A/N: Hello, loyal readers and whoever happens to be wandering by! I'm back from camp, with a whole barrage of stories to drop on y'all.
Stannis hesitates by the door to his daughter's bedchamber, inwardly cursing himself for the hopelessly self-conscious fool that he has always been. After all he has come to understand over the last few moons, all the horror and confusion, what stills his feet is apprehension of a mere child. Despite himself, he finds his mouth twitching at the black humor of it. This is the first time he has felt the slightest bit like laughing in quite a long time. But the thought of seeing her still makes him anxious. His child, born of his lady wife, who despite a mutual lack of loving words and warm embraces has been nothing if not loyal to him. Shy, sweet little Shireen.
He's dead tired, and would like nothing more than to fling himself headlong into bed and lie buried in the blankets until it's morning and he has to confront the coming storm. Stannis aches from his head to his feet, and it's no wonder, as he's traveled with the utmost possible haste for more than a week. He sped away from King's Landing, much-loathed, stinking and rotting from the inside out, and here he stands, back on this great grim rock.
Stannis may not love Dragonstone, and the loss of his rightful seat still rankles, but this time he stepped off the boat with something close to relief. Once safely through the heavy stone gates, he had greeted the necessary people briskly, saving crucial talks for the morrow, when he has figured out how to say what he must say. Alone, Stannis strode purposefully up the castle's twisting spiral staircases, across a long swathe of narrow battlement, the walls studded with torches flickering against the dark. He had intended to go straight to his own chambers, but had found himself halting outside Shireen's.
He has never been particularly good with children, not that he has known many. When Stannis was a boy trying to be a man, Renly had been bright and energetic and altogether much too dazzling. Robert's children—not Robert's children—are difficult as well; it is only his oldest nephew—not his nephew—that is petulant and cruel, but he has never been close to the others either, Cersei's gregarious daughter and her sweet, innocent little brother. And his own child is hardest of all, and far too much like her father.
Go in there, you coward, Stannis lectures himself sternly. According to Robert, lecturing sternly is his chief and most irritating talent. Stannis is more receptive to his own internal admonishments than Robert has ever been to his external ones, however, and his hand tightens on the doorknob, knuckles whitening.
The door creaks open slowly, old wood scraping across the stone floor. A splinter breaks off, skidding to rest under the toe of his boot. Sometimes it seems like this entire castle is some hulking beast long dead and slowly falling to pieces, ancient gargoyles crumbling off into the sea like bits of sloughed-off skin.
Stannis inches his way into the room, hoping Shireen isn't already asleep, so he doesn't have to deal with the uncomfortable prospect of prodding her awake. It seems, however, that at least some luck is with him today. Through the gloom, he sees her sit up, rubbing at her eyes sleepily. Stannis is, for the moment, just a tall dark silhouette in the golden candlelight emanating from the corridor. The room is dim, but far from black, even this late at night. Shafts of silver moonlight stream in from the windows, pooling on the floor. A dim reddish glow comes from the brazier in the corner's covered fire, for on Dragonstone these late summer nights have a hint of chill to them, and cold winds blow in from the sea. A cluster of guttering candles drip tallow onto the oaken surface of Shireen's nightstand.
He pushes the door wide, letting it hit the wall with a dull clunk.
"Father?" Shireen's voice is tremulous, either from excitement or nerves. She hastily scrambles to get out of bed, and bobs a quick, awkward curtsy.
"Shireen," Stannis says, nodding at her.
Standing with her bare feet flat upon the cold stone floor, and the skirt of her white nightshirt swirling around her bony ankles, she looks very small. Her cousin—not her cousin—Myrcella is almost a year younger, and about half a handspan taller, although he hasn't seen them both together for years. He had always thought it because Robert was taller than him, and had been at every age since they were boys.
"Why are you back from the capital so early?" Shireen asks him curiously. She tilts her head back to look up at him, her blue eyes wide. Her hair trails down her back in a long, thin braid, a few loose strands framing her face. The dim light glints oddly off the blackness of it, tinting some places almost blue as well. She tries to stand straight-backed and at attention, he guesses, but one foot creeps up to press itself against the other calf, and she balances solemnly like a heron in shallow water.
Impulsively, Stannis goes down on one knee, bending to her level. Moving as gently as he can, he places his hands on her shoulders. He feels rather than sees her body twitch in surprise, and she glances down bashfully at first, but then her eyes, huge and almost plaintive, return to his face.
"I did my duty, and found secrets long kept hidden, which made me many enemies. I thought it wise to return to those loyal to me."
Of which there are few indeed, and a whole clan of enemies, wealthy and powerful and absolutely ruthless. Not to mention mine own brother, who trusts me less than his foolish Northern friend.
Shireen stares straight at him, looking slightly frightened. And no wonder, he thinks ruefully. He had intended his words to be cryptic, yes; his child doesn't need to know the ugly truths of what he hasn't even told his most loyal advisors yet. But Shireen is an anxious girl, and he's probably made her think a warrior host will come crashing down on them at any moment.
He sighs, and attempts to reassure her.
"This fortress is old and strong, Shireen, and it will keep us safe. You have nothing to fear."
"So there won't be war?"
Stannis considers lying to her, telling her it will never come to that. But he speaks the truth.
"I don't know. Not yet, certainly. And not ever if I make my moves correctly."
Shireen bites her lip, then grimaces.
"If there is a war, I'll have to be brave, won't I?"
"You'll not be on any battlefields, Shireen."
"But I still need to be brave, and I'm not good at that, not like you. I'm afraid of everything."
Stannis flinches at the praise. Brave would not be the first word he'd use to describe himself. Cautious, pigheadedly stubborn, dutiful, studious, all those fit him. But Robert was always the hero.
"When you have to, you'll go past the fear and do what you must. As I do."
Shireen nods somberly.
Stannis raises his hands, placing them on either side of her face. He looks at her then, really looks at her, examining her face as intensely as he studied all of Robert's bastards. That one man could manage to collect so many bastards never ceases to appall him. Before that, he'd stared at Cersei's children, looking for any signs of his family's blood in them, and seeing only Lannister.
Shireen's face is a rather disconcerting combination of his wife's features and his own. He can see Selyse's sharp nose and prominent ears, and her high cheekbones, obscured on one side by the marks of disease, are Florent as well. Her coloring is Baratheon, the same as every one of his brother's bastards, although she is thin and frail as opposed to tall and sturdy. And she has Stannis's chin, strong and square, a trait he inherited from his mother's family, not his father's.
Stannis briefly feels guilty that everything he and Selyse seem to have passed on to her is awkward and plain. Perhaps he should have married a beautiful woman. But a beautiful woman would have made him no less at ease around her, and as his brother's marriage has proved, beautiful women do not often cope with uncaring husbands well. For the first time, he is thankful for their coldness, for that is such a small sin compared to those of his brother and the queen.
It seems odd, still, that the two of them, still uncomfortable with each other after more than ten years, could have created this little new person. Not that it takes much of love to make a child, as Robert's unfortunate by-blows scattered haphazardly around the kingdom prove. On the other hand, of course, the thought of whatever love for her brother Cersei has kept secret all these years makes him feel sick.
Shireen blinks up at him with those disconcertingly familiar blue eyes, and he leans forward jerkily, pressing a kiss to the top of her forehead, near her hairline. Then, he releases her, letting his hands fall to his sides. As he hastily stands, his sore knees creak in protest. When they stand on the level of man and child once more, they tread in more familiar territory, and Stannis feels the tension in his shoulders relax. Shireen gives him a hesitant smile, then quickly slips her hand into his. Stannis clenches his fingers, closely if somewhat gracelessly clutching her slender hand.