Theon mirrors Robb’s starting stance – they received the same training after all, they’re familiar with one another’s basic techniques. It’s their own personal skills they’ve brought to their fighting that makes their individual styles unique: Robb, his overwhelming physical strength, and Theon, his quick reflexes and lightning fast speed.
Not that Robb’s own velocity is anything to be scoffed at – Theon only barely dodges his opening blow, skittering away to his side and dancing back several steps. Robb may usually win these battles, but it doesn’t make Theon any less determined to gain the upper hand for once. Maybe Robb’s right and it’s been a while since Theon’s been in the sparring ring, but he hasn’t let up on his physical training in the meantime. He keeps his strength and endurance up in Winterfell’s gymnasium, and even the space station offered equipment for its soldiers to stay in shape.
Robb comes at him again, blade crashing down this time too fast for Theon to dodge, and it’s all Theon can do to bring his own up to deflect it. There’s a resonating crack in the room as their weapons collide, the force sending a jolt all the way up Theon’s arm and into his shoulder. Robb hesitates a moment – just for a second, as the surprise of Theon’s manoeuvre registers – but it’s all Theon needs, spinning away and to the side, quickly delivering a blow Robb’s exposed right-hand side.
He bites back a smirk.
How’s that for rusty?
Sparring with Theon always sends this electric thrill down Robb’s spine. He’s fast, faster than anyone Robb’s ever fought with, and it’s always a challenge to chase after him, following step after step, making the moment when he finally gets him that much more exquisite.
Not that Theon is easy to catch. He’s all long loose limbs moving easy like liquid, eyes that follow each of Robb’s movements without missing a beat; his blade attacks brief and lethal, like a snake dashing out to bite. When Theon hits him on his side, hard enough for Robb’s side to ache with a dull pain even under the armour, he inhales deeply and takes several steps back in an attempt to regain his balance and posture.
"Good job, Greyjoy," he congratulates as he wipes his mouth with his forearm, before grinning. "Now you can almost compare to me."
He’s not usually like this, arrogant and cheeky like a dornishman, but Theon brings out the need to mock him right back. Or maybe Robb is like this, has always been, and Theon just digs deep enough to reveal Robb’s true playful nature. Maybe it’s just with him, and a blade, and a sparring room, that Robb can let go.
He attacks again, and Theon is faster as always, dodging and blocking him, but Robb persists and perseveres - to the right, to the left, at the hip, at the shoulder. When Theon blocks his attack once more but he stumbles back in the process, Robb lets out a quiet cry of triumph and pushes the full weight of his blade against Theon’s chest.
"One - one," he says. "There’s no point if you keep trying to escape, you know? Come on, hit me."
It’s good that he’s distracted enough not to think about what his father and all the northern fleet would say if they saw him encouraging a hostage to harm him.
Theon’s’ smile broadens into a proud grin, and there’s only the slightest trace of mockery there when he brings his palms together in applause.
“Nice job, kiddo,” he tells him approvingly, moving forward to sling an arm around his neck and give him an affectionate squeeze. “Though I wouldn’t count on it as a kill – might’ve just blown the fellah’s jaw off, left him in excruciating agony instead. Nasty way to go, if he ends up bleeding to death.” He flashes him a wink. “We’ll have to work on your aim, if we want to get rid of that sadistic streak of your’s.” There’s no malice in Theon’s teasing, of course – the words ‘sadistic’ and ‘Robb Stark’ went about as well together as ‘Lannister’ and ‘kindly’.
He pulls a face at Robb’s suggestion – he’d much prefer to stay at the range, maybe try out a few of the new customised scopes or concentration mods he’d been working on – but saying no to Robb has always been virtually impossible for Theon. Especially when he’s flashing him such a hopeful grim, and – well, Theon really should give the younger man a chance to redeem himself. And so he sighs, shoulders slumping in defeat.
“Alright, alright,” he grumbles, wriggling away. “Let’s go suit up. See you in ten.”
Their sparring armour is light – they’re not using actual sabres after all, there’s no real risk of losing a limb or some kind of other extremity during their practice – but the training weapons are still pretty damn heavy, and a well-landed blow can leave a bruise that you’ll be feeling for days. “A reminder not to let your opponent get so close again,” he vaguely recalls one of the instructors telling him – and he winces a little recalling some of the batterings he’d received during his early days, before he’d developed any real skill. He’d learned soon enough how to put his speed to advantage, keep his opponents far enough away whilst they wore themselves down hacking and lunging desperately – but Robb had a stamina few others possessed. And he was bloody good with a blade.
His friend is waiting for him in the middle of the ring by the time Theon enters, rolling his shoulders in preparation. The damn bastard looked almost as good in his sparring armour as he did in his uniform. Theon alerts him of his presence with a low chuckle.
“Ready? Let me show you just how rusty I’ve become.”
Robb has to resist very hard the urge to grin like a maniac when Theon enters the ring, suited up and looking at him warily despite the bravado of his words.
He fails, of course.
This, he is familiar with; this is what he’s good at, the place where he knows he holds the advantage and where he feels nearly immortal. A shot is easy to miss - there are too many factors, changing and re-arranging, that mark the millimetric difference between hitting your target and missing it entirely. But one-on-one combat is absolute. You can miss too, sure enough, but it all depends on your own senses and the opponent’s, on speed and reflexes, flesh and mind. There’s no more human, alive combat than one-on-one where the only thing that exists is two people and their bodies being pushed to the limit to tear each other apart, and that’s exactly how Robb feels - utterly human, so very alive.
"Rusty or not," Robb taunts back, "I was still the top first on the records for close range combat. I wouldn’t be so sure of myself if I were you, Greyjoy."
He positions himself in his classic sparring posture, the arm with the weapon held high so as to shield his face and his body sideways, so as to give Theon as less target as possible. They nod at each other once and Robb’s smile vanishes, replaced with a look of pure focus.
Without pausing to even breathe, he advances towards Theon and attacks, merciless. He’s no Jaime Lannister, rumoured to laugh out loud in joy during fights, but he can definitely relate to the thrill of this particular type of battle.
Theon dodges him, of course, and Robb follows him without missing a beat, cheeks flushed pink with excitement and blood humming in pleasure.
This is incredibly dangerous territory, and Theon knows it all too well. This level of closeness, this kind of…intimacy, it’s something he should avoid entirely. The price he might pay for any misstep is too high – losing Robb altogether is a cost he’s not sure he could survive. But the feel of Robb’s stubble grazing his fingers, the soft sigh he lets out in response to Theon’s touch – it’s so intoxicating that Theon feels practically drunk on it. He tries not to let his fingers linger too long, when he adjusts Robb’s grip, but can’t resist letting his other hand remain where it is, resting gently on Robb’s spine. He’s closer than he needs to be, and he’s sure that Robb realises that – but he doesn’t seem to raise any protest.
“Better,” he murmurs, finally taking a step back so that he can run a critical eye over the results. Not perfect – but it’s a pretty damn fine improvement all the same. Robb’s always been a fast learner, always been quick to master any skill he put his mind to learning. No wonder he had been – still was – the pride and joy of the Academy.
Theon wonders sometimes if he’d ever had a hope in hell of resisting him.
A smile tugs at his lips, and he finally – reluctantly – lifts his hand from his spine.
“Patience is the name of the game, Stark. Now shoot.”
And he does shoot.
The force of a sniper rifle’s attack has always made him stumble, and this time is no exception; Robb takes a step back, feeling deaf and fragile under the potent sound of his gunshot resonating through the entire room, and he’s aware of Theon’s hand reaching out to steady him, gripping him by the shoulder firmly.
It’s still not good enough. The bullet makes a hole on the target’s chin, rather than the forehead where it was supposed to hit - but he supposes that’s close enough.
"Well," Robb says, getting up not without some difficulty and putting the gun back down on the tripod. "Forehead, chin, it’s all the same - they’d be dead anyway. I’ll count it as victory." He shrugs one shoulder, feeling it stiff even after Theon’s help and advice with his posture, and nudges at Theon’s knee with his leg with a hopeful grin. "Alright, we’ve been playing your game long enough, now it’s time for mine. Sparring room in ten minutes? It’s been a while since I’ve seen you on one-on-one combat, you wouldn’t want to get all rusty."
It’s odd, really – of anyone he’s ever encountered on this planet, Robb has always been the one who has awarded him praise most freely. Complimentary words had always come rather begrudgingly from the lips of his instructors back in the Academy, forever resentful that an outsider, let alone a Greyjoy, had clawed their way to the top of several leaderboards. Robb, meanwhile, was always quick to commend Theon on his achievements, and always seemed to be genuinely happy to dole them out as well.
And yet it was still Robb’s admiration that meant the most to him, no matter how liberally it was given. It was always Robb’s remarks that made his chest swell with pride, turn his trademark smirk (rather embarrassingly) into a ridiculously goofy grin. This time is no different, and he quickly tries to hide it by pulling himself to his feet, shouldering his rifle with a nonchalant toss of his head.
“Heh. That wasn’t even that difficult. Next time give me an actual challenge, yeah?”
He hands the rifle over, a little hesitantly – it’s one of his favourites, one of the models that he had customised himself, and as such, he feels more than a little protective of it. Still, Robb’s hardly a novice, and Theon had offered to give him some pointers.
He snorts at the remark, rolling his eyes to the ceiling.
“Just because she’s too much for you, Stark, doesn’t give you free reins to start doling out the insults. Show a little respect for the lady.”
Theon takes a step back, observing Robb as he drops into a crouch and settles into position, before shaking his head and quickly moving back in beside him.
“No, no. All wrong. Your spine’s too stiff. And your knee – here.” He pauses, adjusting Robb’s arm so that his elbow rests against his knee. “And here –“ He moves again, crouching down beside Robb himself now and gently turning his head by the chin, pressing his cheekbone tighter to the gun’s but. “Keep a good cheek weld – it’ll improve your targeting, and your shoulder will absorb the recoil better.”
It’s strange, in a way. For years, it was Robb the one guiding people, offering his advice; telling them to curve their spine a bit, raise their elbows, no, just a bit higher, now balance your weight on your right foot, there you go. He remembers a thousand faceless, nameless cadets that he helped polish, even when a great part of them were even older than him.
He hasn’t been in the role of the student since the Academy; he almost didn’t remember what it was like to be in a submissive position. There’s a pang of irritation that kicks in immediately when Theon says All wrong like Robb is some kind of inexperienced teenager that’s never held a gun, but he swallows it down and listens and tries to be a good Captain because Theon was definitely right - Robb’s duty is also to listen to his men.
Theon’s hand is warm against his face, grasping him by the chin with a gentler touch than Robb would have imagined for someone so rough and dry.
The silence is positively deafening, ironically enough.
Robb takes a deep breath, suddenly crushed under the pressure of wanting to impress Theon like he hasn’t in ages. Spine too firm, he had said. He tries to relax and rolls his shoulders, feeling his bones creak in protest. Maybe he had been too tense.
"Like that?" he asks, and it comes out like a whisper. When Theon’s reply is pushing his back into a straighter line and gently guiding his fingers into holding the rifle gentler, Robb sighs quietly. He never stood this close to any of the students he was instructing, but perhaps he should have. His posture has definitely improved a lot, putting a lot less weight on his ankles and reducing the tension of his knees. "Can I shoot now? How do you have the patience to do all this?"
“It is helpful,” Theon insists, “I’m advising you not to waste your precious time on a weapon that’s too smart for you.”
The laughter dies in his throat when he feels Robb’s fingers press against his pulse. Not because he harbours any doubts about Robb’s playful intent, but because Robb would have to be a fucking idiot not to notice just how much Theon’s heart rate has accelerated. And yes, his best friend can be oblivious at times, but a fool he is not. So, of course he notices, and of course he quizzes Theon about it – and Theon’s only saving grace is that Robb can’t see his face to catch sight of the rising flush he can feel beginning to colour his cheeks.
“My health is just fine, thank you,” he hastily intervenes, “but besting my superiors gets the blood pumping, don’t you know?”
Mercilessly, Robb releases him before they can dwell on the subject much longer, abandoning him to go and fiddle with the hologram settings. It provides Theon with some much needed respite, whereby he can scrub at his face with both hands, trying to force his cheeks to return to normal temperature. It was one thing to find his pulse racing after tousling with Robb, quite another to be fucking blushing.
(He shouldn’t allow these kinds of things to happen, to encounter such risks as readily and as frequently as he does. If he’d a lick of sense, he’d keep his distance more from his Captain so as to lessen the likelihood of being caught out. But it’s futile. He hadn’t been able to do it as a child, even before he’d really known Robb, now that he’d gone and been so stupid as to fall in love with him – it was impossible.
Robb Stark was more intoxicating than any substance Theon had ever enjoyed. And there was no way to quit him.)
By the time he pulls his hands away from his face, Robb’s finished with his tinkering, leaving Theon to admire his handiwork with a chortle. Definitely a worthy target.
“Aye aye, Captain,” He turns back to his gun, unfastens it from its tripod – he prefers to balance it himself when it comes to particularly precise shooting – then settles himself into a crouch, allowing himself to relax into the stance, feel the cool metal of the rifle’s but press into his cheek. His visor whirs softly, measuring the distance of the target and adjusting to its movements, before finally zeroing in the scope. Theon doesn’t bother biting back the smile that splits his lips every time just before he pulls the trigger, that irrepressible smug grin that comes with the complete and utter confidence that he will not miss.
Three cracks of the rifle later, and he lowers the gun, turns to smirk at Robb without even checking the hologram. He doesn’t need to.
And Robb watches - stares, as if in a trance.
As a Captain of an entire fleet, as well as a former instructor at the Academy for years, it’s always been his job to make sure that, like he said to Theon, his men are in perfect physical conditions. Handling a gun in the way it should be handled isn’t a one-way street; both weapon and the person wielding it must be at their best, like a well-oiled machine with pieces working and moving together in perfect synchronization. The biggest, most accurate rifle is nothing without a properly trained man to pull its trigger, but a perfectly skilled marksman can do nothing with a rusty, broken gun either.
This sniper rifle is of the highest quality, designed and built for even an Emperor to use.
Theon is even better. A sniper fit to be an Emperor’s personal guard… settling for the role of a common soldier for a common lord.
His posture is flawless, as always - crouching with perfect balance, holding the rifle with firm but serene hands, spine curved just that bit for his back and muscles not to feel the strain of his gun’s weight. With that arrogant grin curving his lips and the visor illuminating part of his smiling face, Theon Greyjoy looks simply breathtaking - he looks right.
Robb doesn’t need to look at the trajectory of Theon’s bullets, either.
He does anyway though, just to tear his gaze away from Theon.
The hologram shatters into pieces once more, but not before Robb can see the three gaping holes in its chest, right inside the O’s of Hornwood’s name.
"That was really good," he says sincerely, beaming with pride. The best damn sniper in the System, and he’s Robb’s. "Alright, Theon, you win - show your Captain how to get better. Give me that thing."
Shooting a sniper rifle without a tripod is not something Robb is used to, hasn’t done it since his days back at the Academy, so even his posture must be rusty and inadequate now. Theon has some hard work ahead of him.
When he feels the full raw weight of the rifle in his arms, Robb can’t help snorting. It’s even heavier than usual, surely thanks to its quality. The weapons back at the Academy could use with an update, but this is a true beast.
"I could make a comment about your preference for this kind of guns and compensating, but I’ll try to be a good student."
Were he not so at ease, he might have been able to protect himself from Robb’s sudden manoeuvre, dart out of his reach; Robb is the stronger of the two of them but Theon’s always been faster, possessing what can only be described as cat-like reflexes. So, okay, maybe being caught off-guard didn’t have that much to do with it, he probably could still have managed to twist away at the last second, yeah, maybe a little part of Theon wanted to be caught.
Not that he’d ever admit that to anyone, least of all himself.
It’s only that he’s humiliated Robb enough during today’s round of target practice as it is, he’s got to allow his best friend some small victory.
That’s all it is.
There’s no escaping Robb’s hold once you’re in it, however, no matter how quick he may be; Robb wasn’t making any idle boasts, he really did manage to overpower Theon whenever it came to confrontational battle. He was a warrior made for the frontlines, whilst Theon was better suited to tactical warfare.
He chuckles, reaching up with his free hand to squeeze the arm that’s currently lightly compressing his throat. God, but being this close still gets him every fucking time, much as he likes to pretend that it doesn’t.
“I’m only trying to provide some helpful advice,” he teases, “what good is a Captain that doesn’t listen to his men, eh? Let me go and I might even share with you some of my secrets. If you ask me nicely.”
Robb chuckles, fondly shaking his head as he twists Theon’s arm some more; not enough to hurt, of course not, just enough to remind Theon how powerless he is right now. He’s always loved this push and pull between them, this playful rivalry laced deep with their brotherhood - and he knows Theon does too, especially in the shooting range.
"Helpful advice? I don’t see how ‘facing that me and this particular type of gun are never gonna get along’ and ‘leaving it to the pros’ is gonna help me at all, Greyjoy." He removes the arm blocking Theon’s throat but only so he can press his hand against it, fingers feeling his veins. Everything’s really quiet for a moment. "Your pulse is going fast, have you taken your medical tests this year? Practice and a little manhandling are not supposed to make you feel agitated, I need my snipers in perfect physical conditions."
And now he does release Theon, gently pushing him forward.
"Do show me those secrets of yours, though." A mischievous smile appears on Robb’s face as he approaches the computer to customize the target. He leaves the distance, size and transparency just the same, jumping instead to the ‘advanced options’ section and adding a bright red HORNWOOD on the hologram’s chest. “Forget the head. Hit the center of the three O’s, if you can.”
It felt as though Sansa had been packing up her things since ‘the crack of dawn’ - a sun-ring idiom that had never held much weight on the Planet of Winter with its shrunken days and living nights, but one which she felt she should, now, be prepared to use. Already the shy sun had come half-way up and gone back down again, so she knew instinctively that it couldn’t have been more than a few hours since she began and, still, she was exhausted.
Sansa had underestimated the emotional toll of such a project. She’d set the AIs to categorising her possessions but had explicitly wanted to pack them by herself, allowing her hands to pass over all the smooth fabrics and cool metals that had, up to now, made up the context of her world. The idea was that this would be a good way to review her brilliant fortunes, but instead, as she folded up yet another wolf-grey dress, she felt her heart growing heavier and heavier.
Through the curved window of her bedchamber, Sansa could see the hazy yellow glow of Winterfell spun out below her, and the white starlight sloping across the distant ice-fields. In the sky, the dim blue outline of the Vale was visible, thumb-sized and hung among the diamond stars. She put down her things, dresses and leggings and shoes still laid out on the bed, and went toward the glass to look out.
Even from high up in the Holdfast, she could still see the citizens walking in the snowy streets, running between lamplights to and from the mining bars and warehouses. A mule vessel lit up in the middle distance and she saw its silhouette move upward and fly out of sight. Everything in the North was similarly joyless to look upon: austere and grey, framed by a utilitarian aesthetic. Its people were grim-faced and vulgar in their knuckle-cracking humour. She’d spent her childhood dreaming of colour and sweetness and symmetry but, all the same, this was home, and all she’d ever known.
But she was being silly, really. She would be making a new home among the stars soon, hung up in the sky like those mythical princesses that the gods had made into constellations. There would be new friends and luxuries up there, new food and music and the sparkling promise of change. She was leaving home to become a someday-empress! What was the North compared to her sweet, handsome Prince Joffrey?
Stepping back from the window, Sansa went back to work. If she set her mind to mechanical duties, she would be able to conserve her emotional energies. The last thing in the world she wanted was to board the Imperial shuttle the following morning with her eyes all red and swollen from crying. Cersei Lannister would think her some weak little child and Sansa could think of few things worse.
The grey dress had just followed its sisters into the enamelled chest when there came a rap at the door, followed by the AI installation’s chime for attention.
“Robb Stark is at the door, Sansa,” the voice said. “Shall I let him in?”
“Yes,” Sansa answered, hurriedly, “yes!” She wiped her eyes quickly in case some tears were still clinging there. If her big brother saw that she was upset, she’d be so embarrassed. With Father leaving and Robb newly in charge, they both had their duties to rise to. She could show him she was just as brave as he was.
The door slid back and she smiled, instantly.
“There you are,” Sansa said. “I haven’t seen you all day.”
It was snowing.
It had been a while since the last time Robb had to shake the melting snowflakes off his hair; the past months in the North had been almost gentle, offering mere cold winds and a stable chill rather than the terrifying storms that could freeze a person’s very bones and send them crying for Dorne’s heat.
He was glad the snow had decided to say its farewells to Sansa too - Robb remembered her as a little girl, flushed pink and wrapped up in so many layers she could barely move, staring in awe at the white covering Winterfell’s gray walls and Wintertown. It was beautiful, she used to say, like a city made of crystal shining under the sun’s dim golden light for her. He wondered if she still thought it pretty, or if snow, like Winterfell and the North and their dull gray days that were always the same, had bored her.
She had the Red Keep to look forward to now - and not only that. If her wishes of becoming the Empress were granted to her, Sansa would see a hundred more beautiful sights: the Reach’s gardens, Dorne’s sands and palaces, maybe even Essos some day. What was the North, compared to that?
Home, he thought.
Sansa’s AI let him in, and Robb smiled as he walked up to her, mirroring Sansa’s own grin. There were dresses on the bed in a mess of gray and white, waiting to be packed.
"Father wanted to give me some last minute advice on how to keep Winterfell in order. I think he meant last hundred hours advice." He made a face briefly, crooking his mouth in mock disgust. "How is this going, San? Need any help?" Holding up a dress that was lying on Sansa’s bed, he frowned. Then he gestured at the one Sansa herself had her hands on. "Why do girls even need so many dresses? Look, these are practically the same thing."
Given the events of his past, it should be strange that Theon Greyjoy can achieve such a sense of inner peace on the grounds of a firing range.
One would think, perhaps, that the gunfire might bring it all back to him, that awful night when his home was destroyed, his brothers killed, and he was spirited away from his mother and sister by the Northmen that frightened his nine-year-old self so.
Strangely, it had never quite had that effect.
Quite the opposite, in fact. The shooting range was one of the very few pieces where Theon could stop thinking. His head was a chaos, more often than not, and being on the surface seemed to accentuate it to the point it was unbearable. Theon’s mind had always been a dark place; it was never healthy getting lost there for too long.
Behind the barrel of a gun, however, everything else disappeared. All that existed was him and the target, along with that feeling of absolute omnipotence that came with resting his finger over the trigger.
That was what he loved most about sniper rifles, if he’s brutally honest with himself, probably what had drawn him to them in the first place. The power of it. A skilled marksman was the deadliest thing there could be.
And Theon was the best this planet had ever known.
Robb, conversely, was not quite so skilled. He preferred close range combat and so favoured guns more along the lines of assault rifles – he was even relatively proficient with a Sabre, as Theon had learned after being on the receiving end of several trashings during sparring sessions back in the Academy. But he lacked the patience that was needed to handle a weapon as precise as the sniper rifle, always grew frustrated and let his aim waver so that they went long of their mark.
As is the case now. Theon’s watching him through the plexiglass from his own booth, his arms folded, relishing a little at the way Robb’s face screws up with concentration, eyes squinted almost to the point of being shut. Too much, Theon sighs to himself, he’s over-thinking it. Focusing too much on the target allows self-doubt to creep in, and that would spoil your aim every single time.
He detects the slight tremble in Robb’s arm, knows before he even pulls the trigger that his friend will miss.
He doesn’t exactly take satisfaction when he’s proved right, but lets out a chuckle when Robb erupts into a string of very un-Lord like curses.
“Face it, Stark,” he teases, “you and that particular type of gun are never gonna get along. Best just leave it to us pro’s.”
It’s not like he’s absolutely useless at it.
One could not graduate from Wolfswood Academy labelled as one of its brightest students without passing at least each test with a remarkable score, and maybe the sniper rifle was the one that gave Robb the most trouble and the one that required him to practice three weeks instead of one - but at the end of the day he can handle it if he puts his mind into it.
Of course, it’s nowhere near as good as it could be; not impressive enough when Theon Greyjoy is in the same room, owner of several medals and trophies gained one by one at the Academy with nothing but his gun and his unbelievably sharp eyesight. If Robb is just fine then Theon is excellent, and as it happens Robb always does worse when he’s with him, as if his desperate desire to prove himself to his best friend only helped him fail.
"Fuck that," he growls quietly when his bullet hits the hologram’s arm instead of the head, pulling back from the weapon with a heavy frown. The target, pale blue against the black of the walls, shatters into digital pieces that disappear into the air like dust before being replaced by a new entire hologram in an instant.
He shoots Theon an annoyed glare, but his tone is relaxed when he speaks.
It’s only practice for fun, after all.
"Don’t mock me when you’re so close to me," he warns, a predatory smile curving his lips as he crosses the couple of steps separating him and Theon, quick like lightning. He grabs Theon’s arm, twisting it behind him with just enough force for Robb to manipulate him as he pleases, which he does by turning Theon so that his back is pressed to Robb’s chest, his other forearm pressed to Theon’s throat to keep him in place with no real malice. The whole thing couldn’t have taken more than three seconds. "I’m the one that always wins in one-on-one combat, remember?"
It’s clear the time for teasing and jokes is over: the tremor in Robb’s voice makes that more than apparent, as does the unwavering stare he has fixed at a particular spot on the table. A pang of guilt shoots through Theon: no doubt Robb harboured such doubts before their conversation, but his own disapproval had done nothing to lessen them. And Theon should have. Robb may be the acting Warden of the North now, his captain and his Lord, but beneath that, he’s a young man, only newly thrust into a position of such overwhelming power and responsibility. Theon thinks he can detect a slight tremble in his hand, now moved from his shoulder and resting beside his drink, and it’s incredibly tempting to reach out and lay his own over it.
Fuck, but this was his fault. Had he not put his own feelings aside for the sake of their friendship? And that meant putting Robb first.
Even if it broke his own heart in doing so.
“It’s not that I think it isn’t a good idea,” he begins, pausing to chew his lip as he carefully chooses his next words. “I mean, I guess… It’s just that, well, just because other people tell you something is the right thing doesn’t necessarily make it the right thing.” He presses the pad of his thumb against a water ring on the table surface, then moves it to trace the rim of his glass, producing a shrill ‘wrrrrring’ in the process. He lowers his voice slightly, just several octaves short of a whisper. “I guess I just worry you value what other people think more than what you do yourself. What do you want?”
There’s a moment of silence before Theon breaks the tension with a sudden laugh.
“Don’t mind me. Surface must be fucking with my head, you know how it makes me think too much. Really, I’m probably just moody because I’ll have to share you.” He accentuates his point by digging his elbow playfully into Robb’s ribs. “I don’t get to see you half as much as it is.”
He’s grateful for Theon breaking the silence with a bark of laughter soon after his question; Robb’s never liked being reduced to a fumbling, hesitant fool during conversations, and that’s effectively what would have happened had Theon not provided him with a much needed interruption.
What does he want?
He doesn’t want to marry Margaery Tyrell, that Robb knows.
But he does want to follow his duty as the lord of the planet and the head of house Stark in his father’s absence, and what do his own selfish preferences serve him for anyway? Eddard Stark and Catelyn Tully surely never wanted to marry each other, but time proved them wrong and showed them that love didn’t follow rules - Robb knows that his parents love each other fiercely, unconditionally, in ways couples that fell for one another in more natural manners never ended up reaching. Why should he and Margaery be any different? What he’s seen of her has appealed Robb enough, and surely if they make a genuine effort to make their marriage work…
Theon digs his elbow into Robb’s ribs, and Robb finds himself smiling even though the doubts are beginning to consume him like the Targaryens’ fire consumed the System and tainted it in blood. His stomach churns a little but at least he doesn’t have to force himself to eat anymore - the news of Baratheon’s dead has more than killed dinner.
He playfully knocks Theon’s knee with his own under the table.
"Margaery is the one that will have to share me. I’m not going to disappear into my bedroom with her forever, I promise you I’ll still be there for you to kick my ass in the shooting range, if that’s what you’re worried about." Before Theon can insist on his question of what does Robb actually want, he gets up again and pats Theon’s shoulder affectionately. "I should go now, Luwin left me a huge file on my terminal that I should check out, something about how much we’re importing from the other planets this year…"
(I don’t get to see you half as much, Theon had said.)
"…Do you want to give me a hand with that?" Robb rubs at the back of his neck, a bit embarrassed. Is it really proper of a lord to ask for assistance with such a simple but important task to someone with no real ties to the North? Probably not, but only if someone finds out. "I mean, it’ll be boring, but if you have nothing better to do maybe you could try your luck at convincing me to bring more alcohol and tobacco from the Reach."
He can’t help the hopeful grin that curves his mouth.
The flight sim leaderboard hangs illuminated above the training rooms, with that week’s high scores, the last year’s high scores, and the all time high scores, each in their own neat row. It takes Alys only a week to make it up there, unsurprising given that she was flying spacecraft since practically before she could walk, but a nice feeling all the same. It’s a month before she makes it to the last year’s high scores, mastering each level of the flight sim with varying degrees of ease. That too makes her cheeks blush pink with pride, a fuzzy feeling warming in her chest.
Alys likes the attention, though she would be loath to admit it, the way it brings warmth to her chest when the boys point and stare. Only one of the Mormont girls can keep up with her, and none of the boys in her year, though they try. Some of the pups grumble as she passes, but most just want to know her tricks, know the ease with which she shifts gears, or how she hooks her turns, or how she can possibly know instinctively how to fly so many spacecrafts.
Truthfully, it’s a learned instinct, one she honed through years of flying anything and everything she could get her hands on, regardless of make and model and purpose.
Alys takes on the all time high scores one by one. First, she knocks out Dacey Mormont’s high score, then Domeric Bolton’s. It’s not until the late days of April, with the flyers first trip into orbit budding on the horizon, that she finally takes out the record for speed on one of the hardest level of the flight sim, the one held by Robb Stark.
The leaderboard’s a good extra 5 minute walk from the hangar bay, where Alys knows she’s due, but she can’t help but walk out of her way, just to see her name up there, second on the list, just below Theon Greyjoy, and her time winking next to it. It’s a rush that bubbles like a glass of fine Middle Planet champagne. Alys’s only had the stuff once, but the way it fizzled into her chest is a feeling she’ll never forget. It feels like victory.
It’s on his third year at the Academy and at eighteen years old of age that Robb finds out that, in fact, sharing a bedroom with Theon Greyjoy is not as messy as he thought it would be.
By now his roommate is aware that if he wants to smoke he should do it by the window and making sure he doesn’t leave any smell behind, he knows that all empty bottles of alcohol must be picked up and thrown into the recycle bins by the next morning, and Robb’s never had any trouble with Theon taking over the room for himself and his sexual conquest of the week. They’re very different in pretty much every aspect -Robb doesn’t smoke, or drink often, and he definitely doesn’t make a show of his own love life- and he wasn’t quite sure the room-sharing was the brightest of ideas, but they’ve somehow managed to adapt to each other and co-exist together without any real conflict.
Theon does this thing where he changes clothes and leaves the former ones right there where he took them off, and there’s nothing Robb hates more than seeing someone else’s pairs of socks on his own bed, a dark jacket decorating the floor as if it was a damn carpet, and several shirts and pants hanging from places that definitely weren’t made to support clothes. Keeping a clean, organized room is a trait Robb picked up from his previous roommate during his second year, and well, it turns out that new habits die just as hard as old ones.
So that’s why Robb is tsk-ing as he picks up every piece of clothing Theon’s left behind today, patiently folding them before adding them to the growing pile of clothes on his friend’s bed. Like a maid, Robb thinks dryly, eyeing one of Theon’s favourite black shirts with narrowed eyes. He’s half-tempted to throw Theon’s clothes into the recycle bins to finally teach him a lesson, but he swallows the urge before it gets any stronger.
And that’s how Jon Umber finds him, pushing the door open without any sort of warning and announcing only as loudly as he can, “A pup! A fuckin’ pup beat you, Stark, you suck so much. The Young Wolf, my ass.”
Robb’s face must be quite the comic painting, because the Smalljon laughs so hard they must hear him all the way back to Dorne.
"Go see your failure for yourself."
And that’s why Robb stands in front of the flight sim leaderboard fifteen minutes later, Theon’s pile of clothes forgotten, frowning as he looks up at the records illuminating the board’s dark surface. He hasn’t participated in flight sim lessons or competitions in a long while, and he hasn’t looked at the records since his first year, when he set the one that has now been pushed one spot behind. Hell, before today he didn’t even remember there was a board.
Theon’s name remains at the top, a picture of him smirking next to it and the best time Wolfswood’s seen since they both entered the Academy. Robb’s own name and solemn photo used to belong under him, his record high enough to be a good rival to Theon’s and yet not quite as impressive, but that place has now been taken by an unfamiliar name with an equally unfamiliar picture, showing the face of the new cadet that was a whole seven seconds faster than Robb.
Alys Karstark, says the board, and the photo shows a round-faced girl with piercing eyes and long hair.
It takes Robb an entire half a minute to realise that it’s the same girl standing next to him, looking up at the boards as well and then staring right back at him when he just remains there with his gaze fixed on her like an idiot.
He inhales sharply as he snaps out of it.
"You beat my record!" he blurts out very fast and loud, then cringes a bit. A winking 4:58 in bright red looks back at him when his gaze shifts back to the board. “I mean… You’re Alys Karstark, right? I’m Robb Stark, right there under you.” Turning back to her again, he offers a hand. “I know your family, you’re all very good pilots. Good job.”