Catelyn had a peculiar relationship with promises.
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Promises were always important to Catelyn, even as a young girl. She supposed it was something her mother engendered in her. Her mother often made Catelyn make promises to her before her death.
Promise me that you'll protect your brother and sister.
Promise me that you'll be the best lady you can be.
Promise me you'll smile more.
She would swear each promise to her mother, promising even as the life left her mother's body to assuage the woman's pain. She held Lysa and Edmure in her arms that night as the younger girl wept loud and high-pitched and the younger boy shook violently in her arms with the effort of not crying just as loud as Lysa was. She vowed she would protect her siblings as best she could. She wasn't sure if she was succeeding in that even now but they were still alive, not for lack of trying on their part, so that was something.
She had always been the epitome of a lady, just as her mother asked. She remembered all her courtesies and smiled just enough not to be indecent but also just enough to be seen as kind, genial and nonthreatening. She was a good hostess when her father had guests and was subservient to the needs of others around her. She held on to her virtue and tempted men enough to be coy and interesting but not enough to be viewed a harlot.
She had only forgotten herself once but her mother had never met Brandon Stark so she could not know just how tempting he was. He had not stolen her virtue but he had done things to her only a husband should've. But he was supposed to be her husband. They were promised to one another, a promise neither intended to break, and then the Mad King broke it for them.
Catelyn tried to smile. She honestly did. It was not so easy at first but Petyr made her smile with his wit and friendship. Brandon made her smile with his charm and flirtatiousness. Edmure made her smile with his bumbling nature and clumsiness. Lysa's wistful dreams of princes and knights to save her and carry her away made Catelyn smile in amusement. When she became a mother, her children made her smile and though it took time, Ned made her smile. Oh, he made her smile and laugh and cry in happiness and feel things she thought she would never feel in her life. They had not always loved each other and it was not an immediate attraction like it was with Brandon. Their marriage was born of duty after all, not love, but eventually love did grow.
But their love had a shadow, it always had a shadow. First, Brandon was that shadow for Catelyn. She could not help but compare Ned to his older brother and find him lacking in every way but for his sullen, subdued nature compared to Brandon's liveliness and mischief. Later, after she had Robb and found herself eagerly waiting for her husband to return home, that shadow morphed into his bastard son. Jon Snow.
Gods, Catelyn had hated the child the moment she laid eyes on him. The way his grey eyes were so much like Ned's as opposed to Robb's blue eyes. The way his darker hair was like Ned's opposed to Robb's brown-red locks. The way Ned held the babe with such care, like he was the most precious thing in the world. The way the babe seemed to not calm in those first few weeks in Winterfell but for if Ned was with him and so Ned would be with his bastard, leaving Catelyn alone with their trueborn son. She hated the way Robb was so attached to the bastard even as infants. She hated that Ned's bastard was the first to walk, the first to talk, and Robb followed behind the bastard everywhere instead of the other way around.
As he grew older, the bastard learned to separate himself more from her and she was glad of it. She could not force him away as Ned would not have it, and she could not separate her children from him bar locking them away so there was nothing she could do when Sansa was born and then there were two of her children following behind the bastard. Sansa would eventually lose interest in the boy but Catelyn could still see some longing gazes from her eldest daughter to join the boys sometimes, especially after Arya was born and she clung to the bastard almost the second she was out of the womb.
Catelyn could not understand her second daughter as she did Sansa, even as a babe. She could never calm the child, couldn't stop her banshee cries. Old Nan couldn't handle her, Septa Mordane couldn't either. Ned handled the girl much better but he could not always be around, especially once the Greyjoy Rebellion needed to be tamped down. Robb actively avoided the baby when he could, not wanting to deal with her cries and Sansa would try to absorb all of Catelyn's attentions from the babe in the way children did sometimes when they thought they weren't getting enough attention from their parents and grew jealous of new additions to the family. Catelyn did not know the bastard's stance on her newest child until she caught him in Arya's room one night, singing to her daughter who cooed quietly for once. Arya had never been so quiet before and though a part of Catelyn wished to send the boy away from the room, she left them to it. She said nothing about it when she would peer out of her bedroom door at night and see him sneaking to the nursery, especially when she fell pregnant with Bran shortly after Arya and the stress of caring for a baby and carrying another was becoming too much. She should be ashamed to leave her daughter in the bastard's care but she was too tired to care.
Bran was a bit calmer than Arya was but was just as likely to go running off when it suited him. She was certain he ran before he walked. It reminded her painfully of Brandon and she was certain her son was aptly named.
All her children, save Sansa, seemed to accept the bastard as one of their own just as they accepted the Greyjoy boy. They were nuisances to Catelyn, taking up space in her home. She would pray, so many times, she prayed for them to just go away or die. Hells, she'd take the Greyjoy boy over the bastard any day. Just take the boy away from her, banish him from sight and mind.
When he fell ill with the pox, she was dumbstruck. She hadn't actually thought…
Ned was away and wouldn't reach Winterfell for another month besides. The children, even Sansa, were beside themselves with worry over their half-brother's state. Arya kept trying to get into his room only to be stopped by the guards for fear she'd fall ill too and she would throw tantrums and scream and fight when she was barred entry. Bran was quiet and subdued in a way he never was, quietly following after Maester Luwin and inquiring as to Jon's health multiple times a day with fear of what the answer would be in his eyes. Robb tried to look strong but Catelyn could tell he was terrified of losing his brother, they had been together almost since birth after all, always sticking by one another's side. It was just them once upon a time. She knew there was a part of her son that belonged entirely to the bastard. Sansa could be found often in the godswood or the sept praying tirelessly to the Old Gods and the New for her half-brother's survival. She could not know that it was her own mother's prayers that caused this. Even Theon seemed to be worried as he would hover by Snow's room inquiring about his health and leave in a bad mood when he learned it hadn't improved any.
Catelyn found herself pacing she and Ned's chambers. She knew that Ned loved the boy as much as their own children. If he knew what she had done…
Luwin worked day in and day out with the boy, updating her regularly on his condition which did not seem to be getting any better. Catelyn would stand outside his door sometimes, watching him shiver under his furs, his skin paler than normal, his dark hair matted to his forehead and she felt a pang in her chest. He seemed so small in this bed among the furs and pillows. He was a boy of one and ten but he was always small for his years, he looked like Bran's age in the sorry state he was in now.
She had done this. She had done this to this poor child. She condemned him to death.
Luwin would see her standing by the door, her eyes filled with guilt, and would say nothing to her. She felt his silence was judgement enough. She retreated to her chamber, wondering what she could do. How could she fix this? She remembered once when Edmure had fallen ill, their mother had made him a prayer wheel and prayed and bargained all night with the Gods.
'Mother, smile on my boy and let him live. Warrior, give him strength to defeat this darkness. Take me instead, Stranger, but let my son live. Please, take me instead.' Her brother would live and her mother would die two months hence.
Catelyn glanced at the sept from the window of her chambers. Her prayers had wrought this, her prayers must undo it. She made her way to the sept that night and prayed long and hard.
"Mother, Father, Warrior, Smith, Crone, Maiden, Stranger, please hear me now as you heard me before. I'm a wretched woman, I know that, I have not always been as pious as I should. I've used you all to wrought destruction on my own family. I was selfish and foolish but don't punish the boy for that. Let him live. Don't take him away. Spare my children and husband the pain of his death, I beg you. You've seen fit to breathe life into him, do not kill him because of me, on the words of one wretched woman. I will do anything you wish. I will… I will care for the child, I will love him, I will give him our name, I will be a mother to him, I promise this. Just let him live, please. Let Jon Snow live. Let him live." She said, repeating it until her voice became hoarse with the repetition of promises and pleas.
Eventually, she decided to make her way to Jon Snow's room and pushed the door open. She stared at him shivering and moaning in pain for a moment before moving to sit at his bedside, dabbing his sweaty forehead lightly with the cloth next to his bed. She held his small, shaking hand for a moment and prayed again to the Gods to let him live before she set to making the prayer wheel only a mother could make, the same one her mother had made for Edmure all those years ago.
Catelyn had made a promise to the Gods and promises had always been important to her.
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She was walking in the courtyard, Bran and Arya on each side of her as she surveyed the men working on breastplates. She looked down at the children as they suddenly gasped and then ripped themselves from her, running off to the left. She turned and her breath caught as she saw Jon Snow walking gingerly into the courtyard, Robb, Theon and Maester Luwin close by should he fall which he nearly did when the two young children barreled into his legs. Theon had to quickly step behind the boy to stop him tumbling down. Catelyn hurried over, her feet almost not her own.
"Careful, he's still weak." She said, pulling the children away from him. The boy glanced up at her sheepishly and tiredly. She had been in the room when he woke up bleary eyed and half-delirious, his fever having broken in the night while Catelyn dozed next to him. She was quick to call Maester Luwin for him and she had then not seen the boy in two days, though she left her prayer wheel hanging on his bed.
"You look better." She said kindly. It was a tone she never used with him but it was hard to look at him, still pale and obviously weak-limbed because of her hatred and not feel remorse. Besides, she made a promise.
He looked at her with bewilderment.
"I am, My Lady." He said simply, though it was clear he was not fully healed.
"He wanted to get up, even though I told him he needed to rest. He wanted to thank you, Lady Stark." Maester Luwin explained. Catelyn looked at the boy curiously as his cheeks went red, making him look feverish all over again.
"I remember bits and pieces of my sickness but I remember you sitting by my bedside, tending to me and praying for me. I thank you for your kindness and prayers, Lady Stark." The boy said timidly. She stared down at the boy who shuffled nervously. She was certain that was more words than he'd spoken to her in her whole life and previously that made her happy but the boy now lived, the Gods held up their side of things and she had to hold up hers. Over the boy's shoulder, Robb was gazing at her hopefully. He always hated the distance between his mother and brother. He would sometimes try to bridge the gap to no avail.
"You're welcome… Jon." All the children and Luwin looked at her with surprise. She'd never called him by his name before. It was always either 'bastard' or 'boy' or 'you' the few times she did speak to him. The boy gave her a tremulously smile before looking down and stumbling back weakly. Catelyn instinctively reached forward just as Theon grabbed his back and the two steadied him so he didn't fall.
"That's enough excitement, back to bed with you. I'll have Old Nan make you the onion soup you like." Catelyn continued, nodding at Luwin to take the boy. The Maester nodded in response and ushered Jon off with him, Theon staying close to help Jon walk. Robb stayed back for a moment more.
"I saw the prayer wheel, the mother's prayer wheel." Her son pointed out. Catelyn raised an expectant eyebrow but Robb just shrugged and then smiled, running off after Jon, Theon and Luwin. Arya and Bran were right behind him and Catelyn could see Sansa standing almost hidden in the corridor of the castle's entrance before she followed the entourage to the bas… to Jon's room. Catelyn sighed to herself.
You may as well get used to using his name, you made a promise. She reminded herself.
She kept her promises.
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Jon was kept on bedrest for three more days to help him regain his strength and more times than not the children could be found in the room with him. Catelyn would walk past and see them all piled on the bed. Jon looked even smaller surrounded by four children, five if Theon joined them. He was not an overly tall child, just a few inches shorter than Robb, but coming down from the pox seemed to make him look smaller in her eyes for some reason. The children would notice her standing there but she would just smile and nod at them all before moving on. She had not had a conversation alone with Jon since his sickness and she supposed she was nervous about it to say the least.
It was the most unlikely place that she found herself having a conversation with him finally. She had been walking past the stables when she noticed him there, standing on a stool slowly brushing his horse down. His movements were slow and deliberate but she did not think it was for the horse's benefit. He was sweating and seemed to have to concentrate as he stood on his tiptoes to reach between the horse's eyes. Catelyn felt anger rise in her suddenly.
"What are you doing?" She demanded, storming into the stables. Jon looked at her frightened, falling back off the stool in his surprise. Catelyn sighed to herself and moved around the horse to stare at the boy on the floor among the straw. Thankfully for him, the stables had been mucked out already. She held out a hand to the boy but he stared at it uncomprehendingly. Catelyn sighed again before reaching down and pulling the boy up. She was distantly concerned about how light he felt for a boy of one and ten but supposed he would regain his strength soon enough.
"You're not supposed to be out of bed." Catelyn pointed out as she pulled straw out of his hair and brushed off his back. Jon looked up at her with wide, guileless eyes at her care. She gave him an expectant look, the kind she would give Arya when she found the girl covered in mud when she was supposed to be with Septa Mordane learning her courtesies or to Bran when she caught him climbing the walls of the keep or Robb when he got into some mischief with Theon or Sansa when she was acting cruelly and unladylike with her friend Jeyne Poole. It didn't seem lost on Jon Snow now as he shifted from one foot to the other.
"I… Maester Luwin said it would be good to stretch my legs."
"This does not look like stretching your legs." She replied harshly.
"I just… I missed Frost is all. I wanted to make sure she was cared for." Catelyn glanced at Jon's brown and white mare before looking back to the boy. He seemed frightened. It occurred to her that she probably frightened him, she hadn't given him any reason not to be. Not yet.
"You're still too weak for such strenuous an activity." Her voice softening. Rather than seem sheepish, his back straightened at that.
"I'm recovering more every day. I won't know what I can do if I don't try." His voice seemed strong in his conviction. It reminded her of Ned when he had made up his mind. It made her feel cold and a lance of hate went through her but she tamped it down,
I made a promise.
She surveyed the boy for a moment more. No matter what he said, he seemed ready to fall over. She would not allow him to die of exhaustion and have her prayers go to waste.
"How about this? You sit down and I'll groom your horse. You can talk me through it and make sure I do it to your satisfaction. Is that agreeable?" He seemed gobsmacked at the offer but after a moment he nodded. Catelyn moved the stool so he was across from her and Frost and made sure he sat before taking the brush and tending to the horse. He gave her tips periodically throughout the job but mostly they were silent. It was an awkward silence in the beginning but eventually it ebbed its way to comfortable or at least tolerable.
"Do you have any other duties you're insistent upon tending to?" She asked once the horse was watered and fed. Jon seemed to think of it before shaking his head.
"Good, then you can wash up and then join the children and I for midday meal." He looked surprised but didn't question her. He got up from the stool on steadier feet than he sat with and walked away from her.
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Jon Snow would break his fast, take midday meals and dinners with the family from there on out. He would before when Ned was there, but when he wasn't he would not impose on Catelyn but since she had invited him, he came and the children seemed happy to have him there, even Sansa.
Catelyn would still accompany him to tend to Frost, even after he had all but regained his strength. She still made sure Luwin checked his health beyond what was probably expected of by a lady towards her husband's bastard. Her prayer wheel still hung from Jon's bed and should Catelyn have a moment of weakness and feel that hatred rise in her: when Jon reminded her too much of Ned, when she stared at him and saw the parts that weren't her husband and so must be Jon Snow's mother, when she saw the looks of pity she still got whenever she and Jon Snow crossed paths (which was much more frequently given her efforts towards her promise), Catelyn would simply look to the sept and remember the promises she made.
For his part, Jon Snow seemed more confused about this turnaround than anything else but did not reject her attentions. Once he was strong, he refused to have her do things for him just as he refused anyone else to. Robb complained to his mother more than once that Jon would not let him help him but Catelyn just reminded her son that he was the same way when he got sick. Jon had his pride, Catelyn supposed, and did not like to be waited on like an invalid. She could respect that. Instead when they tended Frost together, they spoke to one another, actually spoke.
She could not say who the first was to initiate conversation but she thought it might've been her. She might've asked about a book she saw him reading, one about the Age of Heroes, and they had a long conversation about it. About knights and ladies and women warriors that was longer than she expected it to be and spanned the course of days. It saw them walking across the courtyard side by side, heedless of the stares they got from servants who knew what the Lady of Winterfell's usual countenance towards her husband's second son was and was shocked to see her so genial.
But Catelyn listened. She listened to Jon retell and embellish tales of Bran the Builder and his construction of Winterfell and the Wall, Durran and Elenei's forbidden love, Lann the Clever finagling Casterly Rock from the Casterlys, Garth Greenhand with his flower crown making the land of the Reach bloom. Jon had a particular interest in Symeon Star Eyes, the blind knight. She listened to him wax poetic of what little he knew of the man's deeds which turned to waxing of Aemon the Dragonknight, Duncan the Tall, Davos the Dragonslayer and many more.
"I wanted to be a warrior once." Catelyn found herself admitting as the boy was talking about his admiration for Wenda the White Fawn. He didn't want to be an outlaw but he liked the stories and songs about her.
"You did?" He asked, sounding utterly shocked.
"I did. I dreamed of wielding a sword and wearing armor. I thought I would run off to Braavos with my friend Petyr and live my life by the sword. It was a childish fancy made when I was younger than you are now, it quickly passed." Her mother made her promise to be the best lady she could be. Ladies were not warriors.
"Oh. I think you could've done it." Jon said after a moment. Catelyn gave him an amused smile.
"You think so, do you?"
"Yes, you're a strong woman. If you don't mind my saying so, Lady Stark."
"No, I don't mind at all. You're a strong lad yourself." He smiled up at her at that. He never smiled like that at her, it was always small and wane and barely there. It was usually born out of nervousness but this was not a nervous smile, it was happy one, a pleased one. She was not quite sure what to do with it.
"Thank you." He replied with sincerity.
"Jon! Come play with us!" Robb shouted from across the yard, standing a ways away with Theon. Jon looked to her for permission and she nodded him off, watching him run to the boys. She was certain she saw Arya peeking around the corner there but she decided to leave her daughter to it.
Catelyn was in a good mood. No need to spoil it.
Catelyn found that with the frequency of their conversations, the easier it became spending time with Jon. The unexplained rage and hatred would come less and less and when it did come she was quick to tamp it down before he could see.
'I made a promise.' She would repeat to herself like a mantra until the feeling abated.
Affection and fondness grew slowly over their conversations throughout the months following his illness but she did not fight it, allowing it to come naturally and freely into her body.
Others noticed of course. Robb and Arya were both gleeful that their mother and brother were getting along, Bran was too young to really have much input but even he noticed the difference and had noted to her that he was happy she was being nice to Jon. She had been spotting Sansa with Jon and the others more and more lately. Catelyn could remember a time when Sansa would look on Jon the way Arya did, with unadulterated love and admiration. He was the knight in all of her stories come to life and he usually played the hero in their games of make believe, saving Sansa. Catelyn supposed it was her influence that had driven a wedge between the two.
Her mind moved to Lysa then. Lysa who always looked so angry at Catelyn when she and Jon Arryn would visit Winterfell or if Catelyn found herself in the Vale. Catelyn knew not what she had done to earn her sister's scorn and dislike but she longed for the days where they were much closer and stuck by each other's side.
"Are you okay, Lady Stark?" Jon asked with concern beside her. She looked over at him, snapping herself from her reverie. She along with the children had gone to the Godswood to relax. Catelyn always felt out of place and awkward here. She followed the Seven but she felt something undeniably present in this place. She knew there was something there and she wasn't sure it liked her being there, she being a Southerner and a follower of the Seven but the children loved it and they frolicked in the grass by the weirwood tree, Robb chasing after Sansa with a frog while Bran and Arya play fought with sticks. Jon was still watching her with concern, his eyes flickering to her fingers which held her stitching. She hadn't noticed she pricked one.
"I'm just fine. I was thinking is all." She replied, sucking the blood from her fingertip. Jon looked conflicted before sitting on the log beside her.
"Do you need someone to talk to? Usually you'd talk to Father... Lord Stark but since he's not here—"
"You don't have to call him Lord Stark. He's your father, his blood run's through your veins. I've never denied that. As for me… Catelyn will do." She assured him. She promised to be his mother but she could not hear him call her that, not yet anyway. It had only been a few months. She'd work her way there.
"La… Catelyn. Is something concerning you?" Jon noted. He was an observant boy, Catelyn came to realize. He wasn't talkative for the most part, at least not in large groups but he noticed things that most people either didn't or did not care to vocalize.
"I was just thinking of Ned. Wondering if he is well." She said, not wishing to get into her family's issues with the boy though she had the distinct feeling that he would understand.
"He is." Jon replied confidently.
"How do you know?" Catelyn asked curiously. He seemed so sure. Jon shrugged uncertainly now.
"I just… I feel it. If he were not, I would know I think." Catelyn decided to just accept that answer.
"Good. I hope you are right." She was about to say more when she noticed that Bran and Arya had turned their attentions to the weirwood and were now trying to climb it. Before she could open her mouth to shout them down, Jon hopped up.
"I will get them, Catelyn." He assured her, running off to retrieve her squirrel children. Catelyn leaned back against the log. With Jon now included in these moments with her children it certainly took some strain from her, especially with Ned gone. Robb was a wonderful big brother but Arya and Bran were another ballgame, requiring constant supervision and often Sansa would try to absorb all of Robb's attentions but the younger children were more prone to listening to Jon anyway. Catelyn didn't mind it. Not anymore.
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Ned returned soon after that. Catelyn lined the family up in the courtyard and when Jon went to stand in the back with Hodor and Theon, Catelyn nodded him forward to stand between Robb and Sansa. He was startled at the implication but complied. A part of Catelyn was bracing herself for what Ned may bring with him from his journey to the Wall. Previous times, he'd brought Jon and then Theon. However, Ned rode through the gates flanked only by Ser Jory and the rest of his entourage, though it was a smaller force than he'd left with. He smiled a little at Catelyn as he dismounted before greeting her with a soft kiss on the cheek.
"My lady." He said affectionately. Catelyn felt that stirring in her chest at his tone, the one she'd grown to enjoy being married to Ned.
"My lord." She watched Ned greet the children, ruffling Bran's hair, stroking Arya and Sansa's cheeks. He paused when he got to Jon, glancing back at Catelyn questioningly. She gave him no answer.
"I heard of your sickness, I was sorry I could not return sooner. The situation at the Wall could not be forestalled." Ned said quietly, his hand brushing Jon's forehead as if to check for lingering fever though it had been months.
"It's alright, Father. Maester Luwin and Lady Catelyn took excellent care with me." Ned glanced at her again but Catelyn just smiled demurely, giving nothing away.
"I took care of him too, when he let me anyway." Robb said, interrupting their look. Ned moved on to greet Robb and the rest of the household. They soon found themselves dispersing, Catelyn following Ned to their bedroom where she could greet him properly which he took to enthusiastically despite probably being exhausted from his travels.
They curled up in their bed naked after, cuddling under the furs despite their sweaty skin. They laid silently, basking in nothing but the others' presence until it was time to get up again, the feast planned to welcome Ned and the others back close to starting.
"I almost wish I didn't have to leave this bed. I'd much rather stay here with you all day." Ned groused as Catelyn pulled on her blue gown.
"I'm fairly certain things would fall apart if we just decided to stay here. At the very least, Bran and Arya would tear down half the keep." Catelyn replied, her lips tilting with amusement as Ned came up behind her almost pouting into the mirror.
"They'd be fine with proper supervision."
"I don't think that exists for them. Besides Jon, they don't listen to anyone else for long." She replied, gesturing to him to do up her laces.
"I meant to ask you about that." He said hesitantly, drawing her laces tight but looser than any of her maids would've done.
"About what, my love?" Catelyn replied, intentionally playing dumb just to see Ned squirm. She so enjoyed watching her husband trip over himself as if they hadn't been married for 12 years now.
"You allowed him to greet me from the front line, standing beside Robb."
"I did." Catelyn said simply, stepping away from him to retrieve her jewelry.
"And he says you cared from him while he was sick."
"Luwin did most of that, I just made sure he didn't fall ill again and took it easy for his recovery." She replied airily. She glanced back at Ned and could see the conflicting emotions on his face. She decided to take pity on him and drop the oblivious act. She stepped over to her husband, throwing her arms behind his neck. She searched his eyes for a long moment. There was curiosity, uncertainty and a small amount of hope there.
"Write to King Robert." His brow furrowed in confusion before smoothing out as he realized what she meant.
"Cat…" He said, his voice trailing off, heavy with emotion.
"Write to the king and ask him to legitimize Jon. Place in the line of succession behind our children but give him your name. When he is old enough perhaps you can give him a small holdfast to be lord of though I'm not certain Robb would abide having him leave his side."
"I'm… I…" Never had she seen him rendered speechless before.
"What's changed?" He asked. Catelyn looked away for a moment then. She could not tell him the truth, could not tell him that she wished his son dead. He loved Jon and he loved her and, bar having his son in their home, he had never tried to force either of them on the other. When he left her relationship with his son was strained, distant, nonexistent. How could she explain the shift in them without telling him how her hatred drove her to wish a child dead? How would he look at her? He always understood her ire towards Jon, didn't condone it, but understood it. Telling him that she prayed for him to die might be crossing a line though, so she settled for something else.
"Winter is coming, it will be a long winter and in the winter, we must look out for one another, protect ourselves. Isn't that what you always say, my love? We must trust each other, stay together if we will survive winter and what comes after. We are content here but I hear whispers of the South. Edmure and Lysa send me letters telling me how things fare in the Riverlands and the Crownlands and the Vale. I fear a storm will come that we will not be ready for but if we are strong and united, we can weather anything. So, write to the king and ask that he name Jon a Stark and let us move on from there." Ned stared at her for a moment before smiling in a way he only ever did when they were alone.
"I could never have asked for a better wife, have I told you that lately, my lady?"
"Not lately but I am never unhappy to hear it." She replied playfully, accepting the kiss that he pressed to her lips.
When they got to the doors to the Great Hall, they could see Robb, Sansa, Arya and Bran lingering by the door. Ned and Catelyn walked in first arm in arm, then Robb and Sansa and then Arya and Bran. They made their way to the long table and as they walked towards it, she saw Jon standing off to the side at one of the tables with Stark bannermen. They took their places at the high table and Ned stood surveying the room of people watching him.
"My lords, my ladies, thank you all for joining my family and I tonight. I'm happy to announce that we were successful in our campaign and King Robert has already sent correspondence of his appreciation for our efforts at the Wall. The Wildlings have been sent back into the Land of Always Winter and we were able to leave two dozen men with Lord Commander Mormont and will be making appeals to other houses of the North to send men to bolster their numbers in order to make sure the Wilding threat has passed, at least for the moment." The room kicked up in approving chatter for a moment. Ned paused and glanced at Jon and then Catelyn. Catelyn nodded in response and Ned turned back to the crowd.
"I'd also like to make another announcement. It is short notice but I would not wait another moment to say this. Lady Stark and I have talked and we have reached an agreement. Jon, son, step forward." Jon looked bewildered at suddenly being called out and glanced nervously around the room as all eyes turned to him before he approached the long table cautiously, trepidation clear in his eyes. He bowed before the two of them, anxious energy almost visibly thrumming from his body.
"It is with great honor that I announce here before the sight of Gods and men my plan, with the support of my Lady Wife, to write to King Robert on the matter of legitimizing my son, Jon Snow." Catelyn watched the boy's eyes widen and she heard gasps beside her from her children.
"He will be given the name Stark and be recognized as just as much my child as any of my other children." And you will treat him as thus, Catelyn heard in the words he did not say.
She could see tears gathering in the boy's eyes as he looked up at them with disbelief. His eyes took her in as a tear fell from his cheek. Catelyn felt her lips tilt into a small smile of reassurance which she hoped helped. Jon stared up at them for a moment more before he was suddenly darting out of the room, the whispers of the attendees following behind the fleeing boy. Ned looked after the boy with confusion and the children made to follow but Catelyn stopped them.
"Where will he be?" She asked simply. The children looked reluctant and worried to say so before Sansa piped up.
"Check the Godswood first. He always goes there when he wants to be alone." She said, trailing off sheepishly as if she did not want to say that. Catelyn supposed she didn't. Her daughter paid more attention to her siblings than she liked to let on but Catelyn knew her daughter too well for her to hide that.
"I shall return soon, love." She said softly to Ned before walking down from the dais and following Jon through the door. There were whispers around her of how ungrateful the bastard was, how he didn't deserve it, what she must think of all this. Once upon a time those thoughts would be flying through her head too. That time wasn't very far from then at all but she had taken time to get to know the boy and she learned that he was more than just the product of his father's shame. So, she ignored it and made her way leisurely to the Godswood.
As she approached she heard small sobs coming from within the enclosed space. She saw Jon sitting there on one of the logs, his shoulders shaking as he fought to repress the tears and emotions. She lightly touched his shoulder as she reached him, causing him to jump a little. He was quick to rub his face clean of tears and stand up with his back straight.
"I am sorry, Lady Stark. I should not have left the Hall in such a manner. It was untoward and ungrateful in the face of such generosity from yourself and Lord Stark." Catelyn tilted her head to the side as she watched him try to stuff what must be a terribly arduous burden back into himself. She would never allow her children or husband to do so if she thought it would hurt them in the long run and Jon was to be her son soon. She promised the Gods she would be his mother, that she would call him son. She must fulfill that promise in more than just word and, to be honest, it wasn't such a hardship. It took more energy out of her to hate the boy than it did to let herself be happy and content and just accept him into her life.
"Lord and Lady Stark, I thought we were done with all that." She replied, sitting down on the log and patting the space next to her so he could sit too. He hesitated before sitting down, his shoulders hiked up and his body tense. They sat silently beside one another, the boy staring at the Heart Tree and Catelyn staring down at her lap at the blue fabric of her dress. It had been a gift, sent to her by Lysa for Catelyn's last nameday.
She was surprised if she were honest, she had not expected to receive anything from Lysa. Any time she did see her sister nowadays it was tense and barbed, Lysa seeming to blame her for things Catelyn could not or would not apologize for or even understand why Lysa believed she required an apology for. However, Catelyn promised her mother she would protect her siblings. Gods, it got exhausting sometimes, remembering all the things she promised and trying to live up to and fulfill those promises to someone while not wishing to betray her promises to another.
"Lady Catelyn?" Jon asked, a hand shaking her arm lightly. He looked like he'd been calling her for a little while.
"I'm sorry, I was worlds away in another time. I was thinking of my younger sister, Lysa. She was a good girl. We used to be so close."
"What happened?" He asked. He was a young boy, only one and ten, but he had the understanding of most adults. Like he'd seen enough of the world to know it and maybe he had, bastards grew up faster than trueborn children did.
"I… I don't know, in truth. During the war, after Brandon was murdered I married Ned and she was made to marry Jon Arryn. He was a much older man you see, while Ned was of my own age. I think that was the first time she came to hate me. Having children has been difficult for her. I do not blame her, as I said Jon Arryn is an older man and it can be difficult for them sometimes to produce children but society would blame a woman for such things since we bear the heirs and, well, I have five healthy children. Then there's the fact that Ned and I managed to fall in love with one another. That, I don't think she can ever forgive me for. For being happy while she is not." Catelyn replied. Jon nodded while wiping his face clear of errant tear tracks like he understood exactly what Catelyn meant and she guessed he did. He knew what it was to be hated for things beyond his control because she had hated him irrationally, just like Lysa hated her.
"I apologize." She said suddenly. He looked at her with confusion.
"For… everything. I have not been kind to you in your life, Jon Snow. I have blamed you for things that are beyond your control, I know that. It doesn't make me proud of myself to know that I've hated a child with such ferocity. I never wanted to be… it has not been befitting a lady."
She promised her mother she would be the best lady she could be.
"I do not blame you, Lady Catelyn. I know that I'm not… I understand how the world sees bastards."
"That shouldn't have mattered. I should've been kinder, more understanding. You did nothing to me. You've always been an obedient child, you've always loved and protected your siblings. I… I had feared that one day you might usurp them, steal their inheritance from them." She admitted. Jon's eyes widened at that.
"I would never. I love them, I could never hurt them."
"I know that now." She said, her tone placating.
"That is partly why I asked that your father write to King Robert." Jon's eyes widened then.
"You asked him to?" He asked incredulously. Catelyn nodded mutely.
"But… why? You have been accepting towards me lately, Lady Catelyn and I cannot say that it has not been something that I've… longed for, for much longer than I could probably recall but why would you ask for my legitimization?"
"I must confess something to you and it will hurt you." She said, turning fully to face him. He did the same, his face a mask as if he were bracing for whatever she would say. She glanced back at the Heart Tree. The Old Gods weren't her gods but Ned had always said one couldn't lie in the Godswood, if you did the Old Gods would know your heart to be false and punish you accordingly. She had no inclination to lie, not now. If she ever wanted to move forward then she had to put everything on the table.
"I used to have a ritual before I went to bed. It wasn't something I did everyday but doing it more than once or at all was too much. I would pray to the Seven. I'd pray for the health of my brother and my sister and my father, I would pray for the happiness of my children, I would pray for the prosperity of the North, I would pray for the Gods to favor my husband and I would pray… I would pray that they remove my husband's bastard from my presence. I would pray for you to die." Shame filled her as Jon's eyes widened in shock at her admission.
"Then you fell ill with the pox and I felt so guilty. I'd done it, I know I had. I cursed you to die such a horrible death, all for my pride. So, I went to the sept and I prayed again. I prayed for your health, I prayed that you live. I promised the Gods that I would be a better woman. I promised that I would love you and care for you. I promised that I would be a mother to you. I promised that I you would have the name 'Stark' and all that comes with it. I promised I would do those things if they let you live. Then I went back to your room and I made the Mother's wreath and prayed over you again. 'Let the boy live and I will keep my promises, let Jon Snow live', I said. And I kept saying it for hours that night, I thought I would lose my voice. And then morning came and your fever broke. You lived. I knew I must keep my promises now." Jon took in all she said silently, the shock wearing off as he settled into something like resignation.
"So, it is pity then. Pity and guilt. That's why you deign to spend time with me now." He said, his voice holding such surety as if he knew for certain that this was the answer to the question he no doubt held inside of him for these past few months. She could not blame him for thinking so.
"No. Not now. Maybe before it was a healthy fear of the Gods and the fact I could not break my promise to them, and as for guilt I'll harbor plenty to spare for the rest of my days but talking to you, actually talking to you, changed all that." Jon looked at her with confusion.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, you certainly know how to make an impression Jon Snow." She replied, fondness tinging her voice as she smiled down at him. She watched his ears turn red as he ducked his head in embarrassment. She lifted his face, a gentle hand on his chin.
"You're a clever boy, I wouldn't let myself notice that before. But you are. You're clever and kind and gentle and brave and honest and true, with a good heart. You are much like your father in that. Anybody could count themselves lucky to call you son. My children are lucky to call you brother. I know that now. I asked Ned to legitimize you because you deserve it, because that is what should be. You are a Stark, you always have been. I will be glad to call you son and have you call me Mother but only if you want. I don't wish to force you to do anything, especially if you're not comfortable with it." Jon's eyes shined against the moonlight, choked sounds coming up his throat.
"I… that's all I ever… yes, please." He managed to say through sobs wishing to push their way out of him. Catelyn moved over and pulled the boy to her chest, resting her head on his as his sobs wrenched free from his body. He relaxed in her arms, his body seeming to loosen and unwind in her arms. She held him tighter, his small body a foreign weight against her but one she supposed she should get used to now. She held him as his sobs eventually turned to hiccups. He pulled away from her, his face showing his embarrassment at his outburst but Catelyn just gently wiped his face clean of tears before standing and holding a hand out to him. He took it after a moment, his smaller hand tucked into hers as she led him back to the Great Hall.
The guards opened the door and Catelyn and Jon re-entered hand in hand, ignoring the looks and whispers of the lords and ladies as they caught sight of the two. The eating had already begun but as Jon made to pull away from her to return to his table with the Northmen, Catelyn held fast and gestured at Ser Jory to bring a chair to the high table. He complied swiftly, placing the chair next to Arya's at the end of the table. She pulled it out and made sure Jon was sitting comfortably and requested a plate and cutlery for him to a servant before retaking her seat beside Ned. He glanced at Jon worriedly but Catelyn waved him off.
"He will be alright. He just needs time to get used to it all." She replied, glancing down the table to where Arya was chattering excitedly to her older brother with Sansa joining the conversation, her energy level much more sedate but Catelyn could see the smile across her face as she spoke to Jon. Looking at the other end, she saw Bran hurriedly eating his food, glancing towards Jon as if he wanted to simply abandon the food and go talk to his brother now but he decided to prioritize his food first. Robb was looking at her when she met his eyes. Once he noticed her looking, he broke out into a wide smile, his eyes shining with love and even pride for his mother.
Strange, that she should feel so warm at her son's pride in her rather than the other way around. Usually, it was the children who were supposed to reach some great feat in personal growth but Catelyn, a woman grown, still had some things to learn it seemed. Old Nan or Maester Luwin would probably tell her that was alright and one never really stopped growing but still to see her son so happy with her warmed her all the more.
"Thank you." He mouthed to her before turning back to his food. Catelyn looked around the room in turn, her being undeniably content and her spirit happy. She caught sight of her sept as she glanced outside the window. She suddenly could see in her mind's eye her mother, her bright red hair a curtain behind her, her blue gown trailing and catching wind, her kind eyes and her smile and words speaking about how imperative it was to keep one's promises.
'Thank you, Mother, for instilling in me the importance of promises. I shall never forget it. I promise.'
AN: This was more difficult than I thought it would be to write, trying to find a good balance of Catelyn's authentic voice, give her some background and show a natural progression of her relationship with Jon without making it rushed but without making this fic be 10k words or more. But, I hope I managed to accomplish all those things and ultimately, I am satisfied with the end result.