship swayed suddenly, and they both stumbled in the narrow passageway, hands flying out to brace themselves on the wall. Her thumb grazed his bare little finger, and they both jerked away at the same time, continuing on as if nothing had happened. Her cheeks burned, but she ignored it.

Jon huffed out a breath, keeping his eyes ahead. “Fortuitous. You wouldn’t think that if you had to smell our cabin.”

She pressed her lips together to stop an amused smile, reluctant to give it to him. “I’m not sure I should trust this remedy of his after all.”

He threw her a look over his shoulder, disturbing her with how familiarly droll it was. It was a look she remembered well from their youth, like they were both in on a secret. “Compared to that first night, believe me, there’s been a marked improvement.”

At his cabin, Jon rapped his knuckles on the door before he pushed it open. Patiently, Dany waited off to the side, in case the maester was feeling too vulnerable for visitors. With the door cracked, she could hear Jon from inside. “Sam—seven hells, Sam, put a shirt on.”

“Oh! Jon. I’m just trying to wash it right now. I got a bit of sick on it.”

“Well, Daenerys is outside. I told her you might be able to spare some of your tonic for her son. He’s seasick.”

Sam squeaked and sputtered, then Dany heard the rustling of clothing and uttered curses. Hushed whispers followed, but they were too quiet for her to discern the words.

A moment later, the door swung wide open, and Sam appeared, thankfully dressed. His pale face was covered in a light sheen, hair damp and disheveled, but he smiled shyly at her. There was a dark stain down the front of his tunic. Only water, she hoped. Not that she was like to blink an eye at anything more foul these days. Jon stood behind him, observing silently. “H-hullo, Lady Daenerys. Jon says your son is ill with the seasickness, too.”

She returned his smile with a polite one of her own. She liked Sam, as skittish and timid as he was. He was kind, genuinely so. She could use more of that these days. “Yes. It’s his first time sailing. I imagine he won’t be too keen on a second voyage after this.” Not that she imagined they could ever return to Westeros...

Pink-cheeked, Sam held out a small glass vial to her. “Here’s a bit of a tincture I came up with on my last trip to Oldtown. It helps me.” He looked sheepish. “Some, anyway. It’s got ginger root, licorice root, mint. Doesn’t taste too great, but it should help settle your son’s stomach, at least.”

Gingerly, Dany accepted the vial from him, slipping it into a pocket on her gown. “Thank you so much, Maester Tarly.”

“Oh! Samwell is fine. I mean, just Sam. Thank you, my lady.” He blushed. “I mean, you’re welcome, my lady.”

“I’m going to see her back to her cabin.” Jon set his hand on Sam’s shoulder and squeezed, then shifted him slightly to the side so he could pass him. Dany took a step back as he suddenly loomed in the doorway of his cabin, his proximity overwhelming her.

“I hope it helps!” Sam called after them as they continued on to her cabin. They didn’t get far before Dany spotted a familiar figure in the cramped passageway ahead of them, her silver hair down and unbound. Dany gasped and darted past Jon.

“Nymeria!” she scolded as she ran to her. Startled, Nymeria drew to a stop and waited for Dany to reach her. “You know you’re not supposed to leave the cabin without me! I told you it’s too dangerous to walk around on this ship alone!”

Flinching at the reprimand, Nymeria folded her arms across her chest and pulled her cloak around her. Beneath, Dany could see the dirtied end of her sheath grazing the tops of her bare feet. Her daughter’s violet eyes watered. “I know, but when I awoke, I couldn’t find you. And Torrhen was crying again.”

Dany’s heart sank, guilt curdling in her gut, and she hugged Nymeria to her breast. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be gone long. I just needed something to eat. I’m so sorry,” she whispered. “Let’s get back to the cabin.”

Nymeria squirmed out of her embrace, her gaze moving over Dany’s shoulder. Dany turned to see Jon lingering a few steps away, uneasily resting his weight on his good leg. He avoided her eyes. Farther down the passageway, a couple men emerged from the mess, drunk on ale and singing loudly as they stumbled into each other. “I’ll escort you both back. To be safe,” Jon told them.

Assenting to his offer, Dany took her daughter’s hand and marched them quickly back to their cabin, eager to reach Torrhen and get away from Jon. She was suddenly irritated with herself; she’d wasted too much time talking with him, leaving her children unattended for too long. She’d always made poor decisions where he was concerned.

As they got closer, she could hear Torrhen’s wails and hastened her step, practically dragging Nymeria behind her.

Her daughter huffed. “Mother,” she pleaded. “Can I go above deck? I’m tired of being in the cabin. I want to see if there are any dolphins.”

“Later. Perhaps,” Dany told her, distracted.

“There are no dolphins in the Bay of Seals,” Jon said plainly. Nymeria’s face registered her disappointment, and Dany shot Jon a quelling look as they reached their cabin door. Chastened, he scratched at his beard. “Ah. But you might see a seal or two. Maybe a whale. I can take her above, if you’d like. If you’d like to rest, I mean. She’d be safe with me.”

“Yes!” Nymeria said excitedly, just as Dany snapped, “No!”

Both Jon and Nymeria looked surprised by her vehemence. Pink colored Dany’s cheeks, and she grappled with the doorknob. Suddenly, she felt mildly delirious, her mind pulled taut like a frayed piece of rope. “I—I just—I mean, another time, maybe. I need to check on Torrhen. Please.”

Eyes clouding over, Jon’s mouth pinched shut, but he gave a perfunctory nod. “Of course.”

Oh, damn him for making her feel guilty! “Thank you,” she said tightly, not looking back as she threw the door open to be greeted by her son’s cries. Dragging Nymeria in behind her, she shut the door and threw the lock, her body nearly sagging against it.

She only had a fleeting moment to collect herself, then she pushed off the door and went to soothe her distraught son and now sullen daughter.

Samwell’s elixir had been a gift from the gods—for a little while, at least. Getting out of the Bay of Seals and navigating the treacherous seas around Skagos had been made mildly more tolerable with the medicine. Torrhen’s and Nymeria’s seasickness had abated for the six days it took to reach the Narrow Sea, and Dany finally took them above deck to enjoy the scenery before it was only the endless open sea stretching in all directions.

After her abrupt rejection that day outside her cabin, Jon didn’t again offer to take Nymeria to see the seals or whales. At least, he’d surmised how inappropriate that would have been. Still, Dany felt contrite, so she pointed out to her children’s curious eyes what she guessed to be seals weaving through the cerulean waters in Blackbird's wake. Unfortunately, she’d never seen a seal in her life; for all she knew, they were merely hefty-sized fish.

“Look!” Torrhen, whose eyes were considerably brighter these days despite the dark circles underneath, pointed across the water. He had to stand on tip-toe to see over the rail. “A pirate ship!”

Alarmed, Dany lifted her gaze from the water below, scanning the horizon. In the distance was the hazy outline of Skagos. Indeed, on its southernmost shores lay the wreckage of another galley ship. Her stomach turned over when she spotted what looked to be bodies, long washed ashore and ravaged by time—and predators.

Nymeria gasped. “Are they—”

But Dany grabbed her and Torrhen’s hands, pulling them away from the gruesome sight. “I think we should go to the mess as it’s almost time for supper.”

Torrhen, amazingly defiant for a boy who’d had his mouth and arse wiped diligently by his mother for the first three days of their voyage, wriggled in her grasp. “But I promised Aunt Arya I’d be a pirate the next time I saw her!”

Dany cut him an amused look. “And what, you want me to toss you overboard to swim about the wreckage so you can look for gold?”

Nymeria snort-giggled. “Torrhen can’t even swim!”

His mouth twisted into an angry pout, face growing red. When he attempted to kick his sister, Dany jerked him back by his hand, exasperated. “Enough, both of you. Torrhen, you’ll never be a pirate if you react to every provocation. I think even pirates have the chivalry not to kick their sisters.” Doubtful, actually, as in every story she’d ever read about pirates, abduction and rape featured prominently.

“She started it!” Torrhen protested.

“And I’m finishing it,” Dany said firmly, glad for the shouts of the rigging crew that punctuated the end of her threat, preventing her son from raising another objection. For good measure, Dany added, “If you still expect a bedtime story tonight, then I advise you to be quiet. Both of you.” To her credit, Nymeria smothered her self-satisfied smile, feigning a look of contrition, but Torrhen scowled all the way to the companionway.

They had almost exhausted all the stories in the Jade Compendium, but Sam had assured her he had packed many more books for her children’s enjoyment. For his, mainly, as he hated to leave any of his treasured texts behind, but he’d also confessed that reading while at sea tended to make him sicker, so he wouldn’t be able to take comfort in them while underway.

Dany wished he’d had some tomes on the Targaryens—something before they’d conquered Westeros would suffice—but Sam’s collection was sorely bereft of Targaryen lore. Of course, she’d grown up knowing the basics, as everyone in Westeros did, but upon learning of her identity, she’d been recalcitrant at the start, as was her way, staunchly resistant to the truth. Even after she’d accepted it, she’d been too scared to delve deeper, to fully embrace who she was. She’d told herself it was for her children’s sake, knowing just how precarious, how dangerous, a situation they were in. Yet, she had a feeling that the fear ran deeper than that.

At the bottom of the companionway, they crossed paths with Jon and Sam in the passageway, who were also on their way to the mess. Although it should have been expected by this point, the sight of Jon still unsettled her. There was a surreal quality about him, as if he were just a dream, or a ghost that lingered in her memories.

Except the ghost of her memories was a boy, really. At six-and-ten, he’d technically been a man grown, but this Jon Snow was a grown man. It was at Castle Black when she’d first noticed he’d climbed a couple inches in height since she’d seen him last; now she had to tilt her head back to meet his eye. His hair hadn’t changed much, still the same loose, raven curls they’d been when he was younger—but a bit longer now, perhaps, shaggier. His beard was thicker, not the sparse, more feathered covering of his youth. It defined his full, red lips—a mouth she had known well at one point, and now desperately wished she could forget.

Even leaving aside her resentment, it was still hard to look at him sometimes—because, unbidden, a specter of their previous time together would slip between them, and she would be filled with a familiar warmth, and a new kind of horror: He’d known her intimately once—her body, her taste. And she had known his body just as intimately.

But she could tell even that was different, shrouded as it was by his oppressively black clothing, his leather armor and heavy furs. He carried the physique of a man honed by years of battle and hard labor on the Wall.

Dany had also changed; her body bore the marks of a different kind of labor, having had two children as well as the premature loss of others still in the womb. Carrying Torrhen had been difficult and giving birth to him had almost killed her. She wore those hardships proudly, however; she wasn’t ashamed. Yet, she couldn’t help but wonder what Jon saw when he looked upon her now, how the woman before him compared to the youthful girl of his memory.

Not that she cared, of course. Even if he was filled with revulsion and regret whenever he looked at her—well, it couldn’t equal the disgust she felt herself, remembering how easily she'd been fooled.

“Oh, hullo!” Sam greeted her and the children, smiling amicably. He looked a bit better than the last time she'd seen him. Thinner in the jowls, even. Or, rather, his jowls looked looser, the skin hanging like empty bags of suet around his jaw. “Torrhen, you seem to be doing better.”

Her son began to shy away at Sam’s attentions but then smiled and nodded. “Yes. Mother said the medicine was from you. Thank you very much. It didn’t taste very well, but I feel much better,” he said politely and precisely, as if he’d rehearsed his speech (which he had).

Sam chuckled, patting his round belly. “Yes, it’s a tad bitter, but it does the job. Are you heading in for supper, then? Jon and I were just on our way to the mess as well. I think I can finally keep the food down!” He cringed, turning red and unable to hold Dany’s gaze. “I mean—forgive me, Lady Daenerys. That was a bit, ah, crass, wasn’t it?”

“You forget I’m originally from Dorne, Sam,” she said with a practiced smile. She felt too conscious of Jon’s eyes on her. Reflexively, she grabbed for her children’s hands again to fortify herself. “Believe me. I’ve heard much worse.”

“Oh. Right. Dorne.” Sam’s eyes darted to Jon. Dany followed the look and narrowed her gaze on Jon in suspicion. He cleared his throat and averted his eyes. Flushed, Sam fumbled to redirect the conversation. “Shall we, erm...go eat?”

“Yes,” Dany agreed quickly, keeping her eyes on Jon, trying to brighten her voice. “Actually, Sam. Would you mind taking Nymeria and Torrhen to the mess? I could use a word with Jon. We’ll just be a moment.”

Jon and Sam shared another glance, both looking guilty, but Sam was all too eager to scurry away. “Yes! I mean, yes, whatever you need, my lady. What do you say?” he asked Nymeria and Torrhen. “Ready to see what they have for supper?”

Nymeria groaned as she fell into step with Sam. “It’s pease porridge. It’s always pease porridge.”

Dany waited till they were out of earshot, then stepped in close to Jon, her ire rising. “You told Sam about me? About my children?” she demanded under her breath.

His throat constricted with a swallow. “I didn’t tell him anything he didn’t already guess,” he murmured, eyes darting around the passageway. “He was a bloody hound after a bone, you have no idea.”

She felt her body shaking as she struggled to check her rising fury. “You can’t just tell whoever you want—you have no idea what kind of danger you’re opening my children up to—”

Jon’s jaw hardened. “I’m quite aware of the danger. And I didn’t just tell him, as if I’m going around blabbing your most guarded secret. Seven hells. He’d already guessed you’re a—” He dropped his voice, chagrined. “He’s smart. He’s the bloody maester at Castle Black. He handles all the scrolls for record keeping. After we got the raven from King’s Landing about harboring Targaryens, you show up, looking like you do, needing to get away from Westeros—well, it wasn’t hard for him to put two and two together.” His eyes went distant briefly, then he shook his head and met her gaze. “Look. I made him swear under threat of death that he can’t breathe a word—not here, not at the Citadel. Nowhere, not to anyone. Sam’s a good guy. You can trust him.” He paused again and gentled his voice. “We can trust him.”

I can’t trust anyone, no one alive, she thought. Inexplicably, she felt the swelling clot of emotions in her throat and grew irate. “You don’t get to make that decision for me or my children,” she admonished. He flinched at the rancor in her tone, and she turned on her heel to stomp away.

Jon called after her quietly. “I wanted to know more about them.” Surprised, Dany spun back to him. He grimaced. “Not that I meant to pry. I just...I mean, I know about the Targaryens. Everyone in Westeros knows about them, of course. But...I don’t know. Sam’s so bloody smart, he knows everything. I thought he might know something more than what all the books tell us.”

She stared at him. What was this strange blossom of hope unfurling in her chest? “Did he?”

Jon’s face was solemn. “No. Nothing more than what the books said.”

She felt strangely crushed. “Oh. Pity,” she murmured absently. Jon took a couple steps closer, cautious as he approached. He licked his lips, and even in the tumult of her emotions, her gaze lingered on his mouth at the unconscious habit.

“Do you...did you ever learn anything more about them?” he asked, his dark eyes studying her face. “Not about your ancestors, but your family? Your parents?” Jon hesitated before adding, “Your brother?”

“Brothers. I had two,” she corrected, then frowned. “Does it still count if they died before you were even born?”

“It counts,” Jon said firmly.

Dany clasped her hands together, needing the pressure on her fingers as she spoke. “My mother...Lady Ashara, when she told me, she shared some details, her memories of them.” Her voice dropped. “She was Elia Martell’s lady-in-waiting. She knew them quite well.”

“Rhaegar?” he asked, a rough quality to his voice. Dany nodded.

“They were friends. The Daynes were loyal to the Targaryens during the rebellion. It’s how I came to be with Lady Ashara.” Dany swallowed, recalling the haunted look in her mother’s eyes years ago as she divulged everything. “When Stannis Baratheon laid siege to Dragonstone, Rhaella Targaryen was pregnant with me. My brother, Viserys, was only a child of seven. He...didn’t survive the assault. But Ser Willem Darry got Rhaella away from there and sailed to Starfall in hopes of finding a safe place for her and her unborn child. Rhaella didn’t survive the birth, but...Lady Ashara raised me as her own, to keep me safe from King Robert.”

Jon had a queer look on his face, his eyes distant once more as he listened to her. The silence stretched, and she furrowed her brow at him. “What’s the matter with you?”

He blinked, snapping to. “Nothing. I’m just...I’m sorry,” he said gruffly. “I’m sorry what happened to you and your family. Being lied to your whole life. It’s unfair.”

She blew out a breath. “Yes. That was tough to come to terms with. But...the Daynes died for me. They were killed because of me. Lady Ashara lost her head trying to protect me. That’s all she ever tried to do. She loved me as her own. I don’t hate her for the lies. She was the only mother I ever knew, and I loved her. Her death is on me. And so are Robb’s and Ned’s.”

Once more, he was lost in his thoughts, his dark gaze clouding over. She sighed, fighting the impulse to shake him or slap him. Where did he go to in that head of his? “You mentioned another Targaryen, back in the King’s Tower,” she said firmly, drawing his attention back to her. “Aemon?”

“Aye. Our last maester.”

Hope flickered briefly before realization quickly snuffed it out. She already knew the answer. “He’s dead, isn’t he? If Sam is maester now, he must be.” The Night’s Watch was for life, after all.

He looked apologetic. “Aye. Maester Aemon passed some years ago. He’d lived a very long life. He was over a hundred years old. He’d been King Aegon V’s brother. Older brother. He ceded the throne to Aegon then went to serve on the Night’s Watch for the rest of his life.” Jon paused, his hand flexing at his side, and when he spoke again, his words were brusque. “He was a good man. I learned...a great deal from him.”

Aemon Targaryen. There’d been another. She, and her children, hadn’t been the last dragons after all. But he was dead now, and she would never know him. Funny, how she could miss something she hadn’t even known existed.

“Good. That’s...good,” she whispered, then took a deep breath, looking down the passageway to the mess. “I need to get back to my children.”

Jon gave a curt nod. “Yes, of course.”

The entire way to the mess, Jon stayed two steps behind her.

As it turned out, seasickness and the treacherous shores of Skagos were the least of their concerns. Once they hit the open waters of the Narrow Sea, they were besieged by violent storms for nearly ten days straight. The winds and rains were so brutal, they were forced belowdecks and confined to their cabins for most of it. The crashing thunder and howling winds, even the shouted commands from the captain and crew could be heard through the gaps in the planking overhead. It rained so hard and so fast, it trickled between the seams, dripping on their heads, their bunks, their clothing. This squall was the worst one by far; Dany prayed it would be the last.

Torrhen was inconsolable. Even Nymeria wept in fear. Dany would have as well, at her wit’s end as it was and now petrified they were going to drown at sea. But she knew it wouldn’t do to fall apart now, not with her children dependent on her. So she kept it together as best she could, huddled with them both on Torrhen’s bunk, Nymeria’s bunk above providing some respite from the dripping water.

“We’re all right, we’re all right,” she whispered, her words lost beneath their sobs and the storm. The three of them jolted when a loud crash of thunder rent the night, followed closely by a flash of lightning. Torrhen buried his face in her stomach, his whole little body shaking.

“I want Father,” Nymeria whimpered into her knees, and Dany hugged her closer.

They jumped again when the door of their cabin rattled on its hinges. Dany froze, wondering if the seas had swamped the ship and were now barreling down their door. When the door shook again, she realized it was someone pounding on the door.

Jon. Prying herself away from her children with gentle assurances, Dany stumbled with the swaying ship to the door. She knew, she just knew it was him.

When she threw the lock aside and swung the door open, she wanted to sob in relief. Jon gripped the door frame, bracing himself against the violent rocking of the ship. Dressed in a simple long-sleeved tunic and trousers, he must have just dragged himself from his own cabin.

“Are you all right?” he yelled over the noise.

No, she wanted to scream at him. How did she ever let anyone talk her into getting on this gods-forsaken ship? How did she ever think it would be a good idea to put her children in danger like this? Her throat spasmed as she struggled to find her voice, hanging onto the swinging door. “Yes—” she mustered, but Nymeria howled over her.

No, we’re going to die!”

Torrhen wailed louder, and Dany spun around, losing her balance and slamming against their trunk on the floor. Pain lanced through her leg. “Nymeria, don’t say that!” she reprimanded halfheartedly as she tried to push off the trunk.

Jon was at her side in an instant, grabbing her arm to pull her up straight. Her thigh still smarted where it’d struck the edge of trunk; she’d have a bruise there later, she was sure. Once she was steady on her feet, Jon released her, and she offered a murmur of gratitude.

Blackbird is strong,” Jon told them. “It’s not going to sink. You don’t have to worry about that.” Despite his words of assurance, his face was ashen and creased with worry.

Liar, she thought again, but this time she was grateful for his falsehood.

Jon ran a hand through his hair, agitated, hesitant. Abruptly, he turned to her. As he spoke, he held his arms out to balance himself, his feet planted wide. “Look. If you’d rather I leave, I will. But if you’d rather I stay until the storm passes, just in case—”

He bit back the rest of his words, uncertain. Dany didn’t know what to say. “What about Sam?”

“He’s barricaded himself in the cabin. He’ll probably be relieved he can shit himself in peace right now.” His eyes darted to the children, and he cringed. “Sorry.”

A strange sound choked off in her throat. A laugh, she thought—how bizarre. After a moment, she gripped the trunk behind her and nodded. “Yes. Thank you.”

He shut the door to the cabin as Dany climbed back into Torrhen’s bunk to gather her children under her arms. Another booming crash of thunder, the ship tilting sideways with the waves, and they clung to her. Jon grabbed onto the bunk ladder until the ship righted itself once more, then he slid down to the ground to lean against the trunk, arms braced on his bent knees.

“I want to go home,” Torrhen sniffled against her breast, and she closed her eyes. It was her fault. She was why they were here, her damned dragon’s blood, her children had had no choice in who and what they were. She was why Robb was dead. She was why they had to leave Westeros, why the king hunted them like animals. She’d taken her children away from the only home they’d ever known, halfway across the world on this cursed ship, and they were going to sink to their watery graves right here in the Narrow Sea. Because of her.

“Did you know there are mammoths beyond the Wall?” Jon asked suddenly. Bewildered, Dany opened her eyes, and all three of them looked to him.

“M-mammoths?” Torrhen asked, his voice small yet childlike in its curiosity.

“They’re like elephants, big and lumbering with a long trunk, but they’re covered in fur and have these huge tusks that are like teeth,” Jon explained, demonstrating with large sweeps of his hands.

“There were elephants in the book Maester Sam gave us,” Nymeria ventured. He smiled at her, and Dany had to turn her face into Torrhen’s hair, inhaling deeply. It smelled like sweat and vomit. He needed a bath. They all did.

“Then you know how big they are,” Jon said. There was another flash of lightning, so dazzling it brightened the cabin briefly. Jon kept talking, even over the growl of thunder. “There are also giants beyond the Wall.”

Nymeria gasped, sitting up. Indignant but curiously enthralled. “No, there’s not! All the giants are dead! Maester Luwin said so!”

Jon shook his head. “That’s what they thought. But the remaining giants live beyond the Wall now, with the mammoths and the wildlings.”

With a frown, Nymeria eyed him skeptically. “I don’t believe you.”

He scoffed good-naturedly. “I didn’t believe it either. At first. But once you’ve seen a giant ride a mammoth and nearly had your skull crushed in by an ax as tall as you are—well, it’s hard to remain a skeptic after that.”

Both Torrhen’s and Nymeria’s eyes went wide with wonder. Even Dany stared at him in astonishment. “You fought a giant?” Nymeria gasped. His nod was gravely serious. “What happened?”

“You tell me. I’m here on this ship, aren’t I?”

This time when the thunder cracked, the children barely flinched, enthralled with Jon’s stories. For hours, he wove together tales of battles with wildlings and encounters with other mythical creatures and beasts. Dany didn’t know whether he was embellishing his anecdotes for the children’s sakes, but she was thankful for the distraction, all the same.

Nymeria and Torrhen had finally drifted off to sleep, exhausted by the ordeal but soothed by Jon’s captivating tales of being on the Night’s Watch. At some point, mercifully, the storm had dissipated, leaving only the creak of wood and the occasional howl of the wind, as if the gods were too stubborn to entirely cease their torments of the foolish humans below.

Dany sat perched on the bunk at the head of the bed, where her children’s heads lay side by side on a pillow. She stroked Torrhen’s hair, absently fingering the auburn curls. Her eyes were tight and gritty, unblinking. While Jon’s presence had calmed her children’s nerves, it had only incited hers. She felt like that ravaged strand of rope all over again, unraveling slowly over the course of the night, chafed and abraded, down to the last thread. Barely clinging to her last tether.  

“He looks just like him.” Jon’s voice was a low, hoarse rumble, jarring her out of her fragile daze. He spoke quietly as if conscious of disturbing the peace now that the children were asleep. She looked at him sharply, her hand going still. He didn’t meet her gaze but nodded at Torrhen. His face was devoid of any expression. “Like Robb.”

“Yes.” Her jaw was stiff; she wasn’t sure if her lips even moved when she uttered the word. She saw his throat move, bobbing with a hard swallow.

“And she looks just like you.” His mouth quirked faintly. A false smile. “You must be pleased.”

She could have sworn her heart stopped beating then and there. For a moment, she couldn’t move, couldn’t speak. All she could do was stare at him in disbelief. For the past two hours, she’d listened to him comfort and delight her children with bedtime stories—daring to assume the mantle of their protector—and now, after all this time, he had the audacity to allude to Nymeria’s true origins?

When she finally found her voice, it was a strangled whisper, dripping in ice. “Yes, she and I were fortunate in that regard.”

When he met her chilly glare, a flicker of confusion crimped his brow. Still, he managed a nod. “They seem like wonderful children. You should be proud.”

Her heart was sure to slam out of her ribs, beating as hard as it was. “Proud?” she hissed, incredulous. “Is that all you have to say to me? After all this time? You think I should feel proud after what you did?”

He recoiled at her indictment, the color draining from his face. “I know—I mean, I know I did wrong by you. When we were younger. I did wrong by Robb, too. I never should have—” He foundered with his words, his defense coming out in stops and starts; she almost couldn’t hear him over the thunder of her heartbeat in her ears. “Being with you—in that way...I know I earned my place on the Wall. It was wrong. I never should have...” He trailed off helplessly once more, unable to hold her gaze.

Her vision dimmed as her anger swelled, a big, ugly thing filling the cabin. “You—” But she choked back the words, aware just how shrill, how loud her voice had climbed. As evenly and calmly as she could muster, she spit her next directive through clenched teeth. “Get out.”

Jon’s eyes snapped to her, his pain visible in them. But just as quickly, they shuttered, and his countenance solidified into its usual scowl. At her behest, he simply rose to his feet and, without another word, left their cabin.

Flushed hot with rage, Dany pressed her hand to her stomach, her breaths coming fast and loud in the quiet of the room. She couldn’t slow them, couldn’t will the wild rhythm of her heart to abate. It pulsed in her belly and her throat, and her whole body began to tremble. She glanced at her children in repose, and her anger briefly gave way to shame. She covered her mouth in an attempt to hush her erratic breathing. In, out, in, out. It wouldn’t do to wake them now, not when they were finally asleep. Not when she thought she might lose her mind.

No. Why should she be ashamed? He had provoked her. Jon was the one who should feel cowed and embarrassed by his behavior. Why should she bear the weight of his shame as if it were her own? Why should he be pardoned without proper penance for his sins?

Gathering her indignation around her like a cloak, Dany scrambled off the bunk. No longer would she allow him to hide away in silence. Hands shaking, she jerked the door open and quietly closed it behind her. Then, lifting her skirts up, she dashed down the passageway in the direction of Jon and Sam’s cabin. As she passed the companionway to the deck, however, she skidded to a stop and changed course, clambering up the ladder. Jon always went someplace high to brood, she remembered that much.

With the stormclouds cleared away, the moon shone bright overhead. There, as she’d suspected, Jon stood starboard on the main deck, his back to her, hands white-knuckled as he gripped the gunwale. The wind was more brutal up here, blustery and cold. Jon was still attired in only his tunic and trousers, but he seemed impervious to the chill and the damp. The wind whipped Dany’s braid behind her, misting her in sea spray, yet she hardly felt it herself, her anger the only buffer she needed.

Heedless of whether they had an audience or not, Dany stalked toward him. For the first time since learning the truth of her identity, she felt the blood of the dragon pumping through her veins—and she was glad of it.

“You have some nerve, Jon Snow!” she yelled at his back. Surprised, he whirled around to face her. “With your false contrition and your, your feigned innocence! It’s cruel what you’re doing to me now! What you’re doing to us!”

His bewilderment morphed into irritation, and he leveled a glower at her. “I was trying to apologize to you in there, but you threw me out! What more do you want?”

What more?” Her laugh was a heavy stone in her throat. “You think an apology is enough to excuse what you did? For your abject dereliction of duty?” Loose strands of hair tickled her mouth and caught in her eyelashes, and she slapped wildly at her face to claw them out of the way. “Oh, I’ll tell you what I want! I want to have never wasted the past fourteen years wondering if you were as callous as you proved to be, if my memories of you were as false as your word! I want to have never wept a single tear over you and your lies! I should have never tried to run after you all those years ago! Do you know my ankle has never quite been the same since that day? Even now, it still hurts me when it’s cold, and the pain only ever reminds me of you!”

Jon’s face went slack with incomprehension. “Dany—what—”

“Don’t you dare call me that! You don’t have my permission to call me that, not anymore!” she shrieked, and he winced as if he'd been slapped. Even though she couldn’t feel the cold, her body shook. Dany wrapped her arms around her middle to steady herself, but it was useless. She thought she might vomit, and for once, it had nothing to do with the rough seas. She let out a hiccuping gasp. “Stay away from her. Do you understand? She doesn’t need to know about you now—not after Robb—” Her breath stuttered, catching in her throat. “I can’t, I can’t destroy her life again.”

Agitated, Jon raked both hands through his hair, pulling at the roots. “What do you think I’m trying to do, exactly?” he growled. “You think I’ll taint her somehow with my illegitimacy? Bleeding hell—you used to be more accepting of bastards, you know!”

She made another strangled sound, aghast at his gall. “I love my daughter!”

He screwed up his face, dropping his hands to his sides. “What does this have to do with your daughter?”

Oh, how his exasperation infuriated her! “Everything!” she exploded. “How can you pretend to be so clueless? Are you that cruel? Were you always this false, even as you lay beside me? After you took my maidenhead? Was it all a lie then, when you vowed to run away to Essos with me and our child?”

Her face was wet, she realized, her lips salty—whether from tears or the sea, she couldn’t be sure. Jon stared at her, his face frozen. For a long while, he didn’t speak. Finally, he shook his head. “What? I don’t—I don’t understand what you’re saying, Dany. Help me out here. Please.”

Lurking in the depths of his confusion, she saw a dawning fear. And for the first time, she was afraid, too.

“Don’t—” She faltered, searching his face. “Don’t pretend now, Jon. Don’t play me false! You—you abandoned us—he told me—”

Jon stepped closer. His eyes were wild. “Who? Told you what?” he demanded.

Suddenly, she felt cold, clammy, an icy block of panic expanding in her stomach, pressing into her lungs. She couldn’t quite catch her breath. “He told me—he swore—”

What had Robb said? Gods, it was so long ago now, she couldn’t remember. He’d told her Jon knew, hadn’t he? She was sure of it. She’d asked him! And Robb...Robb...had he ever really answered her? She couldn’t recall now, the memory slippery in her grasp. But he’d implied as much, hadn’t he? That Jon knew, that Robb had told him about Nymeria, and Jon had refused them?

Her head spun. Distraught, lightheaded, Dany pressed her hands to her cheeks. Jon moved toward her, but she took a step back. Then another.  



No. He knew. He had to know.

If he didn’t know, then that meant—

No. No, no, no.

“Oh, no,” she moaned, bending at the waist, sucking in ragged, labored breaths. “You don’t know. Oh, gods. You truly don’t know, do you?” Jon had never gotten her letter. Robb had never told him. Her breath hitched in a hysterical sob.

Jon gripped her shoulders, pulling her upright. “Tell me! Damn you, tell me what I don’t know!”

She squeezed her eyes shut, sucking down great, heaving gulps of air. Her stomach threatened to empty itself of its contents, knotting up tightly. She couldn’t catch her breath—she couldn’t breathe. Her words came out in nonsensical gasps.


He didn’t know. He didn’t know Nymeria was his. He didn’t know he was her father.

He gave her a rough shake, making her stomach lurch. “Look at me!” She peeled her eyes open, but he was a blur before her. “Say it!”

“She’s yours,” she croaked out.

Jon went very still, his hands tightening like a vise on her arms. “What?” Had his face darkened, or were her eyes playing tricks on her? Dany tried again, opening her mouth to repeat it.

Instead, she doubled over and retched porridge all over his boots.

Chapter Text


Jon kicked his cabin door in, pulling Daenerys in behind him. From his bunk, Sam jumped at the unexpected intrusion, squealing like a stuck sow.

“Jon!” He scrambled to his feet but yelped when he smacked his head on the overhead bunk. “I—I wasn’t expecting you back—”

“Get out!” Jon barked, his chest heaving. “Go to the children’s cabin.”

Mouth agape, Sam glanced between Jon and Daenerys. She sagged forward, head bent low toward her knees as she keened like an animal in pain. Jon wasn’t sure she’d even be upright if it weren’t for his unyielding grip on her wrist.

“Is she—”

“She’s ill,” Jon bit out, teeth chattering. Strange. He wasn’t cold. Actually, he couldn’t feel a damn thing. His vision was dim, and he couldn’t really focus on Sam; the maester was just a dark, indecipherable shape to him. “That’s why you need to go to their cabin and keep an eye on the children while I deal with her.”

“But, but what do I do with them?” Sam asked, wide-eyed.

“I don’t bloody know,” Jon snapped. He closed his eyes, forcing himself to take a deep breath. Barely calmer, he said, “They’re asleep. Just read to them if they awaken.”

“All—all right, Jon, if you’re sure,” Sam stammered, hurriedly pulling his cloak on. “I hope you feel better, Lady Daenerys.” She didn’t seem to hear him. As Sam waddled by, his eyes dropped to the ground at Jon’s feet, and he pulled up short. “Oh. You have a bit of sick on your boots.”

Jon ground his teeth together. “I know.” Sam just ducked his head and scurried out of the room, pulling the door shut behind him.

Once they were alone, Jon released Daenerys’ arm. She crumpled to the floor on her knees and pressed her face to the ground, as if in prayer. Himself, he had no words of benediction for the gods, only a mouthful of curses.

He swallowed. It felt like a rock turning over in his throat. “Tell me,” he demanded hoarsely. “Tell me again.”

She shook her head, her groans pitching into a pitiful wail. “I can’t. I can’t . Don’t make me, not again .

“Say it, Dany!” he yelled. “I deserve to hear you say it, as many times as I need to hear it!”

With one last sob, she gave a full-body shudder and fell silent save for her soft pants. In the quiet that followed, the creaking of the ship’s wooden planks sounded loud, louder than the quiet seas necessitated. Finally, after she’d stopped gasping, Dany pushed up on her hands, her arms stick-straight as they hefted her weight off the floor. Her elbows shook, and she kept her head down, her back rising and falling with her labored breaths.

“She’s yours,” she whispered at last. “She’s your daughter.”

He knew it—he’d heard her clear as day on deck—and still her declaration landed like a punch to his gut. His stomach cramped in revolt, and for a moment, he thought he might be sick. For a moment, he couldn’t breathe.

He was one-and-ten again, back in Winterfell: In the midst of a riding lesson, one of the horses from the stables had reared and thrown him off. Jon had landed on his back, and he’d lain there paralyzed for what felt like hours, the wind knocked out of him, his lungs locked up and unable to draw in air. He felt that now, momentarily crippled and utterly helpless.

Dazed, Jon reached out to steady himself, but his hand only grasped air. He stumbled till he found purchase on the cabin bulwark. The rough, splintered wood under his fingers was grounding. His chest convulsed with a gasp, and finally, he could breathe again. He dragged in a breath, then another. His vision sharpened, coming back to him, and he gawked at Daenerys huddled on the floor, her face turned away from him. She wouldn’t even look at him.

Even in his stupor, his anger flared.

“Fourteen years,” he croaked. “Fourteen years you kept this from me. Fourteen years you denied me my daughter.”

At that, she snapped her head up and looked at him wild-eyed. “ No ! You denied us!” Her face folded with a pained grimace, and she closed her eyes. “I thought you denied us. I thought—I thought—”

“You thought ?” he echoed sharply, cutting her off. “You thought I would reject my own blood? My own child ?” His lips trembled, and he scrubbed a hand down his face, trying to rein in his mounting hysteria. “You kept her from me. You stole my own daughter from me!”

Her ashen face went slack with disbelief, then just as quickly, blood bloomed red in her pale cheeks. The purple of her eyes darkened and flashed, like thunderstorms gathering. “ Steal ?” she hissed, scrambling to her feet to square off with him. “Steal the fruit of my own womb ? Tell me, how would I do that, exactly?”

His eyes narrowed. The pulse of his blood drummed a steady beat in his ears as his choler rose, swift and furious. “Fruit made with my seed. I have just as much right to our child as you do—”

“Then why did you leave!” she yelled, voice cracking in shrill accusation. “If you care so much, why did you leave us ?”

He fisted his hands in his hair and pulled. “What the fuck are you on about? I didn’t know a damn thing about her! And I didn’t have a bloody choice! They ran me off!” He stopped abruptly and dropped his hands, his thoughts churning on themselves. “They didn’t tell me. Did they know? That she was mine? Who all knew?” he asked, the questions spilling off his tongue before he could properly formulate them.

Dropping her gaze, Daenerys wrapped her arms around her stomach. “Hardly...hardly any one. That was the point—”

Who ?” he roared.

“Just...Robb. And Ned. Catelyn. My mother and father. Septa Mordane. She’s the one...she was the first to realize. Maester Luwin, I think. I think he knew whose the baby really was, but he never spoke of it, not to me.”

Jon stared at her, aghast. “ That many people knew and never told me. You never told me.”

Her hand trembled as she lifted it to her face to rub at her brow. “I did! I mean, I tried to tell you. You have no idea how hard I tried, no idea what it was like for me—”

His lip curled in a sneer. “ Please . Tell me what it was like for you, in your great big castle, raising our daughter, with your lord husband.

Her hand lowered, and she glared at him, eyes blazing. “Oh, to hell with you, Jon!” That ardent invective coming from her tongue momentarily stunned him, and he reared back in surprise. “That’s always been your way, hasn’t it? You thought you had it so much worse than everyone, the bastard of Winterfell, but that martyrdom always made you so self-righteous and superior, as if your suffering negated anyone else’s!”

He guffawed bitterly, the sound loud and abrasive. “ Superior ? I’ve spent half my life on the Wall. A fucking prison ! Tell me how you’ve had it worse!”

Her eyes watered, and she swiped at them angrily. “We’ve both suffered, Jon. I’m not going to compare tragedies with you. I tried to tell you about Nymeria—”

Tried , did you?” he mocked, but she raised her voice to speak over him.

“I tried to follow you. After they banished you. I ran in the middle of the night. I jumped from the castle wall and broke my ankle in the process, but I kept on. I was headed for the Wall. For you . To run away to Essos like we’d planned, remember? With our daughter in my belly,” she spat at him. He could only stare at her, speechless. She’d alluded to such a tale on deck, but it puzzled him then as it did now.

The heat of her anger left her, and she lifted her shoulders, distraught. “But Lord Stark’s men chased me down not far from Winter Town. They found me, and they brought me back to Winterfell, and they kept me there. Like I was a prisoner. I couldn’t leave my chambers for weeks, so I sent you a letter.”

He jerked his head in denial. “I didn’t get a letter from you, not once,” he objected, an edge to his voice.

“Obviously,” Daenerys said bitingly. “I should have known Maester Luwin wouldn’t send it. But I had no choice but to put it in his hands. After I hadn’t heard anything, I’d assumed it never reached you. But then Robb said he saw you—”

“Robb saw me?” The memory of his last confrontation with Robb returned to him, and he scowled. “Aye, he came to the Wall. Seven or eight months after I’d been sent there.” He put it together then, his stomach sinking like a stone. “Seven or eight months. You would would’ve been with child then. Heavy with my child. But he called you his wife when we spoke.”

Her lips thinned into a pale, trembling line, and she averted her eyes. “Yes,” she whispered. “By that time, I was his wife.”

His hands began to shake, and he clenched them to quell the tremors. “I expected it, of course. That you should want him in the end. But I didn’t expect this of you.” He looked at her accusingly. “You wed my brother with my child in your belly.”

She flinched as if struck. “I didn’t have a choice! They didn’t give me one, Jon. They wouldn’t accept a bastard, and they wouldn’t accept my rejection of the betrothal to Robb. And you weren’t there! I had no choice. I was trying to make the best decision for Nymeria—”

“And the best decision was to deny her her true father?” he retorted.

Her voice rose again. “You’re not hearing me, Jon! I tried to tell you.

“You had years to tell me,” he accused. “You could have sent me any number of letters. Not just the one.”

Exasperated, Daenerys threw up her hands. “Maybe! Maybe I could have. But when Robb told me he went to see you at the Wall, I’d already given birth to Nymeria at Starfall. I’d gone home to be with my mother. Nymeria was only a month old or so when Robb visited. Just a tiny little thing.” She wrapped her arms around her waist again, the distress evident on her face. “She wasn’t sleeping well. I was exhausted and delirious and...He—” She rubbed at her brow, her forehead puckered with confusion. Jon braced himself as she continued, “He told me you weren’t coming back for us. I asked him whether you knew about Nymeria, and he...he misled me. He called you dishonorable, said you had wronged me, wronged us all. He told me...he told me he would be the father Nymeria needed.”

The hair on the back of his neck stood on end as it sank in, the full breadth of Robb’s ploy. The realization was a slow-dawning horror. “He raised her. My daughter. He claimed her as his own.”

Daenerys regarded him uneasily. Jon swallowed with some difficulty, the dread settling uncomfortably in his gut. “He came to the Wall. To confront me. To shame me . To condemn me . He warned me to stay away—away from you, away from Winterfell, away from his family. He never said a damn word about my child . I never knew anything.”

Daenerys clenched her eyes shut. “I know. Gods forgive me, I know that now.”

“He lied.” Jon’s voice shook, a low thrum of string plucked by every word he spit out. “He lied to me. He lied to you. He stole my daughter and took her as his own.” His anger was a bulging, squeezing fist inside his chest. “He stole my daughter. He stole years of her life from me.” That fist tightened around his heart, around his lungs, wringing, choking him. He sucked in a juddering breath, and the rage exploded inside him, expanding outward like a fast-moving fire. “That fucking traitor stole my daughter!”

He blindly swung his hand out, knuckles hitting the bulwark with a sharp, splintering crack . Pain flared through his hand and up his arm, but it felt good. Cleansing . He hit the bulwark again, harder. When he drew his hand back, his blood stained the wall, blossoming along the wood like little red rosebuds.

“Jon! Stop!”

Daenerys’ shout didn’t register with him. At that moment, she wasn’t even there. His vision darkened and shrank, till all he saw was Robb’s face in place of the bulwark. He hit it again. “He lied!” Again. “He stole her!” Again . “He took my daughter!”

“Jon! Stop it! Stop it! Enough!”

She was screaming now. He felt her hands on him, pulling and yanking at his tunic, pushing and shoving and hitting his back. Jon jerked his fist away from the wall and pivoted toward her. Angrily, she shoved at his chest.

“Stop it, you damn fool!” she shouted in his face. “You’ll break your hand!”

Aye , and if I could, I’d break Robb’s fucking face instead!” he yelled back.

She glared at him, her neck and face splotched with color. “Well, you can’t because he’s dead! He’s dead , Jon!”

He sneered. “Death was too good for him. For both of them—Robb and Ned!” His hands shook. He lifted them before him and curled them into fists. On his right hand, the torn, bloody skin of his knuckles split open wider, but he felt no pain. Only anger. Deep, seething, gut-curdling anger. It hit him at once, all the lies, the lifetime of deceit and betrayal, the guilt, the hatred, the shame he’d been forced to shoulder that he’d never deserved.

He drew in a ragged breath. “Others take those fucking Starks. They speak of honor, but they have none. They lie and cheat and steal, and they take what’s not theirs. I was no bastard. I was a threat . And Ned knew it. Robb knew it. They took everything from me! They sent me to rot on that Wall for fourteen years! Gods be damned, if they were still alive, I’d kill them both myself. I should have thanked that bloody sellsword before I gutted him! I hope they’re rotting in hell!”

She pulled away from him, covering your ears with her hands. “ Stop . Stop it, Jon. I can’t—I can’t think . I can’t do this with you now. It’s too much.”

Too much ?” He almost laughed; she didn’t even know the whole of it yet. He moved closer to her, ready to divulge Ned’s final dirty secret from beyond the grave, but when he saw the fresh tears on her cheeks, dripping from her nose, he jerked to a stop. His stomach turned with disgust. “How can you cry? For Robb ? Knowing what he did to you? To us both?”

Letting out a strangled sob, she lifted her head to glower at him. “I’m not crying for him! I’ve shed enough tears over my marriage already!” She wiped the back of her hand across her nose and chin to catch the tears. “I’m crying for Nymeria and Torrhen. I’m crying for you and—and, yes , for myself, if you’ll allow me this moment to grieve! You’re not the only one who’s been betrayed!” Her chin trembled, and she dropped into a crouch again, her hands gripping her knees as she took deep, gasping breaths.

Watching her break apart took the wind out of his rage. It shriveled into a pile of embers and ash, a dying fire that he knew could reignite with the gentlest provocation, but for her sake he kept it banked. Jon stood rigidly, swaying with the rocking of the ship as he stared at her bent head. The low lighting of the lanterns cast a silver halo around her crown.

A moment passed in silence save for her mournful hiccups, and then another. And yet, even as his throat tightened with emotion, he felt immovable. Unable to go to her and comfort her. He understood what she meant now—it was too much. And there was still too much bricking the way between them.

He could no longer hold his tongue, the hurt of her betrayal wriggling to the surface like a splinter working its way out of his skin. When he spoke, his voice was flat. “How could you believe him? How could you think I wouldn’t come for you and her?”

With a weary sigh, Daenerys shifted onto her knees, resting her weight on her hip before she brought her face up to meet his gaze. If his words were meant to shame her, they’d failed. She met his accusation with steady defiance.

“How could I not?” she said simply. “Because you didn’t come. Not for me, at least.” Swiping at her cheeks again, she sniffled and let out a huff of watery derision. “I guess in the end it was quite easy to believe. That you didn’t love me, not truly.”

He jerked back in surprise, and his face went hot with shame and humiliation. Love . Until now, they had steadfastly ignored the subject, had vigorously avoided speaking on the depth of their past. But now, the word hung between them, heavy and uncomfortable, like she’d just opened the door of his cabin to let in a rampaging mammoth.

“You never said it, did you know?” she continued, heedless of his palpable silence. Her eyes focused elsewhere, lost in time. “Not once. At the time, it didn’t matter. I knew you loved me. Or I thought I did. I felt it when we were together. I had no doubt then. But then you were gone, and the days and months and years passed with no sight of you, no word, and...I began to doubt. I questioned everything I thought I knew. About you, about us. About myself.” She turned her shimmering gaze to him again, and though there was sadness in her eyes, there was condemnation, too. “By then, it was quite easy to believe the worst of you.”

Mouth agape, Jon reeled, his mind racing through every memory of their time together, every rendezvous, every night in her arms, every stolen moment in the Broken Tower. Surely, surely , he’d told her he loved her, surely he’d said it once...But he knew it to be true, even as he wanted to deny it. He knew he’d selfishly hoarded the words, even as she’d so freely given them away.

Nausea inched up his throat. “Dany,” he started and stopped, lips parting wordlessly as he struggled to find the words to make her understand. “I didn’t...I didn’t come back because I thought you were better off without me. I was nothing then. No one. A blight on House Stark. I thought I’d ruined everything. I didn’t…” He shook his head, lip curling with self-derision. “You were meant to be a lord’s wife. The Lady of Winterfell. At the time, I thought it would be best for you if I was gone. If I stayed gone.”

“Best for me.” Her mouth twisted scornfully. “Forgive me if I’m just a little sick of others deciding what’s best for me.”

His heart felt like it would punch through his ribs. “Dany,” he said again, uselessly. He didn’t know what else to say. “I didn’t know...I didn’t think it mattered what I felt.”

She held his gaze, her eyes glimmering. They softened with pity. “Because you never truly believed I loved you either, did you?” It wasn’t so much a question as it was a statement.

His chest convulsed with a sharp breath, and he closed his eyes. After a moment, he shook his head. “No,” he croaked.

She nodded sadly. “You didn’t think you deserved it. You couldn’t believe it, wouldn’t accept it. Not even when I told you.”

All his rage was gone for now, anguish swelling to fill the space it had vacated. His hand throbbed, the pain as sharp and unforgiving as the bald truth of her words. He made himself look at her. “I was just a damn bastard whose mother hadn’t even wanted him,” he rasped out. “Who was I that you should choose me over the trueborn heir of Winterfell?”

Daenerys blinked at him, tears spiking her eyelashes. “Jon, I would have thrown myself from those castle walls a hundred times over if I’d thought you’d be there to catch me, even once. That’s how much I loved you.” Her chin quivered, and he felt the sudden press of tears at her declaration. “But I had Nymeria to think about. I couldn’t think about myself anymore. And all I wanted was to keep her safe. To keep our daughter safe.”

“Gods,” Jon groaned, dropping his head back to look at the ceiling. Blinking away the tears, he slumped against the wall, sliding down the bulwark to join her on the floor. The healing knife wound in his thigh throbbed in protest, but he ignored it.

Everything was a mess. A bloody, fucking mess.

He had a daughter. A daughter he hadn’t known for fourteen years—no, she’d be three-and-ten, he supposed. His heart squeezed painfully; it felt like a weight was pressing down on his chest, making it impossible to find air. He let out a shuddering breath, covering his face. “I’m a stranger to her, to my own daughter. She doesn’t know me. Gods, she doesn’t even look like me.” He choked on a sob. He hid his face, but he could feel Daenerys’ eyes on him. He was ashamed.

She slid closer to him, the woolen material of her dress susurrating across the gritty wooden planks. “That’s not true,” she murmured. At her objection, he dropped his hands, looking to her in disbelief. “Admittedly, in the beginning, I couldn’t see it either. She had my hair, my eyes, even as a babe. But as she got older...I could see you in her. In the furrow of her brow, the slope of her nose. She has this way of scowling, when she’s upset, that reminds me of you.” Daenerys attempted a weak, wavering smile though tears tracked down her cheeks. “Over the years, it broke my heart to see it, but she’s more like you than you’d know.”

His vision blurred, and he pinched at the bridge of his nose, shaking his head, denying her. She only meant to console him.

Daenerys forged ahead. “I used to tell her stories about you. When she was just a babe in her crib. She couldn’t understand anything yet. But I would hold her and rock her and whisper stories of her father. I wanted her to know you. But...the years went by, and I never heard from you, and I had to accept you were never coming back. You never wanted us.” Her voice cracked, and she took deep, steadying breath. “She was old enough to understand the things I was saying to her. It was dangerous to speak of you, dangerous for her. And it pained me to keep holding on to the ghost of us, so I just...let go.”

His tears fell then. He swallowed convulsively to stop them but failed. He understood now, what Daenerys had meant when she’d been crying earlier. He was mourning something he’d never had, something he didn’t even know was his to lose.

Gods, it hurt. It hurt more than anything, more than every other lie and betrayal before it.

“Jon,” Daenerys whispered, helpless as he covered his face with his hands. Her eyes flitted about his person, unsure where to land, what she should do. When she looked down at his feet, she turned chagrined. “ Oh . I—I completely forgot about your boots. Forgive me, I should—let me clean that off.”

She glanced around frantically for a cloth of some sort. Jon didn’t care but didn’t trust himself to speak, so he merely shook his head to dissuade her. But she was determined, crawling across the cabin to reach him. Then, she yanked her skirt up, revealing her boots and stockings, and pawed futilely at the drying splatter of vomit on his boot, barely digested pease porridge.

With a grimace, Jon shook his head again. “Dany,” he protested, his voice clotted with tears. But she ignored him, scrubbing her dirtied gown over his boot. “Stop.”

“No, it was my fault,” she insisted. “I should be the one to do it.”

“Dany, stop,” he ordered, louder, but she refused. Frustrated, Jon lurched forward and snatched her hand away, then grabbed her other hand. “You’re not going to clean my fucking boots like you’re a bloody servant.”

“I should,” she said. Her face flushed red, and she twisted her wrists in his hands, trying to resume her chore. “It’s my fault they’re ruined. Let go.”

“Stop!” he yelled, jerking her arms up so she was forced to drop her dress to the floor.

“Let me do it!” she argued, struggling against his grip.

Jon climbed to his feet and dragged her with him, shaking her by her arms. “Enough, Dany! That’s enough .”

She let out a whimper, and as her face crumpled, he yanked her into his arms. Instantly, she clung to him, winding her arms around his waist. He hugged her to his chest, closing his eyes when a sob racked her whole body. “I’m sorry, Jon. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry,” she cried, over and over, her tears soaking the collar of his tunic.

Despair compressed Jon’s chest until he let out an audible gasp. “I’m sorry, too. So fucking sorry.” She sobbed harder in answer.

His tears flowed again, and he buried his face in her hair. She smelled of salt and sweat and the cloying stink of sick. Still, he breathed her in deeply.

Then, with her in his arms, he finally allowed himself to weep freely.

“What do I do now?” Jon’s voice was rubbed raw and grated from all the crying. He and Daenerys hadn’t spoken in a while, both sitting on the floor again, no longer touching. When she looked at him, he saw her eyes were bloodshot, her nose red, her cheeks blotchy from all her shed tears. Both of them had been wrung dry. “What do we do?” he amended.

Her eyes widened, as if she understood his implicit question. After a moment, she shook her head. “I don’t know. I don’t know how to tell her…” She looked away, pressing a hand to her throat. “I don’t know how to tell her her father isn’t who she thought. will break her heart.”

He dropped his head back, baring his teeth in a silent snarl. Damn you, Robb. There’s a place for you in all seven hells, you lying fucker.

“So, you want me to continue to deny her?” he bit out. “Pretend she’s not mine? And we just go on playing this same charade the rest of our lives?”

“No! That’s not what I’m saying. I just…” She trailed off with a sigh, rubbing her hand across her gritty eyes. “I can’t tell her the truth right now, not on top of everything. We’ve been in a constant state of upheaval for the past few months. Maybe we should...give ourselves a moment to breathe. Once we’re in Braavos. Settle in, adjust to the changes, and then...I can— we can tell her.”

Lifting his head, he fixed her with a dead look. “I won’t be staying in Braavos. Remember? I’m to go on to the Citadel with Sam. That means only a few days in Braavos, a week at most.”

Her face paled. “Right. I forgot,” she said softly and dropped her gaze to the floor. “You’re a man of the Night’s Watch.”

“Right,” he said bitterly. “The Night’s Watch. I swore a bloody oath. ‘I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children.’” He snorted at the irony. “At least, they can’t hang you for any children you father before you take the black.” He scrubbed hard at his mouth. “Will you wait till I’m on the ship out of here before you tell her, then? So I can’t interfere? So it won’t make a bloody difference?”

She shot him a wounded look. “Is that what you think of me? After everything tonight?”

Jon looked away, knowing he was being unnecessarily cruel. “No. I don’t know. I don’t know what to think. Forgive me if it’s all a bit much to take. Gods. It’s just been one blow after another these days.” He swallowed an acerbic laugh, disquiet settling in his stomach. He still hadn’t told her his own secret, the truth of who he was. Gingerly, he touched his knuckles, the ripped skin and crust of blood drying over the swollen joints, before he glanced warily at her.

How to begin that story? He supposed he couldn’t fault her for her hesitation in revealing everything at once. After all, there was more to it than even she knew.

He frowned suddenly. “Does Benjen know?” he asked, catching her off guard. “Does he know about Nymeria?”

She looked at him, baffled. “No. I mean, as far as I know, he doesn’t. Why would he? He’s on the Night’s Watch. And the Starks wanted to keep this close to their chest.”

Relieved, Jon blew out a breath, though he still had his doubts and suspicions. Benjen had known of Ned’s deception about Jon’s Targaryen identity; he very well could have known about Nymeria, too. Wouldn’t he have told him in the godswood, when he’d laid the rest bare, if he’d known?

But he hadn’t told Daenerys about Jon. Would he have told Jon something he felt was Daenerys’ story to tell?

Seven hells, his head hurt, a dull, pounding ache to match the one in his chest. He would have to ask Benjen when he returned to the Wall. No more bloody lies.

Guiltily, he looked at Daenerys. He would tell her his truth, too. Soon. Once he’d helped her and her children get settled in Braavos. Before he set sail again.

Only a few days’ delay, then. Enough time for him to wrap his mind around it all, too.

“I’ll tell Nymeria before you leave. If that’s what you would like,” Daenerys said after a moment. “I can’t...I don’t know how she’ll react. I can’t promise you she won’t be upset or angry. With me and with you. She can be...hotheaded.”

“Like you,” he said thoughtlessly then braced himself for a sharp retort. Instead, she offered him a small, wry smile.

“And like you.”

The thought was so sweet, he felt the sharpness of it in his chest, twisting. He blinked away fresh tears and forced a smile.

“All right,” he said gruffly. “We’ll tell her when you’re ready.”

From the green waters and grey mists of the Narrow Sea, the Titan of Braavos emerged to greet Blackbird, its eyes glowing orange from the fires within . Even from where he stood sentry on the main deck, Jon could hear the awed exclamations of Torrhen and Nymeria. Daenerys had brought them above deck to stand on the forecastle and watch their approach to Braavos. Apparently, Sam had already filled their heads with grand descriptions of the massive stone and bronze fortress that would greet them once they were within reach of land, a beastly statute that straddled the channel to the lagoon and protected the Free City from attacks.

It was a sight to behold, indeed, but Jon harbored little interest in the statue. Instead, he observed Daenerys and her children from afar. Namely, he found himself watching Nymeria, searching her face for any of the signs Daenerys had described that would mark her as his own, but they eluded him still. His heart ached, a hollowness left in his chest and stomach as if his guts had been scooped out.

His daughter gripped the gunwale of the prow, eyes wide as the Titan loomed ever larger ahead of them. A horn blew, thundering across the lagoon and the outlying islands to alert the city of the ship’s arrival. Once they entered the channel, Jon heard the shouts of the captain to the crew as the rigging men brought in the sails. Farther ahead was the Arsenal of Braavos, battlements stocked with scorpions and trebuchets. As they passed between the giant’s legs, Nymeria jumped away from the railing and pointed up at the watchmen who stayed tucked away beneath the Titan’s armored skirt to drop pitch or stones on unsuspecting enemy ships. Torrhen cried out in amazement and waved maniacally at the men above, turning to run toward the stern to catch one last glimpse of them as Blackbird sailed beyond the Titan’s stride and the chain of mountains that ringed the lagoon. Daenerys grabbed her son before he could get away, bringing him back around to the prow.

Catching Jon’s eyes as she turned, she stopped and held his gaze for an unnecessary moment. There was an uncertainty in her expression, an unvoiced question. They hadn’t spoken much since that night in his cabin, just the exchange of simple pleasantries and courtesies at meal time and in passing. They both needed some space, time to heal long-closed wounds that had been ripped open by the revelations of that night. More than that, Jon had no idea how to act around Nymeria, no idea how to pretend he didn’t know she was his daughter. He didn’t trust himself not to give it away.

But the hostility he’d seen simmering in Daenerys’ eyes, the anger that had tightened her mouth and clipped her words every time she’d spoken to him since their initial reunion at Queenscrown, was gone. He understood now why she’d seemed to loathe him so, more than he had even expected. It rankled him still, that she could think so poorly of him, but he couldn’t blame her, not truly. They’d both been deceived for years.

But the scales had fallen from both their eyes. They’d stripped it all bare, laid the full truth out between them.

Almost the full truth.

Suddenly racked with guilt, he had to look away from her inquisitive stare then. Over the last few days he’d spent mostly to himself, mulling it all over, he’d come to a hard realization.

He couldn’t tell Nymeria who he was. He couldn’t destroy everything she’d thought she’d known to be true, rob her of her memories of a man now dead. What purpose would it serve? What good did the truth do now?

Jon was a sworn man of the Night’s Watch. He could never be a father. He would ruin her life and break her heart just to ease his own suffering. He would take away the only father she’d ever known, only to return to his duty and deny her yet one more father.

No . He couldn’t do that, as much as it killed him knowing that another man had raised her, knowing he would have to let Robb’s deceptions and manipulations lie unchallenged. Letting that noxious, despicable liar live on in his daughter’s memories as a falsely honorable and decent man.

Gods . Bile roiled in his stomach, disgust coating his throat, like he had a hot dagger lodged in his gullet.

And the worst of it? In the end, Jon was no better. Lying to someone to protect them—he wasn’t so different from Robb and Lord Stark, not really. Perhaps his intentions were more selfless, but it was still a bitter pill to swallow.

Would Nymeria hate him, too, then, were she ever to learn the truth? Would she curse his name for lying to her, for denying her? Would it even matter if he weren’t around to face her wrath?

Was it like this for Ned, all the doubts and self-incrimination? Did his thoughts send him round and round in circles over the years, trying to determine the best course of action, the one with the least amount of hurt done to the least number of people?

Nymeria called out to Daenerys, drawing Jon’s gaze back to the family tableau to which he would never, could never , belong. She beckoned her mother forward, and with Torrhen in tow, Daenerys joined her daughter at the railing to watch the gold and red domes and towers of the Free City rise from beyond the quays along the shore.

Likewise, Jon looked toward the bow to watch their arrival to Braavos.

They’d finally made it to Essos.

Only fourteen years too late.

Between what little coin Jon and Sam had from the Night’s Watch and the generous purse Daenerys had taken with her when she’d left Winterfell, they were able to secure a couple decent rooms at the Inn of the Green Eel. Of course, Daenerys and her children were set up in a room by themselves. They might have saved some coins boarding the five of them together, but Sam was too skittish about sharing a room with a lady, and as it was, Jon didn’t think he could stand being in such close quarters with Daenerys for very long. Especially not after all he knew now.

Such as how she hadn’t wanted to marry Robb, hadn’t immediately found solace in his arms once Jon was out of the picture. How she’d come for him, even if she hadn’t made it far in the end—how she’d flung herself from the walls of Winterfell just to be with him.

She’d done that. For him . For some unfathomable reason, she had loved him. Not even the shock of finding out he had a daughter could make him forget that epiphany.

But there was nothing he could do about it now, just as there was nothing he could do about Nymeria. Seeing her, and even Torrhen, who looked so much like his father, only stoked Jon’s anger at the bloody unfairness of it all. It was better to begin to separate himself from them all now. Be the man of the Night’s Watch he’d sworn to be, had been for the last half of his life: dutiful and alone, his only companions his fellow brothers in black.

Blackbird was already on its way back to White Harbor, so Jon and Sam had to find another ship to take them to Oldtown. Every day since they’d docked at Chequy’s Port and found room and board at the Green Eel, Sam had gone down to the wharves to scout for new passage. On the fourth day, after hours of hunting, he returned late in the evening to his shared room with Jon, red-faced and sweaty, and declared they would leave aboard the swan ship Cinnamon Wind on the morrow. Xhondo Dhoru, the captain who hailed from the Summer Isles and regularly made voyages on the Summer Sea, had happily accepted Sam’s coins as well as the prospect of two extra able-bodied deckhands in Sam and Jon. (Well, mostly Jon, Sam had admitted sheepishly.)

They were to leave on the morrow. They would set sail for Oldtown, and he would never see Daenerys again. He would never see his daughter again.

Although he’d known it was imminent, had known it was the plan all along, the realization brought a chill over him.

But what choice did he really have? His whole life, he’d never had a bloody choice in anything, not truly.

He had to tell Daenerys about their sooner-than-expected departure as well as his change of heart regarding Nymeria. Filled with apprehension, Jon had left Sam in their room and gone downstairs to purchase firewood off the innkeep, as well as some bread and gravy. He used the last of his coins to pay for it, but he figured since he would be on his way to the Citadel on the morrow, it didn’t much matter. He waited as the innkeep ambled back into the kitchen, his pockets heavier, and drank some ale, ignoring the curious looks from other travelers enjoying their hot meals. Men of the Night’s Watch weren’t unheard of even this far east, but they rarely ventured to the Free Cities.

The Lord Commander had allowed Jon to travel with Sam with the expectation that he would recruit some men to their ranks, but these days Jon was in no mood to sing the praises of the Wall. If he opened his mouth, he was more like to run off any prospective man from throwing his life away, as Jon had.

Once the innkeep had returned with the firewood and the food, Jon finished his ale and thanked him, throwing the sack of wood over his left shoulder before he grabbed the tray of food and headed back upstairs. On the second landing, he turned the opposite direction of his own quarters and strode toward Daenerys’ room. At the door, he had to set the food down before he could knock.

As he waited, he shifted from foot to foot, clenching his right hand. His knuckles were still sore from the battering he’d given them the other night, and the healing scabs itched interminably. Even though the warmer climate of Braavos made his cloak unnecessary, he was grateful for it all the same. The weight of it was familiar, comforting. With it on, he felt camouflaged. Tucked away, as if there was more than just the barrier of cloth and fur between him and everyone else. He would need that courage tonight.

Finally, Jon heard the bolt unlatch from the inside, and the door cracked open. Half of Daenerys’ face appeared in the space she’d created, eyes narrowed in warning before widening in surprise at the sight of him. She opened the door farther.

“Jon,” she whispered questioningly.

He shrugged his shoulder to indicate the sack of firewood. “I’ve got some wood for you.” He nodded to the tray at his foot. “And some food, if you all are hungry.”

“Oh.” She opened the door wider. He saw she wore a modest white bed gown that covered her arms and hung down to the floor, brushing the tops of her bare feet. Her wet hair was down and brushed, and even feet away she smelled clean. Like tallow soap and soft woman. The picture she created before him was intimate and agonizingly familiar. Despite himself, he felt a tightening in his groin.

Heat traveled from his cock to his face, and, hurriedly, he bent down to grab the tray so she wouldn’t notice his reaction.

“We just finished our baths. We were reading before bedtime,” she explained, stepping aside so he could bring in his supplies. As he passed her, he saw she clutched a small dagger in her hand. Smart.

Nymeria and Torrhen, also wet-haired and clean-faced, sat huddled on the floor by the hearth, one of Sam’s books opened between them. A small basin of dirty water sat in the corner of the room, dingy cloths of linen draped over the side. As he moved about their room, the children stared at him with guileless eyes. Uncomfortable with their attention, he ducked their gazes to set the tray down on a small table then dropped the firewood by the hearth.

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” he said awkwardly.

“It’s no bother,” Daenerys answered in kind, avoiding direct eye contact with him. Placing her dagger by the tray of food, she took in the spread and frowned. “Did you spend your own coin on all this? You should have come to me first. I would have paid you. I can pay you now.”

Her concern rankled him, though he couldn’t say why. Maybe, stupidly, he just wanted to provide for them without protest. She turned for her purse, but he stopped her.

“Keep your money. You’re going to need it,” he said, his voice low. She met his gaze finally, but just as quickly her eyes flitted away.

“Well...stay and eat with us, then,” she suggested, gesturing to a spot in front of the fire.

With a swallow, Jon nodded. He needed to speak with her, as it was. Alone. He’d have to wait for the children to go to bed. But...he could allow himself one more night with them. Before he disappeared, once again.

He busied himself with the food, ripping the loaf of bread into pieces and pouring the gravy over them, then he set the tray down in front of the children. Immediately, Torrhen and Nymeria snatched gravy-drenched pieces of bread from the tray and stuffed them in their mouths, cheeks bulging as they chewed.

An incredulous sound caught in Daenerys’ throat. “Slow down,” she scolded, though her eyes danced with tender amusement. She curled up on the floor beside them, folding her feet to the side and tucking her nightgown around her legs. Torrhen looked chastened by his mother’s reprimand, but with dramatic flourish, Nymeria reached for another piece and ever so slowly put it in her mouth. Daenerys glared at her, and Jon tried not to smile, a bittersweet pang of longing clenching around his heart.

“At least, tell Jon thank you.”

Nymeria chewed and swallowed, and she and Torrhen chimed together, “Thank you, my lord.”

He cleared his throat. “I’m not a lord. But you’re most welcome.” He crouched down near the hearth and pulled a couple logs from the sack, tossing them onto the dwindling fire. Then, unsure what else to do, Jon sat down on the floor with them.

Without preamble, Torrhen bombarded him with questions. “Do you know about the Shadow Lands? And the Lion of Night?”

Jon looked at him and raised his eyebrows. “No. What are the Shadow Lands?”

“It’s this place in Essos, as far east as you can go. It’s always dark except at noon, and that’s why it’s called the Shadow Lands,” Torrhen answered matter-of-factly, before Nymeria jumped in.

“They say there are dragons that live in cliff caves in the Shadow Lands, and the very first dragons came from there. They were tamed by a people so old they don’t even have a name for them.”

Jon nodded sagely. “Interesting. And what about the Lion of Night?”

Torrhen’s brow furrowed as he looked to the book again, dragging his fingers along the lines of text on the pages. Nymeria answered smugly, “One of the gods of Yi Ti. But the Faceless Men of Braavos call him the Many-Faced God. Did you know the Faceless Men have a temple here? They have a statue of him, too.”

Pleased, Jon smiled wider, then glanced at Daenerys. “I guess Maester Luwin forgot a few lessons with us.”

Her mouth twitched, and she lowered her gaze.

Torrhen’s eyes went wide. “You know Maester Luwin?”

Jon’s smile slipped, and he bit back an outright scowl so as not to frighten the boy. “Aye. I know him,” he answered shortly. “Or knew him. It’s been some years.”

Daenerys looked uncertainly between him and her children. “Remember, Jon grew up at Winterfell,” she said carefully, and he saw her weighing her next words, knew the children would keep asking questions, and that was no good.

So he redirected. “What are the Faceless Men?” he asked. “Does the book tell you that?”

Nymeria and Torrhen began flipping pages and arguing with each other about where the information was. Daenerys met Jon’s eyes while they were distracted, the confusion evident in her eyes. He merely nodded to the bread. “Eat.”

She hesitated then reached for a chunk of bread and brought it to her lips. Some gravy dripped onto her bottom lip, and after she chewed and swallowed, her tongue darted out to catch it.

Realizing he was staring at her mouth, Jon forced his eyes away and listened to the children recite from the text, talking over each other in their excitement and arguing who got to read about the Faceless Men to him. Despite their bickering, he drank in the moment, knowing it would be the last time he’d be with them, like this.

He didn’t have much of an appetite, so when Daenerys offered him some of the gravy and bread, he shook his head. Eventually, he would be back on the Wall, where all his meals were provided for, even if their rations got rather lean from time to time. He’d rather she and the children eat all of the bread. They’d all begun to look a little thin during the voyage here. He worried about how Daenerys would secure food and supplies for the three of them once they were completely on their own, how long she could stretch out her money.

Finally, the children began to yawn. Despite their protests, at Daenerys’ insistence, they eagerly climbed into the bed the three of them shared. As the two fought over the coverlet, Jon turned to Daenerys.

“Can we step outside for a moment and talk?” he asked under his breath. Alarm hooded her eyes, but she nodded before telling Nymeria and Torrhen she would just be a moment.

“I’ll be right outside the door,” she promised, then she followed Jon out of the room. After she shut the door quietly behind her, she looked to him. Her hair had begun to dry into soft waves, only the roots still damp with water. Gods, she was so damn beautiful.

When he didn’t speak right away, she folded her arms over her chest in a defensive gesture. “What’s wrong?”

Stirring himself, Jon started to answer, but he heard the heavy clomp of footsteps on the stairs, then a drunken slur of words as another patron, a man, stumbled toward his room. Jon shielded Daenerys by stepping closer and waited for the man to pass, once more leaving them alone on the landing. He took a deep breath and put some more space between them, fixing his eyes over her shoulder as he spoke.

“Sam and I leave on the morrow. He found passage on a ship to Oldtown. I’m going with him.”

Daenerys’s mouth parted in disbelief. “What?” she sputtered. “Already?”

“If we don’t take this ship out, who knows how long we’ll be waiting around for another,” he explained rotely.

Her arms dropped to her sides, limp. “But—that’s so soon! I haven’t even—what about Nymeria? She doesn’t know—I can’t go in there and tell her right now—” She spoke frantically, her thoughts fragmented.

Jon lowered his gaze, staring at a knot in the wood floor by her bare foot. “About that.” His throat was dry and pinched all of a sudden. He had to clear it before he could continue. “Don’t tell her. I don’t...I don’t think it’s a good idea.” Daenerys fell quiet, and Jon rushed ahead. “It would just upset her. Cause more problems than you need right now. And for nothing. Nothing can come of it, and I don’t want to be responsible for hurting her any more than she already has been.”

Bewildered, Daenerys shook her head. “You don’t want her to know?”

At that, he winced. “It’s not about what I want,” he spoke tersely. “You want to protect her, and...I do, too. It would be selfish of me to tell her the truth. I would only be doing it for myself.”

She made a choked sound. “And you’re just going to leave again, just like that?”

His eyes snapped to hers then. She looked stunned. Wounded. “You knew I wasn’t going to stay,” he argued. “I’m a man of the Night’s Watch. I can’t stay.”

“But—” She stopped, lifting her hands then letting them fall again. She didn’t speak for a long moment, and when she did, her voice was hollow. “Of course. I just...I didn’t know it would be so soon.”

“Me neither.” But it was better this way. There were many things Jon would do differently, if he could. But it was pointless to pretend he could change the past. And his future was already set out before him, an unending trudge of duty and service, defending the Wall and fighting the Wildlings, until, eventually, one day, he dropped dead. If he was lucky.

He felt the inevitability of it all closing in around him, threatening to suffocate him. Before it could, he forged on. “Listen. You have enough coin to stay here for a while. But you should find a trade soon, something to get by. Don’t wait too long, before it’s too late, before you get desperate. You could probably find work as a seamstress. You know how to sew, don’t you?” Addled by his line of questioning, she jerked her head in a nod. Even so, he felt a clammy fist of fear around his stomach.

Gods be good, she wouldn’t need to turn to a brothel. Braavos was a Free City, at least. She should mostly be safe from scavengers and slave traders here. Still, he asked her, “That dagger of yours, you know how to use it? I mean, if you need to protect yourself or the children?”

She bristled. “Of course, I do. I’m not helpless.”

“Good. I know that.” His concerns only eased slightly.

“Jon.” She shook her head, pressing her hands to her cheeks. But she didn’t say anything more, and the silence stretched. What was there left to say?

The truth, he supposed, all of it—about who he was. He felt the words on his tongue but swallowed them. What good would it do? What would it change?

Agitated, Jon blew out a breath. “I should go. Try to get some sleep. We have to be at the dock at first light.”

She nodded, staring hard at his chest. “Yes. I guess...I wish you safe travels, then.”

His heart ached. His eyes burned. It was the last time he would ever see her. For good this time. He wanted to reach out to her, take her in his arms, but it felt wrong. Presumptuous and unwelcome.

Instead, he dropped his chin. “Goodbye, Dany.” There it was. The farewell they never got fourteen years ago. He didn’t feel any better for it now.

She refused to look at him, so he turned away without another word. He’d taken one step when her hand shot out, closing around his arm.


When he turned back to her, she launched herself into his arms, wrapping him in an embrace. He barely got his own arms around her before she pulled away. Her eyes glimmered with unshed tears, but otherwise her face was shuddered to him.

“Goodbye, Jon.”

Then she slipped into her room and latched the door shut behind her, leaving only the lingering scent of soap with him.

The sun crept up over the wharves and piers that entangled the lagoon, casting a golden-purple tint to the green waters. From Cinnamon Wind’s deck, Jon watched the dockhands lug the last of the crates and barrels on board that would be making the journey with them, first to Tyrosh, then on to Dorne, before eventually arriving in Oldtown. It would be a long voyage. Jon guessed it might be a year before he managed to make his way back up to the Wall.

At his side, Sam spoke up. “The seas should be smoother from here out.” He patted his belly, jingling the links in his uncompleted maester’s chain. “At least, it was on my last trip. Of course, I was still a bit, well, sick, the entire time. But I didn’t have to use quite as much of my tincture. Plus, it will be nice to have company this time.”

Jon nodded, barely listening to the maester chatter away. He kept his gaze turned to the city, taking it all in one final time: the grey, half-drowned buildings, the temples domed in silver and marble, the red-roofed inns and brothels, the bridges and canals that connected the hundred tiny islands that made up Braavos.

Of course, he couldn’t see the Inn of the Green Eel from the ship, though he knew exactly in which direction it lay. Could probably count the number of steps to its door, too. He wondered if Daenerys and the children were still abed. Had she slept at all? Jon hadn’t, not a damn wink. Would she be up soon to begin her hunt for work, to make some extra coin? Who would watch over her children while she was away? The thought of them alone in the inn, or even wandering the canals and alleys of the unfamiliar city, made his stomach tighten with dread. He hoped Nymeria knew how to wield a dagger, too. She would need as much protection as Daenerys would.

“Think they’ll be all right?” Sam asked. It took a moment for his question to register with Jon.

“I don’t know. We’ve done what we could. I don’t know how else I can help them.” His reply was more defensive and brusque than he intended.

“Oh, I’m sure it’ll work out,” Sam said. “Lady Daenerys is quite resilient, isn’t she? Well, you must know. You grew up with her.” He lowered his voice conspiratorially. “And a secret Targaryen, at that. Maester Aemon lived to be over 100!”

“Aye,” Jon replied absently. He’d always known she was resilient, of course. It was why he never worried about her after he’d left, not truly. He thought she’d be safe in Winterfell. In his childish naivete, he hadn’t thought there was anywhere safer than Winterfell.

He hadn’t realized how trapped she’d been. How much like a prisoner she’d felt. Not that different from him, after all.

Yet, she’d at least tried to break free of her prison. She’d jumped from the castle walls, had fled from Winterfell on a broken ankle. For him . She’d wanted to start a family—with him . His throat closed, and he swallowed, drawing in a deep breath through his nose. Still, his chest felt tight.

“You love her, don’t you?”

Jon started at Sam’s question, and he looked to him in astonishment. Sam’s face immediately reddened. “Or— loved , perhaps. Sorry. Should I not have said anything?”

Jon shook his head stupidly. “How—why do you think that?”

Sam looked terrified as he answered, “I don’t—I don’t know. I guess...just the way you look at her, you know? And, and—well, you’re a ranger. You seem to enjoy it. You’re really good at it. You take it seriously. I, I guess I was just a bit surprised you agreed to come on this voyage, that’s all.”

Jon’s heart beat hard, blood rushing to his ears. “It’s—” His duty? But his duty was at the Wall. Scowling, he looked away. “I just wanted to help her. Benjen asked me to go. The Lord Commander sent me to recruit,” he said stubbornly, but even to his own ears the justification sounded weak.

“Oh, sure! Right, I mean, yes, of course,” Sam nattered nervously. “Did you manage to recruit anyone while we were here, do you think?”

Jon didn’t answer. Of course, he bloody hadn’t. He’d hardly left the inn the entire time, and he hadn’t felt like conversing with anyone there.

“Because you didn’t come. Not for me, at least.”

Daenerys’ words came back to him then, mocking him. She was right, though. She’d tried to get to him, but he’d left her behind. Like the fucking coward he was. No wonder she’d hated him for so long.

“I would have thrown myself from those castle walls a hundred times over if I’d thought you’d be there to catch me, even once. That’s how much I loved you.”

His heart thrashed harder, his breaths coming quicker. He nearly jumped out of his skin when the captain shouted out to the rigging crew. The anchor came up, the oarsmen below pushed off the dock with their oars, and the ship began to drift away from the pier. The sails unraveled, billowing in the wind. More commands followed as Cinnamon Wind creaked along in the water, gradually picking up speed as the wind caught the sails.

Others take him. He’d been a coward then, and he was a coward now. Running away again.

But he didn’t have a choice ! His whole life, he’d never had a fucking choice. He still didn’t. He’d been lied to for thirty years, and now there wasn’t a bloody thing he could do about it. He’d sworn an oath. He was bound to the Night’s Watch for life.

Even if he’d wanted to stay…If he left the Night’s Watch, they’d kill him.

But he was already dead, wasn’t he? In all the ways that counted, anyway. A life at the Wall was no life at all. The only time he’d ever truly felt alive...was when he’d been with Daenerys.

Jon recalled Benjen’s face as he’d said farewell at White Harbor, the resignation in his eyes. The finality of it all.

“You’re just going to leave again, just like that?”

He remembered the sadness in Daenerys’ eyes, too, the night before. The defeat that said Of course, you would leave . He’d told her he had to go, hadn’t he? It wasn’t his fault!

Sam was saying something to him, but he couldn’t hear it, not over the buzzing in his ears, the pounding of his heart.

“I guess in the end it was quite easy to believe. That you didn’t love me, not truly.”

She’d loved him. Him. And he’d never told her the same. He was leaving her again, without letting her know he had loved her. Seven hells, he still did. And his daughter—he barely knew her, but he loved her, too, and he’d be damned if he let honor and a lifetime of lies take that away from him again.

Determined, hands shaking, Jon turned to the maester. “Sam. I can’t go.”

“What?” Sam asked, baffled.

“I can’t go to Oldtown. I’m sorry.”

“Oh—you want to find a ship to White Harbor then?” Sam said, still confused, but Jon shook his head, looking around wildly. The ship was already in the middle of the lagoon, the dock yards away, Braavos’ buildings already shrinking in size.

“No. I can’t go back to the Wall. I’m sorry, Sam.” He snatched up his sack, the one Benjen had given him, and threw it over his shoulder. Sam’s eyes went wide.

“What does that mean? You can’t go back to the Wall? Jon! You, you said your vows!” Sam scurried after him as Jon stalked to port. “What are you doing? Oh , where are you going? Jon!”

Jon spun back to him, grabbing his shoulders. “I have to stay here. They need me and—this is where I have to be. This is where I belong. With them. I’m sorry, Sam. Tell the Lord Commander whatever you have to. Tell him I died, or tell him the truth. I don’t bloody care anymore.” Even as he said it, his blood surged. Adrenaline and dread and—excitement, yes , by the old gods and the new, he was doing this!

He’d given his life to the Night’s Watch based on a lie, and he wasn’t going to live that lie anymore.

He had a new duty, a new purpose.

Sam’s face had gone white with terror. His teeth chattered, and sweat beaded across his forehead. “Jon! You—you can’t !” he moaned, wringing his hands.

“Aye, I bloody well can.” He gave his brother, his friend, a fierce hug then pulled away. “You’ll be all right, Sam. The best maester Westeros has ever known. Take care of yourself.”

“But—but—but the ship—we’ve already—”

Good thing Jon had learned to swim in the hot springs of Winterfell all those years ago. Pivoting to the railing, Jon tossed his sack into the water. Then before he could talk himself out of it, he jumped up onto the gunwale, then dove head-first into the water. Shouts followed him as he spliced through the air, then—nothing, the sea swallowed him whole, rushing around him, drawing him deep into her murky depths.

Jon let the drag on his clothes slow him to a stop, then he struggled out of his cloak, unfastening it around his shoulders to free him from the water-logged burden. It drifted away from him, disappearing into the briny ether like a black specter. Free of his chains, Jon was able to propel himself to the surface, and he broke through with a gasp, spluttering for air. Droplets of water clouded his vision, and he swiped at his eyes, shaking his hair out of his face as he treaded water and looked around.

Cinnamon Wind was farther away now, cutting through the water toward the Titan, but he could see Sam at the railing, waving his arms and shouting at him. Jon bid him a silent farewell, before he looked around for his sack. There—it was floating on the surface not far from him, sinking slowly, and Jon stroked through the water to reach it. Clutching it in one hand, he swam one-armed to the closest dock, kicking against the tide that pulled at his heavy boots. He was winded by the time he reached the wharf, his energy sapped. Mercifully, some sailors on the dock saw him struggling and reached out to grab his hand, hoisting him onto dry land.

Once he and his sack were safely on the dock, he collapsed onto his back. The sailors spoke to him in a language he didn’t recognize, and he merely shook his head while he caught his breath, his clothes weeping a deluge of water onto the salt-crusted planks underneath him. The men tried again, until they eventually landed on the Common Tongue, the words heavily accented.

“You fall?”

Dragging himself into a sitting position, Jon coughed and spat a glob of mucous and saltwater to the side, then he began to laugh, the sound half-delirious. Unsteadily, he climbed to his feet, waving off their hands and offers of help. Despite his soaked clothing, he felt light.

Finally, he was free.

“No,” he told them, turning in the direction of the Green Eel. “I jumped.”

Chapter Text



Dany shot Nymeria an apologetic grimace when her daughter craned her neck around to glare at her.

“I’m sorry,” she murmured, this time taking more care as she combed out the tangled knot in Nymeria’s long hair. She grabbed a handful of it and gently guided the green jade comb through the ensnared section until, eventually, it trickled through her hand like molten silver. No lice, she noted with relief. After weeks at sea, she’d lamented the deteriorating state of her and her children’s hygiene, and although they at least had access to water and soap now, she understood they would no longer enjoy the comfort and luxury they'd had in Winterfell. She had to be more diligent about their wellbeing.

“It might be time to cut some of this, sweetling,” she suggested mildly then glanced at Torrhen, who was sprawled on his belly next to the hearth, pouring over a book. His shaggy auburn hair had gotten long as well, and she’d noticed he had to periodically brush it out of his eyes to see the page. “You too, Torrhen.”

He looked up at her, wide-eyed with dismay. “No! I want it to look like Father’s!”

Dany’s hand stilled, a flush rising to her face. Robb. The name alone threatened to ignite the firestorm of anger churning inside her just below the surface. For her son’s sake, however, she stemmed the rising tide of resentment with a deep breath. Slowly, she expelled it through her teeth and forced an understanding smile.

“It’s too long, Torrhen. And it’s much hotter here,” she said as reasonably as she could, hoping the quaver in her voice wasn’t audible. She had to tread carefully when it came to the subject of Robb; she never knew what might send her son into tears. “You know you’re going to be begging me to cut it soon. You can barely read your book as it is.”

He pouted but didn’t argue further, at least. Glumly, he turned back to his text and flipped the pages to find more illustrations. Nymeria made a noise of protest but obediently kept her head still under her mother’s ministrations.

“Don’t cut mine too much, please. It’s only just grown out again since you cut it short last time.”

“As I remember it, you asked me to cut it short,” Dany reminded her.

Yes, because I wanted it to look like Aunt Arya’s,” she said, sounding wholly exasperated by her mother's dull memory.

Arya. While the mention of her goodsister didn’t anger her, it did bring with it a fresh wave of sadness. Resuming her combing, Dany sucked her bottom lip into her mouth and bit down, hard. The prick of her teeth into her flesh kept the tears at bay, barely. She would never see Arya again. She would never see any of them again, the dead or the living. It would only ever be her and her children, alone, now that Jon—

No, she couldn’t let her thoughts go there again. She’d tossed and turned all night, despairing, wondering if she should have gone to his room and told him—told him something, anything, to make him stay, to make him reconsider—

But he was gone now, and that was that. She couldn’t think any more about it, not about him or Robb or any of it, because if she did, she would fall apart, just as she had fourteen years ago. That darkness always loomed close, threatening to submerge her once again. And she knew if she let it, it would be worse than before; this time, she might never be able to drag herself out of bed.

And she had to, for her children. She had to keep moving, had to keep putting one foot in front of the other, had to brush her daughter’s hair as she had every morning, had to patch the growing hole in the knee of Torrhen’s trousers. Had to dress herself and go out into the streets of Braavos to beg for work just to keep them afloat, somehow, here in this foreign city in an unfamiliar land. Just the three of them.

“Can you braid it how you used to do yours?” Nymeria asked, mercifully dragging Dany from her bleak thoughts. “The braid crown around your head? Please?”

She had to swallow a couple times before she could respond, another facsimile of a smile on her face. “Of course, just let me—”

They both jumped when someone pounded on the door, so hard it rattled on its hinges. Her children looked to her in alarm.

“Who’s that?” Torrhen whispered, his voice tinny with fear. Dany dropped the comb and leapt to her feet, snatching the dagger Arya had given her from the table.

“Both of you, on the bed,” she ordered with hushed urgency. Immediately, Nymeria and Torrhen clambered to their feet and scrambled into the bed, huddling together. The knock came again, louder, more insistent.

Then, “Daenerys!

Her eyes went wide in astonishment. It couldn’t be—

Daenerys! Are you in there? It’s me! ” He banged on the door. “Dany! ” There was a commotion outside, another voice she couldn’t make out, and the knocking ceased. His next words were quieter, muffled. Sorry. I didn’t mean to—What? Doesn’t matter. Look, have you seen the woman in this room? Silver hair? Have you seen her today? ” A brief pause. “Damn. All right, thank you.

Nymeria piped up from the bed, startling her. “It’s Jon. You said he left!”

Dany gawked at the door, still paralyzed. “He did! I mean, he said he had to…”

Heavy footsteps leading away from their room spurred her into action. She lunged for the door to unbar it, wrenching it open. The dagger slipped unnoticed from her grasp, barely missing her bare foot. “Jon!” she called out. At the stairs, the retreating figure halted and spun around.

“Dany!” In three strides he was at her door again. His arms went up as if he meant to grab her, but he stopped short when he caught sight of her children over her shoulder. His face flushed, and he dropped his arms, looking back to her. “I wasn’t sure—I thought maybe you’d left for the day already—” His words were labored, punctuated by ragged breaths. His chest was heaving, as if he’d been running.

“No—not yet, I—” She stopped and stared at him, getting her first good look at him. “You’re soaking wet,” she said, dumbfounded.

He grimaced, shoving the damp locks of hair off his forehead. “Aye. I just came from the docks.”

His clothes were weighted down with water, his trousers and leather jerkin, his boots. Salty droplets clung to his beard and eyelashes and dripped from the black ringlets in his hair. His cloak was gone, and all he had in hand was a wet canvas sack.

“The docks?” Dany couldn’t make sense of what he was saying; she was still in disbelief that he was there, at her door. She had to resist the urge to reach out and touch him just to make sure he wasn’t a figment of her imagination, a ghost conjured in her sleep-deprived state. “Did you miss the ship then?”

“No!” He lowered his voice so his words wouldn’t carry and stepped closer, holding her gaze. “No, Dany. I came back. I jumped.”

Her breath caught. “You jumped?” she repeated, dazed. “What does that mean?”

He hesitated for a moment, lips parting wordlessly. She saw his throat constrict with a hard swallow, then he spoke. “I’m sorry. That I didn’t come for you all those years ago. I should have, damn it. I should have been there to catch you. But I’m here now. And I’m not going anywhere this time, I swear it.”

“Catch me…” He couldn’t mean what she thought he meant. She shook her head, mind still reeling. She groped for something concrete—his own words from the day before. “But...what about your vows? The Watch? If you don’t go back, they’ll kill you,” she whispered, voice shaking.

His face darkened with determination. “So let them come and try,” he swore fiercely. “I don’t care. I couldn’t leave you, not again. This is where I should be.”

At his declaration, her eyes went round, stinging with the sudden press of tears. Her heart fluttered against her ribs, a tiny bird coming to life with a hope she didn’t dare consider, not yet. She looked away, blinking desperately to stop the tears from falling. “Jon,” she said, but emotion clogged her throat, making it impossible to say anything more.

In the fraught silence that followed, Jon blew out a breath and took a courteous step back. “Forgive me...if that was presumptuous. I can go elsewhere for now. If you need some time...” When his words trailed off, she looked back to him, so quickly a tear slipped down her cheek. Embarrassed, she swiped at it, but he looked preoccupied, eyes focused elsewhere. “Bloody hell. I left my trunk on the ship. It had my sword, my clothes. Gods, I didn’t think; I just...I left nearly everything on that ship. I don’t have any coins.”

Dany wiped her wet face again and pulled her shoulders back, suddenly resolved. After all he’d done to deliver her and her children safely to Braavos, helping him get settled was the least she could do.

This, she could handle: being useful, solving a problem. This was simple. This was a step.

“It’s all right. If you need a room to stay in, I will pay for your board,” she told him.

Jon frowned, eyes darting toward Nymeria and Torrhen again. Dany followed his gaze. Her children watched their quiet exchange with keen interest but held their tongues. At their look, Torrhen lifted a small hand in greeting before Nymeria jerked his hand down. Jon forced a smile at them then looked back to Dany.

“I don’t want to take away from you and the children,” he said quietly.

“You need somewhere to sleep,” she reasoned. “You’re going to need dry clothes. I don’t think you have a choice but to accept my help, Jon.” Her hands shook, so she clasped them together and gave him a small, wobbly smile. “I guess you’re going to have to find a trade so you can start pulling your own weight around here.”

Another wince. “I’m afraid I’m really only good at one thing,” he lamented, more to himself than to her. He gave his head a shake. “I’ll figure something out.” He met her gaze again, his eyes imploring. “Thank you, Dany.”

Her stomach knotted at the sincerity in his voice, the candor and earnestness etched into his face. This was not the same Jon she’d seen the night before, the one who’d walked away from her. A different man stood before her now, but what that meant, she didn’t know yet.

She merely dipped her chin in acknowledgement of his gratitude, turning from the door. “Let me get my coin purse.”

“Stay close to my side,” Dany instructed her children, giving Torrhen a particularly meaningful look.

Of the two, he was particularly bad about wandering off, following stray cats down the streets or leaning so far over the bridges to watch the serpent boats he was like to fall in and disappear under the water. She’d had to yank him back by his collar so many times, she was beginning to have nightmares about it: watching in useless horror as the eels that lurked in the famed Braavosi canals swallowed him whole.

For good measure, Dany pointed at Nymeria. “Hold your brother’s hand.”

Nymeria rolled her eyes but obeyed, shoving her hand out to Torrhen with a beleaguered sigh. He took it, and, hand in hand, the two fell into step beside Dany as they continued down the alley in search of the next seamstress shop. This was her third day hunting, and so far she’d had no success. While her skills at handsewing were adequate, the main problem was she didn’t speak Braavosi. Or any of the numerous languages of the Free Cities. In her studies at Winterfell, she'd learn minimal High Valyrian, mostly erudite words that would never come up in conversation. Trying to persuade any of the shopowners to hire her, a foreigner, was a challenge when she could only communicate with them in the Common Tongue. While most of them spoke enough of it to understand her, their vocabulary so far seemed limited to: “If you don’t buy, get out.”

If their situation weren’t so dire, she might have laughed: She made for a poor Targaryen, unable to even converse in her supposed mother tongue, and yet here she was, on the run, from men who would kill her for her Targaryen blood.

Her feet ached, her back was stiff, and her children were exhausted and sullen, the novelty of exploring Braavos having long worn off. They hated being dragged along on these excursions, unable to leave her sight and engage in any of the numerous delights they stumbled across. She wished she didn’t have to bring them along, but she simply wasn’t comfortable leaving them at the inn by themselves, not yet.

At least Jon was having more luck. He’d had little trouble finding work at the wharves as a dockhand. The men there knew more of the Common Tongue by virtue of the foreign sailors who came and went, but even if they didn’t, Jon needn’t do a lot of talking when he was hauling crates and barrels on and off ships all day. The day after she’d paid for his board at the inn, Jon had gone out in search of work—presumably after his clothes had dried. By that evening, he had secured his spot as a dockhand at Ragman’s Harbor, which lay on the west side of the city. It was the poorest harbor and saw mostly foreign ships, but it was close to the Green Eel. He had to wake up early, usually before dawn, so he could be down at the docks when the first ships came in. It didn’t bother him, however; he was used to little sleep and keeping odd hours at the Wall, he’d told her. After years of essentially sleeping on a pin’s point, always braced for a wildling attack, he never slept more than a couple hours at a time.

Truthfully, his glib reassurances had only saddened her.

Today was his second full day at the docks. She hadn’t seen him since he’d stopped by to tell her he’d found work. While it’d only been two days, she still had a lingering fear he would disappear again. That he would regret his decision to desert the Night’s Watch and hop on the next available ship back to White Harbor. She’d accepted his decision to leave, she’d thought, but now that he was back, now that he had stayed—for her, for Nymeria…

She couldn’t let him slip away again.

Everything she had learned lately, every lie and every truth unearthed—it was too much to wrap her head around, not all at once. She was still trying. But the biggest revelation was the one she returned to time and again: He wasn’t who she’d thought he was.

Or rather, he was exactly who she’d thought he was, from the beginning.

He might be the only one who’d always been honest with her. It was everyone else who had deceived her.

Her husband, her goodfather. Her own mother and father.

But she couldn't dwell on it, at least not while she was wandering Braavos blind, with her children in tow. She needed to keep her wits about her while strangers abounded. The bothersome cats that swarmed the streets were the least of her concerns, not when swaggering bravos were itching to engage anyone who looked at them askance, or when whores and courtesans flaunted their bawdy wares, indifferent to the time of day or the sensibilities of passersby. Every now and then, vendors and swindlers would hassle her, either trying to sell her something or entice her into their shops, but so far she'd been able to shake them without having to draw her dagger from her pocket.

After leaving her fourth seamstress shop of the day to no success, Dany noticed the sun was low in the western sky. Her children were sulky and irritable, and a gnawing grumble in Dany’s stomach reminded her they hadn’t eaten since they’d broken their fast on hard-boiled eggs and pudding.

“Let’s find supper,” she told Nymeria and Torrhen, who immediately brightened. Hesitating, Dany turned around. Her search had led her north, toward the Purple Harbor and the richer part of town. The fish market was some ways away, nestled on the other side of the Long Canal that bisected the city. She would have to head south to reach it, and while Ragman’s Harbor was a bit out of the way, she knew Jon likely hadn’t eaten since breakfast either. Another thing he’d become accustomed to while on the Wall—rationing food.

“Perhaps we should see if Jon would like to sup as well,” she suggested lightly.

“Yes!” Torrhen exclaimed, already tugging on Nymeria’s hand in the general direction of the docks. “I want to watch the ships come in!”

“Not so fast, Torrhen!” Nymeria whined, but soon she was outpacing him, dragging him along by the hand while he tried to keep up. She snickered as she stopped and started, yanking him forward and back, making a game of it.

As her children scurried toward the docks, their moods now improved with the promise of food and an end to their fruitless meanderings for the day, Dany was feeling lighter, too, following close behind them.

By the time they reached Ragman’s Harbor, she was short of breath; she’d had to lift up her skirt to keep pace with her overeager children, though perhaps her heart had doubled in speed from more than just the exertion. She was loathe to take too deep a breath, as the air reeked of fish and sewage, the streets underfoot littered with trash. Masts dotted the water as galleys and cogs idled in the water, dockhands swarming the piers and ships, tossing crates and barrels to each other. From afar, they resembled a chain of worker ants, moving in perfect synchronicity, each one playing their part.

She wasn’t sure where Jon was, as he went where he was needed in the harbor, so she walked with her children along the street perpendicular to the docks, keeping her eye peeled for his familiar sable hair. Eventually, she spotted him on a trading galley, leaning over the gunwale as he lowered a large trunk by rope to a stocky dockhand below.

When she neared the galley, she jerked to a stop, her eyes bulging. He was shirtless. A lot of the men were. It made sense, of course, but for some reason, Dany hadn’t expected it, though she supposed it had also been the case when they’d docked at Chequy Port over a week ago. Maybe she’d been too distracted, too wrapped up in everything that had transpired between her and Jon on the ship, to really pay any attention to their partial state of dress then.

She just wasn’t prepared to see him like this.

His normally unruly hair was pulled back off his face and secured in a knot in the back, and the tunic he’d been wearing had been shed and draped on the gunwale beside him. The unforgiving Essosi sun had kissed him red, his skin glistening with sweat as every muscle in his arms and chest flexed with his movements—and there were a lot of muscles, more than her paltry memory could recall.

No, he was definitely not the same lithe boy she had last known at six-and-ten.

Her face felt as if it had been sun-kissed too, her cheeks burning hot as she stared at him. Despite her reservations, her stomach swooped, a familiar ache settling low in her belly.

Gods, that was an ache she hadn’t felt in years—

“Should I be seeing this?” Nymeria squeaked, her face red as a pomegranate as she gaped at all the half-dressed men. Her daughter’s embarrassment pulled her from her trance, shame swiftly replacing the burgeoning lust, but she couldn’t quite tear her eyes away.

“Essos has a different culture from Westeros,” Dany murmured lamely. No, not all of Westeros, she thought, recalling her childhood in Dorne and their lax disposition toward sex and nudity. Dany herself had once been more liberated, she supposed—before the oppressive disapproval of the North had effectively stifled that in her.

Dany didn’t know how long she’d been staring at Jon when he finally noticed them on the docks. After the trunk was removed from the rope harness and placed safely on the deck, Jon pulled the rope up to the deck and looped it into a coil. Then, throwing the rope onto the dock below, he quickly pulled on his tunic and crossed to the rope ladder dangling over the side. He swung his legs over the side and climbed down a few rungs before dropping the rest of the way to the dock, where he landed softly on the balls of his feet.

“Wow,” Torrhen said, eyes wide with awe. Jon spoke to the dockhand who’d been assisting him with the trunk, then gave him a friendly slap on the shoulder and jogged toward them.

“Is something wrong?” he asked, breathless, as he slowed to a stop before them. His eyes darted between her and Nymeria, who averted her gaze. Understanding her daughter’s discomfort, Dany bit her lip. She was only a girl, not even flowered yet. Winterfell and its repressive propriety were all she knew.

“No, we’re fine,” Dany said hurriedly. “We were just on our way to the fish market for supper. I thought...I didn’t know if you had eaten yet or not. If you wanted to...join us, you could. If you can.”

“Oh.” He seemed surprised, too surprised to immediately reply, his eyes lingering on her. Self-consciously, she tucked some loose hair behind her ear, smoothed her skirts down. Tugged at the sleeves of her gown. Suddenly, her skin prickled with sweat beneath the heavy fabric of her clothes. No wonder he had gone shirtless.

Torrhen interjected then, grabbing at his mother’s skirt as he peered at Jon. “Can you take me on the ship?”

Flustered, Dany placed her hand on Torrhen’s head. “No, Torrhen, we were going to eat, remember? And—and this is where Jon works. You don’t want to get him into trouble.”

Jon still looked queer, but he shook himself from his stupor and glanced at Torrhen, whose face had twisted in an unhappy moue. “It’s all right.” He cleared his throat. “Ah. Perhaps another time,” he said to Torrhen, then he looked back to Dany. “I could eat. Thank you for thinking of me. I mean, thank you for asking.”

Color rose high in her cheeks, and she found she could no longer hold his gaze directly. “Of course. I thought you might be as sick of the food at the inn as we are,” she said, forcing a too-bright smile that felt alien on her face. Briefly, she looked at him and saw he had pressed his lips into a smile as well.

“Aye. Might be a nice change from bread and gravy.”

“Yes.” Her smile eased into something more genuine, until she looked at Nymeria, who watched her strangely, brow notched in a suspicious furrow. Dany’s smile slipped, and, quickly, she turned from Jon and the docks, grabbing Torrhen’s hand.

“We’ve passed the fish market a couple times since we’ve been here. There are peddlers selling clams and cockles, things like that. I’m sure it’s good,” she rambled as she began her trek in that direction, not waiting to see if they followed. Nymeria picked up her step to fall in beside her mother and brother, and after a moment Jon appeared at her other side, matching her quick stride.

“Did you have any luck today?” he asked offhand.

Embarrassed by her failure, she didn’t look at him when she answered. “No. It appears people here don’t have much use for a highborn lady from Westeros whose sewing is adequate at best and who doesn’t speak a lick of Braavosi. Or Myrish. Or Pentoshi. Or anything, really.”

She risked a glance at him from her periphery. Jon looked troubled, a frown etched into his face, though he didn’t offer an immediate word of reassurance. Torrhen tugged at her hand impatiently, and she released him so he could skip a few steps ahead of them to pick up a rock from the cobblestone street.

“Why do you have to be a seamstress, anyway?” Nymeria asked suddenly, her displeasure evident in her voice. Dany angled her face toward her daughter.

“We’re going to need more coin at some point, Nymeria.”

Her scowl deepened. “Some point isn’t now. And what are Torrhen and I going to do when you’re gone all day? We’ll be stuck in the inn with nothing to do!”

Dany blew out a breath and looked forward, keeping an eye on Torrhen as he bounded ahead of them. Confronted by her own uselessness and the dire reality of their situation, she felt a pit of helplessness opening inside her. To her horror, she felt the sting of tears in her nose.

“We’ll think of something,” Jon said swiftly, drawing her attention to him. “I’ll ask around at the dock. I’m sure some of the men have wives who work around the city, or perhaps they’ll know of a seamstress who might be willing to take a chance on you.” He glanced at her and Nymeria, hesitant. “And...I can stay with the children sometimes, when I’m not at the dock and you’re elsewhere. If you’re comfortable with that, I mean.”

At his obvious diffidence, Dany’s heart fluttered, even as her stomach roiled with apprehension. Since he’d told her he’d changed his mind, neither of them had broached the issue of Nymeria and whether to tell her the truth. But his staying clearly meant they would have to at some point. It meant he wanted a chance to be the father he’d been denied these last thirteen years.

Which left her wondering what that meant for her and Jon. What did that make them—to each other?

“That would be fine,” she said quietly, once they’d sidestepped a vendor trying to hawk her clay pots. After politely rebuffing the woman, Dany looked to Nymeria and asked tentatively, “What do you think, Nymeria?”

Dour-faced, her daughter shrugged. “I guess.” With that, she walked ahead of them to kick a stone into Torrhen’s path. When the two started bickering with each other, Dany turned back to Jon, whose sulky scowl perfectly matched that of her daughter.

Their daughter.

“It’ll just take some time, that’s all,” she assured him. Her words jarred him from whatever unpleasant thoughts he’d been lost in, and he gave a curt nod.

“I know.”

“Torrhen, you have to sit still when I’m waving a very sharp blade around your head,” Dany threatened when her son squirmed yet again. At her admonishment, he immediately slumped forward. “And sit up straight.”

With a gusty sigh, Torrhen straightened in his spot between her legs. Lifting a fistful of his auburn hair a second time, she pulled it out straight and placed the edge of the dagger to it, then she began to saw at the locks until the hair came away in her hand. She repeated this, only having to chastise her son twice more, until she had finished trimming his whole head. It was messy and a little uneven, though not enough to be terribly noticeable. Instead of hanging in his eyes, now his hair sat closely cropped to his head. It even curled slightly without the extra weight.

Combing her fingers through his hair, she brushed off the loose trimmings and dusted off the collar of his bed gown. Satisfied, she set the dagger aside and urged him to his feet. “All right. Your turn Nymeria,” she said, brushing the locks of auburn hair from her own skirt.

As Torrhen bounced onto the bed beside his sister, Nymeria huffed and rolled off, padding over to her mother by the hearth. Dany smiled as her daughter sat down cross-legged between her legs, slouching forward at the shoulders.

“Not too short,” Nymeria reminded her. Dany pulled back on her daughter’s shoulders so she was forced to sit up straight, then brushed out Nymeria’s tresses with her jade green comb. Her hair came halfway down her back, the ends ragged and uneven.

“Not too short,” Dany agreed, picking up her dagger again. This would be easier than Torrhen’s hair, at least.

A knock on their door stilled her hand. Her grip tightened around the dagger hilt, but before she could demand identification, Jon’s gruff voice came from the other side. “It’s me.”

Her instinctive fear eased at his announcement. “Come in.” The door opened, and she watched him enter slowly, glancing around with uncertainty. All three pairs of eyes regarded him curiously, and he dipped his head in awkward greeting as he shut the door behind him.

“Ah. Hello.” She noticed he was clean, recently bathed, his hair damp and pulled back as it had been on the docks. Dany couldn’t hide a wince. When they’d been younger, she hadn’t really seen it, but now, without the boyish youth obscuring his features, she could finally see it, just how closely he resembled Ned.

“Sorry to intrude,” he continued.

“I was just cutting their hair,” Dany explained, gesturing with the dagger to Nymeria. To demonstrate, she lifted a handful of Nymeria’s silver hair.

“Aye,” he said, then paused, staring at Nymeria, who stared at him in return. He shook his head after a moment, then cleared his throat, glancing at Torrhen. “Well. You did a good job.”

“Thank you.” Dany shot him a droll look. “Perhaps I should change my trade to barber instead of seamstress.”

“I think that’d be barberess,” he offered. When she narrowed her eyes at him, he smiled slightly. “Actually, that’s why I’m here. I might have a lead for you.’s not very prestigious.” He looked apologetic. “Rather beneath you, to be frank.”

She lifted her brow, glancing around the room to indicate their surroundings. “I’m in a derelict inn on the other side of the world, cutting my children’s hair with a weapon my goodsister gave me to ward off thieves and rapers. I would say nothing is beneath me these days, Jon.”

Jon grimaced. “Fair enough. One of the men I work with said his wife is a washerwoman for some of the keyholders of the Iron Bank, and she could use an extra pair of hands. She could pay you. Not much, but it would be something.”

“Oh.” Her displeasure was short-lived as she pushed it aside. “Yes. I mean, of course. It would be silly to say no. I don’t suppose it takes any special skill to wash clothes, right?”

“You can keep your eyes open for other work at the same time,” Jon suggested. “This can be temporary.” Dany shrugged. Whatever she needed to do for her children, to keep them safe and provided for, she would.

“Thank you for asking around for me.”

He ducked his head. “Anything you need,” he said softly.

It was harmless—innocuous, his offer, but something about the words, or more accurately, the tone of voice, brought a heat to her face. She looked away, to Nymeria’s curtain of hair before her.

Thankfully, Torrhen decided he’d had enough of the adult conversation. “Do you ever meet any pirates at the docks?” he asked Jon hopefully.

Jon pretended to think about it. “Sometimes, aye. But they never let us on their ships. I think they’re trying to hide something.”

Torrhen gasped. “Treasure!”

Jon gave a pensive nod. “I think you might be right, lad.”

Nymeria let out an annoyed huff, turning toward her brother. “Pirates aren’t real, Torrhen. Not the kind you’re imagining. They’re criminals.”

Jon made a humorous face. “Better not say that in their earshot.” Nymeria rolled her eyes, and his smile slipped. Dany frowned, confused by her daughter’s sudden moodiness.

“I don’t care!” Torrhen declared. “Mother, can I go to the docks with Jon and see the pirates?”

Dany picked up a handful of Nymeria’s hair again and tried to lighten the mood. “But then some wayward pirate might steal you away from me, and I’d never see you again.”

“Jon will protect me. Right? He’s a ranger for the Night’s Watch!”

At that, Dany glanced at Jon, who had a perplexing look on his face—one of surprise and discomfort—as he regarded the young boy. Finally, he gave a slow nod. Directing his gaze to Dany, he saw that she was watching him. He held her inquisitive stare as he said roughly, “Aye. Of course, I would.”

She swallowed, hoping she could convey with her eyes her gratitude for his promise. He didn’t owe her or Torrhen that, not after what Robb had done to him. But no, of course not, that wasn’t Jon. He wasn’t one to punish a child for his father’s misdeeds. He knew all too well the misery that kind of reprisal engendered.

“See?” Torrhen prodded. “So can I go?”

“Maybe,” Dany said, her voice thin with emotion. She turned her head the other way to look at him over her shoulder. “If you clean your face before bed, I’ll consider it.” Eagerly, Torrhen scrambled off the bed and darted for the water basin, where he splashed his face. She called out to add, “Don’t forget your teeth!”

Jon cleared his throat, drawing her attention back to him. “I’ll be off, then. I mean, to my room.”

“Jon,” she said suddenly, stopping him. “Would you like for me to cut your hair as well? While I’m at it? I can...I can stop by your room after I’ve put the children to bed.” A blush darkened her cheeks at the boldness of her words, though she hadn’t meant anything untoward by her suggestion. She prayed Jon wouldn’t notice her redness.

“Oh—aye. Yes. If you can spare a moment.” He scratched at his beard, eyes distant. “Actually. There’s...something we should discuss while we’re at it. It might be a rather involved conversation.”

Dany studied him. His somber expression was inscrutable, but she thought she knew what this was about. “All right. I’ll be by later.”

Once he was gone, Dany began carefully slicing at Nymeria’s hair. Just a few inches, no more than the width of her palm. Nymeria, who had settled into an irritable silence, finally spoke as Dany combed out the ends to make sure they were even. “Why is he here?”

Dany went still, startled out of her thoughts. “What?”

Jon,” Nymeria said, as if she were speaking to a dull child instead of her own mother. “Why is he here still?”

Dany’s heart climbed into her throat. “He stayed to look after us.”

“But isn’t that desertion? Won’t the Night’s Watch kill him for it?”

She didn’t know how to answer. “They could, yes.”

“Then why would he risk it?”

Dany chewed on her lip. “He’s family, Nymeria.” She attempted to assuage her daughter's wariness. “I thought you liked him. He had some very interesting tales from the Night’s Watch that you seemed to enjoy on the ship.”

Her daughter lifted her shoulder. “I guess.”

“He offered to take you seal-spotting, remember?” she tried again. She didn’t have to see her daughter’s face to know she rolled her eyes.

Yes, and you wouldn’t let him. Remember? But now you’re fine with it? Now you want him to take Torrhen to the docks?”

Dany dropped the whimsy, growing serious. “We’re all alone, Nymeria” she said quietly. “It’s only the three of us now. Four of us. We have no other family. Jon wants to be here with us. To help us.” She wavered before adding, “In a way we’re his only family now, too. He can’t go back to Westeros either, not after forsaking his vows. Do you think you can give him a chance? At least...for Aunt Arya’s sake? She would want you to, you know. Jon’s her brother.”

Nymeria was silent for a moment before she shrugged again. “I suppose so.”

Dany blew out a quiet breath. Well. It was a start.

“Done!” Torrhen crowed, effectively ending Dany’s discussion with Nymeria. His face now shiny and rubbed red-raw, he ran across the room and launched himself onto the bed. “What are you going to read to us tonight, Mother?”

After two bedtime stories—and then a third after Torrhen insisted—Dany tucked Nymeria and Torrhen in and waited till they were asleep before she left the room. Briefly, she entertained the idea of changing out of her bed gown into her day gown, but she didn’t want to bother with her stays and the hard-to-reach laces. And this wasn’t Winterfell; no one here cared about propriety. Dany remembered a time when she herself had no fear of sneaking into Jon’s room in the dead of night.

Of course, her reasons tonight weren’t as wanton as they’d been then. She only meant to cut his hair and listen to whatever it was he needed to say.

So why did she feel so nervous?

As a precaution, she held her dagger in her fist as she made her way to Jon’s room, just in case she should run into any scurrilous characters during her brief walk. At this time of night, drunkards could often be heard roaming the halls, or downstairs in the common room. Actually, they could be heard at any time of day here. Sailors didn’t much care if the sun was up or down when they were in their cups.

Fortunately, she reached Jon’s door without incident and knocked—soft at first then a little harder when she realized he might have fallen asleep. She regretted it instantly—what if she was disturbing what little sleep he got?—and began to retreat until she heard footsteps from inside. Hurriedly, she brushed at her hair to tame the fine, frizzy hairs around her face. After her bath earlier, she’d left it down to dry, but the thick, perpetual humidity that cloaked this port city was wreaking havoc on her hair.

When he opened the door to permit her entry, she ducked inside quickly, lest anyone should see her. Old habits were hard to shake, she supposed.

“Thank you for doing this,” Jon said as he shut the door. She stood in the middle of the room, one similar to her own yet disparate in little ways. There was a bed, though it was smaller than the one for her and her children; and two chairs placed around a table, upon which sat a looking glass and a small basin of water. Since he’d abandoned most of his belongings on the ship, he had considerably less personal effects, just his canvas sack in the corner, some clothes he’d strewn over one of the chairs, his boots neatly stacked side by side at the foot of the bed.

The sparseness of his room made her heart ache. He didn’t have a hearth, no cozy fire to warm the small quarters, but Dany knew that luxury cost extra. Of course, he was used to sleeping in the freezing clime of the Wall, so perhaps, to him, a fire felt like an unnecessary expense.

She turned her attention to him, catching his perusal of her outfit before he could look away. Self-consciously, she fought the urge to fold her arms in front of her chest and shield herself. If she did, she would only draw more attention to her state of dress. Or he would think her uncomfortable, and she’d have to reassure him she was fine, and round and round in circles they would go, trying to comfort the other with false courtesies.

To ease the awkwardness of the moment, she attempted to make a jape. “Truthfully, the favor is a bit selfish on my end. I didn’t want to say anything in front of the children, but with the bun, you look like Lord Stark.”

Alarmed, he glanced back at her. “Ned?” Apologetically, she nodded, and he cursed out loud, yanking at his hair tie to let down his raven locks. “Seven hells. I didn’t realize. It just gets so bloody hot working at the docks, and then it gets in my face—”

“Which is why I offered,” she interrupted, offering him a conciliatory smile. “I thought you might prefer a trim to...well.”

His lip curled in distaste, and he let out a derisive snort to confirm her suspicion. “Aye.” With a grave shake of his head, Jon crossed the room to the table and pulled out one of the chairs to sit in. “Does this work?” he asked, gesturing to the looking glass.

“Oh. Yes.” She stepped up behind him, her heart suddenly tripping over itself.

She was about to touch his hair. Run her fingers through the curly locks, something she used to do when they were just foolish, reckless lovers, stealing moments in the Broken Tower and his chambers. This was far more intimate than she was ready for, something entirely different from cutting her own children’s hair. How had she not realized this when she’d made the offer?

“Dany?” Her name on his tongue stirred her from her thoughts. She met his eyes in the looking glass.

“Yes, this is fine,” she blurted, and before she could rethink it, she sunk her left hand into his hair, dragging the still damp locks between her fingers to smooth out the crimp from his leather tie. Her cheeks felt warm, and she didn’t dare look at his reflection just yet. “Do you care how short it is?” she asked, keeping her voice light.

“Doesn’t matter,” he answered after a moment. His voice sounded tight. “Whatever...whatever you think is best.” He cleared his throat. "At the Wall, no one much cared what you looked like, only how well you swung a blade."

She chewed on her lip, fingering a lock of his hair. It was a shame to cut it, really. It was all coming back to her now, how much she used to love doing just this, combing her fingers through his hair as she lay beside him in his bed, or underneath him, his head cradled against her breast on the floor of the tower. She hadn’t thought of those moments in so long. At some point, those memories had become too painful, too humiliating, and she’d had to lock them away. But, now, the familiar silky slide of his hair between her fingers was like a key turning in that lock.

A redness creeped into her face. “I won’t cut it too short. Just enough to keep it out of your face.” He nodded silently, and with that, she pulled the lock of hair out and away from his scalp then quickly sliced off the length of her little finger.

She worked in silence, picking up pieces, cutting, then moving onto the next section. After a moment, she finally risked a glance in the mirror, relieved to see his eyes were closed. His lips were parted slightly, his breaths deep and labored; it was as if he’d fallen asleep. Mesmerized, she watched his face—until she nearly sliced her thumb down to the bone. Internally cursing herself, she directed her gaze to her work.

“How do you like Braavos?” she asked abruptly, glancing at the mirror to find his eyes open and locked on her reflection.

“It’s different.”

“A lot of cats,” she agreed.

He cracked a smile. “Makes sense. This city stinks of fish.”

She laughed lightly. “It’s quite a conundrum, isn’t it? Braavos is a city built on canals, but cats hate water,” she mused, taking off another lock of hair and dropping it on the floor at her slippered feet. “How do you think so many of them came to be here?”

“I encounter quite a few at the docks,” he said. “Sailors bring them onboard for their voyages to deal with the rodents. They usually keep them in the holds to protect the stores and foodstuffs.”

She met his gaze in the mirror again. “Well. Something else Maester Luwin neglected in his lessons, I suppose.”

His eyes brightened, registering her allusion to his own words some days ago. He smiled again, but it faded after a moment, a faraway look clouding his gaze. Dany turned her attention back to his hair, worried she’d said something wrong.

“Nymeria…” He started, but stopped, and she stilled her hands in his hair till he finished his thought. “Why did you decide to name her that?”

“Oh.” Her pulled her hands away and fiddled with the blade of the dagger, brushing off the splinters of hair that stuck to it. Faintly, she smiled in memory. “It was Arya’s suggestion, actually. She thought it was a strong name for a girl. And fitting, I believe she’d said, since I was from Dorne.” Her smile turned wry, and she looked at him in the mirror. “Or so we thought.”

She continued, “But I knew the first moment I saw her, she was strong. At that point, I couldn’t imagine any other name for her.” She made a face to herself and picked up a lock of hair to cut. “And maybe, selfishly, I thought it might reconcile things between Arya and myself.”

“What do you mean?”

She avoided his gaze, focusing intently on his hair. “When I told Arya Why you had been forced to the Wall...she was very angry with me. She blamed me. For a long time. It hurt, but I couldn’t fault her for that. I guess it was a peace offering of sorts. To show her just how much I valued our friendship.”

He was quiet as he chewed over her admission. “I’m sorry you had to deal with that by yourself,” he said. She glanced at him, but he didn’t meet her gaze in the looking glass. “I should have told her myself. At least then she could have directed some of her anger my way. Instead, I was too craven to face her.”

Dany shrugged half-heartedly. “It’s in the past now. She and I worked through it.”

“Aye.” He blew out a breath. “I don’t know that I have yet, though. Guess I never will now,” he muttered, and she frowned.

“She already forgives you. She’s stubborn, but she spent fourteen years holding a grudge. I think she was simply ready to let it go.” She bit down on her lip, then said softly, “We all were, I suppose.”

They fell quiet again, and Dany combed her hand through his hair to ensure her cuts weren’t too choppy, luxuriating in the slide of the satiny strands through her fingers. Eventually she shuffled to his lefthand side to begin on the hair there. Jon sat up straighter and cleared his throat, folding his arms over his lap.

“Nymeria and Arya got on, then?” he asked.

Dany nodded. “Very well. Arya took her under her wing, in a way. And Nymeria adores her.”

His mouth twitched, a brief, humorless smile. “She doesn’t much like me, does she?”

Dany froze. “Who?”

“Nymeria. She seems...standoffish, lately. Have I done something to offend her?”

She shook her head slowly. “She’s three-and-ten, Jon. She doesn’t like anyone these days,” she assured him, only half in jest. She sliced off another chunk of his hair. “It’s typical for children of that age. You certainly didn’t like me very much at her age, either.”

Jon stared hard at the looking glass. Finally, he said under his breath, “As I recall, I liked you a little too much.”

Her face went hot at his words, and she was momentarily tongue-tied, too flustered to respond. Then, indignantly, she refuted him. “Not at that age—you were always antagonizing me! You were insufferable! No, I’m fairly certain you didn’t care a fig about me until my breasts came in.”

She regretted the vulgarity the moment the words slipped past her lips—no doubt now he was thinking of her breasts and recalling many more things from their youth—judging by the color that filled his cheeks.

He made a sound and scrubbed a hand down his face, shaking his head to himself. “Dany. I was insufferable because I liked you. But you were promised to Robb, remember?” At the name, his voice acquired an edge. She resented the reminder of her dishonest husband, too. “It made me bitter, and...and I suppose I was a bit of a prick to you when we were children.”

She expelled a harsh breath, shoving the thought of Robb away. There was no room for him and his lies here, not right now. Her hands trembled slightly, but she tried to steady them as she took off another of Jon’s beautiful curls. “A bit,” she muttered, then scoffed.

“And you gave it as good as you got, from what I remember,” he retorted.

“Might want to watch your tongue when I’m wielding a weapon near your throat,” she threatened good-naturedly. His lips pressed together, fighting an irreverent smile. In response, Dany felt a knotting in her stomach—one of excitement, that familiar rush that always accompanied the act of flirting with him. Oh, she remembered now, the constant giddiness whenever she’d been in his presence, a state of disequilibrium that had made her feel almost sick to her stomach when she was a girl. When had it started, exactly? It hadn’t always been that way, she knew; it’d been slow-growing, a sapling that had needed nurturing. Perhaps the seed had been planted that day in the godswood, after their silly tiff in the crypts, when he’d come to apologize, in his peculiar Jon Snow way, by teaching her how to defend herself.

Yes, things had changed after that. At least, they had for her.

As she circled to his other side, Jon continued the farce. “Well, you might want to wait till I’ve secured that job for you before you off me.”

“Oh, you’re not getting off that easily, Jon Snow,” she said with a smile, trimming the hair at his right temple. “There’s still a few things you and I need to do.”

He didn’t say anything, and as the silence thickened between them, she grew increasingly uncomfortable. From the side, his expression looked troubled, his brow furrowed. She could hear the echo of her words, ringing in her ears. She’d meant it harmlessly but...had he misinterpreted them? Or were they as laden with unintentional innuendo as she feared?

Blushing, she finished with his hair as quickly as she could, brushing off the loose strands from his ears and shoulder. “There, not too bad,” she said with false cheeriness, looking at his reflection. He merely nodded absently, not offering any opinion on his hair. “Jon. What I said a moment ago...I didn’t mean…” She faltered, still unsure what she’d said or done to aggrieve him.

But he shook his head, coming back to the moment. “No. I know. But you’re right. There’s something we need to talk about.”

“About...Nymeria?” she guessed, a slick slide of fear down her back making the hairs on her arms stand.

“No.” He hesitated. “Maybe. Yes. She’s part of it.” A harried breath sawed through his teeth as he hunched forward, elbows braced on his thighs. Carefully, Dany set the dagger on the table.

“All right,” she whispered, bracing herself, but Jon stalled, dropping his face into his hands. As the silence stretched on longer, she grew agitated.

When he finally lifted his head, she held her breath. “Gods, Dany. I don’t know how to tell you—where to start—”

“Just say it, Jon,” she snapped, reaching the frayed end of her patience. “It can’t be any worse than anything else I’ve heard lately.”

He winced, then crooked his head toward her so his eyes met hers, this time without the aid of the looking glass. “Dany.” He swallowed a couple times before he forced the words out. “I’m not a Stark. Or a Snow, for that matter. Ned isn’t my father. He was never my father.”

She stared at him. “What?” she asked in disbelief. She thought to ask him if he were having a bit of fun at her expense, but the look on his face stopped the question dead on her tongue. He was afraid. But why?

Jon looked away, anxiously rubbing his hands up and down his thighs. “I’m not Ned Stark’s bastard son. Benjen gave me the truth of it at the Wall.”

Her brow furrowed in consternation as she tried to parse his meaning. Not Ned Stark’s son? “But—then who? Whose son are you?”

He studiously avoided her gaze now, not answering right away, as if he were struggling with the words. “Lyanna Stark was my mother. And…” His voice dropped, a low pitch of trepidation. “Rhaegar Targaryen was my father.”

Her mouth twisted. “What?” Then her eyes widened as the full weight of his words hit her. “Rhaegar? You mean—my dead brother?”

“Aye,” he said quietly.

Stunned, she gaped at him. “You can’t be serious.”

“I am.”

“You’re saying—” She stopped and tried again. “So you’re saying—” No. That couldn’t be right.

“Aye,” he repeated to her unspoken question, staring hard at his clenched hands.

Dany’s mind reeled, and for a moment it was like she was back on Blackbird again, being tossed by the violent waves. She reached a hand out to steady herself on the table. “How...why?” she stuttered, not sure what she even intended to ask, but that didn’t deter him.

“Rhaegar didn’t abduct Lyanna. They eloped. They were in love. They were married by the high septon. Then Robert slayed Rhaegar in battle, and Lyanna died bringing me into this world, but not before making Ned promise to—to protect me,” he said, his voice thickening with disgust. “He raised me as his own. Made me believe I was a bastard. His bastard. Then he banished me to the Wall to rot for the rest of my life, taking the truth of it to his bloody grave.”

All she could do was stare at him, rendered mute with shock.

Jon. Her brother’s son. Her nephew.

A Targaryen. He was a Targaryen. Like her.

When she didn’t say anything for a while, he finally looked to her, apprehension in his eyes. “I didn’t know, I swear. Not till Benjen told me—before we left for Eastwatch. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you before now. I didn’t know how. I didn’t know what you would think, how you would feel. And with Nymeria—it just seemed so bloody complicated.”

She’d lain with him. She’d fallen in love with him. She’d whelped him a child.

“Dany?” he asked nervously. He stood, careful like, as if he were approaching a wounded animal. “Say something. Please.”

A strange sound gurgled in her throat, bursting from her lips and surprising them both. It happened again—this time, a shrill bark of laughter. She slapped a hand over her mouth to stifle it, but she couldn’t stop. Her wide eyes watered as her hysteria bubbled over into convulsive snorts.

Jon gawked at her, aghast. She was equally horrified, but his reaction only made her giggle harder. “Are you—are you laughing?” he asked in bewilderment.

“Yes!” she squeaked out between her fingers.


“I don’t—I don’t know! It’s just, it’s funny, isn’t it?” She hiccuped, her chest seizing with a gasp, and she dropped her hand to her stomach, trying to catch her breath as another fit of laughter took her.

To his credit, Jon was not amused. “How is this funny?” he demanded.

“Because…” She snickered, then gasped for air, willing herself to sober up. It didn’t work. Another guffaw slipped free. Her eyelashes were wet, tears beading on the tips and rolling down her cheeks. As she spoke, her words came out halting and breathless.

Because, Jon. Lord—Lord Stark and Lady Ashara. Denied us our name. Our family. To protect us. To, to prevent the Baratheons from finding us and killing us. They thought to bury our family by—by marrying me to Robb and naming you a Snow. Our house would die with us! And us none the wiser. They tried to keep us apart—and still we found each other! No wonder they were so furious! Don’t you see?” At his perplexed look, she howled again, doubling over as she wheezed. She sounded like a mad woman. Maybe she was. Maybe this would be what finally broke her. “They put us under the same roof and never thought to worry about the consequences! But it’s in our blood, Jon! We’re Targaryens!

His face contorted then, anger darkening his expression. “Don’t say that!” he roared, taking a step toward her. His vehemence surprised her, her laughter dying in her throat. “Don’t say that, as if you had no choice in—in loving me!”

Her mirth curdled instantly, his anger igniting her own fury. She straightened to glare at him. “Oh, I had a choice! It wasn’t much, but it was mine,” she hissed, the indignity of it all, all the lies and falsehoods that had shaped her gods-forsaken life finally taking root in her gut. “Robb was never my choice! I couldn’t bar him from my bed forever, but I could keep him from my heart. And every day, every day I made that choice to never let him in there!”

He was on her in a heartbeat, his eyes flashing. He grabbed her shoulder, right where the collar of her bed gown met her throat. He didn’t squeeze, but she could feel the tremor in his fingers. The gentleness in his touch stood at odds with the storm on his face. “Don’t,” he growled. “Don’t talk about him like that. I can’t stand thinking about him touching you.”

She felt the slide of his rough fingertips on her skin, igniting a flush through her body, down into her belly. She lifted her chin defiantly, though her heart raced. Blood rushed in her ears, as loud as the waves in a seashell. No doubt he could feel her pulse in her throat where his fingers pressed. “He was my lord husband. By rights everything I had belonged to him,” she spoke lowly, voice trembling. Her lip curled. “But not my heart. He could never touch that. He could never have what I had already given to you.”

Pained, he closed his eyes and pressed his forehead to hers, so close she could feel the hotness of his quickened breaths on her face. A strangled sound caught in her throat, not a laugh this time, and she closed her eyes as well, suddenly breathless.

“Dany,” he choked out, a ragged exhalation. The word washed over her lips. Still, he didn’t move. She felt the rigid restraint in his stance, the energy that crackled just beneath his skin, woven into his sinew and bones. Only his fingers moved, the tip of one sliding beneath the collar of her gown to touch the unseen skin there, following the line of her collar bone as far as he could without moving his hand.

His touch felt like an entreaty. A promise. But he was hesitating. She could feel it.

Her chest was tight, burning, screaming for air. Finally, she released the breath she was holding and took the leap.

“Do it, Jon,” she whispered. Pleaded. Her lips quivered. “Do it already.”

Roughly, he shoved the collar of her gown aside, pushing his hand under the fabric to grasp her naked shoulder. He slipped his hand to her nape, palming it, holding her captive. Still, he wavered, waiting. But just as her frustration peaked, he jerked her forward by her neck, seizing her mouth when her lips parted in a gasp.

It was clumsy—lips bumping, sliding past, unpracticed and unsure. Like their first kiss on that battlement, all those years ago.

When she felt his tongue graze her lips, she trembled. He stopped, briefly, but then his tongue was in her mouth, tasting her, stroking her tongue. He tasted of sour wine, the watered-down stuff they served at the inn; he must have gone down to the common room to pass the time while he waited for her. Dany moaned, a soft, sweet sound he echoed, just a gentle vibration on her lips. His fingers tightened on her neck, blunt tips digging into her spine. Emboldened, she fisted her hands in the front of his tunic and pulled him against her.

He was solid and strong. Unyielding, in his kiss and in the way his body crowded her against the table. As he brushed his tongue against hers, his lips parting hers wide, he released her neck and bracketed her face in his hands, holding her still to plunder her mouth. He was bolder now, his kiss starved, his teeth pricking her lips.

Yes, yes. Her head spun. This, this was how it always should have been. The two of them, always.

She could have cried, if not for the pulsing, demanding ache between her legs that took precedence over the tears.

No longer content to be passive, Dany pushed up on her tiptoes, thrusting her tongue into his mouth. Jon choked on a sound of surprise, mouth going slack under hers as she sucked at his full bottom lip, pulling it between her teeth. His hands were everywhere then—her shoulders, her waist, her hips, her arse. He cupped her through her gown, her cheeks firmly gripped in his palms. She whimpered as he jerked her flush against him, the hard, insistent line of his erection unmissable, pressed against her belly.

Abruptly, he turned his head to catch his breath, a shuddering gasp of air. But as soon as she opened her eyes, his mouth was upon her again—this time, her jaw, her neck, the hollow of her throat, his tongue licking the salt of her skin. His thick beard scratched a deliciously bristly trail in the wake of his mouth.

“Jon,” she whispered, grabbing at his shoulders. His grasp tightened on her arse, and her head fell back as he scraped his teeth over the delicate flesh under her jaw.

She pulled insistently at his tunic, but it took him a moment to catch her hint. Or perhaps he was just too reluctant to separate from her. Eventually, he lifted his arms over his head, allowing her to yank his tunic up. He had to grab the rest of it when she couldn’t reach any higher, and stripped it off, flinging it aimlessly across the room. When she touched the bare skin of his shoulders, she sucked in a breath. Chest heaving, Jon stood as still as a sentinel as she took him in, bare from the waist up. No, this was definitely not the same boy she remembered, nor the same body she had mapped with her own hands as a girl in her youth.

He was almost a stranger to her now. The thought should have saddened her, yet it filled her with renewed determination. She would simply have to relearn his topography—every new muscle, every new scar.

Hands shaking, she touched his chest, feeling the tickle of hair on her fingers, the rapid beat of his heart. It felt like holding a baby rabbit in her palm, fragile and frightened. Awed, she pressed her hand against his sternum, harder, as if she could reach inside him and take his heart for her own.

At her touch, Jon let out a ragged breath and seized her in his arms again, claiming her mouth once more. This time, the kiss was frantic, full of desperation, as if they couldn’t get as close or as deep as they needed to.

With a predatory growl, Jon hefted Dany onto the table, stepping between her parted legs. Water sloshed over the sides of the basin on the table behind them, and her hands scrambled at his shoulders, trying to get a finger-hold on her balance. He shoved at her bed gown, bunching it to her hips, then his hands were underneath, slipping under the waist of her smallclothes. Dany shifted from side to side so he could wriggle them down, under the swells of her arse and down her thighs. She gasped when her bare arse hit the cool tabletop, her already tight nipples pebbling into points beneath her gown.

Once Jon had yanked her smallclothes off her feet, she pulled his face back to hers, sliding her tongue into his mouth. She felt the edge of his teeth and ran her tongue along them, drawing a deep groan from his chest. Impatiently, Dany dropped her hand to his trousers and pulled at the front ties. As they kissed, she fumbled with the laces, yanking the eyelets through the grommets, her knuckles brushing his straining erection through his smallclothes.

He tipped his head away from hers with a gasp. “Wait,” he panted, but she already had her hand inside his smallclothes. When she took his cock in hand, his shaft thick and engorged, she whimpered. He was hot to the touch, smooth as stone, like he’d been tempered by fire. Exactly as she remembered, though he felt heavier in her palm now.

A violent shudder racked his entire body. “Dany,” he groaned, a distressed catch in the plea. She watched her hand as she stroked him, mesmerized as his cockhead disappeared into the grip of her fist. With a grunt, Jon jerked forward in her grasp, bracing himself on the table. His seed beaded at the tip, a milky dribble of cum that caught on her palm. She rubbed it down into his shaft as she stroked him, slicking his flesh.

“Dany—gods—” he choked out, his eyes squeezed shut. She could feel his cock pulsing in her hand, pounding with the surge of blood and arousal. With a tremulous breath, she pushed his smallclothes down and pulled his cock toward her, hiking her legs up around his hips. He grabbed her waist and pushed into the cradle of her thighs. His cock bumped her nether lips, slipping through the glossy slickness there, and Jon loosed a hoarse, low-pitched groan. Despite herself, Dany tensed, inner muscles clenching in defense. Releasing his cock, she gripped the edge of the table in both hands.

“Do it,” she told him, stomach tightening when she felt him surge forward. His hips juddered, the shaft of his cock sliding upward against her cunt. When his tip grazed her clitoris, sparks of pleasure shot through her. She gasped and clenched her eyes shut, instinctively pressing toward him.

“Dany—I—fuck—” He grunted and abruptly pulled away from her, a sticky wetness gushing over her thigh. Confused, she peeled her eyes open, staring at him as he bowed his head forward.

“Sorry,” he gasped. “Gods. Fuck me—sorry. I’m so sorry.” He was still shaking between her legs, his cock pulsating against her thigh until he was fully spent. His seed slipped down between her legs, puddling on the table. 

“Oh,” she breathed out, finally understanding what had happened. After a pregnant pause, she lifted her hands to his sides, then, slowly, petted his flanks, feeling the sharp contraction of his ribs as he panted. Her slippers were dangling from her toes, she noticed. Dazed, she jiggled her feet to lose them, and they clattered quietly to the floor.


He shook his head, his shorter locks falling across his forehead. He still refused to look at her. After a moment, she took his jaw in her hands, lifting his face to hers. His expression twisted in a grimace, his cheeks ruddy. Her heart twinged with a sweet pang of sympathy and affection.

“It’s all right,” she murmured and pressed her mouth to his cheek, his beard tickling her lips. Jon shook his head again, and she breathed him in deeply. She smelled sweat and the salty seabreeze on his skin. “It’s all right,” she repeated, more firmly this time.

“I’m sorry,” he ground out, the words thick with embarrassment. When she felt him trying to pull away, she held tight.

“It’s all right,” she crooned again. “It’s all right, Jon.” Over and over, like a mantra. A hushed prayer. Maybe it was as much for her as it was for him—simply saying it was like loosening a bolt inside her. One twist, and another, as she chanted the words, pressing kisses to his cheek and the fading cut near his eye, his jaw, his ear, his neck, his mouth.

There, she lingered. Soft, quick kisses, her lips fluttering against his like a moth’s wings, until his lips parted and her tongue could touch his, coaxing, beseeching. Pulling back, she cupped his face and pushed his shorn hair off his forehead to hold his bemused gaze.

“Jon,” she said, just to say it.

He grimaced. “I’m sor—”

She pressed her fingers to his lips to silence him, then replaced them with her mouth, kissing him hungrily. Gradually, he came to life again with her kiss, his hands tightening around her waist, fingers splayed across her back. With each stroke of her tongue, she felt his uncertainty ebb and fade. Growing restless, her cunt damp and exposed, Dany squirmed on the table until he tore his mouth from hers and reached down to take her gown in hand. She lifted her arms for him, and, carefully, he pulled it over her head. Her hair cascaded through the collar, floating down around her face like a storm cloud of silver lightning.

The shock of the cold air on her breasts was jarring. Suddenly, she was aware of every flaw and imperfection on her body, made even more glaring by the perfection of him before her.

She went stiff on the table, arms dropping to shield herself, but Jon kissed her before she could, tongue and teeth invading her mouth as he groaned softly. One hand came up to frame her face, stroking her hair back from her cheek. Trembling, she grabbed his waist and lifted into him, her pebbled nipples grazing his chest.

“Dany,” he whispered, a quaver in his voice. She closed her eyes, reveling in the press of his skin on hers, shoving down the budding insecurity. It was silly to worry, silly to fear him, the first man to ever love her, the first to ever touch her. Arching into him, she gasped into his mouth as she rubbed against his chest, the sparse, downy hair abrading her tender nipples.

“Take me to bed,” she whispered, then she was in his arms, clinging to his neck, her legs banded around his back, as he carried her across the room.

They stumbled onto the bed, Jon laying her down before he stopped to remove his trousers and smallclothes. Crawling between her legs, he hefted her onto the pillow, her silver-gold hair fanned around her. He leaned in to kiss her again, but when she pushed on his shoulders, he pulled back in surprise. She nudged him again until, finally, he shifted his legs out from between hers and moved to her side. The bed was narrow, and as she pushed him onto his back, she rolled with him, climbing on top of him to reach his mouth again.

Any previous doubt was gone now, dissipating with every stroke of her tongue on his, every slide of his muscled thigh between her legs. Dany sat up to admire him more thoroughly, something she had wanted to do moments ago. She gave herself that time now, petting her hands over his chest, down his abdomen, until he flinched when she neared his groin.

His cock had softened from his premature issue, the tip glistening with his cum, but it was still flushed deep red. If it was as it was before, he would still be too sensitive for her to touch. It would be too soon to try to take him inside her again just yet.

But that was good.

“Dany?” he asked, drawing her gaze to his face. He regarded her with apprehension.

There was a question on his tongue, but she didn’t let him ask it, leaning down to kiss him, hoping if her words didn’t assure him, her actions would. She felt his hesitation, briefly, then his hand came up to her face as she suckled on his tongue. She didn’t give him a chance to do more, however, releasing his lips to kiss down his neck to his chest.

It was a familiar path, one she’d taken before and could remember with sweet fondness now. Like walking through a garden where the hedges had overgrown: recognizable, yet divergent, and still, her feet knew where to step, which path to take, just as her lips did now. Down his sternum, where a new fuzz tickled her lips. She discovered a faint, discolored scar close to his lefthand nipple, one so long she could follow its trail all the way to the right side of his ribcage. She would ask him someday about it, the story behind it—behind every one of them.

Her hands followed her mouth, before branching out on their own, stroking up and down his flanks, outward circles over his pectoral muscles. When her mouth found his nipple, his stomach clenched with a sharp breath. “Seven hells,” he grunted, his hand shooting out to his side to fist the bed sheets as she worried it with her teeth. She remembered doing this very thing before, how it had amused her then to see his reaction, his bewilderment and arousal. Laving it with her tongue, she watched him through the fringe of her eyelashes, his chin straining upward as he pressed his head back in the pillow, mouth agape.

She journeyed farther south, tongue following a natural path down between the chiseled ridges of his abdomen. She had to shimmy backward down his legs as she lightly kissed his stomach, breathing in the scent of his skin. His diminished erection still rested on his pelvis, and he tensed as she neared it, stomach hollowing.

“What are you doing?” he asked in a strained whisper. She kissed the line of his hip bone, the muscle that wreathed his pelvis, leading her to his cock.

“Learning you again,” she answered, mouthing the words against his skin. His eyes closed shut, teeth sawing at his bottom lip, as she gingerly took his cock in hand. She was careful, holding him in her palm. He wasn’t soft, exactly, and she could feel him stiffening in her grasp already.

“Fuck,” he breathed out, throat constricting with a hard swallow. Tentatively, she ran her thumb along the underside of him, from root to head, then again, slowly, as he tensed and shifted underneath her, breathing shallowly, until the veins stood in relief, like the lodes in marble. His breaths became more labored, and she watched his cock grow thick and crimson, the tip weeping.

When she brought his cock to her mouth, she flicked her tongue out to taste him. He gasped, his erection jumping in her hand, and she licked a circle around his head, peering up at him to gauge his reaction. “Dany—oh, fuck me,” he groaned as she sucked him between her lips, the salt of him making her mouth fill with saliva.

As she worked him over with her tongue, wetting his cock, she felt the steady throb of desire between her legs. It was almost foreign to her, it’d been so long since she’d felt it—the pulse of her cunt, the slickness of arousal. It slipped down her thighs now and only intensified with every groan and curse that spilled from his lips in that rich Northern burr as she sucked, pulling her lips up his shaft to the head then down to the root—or as close to before she gagged and teared up, having to pull off for a gasping breath.

Her face was flushed hot, her jaw already sore—it’d been too long since she’d had his cock in her mouth, and it was bigger than she remembered—and she only meant to restore him back to his previous vitality, anyway.

Wiping the spittle from her lips, Dany crawled back up to him, bringing her face close to his. Eyes dark, he watched her hungrily, seeming to understand what she wanted; his mouth parted, lips notching between hers as they met in an open-mouthed kiss, her tongue massaging his much like it had done his cock. With a groan, Jon grabbed her waist, and she situated her knees on either side of his hips to straddle him, grabbing his cock between her legs to lift him to her cunt. This time, when he grazed her honeyed folds, she seemed to blossom, her cunt swollen and slick as she rubbed him against her entrance, her inner muscles rippling in anticipation of being cleaved in half, her sheath filled.

“Jon,” she sighed, then she angled her hips back and sank down onto him, working his cock inside her until she was fully seated. She sucked her bottom lip between her teeth against the slight pinch, the stretch of having her cunt opened.

Oh yes, he was certainly bigger than before.

She quaked on top of him, momentarily lost in the sensation. When she felt his hands on her thighs, she dropped her chin to look at him. His eyes were hooded, mouth slack. He looked as if he’d just drunk an entire jug of dreamwine.

Experimentally, Dany braced her hands on his chest and canted forward, rocking on top of him. His sleepy eyes widened in amazement, the pupils black and fat with want as he rasped out her name.

She began to ride him in earnest then, picking up her pace. It wasn’t much different than riding a horse, she thought. The movement was the same—the sway of her hips, the clutch of her knees, the burn in her thighs. The main difference, of course, being the fat cock inside her.

“Yes,” she gasped, sliding up and down his cock with small juts of her hips. She threw her head back, the ends of her hair tickling the small of her back as she bounced, a slow-roiling heat flushing her from her belly to her face.

Leveraging himself on his hand, Jon sat up to kiss her, parting her lips and thrusting his tongue into her mouth. Dany fisted the soft curls of his hair and returned the kiss with equal fervor. There was a hollowness gaping inside her, a pit opening, and she couldn’t fill it fast enough, even as his cock moved inside her. It only made her insatiable.

She murmured his name again, pleading, and he gathered her in his arms, rolling her to the side. He put his hand between her head to cushion it against the wall, then dragged her underneath him, his cock slipping out of her cunt. Just as quickly, he pushed back into her, making both of them groan in relief. Her legs came up to wrap around him, unwilling to let him go again. He began to move on top of her, stroking himself inside her as he found a steady rhythm.

Jon dropped his head to her breast, his mouth clumsily opening against her nipple to suck it between his lips. Dany gasped and snaked her arms around his neck to hold him close, the pressure of his mouth on the furled bud making her cunt flutter around his cock. Growling, he sucked harder, until her breast was tender and red-tipped, then he switched to the other tit to do the same.

“Jon!” she begged, lifting her hips into his. His thrusts faltered as he sucked at her breasts, coating them in his saliva, biting the pebbled tips with his teeth. She bumped her pelvis to his, seeking relief for the incessant ache that had suddenly become the center of her world. “Please!”

Jon wedged his hand between their bodies, fingers scrabbling through her downy pubic hair to part the apex of her folds where her clitoris nested. As soon as his knowing fingers touched the plump little nub, she howled, throwing her head back. “Yes! Right there!”

Deftly, he stroked her, playing her like a long-memorized melody, a tune even she’d forgotten. Pleasure coiled low in her gut as he rubbed her clitoris, his cock holding her wide open. He’d lost the rhythm of his thrusts, instead hovering over her as he focused on pleasuring her, his back arched, head at her breasts while he sucked at one nipple and pinched the other, his other hand moving between her legs, spreading her cum around, wetting her clit as he rubbed it vigorously.

Her thighs quivered, and she dropped her heels to the bed, spreading her legs wide for him like some shameless whore, and she loved it. “Don’t stop, don’t stop,” she mewled, scratching deep furrows down his sweat-slick back to knot her fingers in his hair. That coil inside her wound tighter and tighter still until, finally, gloriously, her release crashed through her, her limbs going rigid as she bowed off the bed with a guttural, animal cry. Jon groaned, too, when her cunt tightened around his cock as tight as a vise. Her legs shook, tremors of pleasure racking her whole body, and he kept strumming her cunt, mouth tugging at her nipple, until she gasped and tried to close her legs around him.

“Jon,” she whimpered. He seemed to understand, removing his hand as he lifted his face from her breast to look at her. They were both breathing hard, and for a moment, he watched her, like a wolf stalking his prey just before he lunged.

But any true prey would run. And Dany did not run. She welcomed him when he pounced, like a she-wolf meeting her mate.

Or like two dragons dancing.

He kissed her brutally, teeth lashing her lips as he snarled, easily finding the rhythm he had lost. Planting his arms on either side her head, he snapped his hips against hers, panting even as he snaked his tongue into her mouth. He growled some wordless sound, pushing his cock into her sopping wet cunt with rough, sharp stabs, the lewd sounds of their fucking making her wild.

“Yes, Jon—yes,” she gasped, clawing at his shoulders, his back, her legs hiked up high on his waist. His thrusts changed then as he notched his hips to hers, rubbing and rutting against her, his breaths fast and loud as they gyrated together in some mindless, feral ritual of their bodies. His belly was hard against her belly, her soft cunt splitting, giving way to the hard rod of his cock, closing around him with lewd squelches of flesh and wetness. He wedged an arm under her back, clutching her arse cheek in his hand to press her against him. He kept hitting the tender nub of her clit as he ground into her, rubbing her past the point of pain until she was coming again, small, deep flutters of pleasure in her cunt, only a small crest instead of the terrifying swell that had all but drowned her before.

Moaning softly, Jon shuddered in the grip of her cunt, hips jerking forward in spasms. “Dany—gonna—” He cut off with a grunt, and for a second she saw the whites of his eyes. Abruptly, he pulled out of her, reaching down to grab his cock. His eyes screwed shut, and with a groan, he spilled his seed on her belly, quickly stroking his cock to wring his climax out of him. Stunned, Dany stared at his face, twisted in pleasure, as she tried to make sense of the last moment.

It took her entirely too long to understand why he hadn’t finished inside her. Of course.

Jon didn’t say anything, lips parted as he greedily gulped down air, cock still in hand. His warm, sticky seed puddled on her belly before slipping down the side of her hip then under to the bed. Slowly, he lowered his face to her breast, resting his forehead as he caught his breath. Boneless, his entire body slumped on top of her, and she lifted her own heavy arms up to wrap around his head, cradling him to her chest. His stomach rubbed against hers, pressing his wet seed into her belly. He didn’t seem to mind.

“Dany,” he murmured, the sound almost lost to the quiet of the room.

That was all he said.

That was all she needed to hear.

Chapter Text


Before now, Jon had never known what it felt like to wake up next to her.

As it was, he’d almost forgotten what it felt like to lie beside her, every inch of her pressed against every inch of him, her warmth keeping the chill of the room at bay. More than anything, that was the luxury he had missed the most in those fourteen years, as rare as it had been even then: just the simple comfort of her person next to his. The pressure of her foot on his shin, her back against his chest, rising and falling with her gentle breaths to reassure him: I am here. This is real.

With a deep, tremulous breath, he nuzzled into the silky curtain of her hair, his nose and mouth finding her scalp. She smelled of plain tallow soap, the very same he used as it was all the inn provided. It retained that pungent, unctuous odor of fat and animal flesh, yet, on her, it was the sweetest thing he’d ever smelled.

He touched her bare shoulder, his callused fingers following the slope of her arm down to the bend of her elbow. Like samite, he marveled. Had she’d always felt this smooth? Had the cruel passage of time dulled his memory so thoroughly? He felt like a blind man learning to see again. It both thrilled and terrified him.

As his fingers trailed back up to her shoulder, Daenerys stirred. Stilling his hand, he listened to her sigh and wondered if he had managed to ruin the moment by waking her. He rued that he should be damned with the hands of a man who’d labored for half his life and not those of a lord who had men to do his work for him.

“Jon?” she murmured, her tongue thick with sleep. The soft vulnerability and uncertainty in her voice made his chest tighten with a sweet ache, but before he could respond, she sucked in a choked gasp and shot up in his bed.

No! Oh, no,” she moaned as she tossed the bedsheets aside and lurched to her feet. Frozen in alarm, he watched her scramble around his room, still completely bare-arsed as she snatched up her clothes from the floor, all the while muttering to herself, “No, no, no.

His stomach sank. “Dany,” he started warily, but what could he say? Should he apologize in the harsh morning light of her dawning regret? The words lodged in his throat, tasting as bitter as bile, as he watched her shimmy into her bed gown. She found her smallclothes next and hastily yanked them up under her gown, her face flushed, hair wild.

“My slippers,” she muttered to herself, spinning around as she searched for them frantically. She passed the table and hastily pocketed her dagger. With her back to him again, he saw her gown had gotten caught in her smallclothes. With a sympathetic wince, he sat up.

“Dany, your gown—”

She didn’t appear to hear him, dropping to her knees to look beneath the furniture for her slippers. She found one under the table and the other by the bed, and she wriggled this way and that way till her feet were jammed into her slippers.

She scrambled to her feet. “I have to go,” she whispered, but she didn’t really look at him when she spoke. He wasn’t even sure she still realized he was there.

Then, she was moving toward the door. Panicked, Jon lunged for her, grabbing her by the arm to stop her. “Wait!” Belatedly, he realized he was still naked, his flaccid cock dangling all bold-like right in front of her. With a fierce blush, he snatched at the bedsheets and yanked the corner over his groin.

“I have to go, Jon!” she hissed, more frantic this time. “My—the children—they’re alone, and if they wake up and I’m not there—”

At her words, his relief was swift as a rock avalanche, smothering the rising tide of shame and disappointment. She was running to her children, not from him. Not because she regretted lying with him.

Gently, he said, “Then you might want to untuck your gown from your underpants.”

Glancing down, Daenerys patted around her waist until she found what he meant. Her cheeks went red, and she jerked at her gown until it was loose in the back, tumbling toward the floor. She made a small, choked sound of defeat and buried her face in her hands.

Others take me. I wasn’t supposed to be here all night. I fell asleep. I can’t believe I fell asleep.” A muffled, pitiful wail. “Gods, I’m an awful, selfish woman.”

And just like that, the guilt returned as swiftly as it had gone. He took a step toward her. “It’s not your fault—I’m the one who…” He flushed, remembering the night before. He’d been a fiend, all but pouncing on her like a beast who hadn’t eaten in—well, fourteen damn years. “It’s my fault. I shouldn’t have—don’t blame yourself. It was me. I—”

With a huff, she dropped her hands to pin him with her watery, exasperated gaze. “I’m not going to argue with you about who was at fault last night when we both know we’ve always had very little self-control when it comes to the other.”

He had no immediate response to that, momentarily astonished by the brazenness of her words. “It can’t be that late. Or, rather, too early,” he said instead, finding his tongue again. “The Titan hasn’t roared, which means it can’t be sunrise yet. And...I don’t sleep for long periods of time. I can’t.”

Distraught, she wrung her hands. “Doesn’t matter. I shouldn’t be here .

She turned to the door, and he made to follow her on instinct. “Maybe I should come with you—”

She spun back around. “No!” she balked, face stricken pale. Aghast, he pulled up short. “No, that will—that’ll only make it worse.” He flinched, and she looked at him imploringly. “I’m sorry. It’s not you, Jon. I really have to go.” She scurried to the door, throwing him one last pleading look. “I’ll see you later. I swear it.”

With that, she was gone, the door shutting behind her with a quiet finality. He half-expected her to close her gown in the door with how quickly she’d fled, how quickly she’d wished to get away from him.

Jon blew out a breath. Perhaps he was being unfair. Falling into the usual traps of self-recrimination and loathing. She’d told him she had to get back to her children. He understood that. Still, the pull of misgiving was strong.

Running a hand through his hair, he was briefly confused when his fingers slipped much more easily through the shorter strands. He’d almost forgotten Daenerys had shorn half the length of his hair off the night before. It felt like a lifetime had already passed since then.

Disconcerted, Jon collapsed on the edge of the bed, finally able to release the bedsheets. He leaned forward and braced his elbows on his thighs with a deep breath in, then out.

He could smell her still. The musk of her cunt, the commingling scents of their lovemaking, still on his cock and fingers. He knew he should clean up before his work at the docks, but the thought of washing her off his skin filled him with dread. He’d already forgotten the smell of her once—if last night should be the only night he got with her, he didn’t want to forget it again.

He couldn’t recall the taste of her; the realization was sudden, a sharp twinge of regret in his gut. Why didn’t he taste her last night? He should have opened her up and gorged himself as if it were his last meal. It very well could have been his only chance.

With a groan, Jon dropped his head in his hands. Seven hells, there were so many things he should have done. He should have taken the time to worship her. He should have told her she was beautiful; he should have told her she was still the most gorgeous woman he’d ever laid eyes on. That was the very least he could have done once he had her naked.

No, he should have told her he loved her. That was why he’d come back, after all, why he’d forsaken his vows. She’d deserved to hear that, to know that, before he’d attempted to bed her. 

Hang it all, she was right. He had no bloody restraint when it came to her.

Just then, the distant roar of the Titan startled him out of his reproachful thoughts. “Fuck me,” he cursed under his breath, leaping from his bed and scuttling to the wash basin to rinse off, much to his regret. He was going to be late to the docks now.

Surprising, that—somehow he’d slept later than he’d thought possible.

After he’d arrived at the docks in Ragman’s Harbor and endured his expected tongue-lashing for his tardiness, Jon kept his head down and got to work, trying, and failing, to put Daenerys out of his head. As distracted as he was, it was a wonder he didn’t drop any of the crates and barrels as he moved them on and off the boats.

When the sun was high in the sky and Jon’s tunic thoroughly soaked with sweat, he and a few of his fellow dockhands stopped for a quick meal. A young street urchin, no older than Nymeria, came by to peddle her father’s fresh shellfish to the men. When Jon paid for his helping of mussels, she tried to offer him something extra, with a shy smile and dead eyes. Sickened, Jon gently turned her away but gave her more coin than the mussels were worth. The girl scuttled over to the next dock to hawk her shellfish to the dockhands there.

“You look different,” his fellow dockhand, Vogoros, told him, but his next words were unintelligible to Jon.

“What?” he asked as he pried into a mussel with a small knife. For the most part, he could understand the other men’s broken Common Tongue, though they often slipped into the trade tongue or Braavosi without realizing it. Wresting the shell open, Jon slurped the slippery, gritty mussel down. He’d eaten worse things on the Wall—but not many.

Vogoros gestured to his own head, indicating with the blunt tip of his finger his own close-cropped hair. Then he gave a toothy grin. “Pretty hair.”

“Oh.” Self-consciously, Jon fingered the damp ends of his shortened hair then slicked it back from his forehead. Thanks to Daenerys’ handiwork, his hair stayed in place. “My friend took care of it.”

“Ah.” Vogoros nodded. He managed to open his mussel without the use of a blade. “Your woman?”

Jon hesitated in his response, tossing the empty shell back into the sea. Before, he would have reflexively responded, “Not my woman.” But after last night, it felt too cavalier to dismiss her like that. She was something to him, after all: the mother of his child. The woman he loved. She was his family. His to protect, his to cherish. That wouldn’t change, even if she objected to being called “his woman.” And she would, too, he knew that much. The thought brought a fleeting smile to his face.

“The one who can help your wife with her washing, Daenerys,” Jon explained, for lack of a better explanation.

Vogoros nodded, cracking open another shell to get at the plump, briny creature inside. Jon did the same with his next mussel, slipping the blade between the two shells. “She help soon? Sirella need her now, or she find someone else.”

“I’ll tell her. Where should she go?”

“Sirella does wash at our house. Your woman come there.” Vogoros slurped down another mussel. Unlike Jon, he preferred to chew it. He squinted at Jon. “You sleep at Green Eel?”

“Aye.” He tossed another emptied shell off the side of the pier. Vogoros looked thoughtful. Or maybe the mussel had been bad.

“We have rooms to sleep in our house. The last family with us left.” He made a motion with his hand as if to say they’d sailed away. “He was a dockhand, too. Illorno. Gone to Pentos.”

“You’d let us live with your family?” Jon asked, surprised. Vogoros grinned and rubbed his fingers together.

For a price. Of course.

Jon turned the offer over in his head. They couldn’t stay in the Green Eel forever. It wasn’t ideal. Not that any of this was ideal. Daenerys deserved more than this; she deserved a life of silk and luxury. But at the very least, she deserved a chance to make a life here for her and her children. She shouldn’t have to always live on the run, ready to pick up and leave at a moment’s notice.

Considering how she’d left things this morning, she probably meant for him to leave her be until she sought him out herself, but he decided he couldn’t wait that long. After he left the docks late that afternoon, freshly sun-baked and palms chafed raw, Jon headed back to the inn to talk to Daenerys. He didn’t waste time going back to his room to clean up, though as soon as he knocked on her door, he regretted not changing out of his stained tunic. At least Vogoros had given him a wad of mint leaves to chew on after their meal.

Too late to turn back now, he thought, hearing the sharp twist of the bolt from inside. Reflexively, he flexed his fists at his sides, not sure what to expect from her after last night. When her face appeared in the slender opening of the door, he immediately held up his hands to ward off any forthcoming protest.

“I don’t mean to bother you,” he began in a rush. “Vogoros, the dockhand I work with—his wife needs you to come tomorrow. For the wash. I can take you to their house.”

“Oh.” She blinked, no doubt overwhelmed by the abrupt barrage of information. Did she look different? Her hair was pulled back in a simple braid, loose wisps framing her face. That was the only noticeable change since he’d seen her last. That and the day gown she wore now. “All right,” she said slowly.

Jon licked his lips, lowering his hands to his sides. “All right.” He searched for something more to say, anything to continue the conversation. “They have a room for rent as well. In their house. He offered it to us. If you’re interested.”

Her violet eyes widened. “Really?”

He nodded. “It might be better than staying here indefinitely. And...this way, your children wouldn’t be far from you during the day.”

Daenerys glanced over her shoulder at her children, who were playing a game of knucklebones by the hearth. Still, she seemed uncertain. Jon understood immediately.

“I don’t mean—I don’t have to come. I can stay here. Or find somewhere else.”

She looked back to him sharply, the skin between her brows creasing in confusion. It cleared, the wrinkles smoothing, and she frowned. “You shouldn’t have to stay in an inn forever, either.”

Jon blew out a breath and forced a tight smile. “Wouldn’t be my worst accommodations.” She didn’t laugh at his poor attempt to lighten the mood, only frowned deeper.

Daenerys shook her head. “We’ll go tomorrow. Together.”

He nodded and lingered in silence, staring at her. She was quiet, too, likely waiting for him to speak. He should say something. There was a lot he wanted to ask her—about last night and this morning—but it wasn’t anything he could say out loud, not with her children in the room.

Belatedly, Jon opened his mouth, but words failed him. Daenerys drew her bottom lip between her teeth, the pink flesh turning white as she worried it. He snapped his mouth closed, the memory of that mouth on him the night before slamming into him so suddenly, he actually reeled backward. His whole body flushed hot with arousal, his groin stirring traitorously.

“Tomorrow,” he blurted, voice husky and strained, and turned away without another word before he could embarrass himself further. Then he stalked to the safety of his room where he could relieve himself of this damn affliction.

It was early evening, the sun steadily sinking behind the buildings that lined the bustling streets of the city, domed and flat-topped alike. The cobblestones were slick from a recent rain shower, and the air was thick with moisture. Already, Jon’s clothes felt weighted down with water, though he’d only just stepped out of Vogoros’ house with Daenerys and her children. Perspiration beaded on his forehead, and he wiped at it ineffectually with his sleeve. After weeks on the docks, he thought he would have acclimated to the stifling humidity by now.

Torrhen ran a few steps ahead of them then dropped into a crouch beside a fruit cart under which he’d seen a black cat scurry at their approach.

“Torrhen, I just mended those pants,” Daenerys called to him, exasperated, sighing as her son crawled across the stones on hands and knees, cheek pressed to the ground in his search for the cat.

Jon lengthened his stride to reach the boy, scooping him up by his armpits and setting him on his feet before the fruit vendor could catch sight of Torrhen and accuse him of trying to pilfer a melon. “Mind your mother, lad,” he said, nudging him forward with a hand on his shoulder.

With a petulant huff, Torrhen trudged forward, a dispirited slouch to his shoulders. Jon faltered at the sight, momentarily struck dumb with the memory of a young Bran being turned away from the courtyard by Ser Rodrik when Bran tried to join Jon and Robb’s sword lesson. He and Robb had laughed and teased the younger boy, good-naturedly, of course. They'd been young then, too, around one-and-three and still attached at the hip. At that age, Daenerys had been little more than a nuisance to Jon. Competition for Robb’s attentions—and a frustration he hadn’t quite worked out yet, green as he was.

Jon shook off the memory, and with it the dark cloud that accompanied any thought of Robb these days. Unfortunately, there were very few childhood memories that didn’t involve him in some way or another.

Slowing to a stop, Jon waited for Daenerys and Nymeria to catch up, then they continued on their way, with Torrhen leading their little pack a couple paces out front.

“Thank you,” Daenerys said, for his assistance with Torrhen.

He gave Daenerys a wan smile. “Don’t want you to have to wash more than you already do,” he told her. She tipped her chin in acknowledgment, though she didn’t quite meet his eyes. He stifled a sigh.

It had been this way since they’d lain together, even after they’d moved all their belongings, meager as they were, into Vogoros’ house. As agreed upon, the following day Jon had taken Daenerys to meet with Sirella, who’d simply taken one look at her, shrugged, and said, “She’ll do.” Daenerys had been working for her for more than a week now, and they’d left the Green Eel soon after. Now, with her work as a washerwoman, she and Jon made enough coin to pay a weekly stipend for permanent lodging with his dockhand friend. Daenerys and her children inhabited the quarters the last family had vacated, which was two separate rooms on the second floor. It wouldn’t have been appropriate for Jon to share the space with them, of course, but at least he wasn’t stuck in the inn still: Vogoros and Sirella had a spare room downstairs where they resided. It had only room enough for a bed and a small table, but it was room enough for Jon.

Between his work at the docks and her work with the wash, he hadn’t seen much of her the past week. If she wasn’t cleaning piles of clothes or hanging them to dry on the small roof patio over their quarters, then she was hauling the laundry back and forth to the Keyholders’ residences.

Pleased with Daenerys’ work so far, Sirella, a plump woman with a stern but fair disposition, had dismissed her for the evening, insisting she and the children get a bite to eat when Jon arrived home. Having had his fill of shellfish at the docks, Jon had suggested the Sailmenders’ tavern for supper, where they were headed now.

“How is it going, by the way?” he asked her, desperate for conversation.

She huffed and held her hands out before her, flexing her slender fingers. He could see her reddened knuckles, the split skin around her nails. “Could be worse. I might have hands like yours before too long, however,” she groused, though her tone was light and self-deprecating.

This time, his smile was more genuine. “A travesty,” he murmured without thought, earning a quick sideways glance from her. She dropped her hands into her skirts, a faint blush darkening her cheeks.

“Nymeria and Torrhen help me some with the wash,” she deflected, glancing to her daughter, who plodded along at her side. Nymeria frowned, holding her arms over her stomach.

“Because you make us.”

Daenerys smiled in return, wrapping an arm around her daughter’s shoulders to pull her into her side. “Because you complain of being bored all the time.”

The four of them stepped out of the way of a vendor’s cart rumbling down the too-tight alley. When the vendor offered them his wares, Jon shook his head, and the man pushed his cart onward. “Maybe Nymeria would prefer to work with me on the docks,” Jon suggested, mostly in jest. “Hauling crates on and off ships all day.”

Nymeria shrugged. “Might be more interesting than hanging clothes to dry.”

At Jon’s words, Torrhen spun around. “Can I come, too? You said I could!”

Jon snorted when Torrhen nearly tripped over a large clay pot as he walked backward, and he reached out to steady him again. “You need better balance than that if you want to work on a ship.”

Up ahead, a man stood outside his shop, calling to passersby in Braavosi. He wore the drab-colored garb of the wealthy, and as they neared, Jon recognized the establishment by the strong scent of perfume that leaked into the street: the Satin Palace. Instinctively, Jon’s hand tightened on Torrhen’s shoulder. The man smiled at Jon, but Jon ignored his solicitations. He didn't need to understand the tongue to know what the man was selling.

He was a few steps past the brothel’s entrance when the man switched to the Common Tongue. “Care to spend a night with our city’s most beautiful women?” Jon scowled at nothing ahead of him. “Only an hour then!” the whoremonger yelled after him, undeterred by Jon’s stubborn silence.

Craning his head around, Torrhen turned his curious eyes on the man, even as Jon marched him forward.

“What does he mean? Can we see the beautiful women?”

“No,” Jon said, jaw flexing. He shot a glare over his shoulder and jerked to a stop when he saw the flesh-peddler had already turned his focus on Daenerys and Nymeria. Jon inadvertently pulled on Torrhen’s collar, and the boy scrambled to stay upright, arms flailing.

“You!” the man crowed at Daenerys. “Ah, you are very beautiful, my lady. You have the Valyrian look about you. You must be from Lys, yes? The city of a thousand pleasure houses. Of course, of course.” He looked to Nymeria. “The girl is very beautiful, too. Your daughter? Many men would spend good coin for a night with either of you. Better yet, with both of you.” A sinister grin spread across his unnaturally smooth face, and Jon’s stomach dropped. “How would you like to work for me?”

Daenerys pushed her daughter behind her, attempting to quickly sidestep him. “Absolutely not,” she hissed.

“You would make more money than you could ever dream of!” he called after her, intending to follow her, but Jon was in his face suddenly. Caught off guard, the man cowered backward in shock, but only briefly, then he pulled his shoulders back to meet Jon’s challenge.

“She said no, so best leave off now.”

The whoremonger smiled. “There was no offense intended. Braavos is a Free City. Women sell themselves willingly. Braavosi courtesans are the most renowned in the world.” He nodded at Daenerys and Nymeria. “With their unique beauty, they would make a fortune. They could live like queens. Men would sing of their beauty and cut each other down just to enjoy an hour in their company. Take the word of a wise man. I’ve been doing this a long time.”

“Is that so? You’re just trying to help, is that it?” Jon pretended to mull his words over. “What about me then?”

He frowned in confusion. “What about you?”

“You’ve convinced me.” Jon shrugged. “I like money. Why don’t you take me on?”

The whoremonger scowled. “I don’t deal in male whores.” He practically spat the words.

“No? Only women and young girls?” Jon took another step toward him, crowding him. The man was forced to take a step back, a shadow of apprehension clouding his face, but he lifted his chin and smiled.

“Jon,” Daenerys said in warning from behind him.

“You can find other brothels that hire your kind,” the man said. He gave Jon a cursory look, lip curling in disdain. “You’re much too old for the clientele who visit those places, however. They have...particular tastes.”

“Ah. So you whore out children then.”

The whoremonger’s face bloomed red, and angry beads of sweat began to dot his hairline. “Braavos has some of the finest pleasure houses in the Free Cities. It’s honorable work—”

Having backed the man up against the door of his brothel, Jon snarled. “What’s honorable is my sword in your belly cutting you from balls to gullet if you ever so much as look at my daughter again.”

With a scowl, the man fumbled with the door behind him, managing to twist the handle down and push it inward. A cloud of perfume and incense enveloped Jon, and he heard the distant titters and squeals of the women inside. Before the man slipped through the door, he spat at Jon’s feet. “The bitch could never match the beauty of the Nightingale, anyway.”

Unfortunately, the door slammed shut before Jon could punch him in his pig-nosed face. Even so, he slapped his open palm against the door, struggling against the urge to fight his way inside and make good on his threat. Not that he had his sword anymore, but surely a dagger could do the trick. “Craven,” he muttered.

“Why would you say that?” Nymeria demanded suddenly, startling him. He spun around, perplexed by the glower she leveled him with. “I’m not your daughter!”

Fuck. His heart stopped, lips parting wordlessly, but no ready defense came to him. Helpless, he glanced at Daenerys, who looked about how he felt: wide-eyed and pale-faced, equally at a loss for words.

“You—” The truth was on his tongue, but at the anger he saw in his daughter’s face, he retreated. Like a bloody coward. “I only—it was a lie. Forgive me. I only meant protect you,” he said numbly.

“Well, I don’t need you to protect me! You’re not my father!” she yelled, making him flinch. Gods, she could have stabbed him, and it would have hurt less.

When she took off, stomping back the way they came, Daenerys called after her. “Nymeria!” Distraught, she started for her daughter then stopped, looking to Jon. “Jon. I’m sorry—I have to—Torrhen—”

“Go. I’ve got him,” he said quietly, looking away. Lifting her skirts in hand, Daenerys hurried after her daughter, presumably back to Vogoros’ house.

Jon stood there, reeling, hands trembling at his sides. He almost forgot about Torrhen until the boy spoke. “Are they coming back? I thought we were getting supper.” He sounded small and confused. “I’m hungry.”

Jon swallowed, shaking his head to clear the daze. His own stomach was in knots, his appetite having fled. “No. I mean, aye. We’ll go on without them,” he said gruffly and nudged Torrhen forward, continuing their trek to the tavern, just the two of them.

Jon was staring at the ceiling, stretched out on his bed, when a knock sounded on his door. “Come in,” he said, already knowing who it was. As he sat up, he swung his legs over the side of the bed, but he didn’t stand, even as Daenerys slipped inside. When he met her gaze, she looked apologetic.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, shutting the door behind her. “About earlier.”

He shrugged listlessly. “Is she all right?”

She nodded, lingering by the door. She still wore her day gown, even though it was late into the night now. Her hair was plaited in a simple braid down her back. “I think so. For now, anyway.”

“I didn’t mean to upset her,” he said, staring at a knot in the wooden floorboard by his bare feet. Daenerys sighed.

“I know. You didn’t, not really. It’s just…” Daenerys shuffled closer to him, drawing his gaze up to her face once more. “It’s been hard for her. Harder than it’s been for Torrhen. She’s older. She understands these things better. She misses home. She misses..." She trailed off, thinking better of it, but Jon knew what she meant to say, of course. Robb. "She’s grieving and doesn’t really know how to deal with it. Neither do I, obviously.” After a moment, she huffed a little, lips pressing into a wry smile. “She got her moonblood.”

“Oh.” He frowned, not fully comprehending. “Has she not…?”

Daenerys spared him the awkwardness, shaking her head. “This is the first for her. Our daughter has finally flowered.”

Jon couldn’t help a rueful smile. Our daughter. That was the first time she’d said it like that, wasn’t it? The words were a sweet ache in his chest. Another twist of the knife.

Daenerys continued, “She hasn’t been feeling well for a couple days. She was just too embarrassed to tell me before now. I think it’s at least partly why she’s been so irritable lately.”

“Aye, I remember how moody you used to get at that age.”

At his jape, she scowled. “Yes, well, you try doing your needlepoint lessons when it feels like someone is driving a steel blade through your belly every few minutes, then tell me how pleasant and courteous you are.”

Humor fading, he grimaced. “Sounds terrible. Did you get her something for the pain?”

“I gave her some willowbark to chew on. And we ate some stew Sirella had made for supper. She’s sleeping now.”

Jon hunched forward to brace his elbows on his knees. “That’s good,” he said gruffly. “I’m afraid I’m pretty useless when it comes to these matters.”

“Most men are,” she reminded him tartly. Then, her expression softened. “Thank you. For taking care of Torrhen earlier. I know he’s not your responsibility...”

He shrugged again. “Maybe not, but he’s your son. I promised you I would look after him.” A self-pitying scoff, then. “And he’s easier, at least. He doesn’t resent me the way Nymeria does.”

She chewed on her lip. “Don’t be angry with her,” she said softly.

Reaching beneath him, Jon gripped the edge of the lumpy mattress and blew out a breath. “I’m not angry with her. I’m angry with Robb. He’s the reason why I don’t know my own daughter. He’s the reason why she’ll never accept me as her father.” His pulse accelerated with every declaration, the rage that had been simmering for a while now coming to a boil once again.

Daenerys’ gaze skittered away from his. “I know, Jon. Just...give her time. It’s a process—”

Shooting to his feet, he carded his hands through his hair. “Gods, do you hear yourself? I bloody know that. All I’ve got is time. That’s not the point!”

“Then what’s the point?” she snapped, frustrated. “Why are you yelling at me?”

“Because look at you!” He gestured one hand at her, nearly grazing her chin by accident. She jerked her head back, eyes going wide with bewilderment. “You stand there perfectly calm and unbothered, while my own daughter, my own flesh and blood, can’t even stand me! Because of your fucking lord husband!”

She gaped at him. “Unbothered? You think it doesn’t bother me what Robb did? To you and to me?”

“I wouldn’t know,” he snarled. “We haven’t talked about it since. Seven hells, Dany, you should be angry! You should be screaming bloody murder from the rooftop!”

She closed her eyes, inhaling deeply through her nose. “Some of us can’t afford to lose our tempers, Jon. Some of us aren’t given swords and shields and told to go beat someone bloody just because we’re angry.”

He barked out a harsh laugh. “You think that’s what I do when I’m angry? Just beat somebody up like I’m some kind of savage?”

Her eyes snapped open. “You’ve threatened anybody who’s so much as looked at me or Nymeria wrong!”

He reared back as if she’d slapped him. “So it’s wrong to want to protect my family now?”

“No!” she cried, finally losing the rein on her temper. “But some of us don’t have the skills or brute strength to defend ourselves the way you do! You think I enjoy feeling as helpless as I am? That all I was reared for was to be the dutiful noble wife who could sing and sew and perfect my curtsy? You think I enjoyed being treated as if I wasn’t worth more to anyone beyond what was between my legs?”

“Lucky for you, it was worth Winterfell,” he retorted, his tongue sharp. He regretted it, instantly, even before he saw the hurt flash across her face, the flush of anger filling her cheeks. When she lashed out, he caught her hand before she could strike him.

She tried to twist her arm free, but he refused to release her. Her eyes turned glossy, mouth twisting in a sneer. “Let go of me.”

He shook his head, fingers locked around her wrist though he was careful not to apply any pressure. His heart was rattling around in his chest, lungs contracting as his breathing grew labored. Daenerys stopped struggling but held his gaze, angry and defiant.

He couldn’t help the droll, biting smile that stretched his mouth. “Is it just me then?” he asked. Confusion flickered through her eyes, but she stared at him in stony silence. “Is it just me who gets you like this?” When he finally released her hand, she jerked it against her chest with a huff. “All right. Hit me then,” he said.

Perplexed by his command, she furrowed her brow. “What? No.”

“No? Seems like you want to. So do it. Get angry and hit me.”

Pain lanced through her expression. She took a step back, but he followed her. “Stop it, Jon. I’m sorry. I lost my temper—”

“Good! Don’t apologize! Lose your temper! Hit me, if that's what you need! Throw things! Scream at me until your throat is raw!” he demanded heatedly. He didn’t know what was wrong with him, why he needed to push her. It was as ill-advised as pressing on a bruise—and just as tempting.

Her lips trembled as she shook her head, but when she spoke, it was through clenched teeth. “I’ve already spent fourteen years angry with you, Jon.”

“Aye, because the fucker you married lied to you! And now he’s not here to reap the consequences of that!”

“No, he’s not!” she exploded, indignant. “Because this world is full of injustice, and I know that as well as you do! But if the gods are good, if there’s any justice to be found in the next world, then he’ll spend it burning in all seven hells!”

Her condemnation seemed to shock even herself. She abruptly fell silent, staring at him with wide-eyed disbelief. Jon didn’t say anything for a moment, letting the words ring in the silence between them. Then, quietly, he asked, “There. You feel better now?”

Tears sprang to her eyes. “No! What kind of person am I, cursing the father of my child? The same man who sheltered the other, who died to protect them both?” She closed her eyes, dropping her head back as a tear slipped free down her cheek. “Gods, and I hate him even more for that. For binding me in such a way that no matter what I do, I feel guilty! It's not bloody fair!”

She covered her face, but Jon reached out to gently pry her hands away. Ashamed, she kept her gaze averted, and he wiped the wet tracks of tears from her cheeks with his thumbs, cupping her jaw in both hands.

Closing the distance between them, he drew her against his chest. One hand slid to the back of her head, tangling in her braided hair; the other he lowered to her waist. When he pressed his mouth to her forehead, Daenerys brought her hands up to his chest, fingers curling in his tunic. As they held each other, he inhaled deeply, filling his lungs with the lingering scent of sweat and whatever sharp astringent she used to wash the laundry.

In the silence that settled over them, she sniffled. He simply held her until she pushed on his chest, pulling her head back. He dropped his chin to look her in the eye.

“Sorry,” she murmured, and he shook his head, catching another stray tear on his thumb.

“Nothing to be sorry about.” He blew out a breath. “I’m the one who should apologize. I shouldn’t have said that bit about Winterfell. It was cruel.”

She untangled herself from his embrace and expelled a quiet chuff. “Well, you were right about one thing, anyway. You always had a way of provoking me.” With another sniffle, she hastily wiped at her nose and her eyes. “Gods, I must look a fright right now.”

“You look beautiful,” he said sincerely. She gave him a sharp, admonishing look.


“I mean it.” Remembering his failure to lavish her with all the words he’d hoarded before, he grew bold. “You’re beautiful, Dany. You always have been. That’s not changed.” Despite her previous admonishment, a pleased flush darkened her face, down to her chest where her gown revealed the faintest hint of cleavage. He swallowed, seizing the moment before the bravery could abandon him again. “And neither have my feelings.”

She froze. “What?”

He took a deep breath to shore up his courage, then—“I love you, Dany.” The words came out gruff and hoarse but clear all the same. Her eyes widened, and he rushed ahead, before she could object—or worse, reject him. “I should have told you sooner. Before I’d ever put my hands on you again. No, even before then, before I’d ever put my hands on you the first time. I should have told you a thousand times over by now. I love you.”

He waited, not daring to breathe as she stared at him in abject disbelief. Finally, after an interminable silence, she spoke.

“You love me,” she repeated. Huffing out a harsh breath, she smiled humorlessly at him. Her lips quivered, eyelashes fluttering like moth wings in flight, spiked with little stars of tears. “You love me...even now?” She lifted her arms at her sides then dropped them, as if to say: Even now, after everything? After all the years, all the miles, all the lies, all the betrayals, all the hurt.

You love me even now?

His throat tightened, emotions choking him. When the words came, they felt raw, the truth finally laid bare. “Even more.”

She closed her eyes then as if the declaration pained her, and for a moment, he feared he had misstepped. When she opened them again, however, her violet eyes burned with a fervor that stirred him. When she reached for him, he was ready to meet her halfway.

Tongues and lips clashed, hands clawing at clothes and hair, but this kiss lacked the urgency of the last kisses, lacked the desperation, the manic kind of fury that could only follow a long period of abstinence. He let her take what she wanted, his mouth slack as her tongue probed and tasted, her teeth a sharp edge on his lips.

She combed her fingers through his beard along the hard line of his jaw to the nape of his neck, then up through his curly hair, cradling the base of his skull. Jon cupped her throat before dragging his hands down her chest, over the swells of her breasts. She arched into him with a soft, glottal sound as his fingers caught on the edge of her gown's neckline, curling beneath the fabric.

Daenerys sucked on his bottom lip before relinquishing his mouth for a breath. “Jon,” she murmured as he teased her pebbled nipple with his blunt fingernail beneath her gown and shift. He kissed under her jaw, on her pulse point, down her neck to her collar bone, where he gently notched his teeth in a playful nip. One hand circled her waist till he found the laces that fastened the garment in place at her left hip. He worked blind to untie the knotted strings, too hungry for the taste of her skin to monitor his work. Quickly, he grew frustrated.

“I think I preferred you in your bed gown.” He spoke the words into her bosom, his tongue flickering between the valley of her cleavage.

“Oh?” There was laughter in her voice. “And what about nothing at all?”

Finally jerking the ties free, he loosened the gown in the front. Only then did he lift his head to look at her. “Even better.”

She smiled at him, the moment turning slow and soft. She grabbed his face to kiss him again. This time, he took the opportunity to taste her, his tongue gently playing with hers. As they kissed, he unwrapped her gown, letting it gape open in the front at her breasts. Then he slid his hands under the fabric at her shoulders and pushed it down her arms. Without breaking the kiss, Daenerys wriggled her arms free of the garment and grabbed his tunic, urging him to lift his arms.

There was a reverence in how they undressed each other now. Maybe because Jon was determined to savor this moment, to spend the time worshiping her as he should have before. He pushed her gown over the slight swell of her hips and arse, and when it puddled at her feet, she kicked it aside. Her slippers immediately followed.

He paused to let her unlace his trousers and shove them down his legs along with his smallclothes. Finally unrestrained, his cock bobbed before her, jutting from the black downy thatch between his thighs, and he shuddered when she skimmed her fingertips along the length of him.

Grasping her hand in his, he tucked it against her side and kissed her once, twice on the lips, before he took her shift in hand and divested her of the thin covering. For the time being, he left her in her smallclothes, petting the taut tips of her breasts with the backs of his knuckles.

“Jon,” she whispered, voice quavering. Suddenly, he felt humbled. Now that they’d slowed down, he didn’t know where to start.

He supposed the bed was as good a place as any.

The room was so small, he had her flat on her back in only a couple steps. Before he could kneel between her legs, she was already trying to remove her own smallclothes. He had to knock her hands aside to stop her. “Wait,” he told her, but he pulled them down her legs anyway, his entire body vibrating with hunger.

His cock throbbed at the sight of her, naked and wanton in his bed. Gods. It hurt to look at her, an insistent ache in his balls, but he drank her in, like a man dying of thirst. Under his lustful gaze, Daenerys moved to shield herself, but he stilled her hands with his own, shaking his head. Lowering his head to hers, he rasped, “Just...let me look at you. Let me learn you again.”

She lifted her mouth to his, grazing his lips with her own. His tongue darted out to taste her before she retreated. “Stealing my lines now, are you?” she asked. He smiled.

“I think you had the right idea.” Jon kissed down her neck, sucking at the soft skin beneath her jaw, before he trailed his lips down her sternum between her breasts. He felt the hitch in her breath, her heart thrashing against her ribs. He licked up the slope of her breast to the ruby peak, pulling it into his mouth. She gasped, hands coming up to grab his head and hold him to her breast. As he sucked at her nipple, he took her other breast in hand, stroking the bud with his thumb until it was rigid and she was squirming beneath him. He took that breast in his mouth next, sucking at the nipple with equal ferocity.

Eventually, he turned his attentions elsewhere, holding himself up on his arms so he could kiss down her belly. He nuzzled at her pelvis, the silver curls of her pubic hair soft yet bristly on his lips. Daenerys tensed under him, her fingers still tangled in his shortened locks. He could smell her sex, the pungent aroma of her desire for him. The scent made him ravenous, the hunger in his belly a gnawing pain now. His balls were tender and heavy, yet he detoured to kiss the inside of her thigh instead of her cunt.

He kissed down her leg, the tendons under her skin flexing from the ticklish scrape of his beard. He kissed her knee, her calf, then he paused, taking her ankle in hand. “Is it this one?”

Confused, she stared at him. “This one what?”

“That still bothers you.”

Understanding flooded her eyes. Biting down on her lip, she swallowed and shook her head. “The other one.”

He set her foot down on the bed and lifted her left ankle. Gingerly, he stroked the ankle bone with his thumb then pressed a kiss to it, lips lingering. Color rose in her face as she watched him, eyes glistening. He could feel the bones beneath her skin, so delicate yet strong. She was iron underneath, welded by fire.

Carefully, he set her foot down, heel on the mattress and knees bent on either side of him. The bed was too damn small to do what he wanted to do to her, so he slipped off the foot of it, knees hitting the floor. Confused, Daenerys lifted her head.

“Where are you—oh ,” she gasped when he yanked her to the edge with him. Her feet scrabbled for purchase on his shoulders as he hooked his arms under her legs, hands splayed on each hip. Her cunt was puffy and glossy, blooming for him like a pink flower nestled in silver as he parted her thighs. He didn’t waste any more time, pressing his muzzle to her.

“Jon!” she squealed, sounding every bit like the girl from his memories. He would have laughed, if he weren’t intoxicated by her scent, her taste. He inhaled deeply, mouth opening to part her nether lips. She was petal-soft against his mouth, slippery with the nectar of her cunt. Closing his eyes, he took another deep breath to fill his lungs with her musk, then he licked up the length of her, from taint to clit.

Daenerys gasped, a breathless, stomach-clenching grunt, hips arching against his face as she grabbed at his head. Then she whimpered. “Oh—yes.” He hummed in answer, a responding growl low in his belly, and he licked her again, tongue scooping inside her through the sticky gloss into the plush, tight vise of her cunt. He felt the reflexive push against him, her walls tightening around his tongue. She groaned, toes curling into the tensed muscles in his shoulder blades, nails scraping along his scalp.

He fucked her with his tongue, slowly, though he wanted to ravage her, to devour her. Leisurely, he drank from her, as if he weren’t a man who hadn’t sipped from her well of honey in years. It was torture for him, but he knew it was even worse for her, her thighs quaking around his head as he denied her the attention she really needed, where she really needed it.

Oh, but she tried—she begged and pleaded. She writhed and wriggled, pushing her cunt against his mouth as she pulled at his hair. “Jon, please,” she whined, voice clotted with frustration and sweet agony.

He pulled away to suck in deep, panting breaths, earning a cry of disappointment from her, but he held her down to the bed with his palm on her pelvis. His beard was wet, sodden with the deluge from her cunt, and he wiped at it, for all the good it did. He traced the swollen lips with his fingertips, making her knees buckle inward. Then, finally acquiescing to her pleas, he plunged two fingers inside her to give her cunt something to grip onto and took her plump little clitoris between his lips.

She shrieked, though she quickly stifled her own cries by biting down on her bottom lip. As he mouthed at her clit, he watched her over the flat plane of her belly, her breasts rising with her sharp, strangled pants. Her nipples were stiff, ruddy peaks, and a lovely blush had spread from her belly to her throat. When he flicked his tongue over her clitoris, she groaned, the sound rattling deep in her chest.

“Oh, yes—oh, yes,” she chanted, taking great gulping breaths of air. He licked and sucked, feeling her hot cunt tighten around his fingers as he pumped them inside her. He knew the moment she was there and sucked on her clit until she cried out, nearly bowing off the bed. Her release was a gush of wetness on his fingers, her cunt squelching as he fucked her with them. Her thighs and belly trembled, and she gasped rapidly, pulling on fistfuls of his hair to the point of pain.

Once she finally settled, he withdrew his fingers and quickly sucked them clean before he rose to his feet. Her legs dropped on either side of him as he crawled over her, getting his arm under her to hoist her up the bed with him.

She dropped her head on the pillow, eyes wide in wonder as she watched him. Jon reached down and hiked her knee up to his waist, lowering his hips between her parted legs. His cockhead bumped against her cunt, and he groaned right as he seized her mouth in a kiss. Panting through her nose, Daenerys brushed her tongue to his, and bracketed his face with her hands. Blindly, he probed his cock along her cunt until his tip notched at her entrance, then he pushed into her, his breath leaving him in a quiet exclamation. She whimpered and pushed up into him, her cunt swallowing his length as he worked himself in to the hilt.

Blood rushed in his ears as she rippled around his cock, hot and tight and slick as silk. “Dany,” he grunted against her lips, momentarily immobile and lost to the sensation. She lifted her other leg and locked both around his hips, kissing him fiercely.

When he felt her shifting beneath him, impatient to get on with it, he began to move as well, easy, rocking thrusts inside her. Sliding his arm out from under her back, he braced his elbows on either side of her, grabbing the pillow in his fists. Then he fucked her, slowly, deeply, their noses and mouths grazing each other’s in unhurried kisses. She watched him through lidded eyes, pupils fat in shallow pools of violet. Slipping her arms under his, she tightened her legs around him and dug her heels into his arse as if to spur him on. Her cunt gripped him tighter, and he grunted, closing his eyes. A hot flush ignited his body as his balls drew in tight, and pleasure slithered up his spine, a white flash of light behind his eyes.

“Dany,” he said on another grunt, snapping his hips against hers with sudden urgency. Before he could lose his head, however, he hurriedly pulled out of her and took his cock in hand, stroking his shaft until he spilled his seed on her belly. Jon buried his face against her neck, a shudder racking through his body as his release washed over him. His cock pulsed with his pleasure, tacky from her cunt, the tip wet with his own seed.

Daenerys stroked his back, waiting for him to recover. Nose pressed to her throat, he took one more deep breath of her—sweat and soap and her—then lifted his head. He shifted between her legs until they unraveled from around him, and, crouched on his knees, Jon pulled the coverlet out from underneath her. With the corner, he delicately wiped his seed from her belly. All the while Daenerys watched him, her expression pinched and unreadable.

Unable to stand it, he kissed her again, catching her off guard, but not for long. Her hands grabbed at his face, holding him close as his tongue played with hers. Finally, he broke away for a breath and lay down beside her, his head on the pillow next to hers. She turned into him, fingers stroking his beard that still smelled of her, and he pressed his forehead to hers.

She smiled softly, sadly. “I can’t stay,” she murmured. His shoulders deflated, though he shouldn’t have been surprised.

“I know.”

She looked apologetic, anyway. “If I stay, I’ll fall asleep again and…”

“I know, Dany.”

He pulled his head back, allowing her the space to do what she needed. With a sigh, she rolled away to sit up. Naked, she stood from his bed. As she hunted down her garments, Jon watched her, a cloud of melancholy settling over him.

“Nothing’s really changed, has it?” he remarked darkly. “You sneaking out of my room in the dead of night.”

She shot him a look as she stepped into her smallclothes. “Except that, before, you were always the one running me off.”

He sat up. “It was different then. I was different.”

“And now I’m different.” she said, slipping her shift over her head. “Now, I have other people I have to think about.”

Inexplicably agitated, Jon got up to pull on his trousers so they wouldn’t be having this conversation with his cock out. Already, he felt too vulnerable. He jerked a hand through his disheveled hair. “When are we going to tell her?”

“Soon,” she hedged. “It’s complicated—”

“We wouldn’t have to keep sneaking around if she knew.”

Gown clutched to her chest, she spun around to face him. “Telling Nymeria you’re her father is one thing, Jon. Telling her I’m also fucking you would be a bit much, don't you think?”

He winced. “We don’t have to tell her that.” As Daenerys struggled into her gown, he stepped closer to help her. He held the sleeves out so she could shrug into them. “She already hates me, so what difference does it make? It’s not going to get any easier the longer we wait.”

Daenerys lowered her gaze, tugging her messy braid out from under her collar as he tied the laces at her hip. “I’m sorry, Jon. I don’t want to cause you pain. And I don’t want to cause her any more pain, either.” She looked up at him, her hands resting over top of his as he finished the knot. “’re right. Once she feels better, when her moonblood has passed in a few days, we'll tell her then. All right?” Her promise would have to suffice, he supposed. He nodded and closed his eyes when she leaned into him, pressing his mouth to her forehead in a farewell kiss. Then, too quickly, she pulled away. “I’ll see you on the morrow.”

Jon didn’t watch as she turned away to open the door, but when she cried out in surprise, his gaze snapped to the doorway where she stood, frozen. And just beyond her, in the dark hallway, was Nymeria, her face pale as moonlight.

Then she was gone, fleeing into the darkness.

Chapter Text


“Nymeria, wait!”

Heedless of Dany’s plea, her daughter slammed the door shut to her and Torrhen’s room after fleeing inside. Dany only barely managed to stop short before slamming into it. The door handle slipped through her hand as she pawed at it, her palm having grown damp with sweat. She felt faint, her stomach tied in knots. She knows, Dany thought, panicked. Oh gods, she heard everything.

Finally, she got a grip on the handle and shoved hard, swinging the door open. “Nymeria!”

Red-cheeked, Nymeria spun around on her, her violet eyes flashing with contempt. “Leave me alone!”

Awakened by the disturbance, Torrhen had sat up in bed, his sleepy face pinched in confusion. “What? What is it?”

“Nothing—” Dany said instinctively, trying to soothe him despite her own addled nerves, but Nymeria petulantly stomped her foot.

“You’re a liar!” she hissed. “I don’t want to talk to you!”

Dany turned to shut the door behind her, afraid their row might wake the whole house, but suddenly Jon was there, pushing on the door. “Dany—”

At the sight of him, Nymeria made a strangled sound. “No! Go away! You don’t belong here!”

Stricken by her words, Jon went pale. At his wounded expression, Dany closed her eyes, her own heart breaking in two. Behind her, Torrhen whimpered, growing increasingly distraught by the scene unfolding around him. He called out for her. “Mother?

Stamping down her own fear and dread, she made a decision. Beseeching, she looked to Jon and said, “Take Torrhen to your room. I have to deal with this, and I—I can only handle one of them at a time.”

His eyes widened, filling with betrayal. “No—”

Please. Just for now. Please, Jon,” she begged. After a tense moment, he conceded with a curt nod, and she stepped aside so he could enter the room. Nymeria gave an indignant squawk.

“How could you!” she shrieked, shooting her mother an accusatory glare. Jon ignored her, though Dany could tell it physically pained him, the way his own daughter was behaving toward him.

“Come on, lad,” he told Torrhen, reaching for him in the bed. He spoke gently, despite the quaver in his voice. “Let’s leave these two to it.” 

Mercifully, Torrhen didn’t argue, allowing Jon to lift him into his arms. Without another word, Jon turned around and carried him from the room. As they passed, Dany reached a hand out to graze her son’s mussed curls. Desperately, she told him, “I love you.” Her words were directed to Torrhen, but she met Jon’s eyes, imploring him to understand she meant them for him, too. Swallowing, he clenched his jaw, then they were gone, out into the darkness of the hallway. Hands trembling, Dany quietly shut the door and turned to face her daughter.

A lone candle sat on the table, casting flickering shadows around the room, and the fire in the hearth burned low. Yet, even in the dim lighting, Nymeria looked as dangerous as a summer storm, her eyes bright with all the reactionary anger and volatility of a child on the cusp of womanhood. Dany almost laughed, despairing and helpless. Gods, was this how she had been at that age? 

“I can’t believe you!” Nymeria exclaimed. “You’ll just let him take anything he wants, won’t you?”

Dany winced. Indeed, Nymeria was her mother’s daughter, down to the identical hot temperaments. She tried to keep her wits about her, speaking in a conciliatory tone. “He’s not taking anything, Nymeria. I only want to talk to you, as mother and daughter.”

“And I told you, I don’t want to talk to you!” she shouted.

“Keep your voice down,” Dany ordered. It was an effort to remain calm. “I know you’re upset. I didn’t mean for you to hear that—”

“I knew there was something strange between you two! How could you do that to Father?” Nymeria demanded, eyes watering. “You betrayed him! You—you were with another man!”

That gave Dany pause. Was that all she was angry about? Was it possible she hadn’t overheard her whole conversation with Jon? For a moment, she was relieved, though she knew now the promised confrontation was inevitable. Gently, she said, “Robb isn’t here—”

“And you just couldn’t wait to jump into another man’s bed, could you!”

“Enough!” Dany snapped, her own temper getting the better of her. Aghast, she regarded her daughter with reproval. “You don’t get to talk to me that way. I am still your mother. And there is much you don’t understand.”

Nymeria scowled. “I know what it means to lie with a man. I’m not a child!”

Dany wanted to laugh, to howl in frustration, but she tamped down the urge, taking another breath to extinguish her budding ire. “Getting your moonblood does not mean you suddenly understand everything, sweetling—”

“Don’t call me that!” Her daughter’s chin quivered, and angrily she looked away, fists clenched at her sides. “You’re right. I don’t—I don’t understand how you could do that to Father. You were his wife, you—you swore vows. You—”

“I love Jon,” Dany said firmly. Nymeria’s eyes widened in disbelief, and Dany curled her fingers into her palms to quell the trembling. She was almost as shocked as her daughter was. She’d said it out loud now; there was no going back.

“How can you say that?” her daughter cried. “You don’t even know him!”

“I’ve known him since I was ten," she said evenly. "I grew up with him in Winterfell. Robb, as well. We were all of an age. I was betrothed to Robb, but back then, he and Jon were inseparable. From the ages of ten to six-and-ten, I spent nearly every day with them both. But I fell in love with Jon. It just happened.”

Nymeria’s eyes narrowed in incredulity. “But...if you loved him, why would you marry Father?”

Dany’s smile was tired. “That’s how things are done, Nymeria. You know that. When you’re highborn, other people make plans for you, and you have no choice but to go along with it. Especially as a woman. I was betrothed to Robb when I was a child. I didn’t have any say in the matter.”

She shook her head, as if she still couldn’t comprehend. “Why not?”

Dany moved closer. “I know as children we grow up hearing the songs and stories of maids and their beloved knights, but betrothals are rarely about love, Nymeria. They’re about fealty and alliances and binding houses together.”

Her forehead creased deeply as she frowned. “I don’t understand. If it was to bind you to House Stark, why couldn’t you marry Jon instead? He’s a part of their family, too. He’s Robb’s brother.”

Dany let out a tremulous breath, closing her eyes. Gods. There was so much to say, so much to explain. She fought the instinct to deflect, to lie. No more. The truth had to be laid bare, sooner or later. And the longer she waited, the more Nymeria would resent her for lying, she knew. When Lady Ashara had finally confessed the truth to her, it’d been a bitter pill for Dany to swallow, too. Even more bitter when she’d learned of her mother’s death before she could ever fully forgive her for the lie.

Dany looked to her daughter. “He is their family, just...not in the way we all thought,” she said, haltingly. “Jon is their cousin, not their brother. His mother was Robb’s aunt, Lyanna Stark.”

“She died,” Nymeria said slowly.

Dany nodded. “Giving birth to Jon. Lord Stark raised him as his own. To protect him.”

“From what?” she asked. 

“From the very thing we need protection from, Nymeria,” she explained. “From the men who would hurt us for being who we are. For being the last Targaryens.”

In her mounting confusion, her daughter’s frustration flared. “But—why? What does that have to do with him?

“Because he’s a Targaryen, too,” Dany said bluntly. “His father was Rhaegar Targaryen. My brother.” It was a strange thing to say, my brother. Whom she’d never known, who had died before she was even born.

Nymeria’s eyes went wide again, and for once she was momentarily speechless. She sat down on the edge of the bed, brow pinching together. “ didn’t know?”

Dany chuffed weakly. “Not until recently. Jon told me. He’d only learned himself before we left for Eastwatch-by-the-sea.” Nymeria mulled this over in silence. Her eyelashes were spiked with unshed tears, but they no longer threatened to spill. That wouldn’t last long. Dany swallowed thickly, her heart throbbing in her throat as she stepped up to her daughter. Her hands began to tremble again. Now came the hardest part of all. “Nymeria, there’s something else I have to tell you. Something else you should know.”

As she down on the bed beside her, Dany took her daughter’s hand in hers and clasped it tightly, wondering if it would be the last time she’d let her. She knew she was about to break her young and tender heart, and things would never be what they were. They couldn’t. She only hoped Nymeria could forgive her and understand that what Dany had done, she’d done to protect her. 

As Lady Ashara had done for her. 

Nymeria watched her expectantly, clouds of apprehension forming in her violet eyes. “What is it?” she whispered, almost afraid. As if she knew whatever Dany had to say was going to be terrible.

When she spoke next, Dany found her voice was hoarse, already strangled by emotion. “I was in love with Jon, but I was also young and impulsive. We were both reckless, and six-and-ten, I became pregnant. That is...I became pregnant, with you.” Nymeria’s fingers twitched, and Dany squeezed them tighter. Otherwise, her daughter’s face was frozen. Dany rushed onward. “Jon was sent to the Wall, and I married Robb because—because I had no choice. And because I wanted to keep you safe.”

Her daughter had gone very, very still, her face very, very pale. “No,” she said through her teeth.

“Nymeria,” Dany whispered. “I’m so very sorry—”

Suddenly, Nymeria wrenched her hand free and lunged off the bed. “No! No! He’s not—he’s not! No! My father is Robb Stark!”

Dany reached for her, but Nymeria pulled away, cheeks flushing scarlet once more. Her rejection stung, but Dany had known to expect it. “I’m sorry,” she repeated with fervent desperation. “Please understand I never wanted to hurt you—”

“But you are, you are hurting me!” she cried. “Why would you lie?”

Dany squeezed her eyes shut. “It’s not a lie, Nymeria. Robb raised you. He gave you his name, but Jon...Jon is your real father.”

“No!” Nymeria sobbed. Dany looked at her, her own heart in her throat at the sight of her daughter’s pain, pain she was causing. “It can’t be—it can’t be true!”

“It is. I’m sorry, I know how you must feel—”

“No, you don’t!” Nymeria yelled at her, eyes wet and leaking even as her face twisted in rage. 

“I do!” Dany objected, feeling indignant at the injustice done not just to her daughter but to them all. “I know how it feels to learn your life is a lie! I know the pain it causes!”

“If you know, then how could you hurt me like this?” Nymeria’s voice had become choked with tears, and suddenly she was weeping, openly and loudly.

Dany reached for her daughter only to be rebuffed a second time. “Nymeria—” She tried again, standing from the bed as she grabbed her wrists, but Nymeria slapped her hands off her arms, backing away. As she turned for the door, Dany realized she meant to run, so she grabbed her hand and pulled her back.

Nymeria struggled against her, then spun to face her. “Let me go!” She lashed out with her other hand, her open palm colliding with Dany’s cheek.

She cried out, immediately releasing Nymeria as both her hands came up to cradle her face. She was stunned more than anything, the sting of Nymeria’s slap already fading, but Nymeria seemed just as shocked, her wet eyes round in horror.

She squeaked out an involuntary sound, her face crumpling. “I’m sorry! I, I didn’t mean t-to—” But then she was weeping in earnest once again, great heaving sobs that wracked her whole body. She collapsed to the floor in a heap, and in an instant Dany was on her knees before her, pulling her daughter into her embrace.

“Shh. It’s all right, love, it’s all right,” she murmured, tears spilling down her own cheeks as she comforted her. She wept in silence, rocking Nymeria against her chest. Her daughter’s tears soaked the front of Dany’s gown, her gut-wrenching wails filling the small room. She held her daughter, long after her knees began to ache and her legs grew stiff.

Later, once Nymeria had cried herself mute, Dany moved her to the bed to lie down with her, gathering her close. Her daughter’s eyes were puffy and red, her cheeks splotchy with tears. Smoothing her silver hair back from Nymeria’s face, Dany caught another tear with her thumb before it could slip down between Nymeria’s lips.

Her eyes fixed somewhere below Dany’s chin, she sniffled. “Did...did Father know?” she croaked, the first words she’d spoken in a while. “That I wasn’t…”

Dany understood she meant Robb. He might always be Father to her. Whatever his sins against her and Jon, she couldn’t fully begrudge him that. He’d done right by Nymeria, even if it was partly a situation of his own making. “Yes,” she admitted. Nymeria’s brow furrowed, but she didn’t say anything to that. To smooth out her worry lines, Dany stroked the back of her knuckles over the pinched skin between her eyebrows; they were as thick as her own. “He loved you. He died to protect you. Your being another man’s child didn’t change how he felt about you. He raised you as his own.”

Nymeria’s lips trembled slightly, another tear catching on the tip of her nose before dripping onto the pillow. “But...he was different with Torrhen, wasn’t he? I thought it was because I’m a girl, and Torrhen is a boy, his heir, but…”

Dany brought her face closer, touching her forehead to Nymeria’s. “Any resentment he felt was for me and me alone. It never had anything to do with you.”

She was quiet for another moment. When she spoke again, her voice was even smaller. “And...does Jon know, too?”

Dany swallowed past the lump in her throat. “He does now,” she whispered. She felt Nymeria tense, and she stroked her hair again to soothe her. “He didn’t know at the time, and I didn’t get the chance to tell him before he took the black. He never would have left had he known.” In the silence that followed, she added, “He wants to be a father to you, if you’ll let him—”

With a pitiful sound, Nymeria pulled away and rolled onto her other side, facing away from her. “No,” she swore sullenly. “I don’t want another. I don’t want him. I want Father.”

Dany fought the urge to pull her back, to force her daughter into another confrontation. She could tell Nymeria the true depths of Robb’s betrayals, but she wouldn’t, not now, maybe not ever. For all his faults, for all his treachery, Nymeria still loved him, and if Dany cast him as the villain, Nymeria would only come to hate her instead, her and Jon. She’d known this wouldn’t be easy. Her daughter was the type of stubborn that would only dig her heels in harder if pushed, but given the chance to come around on her own, she just might.

Her own eyes damp with renewed tears, Dany wiped at them, sitting up on her elbow. Cautiously, she laid her hand on Nymeria’s shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze.

“I know, I know you do, but...I think you might like Jon if you did eventually come to know him.” When Nymeria began to protest again, Dany pressed on, mollifying, “You don’t have to think of him as anything but Jon, if you don’t want. But...this hurts him, too. It’s not his fault. He doesn’t know how to deal with this anymore than you do, but he’s trying. He just wants to know you. Do you think one day you might be able to let him in, just a little bit?”

Nymeria didn’t respond, sniffling and shifting as she wiped the tears from her face. Finally, she lifted her shoulder in a shrug, and Dany knew that was the best she could hope for now. She let out a breath and moved closer to spoon her daughter, enfolding her in her embrace. 

Thankfully, Nymeria didn’t push her away this time. Instead, she latched onto her mother’s arm and clung tightly.

Outside Jon’s door, Dany was almost reluctant to knock, afraid she might be disturbing him from his much-needed sleep. Certainly, the sun would be up before long, and he would need to be down at the docks before then, but if he were anything like her, he was still wide awake. Nymeria had only just fallen asleep, after Dany had pressed a damp washcloth to her daughter’s tear-swollen eyes for some relief, but Dany had not been able to join her in sleep. 

Still, she was desperate to see Jon, however briefly. She quietly tapped her finger against the door, in case Torrhen was asleep, as she hoped. She held her breath and waited, ready to tap on the door once more when it finally cracked open. Jon’s face appeared, and at the sight of her, he opened it wider, shoulders sagging.

“Dany,” he murmured, and with that one word somehow he managed to say everything. She smiled, just a quick flicker of her mouth.

“Torrhen?” she asked, keeping her voice low. Jon shifted so she could see past him. On his bed, her son was fast asleep.

“He went down pretty easily after a couple stories. I’m afraid I don’t have Old Nan’s flair for the dramatic, though,” he said, chagrined. Her smile widened, her heart tender with emotion. If she wasn’t careful, she’d start crying again. “Do you want to take him back to your room?”

“No, let him sleep, if you don’t mind. You can bring him back before you have to leave for the docks.”

“Aye, I don’t mind.” When she glanced back to him, his face turned grave. “Nymeria?” he asked, apprehensive.

“That was less easy,” she admitted, hand gripping the door jamb. “But she knows now. About you.”

His throat constricted with a hard swallow, and his hand fluttered on the door handle with uncertainty. “Should I...does she want to speak with me?”

Dany winced in sympathy. “Not just yet, Jon. Let her rest tonight. Even then...she might not be ready for a while.”

His face fell. “She didn’t take it well, then.”

“Did you?” she asked in gentle reminder. He looked away, his eyes clouded over, but she stepped forward and took his face in hand before she could lose him to his dark thoughts entirely. “The hard part is done, at least.”

His mouth twisted humorlessly. “I don’t know if that’s the hard part.”

“Perhaps not,” she agreed, shrugging helplessly. “But all we can do now is push forward. We have no choice but to.”

Vexed, Jon blew out a breath, and she pulled his face down to hers, bringing her lips to his. He seemed surprised but instantly acquiesced to her kiss, just a soft, lingering press of her mouth to his mouth. Then she touched her forehead to his. “I love you,” she breathed out, heart racing at the raw admission. “I wanted to tell you that before you went to sleep.”

His breath was tremulous on her lips, his hand coming up to brush his fingers along her jaw. “Little chance of that now,” he muttered, then kissed her once more to savor the sweet words on her lips. 

For the first time in a while, Dany was at ease. She felt light, as if a heavy weight had been lifted from her shoulders. She hated having hung it around her daughter’s neck instead, and she would do what she could to take the burden from her, but it was a relief to no longer be living a lie. To no longer be hiding. 

As she’d told Jon: They had no choice but to push forward. At least, now they had the chance to do that together.

Dany hadn’t slept a wink after that, though she hadn’t expected to. After her conversation with Jon, she’d returned to her children’s room to find Nymeria blessedly asleep still. Or pretending to be, at least. Regardless, she lay down with her, careful not to disturb her slumber, and stroked her hair until just before dawn, when she heard the faintest knock on her door. She got up and opened it as quietly as possible. On the other side, Jon greeted her with a tired look, the dark circles shadowing his eyes letting her know he had not gone to sleep after she’d left his room either. Torrhen clung to his neck, passed out against his shoulder. 

With a grateful smile, she reached for her son, and Jon handed him over. Sleepily, Torrhen protested but wrapped himself around her, anyway. When she looked back to Jon, his eyes were focused over her shoulder on Nymeria, whom Dany had tucked beneath the covers earlier in the night. She shifted Torrhen’s weight onto one arm and grabbed Jon’s hand in a reassuring squeeze. 

Finally, he tore his eyes from Nymeria and nodded at Dany, returning the squeeze. Then he brought her hand to his mouth and kissed her fingers, mouthing, “Later.” Then he was gone, off to begin his grueling day of labor at the docks. And so must she begin hers. Shutting the door, Dany laid Torrhen down in the bed next to his sister. He curled up on his side, burrowing against Nymeria’s back.

She let them rest and returned to her own room to began her morning ablutions. After washing her face, she plaited her hair in a simple braid down her back and covered her head with a brown kerchief Sirella had given her, tying it off at the nape of her neck, the knot tucked beneath her braid. Dany studied her reflection in the looking glass with a critical eye. She looked like a true washerwoman now, down to her rumpled, soiled day gown. It was the one she’d worn yesterday, as she’d not had a moment to change out of it, but she saw no point in changing it now.

After breaking her fast with Sirella, Dany brought upstairs a loaf of bread and some salt beef to her children to feast on. Torrhen woke readily enough, but Nymeria snubbed the offering, complaining of an upset stomach. Her moonblood, of course, though Dany knew there was more to her foul mood. Still, she told her daughter to sleep it off and left a plate for her to eat later should she feel better. She also left her some more willow bark and one of her own clean menstrual rags to change into later; she’d shown her daughter how to use them the day before, while Jon had entertained Torrhen at the tavern.

Dany took Torrhen up to the roof, where he joined her and Sirella in washing the laundry the other woman had collected from the keyholders’ houses the previous evening. Dany and Sirella scrubbed the clothes and linens on washboards and dunked them in buckets of fresh water they’d filled at the public fountains then scrubbed some more until their hands were raw. Once they were satisfied, they wrung the laundry out until each piece was no longer sodden with water and suds.

Typically, Torrhen and Nymeria helped them hang the laundry to dry, except Torrhen alone couldn’t reach the clotheslines, so in Nymeria’s absence Dany took over that task, letting her son hand her each item of clothing so he could feel as if he’d contributed in some small way. It made him happy to help.

When it was finally time to return the laundry to the keyholders’ houses, Dany offered to do it in Sirella’s place, since the woman had been kind enough to let her off early the previous day. After she and Torrhen folded the dry clothes and placed them in a couple of canvas sacks, Dany lugged them down from the roof, sparing a moment to check on Nymeria. At some point, her daughter had gotten up to eat but had crawled back into bed again, her silver hair splayed across the pillow as she slept. Throwing one bag over her shoulder, Dany carried the other in her arms and made Torrhen promise to stick close to her side before they left the house.

She was wary of walking the streets of Braavos without Jon, truthfully. It was still relatively unfamiliar terrain for her, and she couldn’t quite shake the abiding fear of being hunted, even all the way across the Narrow Sea. Luckily, the people of Braavos largely paid her no mind—excluding that unsavory scene at the brothel the day before—especially when she dressed as a simple washerwoman, her conspicuous silver hair covered. For the most part, Torrhen remained on his best behavior, hovering close to her side, and if he were to wander too far ahead of her or too close to the canals, a stern reprimand brought him back. 

The greater the distance grew between them and the harbor, the cleaner the streets became, the stone houses grander and less crowded together. Her first stop was that of Bessaro Reyaan, an exceptionally portly keyholder. Dany had only met him once, on her first day when Sirella had taken her from house to house to introduce her to the people whose clothes she would be washing. The man had inspected her, making her feel as if she were a prized mare up for auction, before he finally granted his permission to her putting her grubby hands on his precious clothing, but otherwise he had nothing to do with the two washerwomen. A servant always answered the door to hand off the laundry or accept it in exchange for some coin before slamming the door shut in their faces, a rude dismissal that had taken Dany some getting used to. 

As they walked down the street, Torrhen dropped into a crouch at her side to study a small stone in his path, then he stood and kicked it ahead of them. The pebble bounced across the cobblestones, and he skipped to catch up to her. “What’s the matter with Nymeria?” he asked then, his gaze still tracking the rock. 

Dany sighed to herself, her arms sore from the strain of carrying the bag of laundry. Today, the air was laden with salty moisture, but the skies were clear of any approaching storm clouds to clear out the humidity. The sun beat down on her face, and perspiration was already soaking through her shift beneath her gown. She was grateful for the kerchief that kept the sweat from dripping into her eyes, at least. 

“She doesn’t feel well,” she replied, debating how much to reveal to him. She’d have to tell him everything someday. Perhaps it was better to learn while he was still young. But she didn’t want to betray Nymeria’s confidence, not after she’d only just learned the truth herself. “Do you know what a moonblood is?” Dany said instead.

With a frown, Torrhen shook his head, lengthening his stride to reach the stone, then he kicked it again. Dany chose her words carefully, trying to explain it in a way a six-year-old could understand. “Well. It’s how girls know we are able to have babies, and it usually happens once a month. But it’s not a pleasant experience and can make one feel ill. That’s what Nymeria is going through right now.”

Looking up at her, Torrhen wrinkled his nose. “Can I get it, too?”

She smiled at him, shifting the bundle in her arms. “No, lucky you. Boys don’t have to worry about it. Not directly, anyway. So you should be nice to your sister right now. She could use some kindness.”

“I will,” he swore solemnly, then he turned his attention back to the stone, kicking it once more. Dany studied him, the sun coloring his auburn curls a burnished bronze.

“Torrhen,” she began anxiously, then hesitated. “You like Jon, don’t you?” 

“Yes!” He bent over to pick up the stone, clutching it in his tiny fist. “He’s a pirate!”

Relieved, she laughed. “He’s not a pirate, sweetling. He’s a dockhand.”

Torrhen shrugged, unconcerned. “He spends all day on ships. When I’m older, I want to do that, too.”

“You don’t want to wash clothes like your mother?” she asked with mock hurt. He made a face before hurling the stone into the canal.


Amused, she watched as he scurried closer to the canal to see the rock disappear into the brown water with a small splash. On his knees, he rummaged for another rock among the cobblestones, and Dany slowed to a stop to wait for him. Torrhen liked Jon, at least. It was petty and spiteful, but the thought filled Dany with some satisfaction. Had he lived to see it, Robb would have hated that: his own son idolizing the man who’d cuckolded him.

It was a small victory.

Once Torrhen found a rock to his liking, he joined her at her side again, and they continued on their way. 

Jon slipped his tunic back on over his head and winced when he felt a slight pinch in his neck. He reached up to massage it, cursing his earlier mindlessness that had led to the injury. In his exhaustion, he’d been sluggish, distracted with thoughts of Nymeria and Daenerys—how the conversation had gone, how Nymeria was feeling in the light of day, what she was thinking—and he’d almost let a crate of wine slip through his hands as he slowly lowered it to the dock. He’d caught the rope before the crate could shatter on the dock and crush the man below, but in doing so he had pulled a muscle in his shoulder and neck. The rope burn on his hands didn’t feel too pleasant, either, but he’d built up enough calluses over the weeks that it was only a mere irritation. As far as injuries went, it was a flea bite compared to the wildling’s arrows he was used to taking.

The wharf owner ordered him home after that, lest he succeed in destroying the cargo, an offense he swore he’d make Jon pay for himself. Normally, Jon would have been humiliated by such a reprimand, but his thoughts were too jumbled to muster the appropriate contrition. He would miss out on nearly a half-day’s pay, but it was better than accidentally killing someone, he supposed. Or ripping his arm the rest of its way out of its socket. Hopefully, Dany had some more of that willow bark left.

When he walked into the house, he was surprised to find Sirella in the kitchen, already making supper. She threw him a quizzical look over her shoulder and frowned. “You quit?”

He shook his head, rotating his shoulder. “Nearly killed someone, is all.”

She shrugged off his droll remark. “Once, Vogoros almost cut man’s hand off with knife getting the ropes off barrel.” She turned her attention back to the stew.

“Where’s Daenerys?” he asked.

“Returning clothes,” Sirella replied. “Took boy with her.”

Just Torrhen? he wondered. Absently, he nodded, though Sirella was no longer looking at him, and headed for his room. As he passed the stairs, he heard a creak and looked up, jerking to a stop when he saw Nymeria at the top. She went still at the sight of him, her eyes wide. After a moment of indecision, she spun back around and ran back to her room.

Jon lingered at the bottom of the steps, staring at the spot where she’d been. He tried not to be wounded by her running away at the mere sight of him, reminding himself she was a child who’d just had her entire world upended. He couldn’t fault her for not knowing what to do or say to him. Seven hells, he was the adult, and he hadn’t a clue, either.

Even so, he felt the onus was on him to reach out to her, to make the first concession. Daenerys advised caution in dealing with Nymeria, but she wasn’t here right now. And Jon was bloody tired of tip-toeing around the truth.

Having made up his mind, Jon crested the stairs to the second floor where Daenerys and her children resided. The door to Nymeria and Torrhen’s room was closed, and Jon approached it as he would a wildling camp. For all he knew, Nymeria might be inclined to attack him, too.

Steeling himself with a deep breath, Jon knocked. He heard no response, no sound from inside, but he waited, giving her time. When it became apparent she wasn’t going to answer, he tried the handle. With the slightest push, the door gave an inch; she hadn’t locked it.

“Nymeria?” he called through the crack, waiting to see if she would slam the door on his face or order him to leave; he’d allow her that much, if she wanted.

When she didn’t do either, he pushed the door open wider. Nymeria sat on the bed, her knees pulled up to her chest, her face buried in the folds of her skirt. She didn’t look up when he entered, but she didn’t tell him to go, either. Jon stepped into the room but left the door open behind him, in case it made her feel safer that way.

Now that he was here, however, he didn’t quite know what to say. “Your mother said you weren’t feeling well,” he began, figuring it would be indelicate to mention her ailment specifically. Awkwardly, he asked, “Is there anything I can get for you?”

She shook her head, still refusing to look at him.

He blew out a breath, looking around the room for help. How did he even initiate this kind of conversation with someone? No wonder Daenerys had delayed it as long as she had. Benjen and Ned, too. 

And yet, when the time came, Benjen had been blunt with him. That was all he could do now: Show Nymeria he respected her enough to be honest. “Daenerys told me she told you about me,” he said quietly. Even though she was curled into a ball, he could tell when her muscles tensed at his words. The change in the air was palpable. At his side, his fist clenched and unclenched nervously. “I understand some of what you must be feeling right now.”

Nymeria shifted on the bed, squeezing her arms around her knees tighter. “You can’t,” she said, her voice muffled by her legs.

“I do,” he insisted, keeping his voice as level and as soothing as he possibly could. It was an effort. As a man of the Night’s Watch, he wasn’t used to having to comfort others. All he was good for was killing. “I only recently learned myself that my father wasn’t who I thought he was and that I’d been lied to my whole life.” He paused, mouth pulling to the side. “It hurt like hell.”

After a moment, she lifted her head, just enough so he could see her eyes. They were red-rimmed and narrowed, though not with anger, he didn’t think, but with skepticism. And perhaps...with some curiosity, too.

Jon continued, “I had to hear it from my Uncle Benjen, though. My mother is long dead now. And my father. My real one, I mean.” He shook his head to himself. “Lord Stark is dead now, too.” 

She hesitated before saying quietly, “You’re a Targaryen.”

Daenerys had told her everything, after all. Jon was relieved. It would make this a bit easier then. He shuffled closer, but not too close. “Aye. I am. It was quite a shock to me. It must have been for you as well.”

She looked away, her “yes” mumbled.

Jon’s mouth twisted in a wan smile. “I punched my uncle when I learned the truth. I’m sure you handled it better than I did.”

Her eyes cut back to him, her face flooding with color, though she sat up straighter. “Not really.” She was reluctant, rueful. “I hit Mother when she told me. But I didn’t mean to!” she hurried to add, on the defensive. “It was an accident.”

He regarded her with mild surprise. “Oh. Dany didn’t mention it.” He thought back to last night, when she’d come to his door. She’d been crying, that much had been obvious, but otherwise fine. “It must not have been too bad. I’m sure she’s not upset with you.” Ashamed, Nymeria dropped her eyes again. Hoping to console her, he offered, “You can hit me, if it’d make you feel better.”

Her eyes darted back to him, widening slightly, and she shook her head. “It’s not very ladylike,” she said, uncertain.

“No,” he agreed somberly. After a moment, he smiled at a distant memory. “I taught your mother how to spar. When we were children.”

Nymeria was dubious. “Really?”

“She was angry at me, too. I deserved it, though. Covering myself in flour and pretending to be a ghost to scare her in the crypts. Gods, I was an ass back then.” He grinned to himself. “She didn’t appreciate my humor, so she hit me. It was the most pitiful punch I’d ever seen. Of course, they don’t teach ladies how to fight, do they? Not even to defend themselves. So I taught her what the master-of-arms had taught me and all the Stark boys. Don’t know that it helped much,” he mused, remembering how she’d struck him back at Queenscrown. It was apparent she hadn’t put the lessons to use in the years that had followed. “Still. If you ever want to learn, I’ll teach you.”

She regarded him warily before relenting. “Maybe.”

It wasn’t much, but it was encouraging. Emboldened, he decided to push his luck. “And anything else you want to learn. I probably don’t know much of interest to you. But...if you ever need to know how to start a fire or skin a rabbit, perhaps. I can teach you that.”

At that suggestion, Nymeria wrinkled her nose in distaste, and he chuckled gruffly before going quiet. Soberly, he told her, “I’m glad you were safe growing up. And happy, I hope. I wouldn’t change that for you, I truly wouldn’t. I just hope to know you better, when you’re ready.”

She went quiet again, seeming to shrink in on herself. Jon cursed himself, not sure what to say now to draw her out, but after a moment she spoke again. “I’m a bastard, aren’t I?”

At her question, his heart sank into the pit of his stomach. He tried to swallow past the lump in his throat, but it was difficult to speak. Finally, he managed to rasp out, “You have the Stark name.”

“But I’m not a Stark, not truly,” she said meekly. “I’m a Snow.”

He shook his head stubbornly. “You’re a Targaryen.”

She lifted her head with a frown. “ and...Mother weren’t married when I was born. And you need a royal decree to be legitimized, don’t you? So that would make me a Snow. A bastard.”

Rendered momentarily speechless, he stared at her. Seven hells, what a bloody mess. It was his worst fear realized, and yet some sadistic part of him wanted to laugh out loud. Truly, the gods were cruel to mock him so. He wasn’t the one to assuage her anxieties, not when he couldn’t even do it for himself.

Rubbing at his forehead, he said mulishly, “Perhaps—if we were still in Westeros. But we’re in Essos now, so it doesn’t matter much anymore, does it?”

That seemed to stump her. “No, I guess not,” she said, her voice still thick with doubt.

Jon blew out a weary breath. Suddenly, he was bone-tired. Deciding to quit while he was ahead, he bid her farewell. Better to go now before he botched it completely. He felt as though he’d made some progress with her, at least. 

Somehow, that was more rewarding than anything he’d ever accomplished at the Wall.

By supper time, Daenerys and Torrhen had returned. Following his talk with Nymeria, Jon had been too restless to mope in his room alone, so he’d headed downstairs to assist Sirella in the kitchen, if for no other reason than to distract himself. He wasn’t a cook by any means, but he’d eaten enough of Three-Finger Hobb’s stews to know there wasn’t much skill involved in making it. Indeed, Sirella only needed him to slice up some carrots and stir the pot while she tended to other things. She also fetched him some lavender oil she insisted would help with his neck.

Once Vogoros was home from the docks, they congregated around the main table to eat supper. Before taking her seat, Daenerys excused herself to check on her daughter, and Torrhen chattered about their day’s adventures while they waited. When Daenerys returned moments later, she was alone. Nymeria still didn’t feel well, she told them apologetically. Jon held his tongue; with the others around, he wasn’t comfortable talking about his earlier encounter with Nymeria. Daenerys might not be very happy he’d spoken to her, and without her supervision at that, but he wouldn’t apologize for it. Not for talking to his own daughter. 

At the end of the meal, Daenerys took a bowl of stew up to their quarters, Torrhen running up the stairs ahead of her, no doubt to delight his sister with his tales, as well. Jon thanked Sirella for the food and the oil and finally retreated to his room. There was little of interest to do in there—by himself, anyway—so after he washed himself of the grime and sweat from his shortened day at the docks, he sat down on the bed and rubbed some drops of the lavender oil into his neck and shoulder. He wished he had some books to read, but he hadn’t thought to pack any when he’d left the Night’s Watch, and neither Vogoros nor Sirella was the type to read for leisure. With no diversion at hand, he lay down and closed his eyes, his exhaustion finally catching up to him. 

Sometime later, he was jolted out of his light sleep by a knock on his door. Disoriented, it took him a moment to collect his bearings, but then he rolled out of bed to greet his visitor. It was Daenerys, of course; he hadn’t expected anyone else to be seeking him out in the middle of the night.

He smiled tiredly at her as she let herself into his room, shutting the door behind her. She wore a bedgown this time, her cheeks pink as if she’d recently scrubbed her face clean. He noticed she’d left her hair down, the silver locks brushed into soft waves.

“I liked the kerchief,” he said, only partly teasing. She rolled her eyes. 

“I’ve completed my transition to nameless washerwoman,” she quipped. “I don’t think anyone here could suspect me of having once been a highborn lady at this point.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Or a long-lost princess.”

At that, Daenerys let out a breath, her expression sobering. She fidgeted with her hands. “I talked to Nymeria. She told me you two spoke.”

His humor dissipated, as well. “I wasn’t trying to overstep, Dany. But the opportunity presented itself, and I just wanted her to know that I...that I care about her. That I’m here for her if she needs me,” he explained lamely, lifting his arms out in a helpless gesture.

She nodded. “I’m not upset. Admittedly, I was worried when she first told me. I didn’t know how she was going to react…But it seems as though it went well.”

“Is that what she said?” he asked, tentative.

She lifted her eyebrows. “She said you told her she could hit you if she wanted to.”

He pressed his lips together to suppress a smile. “Well. She’s your daughter. It seemed to help you.

Folding her arms over her chest, she fixed him with an arch look. “Are you implying that I have a temper?”

“I’m not implying,” he retorted, smiling when she huffed.

“Pot, kettle,” she reminded him, then she uncrossed her arms. “Between the two of us, I suppose she never really stood a chance. No wonder the septa often complained to me about her hotheadedness.”

“Septa Mordane?” Jon raised an eyebrow, a small smile teasing the corner of his mouth. “Please tell me she learned of this hotheadedness firsthand.”

Daenerys snorted, before her expression dimmed, eyes going distant. “I don’t know how many times I fantasized about pushing that woman from the walls of Winterfell,” she said darkly. “It was her fault. All of it, everything that’s happened since. If she hadn’t run to Lord Stark that night…” She shook her head. “I wanted to hurt her for that.”

He moved toward her. “You don’t hurt people,” he told her softly.

She lifted her eyes to him. “Sometimes I wish I could,” she admitted. “I hate feeling like this, feeling helpless. Sometimes I wish I could get back at the people who caused all of this—us being here, exiled from our home and running for our lives.”

Jon cupped her face, lifting it to his. “I do, too,” he said against her mouth before taking it in a kiss. Daenerys latched onto his forearms and pushed up onto her toes, leaning into the kiss. She parted her lips and stroked her tongue into his mouth before he could do the same.

Pleasantly surprised by her boldness, he wrapped his arms around her waist to draw her against him. Daenerys brought her hands to his neck, tunneling her fingers first through his beard then his hair. Her tongue retreated, and he nipped at her lips then took the chance to taste her, his tongue brushing against hers and running over the roof of her mouth. She made a soft sound of appreciation, tightening her grasp on his hair and pulling, the sharp sensation along his scalp making him shudder. His cock was hard now, pressed against the placket of his trousers, and he slid his hands down to cup her arse through her bedgown, kneading the plump flesh in his palms. When she rubbed against his erection, however, he abruptly turned his face to break the kiss.

She tried to guide his mouth back to hers, but he resisted, gently. “Should we be doing this right now?” he asked, his voice husky, betraying his desire in spite of his hesitation. Daenerys went still. He clarified, “After what happened last time...”

Her breath was hot and quick on his mouth. “You’re the one who wanted to tell them so we wouldn’t have to sneak around anymore.”

“We still are,” he pointed out, and even up close he couldn’t mistake her scowl.

“All we have right now are these moments, Jon. Is that selfish? Maybe. I’m trying to be mindful of my children, but I don’t want to give you up, either. Not again.” She was upset. Jon regretted making her so, and when she went to push away from him, he tightened his arms around her.

“Neither do I,” he told her, with a desperation that should have shamed him. She relaxed in his embrace, and he kissed her again with more urgency than before.

Taking her bedgown in hand, Jon pulled it up and over her head. He did the same with his tunic while she shimmied out of her smallclothes to stand naked before him. Impatient, she assisted him with his breeches, tugging at the laces until together they could push his trousers and his smallclothes down his legs. Kicking them aside, Jon hefted her into his arms and tipped her onto the bed—a wholly unnecessary effort, as she could have gotten there herself in one step.

But she enjoyed his manhandling, he could tell, her eyes bright. She stretched out beneath him, and he crawled between her parted legs, capturing her sweet mouth in another kiss. He feathered his fingers over the tips of her breasts until they became stiff peaks, then he sucked them into his mouth, first one then the other, thoroughly wetting them in his saliva. Daenerys squirmed under his attentions, her fingers digging into his strained biceps and leaving white crescent-shaped imprints on his bronzed skin.

“Please,” she begged, planting her heels in the bed and lifting her hips to his. He felt the heat of her cunt on his cock and reached a hand down between her thighs, drawing her sticky folds apart with his fingers. She gasped, her thighs reflexively closing around his waist, and he kissed her neck as he touched her, tracing up and down her nether lips until they were puffy and sopping wet. Once she was ready, he took his cock in hand and rubbed the head between her folds before pushing into her tight passageway.

Then he was fucking her, taking her in quick, deep thrusts and swallowing her increasingly audible cries with his mouth. Her cunt gripped him tightly, taking him deeper, and he stroked the swollen nub of her clitoris with feather-light touches. With a gasp and the glancing bite of her teeth on his bottom lip, she came, her cunt cinching around his shaft, rippling with the pulses of her orgasm. Jon grunted into her mouth and held her hips down as he pumped away inside her, only just remembering to pull out of her the moment his own climax claimed him.

With a groan, he spilled between her thighs, watching his seed trickle down her cunt to pool on the bed, in the divot beneath her arse. Once his orgasm had been wrung from him, Jon lifted his head to hers.

“I’ll clean you up,” he murmured, pressing a gentle kiss to her lips. Before he could get up, however, she caught his face and brought him back for a more thorough kiss, her tongue teasing his. He was ready to deepen the kiss when she spoke.

“You don’t have to keep spilling outside of me,” she said lightly. Despite her tone, she looked apprehensive. 

Jon stared at her, his mind blank. Finally, he blinked and shook his head. “Dany…” He stopped and shifted off her, so his weight rested beside her on the bed.

She hastened to add, “I just mean that I don’t mind.”

Raking a hand through his hair, he let out a hollow laugh. He knew his brain was too lethargic, his thoughts too unformed to give them voice, yet he spoke anyway. “I don’t...I don’t want to repeat the same mistake—”

Abruptly, Daenerys sat up, her expression like ice. Jon closed his eyes, knowing he’d misstepped. “So our daughter was a mistake to you?”

“No, I didn’t mean that,” he said. She turned away from him, swinging her legs over the side of the bed. Frustrated, he sat up with her. “You know I didn’t mean that. But...considering our predicament right now, it might not be wise. And…” He heaved a big sigh. “I’ve spent the past fourteen years as a brother of the Night’s Watch, Dany. I stayed true to my vows. That’s not easy to shake. And that stigma of being a bastard, I carried it with me my whole life.” He frowned at the bed, thinking of his conversation with Nymeria. “I never wanted a child of mine to know that burden, but I already failed Nymeria in that regard.”

She glanced at him over her shoulder, eyes alight with astonishment. “Are you haven’t been with anyone else?”

With a scowl, he looked away. “As I said, I swore a vow,” he said, oddly embarrassed by her disbelief.

She was quiet for a moment. “I just always figured...I mean, there’s always been the whispers about Mole’s Town…” she trailed off.

“Aye, it’s true for some, but I could never do it. After what happened with us, I blamed myself. I swore I wouldn’t hurt another woman because of who I am. Who I thought I was.” He scoffed at that, shaking his head, then looked at her. “And I guess, truthfully...I never wanted anyone but you.”

She smiled sadly at him, reaching out to cover his hand with her own. In the contemplative silence that followed, her smile waned. “If you’re worried about getting me with child, you needn’t be,” she said after a moment.

He frowned. “Why not?”

Releasing his hand, she turned away again. When she dropped her chin to her chest, the ends of her hair skimmed the curve of her spine, and he resisted the urge to reach out and touch it. “After Nymeria, I had such a tough time conceiving Torrhen...There were a few miscarriages before him. He was the only one I was able to carry to full-term. He was a difficult birth. The maester said it was possible I might never be able to conceive again.”

He didn’t know what to say. “Dany…”

She stood then and crossed to the table where he kept his water basin next to the looking glass. Dumbfounded, he watched as she scooped the water in her hand and splashed it between her thighs.

She had spoken matter-of-factly, yet her admission had left him cold. While she cleaned herself, he mulled over her revelation. She might not be able to have another child. Truthfully, Jon hadn’t thought that far ahead yet, but now...The realization had left him feeling oddly bereft. Why it should bother him so deeply, he didn’t know. Bloody hell, hadn’t he just told her himself why he wouldn’t spill inside her? He’d spent his whole life trying to avoid fathering children, afraid of passing on whatever taint his bastardy had left on him.

But...he wasn’t a bastard.

Neither was he a man of the Night’s Watch, not anymore.

So what was truly stopping him now?

Jon stood. “You know what kills me?” he said fiercely. Her eyes found his in the looking glass as he came up behind her. “It kills me that I never got to see you grow big with child. With my child. They took that from me, too.”

She held his gaze in the mirror, the regret heavy in her eyes. “It wasn’t very pretty,” she demurred with a touch of self-deprecation meant to console him. As if he gave a damn about that. 

He found the faint, silvery striae on the sides of her breasts and hips, the faded scars of her two pregnancies branding her milky skin like delicate latticework. He traced one line with his fingertip from hip to abdomen, where he lingered. With his fingers spread wide, his hand spanned the whole of her belly, his thumb touching her navel, his pinky finger grazing her pubic hair. He felt the quiver of her muscles as they clenched under his touch.

Closing his eyes, he pressed his nose to the crown of her head and tried to picture it, the steady swelling of her womb as, day by day, their child grew bigger and stronger, all the while safe inside her. “I bet you were beautiful,” he said sincerely, and she placed her hand over his.

His whole life, the only immediate experience he’d had with a pregnant woman had been Lady Catelyn. Lord Stark had always been affectionate with his lady wife, but particularly so during her times of confinement, his face soft with pride and love every time he looked upon her. When she’d been pregnant with Bran and, later, Rickon, Jon still remembered how Lord Stark used to walk with her around the castle grounds, her belly big and round before her, his arm entwined with hers to hold her steady. He remembered how, at supper, Lord Stark used to place his hand on her stomach and grin at her, Lady Stark beaming at him in return.

Jon never got to have any of that. He never got to feel his daughter move for the first time, never got to walk Daenerys through the godswood, to present her and their child to the old gods, never got to hold his daughter as she took her first breath. They’d denied him that chance the first time around, and now she was telling him he might never get that opportunity again.

Jon swallowed thickly, pressing her back against his chest. “You’re certain there’s no chance?” he asked, opening his eyes to meet hers in the looking glass.

“I don’t know,” she said honestly. “After Torrhen, I never tried again. I’d done my duty by Robb.”

He held her gaze, the full meaning of her words not lost on him. After a beat, he moved his hand, curling his fingers in a gentle scrape across her belly. Within an instant, gooseflesh broke out along her skin, her nipples puckering at the arousing sensation. She inhaled deeply, not breaking his gaze.

Even from such a distance, he could feel the heat of her arousal on his wrist. Jon stroked his hand up to her breast, where he ran the back of his thumb along the full, curved underside. He brought his other hand around to her front and grabbed two handfuls of her tits, squeezing and kneading them, pinching her nipples into taut, rosy points.

“Jon.” Her tremulous voice was thready with desire. She was already shifting against him, her arse rubbing over his soft cock. He was spent, still, and would need a moment to recover, but he had no doubt he could return to that point again, and soon. He played with her nipples some more, pulling harder until she had to brace herself on the table, her mouth opening in soundless pleasure.

“I thought about it often,” he admitted, speaking lowly. “You with my child. Even when I swore I’d never father any myself. Deep down, I wanted it. With you. Despite your being betrothed to my brother. And I was ashamed of it. Still, I wanted it more than anything.”

Her breathing was labored, her eyes squeezed shut. He didn’t know if she heard much of anything he was saying, but that was all right. Jon could already feel the stirrings in his groin for her, the heaviness low in his gut. One tit firmly grasped in his hand, Jon slid the other down her stomach. “It was a bit crude of me, I suppose. Imagining you round with my child. Knowing I’d done that to you.” His hand parted her thighs, finding her slick and hot to the touch. She gasped, fingers going white on the table edge. He slid two fingers through her slippery folds, wet with basin water and arousal, and a bit of his issue that she’d missed when cleaning herself, he imagined. His cock twitched, and he dragged in a ragged breath.

“I took myself in hand often, thinking about it.”

He rubbed the length of her slit, making her keen. He applied some pressure against her cunt, coaxing her to press her arse into him. With his chest, he crowded her against the table, angling her hips toward him. As he spoke, he stroked over and around her inner lips, avoiding her swollen clitoris altogether.

“I was ashamed of that, too. Thought it was because I was a bastard. Thought I couldn’t help wanting you. But now I think it’s just you, what you do to me, what I feel for you. I’ve never wanted that with anyone else, not even some nameless wench I made up in my head.”

She gasped his name again, and Jon took a step back, widening his stance so he could bend her over in front of him. Releasing her breast, he pressed between her shoulder blades to force her down on the table. She caught herself on her forearms, moaning when his fingers finally penetrated her, the two middle digits squelching inside her slick cunt. His cock thickened against her arse, and as he fucked her with his fingers, he idly rubbed his length against her cheek until he was fully hard. His balls were heavy now, and he pulled his fingers out of her, spreading her arse cheeks so he could admire her from behind, her lips swollen and red, coated in the sticky glaze of her cunt. He began rubbing her again, spreading her glossy nectar all around her folds and across her taint and the puckered skin of her anus. With a gasp, she jolted against the table, her wide eyes locking with his in the mirror.

A hot flush burned inside him, from his cock up into his throat. Holding her gaze, he rubbed her there again, slicking it with his fingers. “Oh!” she cried out, fingers curling against the table, and he knew he was more than ready to take her again.

Fisting his cock, he pressed the head to her cunt and pushed forward, splitting her open. Grunting, Daenerys braced herself on the table and pushed back. Her cunt swallowed his full length into the hot depths of her channel with ease.

“Gods,” he groaned, watching his darkly colored cock disappear into her. He’d never fucked her this way before, never would have thought to back in Winterfell; it seemed so undignified, to take her, a lord’s daughter, from behind and bent over a table like some mindless beast. Maybe he was depraved, to enjoy this as much as he did.

Uncertain, he found her eyes in the looking glass again, but she watched him with a lidded hunger, white teeth digging into her pink bottom lip. She pushed back against him as if to spur him on, and that was all the encouragement he needed

Seizing her by her hips, Jon began to work his cock inside her with quick, rough thrusts that had her rocking the table. “Yes!” she cried, knees locked and braced against the force of his hips hitting her arse. Over the slap of flesh on flesh, he heard the wet sucking sound of her cunt on his cock, and he drove into her harder, deeper, holding her so tight he was sure to bruise her.

“Dany,” he gasped, both of them oblivious to the water splashing across the table. The looking glass swayed, and she grabbed it to hold it steady, so she could watch him as he fucked her. Snaking one hand beneath her, he found her clitoris and rubbed it until she was shaking and crying and coming, her cunt pounding around his thick shaft with the wild beat of her heart. In the looking glass, her face twisted in pleasure, and he felt the gush of wetness around him.

Coaxing her through the lingering ripples of her climax, he rutted into her with abandon. Recently sated, Jon found his second release slow to build, and he worked himself inside her for a while, until his skin was slick with sweat and her arse pink from the pounding of his hips, her cunt raw from use. He wanted to go forever, but he knew she would need a reprieve soon, to be touched and teased and brought to the point of release again. Pressing his thumb to that sensitive furrow between her cheeks once more, he felt her tense and clamp down on his cock, something illicit in the way she responded to his touch. “Fuck,” he grunted, gently rubbing her there until he felt his own climax crest through him.

Jon went still behind her, this time burying himself to the hilt inside her as he spilled his seed, his cock pulsing and spurting at her womb. That familiar panic was fleeting, fading as quickly as it’d come the second her cunt clenched around him to milk his issue until she had taken every last drop from him. His mind went white with pleasure, and he let out a low groan, stroking his cock into her a few more times. Another wave of pleasure took him, and he shuddered. As he caught his breath, he realized just how much of his weight she was having to bear. He eased off her, his cock slipping free from her cunt, but his hand was there in an instant, pressing his seed back inside her before it could escape.

At his movement, Daenerys opened her eyes, lashes fluttering with the effort, and she found his gaze in the looking glass. Hand still between her thighs, he leaned over her and nuzzled his mouth into her hair.

“I still want it,” he confessed against the shell of her ear. He closed his eyes and inhaled the scent of her, soap and sweat and sex. When he exhaled, he felt more at peace than he had in a long time. “More than anything, I still want it.”

“I do, too,” she whispered, voice rough with emotion. The looking glass no longer in danger of falling, she released it and folded her arms on the table, resting her forehead against them. Her next words were muffled. “It might not work, though.”

He dropped his forehead to her shoulder. That possibility was painful to consider—irrationally so, he knew, considering that before now, it was a possibility he would have been grateful for. And yet... “Can’t hurt to try,” he said, determined.

He heard her quiet chuff echo off the table. “No. Not at all.”

Gradually, they settled into an easy routine in Braavos. Jon began nearly every day at the docks, while Daenerys began hers washing laundry. In some ways, for Jon, it wasn’t much different from the Night’s Watch. He slipped into the familiar tedium of hard labor rather effortlessly, but he knew it was an ongoing adjustment for Daenerys and her children, especially after a lifetime of luxury and comfort, with servants to handle almost every task for them. But Daenerys surprised him with how quickly she adapted, how eagerly she threw herself into her new life. Then again, hadn’t he’d always admired her tenacity and obstinacy, even when they were children? It was largely what had captivated him about her, then as it did now.

Nymeria was still skittish around him, however, and she often slipped into surly moods in his vicinity or avoided him altogether. Even so, she didn’t seem to outright resent him or his place in their lives, not as he had feared. Jon was hopeful for the future of their relationship. They had time. Daenerys assured him Nymeria’s aloofness was born of discomfort and even bashfulness, so he worked to acclimate her to his presence in small ways.

Torrhen was easier in that way, perhaps because he didn’t know the truth just yet. On days when Jon didn’t have to be at the docks, he took Torrhen around the city, just to get him out of Daenerys’ hair. Of course, Nymeria always declined the invite to join them, but on the days they found ways to entertain themselves around the house, such as when Jon instructed Torrhen in the art of swordplay with sticks for practice, she would watch them from afar, observing quietly.

The one time he offered to teach her, she surprised him by agreeing. Jon tempered his excitement, not wanting to scare her off with his eagerness. Instead, he treated her as Ser Rodrik had treated him in training: Jon was critical and firm but not unkind, pointing out her missteps and praising her otherwise. She took more easily to the sword than he would have predicted.

“Not bad,” he commented when she succeeded in blocking his strike. 

Although she was pleased with his compliment, she tried not to show it. Pursing her lips, she lifted her shoulder in a shrug. “I used to watch Aunt Arya in the courtyard. She taught me some things.”

Jon hid his smile. “The Water Dance?”

She nodded, moving into the sideface position to demonstrate. He tipped his chin in acknowledgment. “What else?”

Her expression turned sheepish, and she lowered her stick. “I don’t recall much else,” she mumbled. “The septa would march me back inside for my lessons whenever she found me out in the yard.”

“Aye, she was always a spoilsport,” he said wryly, and Nymeria rolled her eyes. “Well, I don’t know the Water Dance, but I can teach you the Westerosi way. Lift your sword up.”

She did as instructed. By the end of her lesson, she was as sanguine and lively as he’d seen her in a while, a stubborn determination flickering in her violet eyes. 

And for the first time, Jon saw himself in his daughter.

The nights were much the same as before, Daenerys coming down to his room once the children were asleep. She was still opposed to having him in her room, not wanting Nymeria or Torrhen to overhear their late-night activities. Jon could certainly understand that. And there were a lot of late-night activities, unless one or the other or both were too exhausted from the day’s labors. On those nights, Daenerys still came to him, but she would curl up on his narrow bed with him to sleep, tucked against his chest.

He loved those nights just as much.

It wasn’t a bad life. It was a pretty damn good life, truthfully, better than any he could have dreamed of for himself after his fourteen years at the Wall. He was happy, content, even if he sometimes felt a deep, unquenchable restlessness. He couldn’t quite shake his sense of duty or the feeling that he was neglecting something. And he was, he knew, having betrayed his pledge to the Night’s Watch. Sometimes the guilt was overwhelming, even if he felt that he’d made those vows under false pretenses. That honor was too deeply ingrained in him now, at war with his desire to be selfish, to take something for himself just this once in his gods-forsaken life. But it was more than that, he knew. He would always feel as if he should be doing something more. Not for himself, and not for the Night’s Watch, not for a country that had discarded him and his family like refuse. But for Daenerys, for Nymeria and Torrhen. 

An injustice had been done to them all. There was a wrong that needed righting. He just didn’t know how.

“Give me your clothes so I can wash them.”

Jon glanced at her queerly from across the table. “Why? I know how to wash my own clothes.”

Dany cut him a look. “I’m sure you do. But as I already have to wash clothes today, I can do yours at the same time.” She eyed his tunic. “When’s the last time you gave that shirt a good scrub with some soap, anyway?”

He looked embarrassed, which answered her question. “I’d rather save my soap to wash myself,” he said crossly. He raised his eyebrows for emphasis. “I’d think you would appreciate that.”

“Fortunate for you, I have a lot of soap at my disposal.” Smiling, she held out her hand. “Put something else on, and give me what you’re wearing.”

Exasperated, Jon got up from the table where they’d been breaking their fast. The children were still abed, Vogoros was already at the docks, and Sirella was out rounding up the laundry for the day. It was one of Jon’s days off, though Dany didn’t have the same luxury. Occasionally, there was no laundry to be done and she was given the day to relax, but today was not one of those days. She’d rather spend the day with Jon and her children, but at least he would have that chance. Nymeria seemed to be warming up to him, and more time in his presence could only help. Jon tended to have that effect on people, even if he preferred to hide his charm behind a surly mask. The Seven only knew how long it’d taken her to discover that for herself when they were younger.

While she waited, Dany finished her meal, eating the last hard-boiled egg on her plate. Jon returned a moment later in a new tunic and breeches, though this shirt looked almost as dingy as the other. He tossed his canvas sack onto the table before her. Dany opened it to look inside, satisfied by the sight of shirts and trousers balled up inside.

“You’ll thank me later,” she promised, standing up with the bag in hand.

“I think you’re doing it more for your benefit than mine,” he groused.

“Yes,” she said easily. He scowled at her, but when she leaned in to kiss him, his expression softened. Her lips lingered on his, then she pulled away with a smile. “I’m going to wake the children. Would you mind preparing their breakfast?”

“Aye.” He kissed her again, then moved around her for the small kitchen alcove.

Upstairs, Dany roused Nymeria and Torrhen from their sleep. Once they were dressed, she sent them down to eat, then rounded up their dirty clothes and took them to her room. There, she added them to a woven basket with her own laundry.

Nymeria’s voice floated upstairs on a groan. “Ugh. Eggs again? I’m sick of eggs.”

“If you’d prefer to hunt down your own breakfast, I highly recommend the clams at the harbor,” Jon answered. Nymeria’s reply was too faint for her to discern, but Jon’s answering laugh put her at ease. 

Smiling to herself, she sat down cross-legged and opened Jon’s bag. As she pulled out his clothes, she wrinkled her nose. Having lived in Braavos for months now, she’d almost grown accustomed to the smell of the harbor and the overabundance of fish markets, but by virtue of his work, the odor was always stronger on his clothing.

After emptying his bag, she realized she only had one of his socks in hand. She scrounged around inside for the other and frowned when she felt something stiff in the fabric. Loosening the drawstring as far as it would go, she peeked inside. The missing sock was all the way at the bottom. Grabbing it, she tossed it aside then reached her hand inside to feel around again. There—she felt a ragged slit in the stiff lining, and when she pushed her fingers through it, she touched something smooth. 

Dany wiggled it free of the lining and held it up in the light for a closer study. A leather pouch. But why would Jon be hiding it in the lining of his sack? Curious, she carefully wriggled the drawstring on the pouch open and slipped her fingers inside, withdrawing a tightly rolled scroll. Two scrolls, she realized, a slip of paper wrapped around a larger scroll that was sealed and unbroken. She started to unravel the smaller scroll until she got a good look at the wax stamp it concealed. Her breath caught.

The Stark sigil.

“Jon,” she called, then again, louder, “Jon!”

A moment later, he appeared at her door, alarm on his face. “What is it? What’s the matter?”

Perturbed, she looked up at him. “Nothing. Except—well, I found this.”

He stepped inside and took the scrolls she held out to him. “What is this?”

“I don’t know. I found it in your bag,” she confessed. “Did you put it in there for safekeeping?”

Confused, he slipped the top paper free, going stiff at the sight of the stamp. “I didn’t put anything in there but my clothes,” he said with a frown. “Uncle Benjen packed that bag for me before we left. He must have left it for me to find.”

Unrolling the smaller scroll, he read it quickly. When his expression darkened, Dany felt her stomach knot with dread.

“What is it?” she demanded.

“It’s from Benjen. The first letter, anyway.” Jon read his uncle’s words aloud, “‘Jon, I hope this finds you well in Braavos. I’m sorry for not giving it to you directly, but I must admit I was afraid. Afraid of the contents and afraid of what you might do. I have not read it, as whatever words Ned has written are meant for you and you alone. He gave me this letter the last time I visited Winterfell, more than a year before I sit down to write this now, on the eve of your setting sail for Braavos. Once you are gone, I know you will not return. Not any time soon, at least.’

“‘Ned made me vow to only give this letter to you in the event of his untimely death. He must have known what would happen...In any case, I have done my duty, both by my brother and by you. I hope you know it was an honor watching you become the man you are today. Perhaps one day I will see you again. You will always be my brother, and my blood. Benjen Stark.’

Jon crumbled the letter in his fist, a storm cloud passing over his face. Dany found herself twisting her skirt in her hands. “What could Lord Stark possibly have to say at this point?” she asked. “We already know everything there is to know, don’t we?”

He didn’t say anything, instead dropping Benjen’s letter and angrily tearing open the seal on the other scroll. Immediately, he began to read it out loud for her benefit, and she braced herself for the worst.


It has been nigh on thirteen years since we last saw each other. I beg your forgiveness for my silence all this time—and so much more. I don’t expect your absolution, nor do I deserve it, for I know I have wronged you greatly. But as hard as it might be to believe, I only wanted to protect you. I made mistakes, ones I could not see clearly at the time, but please know I did them out of love, and fear. For you, for my family. For Daenerys. For my sister and a promise made long ago. I did what I thought was the best at the time, but I see now it was for the worst.

In giving you this letter, I trust that Benjen has already done what I could not, that he was honest and truthful when I was not. I told a lie, to save you and to honor the wishes of two dying women, but it spun far beyond my control. Now, this is the price of that lie, one I will gladly pay, if it keeps you and Daenerys alive. If it can right some of the wrongs I have done by you both.

You are the last Targaryens. Years ago, Lady Ashara and I made a pact to keep you and Daenerys safe from King Robert’s wrath. We would claim you as our own and never tell a living soul your true identities. But secrets cannot stay buried forever. Lady Ashara is convinced someone close to King Joffrey has uncovered the truth. She is afraid it’s only a matter of time before they come for Daenerys and the children.

If that happens, you will be safe on the Wall, beyond the king’s reach. You need never know the truth, never concern yourself with any of this. But I know that’s not you. And I wouldn’t want that for you or for Daenerys. Now, more than ever, I realize how important that is, the bonds of family. Together, I thought you and Daenerys were a threat to each other’s well being, but I know now I was wrong to see family as the danger instead of as the strength it is. The pack survives, after all—and while you might not be wolves, dragons need each other, too.

I have wronged you and Daenerys, but I have spent the past few years trying to right that, the few things that I could in any case, should everything come crashing down. And I think it is inevitable that they should. But perhaps some things must be destroyed before they can be mended. Before they can be restored.

The throne is yours by right. It belongs to you and Daenerys and your children, should you want it. If you do, you will find support in the North. You will find support in Dorne, in the riverlands, and in the Vale. It might not be enough, but then again, it just might be. King Joffrey has done a grave disservice to Westeros, and King Robert long before him. All through the land, people suffer greatly. They clamor for change, for something better. If they hear the dragons have returned, more might rally to your cause and raise their banners in your family's name.

If you do so, you must know it will mean war. The thought pains me greatly. It’s not what I want for you. It’s what I tried so hard to prevent since the moment your mother placed you in my arms. But I can no longer make your choices for you. It is not my decision to make, it hasn’t been for a long time now. It is for you to decide now, what you want to do with your life.

I only pray it is a long and happy one—

Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell

Chapter Text

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It was the farthest south Ned Stark had ever been. The air was warm and humid, a balmy breeze caressing his face with the salty kiss of the Summer Sea. A far cry from the pervasive and inhospitable chill of the North. The ancestral seat of House Dayne was a beautiful paradise sequestered by the Red Mountains, one he might have been glad to visit otherwise—if not for the circumstances that brought him there today.

With a heavy heart, he ascended the steps of the castle. Slowly, for his wounds from battle were still healing. He was not daunted when Lady Ashara met him at the top; no doubt her guards had spotted him from the towers and alerted her to his arrival, though he was surprised she came to greet him alone.

Her face was hard and pale, as if forged from the same material of the blade he now carried to her; gone was all the warmth and sweetness Ned had etched into his memory of their last, and only, time together at Harrenhal. Had it only been a couple years ago? It felt like another lifetime already.

She knew, then. Why he had come. Of course. What else could his presence mean in her home?

As he crested the steps, she did not speak. Without a word, Ned knelt before her and bowed his head in deference. In his hands, he presented to her the greatsword of her house, Dawn. Her brother’s sword.

Her now slain brother.

Ashara’s mouth creased with a barely suppressed grimace. Finally, she spoke. “You killed him.”

Unbidden, the memory returned to Ned: He, on the ground, disarmed and heavily injured. Dawn raised for the final blow. Then—the flash of iron and red, and the flicker of shock in Ser Arthur’s eyes, as Ned stared, uncomprehending, at the spearpoint protruding from his throat. When he fell to his knees, Howland Reed stood in his place, Ser Arthur’s blood dripping from his spear.

It had not been an honorable death, the kind where you look a man in his eyes as you take his life. It had been dirty. Unfair. Even so, the Crannogman had saved Ned’s life, and he would be eternally grateful for that.

He kept his head bowed as he said, “Your brother died valiantly fighting for his prince.”

“And you killed him valiantly for yours.” The contempt in her voice cut deep, perhaps unfairly so. Any foolish hopes he’d once had of courting her favor died with his brother Brandon in King’s Landing, and now any foolish notions that they could be friends had died with her brother at the Tower of Joy.

Just like my sister.

After Ashara made no move to take the sword from him, Ned stood, hiding his wince of pain. Fittingly, the sword weighed heavily in his hands, a burden he’d carried from the tower all the way to Starfall. “He died with honor—”

Her slap was unexpected, the sting lingering long after the blow. He bore the humiliation in silence, finally bringing his gaze to hers. Her violet eyes—so much like her brother’s—swam with fresh tears. “What honor is there in death?” she sneered.

Ned had no answer for her, all his false platitudes tasting of blood on his tongue. The stench of it, curdled with the cloying scent of decaying blue roses, lingered in his nostrils still. Promise me, Ned. His throat thickened with emotion.

No, there was no honor in death, whether on the battlefield or in the birthing bed.

“I’m sorry,” was all he could say, and still it rang hollow.

When she spoke again, she sounded defeated. “You brought me my brother’s sword but could not bring me his body so that I could properly bury him. Here, in his home, where he belongs.”

Ned swallowed, unsure what to say, what pretty words would placate her. The truth, perhaps—why, exactly, there’d been no room in the carriage for her brother’s bones—but he dared not speak it. Instead, he said, “We might have been enemies on the battlefield, but I admired your brother. I buried him where he fell, alongside his men. A warrior’s burial. I did not dishonor him or desecrate him, I swear it.”

Ashara looked away to compose herself, curls of black hair whipping across her face in the breeze. “Lyanna,” she said finally, her voice softer. “Did you find her?”

It took a moment longer for him to find the words. “I did...but I was too late.”

“And the babe?”

Ned’s heart stopped. “What?”

When she looked back to him, her gaze had turned shrewd. “The babe,” she repeated. “Where is it? Did it live?”

He reeled, his head growing faint. She knew. How could she know?

As if hearing his unspoken question, she answered. “Who do you think sent the midwife to her?”

Arthur—he’d known what he was protecting inside that tower; he’d known what he might die protecting. Of course, Ashara would know, too.

Ned’s tongue felt thick and useless in his mouth. “I—no—”

Her eyes flashed, heralding a coming storm. “You have already wounded me with the news of my brother’s death. Do not think to spare me now with some useless lie.”

Promise me, Ned, Lyanna had begged him with the last of her breaths. Protect him. Do what you have to. But he’d not been prepared to lie so soon, his grief too new and raw a thing. He’d had no time to craft a plausible story.

“He lives yet,” he admitted reluctantly.

The words quelled her brewing temper. “A boy,” she repeated softly. She clasped her hands together to still the tremble in her finger tips. “Bring him to me then. I will protect him and cherish him, as Lyanna and Rhaegar would have wanted.”

Aghast, Ned stared at her as he took a step back to steady himself. “No. No. I cannot. If Robert were to learn of his existence, it would mean the boy’s sure death—”

“And you are that brute’s own man,” she snapped. “How do you think to stop him from finding out? He’ll hunt him down, you know he will!”

He shook his head. Not to deny the truth of her words, but because he could not accept the possibility. “I will claim him. I will raise him as my own.”

Ashara reared back. “How? I think your lady wife will know the child did not come from her own womb.”

He wavered; he’d not thought that far ahead yet. He hardly knew his new bride, yet Catelyn waited for him back in Winterfell, with his son she’d given birth to during the course of this war. His heart ached anew at the thought. “He will...he’ll be my natural son.”

At that, she laughed. “You? The honorable Ned Stark, begot a bastard?” She looked at him with pity, not unkindly. “You couldn’t even ask me to dance at Harrenhal. Your brother had to do it for you. Who will believe it of you? No, the child would be safer here, with me.”

“No,” he said stubbornly. “I swore to protect him.”

Ashara would not relent, and her frustration at his obstinance only sharpened her tongue. “You couldn’t even save your sister. How can you save her son?”

“He is my blood! He is all I have left of her! You will not have him. No one will. I will not break my promise to my dead sister!” His voice cracked as it rose in volume, and Ashara sobered immediately, falling silent. She did not speak for a moment longer, regarding him sadly.

“Very well,” she murmured, finally reaching forward to pry the sword from his hands. It dwarfed her small frame as she folded it against her chest, hugging it tightly, as if to cherish all that remained of her brother. “Then I hope for the child’s sake, and yours, that he takes after his mother.”

Numbly, Ned nodded. “He is dark of hair. He has her eyes.”

Ashara bit her lip. “Where is he now? May I see him?”

He hesitated then shook his head. The boy had barely stopped crying since Ned had taken him from the tower. He’d had to pay for a carriage to transport him and a wet nurse safely, but wary of the attention a squalling baby would attract, he’d been unable to bring him all the way to Starfall. Howland Reed had stayed behind to watch over the boy at a nearby inn until Ned could return. “I left him with one of my men.”

Suddenly, Ashara was a raging storm again. “Are you mad? How could you be so reckless? Leaving him with somebody—”

“He’s not just somebody,” Ned interrupted, defensive. “He is someone I trust with my life.”

“But can you trust him with the life of Lyanna and Rhaegar’s son?” she retorted, just as sharp.

“Aye,” he said, without hesitation. “The only other person I could trust with this.” He knew the Crannogman had loved Lyanna, too. Unselfishly and without expectation. Not like Robert had loved her.

She shook her head shortly. “You are gambling with his life.”

“I couldn’t bring him here,” he argued. “I didn’t know what you knew. I couldn’t trust you.”

Her eyes glittered with tears anew. “Rhaegar was my friend. Elia was my friend—”

“Exactly,” he cut her off. His words were blunt. “You were her lady-in-waiting. I would have been a fool to bring to you, of all people, the son of the woman for whom Rhaegar had betrayed your liege lady.”

“You don’t know anything.” She glowered at him, but before he could ask, she changed tactics. “What will you do with the boy in the meantime?”

He frowned. “What do you mean?”

Ashara scoffed. “No doubt your new king requires your presence,” she said venomously. “I’m sure he expects word of your sister and tales of your triumph in battle. Will you drag her son before him? Stash him in a brothel in King’s Landing somewhere, perhaps?”

Ned dragged a hand down his face. “Of course not. He’d never be safe anywhere near King’s Landing.”

“So what will you do?”

With a weary sigh, he sat down on the steps, the exhaustion of the last few months hitting him all at once. He was suddenly looking down the long blade of a life shrouded in lies and secrets. An executioner’s sword hanging above his neck, just waiting to fall. Perhaps, it would be better if it fell, sooner rather than later. Except, it wasn’t just his neck on the line now.

“Send a raven from the safety of Winterfell, maybe,” he pondered out loud.

Ashara sat down beside him, setting the sword at her side. “You know Robert won’t accept that. He’ll want to see Lyanna’s bones for himself before he’ll ever give up that ghost.”

She was right, of course. “Once he knows she’s dead, he won’t rest until all the Targaryens have paid for it.” He rested his head in his hands as he thought it over. “I could send the boy back to Winterfell without me. Except…”

“Except sending your bastard son alone to your new bride isn’t very smart. Or kind,” she finished for him.

Ned did not think so ill of Catelyn to suspect she would cause the child any harm, but what did he truly know of her? It would be cruel of him, besides. Not that him presenting her with the boy himself would soften the blow of his alleged infidelity.

They sat in silence for a moment, listening to the distant roar of the Torrentine. Finally, Ashara spoke. “Bring him to me.”

He glanced at her sharply. “I already told you,” he began, but she talked over him.

“Bring him to me, and I will care for him while you make the journey to King’s Landing, then you can come back for him before returning North. You know he will be safest here, far away from Robert and his men. And away from your wife for now. You have my word. I will keep him safe.” He wanted to argue, but her tone turned pleading. “Let me do something of use. My brother died protecting that child. It was important to him, and it’s important to me.”

Ned stared at her. She looked earnest. Determined. He knew then and there he could have loved her in another life. Some part of him, that green boy from Harrenhal, wanted to kiss her still, but she was right about him; he would never dishonor his wife, even if he would have to tell the whole world otherwise.

“No one else can know about the child,” he said warily.

“Never,” she swore. Then she shrugged. “I simply agreed to care for your bastard son until you return.”

He swallowed and gave a curt nod. “All right, then.”

She looked relieved. “Does he have a name yet?”

Promise me, Ned. Once he’d sworn his binding vow to her, Lyanna had said nothing more. Her last plea had taken all she had left, and he could only hold her hand as he watched the life slip from her, just as the blood seeped into the bedclothes.

He had no idea what name she would have wished for her son. He could only think of a name he’d like to call a son of his own.

“Jon. I’ll name him Jon.”

Ned rode hard and fast back to Starfall. He’d left King’s Landing in a hurry, his anger with Robert fueling his haste. There was fear, too, about what the man who’d once been like a brother to him was now capable of, what he’d already done. After their quarrel in the Red Keep, Ned had sent Howland Reed and the carriage with Lyanna’s body ahead to Winterfell without him, waiting for nightfall to abscond to Dorne by horse.

He stopped to rest and eat only when he needed to; otherwise, he rode uninterrupted, for as long as he could, making his return journey in nearly half the time it took him to travel to King’s Landing. Even then, his ride felt interminably long; all he could think about was getting back to Jon, holding him in his arms and knowing for sure he was alive and safe.

“Their blood is on your hands now, Robert,” Ned had condemned his new king. The admonishment only served to further incense the man, already angry beyond all reason. “Good!” he roared, face red, spittle flying. “They’ll be drenched in it by the time I’m done with them all!”

A storm raged over Starfall by the time Ned finally arrived at the castle. Drenched, he left his horse at the stables and loped up the steps of the keep. This time, a retinue of guards greeted him, hands on the hilts of their swords. Once he identified himself, however, they allowed him entry, albeit grudgingly; no doubt he looked like a mad man, ravaged by the elements, but he had no time to quibble with them or the servant that ushered him inside the keep as a distant scream stole any objection from his tongue. Without a second thought, he took off running.


A second cry rang out, rent with pain. His heart pounded in his throat as he tore through the castle, following the sounds of anguish. Tracking it down to an upstairs chamber, he tried to ram through the guards, but they shoved him back.

“Let me through!” Ned yelled over the screams coming from inside. Panicked, he drew his sword and disarmed the guards before they could even unsheath their blades. “Ashara!” He slammed the door in, and suddenly she was before him, holding him back.

“Leave! Now!” she screamed at him. The guards grabbed his arms to pull him away, but not before Ned glimpsed what they’d been so earnestly defending. Servants scurried back and forth across the room, carrying bloodied rags and bowls of water as a midwife bellowed orders. And there, on the bed, a woman with silver hair, soaked in sweat and naked from the waist down, wailing in agony as the midwife pulled a slimy, pink babe from between her legs.

Horrified, Ned stumbled as the guards managed to drag him from the room. Ashara shut the door on him, and he fell to the ground, quaking as adrenaline and fear coursed through his veins. The guards stood over him, swords in hand this time. The stench of blood and roses returned as the memory of a similar scene seized him then, and he squeezed his eyes shut against it. Lyanna. His stomach turned, what little food he’d eaten on the road threatening to reappear.

Without warning, the screams stopped. The deathly silence that followed was pierced by the shrill cries of a baby, before they themselves were gradually hushed.

Moments dragged by before the door opened and Ashara emerged, her face ashen. As she approached him, Ned scrambled to his feet. “Jon,” he demanded on a gasp, and she clasped his arm in her hands. She seemed to be shaking, too, he realized.

“He’s fine. He’s with the wet nurse in another room.”

He stared at her, unblinking, his brain slow to catch up. “He’s all right?” he repeated, his brain still stuck on what he’d just witnessed.

“Yes. I will take you to him so you can see for yourself.”

He nodded slowly, eyes going to the closed door behind her. “Who…”

Curtly, she shook her head and led him away, whisking him down the hall, while the guards remained at their station. Ashara didn’t speak as she guided him to another chamber. Once inside, she dismissed the wet nurse, who left with a harried curtsy, closing the door as she went. Ned approached the cradle, letting out a tremulous breath when he saw the sleeping babe swaddled inside. He touched his hand to Jon’s head, feeling the soft, black down of his hair under his fingers. Only then did the raging of his heart subside, now that he had assured himself of Jon’s wellbeing.

Ned turned back to Ashara, who was hugging herself, her eyes a torrent of emotion. “Who was that?” he demanded hoarsely. Her throat constricted with a swallow, and she seemed to struggle with her words. Finally, she returned his gaze head-on.

“The queen,” she whispered. His lips parted in disbelief, and she explained distantly. “She was brought to me not long after you left for King’s Landing. Ser Willem Darry had gotten her safely out of Dragonstone before Stannis Baratheon’s forces could lay siege to the castle. He was not successful at saving the prince, however. Viserys. He didn’t know where else to take the queen. He meant to sail east, but he was afraid she wouldn’t survive the alien lands of Essos. Not in her condition.”

Ned’s stomach sank. “She was with child,” he said out loud, needlessly. Ned hadn’t known before, but Robert had told him as much. It was why he’d been in such a lather when Ned had seen him at King’s Landing. “Is she—”

“It seems the child is all right. A little girl,” Ashara said, her voice shaking. “But—the queen, she’s bleeding too much. The midwife is doing everything she can, but…” Distraught, she touched a hand to her throat. “I’d send for a maester, but—there’s no one I really trust with this information—”

“It wouldn’t help, anyway,” Ned said hollowly, once again lost in another moment in time. He dropped into a crouch, his head in his hands. “She’ll die.”

“Yes,” Ashara whispered. “I think she knew that was likely as well. The other pregnancies were...equally hard on her.” Ned had no more words or reassurances, and after a moment, Ashara drew a deep breath. “I must return to her.”

She left without another word. Ned could only manage a nod of acknowledgement, but the door had already shut behind her by then. He finally stirred again when Jon began to cry. He stood, his cramped legs singing in protest; more time than he’d realized must have passed while he was lost in his thoughts. Ned lifted the squirming bundle from the crib, briefly astounded by how much bigger the boy had grown in his absence. He tried to do the math in his head, but could only guess the child was a few months old. Jon’s cries sharpened; helpless, Ned rocked him, murmuring soothing nonsense. Thankfully, the wet nurse returned in that moment, curtsying as he passed the child over to her.

“Thank you,” he said. Blushing, she stared at him, and it was only then Ned realized she meant to nurse the babe. “Forgive me,” he muttered and quickly took his leave.

Ned wandered the castle in a daze until Ashara finally came to him again some time later. Without speaking a word, he followed her back to the chambers where Jon slept. A guard stood sentinel outside, and he stepped aside to let Ashara and Ned through. A second cradle had been added to the room; nestled inside was the tiny little pink babe pulled from the queen’s womb earlier. In the crib, Jon slept soundly, thank the gods. Once again, the lady of the keep dismissed the wet nurse who’d been keeping watch—Wylla was her name—leaving her and Ned alone with the children.

“Queen Rhaella?” he asked in a hushed voice, mindful of the sleeping babes. Sadly, Ashara shook her head.

“She’s gone. We will burn her body, as is the Targaryen way. Away from prying eyes to avoid suspicions. But she deserves that, at least.”

Ned cast his eyes toward the girl’s cradle. Her mother’s birthing fluids had been wiped clean, revealing a delicate plumage of silver hair on her head and marking her for the Targaryen whelp that she was.

At least, Jon had not made things more difficult for him in that regard, he thought.

“They are truly the last of them, then, aren’t they?” he murmured, the realization a deeply unsettling one.

Ashara followed his gaze to the girl. “Yes.”

“Does she have a name?”

She moved closer to the cradle, touching the blankets that gently cocooned the girl. Her finger brushed her pudgy cheek with reverence, a small smile playing at her lips. “The queen wanted to name her Daenerys. We’d had some time to talk before the birth.” After a beat, she added, “I made sure she knew I would protect her daughter. Keep her safe.”

Ned let out a breath, still trying to wrap his mind around everything that had led them here, to this moment. “Ser Willem. Where is he?”

Ashara sighed, moving her hand away. She wrung her wrists as she drifted toward the middle of the room. “Gone. Once he was assured the queen was safe here, he took his ship and left, planning to make haste across the Narrow Sea. His hope is to divert attention toward Essos, should anyone go looking for the queen.”

“They will,” Ned promised darkly. “Robert...once he learned of Lyanna’s death, there was no reasoning with him. His bloodthirst won’t be slaked until he has every last Targaryen’s head on a spike.”

Ashara regarded him with haunted eyes. “If he were to get his hands on these two...”

She did not need to finish the thought. Stomach heavy, he sat down in a chair, his head in his hands. “Robert and I quarreled something fierce. I’d hoped, perhaps foolishly, that he would show some misgivings over what had been done to Elia and her children. That he would condemn those abhorrent murders and punish the men who had committed them. Instead, he only swore to do the same to every last Targaryen he could get his hands on.” He shook his head to himself, his old friend’s threats still ringing in his ears. “I’d never seen him like that.”

“He is a hateful man,” Ashara said in agreement. “Lyanna’s rejection has injured his pride and sent him down this path with no hope of return.”

Ned lifted his head. “He doesn’t know—or at least, he refuses to see it as such. He blames Rhaegar entirely. It was his betrayal, not Lyanna’s.”

“You didn’t correct him?”

“I told you, he couldn’t be reasoned with.” He dropped his hands, and they dangled listlessly between his knees. “But I couldn’t risk him putting the pieces together about Jon’s identity.”

She huffed, looking away. “How many lives must be jeopardized just to soothe one man’s fragile ego?” she muttered.

“He’s not just any man now. He’s the king,” Ned reminded her, more sharply than he intended. She merely pursed her lips together, and he sighed. The exhaustion of his journey was catching up to him. “I must leave tomorrow. Every day spent here is a risk. I’ll take them both to Winterfell. One wet nurse between the two of them should be—”

“What?” Her violet eyes flashed dangerously as she turned on him. “You can’t have her.”

He regarded her, not comprehending her refusal. “My lady—it’s too dangerous here, this close to King’s Landing. If anyone were to get word of Ser Willem’s sojourn to Starfall, it wouldn’t take much to figure out who the girl is. Let me take her to Winterfell with Jon.”

“And what, you’ll claim her as your other bastard?” She scoffed. “How would you explain to your wife you got two bastard children on two separate women while you were out playing war and she was back home, raising your trueborn child? You got lucky with Jon, looking the way he does, but you’ll have a harder time explaining Daenerys.”

Seeing Ned’s doubt, Ashara folded her arms stubbornly. “I promised the queen I would protect her as if she were my own flesh and blood. You made a vow to your sister, and I made one to my queen. Do what you must with Jon, but Daenerys stays with me.”

He rubbed at his forehead and finally relented. “As you wish. What do you plan to tell people?”

Turning back to the cradle, Ashara softened. “I want her to have the protection of my name, of a powerful house.” He waited as she mulled it over to herself. “I’ll have to find a suitable husband. Immediately. One desperate to join his house to mine, who would be willing to pretend my bastard daughter is his own.”

He studied her skeptically. “That’s a lot to ask of a man. Of anyone,” he amended with a grimace, thinking of Catelyn back in Winterfell. No, it was not a request he’d dare ask of her.

Ashara rolled her eyes. “Dorne doesn’t have the same reservations about bastards as you Northerners do. For the right price, I’m sure I could persuade any man who is...ambitious enough.”

“For the right price,” he agreed. “The cost might be steeper than you imagine, however. Are you prepared to pay it?”

She arched an eyebrow at him. “Yes. You men aren’t the only ones fighting these wars.”

He had to admire her determination, even if the plan left him a bit uneasy. “And will you tell her? Who she is?” he asked.

She frowned. “Of course not. Why would I do that?”

“Perhaps, you might wish for her to take back what is hers someday.”

Understanding his implication, she cut him an exasperated look. “What do you imagine one little girl can do against Robert Baratheon?”

With a shrug, Ned looked toward Jon, his apprehension weighing on him like a cloak. “She might not be just one little girl. She might come looking for him some day. If she knew.”

“I wouldn’t endanger your nephew like that.”

“It might be out of your control.”

A slight scowl tugged at her mouth. “I won’t interfere in your affairs with Jon, and you won’t interfere with mine.”

She was cross with him, but he couldn’t help but press the issue. He had to be certain Jon’s safety would not be threatened in the future. Already, an idea was germinating in his mind. “Perhaps, we can head off any future trouble with a betrothal.”

Stunned, Ashara reared back. “You want to marry Jon and Daenerys?”

“No. Gods, no,” Ned said immediately. He scrubbed his hands down his face. “No. That would be asking for trouble. If they were to marry and then somehow learned of the truth…” Their union and claim to the throne would be an unparalleled threat to King Robert’s reign. The wars would never end, then. There would be no respite.

Lyanna’s desperate pleas returned to him. Protect him. Don’t let Robert have him. Promise me he’ll live. Promise me, Ned.

He sucked in a shaky breath. No. Robert had what he wanted now; what he could have, anyway, even if he thought it a poor consolation prize for Lyanna’s love. Let him keep the thrice-damned throne. No more war, no more fighting. Maybe the kingdom could finally rest in his hands. An impossible dream, perhaps, but Ned could only hope.

“I mean between my son and Daenerys. The heir to Winterfell. If we betroth them, Daenerys will have the protection of two powerful houses, as well as all of the North. Her children would inherit Winterfell one day.” Ashara looked doubtful at the proposition, so he pressed. “I can foster her when she’s older. They need not marry as strangers, if that’s what you worry about.”

She chewed on her lip. “Two Targaryens in one place sounds incredibly foolhardy, Ned.”

“The North is far beyond Robert’s reach,” he reminded her.

“But not completely,” she argued. She watched Daenerys as she slept, pondering his offer. After a long, tense moment, she finally consented. “Very well. It might be the best choice for her.” She looked back to Ned. “And what of Jon? What will you do with him? When he’s older?”

It was a question Ned had no answer for yet. A betrothal for Jon was trickier, if not nigh impossible. Admittedly, the life of a bastard in the North would be a hard one, even as a highborn one, but he was confident he could provide for the boy in a way no one else could. “I’ll give him the best life I can. He could be a knight, perhaps. Or even a maester, if he wants. He’ll have options,” he said, trying to convince himself.

She smiled wryly. “Not a terrible trade off—for a prince who’d been born a king.”

As Ned had feared, Catelyn was less than welcoming to the boy he claimed as his bastard. It felt wrong, to propagate their marriage on a lie. But his vow to his sister, to her son, meant more to him than even those sacred vows sworn beneath the weirwood tree, the gods be damned.

Despite her opposition, there was nothing Catelyn could do to prevent Jon from living at Winterfell and being raised alongside her own children. Ned made sure Jon wanted for little; he received the same education and training as his own son, Robb. Catelyn had named the boy to honor the king, Ned’s dear friend, thinking to please her new husband on his return from war. It had been a well-intentioned gesture, he knew. Eventually, she came to know of the rift between him and Robert, even if she didn’t fully understand the basis for it.

The only thing Ned couldn’t give Jon was a mother’s love, and he felt he had no right to demand it of Catelyn, not on top of the humiliation the boy’s very presence caused her; still, he tried to compensate with his own affections and attentions. He tried his best to be fair and reasoned in his dealings with Jon, and impressed upon his castle staff that the boy was to be treated no differently than Robb or his other children. Even so, the stigma of his bastard status could not be absolved completely, not once Jon was old enough to know what it meant and could comprehend just how differently Catelyn treated him compared to her own. Not once he began asking after his own mother, only to be stonewalled by Ned’s secrecy.

In a way, Daenerys faired better than Jon. Ashara had wed quickly, to a lord named Erac Dalt, who had been willing enough to go along with her ruse—as long as any child born of their union stood to inherit Starfall. It seemed a fair arrangement at the time, even in a kingdom where firstborn daughters could be heirs, since Daenerys had been promised to the future lord of Winterfell.

Ashara and Ned exchanged ravens often over the years, an arrangement that would have otherwise stoked suspicions, especially amid the mystery of Jon’s mother, except he made sure Catelyn and others were aware of the betrothal between Robb and Daenerys. A personal penance for slaying Ashara’s brother, Ned had explained. If Catelyn had been skeptical of the reasons, she did not voice it. She seemed pleased that he had taken active measures to ensure their son’s future, at least in the uncertain shadow Jon’s presence cast across their home.

A few years into her marriage, Ashara finally agreed to foster Daenerys in Winterfell. Lord Erac had become particularly impatient in anticipation of her betrothal, following the birth of his own children. At the age of ten, Daenerys was sent North to be a ward of House Stark. It was the first time Ned had seen her since the day of her birth, and it was as if he were looking at a ghost; she resembled Queen Rhaella in every way, from the eyes to the hair. It was a miracle—by design, no doubt—that she was similar in coloring to Lord Erac with his pale skin and flaxen hair.

(More times than he could count over the years, Ned had thanked the gods there was more of Lyanna than Rhaegar in Jon.)

Fortunately, Robb seemed smitten with his betrothed from the start. Daenerys suited well with all the Stark children; even Catelyn doted on her. The only contention seemed to be between her and Jon, but Ned simply attributed the discord to how similar they were in temperament: both were stubborn and opinionated but quick-tempered and passionate. Lyanna had been as well, and Ned had assumed Jon had taken after his mother in that regard, but perhaps it was the blood of the dragon that coursed through his and Daenerys’ veins.

It was bittersweet to observe them together; they butted heads more often than not, unaware that the other was the last Targaryen family either had.

Even so, Ned much preferred them as casual adversaries, when the alternative was far more dangerous.

Upon hearing the distant approach of hoofbeats, Ned ended his discussion with Mikken and departed from the armory. He cut through the courtyard and headed toward the hunter’s gate, where Robb, Jon and Daenerys were corralling their steeds after their ride to the wolfswood. Jory and his men weren’t far behind, cantering through the open gate at an unhurried pace. Ned nodded to Jory, who tipped his head in acknowledgement then steered his own horse to the stables. The other men followed, now that their task of safeguarding Daenerys was complete.

A couple stableboys ran over to take the reins of the other three horses as Robb and Jon dismounted their destriers. Ever chivalrous, Robb hurried to Daenerys’ smaller palfrey and took her hand to help her down from the saddle. Ned smiled proudly at him.

“Thank you, my lord,” she said, sketching Robb a quick curtsy. She removed her hand from his to tug off her gloves, stuffing them into a pocket on her cloak.

“How were the woods today?” Ned inquired.

“Fruitful,” Jon responded, retrieving the leather hunting bags from his saddle. Then he thanked the stableboy, who took his destrier’s reins and led the beast after the others to the stables.

Grinning, Robb boasted, “Six rabbits this time.”

Presenting the bag to Ned, Jon flipped the top open to show him the carcasses. Ned nodded in approval. “Well done.”

“It would have been more if I had my own bow,” Daenerys complained, untying the strings of her cloak at her neck.

“You?” Jon scoffed, amused. He closed the hunting bag. “In that case, we’d have better luck bringing Rickon along on our hunting trips.”

She scowled at him. “Rickon’s never even fired a bow!”

“Have you?” he shot back, and she huffed.

“It’s not my fault they don’t think to train women with anything more useful than a knitting needle.”

Jon looked at her appraisingly. “Now, that’d be a sight. Lady Daenerys, crawling through the underbrush in her skirts after a rabbit, her trusty sewing needle in hand.”

Robb snickered as she regarded Jon with an arch look. “It’s no more absurd than you trying to take down that stag with just your dagger before.” She glanced around with feigned ignorance. “And just where might that stag be now, anyway?”

He grimaced. “I would’ve had it if someone hadn’t come traipsing by to scare it off,” he griped, and she laughed.

“Surely, an accomplished hunter such as yourself wouldn’t be deterred by such small distractions,” she said innocently.

Ned expected a sharp retort from Jon, who normally was not one to suffer a challenge or insult from her, but when he looked to the younger man, he was surprised. Jon was smiling at her, amusement dancing in his gray eyes.

Ned frowned to himself, but Robb piped up. “To be fair to Jon, yelling ‘hey-nonny-nonny!’ as loudly as possible hardly counts as a small distraction,” he pointed out.

With a light blush, Daenerys shrugged. “Well. You’d already killed six innocent, little rabbits. Taking down such a beautiful creature seemed so unnecessary by then.”

“Gods, you’re sounding like Sansa now,” Jon accused, making her gasp.

“Take that back!” she cried with exaggerated outrage and playfully shoved his shoulder. Jon just laughed, and Ned’s chested tightened with slow-dawning awareness.

Quickly, he shook himself of his growing disquiet. “Jon, take the rabbits to the kitchen. They’ll make for a nice stew,” he ordered, more firmly than necessary. Instantly, Jon sobered and with a jerk of his chin, he strode away. Ned’s eyes followed his retreating back then cut to Robb and Daenerys, just catching sight of Catelyn as she made her way toward them from the keep.

Ned spoke to Daenerys next. “Perhaps, if you wish to be of more use during the hunting trips, we can train you in the sport of hawking. It’s a bit more suited for women of your station, and I know Cat would be happy to assist you.”

Daenerys’ expression shifted, the flash of disappointment so quick, Ned wasn’t sure whether he’d imagined it or not. Her smile was practiced. “Of course.”

“Happy to assist with what?” his wife asked as she approached, having overheard. He turned to welcome her.

“With hawking. I recall you had a strong affinity for the sport when we first were wed.”

She smiled up at him, fondly. “Oh, yes. I remember. On our wedding day, you gifted me with two beautiful falcons from the Vale. It’s still one of the loveliest gifts I’ve ever received.” She cast a knowing look between Daenerys and Robb. “Perhaps, Robb will do the same for you on your wedding day.”

Daenerys looked mildly embarrassed, but Robb smiled indulgently at his mother. “It’s not a very good gift if you spoil the surprise beforehand,” he said.

Ned and Catelyn chuckled. “Of course,” his mother agreed.

Daenerys offered another smile. “I should go wash up. I’m sure Septa Mordane is looking for me.”

“I’ll escort you to the keep,” Robb said, and Daenerys accepted his arm as they made the trek across the courtyard.

Catelyn watched them walk away, and once they entered the keep, she turned back to Ned. “The betrothal is going well,” she mused to him, and he took her into his arms. “I think our son will make her very happy once they are wed.”

Ned returned her smile, trying to shake the apprehension that still lingered. He was being paranoid, surely. “Aye. I hope they are as fortunate as we were.”

A sharp, impatient rapping on their chamber doors woke Ned and Catelyn from their peaceful slumber. Disoriented, Ned checked to make sure his wife was decent, then he went to open the door. He was bewildered to find Septa Mordane on the other side, face blotchy with anger. She had Daenerys’ wrist trapped in her fist, unmoving despite the girl’s attempts to pull free.

“What is the meaning of this?” he demanded.

“My lord, I’m sorry to wake you but—”

Daenerys interrupted her. “Let me go, you’re hurting me!” she hissed at the woman, fighting to break her vice, but Septa Mordane only jerked her closer.

Ignoring the interruption, she continued. “I thought it was prudent you should know of Lady Daenerys’ vile misdeeds, immediately.”

Perplexed, he looked between the two, noticing how pale Daenerys’ face had gone.

“What is it?” Catelyn called over his shoulder, having come up behind him dressed in her robe.

“I found Daenerys sneaking back into her chambers just now.” Chin quivering in rage, the septa seemed to spit the next words at his feet: “From your bastard son’s room.”

Catelyn sucked in a breath, but Ned could only stare. “Pardon?”

Daenerys shook her head. “I wasn’t—”

“Don’t lie to your lord master!” Septa Mordane yelled at her. “I saw you! What’s more, this isn’t the first time, my lord! You should know—” Her lips trembled, and she pressed them together, speaking through clenched teeth. “She hasn’t had her moonblood.”

Daenerys went very, very still. For one endless moment, nobody breathed. With growing horror, Ned finally found his voice. “Is this true, Daenerys? Have you and Jon…?” He couldn’t finish the question.

The girl was quaking now, her wide eyes darting between them all, like a wild prey assessing her escape options. In that moment, he could see the truth of it all, laid out before him: The growing kinship between Jon and Daenerys, the furtive glances, the teasing smiles, any bloody excuse to touch each other, all right under his roof, in his home. He’d foolishly tried to reason away their behaviors, certain he was being unreasonably suspicious—more than that, certain neither Jon nor Daenerys could ever betray Robb in such a cruel and deceitful manner.

Seeming to accept her defeat, Daenerys lifted her chin. Defiant, even as she shook in her bedgown. “Yes,” she whispered. “I haven’t gotten my moonblood for the month. Jon and I—”

He didn’t stay to hear the rest, plowing past the two of them.

“My lord,” the septa cried after him.

“Keep her there till I return!” he roared as he charged toward Jon’s chambers, forever changing the course of their lives.

Three months after Ned’s urgent raven to Starfall about the unfortunate news of Daenerys’ pregnancy, Ashara and her husband had finally arrived in Winterfell. The moment they’d stepped foot out of their carriage, they had immediately gone to speak to Daenerys. Ned waited till their discussion was finished before he sent Maester Luwin to retrieve Ashara, and at his request, she came to talk to Ned in the keep’s library, accompanied by the maester. Ned thanked the man for his assistance and summarily dismissed him, their need for discretion implicit.

As he waited for Maester Luwin to shut the door on his way out, Ned took a moment to study Ashara. In the courtyard, upon her arrival, there’d been little chance to dwell, considering the urgent circumstances, but looking at her now, he could see how much the situation troubled her. She looked exhausted and wan, her normally vibrant eyes dulled. She also appeared thinner than he remembered, but a long time on the road could do that to a person, especially if they’d been in a hurry to reach Winterfell, stopping as little as possible for rest and sustenance.

One he was assured they had complete privacy, he asked gingerly, “How did it go?”

With a weary sigh, Ashara pulled out a chair at the table in which to sit. “She wants to do right by her child, and she understands this marriage is the only way to ensure that, so the wedding will commence as planned.” She winced. “Perhaps sooner rather than later. As soon as possible, preferably. Maester Luwin informed us she is already four months along. But...if she’s afforded a longer convalescence following the birth, we can announce it at our leisure, and the kingdom will be none the wiser.”

“Of course,” Ned said readily. “They will wed at once. Robb has not been deterred. He’s more determined than ever to marry Daenerys, and he will raise the child as his own.”

“You said as much in your letter.” She frowned. “I’m grateful for his loyalty, even though it’s undeserved in this situation. Not many men would be willing to forgive such an egregious slight. I must admit I’m surprised. Relieved, but...surprised.”

“Robb doesn’t condemn her. He feels it is his responsibility to do right by her, to protect her honor in light of Jon’s misdeeds. He blames Jon entirely.”

Ashara was quiet for a moment. “It would be a convenient excuse. Much easier to swallow than the alternative, perhaps. But we both know it’s not true, don’t we?”

He let out a breath. “No. She swears they are in love.”

“She said as much to me. And Jon? What did he say?”

Ned shook his head, sitting down heavily in a chair across from hers. “Very little, I’m afraid.” His gaze drifted away, unfocused, as he thought back to the day he’d said farewell to Jon. Ned had seen him off with the guards tasked with escorting him to Castle Black, like he was some common criminal. Jon had been mute, unresponsive to any attempt at conversation. Not that Ned had much to say, either. When they’d finally said goodbye, before walking through the gates of Winterfell for the last time, Jon had looked at him without a word, his eyes empty. It was as if he’d been hollowed out, just a husk of the spirited young man he’d grown into. Ned had seen that look every night in his dreams since, the memory haunting him like a vengeful spirit.

Despite Jon’s silence on what had occured, Ned knew one thing. “Jon loves Robb.” His willingness to accept his penance on the Wall proved as much. “No passing fancy or trifling tendre would have tempted him into betraying that love unless…”

“Unless he loves Daenerys, too,” Ashara supplied, and he nodded, lowering his head.

“Ashara…” He trailed off, helpless. “I’m sorry. I brought her in. I took her in as my ward and promised to protect her. And I failed. I broke my promise to you, and I failed in my sworn duty to Daenerys and to Jon.”

She sighed. “Oh, Ned. We both failed. It was foolish, wasn’t it?”

He furrowed his brow. “Foolish?”

Her smile was humorless. “Putting two Targaryens together, under the same roof. It was bound to happen, don’t you think? Of course, they would gravitate toward each other. It’s no wonder they sensed a kindred spirit in the other.”

Her words disturbed him more than he could admit. Had he done this? Had he placed Jon in an impossible situation and doomed him to this fate? Gods, his anger had been swift and hot that night, an ugly, overpowering thing, but perhaps...perhaps, he’d been too reactionary, too hasty in sending him to the Wall...

But what could he have done differently? Catelyn wouldn’t have stood for his continued presence. Robb certainly would have tried to kill him, thinking to defend his betrothed’s honor. Ned had turned it over and over in his mind since Jon’s departure, but he couldn’t seem to find a viable path forward for him that didn’t involve the Night’s Watch. Turn him out of Winterfell? Surely, Jon could fend for himself. But then, if the truth ever were to come out, he would be left completely unprotected from forces that would wish to do him harm. At least, at the Wall, he would be beyond the reach of any royal decree or sword. Benjen would look after him, and Jon might even be able to find a purpose in serving the realm.

In the end, it was the safest choice for him, Ned assured himself once more. And yet, he could not shake the disquiet that gripped him.

Daenerys had unexpectedly aborted her stay in Starfall, a journey she took regularly with Nymeria and Torrhen to visit her family there. Even Robb was surprised by their return from Dorne, as his wife had not even sent a raven to alert the Starks of her impending arrival. Thus, the castle staff had been unprepared to properly receive their carriage in the courtyard; Ned had been in the Great Hall, listening to the grievances of some of his vassals. Robb had been with him, as was expected of the future lord of Winterfell, but he’d hurriedly excused himself to go welcome his wife and children.

Later, once his duties as lord had been settled, Ned found Robb in the keep, doting on Nymeria and Torrhen and listening intently to their most recent adventures in Starfall. When the children caught sight of him, they ran to greet him.

“Grandfather!” Nymeria called, and Ned smiled as he embraced her in a hug. She was one-and-ten now; while her resemblance to Daenerys was undeniable, from the silver-gold hair to her violet eyes, the older she got, the more Ned could see her father in her as well. Sometimes, he wondered whether Robb saw it, too—and whether it hurt him just as much.

“I think you’re already a foot taller than when you left,” he exclaimed, and she rolled her eyes with a huff.

“I am not. All my cousins are already taller than me, and they’re younger!”

“Me too!” Torrhen insisted. “Father says I’m bigger, too!” The gap created by his missing two front teeth made him lisp the words.

Smiling, Ned mussed the boy’s hair then hefted him into his arms. With an exaggerated groan, he pretended to struggle in lifting him as his stood. “Aye, you must weigh as much as a mammoth now!” Torrhen giggled. Nymeria rolled her eyes again, though she was grinning now, too.

“Is everything well?” Ned asked of Robb as he set the boy back down.

At the question, Robb’s face turned stony. “Apparently, Daenerys is not inclined to speak to me at this moment,” he said sourly. “Perhaps you will have better luck.”

Disagreements between Robb and Daenerys weren't atypical for them, though usually both tried to conceal their marital conflict from their children, at least. That Robb sounded so bitter at his wife's dismissal was cause for dismay, however. Alarmed, Ned left Nymeria and Torrhen with their father and tracked Daenerys down to her chambers. At his knock, she bade him enter. Slipping inside, Ned quietly shut the door behind him, and Daenerys rose from a table where she sat, quickly crossing the few steps to reach him.

“You’re back sooner than expected—” he started, but her slap stopped the words on his tongue. It stung, briefly, but there’d been little force behind the strike, so he was more stunned than anything. He returned her angry glower with a look of incredulity. “May I ask what I did to deserve such a hostile greeting from my good-daughter?” he asked.

She continued to glare at him, though, truthfully, she looked more tired than irate now. Whatever had her upset, no doubt the long journey from Starfall to Winterfell had done much to blunt her temper.

“You know,” she snarled.

“Daenerys, more and more I’m convinced of how very little I actually know—”

“She told me,” she interrupted, and Ned fell silent. “She told me everything! About who I am, about—about my true mother, my true family. About everything that happened. And you knew it, too!”

At her words, Ned turned to ice. It was as if he were hearing her from a great distance, the words faint. “Everything?” he repeated thinly, suddenly thinking of Jon on the Wall—

“Yes,” she huffed, turning away. “A bloody princess! The last of the Targaryens!”

“Keep your voice down,” he commanded, mostly on reflex, and she whirled back around to him, outraged.

“I will not! How dare you! How can either of you expect me to be all right with this? You both lied to me my whole life! You bartered with my identity and my future, behind my back!”

“Only you,” he said, uncertain, and she screwed up her face.

“No, not only me! This affects my children, too!”

He felt the physical effect of her words, his body relaxing, as if a great weight had been lifted. It seemed Ashara had not told her about Jon, at least. After a moment of reeling silently, he finally shook himself from his stupor. “Then you understand why it is imperative that no one else knows about this,” he said gravely.

“Of course, I understand that! I’m not a bloody fool, despite what you both seem to think!” She pressed her hands to her cheeks, shaking her head. “It’s why Mother—why Lady Ashara sent us away so suddenly.”

His previous relief was short-lived. His breath caught. “What? What do you mean?” he demanded, moving closer.

Daenerys dropped her hands. “She was terrified! I doubt she ever would have told me otherwise. There’s been talk—oh, I don’t know! It was all so much to process at the time…” Distraught, she turned away to pace. “Now that King Robert is dead, it seems his vile son Joffrey is determined to take up the mantle of his relentless pursuit of hunting down every last Targaryen. He wants to make sure they’re all truly dead this time. It’s absurd! But Mother says she’s heard things, rumors…”

His alarm returned, thrashing against his normally steady resolve. “Does the king know about you? Is that what you’re saying?

Turning to face him, she shrugged, helpless. “I don’t know. She doesn’t think so, not yet, but she fears it’s only a matter of time. That nasty Master of Whispers of his has a knack for uncovering every sordid secret of the realm. She didn’t think it safe for me or Nymeria to be so close to King’s Landing anymore. We look too...conspicuous.”

“Seven hells.” He draped a hand over his eyes. “Others take me, I’d hoped this would never happen…”

“I don’t even want the bloody throne!” Daenerys burst out. “Who in their right mind would want this hideous business of ruling?”

“That doesn’t matter,” he said fiercely. “As long as you and Nymeria and Torrhen live, you’re a threat to the king.”

“They’re just children!” she insisted, pleading.

Closing his eyes, Ned thought of Elia’s children, and the things Robert had done to establish his complete and unquestioned sovereignty following Aerys’ murder. By all accounts, Joffrey was even more cruel than his father.

“As long as you’re here, in Winterfell, you’re safe,” Ned promised, with more certainty than he felt. “Robb will keep you safe. We will keep you safe. All of the North would raise their banners to protect you and your children.”

She looked at him queerly. “Even if they knew who we truly are?”

“You’re a Stark as much as you’re a Targaryen now. The North would never abandon their future lord of Winterfell.” Of that, he was more certain, at least.

“A Stark and a Targaryen...and a Dayne,” she murmured.

“Aye. Which means all of Dorne would stand with you and your children, too. Ashara would make sure of it.” Especially after Elia and her children...Dorne would not suffer the continued slaughter of their own by the Baratheons, not again.

Ned’s thoughts were racing ahead of him. Sansa was Lady of the Eyrie now, thanks to the untimely death of Lord Robert. There was no guarantee, of course, but...there was great affinity between House Stark and House Arryn, in part due to the years Ned had been fostered there. And Bran and Rickon were as of yet unwed. Arya, too, though she was probably a lost cause in that regard.

But...perhaps similar care could be taken when arranging his youngest sons’ marriages, as well.

As a man of the Night’s Watch, Benjen’s visits to Winterfell were rare. Even then, he only came on official business, usually to scout for new recruits among the Starks’ bannermen or to negotiate on the Lord Commander’s behalf for assistance in dealing with the wildlings on Northern lands.

Still, Ned was always grateful to see his younger brother. He looked forward to their woefully brief conversations; Ned would keep him abreast of the happenings of the North and the kingdom at large, while Benjen would regale him with tales of the skirmishes between the wildlings and his fellow rangers. Including Jon. Understandably, Ned only got news of Jon from what little morsels Benjen decided to share.

Some weeks ago, Lord Commander Noye had sent a raven to advise Ned of Benjen’s upcoming visit. Ned always had a few recruits ready for him when he came, mostly offenders and criminals saved from the dungeons of Winterfell.

This time, he had something more.

When Benjen arrived through the northern gate, Ned was already in the courtyard to receive him. The others were usually at Ned’s side in anticipation of Benjen’s visits, as infrequent as they were, but on this visit Benjen arrived well into the night. As he’d commanded them, the guards had alerted Ned to the ranger’s approach, waking him from his sleep, and he had dressed quickly, emerging from the keep alone just as the guards opened the gates to Benjen.

For his part, Benjen seemed surprised at the late-night reception. “Brother, you need not greet me at this hour,” he said with a smile, dismounting his horse. “Our meeting could wait till a more appropriate time.”

Ned embraced him. “It’s good to see you, Benjen,” he said, pulling back. Benjen’s smile fell as he caught the somber expression on Ned’s face. “I think it best we speak while others are not around.”

They wasted little time in retreating to the library tower, quickly climbing the stonework staircase to the top. At this time of night, the library was empty; usually, only the maester made use of it, anyway. Ned lit a tallow candle and set it on a table between him and Benjen.

Benjen cut straight to the point. “Are the others all right?”

“Aye. For now.”

The flame flickered in the blacks of Benjen’s pupils, highlighting the growing trepidation there. “For now?” he repeated, a thread of awareness in his tone. Grim-faced, Ned nodded.

“Daenerys knows,” Ned said bluntly, and he heard his brother’s sharp intake of breath. Benjen was one of only a few people who knew the truth about Jon and Daenerys. He’d known about Lyanna and Rhaegar, even before Ned had; he’d deduced Jon’s real identity the moment he’d laid eyes on him. Following Lyanna’s death, Benjen had buckled under the weight of his grief and guilt, blaming himself for not having told anyone of her plans soon enough, and in penance, he’d sworn himself to the Night’s Watch.

“Everything?” Benjen asked.

Ned shook his head. “Just what pertains to her.”

“Isn’t that everything?” Benjen retorted rhetorically.

Tiredly, Ned rubbed at his eyes. “She knows, and others know as well.”

Benjen’s voice grew hushed. “Who?”

“I can’t be sure but...Ashara’s afraid someone in King’s Landing knows. Varys, in particular.”

Benjen’s fingers curled on the table. “Which means King Joffrey knows.”

Ned nodded. “If he doesn’t know yet, he soon will.”

“Seven hells.” Benjen dragged a hand down his jaw. “What are we going to do?”

Ned was already shaking his head. “You will do nothing. This doesn’t concern you, Ben.”

He slammed his hand down on the table, making the candle rattle. “The hell it doesn’t!”

“You’re a man of the Night’s Watch now, it’s not your responsibility—”

“I care about them, too, Others take you! And if they come for Daenerys, what’s to stop them from coming for Jon?”

“They don’t know about him,” Ned insisted.

“Are you certain? They shouldn’t know about Daenerys, either.”

“He took the vows. It’s why I sent him there. The king has always respected the independence of the Night’s Watch.” It was a hollow assertion, one Benjen had no patience for.

He scowled. “King Robert might have. Every king before him, too. But Joffrey is different. We both know that.”

“I know,” Ned said quietly, firmly. “And if he comes for Daenerys and the children, I’ll do what I can to stop him.”

“What can I do? Why the urgency, if you don’t need my help?” Benjen demanded, frustrated.

Ned took his brother’s hand and squeezed. “I do need your help. I need you to keep Jon safe.”

“What do you think I’ve been doing this whole time?” he said hotly, but Ned continued.

“If anything happens here, to us...he might need your…your guidance in the future.”

Benjen went quiet, eyeing his brother warily. “What does that mean?”

Reaching into his pocket, Ned fingered the scroll there before he carefully pulled it out. The paper had been rolled tightly, sealed with wax and the official stamp of House Stark. With his other hand, he turned his brother’s hand over and placed the scroll in it, folding his fingers around it. Benjen stared at it, confused. “If anything happens to me, if I die...give this to him, but no sooner. Promise me.” Ned tightened both their fingers around the scroll.

Benjen frowned, his brow cutting deep grooves into his forehead as he lifted his gaze to Ned’s. “I don’t like the sound of this, Ned.”

He grimaced, a grim farce of a smile ghosting across his lips. “Then let’s hope nothing happens.”

All around him, his men lay dead, or dying. Rodrik. Jory. Alyn. Harwin. Hullen.


Oh, gods. Not Robb, please. His son was prone on the ground some feet away, his head twisted the other way, but Ned would know those auburn curls anywhere, even matted in blood. His son’s chest plate was dented inward, a spear pinning him to the ground through his throat as dark red blood soaked the earth beneath him.

Ned choked on a sob, tasting the metallic tang of blood. It poured down his face, sticky and warm, weeping from an open gash on his head. He reached a hand toward Robb, pain lancing through his body as he did so.

A boot crushed his hand into the ground, grinding his bones together. Ned gritted his teeth, determined not to cry out. His sword was in his other hand; he could feel the weight of the pommel in his palm still. Instinctively, he tightened his grip around it, but the crushing weight on his hand eased before disappearing entirely as his assailant kicked the sword out of his fist, sending it just out of reach.

“I’ve waited a long time for this, Stark.”

Ned tried to blink away the red tears clotting his eyelashes as he met the hardened glare of his assailant. His tanned, leathery face had been weathered by time, and he looked strange and unfamiliar in his foreign clothes, but not even thirty years could blunt the pure hatred Ned saw in his eyes.

“Mormont,” he rasped, coughing. “Why…”

The great bear of a man leaned down. He wasn’t without his own wounds, blood flowing freely from cuts and slashes on his arms and legs. But he smiled a red smile, before spitting a glob of blood on the ground next to Ned’s face. “The king sent word to Essos. Promised a pardon in return for the Targaryen’s head.”

“You won’t find her. They’re long gone,” Ned lied.

Jorah Mormont frowned at him, as if trying to determine the validity of his words. “Maybe,” he said, then grunted. “But how far can a woman and two children get?”

He stood up straight, bringing his sword around. The sharp point rested against Ned’s throat. “I’m going to enjoy this. Even more than I enjoyed cutting down your son.”

With a sneer, Ned closed his eyes against the bite of the blade as he felt it pierce his skin. All he could do now was pray. Pray that Arya would get Daenerys and the children away in time. Pray that they would reach the Wall before the sellswords found them. Pray that Benjen could help them.

And pray that Jon would listen.

Slowly, painfully, Ned felt the steel burrow first through flesh, then muscle and cartilage. Blood flooded his mouth, but when he cried out, no sound came, only more blood bubbled forth, trickling from his lips and gushing from the open slit in his neck. His vision dimmed to black.

And then, he was with his son once more.

Chapter Text


Jon didn’t know how long he and Daenerys sat in silence after he’d finished reading Ned’s letter out loud, trying—and failing—to grasp the magnitude of his words. He stared so long at the scribbled missive, the ink started to bleed together before his eyes, the parchment crinkling in his tightening fist.

They only stirred from their collective bewilderment when Torrhen’s and Nymeria’s voices carried from downstairs, the two bickering over whose turn it was to wash the dishes now that they’d broken their fast.

Startled out of her stupor, Daenerys abruptly sucked in a sharp breath. “What does he mean, war?” she demanded, her voice thin. “He wants us to go to war for—for—for what, exactly?”

Jon blinked slowly and loosened his grip on the scroll before he inadvertently destroyed it. “The throne, apparently,” he said hollowly.

Pale-faced and blank-eyed, she stared at him. Then a sudden bark of laughter burst from her lips, so unexpected, it gave him a start. He could only gape at her stupidly. “Oh, he can’t be serious!” she guffawed, sounding on the edge of hysteria. “He lied to us and about us for years! He drove us apart—supposedly to prevent a war, and now he wants us to do just that? Well, bugger him, and bugger that!”

His mind was still reeling, and it took him a moment to grope for a response to Daenerys' exclamation. “’s true. What he said,” he found himself saying, not even sure he meant to defend Ned or agree with him. He was simply grasping at the tangible facts before him. “The throne is ours. The king knows it, which is why he wants you and your children dead.”

It was her turn to gape at him, eyes wide and unblinking. “Jon. Tell me you don’t mean—you can’t be thinking—” Struggling with her words, she gestured wildly at the scroll in his hand. “By what right is it ours? I’ve only visited the Red Keep a handful of times in my life. Seven hells, you’ve never even seen the bloody thing!”

Her point was valid, but it irritated him all the same. He sneered. “Aye, because I was secreted away to the North because my identity was that much of a threat to the Baratheons.”

She scoffed. “Yes, being Targaryens is what’s nearly gotten us all killed! Do you forget why we’re here, in Essos?”

He set his jaw stubbornly. “Of course not. We wouldn’t be on the run like this if we had the bloody throne. We could protect ourselves then.”

“Sure, never mind it’s the throne that got our family killed in the first place,” she said bitingly, crossing her arms over her chest, which made him scowl, her opposition frustrating him. How could she not see what he saw?

“No, the Lannisters and the Baratheons did that. If they hadn’t killed our family, we’d be in King’s Landing right now, instead of here, washing some fat noble’s clothes and fishing clams out of the harbor to eat. You wouldn’t have been forced to marry Robb, and I wouldn’t have been forced to the bloody Wall to rot for the last fourteen years of my life, and we’d be safe and happy with our daughter right now!”

At his outburst, silence fell between them. “And Torrhen?” she asked after a moment, her quiet voice cutting right through his surging anger. “What of my son? Where would he be?” Of course, Jon didn’t have an answer to that. She shook her head, her eyes turning wet. “I know it’s different for you, Jon, but...I can’t unwish any of this because if I did, I’d be wishing I never had Torrhen, and—I can’t do that. I just can’t. It kills me thinking of you on the Wall, what you went through, what happened to you, but I love my son. I can’t imagine my life without him or Nymeria.”

Swallowing thickly, he looked away. That was the crux of the issue, wasn’t it? Things had happened that were out of their control, and there was nothing they could do to change it.

When he finally spoke, his voice came out gruff. “I know. I wouldn’t ask that of you, Dany. I wouldn’t want that either. He’s a good lad.” A child wasn’t responsible for his father’s sins. Just like neither Jon nor Daenerys deserved what had happened to them because of their own fathers’ misdeeds. With a rough sigh, he glanced down at the parchment again. “It’s’s hard not to wonder what would have happened with you and me…”

Softening, Daenerys unfolded her arms and scooted across the floor to sit beside him. “I know,” she said, resting her chin on his shoulder. “Maybe in another life things would have been easier for us.” She shrugged. “Then again, maybe they would have been worse.”

That was always a possibility, he supposed. The Baratheons or the Lannisters or any other house could have come for them eventually, and he and Daenerys could both be dead. At least, for now, they were together.

After a moment of contemplative silence, she made an amused sound. “You know...if our family hadn’t lost the war, if our siblings hadn’t been slaughtered, you probably would have married your sister, and I probably would have married my brother.”

Wrinkling his nose in distaste, he managed a chuckle. “Gods, our family is bloody foul. I can’t imagine being with Arya or Sansa in that way.”

She snorted. “If you’d grown up expecting it, you might feel differently.”

He swallowed a reflexive gag and shook his head. “Doubt it.” He turned his face toward hers, and she lifted her chin from his shoulder. “Now, if you were my sister...”

A smile spread across her mouth. “Now who’s the foul one, fantasizing about bedding his own sister,” she teased, brushing her lips against his. He kissed her, sweeping his tongue into her mouth, and the letter fell from his hand, momentarily forgotten. Twisting at the waist, he lowered her to the floor and crawled on top of her. She cupped his face to hold him close, fingers threading through his beard, and as he moved between her legs, she brought her knees up around his waist.

“Let me show you what else I fantasized about,” he murmured hotly against her mouth, tongue grazing hers. His hand reached for her skirts to ruck them up to her hips, but just then Torrhen yelled from downstairs, his voice a bucket of ice water on their lusty intentions.

“Jon! We ate and washed up, like you asked! Can we go outside and practice at swords now?”

Frazzled, Jon quickly sat back on his haunches as Daenerys shot up into a sitting position, narrowly avoiding knocking him in the chin. Hurriedly, she fixed her skirts around her legs, but fortunately they didn’t hear the accompanying creak of children’s steps on the stairs. Jon scrubbed his hands through his hair and blew out a breath, trying to cool his overheated blood before yelling back, “Aye, I’ll be there in a minute, lad!”

Her pretty face pink, Daenerys scrambled to finish gathering up the laundry. “I’ve got to get started on this.”

“When will you be done with the wash?” he asked, and she sighed wearily, getting to her feet.

“Probably not till supper, unfortunately.” She bent over to kiss him, her lips lingering on his before she pulled away. She stroked her thumb over his mouth, and he fought the urge to wrap his lips around it. “We can talk more about this tonight, if you wish? I’m sure hearing from Ned after so long is upsetting,” she said, eyes cutting to the letter. Her brow was furrowed, conflict in her expression.

Jon shook his head, not wanting to admit how rattled he was. “I’m fine.” At her doubtful look, he grudgingly amended, “You’re right. It’s a bit...disconcerting, getting this letter after all these years. But I’ll be fine. I promise.”

With a lingering glance, Daenerys hitched the woven basket onto her hip then strode out of the room. He listened as she ascended the steps to the roof, not letting out his breath until he heard the hatch close behind her.

Absently, he lifted the abandoned scroll from the floor, smoothing it out on his thigh to read again. I can no longer make your choices for you...It is for you to decide now, what you want to do with your life. At that part, his temper sparked once more, and he crumpled the parchment in his fist.

“Bloody convenient, that is, with you being dead and all,” he muttered to himself. Annoyed, he shook his head and dragged himself to his feet. He gathered up all the pieces of the scroll, including Benjen’s letter, and shoved them into his emptied sack. Daenerys was right. It was absurd, outlandish. What had Ned been thinking? How could the two of them even hope to take on the king and claim an entire kingdom for themselves? Even if that kingdom should be theirs…

No. It was too dangerous, not just for him and Daenerys, but for Nymeria and Torrhen, too.

Still, as he ventured back downstairs to tend to Nymeria and Torrhen, he couldn’t help but think that if they were in King’s Landing right now, instead of stuck here in Braavos, Daenerys wouldn’t have to leave her children every day to wash other people’s laundry. She could spend all her free time with them, like the family she—the family they both—deserved.

Jon was seated in the bath when a knock came on the door to his bedroom. He started to stand but thought better of it. “Come in,” he called, knowing only one person would be visiting him at this time of night.

The door opened to reveal Daenerys, as he’d expected. When she saw he was in the bath, she quickly slipped inside and shut the door behind her.

“Well, that’s a relief,” she said with a smile. “I thought you smelled a bit fishier than usual at supper tonight.” She sidled closer to the wood-and-copper-tub he’d dragged into his room and filled with hot water warmed on the brazier. Vogoros and Sirella only had the one tub they all had to share, and between the six of them, it was in use quite often. Jon usually waited till everyone else was in bed to take his baths.

With a sigh, he dropped his head back, his arms draped on the sides of the tub. “Aye, the Spotted Cellar reeks worse than the harbor.” Earlier in the day, he’d taken Torrhen there to watch the eel fights. In hindsight, it hadn’t been his best idea. At first, Torrhen had been excited at the prospect, but once he’d realized what an eel fight actually entailed, he’d started to cry, and Jon had whisked him out of there as quickly as he could, cursing his ignorance for his folly. Watching animals kill each other for sport probably wasn’t appropriate for a seven-year-old, but what did he bloody know about child-appropriate activities?

Thankfully, by the time they’d returned to the house, Torrhen had cheered up considerably and excitedly recounted their adventure to Nymeria as if he’d forgotten what had gotten him so upset in the first place. Nymeria had declined to accompany them to the Spotted Cellar—which was all right, Jon had told himself; some days she was still hesitant around him, but more often than not she was receptive to his company, though resigned might be a better word for it. However, as she listened to Torrhen’s tales, Jon had seen the flicker of envy on her face, and as nonchalantly as possible, she’d commented how she might like to see the eel fights one day. Between that and Torrhen’s meltdown, Jon considered the day a wash.

“I’m still sorry about scaring Torrhen,” he told Daenerys, sheepish. He’d already apologized to her earlier, as he’d made it a point not to keep anything from her, especially when it concerned her children. She’d assured him it was fine, but he still felt like a bit of a cur.

Daenerys perched on the edge of the tub. “I wouldn’t punish yourself too much about it. He’s seen worse. Robb tried to take him hunting when he was five, and he cried the entire time.”

Jon winced. Should he feel better or worse that he had as much paternal savvy as bloody Robb? “That’s how old we were when Ned took us,” he said, perhaps a bit defensively.

She dipped a hand into the water to test the temperature. “Well, that might explain a few things about you two then,” she said archly, flicking some water his way. When the droplets hit his face, he flinched and scowled, squinting at her through one eye, which made her grin.

He eyed her with sudden interest. “Would you like to join me?” He felt a bit shy asking; he’d never bathed with a woman before. Not that there’d been many opportunities to at the Wall, of course.

Amused, she raised her eyebrows. “In this little thing?” she asked, indicating the tub.

He crooked a suggestive smile at her. “I’m sure we can fit.”

Shaking her head, Daenerys stood up to strip out of her bedgown. He was appreciative of the fact she hadn’t bothered with smallclothes, which meant she’d come to him with the intentions of bedding him.

He held onto her hand as she lifted one leg over the side of the tub and stepped into the warm water. The other leg followed, and she let go of his hand once her balance was assured. Gripping the sides, Daenerys lowered herself into the other end of the tub, water sloshing over the sides as she shifted her body in between his legs, her steepled knees knocking against his. Awkwardly, they moved together, him going this way and her going that way, until their limbs were finally situated around the other’s.

“See? Perfect fit,” Jon boasted.

She pulled her braid over her shoulder, the wet plait laying across her bare breast. “The water’s gotten a bit cold.”

“Really?” His skin was still red from where the water touched it. “It feels amazing to me.”

“You’re probably used to taking baths in ice water,” she pointed out, and he chuffed.

“Most of the time, I suppose. The Night’s Watch also had hot stone tubs. Sometimes, if you were lucky, you could find one unoccupied.”

“And did your brothers in black help you wash your back?” she asked teasingly, and this time he was the one to flick some water at her, making her laugh. Abruptly, she stopped, pulling a face. “I think I’m sitting on something.” Squirming in the water, she reached a hand between her legs then pulled her hand out, triumphantly clutching the bar of tallow soap he’d dropped in the water earlier. Lathering it between her hands, she rubbed the suds up and down her arms, over her neck and face, then down across her breasts. All the while, he watched, his cock swelling despite the purely utilitarian purpose of her actions.

Daenerys splashed some water on her face and neck, rinsing off the soap. When she saw his blatant appreciation of her efforts, she rolled her eyes with feigned exasperation, a smirk teasing her mouth. “Have you cleaned yet?” she asked as she dunked her hand under the water, idly running the soap between her legs. She ogled his growing erection, as his bent legs did nothing to conceal it from her.

Jon shook his head. “Not yet,” he said, his voice deepening into a gravely husk. “Was just relaxing before you interrupted.”

She scoffed. “Is that all I am, an interruption?” He merely lifted his eyebrows at her as she brought the soap to his leg, rubbing it across his shin, up to his knee then down again, around to his taut calf. She repeated it on his other leg, and he closed his eyes, reveling in the feeling of her slippery hands on him.

Next, she took his cock in hand, gliding the soap up and down his shaft and over the head. He swallowed, the muscles in his neck straining. When she ran the soap down over his balls, fondling them in her hand, he groaned, his hips shifting restlessly. “Fuck, Dany.”

Daenerys hummed, the sound practically a purr, and wrapped her other hand around his shaft, stroking him as she ran the soap under his balls and farther back, until it pressed against the skin between his sack and arsehole. With a gasp, he jerked in the water, fists tightening around the wooden edge of the tub. Cracking his eyes open, he peered at her through the inky black fringe of his lashes, and she squeezed his cock, rubbing her thumb over the sensitive slit in the head.

“Dany.” He was already panting. “Come here.”

She laughed. “In here? Really?”

“You can sit on my lap,” he said hoarsely, already reaching for her in the water. Dubious but still willing, Daenerys released the soap and hoisted herself up, bathwater sluicing down her hips and thighs, so he could stretch his legs out some. Then she straddled him, carefully placing her feet on the outside of each of his thighs. As she lowered herself, he held onto her waist, and she gripped the wooden edge behind his shoulders, wedging her knees between the sides of the tub and his arse. It was a tight fit, and it took them a couple minutes of artless fumbling to get situated in a comfortable position, water splashing against the sides of the tub.

She held onto his neck, her cheeks flushed from the humid steam of the water. Beneath the water, Jon grasped his cock to angle it between her thighs, rubbing the head against her cunt along the silky split of her lips. Daenerys gasped as he ran his tip over her clitoris, and when she dropped her head back on her shoulders, he brought his face to her breasts, catching one of her nipples between his lips. He began to suck on it, laving his tongue around it until it was a stiff point, then he caught it between his teeth to pull.

She hissed through her teeth, nails digging into his shoulder muscles. “Not so hard,” she murmured, and he gentled his mouth around her, sucking lightly. With a sigh, she slid her hands up the back of his head to cradle him close, his curls slipping through her fingers.

“Jon,” she whimpered as he continued to stroke his cockhead over her clit. He turned his mouth to her other tit to tongue the nipple, sucking until it was tight and pink. She shifted restlessly in his lap, her hips swaying in rhythm with the strokes of his cock between her thighs, the water crashing in gentle swells against his chest. She gasped suddenly, that tell-tale hitch in her breath letting him know her release was upon her; angling his cock back, he notched the head against the slippery divot of her cunt and, pushing down on her hip, he thrust upward. She moaned as his cock sank into the slick heat of her channel. Her walls rippled around him with the contractions of her climax, his fat cock snug inside her, and he groaned, still mouthing at her breasts.

Breathing through her orgasm, Daenerys tugged on his hair to lift his face to hers and kissed him, slipping her tongue into his open mouth. Then she began to ride him, cautious swivels of her hips in his lap. Grabbing onto the side of the tub, she shifted her weight onto her knees and rose in the water, then lowered herself again, his cock pushing up inside her tight, hot channel, glancing against her womb. Jon held onto her hips to guide her, kissing her hungrily as she rocked on top of him, heedless of the water their lovemaking sent cascading over the tub to rain down on the floorboards.

It didn’t take long; maybe the heat of the water between them, cupping his balls, urged him to a quicker finish. When he came, he pushed her down onto his cock, shoving up inside her as deep as he could, gasping into her mouth. She sucked on his tongue and lips, clenching her inner muscles around his cock as he spent himself inside her.

“Dany,” he grunted into her kiss, and she moaned, rocking on top of him to aid him through the lingering convulsions. It should have disturbed him, how easily he’d warmed to the idea of spilling his seed inside her, but for some reason the thought always made him come harder, pleasure wracking through his body with every pulse of his cock.

With one last press of her lips to his, she settled on top of him, resting her head in the nook of his neck as she combed her fingers through his hair, made damp by her hands. They sat there for a while, skin turning pruney. Gooseflesh covered her skin now; even Jon could feel how drastically the water had cooled. He ran his hands up and down her sides to warm her. “Ready to get out?”

Nodding, she lifted her head and reached for the drying cloth on the nearby chair. As she stood, Jon kept his hands bracketed around her hips so she wouldn’t fall. Once she was safely out of the tub, he cupped some water in his hands and splashed it over his head, quickly combing it through his shaggy hair. It had gotten a bit longer in the weeks since Daenerys had cut it. Climbing out after her, he took the towel from her to run it up and down her body. She peered up at him, her eyes soft and adoring, and he paused to enjoy the moment, wrapping her in the towel and his arms. It was incredible they should be here, together, against all odds.

At that thought, another rolled in on its heels, as swift and unwelcome as a stormcloud: They could have had this, every day of the past fourteen years, if Robb hadn’t lied and Ned hadn’t conspired to keep them apart.

Daenerys noticed the shift in his expression. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

Unraveling the towel from around her, he shook his head and scrubbed it over his arms and legs to dry off. “Nothing,” he lied. “Let’s get in bed.”

She crawled into his bed naked, so he didn’t bother putting on his pants, sliding in beside her. The sheets were rough and scratchy on his skin, but when she snuggled up beside him, her skin felt like silk. As she rested her head on his chest, he wrapped his arm around her shoulder. He could probably go again, if she wanted to, but she didn’t instigate anything, and for the moment he was content to lie just like that, holding her close.

He stared at the ceiling overhead, the lone candle flickering and casting dim shadows around his room, and he found himself thinking of Robb and Ned again. His thoughts turned to Ned’s letter, as it often did these days. The scroll was still in his bag, tucked in the corner of his room, undisturbed but not forgotten. He hadn’t taken it out of his rucksack, busy as he was, whether at the docks or with the children or with Daenerys, but it hadn’t been far from his mind since the day he’d read it.

All through the land, people suffer greatly. They clamor for change, for something better. If they hear the dragons have returned, more might rally to your cause and raise their banners in your family's name.

“Jon.” Daenerys’ voice was quiet, crashing through his thoughts. He grunted absently in response. “I was thinking...maybe it’s time we look for our own place.”

He blinked, her words grabbing his full attention now. “Our own place?” he repeated.

“Yes. We can’t live here forever, can we? Sirella and Vogoros have been kind, but things are a bit...cramped as it is, with the six of us under one roof. And…” He felt her fingers dancing across his collar bone. “Well. I saw this one house, and it was rather charming. It had a red door and a lemon tree in the back. I’ve been saving my coin, and I know you have, too. I can probably take on some new patrons, do more laundry, and earn some more coin so we can afford to live on our own. What do you think?”

“I…” He cleared his throat. “It sounds nice, I suppose.”

At the silence that followed, she prodded. “But?”

Discomfited, he shifted underneath her. “Getting our own house sounds a bit...permanent, doesn’t it?”

It was her turn to be silent. After a moment, she lifted her head and looked at him, a frown furrowing her brow. “What’s wrong with that?” Her tone had chilled considerably now.

He licked his lips. “I just...I didn’t imagine we’d be here that long. Not forever, not the rest of our lives, certainly.”

She blinked at him, and her lips parted in disbelief. “Where exactly do you imagine us going next?”

He didn’t answer right away, and her expression changed, hardened. She pushed away from him slightly, braced on her elbow. “You’re still thinking about the letter, aren’t you? About going back to Westeros and, and—what, exactly? Deposing the king and claiming the throne for yourself?”

He clenched his jaw. “What if I am?”

She scoffed and sat up completely. “Jon. You can’t be serious. Overthrowing the bloody king—how? With what army?”

He glared at the ceiling instead of her. “Ned said it himself. There are men all over Westeros who would fight for us. For you, for your children. They’d rally to our side, the last Targaryens.”

“The last Targaryens who also happen to be fugitives!” she burst out. “You abandoned your post at the Wall, Jon! They hang men for that, you know! You think you can just march back into Westeros, and people will simply forget that?”

With a huff, he sat up, too. “I’m not that man, though. I took my vows under a false name and false pretenses,” he argued. “Why should I be beholden to them for the rest of my life? I’m not Jon Snow, man of the Night’s Watch. I never was!”

She looked at him like he’d sprouted another head. “So, what? Should we call you by another name now? What would you prefer? Aegon, perhaps?”

His face went hot as he glowered at her. “Aye, maybe.” Jon Snow was a bastard’s name, the name given to him by Ned Stark, a man who was not his father. That name had been used to shame him, to keep him cowed and unaware of who he truly was, what he truly was, and what rightfully belonged to him.

No—what rightfully belonged to them.

Daenerys shook her head slowly. “This is utterly absurd,” she muttered, crawling over him to get out of his bed. “I can’t believe we’re having this conversation.”

Incredulous, he watched her. “What are you doing?” he demanded as she snatched her bedgown off the floor and jerked it down over her head.

“I feel like I’m lying in bed with a stranger!” she snapped. “I lay down with Jon Snow, and all of a sudden he wants to be called Aegon Targaryen!”

He made to follow her, angrily pulling on his pants. “Seven hells, you're the one who suggested it! I'm not a fucking Snow, that's all I meant.” She huffed but said nothing, shoving her arms through the sleeves of her bedgown. Exasperated, he moved in front of her so she wouldn’t storm out of his room. “Dany, stop. Where are you going? You’re being dramatic!”

Her eyes widened comically. “Me? I’m the one being dramatic?” He winced, realizing that had most certainly been the wrong thing to say. “You’re the one fantasizing about riding into Westeros and claiming it like Aegon the Conqueror, as if it’s as simple as all that! Tell me, where exactly do you plan to get three dragons to help you?”

Well, when she put it like that, of course, it sounded ridiculous. Embarrassed, he scowled. “I’m not talking about bloody conquering.”

She gesticulated wildly. “No, you’re just talking about taking us to war, which will almost certainly get us and my children killed!”

“Nymeria is my bloody child, too,” he growled, and she looked at him imploringly.

“Yes, and you should want to keep her safe, just as I do!”

He gnashed his teeth in frustration. “I want to keep her safe, of course, I do! But I also want to give her something more, damn it!”

Daenerys fell quiet as she stared at him. “More than this? Because this isn’t enough for you, you mean?”

At the hurt in her voice, Jon faltered. There was a resignation in her face that shamed him. “No, that’s not—that’s not what I mean. Dany…” How could he make her understand? Helpless, he jabbed his hands through his hair. “It’s not about you or the children, it’s about me. I want to...I want to be something more, for you. For Nymeria and for Torrhen, too. I feel Jon Snow, I’m nothing but a bastard, a foot soldier forced to the ends of this godsforsaken world because all I’m good for is doing someone else’s bidding. a Targaryen...I could be a man that could provide for his family, in a way I can’t as just a simple bastard.”

Her eyes glistened with tears. “Jon Snow is the man I fell in love with,” she said quietly. “Jon Snow is the man who has my heart. He’s the man who gave me my daughter. What's so bad about being that man?”

Shamefaced, he dropped her gaze. He didn’t know what to say to that.

With a tremulous breath, she looked away. They were at an impasse, the silence stretching between them a delicate truce that would certainly be shattered by whomever spoke next. He did not want to be the one to break it.

Ultimately, Daenerys did. “I think I’m with child.”

Her words hit him like a punch to the stomach. “You—what?” he rasped. “With child? Right now?”

Exasperated, she turned her gaze back to him. “Yes, right now.” All he could do was gawk at her, head spinning from the revelation. Uncertainty clouded her expression then, her brow creasing. “I think I am. It’s not a certainty yet. But I haven’t gotten my moonblood in a month, almost two now. breasts are a bit tender lately, which always happens when I’m pregnant.”

A month, almost two. That was only as long as he’d stopped pulling out. “My gods,” he croaked. His knees gave out underneath him, but thankfully the bed was at his back. He sat down on it, hard. “That was—that was rather fast, wasn’t it?”

At that, Daenerys scowled, crossing her arms over her chest. “Yes, that’s what happens when you spill your seed in a woman, Jon. I thought you understood that. I thought this is what you wanted.”

The sharpness in her tone surprised him, and he shook off his shock, bringing his gaze to hers. “I do! Of course, I—” Gods, why was he trembling? She was right; it was what he wanted. Still, it was hard to shed that deeply ingrained fear, the knee-jerk reflex that he couldn’t, shouldn’t father a child, another bastard like himself. He understood why she should be upset with him; truthfully, he was as frustrated with himself as she was. What a bloody, confusing mess he was.

“I’m sorry. I thought I’d have more time to—to acclimate myself to the idea of...You said it took a while with Torrhen didn’t seem confident you could—that we could—that it would be possible,” he said, fumbling with the right words.

“I wasn’t confident,” she said. “But...Nymeria happened when we weren’t even trying.” Her arms slipped out of their defensive posturing, and she lifted them in a helpless shrug. “I didn’t want to say anything to you yet in case...well, it was around the two-month mark when I lost the others.”

At that, his eyes went round, not with shock but with fear. “Oh, gods, Dany. Should we not have—in the—” He gestured to the tub and then to her. “You should have stopped me! What if we did something to hurt it?”

Her face immediately softened, losing the edge their argument had placed there. Crossing to him, she tried to kneel down in front of him before he stopped her, grabbing her by her shoulders and guiding her to the bed. “Seven hells, Dany, don’t get on the floor!” he fretted.

Now she was back to being exasperated, albeit mildly amused. “Jon, it’s fine. Besides, the maester once told me that sex during pregnancy doesn’t hurt the child. Not that I ever put that particular theory to the test—though I suppose it never hurt Nymeria.” Her expression turned thoughtful. “Perhaps it helps, considering how easy that pregnancy was.”

“Gods, how can you even jest right now?” Jon felt like he was going to start climbing the walls of this room any moment now.

She huffed. “Women don’t lose their sense of humor just because they’re with child. And if I don’t make light of the situation, I might lose my mind, especially with the way you’re carrying on.”

With a pained grimace, he dropped his face into his hands. “Gods, I’m sorry. I don’t mean to worry you. I’m just—fucking hell, I’m scared, Dany.”

She placed a hand on his bare back. “Scared to be a father?” she asked, rubbing small circles between his shoulder blades.

He nodded into his hands. “Scared I’ll make a mess of it,” he admitted honestly.

Leaning close, she rested her chin on his shoulder. “Don’t be. You’re already doing a fairly good job at it now.”

Jon lifted his head, forcing her to sit back. “How can you say that? I made Torrhen cry, and Nymeria can barely tolerate me some days!”

“If you haven’t noticed, our daughter can barely tolerate me some days,” she pointed out lightly. “And I’ve already traumatized Torrhen plenty by dragging him across the Narrow Sea to a foreign city.”

“That wasn’t your fault,” he said automatically, and she gave him a significant look.

“And you want to drag them back to Westeros and put them through more hell?”

He flinched. “No. No. I don’t want to hurt them, or you.” He shifted his body toward her and took her face in his hands. “I would never do anything to endanger any of you. All I want, all I ever wanted, is to keep you safe and make you happy, Dany. I want to give you everything you deserve.”

“It’s what you deserve, too.” Tears glimmered in her eyes again, and she placed her hand over his. “I don't care what you call yourself, Jon, not truly. As long as I’m with you, I'll be happy. All of us, together.”

“That’s what I want, too. A life with you,” he said, and he meant it. He rested his forehead against hers.

“Is that going to be enough for you?” she asked, unconvinced.

He could kick himself for making her doubt him, making her doubt his love for her. “Aye. You’re more than enough, Dany. Nymeria, Torrhen…” Carefully, he placed his hand on her belly, his fingers trembling. “And this one, if the gods are kind. A family is all I ever dreamed of, but even if you—even if we couldn’t have that, even if it were just you and me, that would be enough. That would still be everything to me.”

Her bottom lip quivered, and she caught it between her teeth, tears sticking to her lashes. “I love you,” she whispered, and he pressed his lips to hers in a kiss.

“I love you, too,” he swore fiercely.

She clung to him, burying her face against his neck. He smoothed a hand down her braid then brought it to her belly again. It was as flat as he could remember it being. “You don’t feel any different,” he said tentatively.

Her soft laugh was muffled against his skin. “Not yet. Give it another month, gods willing.”

A baby grows inside her at this very moment, he thought in wonder. A baby they’d made together. And this time he would get to see her grow big and round with his seed; he would be there to see her bring their child into the world.

Yes, he decided resolutely. This was more than enough.

The next two months were taxing on Dany. Every day she woke, fearing that would be the day she lost the baby. Every minor twinge or discomfort sent her mind racing with terror. She found herself obsessively checking her smallclothes for blood or any other sign her body had betrayed her once again.

Only after the fourth month without her moonblood did she begin to relax, to accept she might be able to bear this one to term, after all. Jon still worried, however. More than once he suggested she stop washing laundry, afraid the labor would be too strenuous on her body, and while she had similar fears, she couldn’t, wouldn’t, let that dictate the rest of her life. And without the money she brought in, they would never be able to afford their own house, not on Jon’s earnings alone.

Although her worries receded with every passing day, Jon’s did not. To Dany, it seemed a miracle she should even find herself with child—with his child—once more, especially when she’d been convinced she would never bear another living child again. She couldn’t fault him for his anxieties; he’d never allowed himself to believe he would be a father. He’d been punishing himself for fourteen years for his perceived wrongdoings, and no doubt he believed the gods would exact their retribution by stealing this child as well. With those misgivings weighing on his mind, he was reluctant, even terrified, to bed her, despite her assurances that it would be fine.

So she tried not to push him, biding her time as he slowly worked through his fears. She slept in his bed, kissed him, but no more than that. She almost regretted telling him about the child so soon, but at least he hadn’t mentioned Ned’s letter or Westeros since.

Only once her belly began to swell did he touch her again—not with the carnal intentions she desired but with awe and reverence. It was only slight, but he could see and feel the difference now. As they lay in bed side by side, he would rest his hand on her stomach, caressing it lightly, and she would fall asleep just like that.

It wasn’t easy. Often she went to sleep with an ache between her legs and tears in her eyes. She knew the pregnancy was making her overly emotional; Nymeria and Torrhen had been the same. But deep down she also feared Jon might never want to make love to her again. She knew many lords who turned to mistresses and whores once they got their wives with child, as if their wives were nothing more than broodmares to bear them heirs. With Robb, Dany had had no concerns; having done her duty by him, the months of abstinence had been a relief, truthfully. But with Jon, she couldn’t bear it, not when her body craved his so desperately that even his scent, whether mixed with sweat or cut with soap, could have her cunt slick and pulsing within minutes of lying down beside him.

At her wit’s end, she couldn’t wait him out any longer. Most nights, he curled around her, his chest pressed against her back so he could cradle her belly in his hand. That night, when she felt the slight press of his cock against her arse, she didn’t ignore it as she had been. Instead, she began to shift her hips restlessly, rubbing her arse until his erection was straining against his pants, his hard shaft nestled in the cleft of her arse through her bedgown.

His breathing had quickened, and his hand curled around her hip then, maybe to stop her, but she refused to let him. Twisting in the bed to face him, she wriggled her hand down his pants to grasp his cock and stroke him. He was hard and hot in her palm, his breaths ragged and loud. He groaned, softly, and her heart swelled with hope, but when she went to kiss him, he turned his face away, his hand grabbing her wrist to still hers.

“Dany,” he murmured apologetically, almost chastening, and instantly, tears pricked her eyes.

“I want you,” she all but begged.

His throat bobbed. “We shouldn’t…”

She bit down on her lip to stifle the sob that hitched her breath. Stupid! she berated herself. She couldn’t cry now; he would think her silly and childish. “Tell me the truth, Jon,” she demanded, her voice shaky with tears. She tried to take a deep breath to steady it, but it was futile. “Do you not want me anymore? Is it the baby? Am I— am I undesirable to you now?”

Stunned, he stared at her. “Undesirable?” he repeated in disbelief. “What makes you think that?”

She wanted to shake him. “Jon, you won’t let me touch you, and you certainly won’t touch me!”

“Dany.” His voice was firm, unyielding. “I’ve never wanted you more in my life than I do right now. To me, you’re more beautiful than ever.”

At his words, relief washed through her, but confusion soon followed in its wake. “Then why don’t you want to make love to me?”

Sheepish, he averted his eyes. “I don’t want to hurt the baby, Dany.”

“I told you the maester said it was fine.”

“I know, just seems too good to be true,” he admitted quietly. “I keep waiting for something to go wrong.”

Sniffling, she cupped his face. “I know. I understand, I really do. But before, even when I was careful, I still lost the babies. In the end, it didn’t matter what I did. You cannot know the gods’ whims, no more than I can.” She lifted his hand and pressed it against her belly again. “I’m already farther along than I ever was with those pregnancies. Only with Nymeria and Torrhen did I make it to four months, and they’re as healthy as ever.” She smiled faintly at him, tears spilling over and soaking into the pillow. “And with Nymeria, I jumped off a wall and broke my foot, and still nothing happened to her. Maybe she’s stronger for it. Sometimes, I think it’s the reason she’s as hard-headed as she is.”

Jon chuffed, just barely. “I’d rather you not make a habit out of jumping from walls when you’re with child.”

With a laugh, she wiped at the tears on her face. “You’re right. She obviously gets her hard-headedness from you, anyway.”

He brought his hand up to smooth her hair back from her face. His expression shifted, something shy and sweet tightening his face. “Gods, of course I want you, Dany. I’d like to see you naked, to see the way your body is changing with our child inside you, seems wrong to ask.”

Without another word, she sat up and pulled her bedgown off over her head so she was naked before him. Lying down on her back, she widened her eyes at him expectantly. As he took her in, he licked his lips, gaze sweeping hungrily down the length of her body then up again, lingering on her breasts. They were a bit bigger now, tender, too, but when he finally touched them, she thought she might cry, her nipples so sensitive that even that slight graze of his thumb over them had her cunt tightening painfully with desire for him.

“Does it hurt?” he asked, apprehensive, and she shook her head frantically, cupping her hand around his to make him squeeze her breast harder.

“No,” she gasped. “Touch me, please.”

Emboldened by her begging, he stroked her nipples with his thumb. He was still too light in his touches, but he let her guide him, increasing his pressure when she encouraged him to pinch her nipples and knead her tits. Soon, she was writhing and moaning, and he brought his mouth to her breast, sucking her stiff, tender nipple between his lips. Gently, to start, as he swabbed his tongue over it, wetting it with his saliva, until she begged him for more.

As he lavished her breasts with his mouth, he slid his hand down her body, lovingly over the swell of her stomach, but he didn’t dwell there overly long, his fingers soon parting her nether lips. He groaned when he found her sopping wet, her cunt plush and swollen. His fingers pushed inside her easily, but he moved them haltingly, still hampered by his hesitation.

Growing impatient, Dany moved his hand away and pushed him down onto his back to climb on top of him. She got his pants over his straining erection and down to his thighs, then she took him into her mouth, making his hips jerk upward as she sucked his cock between her lips, tongue flattening along the underside until his tip hit the back of her throat, forcing her to retreat. She wrapped her hand around his root and stroked him while she suckled at his head, licking up the precum that beaded on her tongue. He groaned and panted, hips arching when she took him as deep as she could. Only once she was sure he was out of his mind with pleasure did she release him and crawl up his legs to straddle his waist. Reaching between her legs, she positioned his cockhead at her cunt. His hands tightened on her thighs, and he watched her hungrily, gaze fixed on the spot where they met.

Then she sank down on him, taking his cock inside her, and she threw her head back with a guttural moan, the relief and pleasure so intense, she felt the ripples of a faint orgasm shudder through her. Jon groaned loudly, gripping her hips, and then she was moving on top of him, chasing the budding pleasure. She rode him hard, hands braced on his chest, momentarily heedless of his pleasure as her climax surged through her, leaving her breathless and shaking.

“Dany, Dany,” he panted, her name sounding like a desperate prayer on his tongue. The rush of blood receded in her ears, and when she looked down at him, she saw his face was flushed, his dark eyes lidded and bright with hunger. She began moving again, angling herself forward so his cock could slide in and out of her cunt with the thrusts of her hips. She watched as his face scrunched up, his mouth hanging open as he grunted and gasped, and then he was coming with a deep groan, back bowing as he spilled inside her.

Once his breathing slowed, she collapsed on his chest, wedging her arms between him and the mattress. He brought his arms around her too, hugging her close, his softening cock still nestled inside her.

“Dany?” he murmured, and she hummed in answer, the rhythmic thrumming of his heartbeat quickly lulling her into a peaceful restfulness. “Will you show me this house you found? The one with the red door?”

Surprised, she lifted her head to look at him. They hadn’t talked about looking for a house in weeks. “Really?”

He nodded. “You’re right. I think it’s time we find a place of our own.”

On a day when neither was working, Dany took Jon to the northeastern part of the city, where many of her and Sirella’s patrons lived. The area was much richer compared to the rest of Braavos, the houses nicer, bigger and more spread apart.

As they crossed over the Canal of Heroes, already she could tell Jon was wary. She understood; there was no way they could afford residence in this part of the city. Still, it felt absolutely imperative that she show him this house; she didn’t know why, but she felt strangely drawn to the house with the red door, as if it called to something inside her, and she couldn’t ignore it.

She spotted the branches of the lemon tree first, the unripe lemons small and not fully golden yet. “Here it is,” she told him, hurrying around to the front of the house. There, the red door, the paint chipped and faded by the sun even as it was, stood like a beacon, calling to her. With a proud smile, she looked to Jon expectantly.

Under her gaze, he raised his eyebrows as he stared at the house. “It’s nice. Ah. A bit too nice.” He cast her an apologetic look. “It’s way too big for us, Dany. I’m not sure we’d have enough money, even between the two of us.” Her shoulder slumped. Even though she knew he was right, she couldn’t hide her disappointment. “Besides, I think this house is already spoken for.”

“Why do you say that?” Stifling a smile, he pointed to the clothes lines in the front, different colored linens billowing in the wind. Her face fell. “Oh.” With a beleaguered sigh, she rubbed at her forehead. “Others take me, I’ve been so absent-minded lately. The other day I returned some laundry to a patron but forgot to put the laundry in the bag.”

He slid an arm around her waist. “Someone probably just moved into the house since you last passed by it.”

“Maybe.” She placed a hand on her belly. Thanks to the high waist of her gown, the swell wasn’t quite visible just yet, but she could still feel it. “It was like this with Torrhen, though. I would forget or overlook the simplest things. I’d walk into the stables and have no idea what I’d gone there to do.”

“What else does one even do in the stables?” he asked, amused.

She cut him a look. “Exactly.”

Jon laughed. “Come here,” he said, wrapping his arms around her from behind and resting his chin on her head. Leaning back into him, she stared mournfully at the house. It had been a silly wish, she supposed. Jon was right. The most they could hope to afford is one of the cramped, squat houses closer to the harbor or near the fish market. Her life of luxury as a lady was long gone.

But if it was between being the lady of Winterfell or being here with Jon, it was an easy choice.

As if he could read her thoughts, Jon said, “It won’t be so bad. Whatever house we find, I promise to paint the door red for you.”

She smiled. “I’d like that.”

With one last look at the house, she and Jon turned away and began their trek back home. Sirella had agreed to watch the children for the afternoon, so Nymeria and Torrhen were helping her with some chores. Neither child had been happy about being excluded from Jon and Dany’s covert endeavor. But they rarely had any time alone together, in the daytime hours, anyway; it was nice to stroll through the city, hand in hand with him.

“We should tell them soon, don’t you think? The children?” Jon asked suddenly as they traversed the bridge back over the Canal of Heroes.

She didn’t need to ask him to specify. “Yes. I won’t be able to hide it much longer, not from Nymeria, at least,” Dany said. “She’ll be able to figure out what’s happening, since she remembers when I was pregnant with Torrhen.”

He blew out a breath. “She’s going to hate me, isn’t she? And just when she started warming up to me.”

Dany squeezed his hand comfortingly, though she shared his worry. “It will probably be weird for her,” she admitted. “We can tell them tonight. The sooner we tell her, the more time she has to get used to it. Before the baby comes.”

He glanced at her askance, gaze dropping to her belly. “When will that be?” he asked, and she could feel the nervous energy radiating from him.

“In five months’ time.” The rest she left unspoken: As long as nothing went wrong before then.

They were all seated around the table for supper—always a tight fit with six of them—when Nymeria forced the discussion. “What were you two doing today that Torrhen and I couldn’t come?” she asked.

Jon shared a look with Daenerys, letting her take the lead. “We were looking for a house,” she explained. “For us to move into.”

Nymeria frowned. “Why do we need to move? What’s wrong with this house?”

Jon cleared his throat, and Daenerys smiled tightly, glancing at Sirella and Vogoros, who continued eating their stew as if unconcerned. They’d already told their hosts their plans, though they hadn’t yet gone into detail about the real reason. He and Daenerys shared another meaningful look, and at his reassuring nod, she took a deep breath.

“Nothing is wrong with this house, and we are very grateful Vogoros and Sirella opened their home to us,” she began. “But it’s a bit crowded as it is, and...well, we think we need more space.” She hesitated before adding delicately, “For when the baby comes.”

Blinking rapidly, Nymeria dropped her spoon in her bowl and sat back in her chair. The silence that followed was palpable, and Jon found himself holding his breath.

After a moment, Sirella snorted, breaking the tension. “Only a matter of time, with how you two have been carrying on,” she said under her breath, and Vogoros chuckled into his stew. Jon’s face went hot, and, chagrined, he ducked his head as an also-blushing Daenerys pressed her lips together.

Confused, Torrhen scrunched his nose. “What baby?”

Daenerys gave him a soft smile. “You and Nymeria are going to have another brother or sister.”

He peered up at her with the wide-eyed innocence of a child. “But—Father isn’t here,” he said plainly, and Daenerys and Jon both flinched.

“No, he isn’t,” Daenerys said slowly, but Nymeria spared them from having to explain.

Jon is the father,” she said flatly, leveling him with a narrowed-eye look.

He swallowed. “Aye, I am.”

She folded her arms over her chest. “Is this one going to be a bastard, too, then?”

He inhaled sharply, eyes cutting to Daenerys, who looked equally dumbstruck. “We don’t—I haven’t—” Gods, his hands were damp with sweat all of a sudden. He curled them into fists under the table to control the shaking.

“That’s not something we’ve discussed yet,” Daenerys hurried to explain, watching Jon struggle. “It’s not really—it’s not a pressing issue right now.”

“It is,” Nymeria insisted, her face reddening. “Because if you do, if you get married, then—then that means I’m the only bastard.” With that, she shoved away from the table and stormed upstairs, abandoning her unfinished supper.

Face pinched, Daenerys pushed back her chair. “Let me go talk to her.”

Shaking his head, Jon stood with her. “I should do it.”

Sirella waved them off. “You both go. We will watch Torrhen.”

The boy in question looked around the table wildly. “What’s a bastard?”

Daenerys sighed. “It’s not important, sweetling. Finish your stew.” Thanking Sirella and Vogoros, she nodded to Jon gravely. Together, they ascended the stairs to Nymeria and Torrhen’s bedroom. Daenerys reached out and squeezed Jon’s hand then knocked once on the closed door. She didn’t wait for an answer before opening it. “Nymeria?” she called, poking her head inside.

Their daughter’s voice was muffled when she answered, “I don’t want to talk to you.” She lay curled up in the fetal position, her face turned into her pillow.

Jon followed Daenerys inside and quietly shut the door behind him. He lingered there as Daenerys crossed to the bed, perching on the edge.

“That’s too bad because we’re going to talk to you anyway. I want to know what you’re feeling.”

With a huff, Nymeria rolled onto her back and sat up, glaring daggers at them. Jon winced. If looks could kill. “Why do you care what I think? You’re going to do what you want, regardless.”

Daenerys sighed. “Are you upset because you don’t want another sibling? Or is it that you feel like I’ve betrayed Robb?” Nymeria jutted her jaw out stubbornly, looking away. “Nymeria, whatever you’re feeling isn’t wrong. I want you to know I understand, and I don’t blame you for being upset. Neither does Jon.”

“She’s right,” he agreed, rubbing his thumb over his knuckles nervously.

Daenerys put her hand on Nymeria’s leg in a comforting gesture. “But you’re old enough now to understand certain things better. We can be honest with you, but you have to be honest with us, too. You have to talk to us.”

Shaking off her hand, Nymeria pulled her knees up to her chest. “It’s hasn’t even been a year since…” She bit down on her lip. “It just seems so sudden.”

Daenerys folded her hands in her lap. “I know. It is sudden. I didn’t think—” She glanced at Jon, who widened his eyes at her for lack of a helpful response. “Well, we didn’t plan this, exactly. But we didn’t plan a lot of things.” She smiled slightly. “Like you. And you are one of the best things that’s ever happened to us.”

Nymeria stuck her bottom lip out. “But I’m a bastard. Nobody wants a bastard. It ruined things for you, didn’t it? I ruined things.”

At that, Jon stepped forward, sitting down in a chair across from the bed. “You didn’t ruin anything, Nymeria. You were a child, not even born yet—nothing that happened was your fault. Any mistakes we made were ours alone.” He swallowed thickly. “But your mother is right—no matter what happened, I’m so happy we made you.”

Nymeria looked at him, her eyes glossy. Her lip trembled slightly, and when she spoke again her voice sounded small. “But...what if you like this baby more?”

Daenerys made a sound of distress. “Oh, sweetling, no,” she said, pulling her daughter into her arms. She hugged her, pressing a kiss to the top of her head. “I love you and Torrhen equally, and I will love this child just the same. But you, you are my firstborn. You were a gift. You came to me at a time when I’d never felt so alone in my life, and you reminded me there were things worth living for. You gave me strength and purpose. Something as precious as you, made from the love between two people, could never be a bad thing.”

Apprehensive, Jon stood and sat down on the bed beside them. Daenerys gave him an encouraging look over Nymeria’s head, and he placed his hand on her back to rub it in soothing circles.

“But...he preferred Torrhen.” Nymeria started to cry against her mother’s neck. “I know he did, and what if it’s the same with this baby? What if you have a boy? Everyone prefers boys. What if you love him more?”

Jon understood then her fears lay mainly with him, not Daenerys. He brought his hand up to her head, stroking his palm over her hair. It was soft and silky, much like her mother’s. “I don’t think it’s physically possible,” he said quietly, adamantly, “to love someone more than I love you. Every day I look at you, and...I’m filled with awe. I didn’t think someone like me could have a hand in creating something so wonderful.” His voice cracked. His eyes met Daenerys’ again, and he saw her own glistening with tears. He cleared his throat, trying to ease the building pressure in his sinuses. “Well. If this next one is anything like you, I’ll consider myself the luckiest man—the luckiest father—in the world.”

Their daughter’s sobs quieted to sniffles, though she kept her face hidden. After a moment, she shifted restlessly in her mother’s embrace. Daenerys unwound her arm from around her shoulders so Nymeria could lean into him, turning her face into his chest. Momentarily caught off guard, Jon froze; she’d never sought comfort from him before. Despite his paralyzed brain, his arms moved of their own accord, wrapping around her. He stared down at her, though her face was concealed. His heart swelled, and when he looked at Daenerys, she was wiping her wet cheeks, smiling at him. The tears he’d struggled against pricked his eyes, and he hugged his daughter tighter.

Daenerys laughed suddenly, startling him and Nymeria both. When he glanced at her again, her violet eyes twinkled with mischief.

“Just wait until Jon has to change his first diaper cloth. He won’t feel so lucky then.”

“That girl of yours better?” Vogoros asked him over their usual midday meal of mussels and cockles down at the dock.

They sat on the edge of the quay, legs dangling over the side. Sucking down the slimy, briny creature, Jon tossed the shell back into the water, then he wedged the tip of his knife into the seam of the next shell and easily pried it open with a flick of his wrist.

“Aye, I think so. I think it’s just going to take some time to warm up to the idea of having another sibling,” he said, silently adding: Especially when the father isn’t the man you thought was your father, and the father is actually the man you had no idea was your real father until very recently.

Since their conversation with Nymeria a few days ago, she seemed like she was slowly coming to terms with the situation. She was still a bit moody, but, then again, that seemed to be her mood regardless. Daenerys liked to tease him that at her age, he’d been just as broody. Like father, like daughter. Which did make him smile a little.

“And you?” At Jon’s questioning look, Vogoros elaborated, “How do you feel? Being a father again?”

Again. He’d really hadn’t had a chance to be a father the first time around, had he? Jon took his time answering, slurping out the cockle and chewing it a few times before swallowing. After a moment, he said, “I’m still a bit shocked, I suppose. I thought my chance to be a father had long passed me by. Honestly, I didn’t think that life was meant for me.”

Which was equal parts exciting and terrifying. “I’m afraid I’ll be bad at it,” he admitted, embarrassed. Daenerys assured him that was a normal fear, but she had fourteen years of practice. What did he know about bringing life into this world, nurturing it? Really, Jon only knew how to kill things.

“That’s not true,” she’d argued with him the other night in his bed. “You’ve killed to defend us. You protected us. That’s what it means to be a father.”

Which was useful when they were running from sellswords, but when it came to things like this, when Daenerys was retching into a sick bucket in the mornings, or when Torrhen cried for his father—his real father—after a nightmare, Jon still felt pretty useless.

Vogoros chucked a shell into the water, dismissing Jon’s words with a scoff. “We all think that. I have three children, all grown, and I still fear I am bad at it. We all just,” he made a gesture with his hand as he searched for the right word, “stumble through it.”

Jon appreciated his friend’s words, even if he wasn’t fully convinced. “I suppose.”

“You found house yet?” When Jon shook his head, Vogoros said, “I will ask around.”

“Thank you.”

“You plan to marry her?”

Jon’s face warmed, despite the mild sea breeze that whipped his hair. He’d need another trim soon, or he’d be forced to tie it back again. “I would like to,” he said hesitantly. “I haven’t asked yet. But I don’t know how we would go about doing it here…”

Vogoros eyed him thoughtfully. “There is sept here. Faith of Seven. Yes?”

“Dany is,” Jon confirmed. “But the North, we follow the old gods. When we marry, we say our vows before a weirwood tree. I don’t suppose there are any weirwoods here?” Vogoros shook his head, clearly not familiar with the word, and Jon sighed. “A sept would be fine then.”

“You could ask red priest,” Vogoros suggested. “There is a temple, and there are many followers of R’hllor in Braavos. That is how Sirella and I wed. You jump over a fire and emerge as one with R’hllor’s blessing.”

Jon almost dismissed it out right, but then he found himself considering it. In truth, the ceremony sounded a bit ridiculous, and Jon wasn’t sure about the legitimacy of such a wedding, but maybe the method didn’t matter so much as the gesture. After all, Daenerys had married Robb by way of the old gods, and look how that had worked out.

At that droll thought, Jon shrugged. “Maybe. I’ll ask her.” Suddenly, the prospect of asking for her hand and making her his wife truly hit him, sending his heart racing. Filled with an unexpected glee, he laughed out loud. “We’ll see how she feels about walking through fire to marry me.”

As it turned out, Daenerys was rather eager to do just that.

At Vogoros’ suggestion, they sought out a red priest at the Temple of the Lord of Light on the Isle of the Gods, but when they were asked if either was a follower of R’hllor, Jon and Daenerys demurred. Since neither was quite willing to convert on the spot, they left, a bit demoralized. Instead, Vogoros took them to see a red priest at the Happy Port who was more than generous with his presidings. Ezzelyno was a cheerful man, aided by drink and the company of the whores he kept, and he was happily accommodating when they asked him to perform their wedding ceremony (for a small sum, of course).

“The Lord of Light welcomes all,” he told them after accepting their coin, then he proceeded to grope a topless woman in his lap. As it was, he was doing little to inspire a full conversion to his religion in either Jon or Daenerys.

Still, Jon donned his nicest clothes—which amounted to a clean tunic and trousers—and Daenerys wore a simple lilac gown that she had to let out to fit over her growing belly. She dressed Torrhen in a nice tunic and his only pair of breeches without a hole in them, then she slicked his wild curls back with water and a brush. Nymeria chose a blue gown and asked her mother to plait her hair in similar fashion to the intricate braids Daenerys had woven into her own hair for the occasion. When Daenerys and Jon had sat her down to tell her about their intentions to wed, she’d been accepting if a bit downcast, but like with everything, Daenerys was sure it would just take her some time to get used to. It was a lot of change all at once for any child.

Once they were ready, the four of them walked down to Ragman’s Harbor, with Jon carrying Torrhen and Daenerys holding Nymeria’s hand. There, on the narrow beach under the wharf, waited Vogoros, Sirella and the priest. A small ditchfire, dug into a shallow trench in the sand, was already lit, the flames dancing wildly in the breeze. Jon’s heart began to pound, and when he looked sideways at Daenerys, he found her looking at him, too, her violet eyes made more vibrant against the color of her dress.

On the beach, Torrhen and Nymeria went to stand with Sirella. Vogoros stepped forward to take Daenerys’ arm, and Jon waited by the fire with Ezzelyno as Vogoros escorted Daenerys toward them. Jon’s hands were shaking so bad, he had to clasp them behind him.

“Who brings this woman to be wed?” Ezzelyno asked.

“I do,” Vogoros answered. “Now comes Daenerys Dayne before you.” Then he bowed to Jon before stepping back, falling in line with the other spectators.

Ezzelyno continued, “And who comes forth to claim this woman?”

As Jon stared at Daenerys, loose strands of silver whipping around her face, made pink and round by their baby growing in her belly, his throat tightened with emotion. He had to swallow a few times before he could speak. “I do.” He hesitated for a second, wondering what name to give, before finally declaring, “Jon Snow.” He was the man she had fallen in love with, after all.

“Jon, do you swear to share your fire with Daenerys and keep her warm when the long night is upon us?”

“I swear,” he promised her, reciting the lines Vogoros had him memorize. “By the red god’s flames, I will warm her all of my days.”

“Daenerys, do you swear to share your fire with Jon and keep him warm when the long night is upon us?”

She smiled at him, happy tears spilling down her cheeks. “I swear, he will never feel the cold again.”

Laughter bubbled in his throat, and he hastily wiped at his eyes. Ezzelyno grinned at them and beckoned. “Then come to me and be as one.” Daenerys stepped closer to Jon and took his outstretched hand. Together, hands locked, they faced toward the fire. With one last look at each other, they leapt through the flames, and a smattering of applause and cheers erupted from their small gathering of guests as they emerged on the other side.

With Vogoros’ help, they were eventually able to find a house in Silty Town. It was tiny and the roof leaked a bit when it rained, but it was affordable, and it was their own. Additionally, there were more neighboring families and children for Nymeria and Torrhen to interact with, something both had been sadly lacking since leaving Winterfell. It gave them something to do while Jon was at the docks and Daenerys was washing laundry. She still made the trek to Sirella and Vogoros’ house, but she often brought some of the wash to their house just to be able to keep an eye on the children.

As her pregnancy progressed, her workload lightened. After all, laundry was heavy, and transporting buckets of water from the public fountain was a lot of stress to place on a pregnant woman. But now that they had the house, thankfully she didn’t have to work as hard. Jon was relieved when she finally agreed to reduce her work load then eventually stopped altogether when her belly was almost as full as it was going to get. He spent a lot of nights rubbing her lower back or her feet; since she alone had to bear the responsibility of carrying and birthing their child, it was nice to feel like he could do something to ease her pain. Occasionally, they still made love, too, now that Jon’s fears were (mostly) alleviated—usually with her on her side or on her hands and knees, pillows stacked up under her hips to cushion her belly.

As promised, he’d painted the door of their house red, a gesture that had made Daenerys cry the first time she saw it—big, fat tears and heaving sobs. She’d said it was because of the pregnancy, but Jon was certain she would have cried, anyway.

The first time he felt the baby kick, she was about seven months into her pregnancy. It wasn’t the first time the baby had moved; however, it usually happened while he was at the docks, just minor movements that reassured Daenerys their child was alive and healthy. Sometimes, at night, she would wake him, claiming the baby was moving, and would place his hand on her belly, but he never could feel anything.

They were all sitting around the table, sorting and cleaning clams to cook for supper when it finally happened. Out of nowhere, Daenerys gasped, and everyone looked to her. “Oh!” Her hand went to her belly, and immediately Jon was on alert.

“What is it? What’s wrong?” he demanded, already out of his chair, but she only smiled at him.

“He’s kicking! I’ve never felt him move so much!” Daenerys had decided the baby was a boy, insisting she could just tell when Jon asked her how she could be sure.

As she had every time before, she grabbed Jon’s hand and pressed it to her left side, just under the swell of her belly. “Do you feel it?” He shook his head, and she pressed more firmly on his hand. “Just wait, he settled down slightly but…”

Jon was afraid it would be like every other time—but then he felt it, a flutter against his palm. Surprised, he sucked in a breath; he’d just convinced himself he’d imagined it, simply willed himself to feel something, when he felt it again, stronger this time. His breath left him in a shaky laugh. “Seven hells.

Daenerys grinned. “He’s going to be a fighter, this one.”

Jon laughed again as the kicks continued, happy tears clouding his vision. Impatient, Torrhen jumped down from his chair. “I want to feel!” Reluctantly, Jon moved his hand and ushered the boy closer. Daeneys took her son’s hand and pressed it to the same spot. His blue eyes went wide. “Seven hells!” he parroted, and Jon and Daenerys laughed.

“That’s your brother saying hello,” she told him, and Jon ruffled his auburn hair as Torrhen stared at her belly in amazement. Daenerys glanced at Nymeria across the table. “Nym, do you want to feel?”

Fidgeting with a clam, Nymeria looked at her uncertainly. After a moment, she agreed with a nod. “I suppose.” She stood and shuffled around the table. Torrhen moved aside, and Daenerys took her daughter’s hand to place it on her belly. At first, Nymeria frowned, saying nothing, then she started, her mouth parting in quiet wonder. “Oh. Wow.”

Daenerys smiled at her. “You were just as active when you were in my womb. Sometimes I couldn’t sleep because you wouldn’t stop kicking me.”

Nymeria blushed, though Jon could tell Daenerys’ words pleased her. “Really?” Daenerys nodded, and Jon felt a pang that he hadn’t gotten to experience that with her.

Torrhen jumped in excitedly. “What about me?”

Daenerys laughed, releasing Nymeria’s hand to touch Torrhen’s cheek. “You were the easiest pregnancy, truthfully. Didn’t nauseate me, didn’t keep me up at night. You were as gentle then as you are now.”

He beamed at her then immediately went back to his chair, climbing on his knees to grab a clam from the bucket of water. “I’m hungry. Can we eat now?”

Nymeria rolled her eyes as she went back to her own chair, and Jon shared another smile with Daenerys before sitting down as well. “Finish cleaning them, lad, then we can eat.”

With the move, Jon had figured Nymeria might not want to spend much time with him anymore, given she had children her age to consort with. So he was surprised—but pleased—when she approached him one day, asking if he would keep training her on the sword.

“I want to be as good as Aunt Arya,” she told him, and he made a face before chuckling.

“I don’t know if I have the skills for that, but I can make you at least as good as me.” He gave her a stern look. “But to do that, you’ll have to commit. You don’t become good at something by only practicing it when you feel like it.”

Determined, she nodded. “I’ll commit.”

He didn’t have an actual sword to give her, but he shaped a sturdy stick into a semblance of one. He trained with her almost every evening as well as any days he wasn’t at the docks, and when he was at the docks, she worked on her own to perfect the moves he had taught her. He also told her she had to get stronger, or she’d never be able to properly hold a sword, so he had her lifting and carrying stones; when they needed water for washing or cooking, she would be the one to retrieve it from the fountain, running as quickly as she could without spilling any. Sometimes, by the time she arrived back at the house, most of the water had sloshed out, and she had to go back and try again. Daenerys worried the training might be too demanding on a fourteen-year-old girl, but Nymeria was tenacious, and she was proud every time she executed a new skill or attack.

The first time she managed to parry his strike and land a hit on his arm, she was so excited, she screamed, dropping her stick to fling herself into his arms. For his part, he was more shocked by the hug than by her hit.

Having heard her daughter’s scream, Daenerys came running out of the house to find them in the alley outside their front door, Jon spinning Nymeria around as they both laughed. “What happened?” she demanded, hand braced on her back as she caught her breath. Her belly was huge and heavy, the baby due any day now. She looked beautiful, even red-faced and panic-stricken.

Sheepish, Jon set Nymeria down, and she ran up the steps to her mother. “I hit him! I’m going to be the best sword fighter in Braavos!”

Huffing in relief, Daenerys rolled her eyes skyward. “Oh, gods. Is that it? You sound just like Arya.” Shaking her head, she leveled a look at her then at Jon. “That’s wonderful, sweetling. But please, just be careful. I can only run so fast these days.”

He grinned at her ruefully. “Yes, my love.”

Once Daenerys shut the door, Nymeria jumped down to the ground. “That was good, wasn’t it?”

“Very good.”

She smiled, but the smile faded quickly. “I wish I could show Aunt Arya what I’ve learned.”

At the longing in her voice, Jon winced. “Aye, I know,” he said softly. “Maybe one day.” Though when, or if, Jon had no idea. It was an empty promise. They had no plans to return to Westeros; they couldn’t, not as things were now. They hadn’t discussed Ned’s letter or the possibility of returning since the night Daenerys had told him she was pregnant, and Jon had no desire to endanger their unborn child’s life, nor that of Nymeria or Torrhen. He’d die before he let anyone touch a hair on their heads.

But he understood Nymeria’s longing for home—for the family she had known. When he’d first left Winterfell, he’d been sick with it, even as he bade himself to forget about them all. Even now, Jon would like to see Arya again, and Bran and Sansa and Rickon. Benjen, too—though, of course, he’d never be able to set foot on the Wall again without them taking his head.

Jon had no idea what had happened to any of them after they’d left Westeros, had no way of knowing if they still lived. Had the king abandoned his hunt for the Targaryens? Would he hire more sellswords to track them down in Essos? Had the remaining Starks faced retribution for their association with Daenerys and her children, or for Ned’s treason?

It was maddening not to know, even though he’d spent fourteen years doing just that, forgetting everything that had made him a Stark, that had bound him to that family. While he felt he owed them very little, if anything, these days, Arya had helped them, and she hadn’t known of Ned or Robb’s lies; neither had his other cousins. They weren’t to blame for any of this.

When he’d said his vows to the Night’s Watch, Jon had abandoned the hope of ever seeing his family again. He’d let them go already once before, and yet, this second time saddened him all the same. Maybe even more, as this time felt more final than before.

The day Daenerys gave birth, Jon awoke like on any other day: before dawn, to start his morning at the docks. When he sat up in bed, he realized his wife was already awake, her silhouette poised on the edge of the bed.

“Dany?” he murmured, voice rough with sleep. He touched her back, and she glanced at him over her shoulder.

“I think—I think it’s time.”

He blinked, wide awake now. “How do you know?”

“My water broke.”

Jon couldn’t see in the predawn darkness, but when he touched the spot where she slept, it was damp. Alarmed, he flew off the bed to crouch before her on the floor. “What should I do? What do you need?”

“Sirella,” she said immediately. Daenerys had been scared to deliver without a maester, but the woman had promised to help her when the time came. She’d assisted in her other labors before and knew what to do.

“Do you want me to get her now?”

He could hear the raggedness of her breaths, the tightness of her voice. “Yes, please. I’ve been having some pains in my stomach for a couple hours now. They must be contractions.”

“Why didn’t you wake me when it started?”

“They didn’t seem so bad yet,” she said weakly, then he felt her tense up, breathing hard through her nose. He hovered, unsure what to do, but after a moment, she relaxed, her breath susurrating through her teeth. “They’re coming more frequently now.”

Panicked, Jon stood and started for the door but faltered, turning back to her. “Fuck. I don’t want to leave you alone like this.”

“Nymeria,” Daenerys told him. “Wake her, and then go get Sirella.”

Jon crossed back to the bed, grabbed Daenerys’ face in his hands and kissed her. “I’ll be back before the baby comes. I’m not missing this for anything,” he swore, and she nodded. Then he was flying out of their room, to the room where the children slept. He didn’t bother with being quiet as he threw open the door to rouse his daughter.


She came to quickly, confused and bleary-eyed. “What is it?”

“Your mother. The baby’s coming. I need you to sit with her while I get Sirella.” Nymeria’s eyes widened. “Now!” he barked, ignoring Torrhen’s mumbled inquiries. He’d already left the room before Nymeria could scramble out of bed. He didn’t bother with a shirt, grateful to have slept in his pants. At the door, he clumsily shoved his feet into his boots, then he was out the door, running up the alley to the street and over the bridge that crossed the canal.

He made the trek in record time, banging on the front door of Vogoros and Sirella’s house. Luckily, Vigorous was on his way out to the docks. With one look at Jon’s face, he went to fetch his wife.

She appeared a moment later, and without a word she followed him through the city. She knew the way to their house, so he didn’t slow to keep pace with her, running as fast as he could to Silty Town.

Back at their house, he didn’t bother shutting the front door behind him, taking the stairs two at a time. In their bedroom, Nymeria and Torrhen were huddled by their mother, who had stretched out on the bed, pillows shoved behind her back. The coverlets had been stripped and tossed to the floor, and Daenerys’ bedgown had been hiked up to her hips. Nymeria had gotten some water and some strips of linen, wetting them to put on her mother’s forehead.

At the sight of Jon, Daenerys groaned out loud. “Is she coming?”

Gasping for breath, he nodded and collapsed on the bed beside her. He took her hand in his, and she squeezed just as another contraction gripped her belly. “She’ll be here soon. You’ll be alright.” She gritted her teeth and dropped her head back on the pillows, her face damp with perspiration. At that moment, he wasn’t sure who was sweatier, her or him. Feeling helpless, Jon stroked her hair and hoped it provided her some comfort.

“When will I be a big brother?” Torrhen asked eagerly.

“Don’t bother her. She needs peace and quiet right now,” Nymeria scolded him, suddenly an expert in midwifery.

“How do you feel?” Jon asked his wife, and Daenerys panted, blinking her eyes open.

“A bit worse, truthfully. The contractions feel almost constant.”

Just then, Sirella appeared in the doorway, and Daenerys moaned in relief. Taking stock of the situation, she ordered the children to grab more linens and water. They hurried to do her bidding while Sirella dunked her hands in the bowl of water, grabbing some soap to clean them.

“Get her smallclothes off,” she told Jon. He reached under Daenerys’ bedgown and pulled them down her legs. As she planted her heels on the bed, Sirella moved between them to check her progress. After a moment, she nodded and sat back on her haunches. “You push now.”

Jon thought he might faint. Daenerys let out a small cry of dismay. “What? Already? It took hours before! I’m not ready!”

Sirella gave a curt shake of her head. “He comes now. You sit behind her,” she ordered Jon, shaking him from his stupor. Dutifully, he wedged himself between Daenerys and the pillows, guiding her head to his shoulder. Then he grabbed her hands, in case she needed something to squeeze. His whole body was shaking like a leaf; he was more terrified than he’d ever been during a wildling raid. Gods, he hoped she didn’t notice. He didn’t want to add to her worries right then.

Nymeria and Torrhen finally returned with linens and buckets of water from the kitchen, and Sirella told them where to put them. “Nymeria, take Torrhen to your room,” Daenerys wheezed, and Nymeria looked at her with betrayal.

“But I want to be here. I want to help!”

“I want to stay, too!” Torrhen insisted, though they both looked scared. Daenerys shook her head.

“Torrhen doesn’t need to see this,” she said tightly. “I need you to watch him, please, Nymeria.”

Sirella spoke then. “Heat water for bath. The baby and mother will need to clean later.”

Disappointed, Nymeria dutifully took Torrhen’s hand and led him out of the room, shutting the door behind them.

Suddenly, Daenerys squeezed Jon’s hands so hard, he heard his knuckles crack. “Oh, gods, I have to push. It hurts,” she moaned.

Sirella was between her legs, a bundle of clean linens laid out on the bed. “Push.”

So Daenerys pushed, and groaned, and cried, all the while clenching Jon’s hands and cursing his name. Dazed, Jon just murmured words of encouragement as Sirella coached her through the delivery, calmly but firmly. Finally, after what felt like no time at all, Daenerys hiked her knees up to her chest. Jon grabbed them, and with a guttural yell, she pushed one final time, then Sirella was pulling a slimy, pink thing from between her legs.

Jon watched in amazement as she cradled the baby in her arms, but Daenerys was struggling to sit up. “What’s the matter? Is he alright?” Her words jolted him, sending a shock of fear through him. Sirella didn’t say anything as she splashed her hand in a water bucket, and Daenerys pitched her voice higher. “Is he moving? Why isn’t he crying?”

Ignoring her, Sirella shoved her little finger in each nostril and wriggled her fingers between pale lips, then she flipped the baby onto its stomach, aggressively rubbing its back.

Finally, blessedly, the baby stirred, letting out a quivering, ear-splitting wail. With a sob, Daenerys deflated against Jon’s chest. “Oh, thank the gods,” Daenerys cried happily, and Jon let out a tremulous breath, sinking into the pillows.

With a smile, Sirella placed the baby on her chest. “You have a boy.” Another unhappy screech punctuated her declaration.

While Sirella tied off and cut the umbilical cord, Jon stared at the boy. His son. He was discolored and covered in a creamy secretion, his black hair matted to his misshapen head; his face was scrunched in displeasure, eyes pinched shut as he screamed and writhed with the injustice of being born.

And he was the most beautiful thing Jon had ever seen.

Daenerys was crying, her hand stroking up and down his back, cradling him to her breasts. “Jon, look at him, look at our son.”

He reached out a tentative hand to graze his fingers over the delicate curve of his son’s skull. As if by magic, he seemed to quiet at his touch.

Jon realized his face was wet. “He’s perfect.”

He didn’t know how long he sat staring at his son. Sirella had already left, having helped Daenerys deliver the afterbirth before bathing her and the baby. After that, Daenerys had nursed their son then quickly fell asleep, and now Jon sat in a chair next to their bed, cradling their son as he slept as well, firmly wrapped in swaddling cloths.

The boy had stopped crying once his belly was full of his mother’s milk, allowing Jon a chance to truly study him. He was so tiny, just a small little thing. Jon had never held a baby before, not even his cousins, as Lady Stark had refused to allow it. At first, he’d been scared to hold his son. Sirella had to reposition his arms to make sure his head was supported. But now he didn’t want to put him down, not even in the crib Jon had built with Vogoros’ help in the final weeks of Daenerys’ pregnancy.

His features were so delicate; his rosebud lips were plump and bow-shaped, his nose tiny and pert. Soft, inky lashes fanned across both cheeks as he slept, and while he couldn’t see them now, Jon knew the boy’s eyes were a light purple. The swirls of hair on his head were raven-black and stubbornly stuck up in some places, despite Jon’s attempts to smooth them down.

“What should we call you? Hm?” Jon asked softly. At his voice, the boy stirred but quickly settled, lips puckering as if seeking his mother’s breast. Jon shifted him in his arms and brought his little finger to his mouth, letting him latch onto that instead. “You still need a name, don’t you?”

Daenerys had told him he could name their son, since he hadn’t gotten the chance with their daughter. When he’d objected, asking what if she didn’t like it, she’d sleepily told him she trusted him to pick something good. But Jon wasn’t so sure. When he’d been young, he’d wanted to name any son of his after Ned or Robb. Now, those dreams were dead. Benjen, perhaps...he was the last man in his family who still meant something to him…

The last of his Stark family, at least. He hadn’t known his real father, but he’d known another Targaryen. A man he had respected, a man he’d admired. A man who had been his brother.

“I think we’ll call you Aemon,” he decided. “He was a wise man. Maybe you’ll be wise, too. How do you feel about that?” Aemon only suckled on his finger in response, and Jon smiled. “Aye, I like it, too.”

The door cracked open then, and Nymeria peered inside hesitantly. “Can we see him now?”

“Come in,” Jon said quietly. “Just be mindful of your mother. She needs her rest.” Nymeria and Torrhen shuffled inside, crowding on either side of Jon and the baby. Torrhen was wide-eyed and awed. “Meet your brother, Aemon,” Jon introduced them, taking his finger away so they could see his face better.

“Aemon?” Nymeria asked, perplexed.

“Aemon was a maester on the Wall. A mentor, and a great man, and one of the last Targaryens,” Jon explained. She nodded thoughtfully as she stared at the baby.

“He’s very wrinkly,” she said, and Jon chuckled.

“So was his namesake. He was very old. Hopefully, this Aemon lives just as long as he did.”

Scrunching his nose, Torrhen made a sound of disappointment. “He’s kind of ugly, isn’t he?”

Jon let out a loud laugh before catching himself, but Nymeria scowled at her little brother. “So were you when you were born! Leave him alone.”

“We probably all were, all squished and red,” Jon told them. From the corner of his eye, he saw Daenerys stir, squinting her eyes open, and he looked to her adoringly. He didn’t think it was possible to love her more than he already did, and every day she kept surprising him. “Except your mother. I bet she was beautiful even then.”

She smiled groggily at him as she tried to sit up in the bed, wincing slightly. “Lies. I was scrawny and awkward. You remember me as a child.” Rubbing her eyes, she looked at the bundle in his arms. “How is he?”

Jon got up from the chair to bring him closer, sitting down carefully beside her. Nymeria and Torrhen climbed onto the foot of the bed, sitting cross-legged at her feet. “Sleeping still, but Aemon will probably be hungry again soon.” He looked at her in question.

Surprised, Daenerys blinked at him. “Aemon?”

“Aye. Is that all right?” he asked nervously.

She gave him a soft smile, her eyes glossing over slightly. “Yes. Aemon. I can think of no better name for our son.”

Adjusting the sling across her chest, Dany checked that Aemon still slept then tugged the cloth over his face to shade him from the sun. Assured her brief stop to shift the weight of her load of laundry on her back hadn’t disturbed him, she continued her trek across the Canal of Heroes. Now that Aemon was a few months older, and her body had healed from his birth, she could assist Sirella with her work again. Jon couldn’t take their son with him to the docks, but he was at home as much as he could be—he would spend every hour of the day doting on their son if he could, she knew—and Nymeria was a big help in caring for her baby brother, too. But as he was still nursing, Daenerys couldn’t be too far from him just yet.

Aemon wasn’t a fussy baby, at least, and the heat of the sun and the warmth of the sling nestling him against her bosom kept him content while she went about her task of returning clean laundry to her patrons.

Today’s delivery was for Bessaro Reyaan, one of the Iron Bank keyholders. At the large front door to his manor, she knocked. When the servant answered, she immediately waved Dany inside. Puzzled, Dany hesitated; usually, the servant simply paid her and took the laundry from her at the door, dismissing her without so much as a word. Dany wasn’t sure the woman even spoke the Common Tongue.

“I have the wash,” she said, just to clarify, in case the servant didn’t recognize her. The woman only nodded and again gestured for her to come inside.

Reluctantly, Dany followed her. Once more, the servant beckoned her farther into the house. Bessaro was a rich man; he was a member of one of the few noble families of Braavos, so his manor was large. They passed other servants, but so far the man of the house was nowhere to be seen. He never was, not when Dany delivered the laundry, anyway.

Finally, the servant directed her into a room. Walking inside, Dany found it empty, but when she turned back to the servant, the woman only bowed her head and retreated, leaving Dany in confusion.

Relieving herself of the laundry, Dany shushed Aemon when he stirred and made a whimpering sound of protest. “Shh, sweetling. We’ll be home soon,” she murmured, cradling him closer to her breast with one hand under his bottom. I hope, she thought, gaze darting uncertainly around the room. What could Bessaro Reyaan want with her? Other than the day when Sirella had introduced her to him, Dany hadn’t spoken to him, and since the servants were the ones to pay her, she’d had no need to deal with him directly before.

Perhaps he disliked her bringing her son around and meant to tell her to cease doing so. In which case, the Others could take him. Sirella would just have to take this house from her route.

As she waited, Dany began to pace, rocking Aemon in his sling and murmuring softly. Behind her, someone cleared his throat, and she wheeled around to face the door. There stood Bessaro Reyaan, who she only vaguely recalled. Beside him was a man she did not recognize, however. A fat man, more portly than Bessaro himself, already an obsese man; this stranger had bigger teats than even her, and hers had grown rather round with milk. Instantly, Dany knew he was not from here. He was robed in silks that were far brighter and flashier than the usual drab colors the Braavosi nobles wore. His fingers were adorned in all sorts of gemstones, and his beard was dyed yellow and forked with oil.

The two men exchanged a few murmured words, before Bessaro nodded to his guest and left, without a single word spoken to her. The stranger shuffled farther into the room, surprisingly light on his feet for such a heavy man. He smiled at her, as if they were old friends.

“It is a pleasure to finally meet you, Daenerys Targaryen,” he announced without preamble. Her blood ran cold, and instinctively she clutched Aemon tighter to her breast. At her fearful movements, the man held up his hands in a placating gesture. “Oh, please. Don’t be afraid, Daenerys. I mean you and your little one no harm.”

“Who are you?” she demanded, backing away with every step he took. Oh, why had she'd stopped carrying her dagger with her? She'd gotten too comfortable, too neglectful. What a fool she was to think they were finally safe! “What do you want?”

“Forgive me. I should have introduced myself first.” Coming to a stop a few feet from her, he bowed slightly. “My name is Illyrio Mopatis, and I have traveled a long way from Pentos to meet you.” He stroked his forked beard. “It might surprise you, but your family has a very storied history with my city.”

“My family?” she asked.

“The Targaryens, of course,” he said simply.

She swallowed dryly. “I don’t know who—what does any of that have to do with me and my son?”

“Plenty, I assure you. Lady Daenerys—do you go by Targaryen these days? Forgive my presumption, but I assume, considering your new husband shares the same name, well, it would just be simpler, wouldn’t it?”

Her heart sank into the pit of her stomach. This man, this stranger, somehow knew everything about them, even Jon…

Aemon began to fuss then, probably from how tightly she clutched him. “Did the king send you?” she demanded, her voice eerily calm. She lifted her chin, despite the fear that coursed through her veins. “If you're here to kill us, I promise you, I won’t make it easy for you.”

Despite her threat, Illyrio still smiled pleasantly at her. “Oh, no, my dear. You misunderstand completely. I don’t want to kill you.” His eyes danced. “I want to help you.”