A/N: *creeps in, smiling shyly*
*Whispers, "I couldn't resist."*
Family, Duty, Honour
"Cat," Ned Stark murmured quietly as the door to their shared bedchamber at Winterfell slammed closed with a resounding bang that echoed off the stone walls all the way down the corridor.
"It's true, then?" Catelyn Tully demanded and there was fire burning brighter than her hair within those Tully blue eyes when she turned to glare her pain and her fury at him.
"Cat, please," Ned offered quietly, painfully aware of the two tiny bundles laying side by side in the crib by the large featherbed he hadn't had the privilege of sharing with his Lady wife yet – having married her at Riverrun and ridden south alongside Robert Baratheon two weeks later to wage war upon the Targaryens. He hadn't even shared it with her to conceive the young son curled up asleep in his crib, but fussing at the intrusion of another boy almost of an age with him to the day, Ned found it strange to think of this bed as his own.
It belonged to his lord father and his lady mother. It should've one day belonged to his brother, Brandon. Just as Catelyn should've. Brandon was supposed to be the Lord of Winterfell. Ned had been raised a solider, and he'd learned to die like one. He was a second son who'd learned to obey, not to lead. None of this was meant to be his.
As Catelyn paced furiously across the bedroom in front of the fire, positively brimming with a misplaced anger he would have to endure until he might get a chance to explain, Ned couldn't help but think that everything had turned out wrong. As boys, he and Robert had been sent as wards to Jon Arryn at the Eyrie, and often in that time they'd been taken to Riverrun to meet with Catelyn and her sister Lysa and young Edmure. When Ned's mind had begun to turn to the beauty of girls and their allure, Catelyn had been in the forefront of most of his dreams as the most readily available and beautiful woman, but she wasn't supposed to be his. She'd been betrothed to Brandon since infancy, and he'd known it from the start. He'd even turned his attentions to Ashara Dayne and in his heart he knew he'd fostered a deep affection for the noblewoman before he'd dishonoured her at the tourney at Harrenhall, promising as he did so that he would marry her just as soon as it could be arranged between his Lord and hers and given the blessing of the King.
It was a glaring shame that he'd had to lose his father, his brother, and his sister to get the wrong girl, and now he had to tell the world that it'd all been for nothing more than the idiotic and forbidden love of two people who never should've looked sideways at one another. Now he had to besmirch his honour in the face of the world to protect his nephew from the wrath of his best friend. Now he had to ask the beautiful girl his brother was supposed to marry to lie through her teeth about her fury and her betrayal over his supposed indiscretion. Now he had to admit that despite the vows he'd sworn, he'd had to lie with a fisherman's daughter so Robert could hear so as to shield the forbidden bairn of his dead sister as his own ill-gotten bastard.
Curse the Gods and their cruelty; he hadn't been meant for this life. He almost wished it had been he who rode to King's Landing to demand explanation of Rhaegar Targaryen in Brandon and Rickard's place; that it had been he who had burned alive at the hands of the Mad King, rather than face this maddening and confusing new life where he was the heir to Winterfell. He almost wished he had taken the Black in Benjen's place. He wished they'd all gone after Lyanna, rather than riding to the Red Keep. He wished his fool of a sister had bothered to tell any of them what she planned before she fled.
But it was not to be.
"All our lives, you have been honourable," Catelyn spoke with restrained fury after she paced back and forth before the fire several times and he could tell it took great effort to remember her manners and her place as his wife in a castle far from her true home when, in truth they no longer knew each other as a husband and wife should do. "All our lives, you have been loyal. Before you rode south with Robert Baratheon you swore – you swore, Ned – before your old gods and in the light of the Seven that you would be loyal and honourable and true when you married me. And… and then…"
She turned to look at him and he knew in an instant that his lady-wife was made of stronger stuff than he'd ever believed when she gave him such a cold look of fury. Her lower lip didn't tremble, and her eyes were dry. Perhaps she had learned that tears would not sway him; perhaps she felt no sorrow, only betrayal and fury.
"Cat," he tried again, needing to get the words out but needing to do this carefully – so carefully – or the great icy wall of lies he'd been building to protect the boy would all come toppling down.
"No, Ned, you swore," Cat cut him off, hissing and turning from him to pace the full length of the room and back again. "You swore to me, and then you rode off, leaving me pregnant and alone. And I understood because they took Lyanna and they killed Lord Rickard and… Brandon" –and here her voice cracked because half her life she'd believed it was he whom she would one day love, not Eddard- "and they deserved whatever pains we could visit upon them in retribution. So, I stayed silent on the moon-blood I'd missed so soon after our wedding and the bairn in my womb and I let you go. I laboured to bring that boy into this world not even knowing if you would survive to return to me!"
She spun to face him again and Ned's heart wrenched at the stricken look on her face at the very thought because no matter her betrothal to Brandon, it was him she'd come to know as children and him she'd learned to trust; him she cared for, despite it all.
"I prayed and I prayed every day to the seven that you would return and that I would one day present our son to you when you did," she said, and her voice cracked again before she clenched her fists and looked away from him, refusing to hold his gaze. "And when finally, you have returned whole and safe to me so that we might finally make Winterfell our home as husband and wife, I travel here with our son only to find a wet nurse with your… another woman's son in our home!"
The true depth of her fury was evident when she snatched up one of the many trinkets filling the room – some effigy she'd made to please her new gods from twigs and twine – and hurled it into the hearth where it quickly caught alight. The lack of propriety told him everything he needed to know about her fury, though he couldn't yet tell if she was truly angry with him for supposedly siring a bastard in the first place, or simply furious that the child had been the first of 'his' bloodline to enter the castle, before the son she had borne.
She was breathing hard as she watched the effigy burn, and Ned waited, wondering what other outbursts he might draw from the proud redhead as she stewed. He waited and he wondered where to begin.
"Well?" she finally demanded when he held his silence as he'd been taught all his life to do in the presence of this woman who would one day rule as Lady of Winterfell. He had trained all his life to let her speak before he did, knowing she was destined for his brother and the seat of his family's House.
Ned waited a while longer, until she turned to stare at him impatiently before he slowly rose to his feet.
"Honourable, you said?" he asked quietly, turning his back and crossing slowly to the window that looked out over the vast expanse of the castle, the courtyard below, and out over the wolfswood, beyond. "Loyal, you called me?"
Cat huffed behind him and despite his sorrow, his lips twitched at her silent suggestion that he wasn't either.
"Honourable?" he asked again. "Loyal?"
"You have always been before," Catelyn said finally when he looked over the courtyard, his mind's eye replaying the memory of Lyanna astride a mare and circling himself and his brothers while they toyed with wooden practice swords there.
"I haven't," Ned disagreed grimly.
"Ned," Catelyn said, and she sounded impatient and like she wasn't about to put up with some form of insincere self-pity as a way of weaselling out of shouldering her fury.
"You want the truth, Cat?" Ned asked, tearing his eyes from the window before closing the shutters and turning to her seriously.
"I… that is to say… it isn't my place to…" she stuttered, and he could tell that she hadn't ever imagined he might respond to her rant like this.
"Yes or no?" he asked patiently.
"The truth seems evident, what with the evidence," she slanted a glare in the direction of the dark-haired boy snuggled alongside her own red-haired son.
"Do you wish to hear how that boy came to be under my protection or not, Catelyn?" he asked one last time.
In truth, it would be safer for the boy if he didn't tell her the truth. Jon's parentage had died with Lyanna, after all.
"I… you would share such a tale?" Cat demanded. "You wish to stand here and tell me how to defiled our marriage vows to lie with another?"
"Is that what I offered to tell you?" Ned clarified, waiting, wondering if it might click.
"If you're just going to play word games…" she began impatiently, growing more annoyed, now.
"Answer me, Cat. And know that if I tell you the truth about that boy, you will be in more danger than you have ever been before this moment," he warned her.
Catelyn's eyes widened and he could tell she'd misconstrued his meaning for a threat.
"You dare…?" she began, her eyes narrowed hatefully.
Ned sighed, and scrubbed his hands over his face in frustration. He should just keep it to himself and let her hate him. The North was cold, and their wedding bed would be warm. In time, she would look beyond his supposed indiscretions and produce more heirs to the Stark name for him, he had no doubt. She was nothing if not a proper highborn woman.
"Cat," he tried again, softening his tone and reminding himself that from her perspective this looked so black and white, so simple and yet so hurtful. She didn't know yet.
She took a deep, steadying breath in and let it out slowly.
"Tell me," she said.
Some of the tension in his shoulders eased as her tone, too, softened a little.
"You were not meant for me," he said simply. "That's the truth, Cat. You were meant for Brandon, and none of this should've happened."
"You regret our marriage… our son…" she said, mistaking his meaning again and Ned wanted to put his fist through the wall because everything was messed up and it wasn't getting any easier.
"Never," he vowed seriously, lifting his head to hold her gaze.
Catelyn blinked at him, seeming surprised by his sincerity.
"Then… why?" she asked.
"I fancied you when we were young, you know?" Ned told her softly, his eyes searching her face. "At Riverrun. At the Eyrie. Even despite your betrothal to Brandon."
Her eyes widened.
"I never knew," she said softly.
"You weren't meant to be mine," he repeated quietly, offering her a shrug as though that were explanation enough. "I'm just the second son. And so, I put my affection for you aside, and I turned it toward another woman more fitting of my station than the first-born daughter of a great House like the Tullys."
"Is she…" Cat look in Jon's direction where he lay in the crib with Robb.
"Cat?" Ned asked patiently, his lips twitching again at her impatience. "Can I speak?"
She blinked before realising that even after all this time and his title, he still sought her permission. Her lips twitched in return before she crossed to the small table in their room and sat down, pouring them both some winterberry wine.
"Honourable, you called me," he said again when she offered him the goblet.
He allowed their fingers to brush when he took it from her, and she flinched but didn't pull away.
"You have always been," Cat repeated, nodding.
"I wasn't with her," Ned said softly, thinking of Ashara and frowning at himself again for his actions. "Do you recall the tourney at Harrnhall?"
Cat looked at him and this time, a small smile graced her features.
"Who could forget?" she asked. "Rhaegar bypassed his beautiful wife, Elia, to crown our dear Lyanna the Queen of Love and Beauty."
"I wish he hadn't," Ned murmured before drinking deeply of his wine and lowering himself into the seat opposite his lady-wife.
"As do we all," she offered gently, her sorrow evident in her eyes.
"I met her at the tourney," Ned confessed quietly. "Brandon asked her to dance on my behalf when I argued that she was still too high a lady for a second-son."
He watched Cat's face in the silence that followed, for she'd been present at the tourney and she hadn't been able to take her eyes off Brandon all evening,
"Ashara Dayne?" she guessed, clearly shocked.
Ned simply nodded.
"Oh," Catelyn said quietly, and he watched her face carefully cataloguing the emotions that danced there. Surprise. Approval. Shock. Realisation. Sorrow. Pity. She had heard, then.
"Honourable, you called me," he said softly. "But I dishonoured her, Cat. We were young and drunk and imagined ourselves in love after just ten days of acquaintance, and I promised her that just as soon as could be, we'd be wed."
Catelyn was speechless and Ned wondered if her fury had cooled or if she was simply holding her tongue in respect for the dead.
"You got a bastard on her," she said finally when he didn't speak any further, waiting for what he'd said to truly sink in. Often, he couldn't even believe it of himself, and so selling the story of dishonour and bastards to Robert had not been easy.
"I learned as much later," he confessed. "But by then…"
"By then Lyanna was abducted and Brandon and Lord Rickard dead trying to rescue her. And… and you were to marry me in Brandon's stead because you didn't know about the bairn…" Catelyn finished and her eyes grew wider and more sorrowful, her pity growing.
"In truth, if I'd known…" Ned sighed, wondering if he was being too honest with his poor wife. "Your betrothal to Brandon wasn't the reason I married you, Cat. Robert raised his banners, and we Starks raised ours in defence of my Father and my brother's loss, but we needed as many forces as we could get to take down the Targaryens. We had the Stormland, the North, and the Vale, but we needed the Riverlands if we were ever going to reach the Crownlands from here. It was Jon Arryn's idea that we solidify your Father's loyalty by wedding both his daughters to rebels."
"You married me for the politics," Catelyn nodded, and he was surprised that she didn't seem hurt over that.
"I did," Ned admitted. "Had I known Ashara was…"
"She is Jon's mother, then?" Cat asked, frowning into his face seriously. "He is close to the right age, I suppose…"
"It would be for the better to let the world think that was the truth of his parentage," Ned offered quietly.
"She's not his mother? You've another bastard, too?" Cat asked, some of her fury returning.
"The child she bore was a daughter," Ned told her softly, his heart twisting. "Still born."
Cat gasped, covering her mouth with her hand as her eyes filled with pity and sadness at such a fate.
"When I went to Starfall to return Arthur Dayne's sword to his family, I learned this," he told her quietly. "Somehow, Ashara had been sheltered from the news of the war. She didn't know you and I were wed until my visit."
"Oh, Ned," Cat gasped, her hand trembling over her mouth as tears trickled from the corners of her eyes to slide down her cheeks.
"Perhaps it was the news of her brother's death," he offered, nodding mournfully. "Perhaps the news of our wedding. Perhaps the sorrow of losing the bairn…"
"The gossips say she jumped," Cat whispered, more tears running down her cheeks.
"I believe she did," Ned said grimly, his voice tight with the emotion he had not allowed himself to express for the woman he'd thought to marry when he'd been young and foolish before the gods had shown them their cruelty. "We could not find her body. It's why Jon's arrival here preceded my own."
Cat nodded, a soft sob escaping her as she tried to regain her composure.
"But then… if the boy was not Ashara's…?" Cat asked. "Was there another? A woman before Ashara?"
"If I continue, you must swear to all of your Seven gods that the truth will not leave this room, Cat," Ned told her seriously. "The truth is deadly."
"More so than a dishonoured woman and thwarted young love? Than the death of bairn, and the suicide of a young and beautiful woman?"
"The truth will bring us back into war," Ned told her.
"With whom?" Cat frowned. "There is no one left who could possibly object without hypocrisy…."
Ned took a deep breath and steeled himself for the truth before forcing the words past his lips.
"He's not my son, Cat," Ned whispered so softly it was a wonder she could hear him at all. "He's our nephew."
Cat gasped, her eyes widening and for the briefest moment she looked torn, as though she didn't believe him, as though she didn't understand, as though she imagined he was making up lies to protect his reputation. If only she knew…
"Brandon would never have… I'd have seen… I…," she stammered, lost now and confused.
"Not Brandon," Ned whispered, not bothering to correct her that Brandon, too, had proved he had less honour than he ought.
Cat's eyes were liable to fall right out of her head.
"Lyanna?" she breathed. "And… by the gods! Rhaegar?"
Ned nodded slowly.
"He didn't abduct her, Cat," Ned said, his heart clenching with the raw pain of losing his sister and the war they'd waged in her name for the lie. "The six men with him that day weren't a raiding party, they were the King's Guard. He fell in love with her. Even though he was married to Elia. Lyanna had learned of Robert's bastard daughter at the Vale… she ran away with Rhaegar instead."
"Ned… no. Surely… she wouldn't?" Cat said.
"I heard it from her own mouth," Ned nodded grimly. "They fled to Old Town, where Rhaegar ordered the record keepers to annul his marriage to Elia despite their two children, before he and Lyanna were legally wed before a maester. They had no idea my Father and Brandon had ridden for King's Landing. They had no idea they'd been killed until it was too late. She thought Father would never allow her to cast her betrothal to Robert aside, especially not for a Prince already married with two heirs to his name. She thought Robert would make trouble. She went with Rhaegar willingly, and everything since has all been for nought."
Cat was shaking her head, horrified and he could see that just as he had when he'd learned the truth, she was sick to her stomach with the knowledge.
"It was all a lie…." Cat breathed. "She… they…"
Ned nodded and another sob tore from her throat before she covered her mouth, trying to reign in her grief. Just as he had fallen for Ashara, Catelyn Tully had loved his brother, Brandon Stark. To learn she'd been robbed of him for Lyanna and Rhaegar's foolishness and selfishness was no easier for her than it had been for Ned.
"The boy…?" she asked when finally, she reigned in her emotions.
"Their heir. A prince. Aegon Targaryen, sixth of his name," Ned breathed, almost not daring to utter the words aloud. "The trueborn heir of Prince Rhaegar Targaryen and Princess Lyanna Stark."
"He's not a bastard at all," Cat concluded, looking toward the crib where the boys slept on, oblivious to the horrific circumstances that had led to their birth.
"No," Ned agreed quietly, sighing heavily as he looked toward his son and his nephew as well. "But all the world… Robert… must believe he is."
"But Ned… your honour…"
"Had Ashara's bairn lived, it would be the truth, Cat," he allowed quietly. "And there might have been a daughter waiting here for you when you returned, as well."
"But she did not," Cat frowned at him. "Robert would not slaughter an innocent boy…"
"Robert allowed Ser Gregor Clegane to rape and murder Elia Martell, and to split who two young bairns in two with his sword, Cat," Ned told her, revealing another horror of the war. "Robert would slaughter the son Rhaegar got on Lyanna, even know he was half Lyanna. Because he is half Lyanna, I daresay."
"You mean to let the world believe the lie, then?" she asked, frowning at him.
"It is the only way to protect him. You called me honourable, Cat, and loyal, too. I swore on my life and the lives of Brandon and my Father and Lyanna's life that I would protect her boy while she bled to death in the birthing bed. Let me by loyal to that vow, even if it must besmirch my honour."
Cat nodded slowly, though her lower lip trembled and more tears trickled down her cheeks.
"Family, duty, honour," she whispered the words of House Tully.
Ned smiled sadly, knowing in his heart hat Catelyn had been taught all her life that family came before all, and the boy was family. With both his parents dead, it was the duty of family to care for him in their stead, and Ned would do his duty, even if it might devalue his honour.