Thank you to everyone who has read and reviewed this story, it means a lot. Thank you again! Apologies for the late update, but Christmas and New Year, and all its attendant disruptions, fell between the last chapter and this one. This is the last chapter, so again, thank you for reading, reviewing, favouriting and following. It's been great fun to write.
Chapter Fourteen: Something Like Happiness
Maybe it wasn't the right time. Maybe there never would be a right time. But not so long ago, Ned would have said the same of a lot of things. So, he reasoned, he might as well get it over and done with. Then, they could rebuild and incorporate the truth into their own defences. Never again could uncertainties be used against them like that. He paused outside the main door of the Castle, allowing Jon to catch him up after becoming separated by a gaggle of passing servants. Because despite the shattering revelations, life in the castle continued uninterrupted and sweetly oblivious to what had occurred.
"What is it you want to show me?" asked Jon, as soon as he was back by Ned's side.
For the moment, he didn't wish to say anything. "Just follow me."
Seemingly accustomed to the all new levels of crypticism, Jon said no more and merely followed Ned. Occasionally, he had to jog to keep apace with him and almost ran into him when he stopped to talk to Maester Luwin out in the courtyard. Ned had to put out his hand to prevent the collision.
"Maester, send Robb down to the crypts in a half-hour," he instructed Luwin. "Alone."
Emphasising the word 'alone' to indicate that he didn't mean 'alone except for Theon Greyjoy' Luwin's chain of many metals clanked as he nodded his head and turned off towards the yard where Robb was still in training with Ser Rodrick. Meanwhile, Jon looked up Ned, troubled.
"You're telling Robb?"
Still, Ned was reluctant to talk outdoors. He headed towards the crypts, where Jon had not long come from. Only once inside again, with the entrance barred – even Robb would have to knock and wait for admittance – did Ned finally feel able to talk. Inside, it was as Jon left it. The torches still burned from the brackets set around Lyanna's tomb, lighting up her stone, moss-freckled face. Ned paused before her, studying her intently for several long moments before reaching up with his right hand to feel down the length of her statue.
All the while, Jon watched as though transfixed by the strange ritual. His dark eyes darted between Ned and Lyanna's tomb, as if there was an actual exchange occurring between them. He didn't dare speak, as though the sound of his voice might break some spell between brother and long-dead sister. Ned was oblivious to Jon's curious look and continued searching the length of the statue, until he reached her feet. It was only then that it became clear that he was in fact searching for something in particular. Under any other circumstances, Ned would have congratulated himself on doing such a thorough job of hiding the item to the point where even he had forgotten exactly how to access it. But, soon, the brick worked loose. It was below the platform on which her likeness was fixed. Then, even that only gave way onto a dark emptiness strewn with ancient cobwebs.
Jon knelt down beside Ned, squinting to get a look inside but couldn't make anything out. After instructed Jon to fetch one of the torches to light the compartment, Ned produced the hunting knife he wore at his belt. Then, he prised up a false floor that creaked as stone rubbed against stone as it was lifted out completely. Jon could see something, then. Something wrapped in cloth that was now dirty and worn with age.
Carefully, Ned unwrapped the cloth. It was an old swaddling cloth was meant to be used on a baby – probably Robb, given how long it had been there. Eventually, a nondescript tin box appeared from beneath the fabric. Battered and tarnished, it didn't look like much. But once it was in his hands, Ned cradled it as though it were a newborn infant – carefully, preciously.
"Put that back," he instructed Jon, nodding towards the burning torch he still held. "Before you burn yourself."
Jon's boots scuffed against the stone floor as he hurriedly scrambled back to his feet to replace the torch. An intense curiosity had begun to consume him, and he flopped back down next to his father that he almost landed square in his lap.
"Is it my mother's?" he asked.
Ned raised a pained smile as he picked at the lock on the box with one of Catelyn's hairpins. Unsurprisingly after so many years, it put up some resistance meaning Ned had to jab the sharp point in and twist to warp it out of shape and fit the mechanism. After several sharp twists of the pin, it gave way and opened to release a gust of musty earth and ancient dust. Jon was almost disappointed when Ned produced nothing more than a sheet of parchment from inside.
"Before you went to clear your head," Ned began, skating diplomatically over Jon's fleeing the room. "I tried to explain something. That when I found your mother in the Tower of Joy, she was under the protection of the King's Guard."
They had all been killed, that was all Jon knew. "Is that significant?"
"Of course," he replied, handing the parchment over to Jon. "Not even Lady Stark has been told this yet, but she will be. Look at it."
Jon looked down at the document, bearing the date of a marriage ceremony between Lyanna Stark and Rheagar Targaryen.
"But, Princess Elia?" he asked, despite knowing full well the Targaryens practised polygamy. Instantly, he dropped the document as though it had burned him. "I don't care what their practises were; it's not valid."
Ned only kept it because Jon, one day, would need the truth. It was up to him what he did with it after that. Out of everything they had, this was the most dangerous. Sharper than every sword in the Mikken's Forge and twice as deadly. But Jon needed to know who he really was; whether he accepted it or not.
"Then burn it and no one will ever know and no one will ever find out," Ned suggested. "But not right now. Wait and see how you feel."
"I will burn it," replied Jon, adamantly. "Then I'll burn the ash it leaves."
While he spoke, Ned reached back into the tin box and withdrew an item that caught and splintered the light. Jon fell silent again as it caught his eye, and sucked in a deep breath as Ned deposited the item in the palm of his outstretched hand. It was a silver locket embossed with the three headed dragon of the Targaryens. The words "Fire and Blood" were engraved on the front, with tiny rubies picking out the letters. Several of them were missing. Jon trembled as he held it in his palm, his breath shuddering in his chest as he tried to steady his breathing.
"Open it," Ned urged him gently.
He did so, struggling with the tiny clasp that held the two halves together. Inside were two miniature, finely detailed portraits. One showed a man in his middle twenties with silver hair and lilac eyes, but mostly he was obscured by a lock of raven dark hair tied with a blue silk ribbon pressed beneath the glass. Opposite him was Lyanna's likeness. Pale skinned, dark-eyed just like Jon, with her hair loose about her shoulders. She held a tiny blue rose delicately between long, tapering fingers.
"She was beautiful," he stated, shakily.
Jon went to hand it back, but Ned gently pushed his hand away. "It's yours now, but keep it hidden. Don't show it to a soul. I took it from Rhaegar's body after he fell at the trident. See where the rubies have fallen out the front."
Flushed with something like happiness, Jon glanced over the portraits once more before closing the locket and slipping it into his pocket for safe keeping. Even then, he let one hand hover protectively over the bulge where it lay beneath the fabric. "I'll keep it safe, I swear."
Ned smiled. The day had been long and fraught with emotion, but he held out hope of ending it on a cautiously optimistic note at the very least. Gently, he reached out and brushed loose strands of hair from Jon's face.
"They weren't bad people, you know?" he spoke so softly that not even an echo sounded down the old, cavernous chambers. "They were beautiful human beings, frail and flawed to a fault. Just like the rest of us. Over time, once it's all settled down again, it's only natural you'll be curious about them and what they were like. Both of them."
Already, he could sense that Jon had accepted that; even if he had not consciously acknowledged it.
"I know that now," Jon replied, glancing upwards to meet his father's gaze again. "But you raised me-"
"And you'll always be a son to me. No one can ever change that." Ned didn't mean to cut over Jon in such a way, but it was of utmost importance that he was reassured of his place in their home, at their hearth, as well as in their hearts. "Your place is at Winterfell."
Ned had heard of Jon's desire to join the Night's Watch and inwardly chided himself for discreetly trying to talk him out of it. But it was no lie; he needed Jon here at Winterfell – sworn to Robb and helping defend the North: together. But when Jon looked at him, brow knitted as he squinted through the poor light, he once more looked small and lost.
"I wish I was your son, in blood I mean," he said, plaintively.
Ned put an arm around his narrow shoulders, pulling him in tight. "You are my blood, Jon. Lyanna's blood is mine; you are hers. You're a Stark to the core and you'll take our name now. Lady Stark has agreed and I would have done it years ago."
He did not blame Catelyn for being so hurt while he forced her to live the greatest lie. But it had been necessary, until the truth came out.
"Won't people ask questions about her sudden change of heart?" he asked.
"Of course. We'll keep up the pretence that your mother was Wylla the wet nurse. The abduction shook Catelyn so much that she has agreed to prevent any further attempts on your life by giving you the Stark name. Things like that – what happened to you I mean – they change people."
It was as good as they would ever get.
"It's still a huge burden to carry alone," Ned added. "And you don't need to carry it alone. Help is all around here."
"But I can't tell anyone, ever."
Ned tightened his grip on the boy, just as a resounding knock came to the door of the crypt. Both of them having quite forgotten that Robb had already been summoned, jumped out of their skin.
"Who would you trust with your life, beside me?" asked Ned.
The knock came again.
"Father? It's freezing, let me in!"
"Robb!" said Jon, springing to his feet.
"Robb," repeated Ned, letting him run to the door. "Your brother will always have your back."
At first, Catelyn put the sickness down to the turmoil of the last few weeks. She ignored it as best she could, then carried on her daily routine. Days rolled past, gathering momentum as they built up into weeks. She busied herself with organising a dinner to celebrate Jon's legitimisation; a dinner that came and went with as much success as she could have hoped for. But really, it was just the family. The girls and their attendants. The boys and the Maester and Septa Mordane. After the dinner, before the sweet dishes were served, she kissed Jon's cheek in public for the first time. A gesture he returned with ease. A gesture that won her maddening looks of sympathy and, later, heartfelt words of encouragement for her wonderfully forgiving nature. They could never know the truth, of course, but nor could she keep up the pretence of animosity towards her nephew. But still, she carefully cultivated an air of separation between them when in public. Privately, at night when they were alone, they were making tentative steps towards civil conversation.
But still, the sickness continued even as normal life resumed. Then, she was late and her breasts began to ache. She didn't really need Maester Luwin to tell her what the real problem was. But still, she lay back on the bed and endured his examinations all the same. Afterwards, he looked down at her and smiled.
"The problem is one of two things, my lady," he said, gravely. "A boy or a girl."
He made that little jest every time he confirmed one of her pregnancies. She still found it funny and grinned from ear to ear as the news was confirmed. With four children already born to her, she scarcely turned a hair at the possible complications and was soon gathering herself to continue going about her business as usual.
"I'll take it easy later," she assured a fretting Maester Luwin as she swept from her chambers. "I promise!"
Ned was exactly where she thought he would be. Standing on the balcony, watching over the boys as they practised their swordplay. Soon enough, they would be wielding proper steel blades, rather than the wooden affairs they sparred with currently. But that was a worry for the future, too. Right now, only today mattered. Wrapping her fur cloak tighter around her shoulders, she came to a halt at Ned's side and felt his arms snaking gently around her waist. With a smile, he turned to her and kissed her cheek.
"How are they?" she asked, resting her face against his broad chest. Beneath his furs, she could hear that ever reassuring heartbeat.
"They're coming on good," he replied, full of hope. "They'll all be warriors, one day."
She watched, without really paying attention, as Robb and Jon fought together; unable to tell who was winning. Still, out of Tully pride, she silently rooted for Robb. Above her, Ned called out instructions to each of them in turn, encouraging them equally. However, a break was called in proceedings and Ned's attention was once more on her.
"We got a Raven from the Vale," said Ned as he walked her the length of the balustrade. "A delegation of Boltons went to fetch Lord Domeric, as planned, to bring him back to the Dreadfort. Even the bastard, Ramsay, went down there to get him. But Domeric died en route. Some say it was rather suspicious."
A brisk wind swept down from the North, chilling them both as Ned spoke. Shocked at the news, Catelyn craned her neck to see into Ned's face.
"That's awful news," she stated, brow creasing into a frown. "What will happen to the Dreadfort now?"
Ned shrugged. "The bastard gets it, I suppose. I don't know of anyone else."
"He can't inherit, Ned," she retorted. "Anyway, Robb didn't like that boy at all. Said he was very strange."
She added that as though it made any difference.
"Sadly, Robb's personal opinion doesn't come into it."
"More's the pity," replied Catelyn. "But never mind that, I have better news for you."
Ned paused after stepping in front of her. "Really?" he asked, wrapping both arms around her waist. "Which is...?"
"I am with child again."
It took a second for her news to register with him. But when it did, he beamed brightly before kissing her full on the lips. Laughing, kissing her and laughing at the same time, he swept her up off her feet and spun her round, making her skirts swirl on the slipstream.
"She must be having another baby." Robb observed as he looked up at Cat and Ned, still clinched in each other's arms on the balustrade.
Jon paused during the clear up and glanced over his shoulder.
"Because that's the only time they ever kiss each other, right?" he asked, sarcasm dripping from his tone as he turned back to Robb.
"Like that?" he cocked one eyebrow. "Anyway, hurry up and come with me to the godswood."
It had been over a week since Robb had been entrusted with the truth. Sometimes, Jon wondered whether he even understood it; whether Robb appreciated just how lethal the situation was. Because outwardly, it changed nothing. Robb carried on as though it was hardly of any consequence. 'You're my brother, that's all I know and care about,' he repeated whenever Jon attempted to raise the issue again.
But a sojourn to the godswood, where Theon would not bother them, sounded ominous. Jon hurried with packing away their sparring swords and followed him into their sacred space of the weirwood tree. It was always peaceful in there; tranquillity enforced by the silent, placid surface of the lake and silent, sombre heart tree whose leaves of ruby shone against the frozen backdrop of the North. Here, the old gods held vigil and the heart of the earth beat to a rhythm of its own. It was here that Jon felt most at home; like he was part of something far greater than any of them.
Robb spread out his cloak beneath the broad boughs of the heart tree, beside the lake. Once they were both sat down, they remained silent for at least a minute, ensuring no one else was around.
"How're you feeling now?" asked Robb, at length.
Jon raised a pained smile. It still felt unreal; like it was all happening to someone else or in a dream. But his emotions had settled. Often, at night before sleeping, he took the silver locket out from under his pillow and whispered a silent 'good night' to his mother. The night before, he directed the same sentiment to his birth father. His eye lingered over the place where the rubies had fallen from the front of the locket and felt a sharp, brief pang of grief for the father he would never know. Those empty spaces represented a narrative cut short; glory cut down in its prime and a space where the story lost its voice – all wrapped in one. Perhaps, one day, the world would know the truth about Rhaegar Targaryen, but Jon still did not feel like it was his story to tell. But still, he kept the marriage certificate. It was back in Lyanna's tomb for safe keeping.
"I'm happy now," he finally answered Robb's question.
A small smile spread across his face as he recalled that locket, still stashed beneath his pillow. He could recall ever detail of his mother's painted face. But Robb looked painfully serious as he met Jon's gaze.
"When father dies, I will need you here with me," he said, a tremor in his voice. Jon had never heard him sound so vulnerable before. "You will be useless to me, on the Wall. You belong here."
"I know that," replied Jon. He had already made up his mind. "My sword is yours, Robb. Always."
There, in the godswood, they joined hands and grasped each other tightly. Jon's smile grew more confident as he added:
"From this day, to my last."
Thank you once more to everyone who has read and reviewed this story. It really means a lot. Any final comments would be very welcome.
A few people have been in touch, asking whether I will be writing for this fandom again. I will, but I don't yet know what. It's either going to be a sequel to this, or an alternative to this where Lyanna is actually alive somewhere. Which would be pure wish fulfilment, but still something I'd be keen to try and get away with. Anyway, whatever's next, I will be back. Thank you!