Word Count: 4,027
Notes: For the asoiafkinkmeme prompt: "'Take no wife...' AU where Ned is allowed to take the black, leading to angsty Ned/Cat."
Angst. Angst. And more angst. (BRB gotta write some happier stuff now!)
He had always told Cat the Starks are made for cold, but it is different at the Wall. It gets under his skin, wraps its icy fingers around his bones, threatens to choke him in his sleep. It settles and expands so that every muscle aches, so that his limp is worsened, and that coupled with the grim knowledge that he will stay there until he dies makes him feel older than his years, old before his time.
He thinks often of his vows, given before the weirwood with its face sitting in judgment, considers the words that he had always found laced with honor and wonders how practical they are, really. With a bowed head he swears to take no wife, to father no children, and he does it for the girls that he vows he does not have, will not claim. They tell him he has no family save brothers now, brothers of the Watch, and he can feel Jon’s eyes lingering on his face full of questions (not now, Ned tells him wearily, the weight of a hovering war on his shoulders even as he lingers a world away, but soon, I promise you. Jon accepts ‘soon’ – they have nothing but time now.). But the family he left behind, the one his brothers in black claim does not exist, is never far from his mind, and for the first time Ned begins to wonder if the vows are all a farce, just another lie to add to the collection.
All is quiet from Winterfell, and he knows any messages would have been intercepted. It takes time for the vows to stick, he is told, and new recruits are isolated from the life they had before. While he wonders and worries in the day, his mind fills in possibilities in the night, and in his sleep he sees Robb struck down at the Neck, Cat burning with the Riverlands, the girls executed on the order of a bastard king. Just tell me if they live, he asks the Lord Commander, because he cannot bear the thought that declaring himself a traitor, that spitting on Robert’s memory, was for naught and his family had perished regardless.
“They live,” he is told, and he wonders if it is true. “They have returned to Winterfell.”
He thinks he will have to content himself with that knowledge, until Lord Mormont calls upon him one evening, after they have returned from a brief ranging. Ned’s leg suits him little for building or stewarding, but he can still sit upon a horse, can still wield a sword, and when they ride out he thinks of Benjen and holds to hope that somehow, his brother lives.
“Lord Tarly claims that he has a dungeon full of scum ready to pledge their life to the Watch,” Mormont says, and he warms his hands over the fire as though it ever truly makes a difference. “I should like to send you to collect them. I will send you with provisions, carts, horses…” Ned furrows his brow – he has been a brother of the Watch for scarcely a year, a period in which a recruit is still seen as too fresh to be allowed from the Wall back to the south.
The Lord Commander raises his eyes and the light thrown from the flames catches in the deep grooves of his face; Ned wonders how long it will be until his own is the same. “It will go better for your family if you are seen to leave on business for the Watch and return. It will show that you are resigned.” He hesitates, and lowers his voice. “You are not the first man to be brought here unjustly, but perhaps the one I know to be truest to his word. The Starks were ever friends to the Watch – and to the Mormonts. Stop in Winterfell. See that your family is well, bid your goodbyes. I know to expect you back with Tarly’s men.”
It is a small thing, it is perhaps an unwise thing, but he takes it anyway.
Winterfell feels nearly tepid when he arrives, compared to the biting cold at the Wall, and he pretends he doesn’t see the way Robb, bearded now as a man grown, flinches when Ned inclines his head and calls him Lord Stark. He could weep to see Bran awake once more, his eyes clear, and to see Rickon grown so much in so little time, staring at him blankly with his hand in Catelyn’s as though he is not quite sure who this mysterious man in black is. The girls rush at him, and he can scarcely decipher what each says as Arya swears vengeance to his stomach and Sansa blubbers apologies against his chest. He holds them to him and murmurs what reassurances he can, and his relief at seeing them home far outweighs regrets as to how he now spends his days.
He kisses Catelyn’s hand, as is the proper greeting, and he can feel her knuckles tremble against his lips for all that she holds her shoulders straight and her head high.
The castle is in good order, and Ned feels a swell of pride so strong it hurts his chest to see what the boy he left has turned into, the man he has become. He is glad enough to see Robb respected, wise for his years, earnest and well-meaning that the discreet stares, the quiet whispers as servants and ladies and smallfolk come to gape at the fallen, former Lord Stark, almost does not disconcert him.
But he takes care to refuse any honor above that of a man of the Night’s Watch, does not join his family at the head table though Robb had wished it. Instead he watches them, Robb seeming so much taller in the spot of honor, Catelyn on his right and Sansa on his left.
They are not my family, he tells himself, and the words sound wrong even in his head. I have no family but my brothers in black. I have no wife. I have no children.
He has always held to the belief that your word should be the most valuable thing you can offer, that you should mean what you say and say only what you mean. But he said the words in the godswood and finds them hard to keep – should he carve his family from his heart itself? Where are the places they reside? He has given up much, and he would do so gladly again to see them all home and safe, but he cannot quite bring himself to give up this last bit – to let them go as though they never existed.
He watches Rickon scamper from the table as soon as he is excused, his direwolf, near as large as he, following at his feet. Ned fights the urge to follow, to remind his youngest of the time before, when they were all together and his own son did not look upon him as a stranger. Perhaps it is better this way, he thinks, that he shall never know any other way. It will certainly not be better for Ned, but from the moment he became a father he learned the need to put his children before himself. (And isn’t that how he came to wear a black cloak, he asks himself.)
“Joffrey did not wish to wed a supposed traitor’s daughter,” Robb says after, thick with disgust. “The council did not think it proper for Sansa to be queen. We will still have a Lannister marriage – Arya will marry Tommen when they both come of age. Until then she shall reside here.” He sighs. “Walder Frey was not pleased to hear of that – he demands I marry as per our agreement within the year to make amends. Arya was hardly pleased, either.” A shadow of doubt passes in Robb’s eyes and Ned is reminded for all that he has grown this year and more past, he is still barely more than a boy. “Do you think I acted wisely? Returning here, accepting their terms?”
Yes, Ned wants to tell him, wants to say how proud he is to see Robb keep his sisters safe and bring them home. He wants to apologize, for not preparing his children to deal with vipers, he wants to remind Robb of all the lessons he had tried to impart upon his heir before leaving for King’s Landing. But the times for that are long gone – Robb is Lord of Winterfell now, and needs to learn to listen to others but keep peace with his own decisions.
And so Ned merely inclines his head. “It was your decision to make.”
Catelyn comes to his chambers that night – chambers for a guest, not for the lord, though he knows Robb still sleeps in his childhood room, and he knew she would come just as certainly as he knows he should send her away. She is not my wife, he reminds himself even as he drinks in the sight of her, rakes his eyes greedily along her body, and I have done her enough dishonor for one lifetime.
“Tommen is a boy much sweeter than his brother,” is what he says instead, sitting on the bed, when she puts the candle on the table and looks at him as though she wishes she could do so for the rest of her life.
“Yes,” she says, and her voice shakes with emotion. “Sansa has said as much. And it will be many years before they are of age. Anything could happen in that time. It was most important to bring the girls home, whatever promises we had to make.”
It is like a thousand times before, hundreds of conversations they have had in the privacy of his rooms or hers, and he stands to cross to her, aware of her eyes lingering on his bad leg. The time apart has been as unkind to Cat as it has to him – she is slimmer in a way that worries him, her cheekbones cutting sharp angles across her face, her eyes ringed with shadows of fatigue. He cups her face in his hands, smoothes away the premature lines forming at the corners of her eyes with the pads of his thumbs, as though it were that simple. She closes her eyes, leans into his touch.
“Is it terribly cold?” she asks, and her voice sways. He drops a hand to her shoulder, squeezing gently, feeling the tension coiled there. “Do you have enough to eat...enough wood for the fire…” She breaks off, her eyes dropping to the ground.
“I am well enough,” he lies, unable to bring himself to add to her burden. He cannot tell her of the nights that are bone-aching, the uncertainty when they pass beyond the Wall that any of them will return, no more than he can remind her that in the eyes of man and law, they are no longer wedded, and so she should not call upon him so late at night. “You have done well, all that you could do. I am glad you are here to advise Robb,” he soothes, offering the reassurances he could not give Robb. “But you look ill, Cat.”
Tears well in her eyes, and he feels his resolve crumble away when he leans forward to catch them on his lips, kissing them from her lashes and cheeks, and it only seems to make them fall faster. “I’m so tired,” she admits, and her fingers curl into the front of his black tunic. She pulls herself close, all trembling exhausted limbs, and he thinks that tomorrow he shall continue on and she shall be the strength that Robb and all their children need once more. But tonight the façade falls away – she is not his wife, not anymore, but she needs him to be her husband tonight, and he does not know how to be anything otherwise, despite the words he had spoken, I will take no wife, father no children.
“I know,” he says, and he puts his arms around her when she falls against him, her face fitting in the crook of his neck. Her hair is thick and red and beautiful as ever, and he can catch the sweet scent of it when he presses his cheek to the top of her head. It reminds him of the first time he saw it, saw her, mere days before he stood next to her in a sept and made promises that he had every intent of keeping, only to find them shattering one by one. “I am sorry, Cat,” he whispers. “I never meant to bring this on our family, to bring dishonor to you or danger to our children.”
“It is not your doing,” she says fiercely, her eyes damp but flashing as she raises her face to look at him. “It is the treachery of the Lannisters, of the queen and her brother. You protected our girls as best you could.” She touches his cheek, the heel of her palm dragging along his jawline, her nails scratching against his skin as though grasping for purchase, to hold and to keep him. “I’ve missed you,” she says rawly, and he feels a pang of guilt sharp as the frigid nights at the Wall for the way that she says it – as though he has come home again, as though this is more than a place for him to rest his head before continuing in the morn; as though the war is over, and not merely begun. Briefly he wonders if he made the best choice, returning to Winterfell to bid his goodbyes, or if he is only prolonging the pain, letting the wound fester rather than heal clean. Greedily Catelyn turns her face up and kisses him, and he can taste the salt on her lips even as she opens her mouth to him.
He moans at the familiar sensation, and fists one hand in her hair, clutching the other at her waist. The needy sound she makes at the back of her throat shoots straight down to his cock, and he moves his hand to cup under her bottom, to pull her up against him, thinking at the same time that it is the last thing he should do.
“Cat…” he murmurs against her jaw, a half protest as he is recalled to himself when she reaches for the laces of his breeches.
She exhales angrily, her breath hot on his cheek. “Do not dare speak to me of vows, Ned. I think whatever promises you made before your gods, they will forgive your lying with your wife.”
“You are not my wife anymore.”
He grasps her wrists when she jerks away, face stunned as though he has struck her. “I do not mean it to hurt you,” he says, urgency laced in his words. “But it is the truth of the matter. And I do not wish to make it any more difficult…for either of us. For any of us.” He slides his fingers into her own, squeezing, suddenly struck by the image of his family living in Winterfell, his children growing without him, closing the place where he once resided. Robb would wed and rule, and the others would marry and start their own families perhaps in the far corners of Westeros. And Cat would remain here, he thinks, while he would grow old (or perhaps not) at the Wall. “If you wished to wed again, you have my blessing,” he tells her suddenly. She is still beautiful, still young enough that to ask her to spend the rest of her days alone is a cruelty. Cat is made for love, he thinks, and deserves it; she should not be forced to martyr herself for the rest of her days for his poor decisions.
“Stop,” she tells him, face pained as she pulls her wrists away, goes to sit in the chair by the fire. “I do not wish to speak of this.” She rubs her face wearily, and he can see her ten years from now sitting in much the same fashion, stoic but staggering under the weight of grief, and for not the first time he wishes she were not quite so stubborn. He wonders if it would be easier had their marriage not grown to love, so many years past – wonders, but does not wish it.
He follows her, kneels carefully before her, and reaches for the laces of her boots. He pulls them from her feet, fingers kneading the tender arch through her stockings, and he hears her shakily exhale, feels the tension she holds tight as a drawn bow release slightly. Almost unconsciously, he reaches along her legs to draw her stockings down, letting them droop to her ankles, and traces his fingers along her bare thighs, pushing her skirts up so that the whiteness of her skin is exposed.
“Ned…” she breathes, and it is as much of a plea as a sigh of pleasure, and he kisses the inside of her knee, hooks his thumbs along her smallclothes, nuzzles against her leg.
He nods against her, kissing her thigh now, and she lifts her hips from the chair so that he can work her smallclothes down her legs. “We will not speak of it,” he relents, and he wonders which he means – a possible new marriage for Catelyn, his return to the Wall and the vows he said, the truth of what they are and are not. They are things for the morning, he decides as he draws her skin between his lips, suckling a mark into it, holding her knees to nudge her legs apart. They are things that shall come to them whether they worry of them tonight or not, and he cannot help but wish as strongly as she to forget until the dawn will no longer let them.
She cries out sharply when he slides his tongue along her sex, curling his fingers under her thighs to tug her closer, to the edge of the chair where he can reach her better, drag his mouth across her. Her hand grips his hair almost painfully, and the ache is sweet; but then she is pulling him away, pulling him back to sit on his heels. Ned grunts in surprise, wincing as Catelyn urges him backwards and his leg twinges at the sudden change in position. He puts her hands to her hips to steady her as she slides from the chair and straddles him, kneeling up over him, and he does not stop her as she reaches for his breeches this time. Instead he tugs at the laces at the front of her gown, pulling them free so that he can open her bodice to reveal her breasts.
He pulls at her dress and shift, urging the material over her head even after she sinks down onto him, taking him inside with a throaty moan. She struggles to pull it off before settling her hands on his chest, nails biting in through his tunic and shirt as she rolls her hips. He lets her set the pace of their movement, taking the time to appreciate the sight of her naked over him, to sear it into his mind. He runs his hands along her stomach, up over her breasts to cup them in his palms, rubbing his thumbs over her nipples until they harden to peaks beneath his touch.
Sitting up, he slides his hands to the small of her back and pulls her further onto him so that she gasps and shudders. He takes the time to kiss her neck, her jaw, breathe the smell of the blossom water behind her ear. It could never be enough to sate him for the endless nights alone that lie ahead, but he pretends it can be as he drops his mouth to her collarbone, kisses down to her breast and draws the nipple in his mouth now as she leans back to give him access.
Her movements become more stuttering as she comes closer to her release, and he juts his hips up to drive deeper so that she cries out against his shoulder. The sounds are as much pain as they are pleasure, but she clings to him so tightly and their movements are so easy and familiar that he knows the hurt in her voice is not of a physical sort.
Cat pulls his mouth back up to hers, and her mouth and hands and cunt are all so hot that for a brief moment he forgets the aching cold that has burrowed inside him and remembers how it feels to be warm. She clings to him tightly when she comes, face pressing against his neck, and it only takes a few more thrusts before he joins her and he feels his seed damp on both of them.
After, she unlaces his tunic, pulls at his shirt and breeches and boots much the way he did her, so that she can kiss the scars on his chest, put her hands on his stomach and slide her thigh along his own to enjoy the sensation of skin on skin. He holds her tight against him, and he wonders again about his vows when they move to the bed and make love again, hands grasping as though they are drowning so that the act is far more difficult this time. He thinks of other men at the Wall, with wives and children they left behind, and wonders if any of them were truly able to keep that vow to cut them from their hearts, if they meant the promise that they would not love in order to better serve.
Ned believes in meaning the words you say, but it is a far more difficult thing to expect the heart to take orders from the mind and mouth.
It is not until after Catelyn falls asleep, late into the night as she fights against the exhaustion, that he realizes with a jolt that he should have pulled back before spending, that if he gives her a child it would be a bastard in the eyes of the realm now. It is such a strange, unsettling thought that he can scarcely wrap his mind around it as he watches Catelyn sleep and strokes her hair and back, and dully he reminds himself to stop and ask Maester Luwin to bring her a draught before he leaves. He is certain that the loyal maester will not reveal his knowledge or speak to anyone of the request, and he is equally sure that Catelyn will not take anything he prescribes her to stop the bringing of a babe.
It is in the hands of the Gods, he thinks, and that brings him less comfort than it once did. He knows his Gods are just and play no parts in the foolish wars and sufferings of men, but he cannot help but feel that the Starks have somehow fallen into their disfavor.
He leaves before first light breaks the next morning, carefully disentangling himself from Catelyn, her thigh draped over his good leg, her fingers digging into his shoulder. He knows she will be furious when she awakens to find him gone without waking her to bid a final goodbye, but it is a thing that he cannot bring himself to think upon – he does not trust his own resolve in that matter. It is easier with her sleeping, with his children sleeping, (I have no children, he reminds himself, that lie over and over) when he does not have to look in their eyes and turn his back. He pulls the furs over her – the room is colder than her own – and drops a kiss to her hair, smoothing it back from where it is wild over her face. He thinks perhaps it is better this way, anyway, that perhaps her anger would lend her strength.
He will have to find something else to lend him strength of his own.