Jon is about four years old when he realizes that he's treated differently from Robb and Sansa. He doesn't quite understand how – mostly the servants don't treat him as politely as they do to Robb, and their father always seems to be rather sad whenever Jon catches him staring – but it's Lady Catelyn Stark's cold glares that has him wondering what separates him from his siblings.
Sure, he doesn't have auburn hair or blue eyes like Lady Stark, baby Sansa, or Robb, but he thinks he looks like Lord Stark with his dark hair and grey eyes. Lady Stark loves Lord Stark, so shouldn't she love Jon too?
His first thought is to ask Robb, but he doesn't want to be teased in case he's making it up, and he also thinks of asking Maester Luwin, but he's always busy and Jon doesn't want to bother him.
He then decides to keep it to himself, at least until one day when Robb and Jon are learning their basic alphabet and Robb drags Jon along to show off his work to Lady Stark.
It's the first and last time Jon calls Lady Stark 'Mother' – it was a slip of the tongue and he didn't quite realize how odd it is that he's never done it until that moment. She takes a threatening step towards him, as if she's about to slap him, but she stops herself short and says with barely contained fury, "Don't you dare call me 'Mother' again. It's Lady Stark to you, Snow."
It's also the first time anyone has called him by that name.
Jon sits in his room during supper claiming to be ill, feeling like he was slapped anyway, hot tears blurring his vision until Lord Stark enters his room, a resigned expression on his face. He explains to Jon as best he can that his mother is not Lady Stark, that his mother died when he was born and he's a bastard.
Jon's heard the term bastard a few times around the castle, but he never thought they were talking about him.
(He'll soon come to despise that word.)
Lord Stark calls him 'Jon' with a sad expression on his face. Lady Stark calls him 'Snow' with barely concealed contempt. Maester Luwin calls him 'Young Jon,' but he calls Robb 'Young Robb' also, so it's not very affectionate or special. Robb calls him 'Snow' when playfully competing with swords or racing in the corridors, but calls him 'Jon' every other time.
Everyone else calls him 'Jon Snow,' a constant reminder of his improper stance and how not a Stark he really is.
Jon Snow, not Jon Stark.
(No matter how much he wishes he were.)
On a really hot day, Maester Luwin tells Jon that bastards are believed to be evil and deceitful, like the affairs that brought them into this world. "It's not fair, and certainly not correct," Maester Luwin tells Jon as he wraps his wrist in a bandage, sympathy and sorrow written on his aging face, "but that's how it is."
Jon has always taken that as a challenge.
A year later another Stark is born – a girl with dark hair and eyes – the same features as Lord Stark and Jon can hope that maybe he won't feel so alone amongst his fairer siblings.
When he sees Arya for the first time, she grips his finger so tightly and he silently promises to look after her as best he can.
That same year, Theon Greyjoy is brought to Winterfell, a ward of Lord Stark. Jon doesn't know the details because war is still a confusing, hazy thing that adults tend to keep their mouths shut about when around children, but Theon soon joins in on whatever Jon and Robb do.
Jon doesn't mind Theon until he starts getting comfortable. Theon finds humor in stupid things and is rather mean to those whom he disrespects, including Jon.
"So you're a bastard," Theon drawls one day when Jon and Robb are practicing with their small swords.
Jon narrows his eyes at Theon. It's one thing for adults to call him that, but it's another when someone who is almost his age calls him that.
"He's my brother," Robb retorts.
(Jon will never admit this, but the way Robb takes the word 'bastard' as an insult for Jon's sake is something he appreciates beyond words.)
"Half brother," Theon corrects.
"Well he's more family than you will ever be!"
Then Theon attacks Robb and Jon immediately goes into the fray. It doesn't take long for them to be split up, but somehow after all that, Robb and Theon manage to bond as they're getting their cuts mended.
Theon never calls Jon a bastard again, but Jon still doesn't like him.
Jon doesn't really pray to the old gods. He makes wishes, he supposes, asking for information on his mother, or asking to somehow convince Lord Stark to be honest with him, but nothing happens. Sometimes he feels the brush of wind on his cheek in a way he thinks a mother's caress would feel like, but.
He doesn't sense anything helpful in these woods – only intense sadness that seeps under his skin and doesn't leave.
Besides, he doesn't think any words in his vocabulary would be enough to say anything remarkable to these gods as old as the sun itself.
Still, he closes his eyes like Lord Stark is doing now and pretends.
The sister in question is watching a few yards away, her blue eyes shining with whatever magic she believes the world to have. Sometimes Jon is tempted to shake her and say that this world isn't a fairytale, but there's no doubt she'll marry a lord or a prince, so his point isn't worth fighting for.
Robb laughs. "She hasn't been following me."
Jon understands the insinuation in a heartbeat. "Me?"
"Yeah, you – you're her dark, handsome knight," Robb teases, making Jon flush.
"That's gross," Jon snaps.
"Doesn't mean it isn't true." Rob pokes Jon's stomach and laughs, continuing to do so even when Jon tries to really hit him enough to bruise.
"Hey, what's this? You're not Jon's shadow anymore?" Robb calls across, resting his weight on his wooden sword.
"He's my half brother," she answers, as if it explains everything.
And it does.
Robb's about to open his mouth and protest, no doubt give a speech about how Jon is just as much her brother as he is, but Jon just places a hand on Robb's shoulder. "Come on, I bet I can beat you in five moves."
"Oh, yeah right."
And Robb forgets about it, but Jon never does; it's strange seeing a mother's intent behind the eyes of a small girl.
Jon tries not to be jealous, but he doesn't think he succeeds, given the cold warning glares he receives from Lady Stark.
(Sometimes he thinks he's more prepared for the chill of winter than anyone else.)
Jon feels Lady Stark's contempt burn the back of his neck constantly for about a month before she seems to accept that no amount of wishing would suddenly turn Bran's hair dark like Jon's or darken and shift Bran's eyes to silver-grey like Jon's. Like Lord Stark's.
(Jon would change every feature of his body just to stop the glares and the whisperings of the castle; if he hears another murmur about how the bastard looks more like a true born again, he might scream because it doesn't even matter – it doesn't help a damn bit.)
"I'm sorry, Jon. Maybe when you're older."
He wants to argue, claim he's ten and so close to being considered a man, but he bites his tongue hard and walks away, even though it's terrible manners. But he's smart enough to realize he can get away with it, at least little things like this, due to whatever guilt or sorrow that shadows Lord Stark's face whenever he stares at Jon for too long.
It drives Jon mad.
"What do you think your next sibling is going to be?" Jon asks Arya as she scratches marks into the ground with a stick with a humorous amount of concentration.
"I don't know," she mutters, not looking up. "It should be nice though."
Jon smiles at her and nods. "Nice would be good."
"Not like Sansa. She's not nice."
Jon purses his mouth and doesn't say anything.
"You know it's true," she adds, finally looking up, piercing him with her gaze, eyes identical to his own.
"She's young," he relents.
"I'm younger than her and I'm nicer than she is. Admit it."
He sighs. "She could be kinder to you, but she's your sister – she loves you."
"I don't believe that."
He almost laughs at her petulance, but he knows better at this point than to laugh at her (he still has a bruise on his arm to prove it). "You could be kinder to her too, you know."
She looks down again and doesn't say another word until she challenges him to a race back to the castle.
He slows himself down enough to be equal with her, but close to the finish line, she yells, out of breath, "Stop going easy on me!"
So he finishes first.
When she catches up with him, she says, "One day I'll beat you."
He ruffles her hair. "We'll see about that."
He holds her close in private as she cries into her chest, hating to admit that being called 'horse face' by her sister stings more than a needle prick and she stands close to him when her mother calls him 'Snow' in a tone that could freeze the south.
Is it selfish that he appreciates having someone who can maybe understand just a little?
And Jon has an obligation to do his very best, even if it means beating Robb every now and again, despite the disapproving glares from Lady Stark; he refuses to let her scare him. He may not be a true Stark, but he has Stark blood in him – winter is coming means more than just the inevitable change in seasons and it's in his blood to be prepared for anything.
That night Arya sneaks into his bed and stubborn tears stain the shared pillow as he runs a comforting hand through her dark hair.
He thought Lady Stark's enthusiastic response would make it okay, but it just makes him sick to his stomach.
(That wasn't his best, he could've continued fighting longer, how is he supposed to be viewed as a man of honor if he can't keep his own personal vows?)
(It's the closest he'll get to saying anything remarkable.)
When he's finished, he drops his arms and clenches his fists on dead leaves, trying to gather the strength to stand.
He feels the wind on his hot cheeks like a cooling balm and he can pretend for a moment that his tears are being wiped away.
Finally he rubs a sleeve over his face as he stands up, brushing his hands on his trousers and when he turns to go back to Winterfell, he sees his father, Lord Stark, standing a few feet away with a conflicted expression.
Jon doesn't know how long he's been there, if he heard him, but Jon just looks forward and walks past him without a word.
Bran is way ahead of them, walking on the wall and considering climbing higher.
Eventually they all make it to the top without dropping anyone and they just stare ahead where the sun setting – the sky painted in oranges, yellows, purples, and colors he doesn't even know the names of.
"Oh, it's beautiful," Sansa sighs.
"It's alright," Arya mutters, but her eyes are wide and bright.
They watch in silence until the sun disappears behind the horizon.
"You're far from one of them, Snow," he says to Jon and there's something in his eyes – Jon doesn't know if it's the hatred for him or the jealousy that burns whenever he watches Lord Stark indulge in child's play with or the unbearable loneliness that comes with fundamentally not belonging that gets to him, but he's left behind in the cold, his breaths coming out in shaky gasps.
They spend twenty-four hours together – miserable in bed and he holds her hair back when she vomits and she keeps a comforting hand on his back when he does the same; he'll try to tell her stories, even though he keeps forgetting how half of them turn out, but she just shakes her head and finishes them for him.
The next morning when they wake up with hunger instead of nausea, she says, "I'm sorry."
He just smiles and curls a stray piece of hair behind her ear. He knows they won't truly speak again, that she'll keep her distance once they're better just like he will, but it's okay.
It really is.
Winter is coming, yes, there's no question there, but he won't be running away from it, nor will he accept it passively –
He's charging right at it.