Pairings/characters: Catelyn/Ned, Jaime/Cersei, Robert
Word Count: 5590
'"What do you say, Ned? Just you and me, two vagabond knights on the kingsroad, our swords at our sides and the gods know what in front of us ..."
Mercenary AU -- where Robert still went to war but never bothered claiming the throne -- maybe he went across the Narrow Sea and Ned followed because someone had to keep Robert out of trouble. Now they've come back to the Seven Kingdoms (for whatever reason), and for the first time in years Ned meets the woman he was supposed to marry when the war was over.
(In other words, Ned/Cat. Preferably with conflicted sexytimes because she's since been married to someone else but they find they can't keep their hands off each other.)'
HERE YOU GO, river_soul, YA BIG JERK. XD (JK ILU BB)
Time seems to move differently in the Free Cities than it did in Westeros.
Robert was made for this life, Ned thinks. For Robert, time reverses in Tyrosh so that the premature lines around his mouth and eyes smooth away, the grief in his face gives way once more to laughter. The heat that Ned finds sickening is a healing balm to the could-have-been king, and Ned thinks Robert finds forgetting soothing. Here, he may worship at the Fountain of the Drunken God, swill the pear brandy; don an intricate stag helm and fight a new battle each day, because there is always business to be had and a sword never leaves his hand.
For all that Robert mourns Lyanna, Ned knows that bloodshed is his first love and after he cleans his blade he has some coin for the effort, enough to buy a woman (or if he does not want to buy, there are certainly enough who are willing to be had for free) and some meat and mead. It is enough to pay for rooms, and nearly enough that they can both almost forget that there ever was a war, or a Tower, to forget that they left an empty throne in their wake, an upset dynasty, a slain king. Here in the Far East, they can forget briefly that Benjen holds Winterfell in his lord brother’s name, raises a boy that Ned plucked from his sister’s arms and could barely stand to look upon; that they abandoned Jon Arryn when he did not for one moment abandon them, that a Kingslayer took the crown that Robert could not bear to wear, not now with everything lost (and really, Ned thinks he never was made for such a burden, anyway).
Ned often tells himself that he came for Robert, that he had seen the stricken look in his oldest friend’s face, the desperation in his plea and could not refuse him; but truly, he knows that he needed to get away, too, for a time, to forget the look of the light leaving Lyanna’s eyes.
The plan had always been ‘for a time,’ but days fall into moons fall into years, because here the sun melts everything, even the days together. Ned hates the heat that Robert thrives in, and he dreams of the brisk airs of Winterfell, prowls the halls in his sleep. He cannot see it as his own; it was always Brandon’s inheritance. And yet the ache for it spreads from his heart through all his bones, and Ned thinks maybe, perhaps, it is time to go home.
And yet the idea fills him with as much shame as it does longing, regret for all that he left behind and expected to stay waiting. For years, his brother spoke of his desire to join the Night’s Watch, to serve the realm in a higher capacity than the inheritance of a third son would permit, and yet these years past he has served as castellan of Winterfell; there have been times that Ned considered writing to his brother and telling him to take the lordship as was more than his due, but he knows that Benjen would never consent, that he sees Winterfell as Ned’s as truly as Ned sees it as Brandon’s, and Ned had never planned on staying away for quite so long. Soon, he always told himself, though he and Robert never spoke of it, soon we shall return and Benjen will finally join the Watch as he wanted.
He had left Brandon’s betrothed to wait, too, for another Stark brother to return and wed her. Catelyn Tully had written him letters as a dutiful betrothed at the beginning, sending word of the new regime, the two golden lions who sat upon the throne and played at Targaryens, writing of the revival of the Riverlands after the war, the way it came alive with the promise of spring in the air. In turn he told her of Tyrosh and of Winterfell, the things she would need to know as its lady, the people and the passages – things he is sure that Brandon already spoke to her of, but it had been almost therapeutic, to visit his home in his mind when he put ink to parchment. If he told her things she already knew, she did not seem to mind hearing them again – she had replied with questions that made him remember and some that made him think. He had met her but once, staying a fortnight in Riverrun while promising to honor his brother’s betrothal at the end of the war, and as time passed he scarcely remembered what she looked like, beyond flashes of color - the rich red of her hair and the bright blue of her eyes.
And yet as time slid away from him, when he smoothed out the scrolls and spied her neat, slanted writing he began to feel a bubble of something in his chest that felt like affection – or at the very least, something that could easily grow into affection. He found he liked her; that she was observant, sharp-minded and witty, and he liked getting to know her this way, forgoing the painful awkwardness of stilted conversation and instead taking the time to compose his replies to his liking. She had still not truly felt like his betrothed, not here in Tyrosh where nothing felt like as it was, but she had not quite felt like Brandon’s anymore, either, and he had thought that odd inbetween had suited, considering the impasse they found themselves at.
But the last few letters had been tense as one year fell into the next, and as summer bloomed in Westeros, Catelyn began hinting that he should return to his rightful place as lord of Winterfell. He found that his wife-to-be was not one for coyness, and soon enough her question had been direct. It is finally warm enough that the children are swimming in the rivers, she had written. I know that Winterfell has hot springs rather than rivers, and I have been waiting to see them – waiting for marriage, and waiting for children. When will you be returning to Westeros, so that I may cease my waiting?
He had looked at the ruddy health of Robert’s cheeks, the way that he seemed content to forget the life and sorrows they had left behind, had sat and tried to look into his own heart but had found no answer to give. And so shamefully he had evaded the question, told her how the entire city smelt of pears and that he would try and send her some, and he never received another raven from Catelyn Tully.
Instead, he had received one from his old ally, the man to be his good father, Lord Tully himself.
Hoster Tully’s letter had been cold and formal, with barely veiled reproach laced between each word, and Ned could scarcely blame him for that. The lord of the Riverlands had ridden to war against his rightful king, against some of his own bannermen who refused to heed the call to arms, and had done so for the promise of two marriages – only one of which had actually taken place. I have little doubt that my lord has every intention of returning to Westeros and honoring our agreement, he writes, but since you seem to be making no haste to do so, I ask that you release Catelyn from your betrothal, so that I may make her another match worthy of her.
He had written back his consent, wondering at his own reluctance to do so. Perhaps, he had thought, it was disappointment in himself, for officially reneging on his word; perhaps it was resistance to the thought of life in Westeros moving on without them instead of standing still and waiting as he wished in his heart of hearts. And of course there had been the part of him that had grown almost fond of his future bride through the words she penned, the part of him that could almost see their lives in Winterfell – sometime in the future, though he had been uncertain of just when. But he had detected the note of longing in her last letter, the desire for children and a family and for a start of her own life, and he had known that he could not keep Catelyn Tully living devout as a septa in Riverrun, awaiting the pleasure of his return.
He does not send a raven to Riverrun along with the ones he sends to Benjen in Winterfell and Jon at the Eyrie after he tells Robert that they must return, that he must return. Robert’s grin fades, and he agrees only to accompany Ned to Westeros, making no promise as to how long he will remain there. Privately, Ned wonders if Robert will ever be ready to take up his own lordship; or if instead he will merely linger for a visit before returning to the life to which he is so well suited, leaving Stannis to serve in his place forevermore with all the responsibilities and none of the honors.
Despite his longing to sail directly to the North, the response to the news of their impending arrival in Westeros is met with a summons to court, an invitation to swear fealty to the king and queen. Beneath the pretty, carefully constructed words, he can read the implicit threat and so he does not refuse, and they ride from their landing to the capital.
When they arrive, they find that King’s Landing has been swallowed by Lannisters.
Jaime Lannister sits upon the throne, and Ned tries to forget the last time he saw the youngest member of the Kingsguard there, still damp with the blood of the man he had sworn to protect. Besides him sits his sister-queen, just as golden and beautiful, her throne just as elaborate, and if anyone had a protest at the king continuing the Targaryen tradition of marrying brother and sister, none seemed to have dared voice it. Ned bristles at the sight of the king, at the audacity that he should sit where he had slain, but he can voice no protest when he could have easily worn the crown himself, had he so desired it. And so he stiffly inclines his head and bends the knee, and his stomach clenches at the smug satisfaction of the nearly identical faces peering down at him – he fought a war for Lyanna, he realizes, and all he did was win a throne for Tywin Lannister and his brood.
Everywhere he turns, it seems he trips over another golden-haired lion – the king’s father serves as Hand once more and rules the realm through his son, Kevan Lannister sits on council and his children play with their cousins, the little princes and princesses. Genna Lannister serves as the first of the queen’s ladies; the Lannisters of Lannisport have infiltrated the city and rule the commoners for their greater cousins as they once did their own lands. Ned and Robert left behind Seven Kingdoms, Ned thinks, but seem to have returned to only one.
They have few friends at this court – some old war allies, yes, and some forgiven enemies allowed back into the fold, but few that truly knew the two young leaders of the Rebellion. Whispered rumors follow at their back – where they had gone to, what they had done, why they had chosen to return – and the stories Ned hears spun are always much more fascinating than the truth of living as a common sellsword and trying to forget a broken family. Shame churns in his belly when he hears that Lord Jon Arryn has left the Eyrie and is riding for King’s Landing, and he almost dreads to see the man who had once been as a father to him, who had fought a king to save his life. Jon had not been there at that moment, when Robert had turned to him and begged Ned to leave with him; and Ned had honestly believed that much like the war, leaving Westeros behind was not a battle that Robert could win on his own. But he knows his guilt will only burn all the brighter when he sees his brother for the first time in Winterfell, shouldering a burden that he had never asked for (but then neither had Ned, he tells himself). Once more he is resentful that he is delayed in King’s Landing rather than allowed to travel directly north, wanting to deal with the unpleasantness and genuinely desiring to see Benjen again – but he owes Jon a face-to-face explanation, at the very least, poor as it may be.
He feels a pang of regret when he first notices Catelyn Tully amongst the queen’s ladies, when he feels her eyes lingering on him after a fortnight in the capital, her expression unreadable. He had not thought to find her in King’s Landing, did not know where she had wed – Hoster Tully had not informed him of where his once-betrothed had married in his absence, and he had not thought it his place to inquire. He hesitates for another three days, watching her from the corner of his eye, debating if he should approach or simply leave her be.
She is prettier than he had remembered, when he finally makes his decision and with a polite nod of the head asks if, with the queen’s leave, the Lady Catelyn would join him for a stroll. He had always found her correspondence direct, but in person she wears a courtier’s face when she slips her hand, fingers long and slim, into the crook of his elbow and they leave the Red Keep.
They are silent for a long moment as they walk towards the gardens, and Ned watches her out of the corner of his eye and wonders if she hates him, if she is angry with him, if she is glad to see him or completely indifferent to his existence. He thinks he should apologize, for the poor showing of the Starks, for his less than admirable behavior, but instead he waits for her to speak, first.
“How do you find Westeros, my lord?” she asks mildly, barely glancing at him, instead studying the different blooms in the bushes ahead of them.
“Much changed,” he admits, but he does not add more than that, does not open himself to reproach that he has probably earned. “Thank you, Lady…” he adds, unable to bite back his curiosity; Hoster Tully had never said where he planned to wed Catelyn in Ned’s absence, and he had not thought it his place to ask, but he had wondered, more than once.
“Ah. Lady Tyrell,” he responds, trying the name out. Highgarden is beautiful, he knows, and perhaps (he could reluctantly admit) more suited to a girl from the Riverlands than the barren wasteland of the north. He frowns; Mace Tyrell had been chief amongst those wondering about the whereabouts and actions of Robert Baratheon and Eddard Stark, and beyond that, he remembers the name well from before. “He fought against us.”
Now Catelyn glances at him, a sideways glimpse with a wan smile. “By the time you broke our betrothal, the war was long over. We were all on the same side. And what better way to make certain than to make a few noted marriages? I was lucky, to be honest – the other suggestion was a marriage by proxy to Lancel Lannister, a mere babe.”
“And do you have children?” he asks, remembering her words as well as he remembers the smell of the ink, and he sees her momentarily brighten.
“A girl. Sansa. She is in Highgarden, with her grandmother.” He had only read her letters, had not heard her voice, but the longing he hears in it now sounds much as it did in his head, when he read what she had sent her.
“And yet you are not,” he prods, curious. “You are here, serving the queen.”
“My husband has much hope of betrothing Sansa to the prince when they are of a suitable age. He believes in the importance of being at court to press the interests of the family.” And now she sounds perhaps a bit bitter, the corners of her mouth turning down in a frown, and he presses her hand a bit closer in an almost unconscious gesture of comfort.
They continue along the path, and lapse into silence once more, and he turns what she has said over in his mind. “I did not break our betrothal,” he says testily, unable to let the unfairness of such a response pass by unchallenged. “Your father did that, if I remember correctly, my lady.”
“He asked for your consent. You did not have to agree,” she responds, fairly mildly, but she glances away from him again, and he can feel the stiffness in her fingers upon his arm. She is angry, then, he decides, with a sinking feeling in his stomach – he should not have expected otherwise, and yet the realization is disappointing regardless.
He exhales wearily through his nose. “I don’t claim that my decisions were the best,” he says, “only that they were the ones that made the most sense at the time. I don’t expect you – or anyone – to understand them.”
She stops, removing her hand from the crook of his arm to place her palm on his forearm, and standing close to her he is able to take in little details he had long forgotten – the high curve of her cheek, the spray of freckles across her nose. “I understand,” she says honestly. “Truly, I do. You lost so much to the war, your brother and sister, your father, good men who fought beside you. And Robert is your best friend, while I was just the stranger that Brandon had left behind. I only wish you had been upfront from the start, that you had no intention of wedding me. I would not have tried so hard to like you, had I known.”
The words sadden him terribly, that she should think he had played her for a fool when he remembers receiving the dutiful letters in Tyrosh as a bright spot in a fog. He gives her a bittersweet smile. “Was I that difficult to like?”
She smiles back at that, and he thinks her smile is beautiful, too, and the sorrow in his chest aches worse then. “I must confess that you lack your brother’s easy charm. But you write beautifully – much better than you speak.”
He reaches over to clasp her hand from where it rests upon his arm, and she looks surprised. “I did mean to wed you,” he says, his voice urgent. “When it was time to come back. I did not know when it would be – but please do not think that I ever intentionally misled you. I meant to wed you, but I did not want you to have to wait until I was ready to do so.”
She lowers her eyes briefly, and does not look suspicious when she looks back up at him. “Thank you,” she responds, and he wonders why she is thanking him, when he came far too late, when it makes no difference at all.
He lingers, in King’s Landing.
He cannot explain it to himself – Jon arrives in the capital with his Tully wife in tow – the other half of the agreement, the part that had been kept – and the tension is thick between the lord and his former wards but affection runs too deep for eventual healing to be impossible. A fortnight passes and then a moon, and Ned can feel Robert growing restless beside him, missing the adventure and challenge that had been part of their every day. His friend is no longer made for Westeros, Ned thinks sadly, but as to himself, Benjen writes that Winterfell awaits his return. Ned will never feel like its lord, he fears, but it will always feel like home, and he can practically hear the soft rustling of leaves in the godswood, feel the warm burble of the hot springs over his skin (I know Winterfell has hot springs, and I have been waiting to see them, he remembers Catelyn writing).
And still – he lingers.
Robert momentarily forgets his restlessness when he is with the ladies of the court, and Ned casts an almost forlorn eye over them and wonders if he should wed one. His father had been eager to make southron alliances, and perhaps he had been right, but Ned finds himself discounting one maiden after another in his mind, and decides that perhaps it is a matter better answered after he returns – that perhaps he should keep with the tradition of having a northerner as the lady of Winterfell.
Sometimes he thinks that he should have insisted that Benjen take the castle for himself, that his more gregarious brother would have been wed and had a brood of children by now. When he thinks that, he imagines that if he had decided upon such a course early enough, that perhaps Catelyn Tully would still be lady of Winterfell as she had once thought, wed to a third Stark brother after the first died and the second passed her along. But when he arrives to these thoughts, he always wanders to the thought of returning earlier, of not leaving at all; or perhaps, in his most absurd thoughts, bringing her to Tyrosh with him when he had left Westeros with Robert. They are mere flights of fantasy, and Ned reminds himself that he is too practical to indulge such impossibilities, but he finds that his eye always falls on the woman who he should have wed, could have wed. He thinks Brandon would have been disappointed that Ned did not hold up his promise, did not pick up the pieces Brandon dropped as he did in their boyhood; he thinks his father would have been disappointed that he is not furthering the influence of House Stark by wedding a high-born southroner.
Mostly, Ned thinks that he is disappointed in himself, angry at his own fumbling mistakes. And when he is able to speak to her on the scant opportunities that he practically shoehorns into existence, when he hears her laugh or when she murmurs to him with a carefully schooled expression that the Lannisters have taken over all corners of the kingdom with eyes that say you could have stopped that, he wishes he were bringing home a woman so utterly prepared to be the lady of Winterfell.
(After all, he remembers, she has been preparing to be the lady of Winterfell long before he knew that he would be its lord.)
He keeps a stoic face, but he has never been good at deception, and Robert’s booming laughter lets him know that he is painfully obvious in his regrets. And when Robert mocks him, he realizes that he is right to do so – that he is acting foolishly, hovering as though waiting will turn back time (time had worked differently in the Free Cities), lingering as if his presence will change the past and he will be able to take Catelyn Tully north with him. Mace Tyrell seems blissfully unaware and Catelyn does not dissuade him as he practically courts her and they both take care to keep a proper distance between them, to speak only in public, should anyone happen upon them.
But it is not until he comes across her sitting in the glass by the river, her head tipped back to the sun and her hair blazing red in the light, that he truly realizes the folly of it all. He sits beside her, making sure to keep a distance from her, and it is a long moment before she opens her eyes and glances over him, raising a hand to shield out the brightness. “It reminds me of home,” she offers by way of explanation. “Of Riverrun.”
“Do you miss it?” he asks, trying to bring to mind the castle and the waters that had surrounded it, the brief time he had stayed there.
“Sometimes,” she admits. “When I think of it. I hope to take Sansa there sometime soon. I miss her most terribly.” Sorrow flickers over her face, and he sees her draw her lip between her teeth before setting her jaw firmly and regarding him again. “You should go back to Winterfell,” she tells him seriously. “Your brother has been serving for castellan long enough – you should see him, and take your rightful place as the lord of the castle.” It is a similar tune to the one she wrote him while he was in Tyrosh, but rather than uneasy it leaves him melancholy, now that it is missing any implication that she would be joining him.
He does not answer – he is good at not answering – and they sit in silence for a long moment as she plucks the grass from the ground in an almost child-like gesture. She does not look at him, eyes cast down, when she adds softly and sadly, “I don’t know what you’re doing here.”
Ned closes his eyes and thinks about how he hates the heat, how King’s Landing is nearly as warm as Tyrosh in the summertime, how his hands are calloused from battles he fought to no purpose save a coin in his pocket. He thinks of all the things he cannot change now, things he could have changed before.
“I do not, either,” he answers heavily.
The next day, he begins the preparations to head north, to go home.
He is irritated when the knock comes to his door late the night before they are set to leave – he is already nearly asleep, he has hours ahead of him in the saddle tomorrow, and he is in little mood to deal with Robert’s fond farewell to King’s Landing or to pour him into bed after overindulging.
He wrenches upon the door and is shocked when he sees Catelyn is waiting outside at an entirely inappropriate hour, and he quickly steps aside to let her in before she is seen. She is quiet when she slips inside, wearing a long dressing gown knotted firmly at her waist and her hair is free of the ridiculous intricate coils and twists so popular in the south.
She looks almost northern, and it is easier than ever to imagine her as his wife at that moment; he swallows hard, wishes the thought away.
Ned could ask why she has chosen so late to call upon him, but he thinks perhaps bringing attention to the poor choice would make her leave, and so he does not broach the subject. Instead, he offers her wine and she accepts, curling her fingers around the cup, and warily he watches her as she watches the fire. It is far too dangerous, here, in his rooms instead of in the open, and for a moment he is grateful that they will be leaving in the morn, that he will not dance close to this edge again.
“You are leaving in the morning,” she says, more statement than question, and her face is as unreadable as it was that first day; once again, he finds himself desperately wondering what she is thinking, how she is considering him.
“Yes,” he answers. “At first light.”
She nods, drinking deep from the Dornish red. “Good.” He thinks that much like him, Catelyn Tully is not made for deception.
The tang of the wine is sharp on her lips when she kisses him, hands reaching up to tangle through his hair, and he sighs against her mouth, cups her jaw in hands that suddenly feel far too rough-hewn to put on her skin. It is almost a relief, to taste her, to move his lips along the column of her throat, and yet somehow it smarts all the worse – to know that he should not touch her when there was almost a time when he could have, whenever he wanted.
They don’t speak again, do not ask the other what are we doing here, and he can almost pretend that it is nothing more than a vivid fantasy when he pulls at the knot of her dressing gown, sliding it from her shoulders to reveal her body, all white skin and soft curves that he wants to put his hands all over (and so he does). Her eyes are shadowed, with her back to the fireplace and the room cast in relative darkness, and his fingers twist through hers when she grips his hand to pull him down onto the rug with her.
He can see her better this way, stretched in front of the fire, and he kneels between her legs to look at her, to trace apologies that he doesn’t speak with his fingertips against her cheek and jaw, along her collarbone. She moans loudly when he leans down, bracing himself over her, and drags his mouth along her neck, down the swell of her breast to suckle the tip in his mouth, and he feels his cock twitch at the sound.
Her nails bite into his back when he slides inside her, groaning at the sensation, and through the haze of pleasure he sees a flicker of regret on her face. He wonders, dimly, if it is regret at what she has done, at the betrayal to her husband, or if it is regret that first light is not terribly far away. But he does not ask, does not know if he wants the answer, and she pulls him closer rather than push him away when he begins to move, her hips lifting to meet him and take him deeper inside her.
His rough fingers seem adequate once more when they settle between her legs, between their bodies, to help her to her finish, and she sighs high in the back of her throat, hand digging into his hip now as she twists up against him. The feeling of her clamping down around him is nearly too much, and quickly he draws back and out of her – he has done enough damage and will leave her with no more.
Ned rolls to his back and she follows him, leaning over him now and kissing him again, mouth wet and tongue warm in his mouth. Her hand wraps around his cock, stroking him to his own finish, and he groans against her mouth, clinging to her as he spills against her fingers.
Catelyn rests against him, and eagerly he buries his hands in her thick hair, tilting his face to nuzzle against her cheek. He could have so easily grown to love her, he thinks, and the loss of the opportunity to do so gnaws like an aching hunger in his stomach. He is nearly asleep again, her weight comfortable on top of him, when she pulls back, sitting back on her heels. Her face is flushed, from her arousal, from her shame when she stands, pulling her dressing robe back on with fingers that tremble slightly. These are not the people we are, either of us, he thinks, and guilt burns in his stomach, but he instinctively follows her to the door, reaching for her wrist to grasp it before she can twist the knob. She spins back to him, and he grunts in surprise when she kisses him harshly again, catching her leg as she lifts to wrap it around his hip. It is faster this time, rougher, her hips hitting back against the door when he drives into her, and her soft sighs and moans turn into loud cries that he pants in tempo to.
She whimpers his name against his shoulder when resolutely he pushes her to the edge again. He pretends he doesn’t already know that it is the last thing they will say to one another.
Robert doesn’t understand.
There have been a great deal of things that Robert has never understood, and yet somehow this one digs particularly sharp. Perhaps it is that despite his stony silence as the two ride north to Winterfell, Ned’s oldest friend is able to guess immediately as to the reason for his brooding, and asks with a delighted expression if he fucked the Tully girl. Ned tightens his jaw and does not dignify Robert’s question with an answer. Robert takes that as all the answer he needs, and his laughter of delight echoes far down the Kingsroad.
“Not that good, eh?” he asks, sympathetically, smile fading when he sees the storm upon Ned’s face. “A pity, I was hoping you’d stop looking so damn grim once you’d dipped your wick. But I thought she was probably frigid, if Brandon left her a maid.”
“Robert,” he replies, clenching on the rein as he speaks through gritted teeth, his words brief but sharp. “Stop.”
Robert rolls his eyes, but dutifully changes the subject, sharing in lewd detail the things he’d heard about northern girls, assuring Ned that they would learn what is true and what is exaggerated. To Robert, Winterfell is a new adventure for the time being, the wild north a new land to discover, one that will bring him closer to Lyanna.
For Ned, Winterfell is home, but it is also another place to run to, another way to leave loss behind him.