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What We Found Beneath the Willow Tree

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“Hey, Bran?” Rickon asked from where he lay on the living room floor.

“What?”

“So, are you actually dating the weird, skinny guy or are you two still saying you aren’t dating even though you are?”

Bran started, jerking suddenly enough for his copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray to go tumbling out of his hands onto the carpet. Before he could correct his younger brother and call him a nosy idiot, or some variation thereupon, Arya saw fit to interrupt, “Oh yeah, they’re totally dating. You should ask him to go to the wedding with you before Loras gets too far into the table planning.”

“We are not dating,” Bran growled, spurring Summer, his Alaskan Malamute, to jog over and hop into his lap. Summer had been a gift from his parents the day he came home from the hospital, after he visited the willow tree, three years ago. His therapist, Dr. Luwin, had expressed concerns about Bran developing depression, as it was known to run in his mother’s side of the family, and had suggested a dog as a companion that would promote both responsibility and activity. Summer, as large dogs are wont to do, considered herself a lap dog and seeing as her sitting on Bran didn’t bother him he didn’t exactly seek to discourage her. Jojen had a pygmy lizard-lion named Raven that Bran had yet to meet in person though he had seen pictures. Jojen had liked Summer, and Summer had liked him which would have given anyone points in Bran’s book.

Rickon opened his mouth to issue what he would have considered a witty riposte only to be cut off by his mother. “Regardless of who Bran is or isn’t dating, the Reeds are coming over for dinner tomorrow night and I require your best behavior.”

The youngest Stark flopped over onto his back, groaning loudly, “Really, Mom? It’ll be a Saturday!”

“Yes, it will be,” Catelyn replied sharply, picking up Bran’s book and returning it to him over his dog’s back, “and I’ll have no pranks out of you. Howland Reed’s son is epileptic and I won’t risk him getting hurt in my house over some silly joke. Is that understood, Rickon Benjen Stark?”

“Yes, Mother,” Rickon mumbled sullenly.

Arya grinned wickedly as their mother exited the room. “I guess your unboyfriend is coming to dinner.”

Bran’s only response was to glower at her before gently nudging Summer off his lap in favor of grabbing her leash. Strap in hand, he pushed out of the front door and sending a text to Jojen in case he wanted to join him—oh gods. They did act like boyfriends.

It was this thought that caused Bran’s heart to jump into his throat when Jojen texted in reply that he was on his way. He began to make his way down to driveway, the wheels of the chair collecting the wet, red, fallen leaves of the maple trees in the Stark yard, with trepidation roiling in the pit of his stomach. Summer walked beside him, her excited pants, and the stern grey sky, punctuating his developing despair. Jojen was smart, easy to talk to, gentle, and actually quite attractive for all people said he looked like a rodent. People at school, underclassmen mostly. Of course, Jojen never talked about relationships. He could be aromantic and only want strictly platonic associations. Not that he cared. He most certainly did not have a crush on Jojen Reed and he absolutely did not care that his parents were having the Reeds over for dinner.

 

Brandon Stark was very good at lying to himself. Or at least, he thought so.

 

Despite the lie, he was still combating embarrassment when the blonde boy arrived. He wouldn't have immediately noticed, either, if Summer hadn't made such a fuss about greeting her new favorite person. Jojen knelt to give her a sound petting, much to her apparent delight.

"Traitor," Bran muttered, just loud enough to be heard.

"She'll always be yours, Bran," he replied seriously, making quite the ridiculous picture with his dour, contemplative expression while Summer joyfully licked his face. "I can't have a dog in the apartment."

"I was being facetious."

"Oh."

"It is nice to know, I suppose," he continued, passing over the leash, "that the only thing stopping you from absconding with my dog is a single rule at the Greywater Watch Apartments."

"Really? Absconding?"

"I've been reading Oscar Wilde so wipe that smirk off your face, it doesn't suit you."

Jojen chuckled softly before lapsing into a comfortable silence. Or rather, an uncomfortable silence on Bran's part. Not a drop of rain was falling, and there was no thunder rumbling in the distance over the Bay of Seals. It was, for a day in October in that part of the world, truly extraordinary. Naught but a biting wind blew in from the water as they strolled along the sidewalk. That is, Jojen strolled, Bran wheeled, and Summer trotted. And Bran shivered, recalling that he was clad in only a tee shirt, having wanted only to escape the suffocatingly crowded Winterfell Manor. A soft, warm weight settled over his thin shoulders, compelling him to pause and look up from the concrete. Jojen was still as well, now sans coat with a small, pleasant smile.

“Thank you,” Bran almost whispered, terrified to break the peaceful air between them as he slipped his arms through the sleeves before the coat lost the lingering body heat.

“Of course,” was the murmured reply. Neither moved for what felt like at least a minute, though it was likely shorter, until Summer jerked rather savagely on her leash, pulling Jojen a few feet to his right and onto the damp ground.

“Are you alright?” Bran exclaimed, moving forward as quickly as he could manage, only to find the blonde hysterically laughing. “What’s funny, are you in shock?”

“Don’t worry,” he gasped out. “Your dog it just a self-satisfied cockblocker.”

“Um, pardon?”

“I was going to ask if I could kiss you, but your dog decided she was done waiting.”

“Summer, sit!” Bran called to her, ensuring that they might have a few more moments for Jojen to laugh it all off as a joke. He reached for the back of his friend’s head. “Are you sure you didn’t hit your head when she pulled you over?”

“Pretty sure.” Shit, Jojen looked to be in earnest.

“This doesn’t have anything to do with my parents inviting your parents over for dinner does it, because I swear—”

“What? No, I don’t know anything about that,” he insisted, pulling Brans hand out from behind his head and twisting their fingers together. “I really would like to kiss you. And have you as my plus one to Loras and Renly’s wedding. Unless of course you don’t, in which case I don’t either, or rather I do, but I respect that you don’t want to. I get it, I’m kind of weird, and I stared at you in Good Reeds for, like, a really long time, and I don’t understand math for shit, and my only marketable skills are making cappuccinos and scones, and I look pretty strange, and… yeah.” By the end of his tiny speech, Jojen was staring at the ground between them, breathing a little faster than would be deigned normal.

“You know,” said the voice above him, “you can’t really kiss me from down there, and I can’t reach you, so get your ass over here Prince Charming.” Green eyes glanced up to see the impish glint dancing in Bran’s expression. Ever so slowly, Jojen got to his knees, resting one hand on the armrest of the chair and the other on Bran’s knee, then proceeded to lean in, intending to give the redhead ample time to push away.

Irritated, Bran grabbed hold of Jojen’s collar and pulled him the rest of the way to a chaste, hard, inexperienced kiss that likely lasted far longer than it should have under the circumstances. They pulled away, eyes still shut, air rushing harshly from their lips.

“So,” Bran questioned hoarsely, “are you taking me to Loras’ wedding or not?”

Jojen laughed breathlessly, wind whipping his blonde hair into his face and Bran decided, almost instantly, that sitting here in the cold Autumn would be counted among the finest moments of his lifetime.

“Brandon Stark, Jojen Reed, how nice to see you taking the air. Together.” Scratch that, it was the worst.