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The Whispering Ghosts (Left You Out In The Cold)

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Sansa doesn’t recognize the man that stands before her, but she knows him (would know him anywhere, under any face he chose to wear). He’s grown older, but so has she--they’re so much older than they ought to be.

Jon looks up at her with sunken eyes, dark as coals--a scar slashes down his face, puckered and white; Ghost at his side lean with matted fur, his red eyes hungry, jaws bared. Jon's weathered and worn, like old leather and thinner than she remembers, the roundness of his cheeks gone leaving only hollows shadowing his face; she doesn't think about her own fragile looking wrists, the way her gown fits loose where it used to hug her curves (war makes skeletons of us all, then winter came and took the rest). He looks ancient, she thinks, a rusted relic from a long time past, dug up from under the snow to come haunt her.

He kneels at her feet without a word and it hurts, more than she thought it would, to be greeted in such a way by him (she wants to run into his arms and hold him until their bones creak and crack under the pressure, she wants to never let go, to touch him and see if he’s really there, if he’s real at all)--they're the only ones left and Jon remembers his courtesies. Sansa stays seated, spine straight; they mustn’t forget themselves--but she has been forgetting, bit by bit, time slowly eroding away the last of the girl Jon Snow knew.

She's worn so many faces: is she Alayne now, or herself, or has she finally become the Queen in the North, regal and frosty and carved from stone?

"My queen," he says; it hurts her ears (she wants to hear her name, on his lips and curling over his tongue, she just wants to hear her name).

Queen of what? Sansa thinks, bitterness the only thing she can taste.

She brought the North hope and they gave her a crown of bronze and steel; in return only desolation came, famine, and death--death covered the land, not in blood, but in snow and ice, the purest of white. Her castle falls down around her, crumbling stone and shambles, a burnt out husk of what remains of Winterfell (they're all remains, Sansa thinks, she and Jon and Winterfell, what's left when all the rest is gone--the last of the Starks, ghosts in their own right)--her kingdom is a wasteland and her courtiers corpses.

Queen of what, Jon Snow, she wants to say, and laugh and laugh.

She keeps her face impassive and smooth, emotionless in the way Petyr taught her (her mockingbird still sings in her ear, a mask, Sansa, we mustn't let him see the cracks--we mustn’t let him see you breaking) and Sansa doesn’t let Jon see.

(Sister, if only he would call me sister, she thinks--everything would be better, he would see.)

Jon bows his head and says the words, swearing fealty to a mad queen on her throne made of wood and nails.

Sansa steps down off the dais and walks towards him as Jon rises to his feet. They're at a similar height, she realizes when she stands in front of Jon and looks straight into his eyes. She brings her hand to his face, pale fingers like dry twigs under her parchment skin caged around his cheek. "Welcome, brother," Sansa says, leaning up and brushing a kiss across his forehead.

The wall finally fell (she felt the quaking of it, trembling under feet and shaking the walls around her--she remembers thinking, this is how I will die), and winter came and brought Jon home.

 

 


The soup is thin and tasteless, more like heated water with floating greenery that could have been once parts of a vegetable, but Jon has to pace himself, remember to take slow spoonfuls and not pick up his bowl and pour it down his throat--it will only come back up again. It’s been a day (or was it two or three?) since he’d last eaten and anything in his stomach feels filling, dulls the ache in his head that pulsates behind his eyes, and it’s warm; he convinced himself he had forgotten what warm felt like.

All he remembers is snow and ice and glowing blue eyes in the dark.

(He remembers blood on his hands, blood coating Ghost’s mouth and jaws, red as his eyes, staining his fur, and the screams that still ring in his ears, his men--his brothers--dropping dead, dying in his arms, dying at the end of his sword or in a burst of flames--death, death, death; it’s in his veins, the taste on his tongue like smoke at the back of throat, it’s the only thing that pervades through the numbness the cold brings.)

Sansa watches him, her gaze weighing heavy and unflinching as she twirls her spoon through her soup, hardly taking a bite. Eat, he wants to tell her, wants to force it into her mouth, but he bites his tongue and remains seated--she’s not thirteen-years-old anymore and you’re a bastard once again, what right do you have to tell your queen what to do? The servants--survivors, what’s left of the North, he imagines; Sansa did a better job of keeping her people safe, alive and it wounds him, but pride tugs at his heart as well--dine around them with larger portions and bread (crude, lumpy, dark brown mounds--but still bread) and Jon realizes he did not have a chance of making her listen, she had decided her course of action long before he arrived.

(He cannot begrudge her that, for he’s decided his as well.)

Perhaps noting his distress, she sips delicately at her spoon and forces a smile at him from across the table. It doesn’t brighten her face like it used to. He remembers her in flashes, the girl he used to know; a shock of red hair and high-pitched, full-bodied laughter, her eyes clear blue like the sky hasn’t been in years, blue like a summer’s day--he remembers her like he remembers summer, like tale of a distant place, hard to imagine and difficult to believe. The Sansa that sits across from has grown up and grown bleak with eyes sad and painful to look into, cutting a gaunt figure, diminished in ways he can’t explain. But there’s still steel in her, rusted and dull as it may be, he can see it in the jut of her jaw and the way she pulls her shoulders back, the way she carries the crown on her head.

(He can see it in her eyes, a familiar fire the color of her hair--lucky, he thinks, but none of them were ever really lucky; he wonders if he touched her, would she crumble in his hands? Turn to dust and blow away on the wind like all the rest, to join the redheaded ghosts that haunt his dreams?)

“Have you--” he says, but the words are hard to say, sentences harder (he hasn’t spoken to anyone but himself and Ghost in month and those were sparse and scattered), they tumble on his tongue and won’t come out of his mouth; he wants to know, like a splinter in his thumb that’s festered and painful to the touch--he just wants it out, no matter how much it’ll sting. “Arya? Bran? Rickon?” It’s all he can get out, their names in the order they were born, forever cutting small figures in his mind.

She shakes her head, whatever warmth that had started up under her skin freezing over and she looks at him as she did when she greeted him, made of ice, a woman he didn’t recognize. “Robb,” she says, her mouth moving carefully over the syllables as she speaks, “was given back to me, before. I laid him in the crypts, where our Lord Father would have gone, had anyone ever recovered his bones.” She says it plainly, her voice flat, nary a trace of emotion in it and it stabs, instead of stinging, and twists in his gut.

Sansa pushes her bowl away, the sip she took her only one, and stands up. “If you’ll excuse me, I think I will retire for the night.” She disappears after that, down a shadow-filled hall to the right; no one but him noticed a thing and Jon would find that odd, if their eyes did not reflect back the deadened look he’s sure is in his own.

He wanders through the halls of Winterfell after he finishes, Ghost following at his heels, carrying the bone Sansa had found for him between his teeth (they don’t notice when he leaves, either--he wonders if they noticed him there at all, or if he’s become just another ghost in Winterfell to them). He takes in the damage he can see by candlelight, careful of his footing around crumbling stone, finding his way by memory to his room (their, he thinks, we used to share, Robb and I--the thought pierces him, an old dull ache underneath his ribs; he can’t stop thinking of Robb. He’s here, below, forcing his feet up when they want to take him down).

Jon turns a corner and sees it survived nearly intact, just the walls singed with ink-black soot climbing up from the floor; it doesn’t smell like anything familiar, it smells of dust and smoke (he'll never escape that scent, even here it chases his steps and burns at his eyes, but he never feels the heat, no matter how many of his them he had to burn---it was always too cold for it to last, to make an impression upon his skin).

I’m home, he realizes for the first time, but it doesn’t feel like it, this room is too empty, devoid of sound (Robb’s laughter echoes through his head, his voice whispering secret words he can’t remember, but he can remember the cadence, the rich timbre of his voice--it sends shivers across his skin); he doesn’t fit here anymore, if he ever did--but the Wall is gone, and he has to belong somewhere.

(Jon Snow, maybe you should have stayed out there, with the ice and the cold, maybe that’s where you were always headed; Lord Snow with his frozen over heart, the last watcher on the wall, you should have gone down with it.)

He kicks off his boots, but leaves the rest off his clothes on and slides under the furs, closing his eyes to the room (because it’s a bed and it’s warm and he can’t remember when he had last slept in one, been near one---it would be nice to be in one again, to rest, to finally rest); Ghost climbs up and over him, settling in at his side. Sleep won’t come easy, he knows, if it comes at all--not the kind he needs.

It plays across the back of his eyelids, the last days and the days before, blurring into his mind like one long battle; he thinks sometimes that’s all his life was, a battle--a struggle to belong, a fight to understand, a war to survive. He railed against anything everything until he had to pick up arms and fight with his hands, then he never put down his sword; a bastard sword for a bastard boy, stained now in the blood of his men--he can still see the pieces of them, remembers that better than when they were whole, rendered down to parts, unless they stood up and walked again once more, then it would be their eyes he remembered.

(Only bright things stand out, demand their space in his overburdened mind--Sam, who he sent away South, somewhere warmer, somewhere safer--maybe I saved Sam, he could be content if he accomplished that; and Ygritte, burning brighter than the flame of her hair and snuffed out in his arms, cold fingers against his cheek--he still hasn’t learned anything.)

His eyes open to the darkness and all he can see are spectres at the corners of his eyes, dancing in the shadows, tugging at his memory and pulling out scenes he tucked away years ago, never to think of again when he made his choice and turned his back to this place. But Robb won’t leave him alone (he says, welcome, brother, with his wolf’s grin and blood in his eyes, a nightmare, half a man and half Grey Wind, with his crown nailed to his head; maybe it’s better this way, Jon thinks--his heart aches when Robb shifts and becomes a ghost in his bed, his fingers drifting like mist through Jon’s hair--the nightmare more preferable than the boy he left behind.)

Awake or dreaming, he can never tell--he can never find rest, either.

Exhaustion takes its hold, if only for a moment (he’s tired, more tired than he’s ever felt--it’s marrow deep, this weariness and there’s no end to it--he’s been running from his own mind too long); his eyes slip closed, hand curled in the fur at the nape of Ghost’s neck, if only he couldn’t dream.

His eyes blink open when a warm body slides in next to him, slight and narrow. He makes out red hair in the silver of moonlight and he wants to back away (he remembers chilly nights beyond the Wall and a redheaded girl slipping into his furs, telling him he stole her and pressing close), but it feels too solid, too warm--then he realizes, it’s Sansa, crawling into his bed like she was still small (crawling in like Ygritte). She fits herself against his side, filling in the empty spaces and grooves in his body, her jutting bones sharp when they interlock with his. It feels nice, even if she does not say anything at all, distracting--he feels her face press against his throat, her breath hot on his collarbone as her arm winds around his chest (her hand rests above his heart, weighty and reminding him it’s still beating) and her spindly leg drifts over his thighs, curling around him as her her cold feet tuck in behind his calves; she clutches him then, her hold tight and bruising.

(It feels good to be held, like he’s something real--he nearly forgot.)

Her breath falls into the smooth, easy cadence of sleep and he almost follows her under (she feels like a cure to chase his demons away, if only for an evening) when her body jerks against him, her limbs flailing wildly; he has to wrestle her down, pressing her arms to her side as she kicks at him (she’s thin and brittle, but she’s strong)--all the while, she doesn’t wake, even when names roll off her tongue (names he knows, names he tried to forget, names that hit him in the gut and make it hard to breathe); she screams them into the dark, her breath hitching on Arya until she repeats it, over and over again, until it becomes just a whisper as she falls limp in his hands and he curls around her, offering what little protection from her dreams his body can provide.

(Sansa, Sansa, Sansa; you’re alive--it’s a mantra in his head, feeling her under his hands, elating and devastating all at once, he can’t decide; maybe dead is better--what manner of creature have you become, sweet sister?)

 

 


Sansa wakes to the cold, her eyes squinting in the dull morning light and her breath fogging in the air; she doesn’t want to move out from under the furs (she wants to stay here and not get up, lay here until it’s over--somehow she always musters the will to move, to pull herself up and put her feet on the floor, though it’s getting harder every passing day). She thought it would be warmer this morning as she stretches out across the bed, limbs falling into empty spaces where Jon should be, she thought--had she imagined him?

It wouldn’t be the first time (her family flickers around her, hiding in corners and following her through the halls--Rickon giggling behind a pillar, Arya rushing past her down stairs like a strong Northern wind, her mother pressing a kiss to her forehead when her eyes flutter closed; they’re all around her, memories come to life, breathing in her head), but he felt solid, she could touch him, grasp him in her hands and have him not disappear.

(He’s gone now.)

A sense of dread rises up in her chest, panic squeezing at her throat; it pushes her out of the bed (Jon’s bed, not her own, she realizes, taking in her unfamiliar surroundings--she’s always known where it was, but she doesn’t ever remember being inside) and she sticks her feet in the slippers she left on the floor (she remembers those, kicking them off before she crawled next to him). She feels strange in the pit of her stomach, beyond the gnawing hunger she’s grown used to, like a twisting that stands out amongst the usual pangs--she misses him, but not like before, it’s different now, stronger; she felt whole curled against his side and now she feels like she’s missing pieces all over again. Sansa untangles a smaller fur from the bed and wraps it around her shoulders before setting off.

The search is long and frantic as she tears through the castle on numb feet (she tells herself over and over, no, he didn’t leave, he didn’t, and tries not to think that she made him up inside her head; he was real, I touched him and he was flesh and blood, just like me). No one comments about or stares at their queen in her night dress and her hair undone as she wanders past. They don’t even meet her eyes (sometimes she feels like a ghost and it makes her want to scream and throw things, tear the place apart; anything to wake them from their stupor, but she never does--it seems cruel to remind them they’re still alive when only death waits for them all outside these walls).

Her pursuit leads her below, into the crypts. Sansa remembers she used to shake at the thought of plunging herself into this darkness, Old Nan’s tales spinning around in her head as fear ran through her veins, but now she holds her candle in a firm hand as she descends (she knows now that the ghosts can’t hurt her, not in the way she thought). As she walks the path where rows and rows of her dead ancestors lay, she hears her own young, girlish screams echo through the gloom and her hand tightens on air like it tightened on Robb’s arm--Jon and Robb’s laughter rings in her head, ending suddenly by the thud of Arya’s punch on Jon’s cheek (they used to play down here, mere children playing at shadows; she remembers, though it feels like hundreds years past--now that’s all they are, shadows, phantoms in the dark.)

She finds Jon curled over Robb, candle burning low near their father’s half-finished likeness, face pressed to the dirt with Ghost at his side. They’re a matched set, still and pale, waning in the dirt; Jon looks barely alive, hardly breathing, the pair of them like dogs who have lain down to die.

Fury burns through her body and Sansa shakes with it; she wants to beat her hands against his back, kick his side, throw herself over him and sob, beg until he gets up--how dare you give up when I just got you back, how dare you. She falls to the ground beside him instead, too drained to act and the anger dissipates; it’s hard to remember it was there at all (she finds she’s forgiven him already). Sansa inches closer and her fingers seek his hair, stroking through the tangles; he moves only to lay his face in her lap, tears burning hotly through the thin material of her skirt. She whispers soothing, nonsense words, a sob builds in her throat; she doesn’t want to have to bury another sibling--but I’ll bury you next to him, if that’s what you want, if that’s what you came here for--I cannot begrudge you the peace you seek.

(I cannot condemn you for missing him.)

“I miss him, too,” she says mostly to herself, her voice barely above a whisper, “I miss them all.”

(They were torn from me, one-by-one.)

--but it’s Arya who she misses most, Arya who sits just out of reach.

Arya tugs at her consciousness and tangles herself in Sansa’s being; she’s alive in her dreams. She calls herself no one and lives in a warm place where the sun beats down on her skin, far away and untouched by death, but death lingers on her hands and she gifts it wherever she goes. Sansa’s been inside her, seen through her eyes, when she’s not wearing someone else’s face, she’s grown taller, but she’s still small, still her little sister--Sansa whispers her name to her at night (Arya, Arya, Arya) and hopes she’ll remember and find her way back (sometimes she just wants to slip inside her skin and never leave, let Arya carry her around until they run out of heart beats, until they can’t breathe anymore, buckled under the weight of two of them inside one body and they die, never alone again).

She wants to ask Jon if it’s ever happened to him--have you worn Ghost’s skin, Jon?--(she heard him in her sleep, too; distant and far away, and all she could remember is snow and blue eyes that haunted her long before she faced them), but he lays without speaking, without moving and she’s not sure if she’s welcome to trespass there--she wants to tell him, for the relief of having someone to tell, I slipped inside a bird once, and I flew.

But Sansa remains silent and stays, until her candle burns low and snuffs out like his, rubbing soft circles into his scalp--Jon stands, eventually and offers his hand to her; they find their way out of the darkness with their fingers intertwined.

(She can always ask him later.)

 

 


Time passes slowly, moving at a halting, dragging pace; they don’t keep track of the days, but Jon knows the sun still sets and rises, he knows that he’s still here.

Sansa slips into his bed every night long after the candles have gone out, curling against his front while Ghost shuffles to stretch along her back. Sometimes she screams, other times she sleeps peacefully through the night (those are becoming more frequent as something settles within her); sometimes he wakes from a nightmare to knowing blue eyes, hovering over him--she’ll kiss his forehead and stuck herself closer to his side on those nights.

His days are spent at Sansa’s side with Ghost at his heels (a hand at the nape of his neck, soothingly stroking his fur to quell the tension his body), watching her as she moves among her people (he doesn’t recognize any of their faces, not a single one; he thinks sometimes that everyone he knew is dead and doesn’t know how to feel); she smiles, her mouth tight and it doesn’t reach her eyes, and they return her false cheer, despite their aching bellies (hunger gnaws at them all). She sits and talks with them a while, the words they speak blurring together, no more meaningful than their existence, but Jon sits and listens, letting it wash over him anyway, a shadow at Sansa’s back.

There aren’t any children--that sticks out to him, almost harshly (sometimes he thinks it’s a blessing and he feels sick with it, barely recognizing himself anymore).

Jon thinks they’ve grown accustomed to him, but it’s not any noticeable difference; they all pass through the halls without acknowledging each other, careful to side-step Ghost and his perpetually bared jaws (he thinks it’s cruel, letting them wait for the inevitable, but he learned long ago that the old gods were never the merciful sort). Sansa whispers their names to him, tells him who their families are (or were, they’re all fragmented pieces with no place else to go), gifts him with the information she pried out of them with kindness; she knows them, every single one.

It’s helpful when they start speaking to him, every now and again, asking small-voiced questions about the Wall, about beyond; they listen with rapt attention, even though he was never much of a storyteller (he tries, searching for ways to imitate Old Nan’s cadence, the way she could weave words)--he tries to keep it lighter, altering events, creating heroes where there were none. He looks up and Sansa is sitting with her chin in her hands, and it feels like time has flipped back, her eyes wide and locked on his, looking thirteen and enchanted with the wonderment of a story.

He wants to be useful, Jon spent too many days in action to resign himself to idle occupation, but there’s nothing to be done. Sansa lets him take inventory of their stores once, warning him with a guarded gaze that tells him not to speak of his findings--they’re depleted, far more than he thought when he arrived and he starts a rationing plan in his head before he realizes how utterly useless that is. He punches the wall and the bones crack in his hand; Sansa doesn’t give him anything more to do after she sets them, wrapping cloth torn from an old dress of hers tightly around his palm and he doesn’t ask.

They are her people, but they become his; he can’t quite shake the instinct to govern, to lead--sometimes he feels like it’s a mistake (he was never meant for it--Sansa outshines him, ruling with an effortless grace---he feels like his blood always tells). He starts to see his men in their weary looks, brief flashes of their laughing faces grown somber and wrecked, blood splashed across their features and dirt smudged on their cheeks (he remembers Pyp begged Grenn to kill him near the end, breaking slowly--Jon found them later, tucked into a corner together, eyes opened wide and unmoving, red spreading across their laps; Satin shook with fever in Jon’s bed, he died shaking in Jon’s arms).

Jon should have seen it coming; Ghost is hungrier than most with nothing to hunt and nothing to eat, only bones to chew and crack, but he can’t subside on marrow alone.

(Jon doesn’t know how he survives made up of just fur and bones, all his flesh eaten away; sometimes he thinks it’s his fault for living, that Ghost persists long after he should have perished because of some inextricable link between the two, that somehow their lifelines became tangled---he breathes because Jon breathes, his heart still pumping life through his body because Jon’s won’t quit).

He did it once before, during their trek through the snow; Jon thought he was charging a wight---it wasn’t until he heard the scream and the wet crunch that silenced it that he realized his mistake (Ghost had dragged the body over to him after and Jon saw it was a man through his frost-bitten cheeks and blackened nose, around the garish red gash where his throat used to be and the missing chunks in his torso--the fire had charred most of the taste away, but he wouldn’t forget it). This man doesn’t yell as he goes down; Ghost is too quick (almost as if he’d been plotting and biding his time, seeking his opportunity to strike), his teeth sunk into his throat before he can even yelp. The screams come after, people running to come see what happened, shrieking at the sight (Jon wonders if it’s shocked them awake as he watches them act more alive than he’d ever seen them).

Sansa watches at his side, face impassive and body stock-still, and he expects her to react, to scream, but her expression shifts and she looks resolved, her shoulders falling back; she does nothing, even as some people dissolve into hysterics around her, having to be held back--she lets Ghost drag the body away (he wants to thank her, but it feels shameful as he looks around at the tear-stained faces, the blood on the floor---at least, it shouldn’t happen again, he thinks).

Sometimes people just die, their bodies giving out under the duress in the absence of violence--sometimes they starve, but eventually, their numbers drop. A woman collapses one day and Jon watches the faces grow grim. They carry her to her bed, with Sansa leading the instruction. She wipes at her red-cheeked face with a cool cloth and tends to her the best she can; she tries to feed her broth, but it only comes back up again, coughed out over the bed linen and furs. Jon watches as Sansa sits at her bedside, holding her hand until she passes.

“Illness is always better,” she says flatly as she walks out of the room for the first time in days, letting the others gather the body up in the sheets. She says it like she’s had some experience (Jon doesn’t want to think about how many people’s bedsides Sansa has sat at, how many hands she’s held until the end, but he sees it on her face, in the lines on too young skin), “It’s quicker and cleaner, they don’t linger quite so long.”

Her hands shake as she tucks strands of her hair behind her ear, tugging nervously at her sleeve, her eyes glassy and unfocused (he wants to shake her out of it, wants her to focus on him and breathing, to bring her back). Then Sansa’s head tilts and her mouth is brushing across his, pushing him into the shadows and against the wall--the kiss is brief, but she pulls away with her cheeks flushed and her eyes clearer, holding herself up with her hand pressed over his heart. They breathe together for a moment, feeling something like life pulsating through their veins--then they snap apart as they hear footsteps round the corner.

There’s a room Sansa had emptied, windowless and made completely of stone--a place to contain fire. She learned to burn the dead instead of bury them, a practical application, saving everyone a final step. Jon sits with her in the hall as smoke billows out through the cracks in the door, thick and dark grey, and tries not to think of how many times she had done this alone.

 

 


Sansa misses the sept, some days keener than most. It was her mother’s sept and it always felt welcoming, warm as if it were bathed in sunlight, a piece of the south brought north, built by her father for his southron bride. She remembers the hours she spent at the feet of the Maiden; thinking, dreaming, praying (it seems silly now--the Seven never had answers for her, distant and endlessly silent, and sometimes she thinks the old gods are punishing her for not loving them enough, for choosing her mother’s gods over her father’s, denying her Stark blood).

But the sept was destroyed long before she came, smashed and hollowed out, gone to seed when her feet touched Winterfell’s soil once more--the sight had pierced through her heart, it had been beautiful once, like her mother. Try as she might, Sansa can never bury the memory of her mother as she had seen her last--pale, her skin curdled like spoiled milk, blue eyes glazed and nearly colorless; her hand clutched her ruined throat as she to speak, gasping for words that wouldn’t come, her other hand reaching out to stroke Sansa’s hair on some some wooded trail.

(She cried her first night back in Winterfell, after she begged off and escaped the company of her new courtiers; heavy, wracking sobs that shook her at her core and echoed off the walls of her room--her home just crumbled pieces, all that was left to her broken and ruined, like her family.)

All that remained to her now was the godswood, pristine and untouched (Lady lay there, beneath the snow and under the roots of the weirwood that still stands; she belonged to the north in the way Sansa never had--she never should have brought her south), but even that alluded her (she thinks the old gods are laughing at her). Wrapped in a blanket, she gets as close as she can; high above in a tower, tucked safely behind stone walls (trapped, caged like a bird with no songs to sing).

She hears footsteps behind her and she knows it’s Jon (never far away, always behind her--a thrill shoots down her spine at the thought; dangerous, she thinks, bringing her fingertips to her mouth). He comes to stand beside her and looks out at the white, his gaze locked down, moreso than usual.

(She wants to be closer.)

“I used to go down there and sit with Lady,” she explains suddenly, not understanding why she felt the desire to speak at all. “Before, when it was safer. I used to go listen for Bran”--(she dreams of him sometimes, too--the kind of dreams she that made her want to run when he beckoned her closer, his useless legs turned to roots, thick and knotted up to his waist; his eyes as red as Ghost’s)--”He never said anything I wanted to hear, but it was nice just listening to his voice.”

She doesn’t expect Jon to answer (he seldom does, a presence at her side, comforting simply for existing), but he opens his mouth and words come out. “I think I heard him, too, when I was out there.” He gestures to the window, the blankness outside. “I thought I was going mad. Sometimes I think he brought me back.”

“I think he’s taking everyone and bringing them beyond.” She doesn’t say to join his court, though it nearly spills from her lips; she doesn’t think Jon knows and she wants to spare him that, spare him knowing (sometimes she ask no one in particular why and Bran will answer in the night, because, Sansa, this is the way things had to be). Two more bodies had to be burned in the last day, both passing within hours of each other; she grows weary of holding hands that fall limp.

Jon’s jaw clenches, tendons jumping in his cheek. He doesn’t speak again; she wants him to, she wants him to say it, to know she’s not alone in thinking it--why does he leave us behind? why doesn’t Bran ever take us?

Sansa slides her arm through Jon’s and rests her head on his shoulder. It takes a moment, but his head comes to lay on hers and she closes her eyes, listening only to the sounds of their joined breathing.

 

 


Jon finds himself wandering the crypts at times, his feet carrying him there without realizing it, not until darkness surrounds him--he follows familiar paths, his hand guiding his way along the walls.

His ancestors’ faces surround him in stone, the old kings of the North; he doesn’t know if they welcome him, or even acknowledge him--he’s not a trueborn Stark, after all. Sometimes he sits and waits for the ground to swallow him up, but it never does; he doesn’t know what it’s waiting for. He wonders if it rejects his bastard blood and he wants to laugh until he’s sick.

“I came back,” he says to no one at all, “I never planned on doing so.” But he was lead here, through blizzards and waist-high snow; he never died, when he should have (he doesn’t feel alive, hasn’t felt alive for longer than he can remember--but he walks and he talks, he breathes, even if he doesn’t understand how he’s still standing).

There are ghosts here, he thinks, remembering; sometimes he feels like one of them.

Robb stalks his steps, flipping through forms--sometimes he’s young, the boy he remembers, his brother-in-arms with a matching wooden sword at his side; sometimes he doesn’t see him at all, just feels him tall and draped across his back, hears him in his ear, stay with me; sometimes Grey Wind’s jaws glint in the dark and he lets out a throaty howl, nearly sounding like a laugh that creeps across Jon’s skin--he’s always there, tugging at the pieces of him.

(He wishes for Ygritte, in a fits of miserable despair, but she never comes, would never travel this far South; she didn’t belong in this castle, trapped behind stone walls.)

Sansa haunts him, too--a living, breathing ghost, who touches him like he’s real, hand brushing over his skin like he can feel, squeezing him too tight and reminding him he can’t just disappear. She’s pulling him apart and rebuilding him to fit around her, to fit inside her; she takes their missing parts and tries to construct someone whole, to see if together that can make something alive.

Sometimes he thinks it’s Winterfell who lured him back, hoping to posses him like he wished it belonged to him (he feels it growing roots in the soles of his feet; he feels anchored like he never felt before)--or maybe it was Robb, calling out across the distance, asking him to come back like he never did (he never made it more than a few miles; no matter how he tested the limits of his vows, love always broke on them).

He knows it was Sansa, crying in the night, echoing through his head (alone, like he was alone).

 

 


The room is dark when Sansa enters (it always is, she thinks, but I can still see, I still know my way) and she shuffles in quietly, fiercely proud of herself she made it this far without turning back, determined to see this through.

I need this.

(She feels selfish, like a spoilt child--like a lord’s daughter bossing about her bastard brother because she can.)

No regrets, she reminds herself, no guilt.

She drops her nightdress from her shoulders and steps out of it when it pools at her feet, spurring on the boldness that fills her when she feels the cold air gusts across her naked skin, leaving goosepimples in its wake, an aching between her thighs. I want this, she tells herself, she told herself with every step she took that led her here.

Sansa slips in beside him with her heart racing, fluttering like the wings of a bird against its cage, feeling the furs slide silky-soft in places she hadn’t felt it before. Jon reaches for her (like he’s done for many nights past, more awake than he pretends), but his hand stills when it touches her naked hip, then jerks away like it’s been burned a second time. He searches her face in the darkness, eyes wide and wild for a moment and Sansa wants to kiss him then, start this before he puts an end to it--but then his face softens, the tension in his features, in the line of his shoulder bleeding out.

It’s okay, she hears, though no words are spoken. Sansa touches his arm, needing to touch him, needing to be sure.

He watches her, she can feels his gaze heavy on her face, dark eyes shining--waiting, she thinks, leaving this up to me, making me take what I want. She tilts her face upwards, hand clenching tight on his arm as she nudges her mouth against his (careful and precise, a brush, then a firmer press; she can’t stop trembling). Sansa gasps at the contact, sucking his breath into her lungs (it feels like fire, she thinks, hand moving to grasp at the back of his head, his hair tangled around her fingers as she grows bolder, igniting and burning across my skin like wildfire). She feels Jon’s hand when it comes to rest against her cheek, cool against the flush of her skin--he cradles her face gently, kissing her back in tentative movements as she presses harder, tries to push more with her mouth open and her tongue behind his teeth, ignoring the knotting in her stomach, the warning in her head, you’re kissing your brother, what would your mother think? She wants to laugh and tells herself, mother’s dead, they’re all dead, all but Jon--what does it matter anymore?

(She hopes it can wake her up, that his breath can shake loose all the dust that’s settled inside her, clear away the cobwebs, that touching him could restart her heart; it’s been so long since I heard it beating.)

Sansa drags his hand down her neck (liking the feeling of his scars against her skin, uneven and lumpy, roughened with callouses in some places, sleek in others; liking his hands on her), pulling it along further until cups her hand around her breast, testing the limits of his boundaries. His thumb encircles the peak of her nipple, the feeling sharp and jolting, and body jerks into his hand, seeking more; she bites his lip (hard and puncturing like jaws, splitting his dry and cracked lip) when he does it again, pinching ever so slightly.

“Easy,” he says against her mouth, sucking his ruined and bloody lip into his mouth; she chases it with her tongue, curling it inside his mouth, licking over the wound and tasting iron.

(It tastes like life, his and mine---our blood, Stark blood; the bastard and the one who never wanted the name--together they’re a whole, one Stark in Winterfell.)

Jon tugs his mouth away from hers and Sansa wants to pull it back, but then he presses it against her shoulder, tongue tracing her collarbone as his hand slips away from her breast and slides over her ribs, down the slope of her waist and she decides she likes it there. Likes it better when it descends further, feeling his lips hot and wet, sucking her nipple between them, tongue running over the tip as her back bends towards him. One of his hands coming to rest in the curve of her spine, holding her as the other travels lower.

She feels feverish, burning up when everything freezes around her--even if her skin dampens and his touch brings on the chills, she thinks, I could die this way and it wouldn’t matter.

His hand slips between them, slips against her, touching the delicate folds she herself has only touched once or twice (testing and teasing, trying to dull the ache between them, but never able, settling for twisting in her sheets until it passed). Sansa hisses, biting her own lip as Jon navigates expertly, fingertips stroking in the right places, shocking up through the base of her spine and down through her toes (she wonders who she was, the woman he broke his vows for, the one who taught him this). His finger slips inside her and her hips shift, bearing down on his hand, wanting more---her own moving to his shirt, pulling the cloth up, wanting to yank it off, but can’t, the angle off and him too close; then he moves and all she has is Jon’s hair to hold.

Sansa tugs at it when Jon breathes across her skin (she doesn’t know what he means to do, but her heart quickens, feeling the beat of it under his mouth, pulsating), his fingers climbing up the inside of her thigh, nudging it open as he moves closer, kissing the juncture where her thigh and hip meet. His tongue replaces his finger, slippery and warm, and he licks into her, kissing her there, too. Sansa’s breath hitches, catching in her throat and in a panic, she thinks she might suffocate--then she breathes out in a pant when his tongue strokes upwards, moving in a circle as she whines. Her hands twisting in his curls as she pushes his head down, her hips rising to meet him as her knee hitches over his shoulder.

(She realizes through the pounding in her head that’s he’s taking care of her, comforting her in this new way, a way she pushed on him; giving instead of taking and she feels like his little sister, something to protect and adore, and hold when she cries--she wants to cry now, and pull him away and pull him up, she wants to give, too, not only take.)

Tension mounts, tight through her center, making her legs tremble around him as his tongue works against her, making the pleasure spike and crest, undulating like ocean waves through her body and and she moves with it, a keening noise working its way out between her clenched teeth. Sansa comes down as Jon moves up, wrapping his arms around her and she kisses him, tasting herself salty from his lips.

She works her hands under his shirt again and Jon tries to push her away, but she fights him, until the cloth is yanked up over his head and tangled around his arms, until it’s tossed away completely. He doesn’t fight her when her fingers go for his laces, nimbly untying them, quick as his eyes bore into hers (the fire still burns inside her, she doesn’t want it to ever go out, she wants to let it consume her); Jon’s hot in her hand when she encircles the length of him, thick and weighty and hard--he hisses when she strokes downward and closes his eyes, but he doesn’t make her stop.

Sansa moves her hand away from him and his eyes flick open, watching her as she moves up and over him, knees bracketing his hips (she wants take him like that, with him looking up at her, his eyes locked on hers as he slips inside---but most of all, she wants him to take what she’s offering); she hovers, close but not close enough as they breathe into each other. She could have cried out when she felt Jon’s hands encircle her waist, thumbs running along the undercarriage of her ribs; he doesn’t pull her down onto him, she guides herself, but he urges her on with his fingers, with his eyes. It hurts, but less than she thought it would, more of a painful stretch that makes her nails leave crescent shaped marks in his shoulders (it burns, makes the pain sharper; too soon, too soon, she thinks, feeling oversensitive to the lightest of touches); he slides in easy halfway down, her wetness aiding the way.

(At the back of her mind, she can’t help thinking, I’m glad it’s him.)

She doesn’t move, can’t move; they fit together, she thinks, and just wants to hold him inside her, stay like this until the end. Sansa reaches out and traces the scar on his face, the streak of white cutting through his features, splintering them (he looks how they feel, like shattered pieces); he has more scars, more scars than she realized, weaving and crossing across his arms and down his torso, scars like deep gashes across his back, thick under her hands (she has scars, too; not many you can see, they grew under her skin).

Jon hands slide to her hips, fingers curling into her hipbones and lifting her; Sansa follows the movement, even as the slide upwards steals the breath from her lungs--she expects to be dropped down, but he shifts her backwards, moving with her down onto the bed, then he thrusts inside her again, pulling her legs to wrap around his waist. It starts to feel better the more he moves, steady and smooth (it’s still sharp, but it begins to recede, leaving only the burn--Sansa decides it’s a good burn.). He leans down and captures her mouth, cradling her face in his hands.

No one had ever loved her (they loved my title, they loved me like a prize to be won, to possess, even Petyr loved me for my mother’s face--never me, it was never me, she thinks) and she so wanted to be loved. Jon moves above her in the dark, her nails curling into his back as he presses hot, open-mouthed kisses up the line of her throat until his eyes are on hers; his hand reaches up and she feels his burned fingers brush her hair off her face, returning to cup her cheek--he loves me like a sister, she thinks as he lowers his lips to her forehead, pressing fiercely as she arches her back and twist her hips into his, but he still loves me.

(Jon writes names across her skin with his mouth, gasping them out on a breath, fingers buried in her hair; some she doesn’t want to hear, pretends she doesn’t, others she doesn’t know at all and wonders at it, wants to roll it off her tongue--but sometimes they’re hers and that’s all that matters, in the end.)

He touches her like she’s still a little girl, gentle and careful, like a doll, breakable like porcelain; she wants to bring his hands to her breasts again, make him feel she’s a woman now, to press his fingers into her hips until they leave bruises, marks she wants, marks of her own choosing--I am stronger than you think.

He thrusts down and she thrusts up, meeting him, urging him with her teeth at his throat and her legs around his back; she likes the burn between her legs, ache building as she holds him tighter, wanting him deeper (sometimes she thinks she wants him to fall through her chest, be closer than they already are with him inside her). His hips snap into her when she gasps, “Jon, please,” in his ear, his pace quickening, thrusting harder. Sansa feels his hands between their bodies again, fingertips stroking at the nub above where they’re joined, his mouth on her breast, tongue swirling around her nipple, nipping gently and she keens, writhing under him, twisting against him, hands grabbing fistfuls of his hair as her vision whites out and she tightens around him.

There isn’t blood on the sheets like she expected, just a dull soreness, a sticky slickness between her thighs where Jon had been. She should move, she should get cleaned up, she should think about what she’s done (she doesn’t, she won’t; no regrets, I promised myself)--instead she burrows against his side, her face pressed to his collarbone as his arm wraps around her back and lips pressed to her hair; she tries to dig a space for herself to curl inside him, right up under his ribs and tucked in beside his heart, safe and sound and warm, hidden (too late, she thinks as winter air kisses across her skin, stealing away her warmth, taking everything--she shivers; she’s cold again).

 

 


Jon thinks this must be how going mad feels, this slow unraveling of all you thought you knew, everything that mattered failing away. It’s only him and her now; only us, he tells himself, feeling mad, or what he thinks is madness, only sweeter--he’s losing himself, bit by bit, whittled down to nothing and it’s not the cold taking him apart, but Sansa, dismantling him with the curve of her lips, smiling against his mouth as she kisses him in the hall.

We’re breathing life into each other, he thinks as he presses Sansa to the wall, lifting her skirts in his hands. He shoves into her as she gasps in his ear, sending his heart racing faster as she tightens hot and wet around him, as her hips lift and legs coil around him and he can feel the rush of blood, pounding in his ear; her head fails back and her breasts spill, rosy-tipped from the top of her gown, and she says, “harder, Jon,” louder than a whisper. Anyone can hear her, and he doesn’t shush her, just does what she commands.

The food stores have gone from depleted to nonexistent, the last candle burned out a week ago, no more wood to heat the rooms and no one strong enough, brave enough to go outside. People die around them and the bodies burn daily; all of them giving up and giving in, and Jon can’t blame them, he would have died weeks ago if he could.

(Jon can’t remember the last time he ate.)

They share his bed, no longer bothering with the pretense of separate rooms--it’s too cold now; it’s what he tells himself, every time she sheds herself down to her skin in front of him, reminding him she’s not the girl he knew. When they tangle naked under the furs, he tells himself it’s too cold not to; they’re rubbing each other raw when they move together, hoping to find that spark, something to ignite both their hearts again so they can survive once more as separate people.

(They never do. It doesn’t stop them from trying.)

She kisses down his chest and tell him, “I want to try it, what you did to me,” (over and over again; once he picked her up and set her down on a table in the dining hall, then knelt between her legs like he knelt at her feet when he arrived) and moves lower, disappearing under the furs, but he can feel her, fingertips tracing lines down his skin. Sansa takes the tip of him in her mouth (hot and wet, breathing down the shaft) and he has to keep his hips down, keep them from snapping up; Jon curls his hands, fisting the bed linen as he digs his heels into the bed. Her tongue licks around him, her hand holding his steady at the base. She tries to take him further, but her teeth scrape (sharp, harsh, but he wants more) and he thinks she gags, and he wants to pull her up, tell her to forget it---then her lips wrap around him firmly as the tip of her tongue laves over him, swiveling and teasing and she holds there until she brings him over.

(She smiles at him when she crawls up and lays against his chest, a smile like the one that used to tug at her lips when Septa Mordane complemented her needlework, proud of herself; it digs at him, like a knife in his back.)

It’s the blood that wakes him, warm and sticky against his leg; she slept on through, eyes closed and face wane, drained of color with his lips turned ashen. Jon thinks, this is where it ends, this is where we lose, as the red spreads across the bed. She wakes when he shakes her, eyes popping open, the color blue (he never thought he would be so relieved to see that color). Sansa stills at the blood between her legs, just staring up for a moment, then she’s moving, quicker than he thinks she should (slow, easy, he wants to say, you nearly left me); she pulls at the bed linen and says, “Jon, help me,” and he does. Jon watches her as she burns it where they burn their dead, standing in front of the smoldering pile, naked with blood smeared across her face and down her legs, the smoke leaving shadows like bruises across her skin--she’s alive and she’s beautiful (a terrible beauty, like an on-coming storm).

He washes her with a clean cloth and water from the hot spring. “It was--” she says, her voice faltering, her hand ghosting over her stomach, until her mouth closes, letting him clean her up in silence. She runs a hand over the back of his head as he rinses the blood away. They curl up later in a new bed (hers), under cleaner sheets and she kisses his throat. “It’s good,” she says and he thinks she wants to cry, but she won’t, Sansa won’t even let him see her lip tremble. “It’s better,” he says, and knows it’s true, better for it to die now than to bring a child into this world, than to reduce her to carrying her bastard brother's bastard within her womb--she was a queen before I came, he thinks and he wants to cry, he wants to stop this madness because it’s gone too far, but she presses against him, winds her leg around him and he can’t help falling into her.

In the morning, Sansa sits him down in a chair by the open window, the cold across the naked skin of his back. Jon is warmer when she climbs over his lap naked, too, when she lets him slide within her. She’s pale under the bright sunlight, skin white and frost tinged (made of snow, almost, Snow, like my name, he thinks, if not for the fire of her hair--I almost lost you) as she rises over him, rocks against him, eyes not leaving the scene outside the window, transfixed. Her hands are like claws as they dig deep into his shoulders; he holds her as she moves faster and faster, until she collapses against him with a cry. He kisses her sweaty neck and swirls his fingers across her back (she’s your sister, he hears his father’s voice, faded and distant and small, plucked from a memory, you’re supposed to protect her).

“I am,” he says to no one at all. I’m keeping her alive, he thinks as she grabs his face and tilts his mouth against hers, her hair falling into his eyes.

 

 


When the last person dies, Sansa doesn’t remember her name (she had known them all, but now they blur together in her head, just faces of the dead taken away from her---she never could save them).

She and Jon and Ghost retreat to her mother’s room after; she had left it untouched, locked to everyone, her one selfish act--it was still warm, thick with humidity from the hot spring, still alive underneath the foundations of Winterfell. It still smelled like her, the dredges of her surviving under the damp musk of the sweating walls. She makes Jon take her on the bed, her mother’s bed (you never loved him, but I do) and it feels safe, it feels warm, so much warmer than she’s been--they’re all alone now, she thinks, arching up against Jon, feeling his teeth under her chin.

They stretch out on top the furs after, limbs still intertwined (like they belong, Sansa doesn’t think she could breathe without him). It’s over, she thinks, realizing nothing comes after this, only what came before and it seems so silly now, so ridiculous not to say their names out loud. How could names hurt us now?

“Arya’s alive,” she says and Jon startles at her side, but he stays and he listens, his eyes falling on hers. “At least I think, I hope. She ran and I think she ended up in the Free Cities, far away from here and warm, protected by the Narrow Sea. I see her in my sleep, I am her in my sleep. Sometimes I think I should have ran with her, but I trusted, I fainted.” The tears come, unbidden and Jon wipes them away with the pads of his thumbs.

“I nearly deserted,” he admits. “My friends dragged me back, but I think sometimes about what would have happened if they never came, if they never caught up with me.” His fist balls up and Sansa uncurls it, interlocking their fingers instead.

“Robb never came for me, no matter how much I prayed, he never came, and then they killed him. I don’t think you would have made much of a difference.” Her throat tightens around the words. “Maybe you could have kept him out of trouble, maybe you could have kept him alive.”

He laughs; it sad and sounds like glass pieces in her ears, but it’s a laugh and she hasn’t heard it in so long. “Lady Catelyn couldn’t save him from himself, what makes you think I could?”

It hurts to hear her mother’s name on his lips, here of all places, in her room where her gowns are still tucked away in drawers and in trunks, pieces of her mother still there. “I’m sure she tried,” she says.

“Of course she did.” Jon pulls her against him, tucks her head under his chin. She breathes in the scent of him, and it’s better, better than the past. She leans into him, her arms winding around his back and thinks, the past may hurt, but it's all we have, the past and this room full of memories, this castle full of ghosts.

Sometimes she closes her eyes and pretends she can go back, growing small and full of dreams, full of songs, where the very worst thing that happened to her was Arya getting mud in her hair and on her dress. When Bran climbed and never fell, and when Rickon toddled at her heels and didn’t go too far. When Jon didn’t fit, but he did, standing at Robb’s side, two pieces of the same person, grinning the same grin--her big brothers. When her mother breathed and laughed and was alive, not the dead thing she can’t forget and her father never lost his head, he never left; they were together, smiling and happy.

“What would they say?” she asks, not looking up at his face, just holding tighter. “If they could see us? My mother, our father?”

She feels his throat swallow against her cheek, contract and relax, the hum of his voice when he speaks. “I think it’s better they never know.”

Sansa curls her hand against Jon’s back, kisses the hollow of his throat. “I never thought I would be glad that it was you,” she says, lifting her head to look at him, careful to watch his eyes---she doesn’t want to hurt him, not after all they have been through. “But when you came home, I just wanted to rush into your arms and never let go. I remembered, I never said goodbye to you, when you left. You could have died and I would have never said goodbye. I never felt more relieved to see you standing there, in our father’s hall.”

“I would not have picked you,” Jon says, achingly honest, cupping her cheek, wiping away the tear that must have fallen, but cannot recall when. “But I don’t think I could give you up now.”

“What do we do?” she asks him, like he has answers she has not, looking up to him like she always has. “What do we do?”

“I don’t know,” he says.

Sansa settles against him again, hand over Jon’s heart. “Do you think we’ll stay like this? Just like this?” His heart still beats under her hand, pumping steadily, never faltering. Ghost climbs up on the bed and rests his head on her thigh. He should be dead, they all should be dead, yet they keep on going, they keep breathing, until if they are no more than ghosts themselves.

Jon doesn’t answer, but Sansa knows.

In life, the monsters win, she thinks. She wonders, have we become the monsters now?

 

 


The land is white when Daenerys Stormborn lands, snow and ice crunching under Viserion’s claws, the great beast huffing out heated breath. The Dragon Queen comes, comes to claim her throne and right; The Unburnt comes too late.

The Mother of Dragons thinks, angrily, this is not a kingdom.

Dany thinks, devestated, this is not a home.

She turns her ships around and flies her dragons once more across the Narrow Sea. She does not look back, too lost already.

No one found the two wolves in their castle frozen over with winter, tangled and twisted like vines, with teeth as sharp as knives and eyes hungry. They breath with the same set of lungs, one heart keeping them alive in the dark.