This far south the snow was beginning to melt, and Jon sweated in the heavy furs of the Night's Watch. His breath still steamed in the air, but the rivers were no longer iced over, and he no longer risked frostbite if he took off his gloves.
It had been the longest winter anyone could remember, and now it was ending, which meant at last it was time. His whole life had been under the mantra winter is coming; now it had been, and he had lived through it, done so even with honour, and now he could let himself do what hewanted for the first time in a very long time.
The years on the Wall - and beyond it - have changed him, Jon knew. He looked less like Eddard now and more like Benjen, features sharpened, body made even leaner by years of hard riding and careful rationing. Ghost was fully grown, and could easily run all day alongside Jon's horse, loping grace through snow and slush. Jon could sit in a saddle for hours now, and so they make good time on their long journey.
Beyond the Wall Jon had seen things wrong enough to make a man want to be sick just from the looking, things cold and deadly and merciless, and he had seen what they wrought. He thought he had lost his capacity to be shocked, but the noise of King's Landing was like plunging his head into ice water. He'd never seen so many people in one place, crammed so closely together. People backed away from him, and he thought how strange he must look, gaunt and dark in his black clothes, a huge white direwolf at his heels.
When he imagined this on the long journey down, he had this fantasy of how he would just ride straight to the castle, dusty from the ride. He didn't stand on ceremony with his brothers. But instead he found that he was stopping at a barbershop. Remembering how his brother teased him when they were boys about his hair, looking at the rough state of it now, and after his shave he asked for his hair to be trimmed. He told himself it was stupid, but he still felt better afterward.
In the pale afternoon light the stone of the Red Keep was the colour of blood muddled with water, a wound being washed out. Jon supposed that was accurate enough. Near a decade of war, and finally one king to bind the broken kingdoms back together again. Or so people said, but there'd been nine years of war and more winter than anyone could stand, and looking up at the towers of the castle Jon thought of bloodied teeth and shivered, even in the heavy warmth of his furs.
The Great Hall was nothing like the hall at Winterfell, and everything Jon had imagined a hall like this should look. It gave him a jolt, seeing the Stark banners hanging on the walls, and the carpet that led to the Iron Throne was in the Stark colours, grey and white.
Robb sat on the throne, chin resting on his hand, and for a moment Jon thought he looks like the boy he was when Jon last saw him, the boy he loved and turned away. But as he got closer Robb sat up, and in the thin light of end-of-winter Jon can see he had changed, body filled out as Jon's had got leaner, all muscled forearms and wide shoulders. He looked like a king, and for a moment Jon didn't know what to say.
He dropped onto one knee, because he supposes that's what you do. Robb looked at him for a moment.
"For fuck's sake, man," he said, and his accent was still so thick with Winterfell that Jon's throat closed up, "get up from there," and then somehow they were embracing, and Robb's laugh echoed through the hall.
When they draw apart, though, things were awkward again, passage of time lying between them like an unfordable river. Like the Trident, and that bargain for Robb to marry Walder Frey's daughter that had made Jon cry painful heaving tears into his pillow. A marriage that only lasted nine months before Frey's daughter died of the bloody flux, but by then Jon felt like he had lost Robb. He had turned down Robb's invitation to the wedding, writing a stiffly-worded letter about how he had his duties at the Wall but that he wished his brother and lord every happiness. Re-reading Robb's invitation months later, Jon could see what his jealous hurt had made him miss before - that Robb was afraid, and that he had wanted him to be there for comfort's sake. But by then it seemed too late.
War had come again after that, and people were saying the King in the North should be the king of the rest of the Seven Kingdoms as well, that Ned Stark had helped Robert Baratheon take a throne and now Robb Stark should sit in it. Jon had seen Robb once, at Winterfell, and Robb had asked Jon to come with him. But Jon knew he couldn't leave the Night's Watch. He'd stayed when Ned was killed, and he had to stay now, because winter was hereand they had so few men to guard the Wall. He'd come to ask his brother for more men, and Robb said they couldn't spare them, not with the war, and Jon had exploded, bottled up frustration and loneliness coming out as snarled up words about ambition and pride and thick-headedness, and Robb - Robb had said Jon didn't understand because he wasn't a Stark. Robb had never said anything like that to him before, not when everyone else had thrown his status in his face, and it hurt almost more than his marriage had. Jon turned on his heel and left, and after that there was silence between them.
"We can't talk here," said Robb abruptly, after an awkward pause. "This room's made for a thousand to feast, not for two people to talk. Come to my chambers." And so Jon had gone with him to his bedroom, and when Jon shut the door behind him Robb smacked him in the face. Jon had hit him right back, harder than Robb had struck him, before thinking there were probably laws about punching your anointed king.
Robb rubbed his cheekbone and just looked at Jon. It would bruise, Jon thought, and people would ask why.
"You should punch me again," he said. "So it looks like you got the best of me." Robb couldn't show any hint of weakness, not now. Robb punched him in the mouth, quick efficient blow, and as his lip split Jon felt something inside him ease out.
"We're even, then," he said, and Robb put his hands on his shoulders.
"And you'll stay this time."
It wasn't a question, but Jon still said yes. It was important, after so many nos.
When Robb kissed him, Jon could taste his own blood, iron and salt. Outside the early sunset turned the castle stones to fire, and the air smelled of snow melt. Winter was done.