Chapter 1: madonna, sphinx, queen
It had taken her quite some time to name her Queensguard. Not to choose them; Sansa had been choosing them for a great deal of time – since the day she watched her father die, in truth – her choices growing and expanding over the years until she’d known with no doubt who would make up her Queensguard before she knew for certain she would be Queen. But a Stark girl ruling Westeros alone was unprecedented enough, even without her unorthodox choice of guard, so Sansa had tread carefully when naming them, choosing her times and her methods with all the canniness she’d learned at the hands of men like Petyr Baelish and women like Cersei Lannister.
Brienne of Tarth had been named first – an easy choice, easy to want and easy to name. Brienne was already battle-hardened and strong, known as much as a knight as she was a woman, full of fierce loyalty and persistence. Sansa could speak to that intimately, as Brienne had been the person to finally liberate her from the Vale at great cost to herself.
The second choice proved more difficult; Alysane Mormont established a pattern, unsettled those who assumed Sansa’s next choice would be a man, a decorated knight or former Kingsguard member. But House Mormont had fought for Robb, Alysane had helped Stannis Baratheon take back Winterfell. She was of the North, of Sansa’s home now so far away from her, and she was as untamed and strong as the home they both came from.
Then she’d chosen Obara Sand to foster ties with Dorne, the wild, fierce woman seeming to terrify all at court, and Asha Greyjoy to forge a link to the Iron Islands. It had given Sansa pause, to entrust herself to the woman whose brother betrayed Sansa’s family so, but she’d learned enough of Asha from speaking with her, from her strange friendship with Alysane, to believe in her choice. To know all of which Asha was capable.
Each name had caused more scandal, more murmuring and outrage. When only her captain was left to name, they all believed she would name a man. Her council urged her to call Jaime Lannister as her captain, or Loras Tyrell, tried knights, known members of the Kingsguard, men who could protect her and keep her safe.
Her voice had been sure and clear the day she named her sister Arya as the captain of her Queensguard. Sansa Stark trusts no man to keep her safe, not any longer.
Chapter 2: the restless-hearted
The clank and creak of her armor is loud in Brienne's ears as she shifts on her feet, grimacing at how the sound fills the small hallway. When she'd honored Sansa Stark's request that she become a member of the Queensguard, she hadn't expected it to involve quite so much standing around. Her feet are killing her.
She knows it won't always be this way. The Queen is still quelling unrest, negotiating alliances. Her time is spent in endless discussions, secretive meetings and councils. Brienne won't only ever be standing outside of doorways, listening and watchful, of that she’s sure. But that doesn't make it any less boring.
"Would you look at this," she hears from her left, and her heart, traitorous thing that it is, leaps at the voice before she even sees its holder. One-handed and battered, and still Jaime Lannister walks like he owns the world. She hasn’t seen him since she left him in the Vale. It’s dismaying how glad she is to see his face, how her eyes search every inch of him to see that he’s well and recovered now. That she didn’t doom him by pressing on when he was too injured to go further. "Who would have thought?” he continues, the familiar edge of teasing in his voice, one she knows so well she sometimes hears it in her sleep. “You wearing a white cloak while I have none."
“It seems our roles have reversed,” she agrees, trying to keep her voice even, refusing to let her treasonous feelings show through. She is of the Queensguard, she has made sacred vows to pledge her life to her Queen. Deep in her secret heart, though, she knows that’s merely something she clings to as a shield. She had no right to him even before she took any vows. He’s grinning at her though, his face like the sun, and it’s hard to remember vows or rights or anything at all. She clears her throat, doubles her grip on the hilt of the sword to keep herself from reaching for him in some stupid, instinctive gesture. “You look well,” she offers. And oh, he does. No man should look so well.
“Right as rain, or thereabouts,” he says. “All patched up, no thanks to you leaving me to the wolves.” He’s teasing again, she knows he is, but it hits too close to her guilt and she starts, takes one step in his direction before remembering herself, her distress surely written plain on her face.
“Jaime, I’m-” she says, but her words dry up, her throat closes around words too difficult to say. He looks at her in dismay, his teasing air gone.
“Ah wench, surely you don’t feel guilty? You could have done nothing else. And you achieved what I could not, bringing Sansa to safety.” He steps closer – too close – and she has to fight the urge to step backwards against the wall, or worse, forward into his arms to touch him and hold him and make herself know he’s here and whole, to let the feel of him soothe her long-held worries. A ludicrous idea, truly, but it curls behind her breastbone and troubles her breathing with its presence.
“We are both of us warriors, Brienne,” he says in barely more than a murmur. “We both have our scars.” He raises his good hand and touches her damaged cheek with one fingertip, the feel of it sending sparks even through such toughened skin. It’s gentle, almost tender, and Brienne finds her head swims. “Had I been with you before…” His words trail off, a shadow crossing his face as he spreads his fingers across her entire cheek, presses his palm to the ridged tissue, his skin warm against hers.
“Good thing I’d no beauty to mar,” she says, meaning to reassure him, but it only makes him smile with even more sadness, his eyes holding not pity but a fond compassion that throws her coming from him.
“Gives you character, love,” he says. Oh, she thinks, now that is truly unfair. Then he grins and spoils it, saying, “But I’m touched by your worry. Such a tender heart throbs beneath that carapace of yours.” Spoils it except for how his teasing does untoward things to her, sends her pulse skittering like a spooked horse and has heat pooling low in her belly. Embarrassed, she thinks that something throbs but it’s not her heart.
“What business have you here?” she suddenly asks, jerking back from his hand and arming herself with brusqueness, afraid she might go all to pieces if she lets herself.
“Hadn’t you heard?” he asks, the mischief coming back to his face. “I’m to command the City Watch. Our Queen does not trust me with her person, but she does trust me with her troops.”
"So you'll be near," Brienne says before she can stop herself. Jaime grins at her, his eyes seaming at the corners.
"Yes. Will you be glad of it?" he asks. She rolls her eyes, blows air from her lips like a stubborn mule.
"Go away, Jaime, I'm busy." She doesn't fool him, though. He gives her a mocking little bow, but there’s no sting to it, only play. Then he walks away whistling, the sound bringing an unbidden smile to her lips, one so strong that she has to fight to keep it from taking over her face and making her look manic.
If her guard duty doesn't hasten any more than it had before, she's certainly less bored.
Chapter 3: tooth and nail
The Queen is exhausted, Obara thinks. Small wonder. Obara herself is tired enough and she only had to listen to the negotiating, the arguing, the petty puling of Lords too accustomed to their comforts. Sansa's gait is slow and uneven as Obara follows her through the halls to her solar, listlessness showing through her normally impeccable veneer. She must be exhausted indeed, to slip so. Obara has such honest glimpses of her queen so infrequently that they're still a novelty, still a startling reminder of her youth. Of her humanity.
"Do you think it too late to recall Daenerys Targaryen and ask her to take all this mess off my hands?" Sansa sighs after she's lowered herself gracelessly into a chair, her feet extended before her in a stretch too sprawling to call ladylike.
"You think it likely she'd agree?" Obara asks archly, and Sansa smiles and shakes her head.
"Targaryens are mad, but not that mad," she says. "It's too bad. One of her dragons could eat Mace Tyrell and I would finally gain some peace." Obara gives a bark of laughter at that. The idea has a tremendous amount of appeal. "But alas, he's far too important a player to dismiss and his concerns must be soothed with all the rest of them, plague me though they do."
"Do you not tire of diplomacy?" Obara asks, knowing she probably oversteps her bounds, but Sansa has never been one to stand overmuch on ceremony. She'd not have chosen Obara for her guard in the first place, were that true.
"I could knock their skulls together some days, honestly," Sansa admits. "Particularly when their primary objection seems to be that I'm a woman, and all too young for their comfort." Sansa sighs then, smoothes both hands over her face and the sweep of her hair, pulled back into a style far less complicated than the current southron customs, but still too involved for Obara, who considers hair that's reasonably clean and out of her eyes to be plenty enough. "There is much resistance," Sansa continues, "and not just from the men."
"Your women aid their own limitation," Obara says, irritably, mystified. "They are raised to be toothless here." Sansa's lips give an amused twitch, she cocks a single brow at Obara.
"I'm working on that," she says wryly. Obara gives a grin in response so feral that Sansa laughs. "Oh Obara, when you smile like that I understand why so many are terrified of you." There's a warmth to the words; Obara thinks Sansa means it only as a compliment, that indeed, she might like to be so terrifying herself from time to time. If at first Obara had been surprised at Sansa's request that she join the Queensguard, she understands more each day as she sees the steel inside her young queen, hidden in the frills and courtesies that life in court demands. Not so surprising that someone who must play at being sweet and accommodating and diplomatic might enjoy a guard who always seems to intimidate those around her, something Obara doesn't cultivate, but can't claim to dislike either. Sometimes she absolutely revels in it, if she's honest. The way that Tyrell lord always scurries away if she so much as looks at him pleases her to no end. It hasn't escaped Sansa's notice, either, which Obara thinks explains why she's always Sansa’s guard whenever the queen must deal with Highgarden.
"Tell me of Dorne, Obara," Sansa says, "where women are not so toothless." She pours herself a glass of wine. Obara shakes her head when Sansa gestures as if to pour her a glass as well, instead wrapping both hands around the haft of her favored spear and leaning her weight into it. "You were raised by your father, were you not?"
"More or less," Obara allows. "My mother was an Oldtown whore. When I was but a child, he came for me, despite her wishes. He slapped her across the face, threw down a spear while she wept, and told me to choose tears or weapons. I chose weapons." Obara gives a shrug. "She died within the year. Drink. My father trained me to fight with a man's tools." Obara feels almost as if she should be embarrassed, a feeling she's not accustomed to. She's such little memory of her mother. Sometimes she regrets that her feelings on the matter aren't more complicated or ambiguous. But she'd wanted to be a warrior; there'd been no real choice to make. If she expects Sansa to recoil or affect surprise, Obara is to be disappointed. Sansa merely raises a brow in acknowledgement and looks thoughtful.
"And your sisters," she says. "The Sand Snakes, I believe they're called? Were they raised much in the same manner?"
"Yes, Your Grace."
"They must be almost as toothsome as you, then. Are you close?"
"Quite, Your Grace." Obara's words put a strange look on the queen's face, a mix of envy and sadness and admiration. Obara knows little of the queen's relationships with her family, but she's seen enough to know that for all they are closer now, Sansa and Arya Stark did not grow up that way, the complexity of their shared past a constant, sometimes thorny presence between them. For not the first time, Obara wonders at growing up distant from your sister, at having a loving mother, an indulgent father. Not that Oberyn Martell wasn't indulgent in his own way, but he was hard as well, as wild and fierce as Ned Stark had been noble and stolid. Oberyn's indulgences were more of freedom than of protection, of being toughened rather than being sheltered. There's a faraway look on Sansa's face, as if she sees into some place other than here. Obara settles into her stance and waits. For all her recklessness, she has learned the value of patience.
"Will you have them visit?" Sansa says at length. "Your sisters? I should like to meet them."
"As Your Grace wishes."
A cloud crosses Sansa's face, her brow furrowing. "I ask not as a queen, Obara," she says, "merely as a friend. I would like to know the sisters you hold so dear." Obara regards her, considering. There's only sincerity on her face. It would be good to see her sisters again, Obara thinks. And until then it would be good to have a friend.
"I should like that as well," she says. Sansa smiles at her, bright as the sun, the creases and worries gone from her face, at least for the moment.
"Then it's settled," she says lightly. "I'll retire now, if you would send Arya to my chambers."
"Yes, my Queen."
"Oh, and Obara? Do try to terrify Mace Tyrell just a bit more next time you see him." Sansa's face hardens when she speaks the name, spitting it out as if it’s something nasty she’s found curled beneath her tongue. "He deserves it." Obara bares her teeth in a grin. She doesn't know quite what grudge Sansa holds against the Lord of Highgarden, but she doesn't much care.
"Nothing would please me more, Your Grace."
Chapter 4: the particular sadness of lemoncake
He is not the first, not anywhere close. He’s merely the latest of many, a long line of men who come to her to ask, to cajole, to plead their case and pledge their troth or that of their sons. Sansa knows it would be naïve to call them suitors. They feel no infatuation nor stirrings of love for her; they want her only as a crown. Some, she supposes, are glad of whatever beauty she may possess. Others would have no interest in it at all. She’d known better than to point out to Mace Tyrell that the son he offered might not be wish to offered, given all that she’s heard of Ser Loras’s one-time relationship with Renly Baratheon. Strange, she thinks, to have a man who’d once featured in her girlish dreams presented to her like a gift, and stranger still to feel nothing but weariness at it, a weariness that only grows with each new prospect.
“I have heard your offer, Lord Merryweather,” she says – indeed, she’s heard his offer twelve times, five in the last hour alone – betraying none of her impatience and keeping her face a serene mask. “I shall consider it carefully.”
“Your Grace,” he presses, moving closer to her than strictly proper. Out of the corner of her eye, Sansa sees Arya shifting, her body tense, her face assembling itself into a scowl. “Your Grace, I must impress upon you the sensibility of this match, the benefit to us both once my son is grown.”
“Yes, and I believe you have,” Sansa notes with the barest touch of asperity, all that she’ll permit herself. She can see Arya rolling her eyes and has to suppress a wry grin.
“But if you would-”
“She’s heard you!” Arya explodes, taking a step towards him so fierce that he steps back in response, his eyes growing wide and his face losing color, though that probably has more to do with Nymeria getting to her feet and growling along with Arya. “We’ve all heard you a hundred times. Do you have anything new to say?” Sansa can’t help but smile at that, a smile she has to hide behind her hand. She knows she shouldn’t let Arya behave thus, not with matters of the realm still so tenuous and allies so sorely needed, but she’s too grateful for the reprieve at the moment to care.
“N-no,” he stammers, edging away another step, his fingers knotting together nervously and his eyes fixed on Nymeria.
“Then our audience is done, and I thank you,” Sansa says smoothly, before Lord Merryweather can speak again or Arya can throttle the man. She stands, dismissing him with a graceful inclination of her head, and sweeps from the room, gesturing for Arya to follow her. Nymeria pads beside them, panting contentedly, as if she wasn’t growling and bristling only a moment ago. Sansa drops a hand on top of the wolf’s head, happy beyond words when Nymeria permits a long scratch. Having her here has been a joy and a torment both, but Sansa’s too glad of her presence to dwell overmuch on how she still misses Lady, even after so many years, her absence like a hole in Sansa’s heart, an abscessed tooth that aches and aches.
“I’m sorry,” Arya sighs once they’re alone in Sansa’s solar. “I just couldn’t listen to that even once more.” Sansa forestalls any further apology with a wave of her hand.
“It’s quite all right,” she says. “I would have liked to have done the same.” Arya grins. It’s not the first time that Sansa’s envied Arya her freedom. It surely won’t be anywhere close to the last.
A companionable silence settles between them as Sansa wordlessly pours them each a glass of wine and they sit before the hearth, Nymeria settling between them with her great head resting on her paws. The fire warms Sansa from the outside as the wine warms her from within and she begins to relax, slouching in her armchair in a way that hardly befits a queen. Arya’s sprawl in her own chair is even less ladylike and Sansa smiles. It’s been a pleasant surprise to find Arya’s company more comfortable now, such a marked difference from the days when all they seemed to do was bicker. Sansa thinks maybe the expectations Arya chafed against were some of what made her so prickly, at least towards Sansa. They’d had such different ideas then, such differently imagined lives. They’d no common language.
“Do you plan to take a king?” Arya asks, her words breaking the silence.
“I suppose I must,” Sansa says.
“But you’d rather not,” Arya guesses, giving Sansa a shrewd look, as if she knows Sansa’s reluctance isn’t only dissatisfaction at those she’s been offered. Sansa swirls her glass, the wine winking red in the firelight. She can’t pretend the idea is appealing to her. Of all the things she’d once dreamed of before they curdled and turned sour, men have been more of a disappointment than most.
"It's the husband more than the marriage," Sansa sighs, wine and exhaustion loosening her tongue. "I'd marry Myranda or Brienne or another woman in a trice, if marriage were all it took."
"Sansa!" Arya says, her brows climbing in surprise. Sansa waves one hand.
"Oh come, I don't mean it like that,” she says. Then she reconsiders. “Though that might work as well."
Arya considers thoughtfully. "I think I'd be partial to one of the Mormont women myself." Then she giggles, sounding younger than Sansa’s heard in ages, and Sansa’s giggling herself, the two of them shaking with hiccupy laughter. It makes Sansa feel like a girl again, except for how this never happened between them in childhood. Arya was always off with the boys, while Sansa spent her time with Jeyne Poole. She wonders where Jeyne is now, how well she’s recovered from her ordeal in Winterfell with the Bolton bastard. If anyone could ever truly be recovered from such a thing. Such an unfair twist of fate. Sansa shakes her head to dispel the sadness, taking a too-deep pull of wine.
“And you?” she asks Arya. “Did no man ever take your interest?” Arya hesitates. Sansa waits, a strange feeling of nervous hope blooming in her chest. These moments with Arya are as rare as they are paradoxical, somehow feeling equally like finding her sister again and meeting someone new.
"I left Westeros when I was so young," Arya shrugs. It’s more evasion than answer.
"And in Braavos?"
Arya laughs softly, little more than a dry puff of air. "I wasn't even myself in Braavos."
"All the more reason to act in unaccustomed ways," Sansa points out with a small smile and Arya answers it with her own.
"I suppose. Though I never did. I think I..." She trails off and Sansa waits. She’s good at being patient. She waits so long that she wonders if Arya’s forgotten she was in the middle of a sentence. "Part of me was still here," Arya says finally. Perhaps she means only her family, her home, the life she knew. But Sansa can tell that's not the entirety of it.
"Strange how some things can catch a piece of your heart and anchor you in place, no matter how far away you get,” she says, then she shoots Arya a sly grin. “Was he handsome?" For a bare second Arya's face assembles itself into denial before she gives up and laughs.
"I think so," she says.
"It's hard to remember him like that. I only remember how he felt right." Sansa would be hard-pressed to describe the look on Arya’s face. There’s something soft there, something open and trusting. It reminds Sansa of how Arya used to look at their brother Jon – no, not their brother now, Sansa has to remind herself, not anymore now that he’s a Targaryen – but more vulnerable somehow. Like her most secret heart is showing itself in her eyes for anyone to see. It’s an Arya that Sansa has never seen before. Sansa nods, though she doesn't think she's ever experienced such a thing. No man has ever felt right to her, no touch has ever felt safe for all that there have been touches. She remembers the Hound's kiss, the kisses of her false father. She remembers the sour breath of Marillion, the mailed fists of Joffrey's men. No, she thinks, she has felt no safety among men since her father died and she thinks now she never will. It fills her with such a startling pang of sadness that her eyes fill and she has to look up and blink too fast.
"Sansa," Arya says, surprised, concerned.
"It's nothing," Sansa says. "Something in my eye." She knows Arya hears the lie, but she allows it, lets Sansa collect herself.
They speak of nothings after that, of easy things. The moment is over, though Sansa knows there will be another, and for that she’s grateful. When she lies in her bed that night, staring up at the ceiling and wondering if sleep will ever come, she wonders if Arya will dream of this man of hers. If he’ll come to her in sleep, if Arya will imagine his touch, if she wonders where he is and if she’ll ever find him again. It fills Sansa with feelings too complicated to be held by words. Sansa can no longer dream and she has no idea whether she’s glad of it or not.
title from the book of the same name by Aimee Bender
Chapter 5: waterline
It’s a different sort of life here in King’s Landing. Different from Bear Island, different from the North entirely. Alysane has never been so hot in all her life. Even summers in the North had been crisp and dry. Nothing is crisp or dry here. Alysane feels herself blur around the edges, her body engaged in a fierce and perpetual effort to melt. She lives for the barest cool breeze. Each one makes her think of home, and of her sisters. She wonders what they would make of this place. She thinks they’d find it just as melting. Dacey would have most of all; Dacey who had the North in her marrow. Dacey who’d died for it.
“Your blood is too thick,” Margaery says when Alysane makes a feeble whine in the depth of the afternoon. “You need more wine to thin it. And more strenuous activity, get rid of the silt in your veins.”
Alysane never takes it personally when Margaery says such things. And she knows just the sort of strenuous activity that Margaery has in mind. Alysane never objects when Margaery draws her to the bed, though what they do there worsens the heat rather than betters it. But as that greater heat comes with Margaery, Alysane welcomes it gladly, allows Margaery to pull her close, their bare skin damp and sticking, their tongues cool against each other in comparison to the air.
It had taken Alysane some time to adjust to Margaery, to understand all the things unsaid that lurked beneath her words. For some time they’d had little chance to speak at all. Alysane was of the Queensguard, Margaery’s time was spent with the small council. She’d only seen Margaery in passing in the halls at first. Asha had hated her on sight. Alysane was fascinated and her fascination had only increased with every chance meeting. Margaery was the soul of courtesy, often seeking Alysane out to speak to her, commenting on the weather or asking how she was finding King’s Landing, sometimes inviting her to supper or to ride through the surrounding countryside. Alysane had always demurred, thinking Margaery merely being polite.
“Polite?” Asha had snorted when Alysane said as much. “That one?” Not fucking likely. She’s certainly never polite to me, nor Obara, nor anyone who doesn’t serve some means for her. As far as I can tell, you’re the only one she’s nice to.”
Alysane ignored it. Most things Asha says were meant to be ignored.
The night Alysane finally accepted an invitation to supper – the night Margaery drank five glasses of wine and then kissed Alysane for longer than it had taken to drink them – that was when she realized the truth in Asha’s words. Not that she’d told Asha such a thing.
Alysane had grown up among women, but none of them could have prepared her for Margaery. She’s learned to listen to all Margaery doesn’t say, her words only the surface of her meaning. She puts Alysane in mind of the icebergs she’d heard of from sea traders come to Bear Island. They’d spoken of white mountains floating in the sea off the far Frozen Shore, mountains that could scuttle a ship with their underwater peaks though they might be half a length away. Margaery dresses her words in finery, she dips them in honey to help them go down no matter how bitter they might be. She doesn’t understand Alysane’s reserve, her plain, unvarnished speech. Margaery often teases her, saying she guards her thoughts like treasures, wraps them in bear furs and keeps them to hibernate.
“Are all of you from the North so reserved?” she asks playfully, streaking her fingers beneath Alysane’s tunic to draw through the salt lying wet on her chest, her fingers hotter than the air. “Is that why Queen Sansa is so cool?”
“She’s not cool,” Alysane counters. And she isn’t, not the way Margaery thinks she is, not like Margaery’s hair that slips like stream water through Alysane’s fingers.
“She is to me.” A pout decorates Margaery’s lips, one Alysane refuses to kiss away. Margaery would only take it as a reward for bad behavior.
“Can you blame her?” Alysane asks, and Margaery’s pout is replaced by a genuine frown.
"Yes!" Margaery says, rolling her eyes at Alysane's pointed look and then sighing, "No.” It had taken Alysane some digging to understand the lack of warmth between Queen Sansa and Margaery, the static that charged the air whenever they had reason to speak. She still knows little of it, merely that Margaery and her family earned Sansa’s trust only to break it, that they’d used and abandoned her when the queen was but a girl. It had made Alysane curious – Sansa had expressly chosen Margaery for her small council, after all – but when she’d made a delicate inquiry on the subject, Sansa’s face had closed up and she’d said only that Margaery had a far cleverer mind than most and was valuable.
“Why do you like her so?” Margaery presses. “You're supposed to take up my side."
"You would have me take up for you against my Queen? You who are nothing to me?" Alysane kisses Margaery when she says it, soft and deep, to remove the sting. Not nothing, never nothing, yet no one knows that but the two of them, and it's a small splinter of injustice in Alysane's side no matter how much she knows it necessary. This is the iceberg they share.
"But you do like her," Margaery persists, "and not just as your Queen. I can tell."
Alysane can't quite tell Margaery of what she likes about Sansa, her feelings complex and layered, resisting the confines of words. Words seem pale and small to describe the respect she feels, the loyalty to Sansa and her cause. How she loves being part of the Queensguard, how her sister Dacey would have loved it as well. How it seems right to protect Robb's sister as Alysane's sister had died trying to protect him. How she misses Dacey so much sometimes that it hurts, not even Margaery able to lessen the ache. How sometimes, in some small, inscrutable ways, Sansa reminds Alysane of Dacey, of all of her sisters still in the home Alysane knows she’s changed too much to go back to.
"Let's not speak of a woman who is not here in our bed," Alysane whispers against Margaery's ribs, touching each curve of bone with her tongue, numbering them up until her mouth finds Margaery's breast. Margaery is more than happy to comply. For now, at least. Alysane is sure to hear of it again later. That's precisely what she likes about Margaery. For all that she is bright and sweet and soft, she is anything but easy.
Chapter 6: found objects
Winterfell is not at all the same as it was, but it’s just as she remembered it somehow. There’s something in the feel of it, in the taste of the air and the smell of the ground. All their way up the road, Arya’s skin prickles with recognition, with the sense of belonging, of rightness. Jon is here, Jon and Rickon. Jon is to take them North, to meet the Queen Beyond the Wall, a woman named Val, and knowing that he’s there, just up ahead of her, so close she could almost call out and hear his answer, makes Arya want to spur her horse into a gallop and leave everyone else behind.
But she can’t, she’s Queensguard and has a place she must keep, and keep it she does, but that doesn’t mean she has to be happy about it.
“You’re fidgeting,” Sansa says, shooting her a look of mild reproof. “It’s spooking the horses.”
“It’s only spooking your horse and you’re doing fine,” Arya retorts. “How can you be so calm?” Sansa only smiles at her, a real smile, like she’s just as anxious and nervous and excited on the inside, and again Arya has to fight the urge to kick her horse into a run, thinking that if she did, Sansa might just join her.
Jon’s waiting in the yard for them, inside the postern gate with its leaves thrown open wide to the approaching riders. It seems impossible that Arya hasn’t seen him in years. He’s taller, broader. His face is more weathered and painted with scars. But he’s still Jon, still her most beloved brother, and he’s smiling so like the sun that she can scarce breathe to look upon him again. Arya has been strong for so long. She's been strong and fierce and impervious. A warrior. A soldier. She's killed and survived, alone and without a pack, but when she sees Jon, it all shatters around her like the shell of an egg the second she slides from her horse and her foot touches the packed earth of the yard. Unbidden, she finds herself running to him, picking up speed until she throws herself into his arms hard enough to make him stagger, but he catches her, lifts her up against him and says her name in her ear so happy and broken as to make her cry.
Everyone has melted away somehow. When she reluctantly loosens her arms, wiggles in his grip to be set on her feet, they’re alone in the yard but for Ghost and Nymeria circling and sniffing and nipping, inspecting each other with good-natured curiosity. Arya can feel eyes on them, though, unseen people watching them through the windows. It might make her feel self-conscious if there were room in her heart for such things at the moment. They speak, but she knows nothing of what they discuss. It’s all a blur, everything sounding like she’s underwater. There’s so much to say, so much to tell him, that she finds herself babbling, wanting to tell him everything all at once, so that she has to remind herself that she’s only just arrived, that they’ll be in each other’s company for weeks here in Winterfell and then as they travel. He’s not going anywhere. She takes a deep breath, alarmed when it sounds wobbly and shaky. Jon is looking at her – staring, really – the fond affection on his face almost more than she can bear. She grasps for something to say, some familiar ground that might allow her to regain her footing.
“I hear you were a Lord Commander,” she says.
“And I hear you were a warrior,” he counters. There are wooden practice swords leaning against the wall nearby – play for the staff’s children, or even for Rickon, Rickon whom she’s not yet seen but who exists perpetually two years of age in Arya’s mind, not big enough to hoist any sort of sword, practice or no. Jon takes a sword up and tosses another to her, grinning in pleased surprise when she snatches it deftly out of the air. She looks down at the sword and then back up at him and she thinks her whole life might be in her eyes.
“Let’s find out what we are now,” he says gently - oh, only Jon is so gentle in all the world, she thinks - and he lifts his wooden blade, shifts into a fighter's stance. It sends some queer beast elbowing up into her chest, a savage form of joy that takes her limbs and makes them light. And then she’s swinging and he’s meeting her sword with his, her arm vibrating with the shock of collision.
Their wooden swords clack in the air. It’s not at all the ring of steel she’s grown accustomed to and the sound of it transports her instantly into the body of another girl, another Arya, a scrawny thing with skinny arms and messy hair who longed for nothing more than to join her brothers at training. Jon does not damp his swings, he does not hesitate to use his greater reach against her. It’s exhilarating, thrilling beyond the mere act of it. It’s being with Jon, sparring as if they’re equals. It’s being here at home with him, with Ghost and Nymeria and Rickon and Sansa, even Sansa now, all of them her pack and all of them together the way she’s wanted them for years. The missing pieces ache keenly, bruises in the shape of Robb and Bran and her mother and father that throb with dull pain when she touches them, but the ache only makes the rest of it sweeter. Her arms are sore and numb from the jolt of their swords colliding when he calls her off, laughing breathlessly and tossing his sword aside with a clatter.
“I yield!” he cries, holding his hands to her in supplication, his palms reddened from gripping the haft of his blade. Something in it makes her want to run at him again, to throw herself into his arms and never let go. To her dismay, she feels water well in her eyes and threaten to spill over.
“You’ve gotten old, Jon,” she says to cover her heart, and he laughs again, catching her wrist to pull her close and loop an arm about her neck, mussing her hair the way he did when she was little, though he has far less distance to reach to do it now.
“Come on,” he says. “This old man’s bones could use a soak in the hot springs.” She takes his arm as they walk. His ribs press against the back of her hand and he’s warm and solid against her, and she knows there have been few more perfect days in her life than this. Ghost ranges ahead of them as they walk, inspecting trees and reinforcing his territory, but Nymeria stays at Arya’s side, so close it almost makes it difficult for Arya to walk. Her free hand drops to Nymeria’s shoulder, her fingers rubbing into the coarse fur to find the soft undercoat.
“Hard to imagine she was running wild with a pack of her own not long ago,” Jon says, pointing to Nymeria with his chin. “Does she always stay with you?”
Arya nods. “I think she knows I hate for her to be away from me.” She still can’t put words to the joy of finding Nymeria after so long. It had been like finding herself again.
“Ghost and I were parted once,” Jon says. “We were on opposite sides of the Wall. It was like missing a limb.”
“Yes,” Arya says, almost whispers, really. Her hand tightens in Nymeria’s fur and the wolf gives a burring sound, as if in comfort.
The springs are just as she remembered them. She didn’t spend half so much time here as the boys did – they were always soaking away their aches, warming their tired muscles after training – but sometimes Sansa had come with her, on those rare days they got along, and they’d splashed and giggled and talked of nothing. It looks just the same. She could almost look around and expect to see her mother telling them to get out before they shrivel like preserved fruit.
“Did you miss me most?” she asks when they’re sitting at a bubbling pool, boots discarded and breeches rolled up, pale feet floating in the warm water to bump against each other, Nymeria a warm presence at her hip. “Most of all your brothers and sisters?”
“Of course,” he says, and she listens for the lie, for him to humor her, but she doesn’t find it. “Though I don’t suppose I’m your brother anymore, am I?”
“You’ll always be my brother, Jon,” she tells him, wanting desperately to be light-hearted, to make a joke of it to keep the emotions at bay at least a little, but it comes out more serious than anything she’s said in a very long time, and she gives in to it. “Nothing will ever change that. Not for me, at least.” He smiles and nods and ducks his head, but she can see the glint in his eye that he tries to hide. She understands, so she leaves it be. They only sit quietly, their shoulders leaned closer together, his little finger shifting to hook around her own.
“I suppose Sansa doesn’t feel the same,” he says at length. Arya can hear the caution in his voice, the complicated longing. She thinks on how to say what she means, thinks on it long and hard.
“Only you were never really her brother, maybe,” is what she decides on, and she knows it’s the right thing to say from the surprise on Jon’s face, the dawning possibility. “So now you’ll both learn what you are to each other.”
“How’d you get so smart?” he asks, and she grins, bumps him with her shoulder. “An old friend of yours is here, by the way,” he continues, adopting a casual tone that’s belied by the way he watches her intently, a mischievous smirk kicking the corner of his mouth down in that curious upside-down smile he has. “A smith by the name of Gendry.”
“I know,” she says quietly. Just hearing his name sends heat twisting through Arya’s chest to pinch at her heart. When Sansa had told her he was at Winterfell, that he’d be there when they rode out to meet Jon and Rickon, Arya hadn’t known what to think. There’d been too much to even try to sort through it all, and she’d put it off and put it off, until now she’s here and so is he and she’s no idea what to do.
“Is he a good friend?” Jon asks, all fake innocence, and she bumps him harder with her shoulder this time, hard enough to rock him to the side and force him to put out an arm for balance.
“Shut up,” she tells him.
“He had some stories about you when I got here,” Jon says.
“Shut up, he did not!” Jon waits, he waits and smirks that infuriating smirk. “What did he say?” The smirk becomes a full-blown smile at that, and oh, she could punch it right off his face, she really could. She could crawl into his lap like a little girl and ask his advice.
"That you were a pest,” Jon says. “That you were strong and fierce and the reason he was alive. That you were unlike any other."
"Oh." Suddenly she has difficulty swallowing, a pressure filling her throat and trickling down through her ribcage.
"Have you seen him yet?"
"No." If there's anyone Arya could tell about her jumbled feelings – about how she's not sure she wants to see Gendry even as she longs to more than almost anything, how being abandoned by him still hurts, how she's afraid of what might be if she sees him and more afraid of what might not be – it's Jon. But her mouth won't make the words.
"When I told him you were coming he looked pole-axed," Jon says conversationally, watching her out of the corner of his eye. She keeps her expression neutral, pretends her entire body isn't straining to hear his next words. "He must have asked me fifteen times when you were to arrive. Five this morning alone."
"Yes, oh." He looks straight at her then, nudges her with his elbow meaningfully, and it feels so overwhelmingly like permission – not from Jon so much as from the whole world – that her breath leaves her lungs in a rush and she feels tingly, light-headed.
"So what are you still doing here with me?"
“I don’t know,” she admits, and Jon laughs out big and bright.
"Oh Arya, I have missed you. Now get out of here.”
It takes her body a moment to respond to the suddenly frantic commands from her brain. Water splashes everywhere as she clambers to her feet, dashing five steps away from the spring before darting back to grab her boots, then taking another five steps before returning to tackle Jon in a hug so emphatic it knocks them both onto the ground in a heap. Jon laughs again, wraps her up in his arms and kisses the top of her head, then sets her to her feet and sets the ball of his foot against the seat of her trousers to give her a push.
"He'll be in the forge," Jon says. "But then, you probably knew that."
And then she’s off and running to find the future, to meet it head on, her brother at her back and her wolf at her side.
Chapter 7: why we tell the story
Rickon doesn't recognize her.
She didn't fully expect him to - he was so young when she left Winterfell, barely more than a babe - but she had hoped, and it hurts far more than it should when he looks at her politely but blankly, seeing not the sister who'd held him only hours after his birth, but a stranger.
"Your Grace," he says, and oh, it breaks her heart a little.
"Sansa," she corrects. "Please." He nods as if it makes little difference to him, and that breaks her heart a bit more.
She's felt off-kilter since she dropped from her horse and touched foot to the ground of what had once been her home. She's spent years in places that didn't belong to her, and that she didn't belong to just the same. She'd pretended at being another, even before Alayne, her time with the Lannisters at King's Landing only a different sort of pretense. Now she is only herself, and as she stands in the place that was once her only home, she feels more a stranger than she's felt anywhere else.
Arya seems to suffer no such problem. Watching her joyful reunion with Jon had gladdened Sansa's heart, but it had been hard as well. Sansa is a grown woman now. She's the Queen of Westeros. It should not pain her so that there is no one to welcome her in such a way. And she'd not begrudge Arya her happiness, knowing how much she's missed Jon, and he her if the ravens Sansa has traded with him are any indication. So Sansa had gestured to her party to retreat inside and leave them be, but she'd spared them one long look over her should as she paused in the doorway, taking in Arya hitched up into Jon's arms with her feet dangling off the ground, Ghost and Nymeria bounding and nipping and barking around each other. Sansa wonders now if Lady's sedateness would have won out, or if she'd have been bounding and nipping and barking just the same, if she lived. But she doesn't live; Sansa's direwolf is dead and gone, and Sansa wonders if the piece of her that belonged here is dead and gone as well.
It occurs to her to wonder where Rickon’s wolf is. Jon had told her the beast was almost entirely wild and impossible to control. But there’s no Shaggydog next to Rickon now. He stands beside the Wildling woman, Osha, stands beside her as if she’s his family rather than Sansa. Though Sansa supposes that she is.
“Osha,” she says, reaching for the woman’s hand, refusing to be bothered by the suspicion in her eyes, the hesitant way she grasps only the tips of Sansa’s fingers. “I am in your debt.” Osha doesn’t answer, only dips her head in a gesture of deference that Sansa can tell is practiced but not sincere. Good, she thinks. Let Rickon never learn deference. Let him stay as wild and free as the rest of us can never be. Rickon fidgets, looking up to Osha as if asking permission to leave. Sansa glances at Asha, standing as her guard, and flinches at the pity she sees in Asha’s eyes.
Asha moves to come with her when Sansa leaves the hall, but Sansa stays her with a hand. She’s never blamed Asha for anything that happened, but the way she feels at the moment, she’d not be able to stop herself from shaking Asha by the shoulders and demanding to know why she didn’t stop him, why she let Theon come here and go through his mummer’s dance with Bran and Rickon. Why, she has an irrational urge to shout, why didn’t you stop him? Robb is dead and none of us will ever be the same and you should have stopped him.
The keep is lonely as Sansa moves through it, quiet in a way it never was when she was a girl. Then it had rung with talk and laughter and running children, the yard had bristled with life. Now it is only a shell, half of what it once was. She wanders through the rooms she’d known in another life, touching scarred wood and soot-darkened stone where the damage was worst and still remains despite the efforts at repairs. Jon has done what he can, and the North is loyal to Winterfell still, sending supplies and men, but the damage will take a lifetime to repair. So quickly broken, and so slowly healed. It makes a poetic sort of sense, Sansa thinks, the home of the Starks in much the same state as the Starks themselves. Suddenly she feels so lonely that it snags in her throat like a bone. She doesn’t wish to be alone, but she can’t bear to be around so much of her former life.
She hears the ringing of steel long before she reaches the door to the smithy. Jon’s ravens had told her of the new smith to replace Mikken, a young man named Gendry whom Jon says reminds him of Robert Baratheon. Sansa cannot deny the resemblance as she stands inside the door and watches him. He’s thinner than King Robert was, though, slighter. He reminds her more of Renly, and she feels a pang to think of Renly long dead. He’d seemed impossibly older to her when she’d come to King’s Landing as barely more than a girl, but she knows now that he was still young; too young to die as he did.
She’s been watching him several long moments before he registers her presence and stops dead, his arm holding a hammer poised above his anvil mid-swing. His hammer arm is much more densely muscled than the other. It looks curious, even though Sansa’s seen armorers before. She wonders if he ever feels lopsided.
“Your,” he starts, then clears his throat, squinting at her and finishing the guess. “Your Grace?”
She smiles and nods, stepping fully into the room and crossing to the anvil, where he still holds his hammer poised in the air. “I can only assume you are the Gendry Jon has told me of?” Gendry nods, finally lowering his arm awkwardly, setting his hammer down on the anvil with barely a sound and setting his hand over it, like it’s something delicate rather than a heavy mallet capable of beating metal into submission. “He says you’ve been a great help here.” Gendry shrugs, looking down at the hammer beneath his hand.
“I’m only doing the job I should do.”
"What is your surname, Gendry?" she asks. He looks surprised at the question, rearing back a bit to look at her.
"Waters," he says, almost defiantly. She smiles at the way he says it. Maybe it is no coincidence that a bastard looks so much like a Baratheon.
"I was a bastard once," she says. He raises his eyebrows, gives her a speculative look.
"Once?" he asks.
Sansa laughs and shrugs. "It's a very long tale and hardly worth the telling."
"I doubt that, Your Grace."
"I could make you a bastard no longer if you wish," she tells him. "Jon's told me of all you've done for our family. Of...of how you served my mother, after her...after she..." Gendry looks pained at that, stuttering forward on one foot with his hand hovering in the air between them as if to touch her in comfort. It feels like it’s been a lifetime since Sansa was touched by a man without thought to her station, without her hating the touch and wanting only to scrub the memory of it from her skin with lye. She’s disappointed when he drops his hand and rocks back to his heels, though she knows it’s the only sensible thing for him to do.
"If it's all the same, Your Grace,” he says, scratching behind one ear with a massive hand. “I'd as soon keep my name."
She smiles at him, feeling it reach her eyes in a way most smiles don’t these days. "Good choice." He gives a small grin in return before his expression grows serious and tentative.
“Is…did Arya come with you?” Oh, Sansa thinks. Well this is interesting.
“She did.” Gendry nods, but Sansa can see a hundred emotions flit across his face. As if called by the conversation, Arya skids into the smithy just at that moment, with all the clatter and clamor she’d had as a girl. It’s been trained out of her for the most part – these days she can sneak about so quietly that it could make Sansa’s heart fail from fright when she pops up from nowhere – and it makes Sansa smile to see it return, especially here in Winterfell where Arya was rarely anything but clatter and clamor. She has not been Arya Underfoot for far too long. If this Gendry can bring out this part of Arya again, then Sansa wholeheartedly approves.
“Arya,” Sansa says, amused when Arya seems to not even hear it, her eyes fixed on Gendry’s just as raptly as his are fixed on hers. She waits a few moments, just to see if either will break the silence or remember her presence, but they only stare, like time has somehow frozen just for them. Sansa thinks she could strip naked and sing the Rains of Castamere and neither would notice.
“Gendry,” Sansa says, startling his eyes to her. He looks dazed, as if drugged or coming out of a dream. It gives her another pang of envy. “I’m glad to have made your acquaintance,” she continues to Gendry, pushing the envy beneath her shell, slipping back into the skin of a gracious queen. He hears it in her voice and dips his knee hastily, awkwardly, mumbling, “Your Grace,” and averting his eyes.
It takes Sansa a moment to realize that Arya is following her when she leaves the smithy. Sansa stops so abruptly outside the door that Arya plows into her in an uncomfortable collision of knees and elbows and the hilt of Arya’s dagger.
“That’s going to leave a mark,” Sansa says, gingerly touching her hip where the pommel struck her.
“Sorry!” Arya says, scowling to remove any hint of actual contrition. “Why’d you stop so fast?”
“Because I wanted to ask you just where you were going,” Sansa says. “And just where are you going?”
Arya blinks in confusion. “With you,” she says.
“Sansa, what is this?” Arya asks. “You need a guard.” Sansa huffs an impatient breath out between her lips, making a sound much like a horse, one that is entirely unbefitting for a queen.
“I’ve done quite well without a guard for the last hour, thank you,” she says acidly. Honestly. She knows it’s because she’s Queen and it’s different, but sometimes she thinks they all forget that she managed to survive all on her own for years, with no guard at all.
“Sansa,” Arya sighs.
“For heavens’ sakes, I’ll find Jon and he can play guard for a while, will that mollify you? Go back to your young man, Arya.” Arya’s scowl returns threefold, along with a fierce blush that burns along her cheekbones up to her temples.
“He’s not my young man,” she grits out, sounding so precisely like the Arya Sansa remembers from the last time they were together in Winterfell that she has to struggle to keep the smile from her face.
“He’s not?” she asks, all fake innocence. “Are you sure he agrees with that?” Now Arya’s scowl drops into confusion, mixed with caution and hope and longing and not a little fear. “I’ll be fine, Arya,” Sansa tells her. “Go on.”
When Arya hesitates still, Sansa takes her shoulders and looks her straight on, giving her a little shake to get her attention fully. “Arya, whatever your knots, they can be untied.” She can see the precise moment that Arya acquiesces, a giddy excitement mingling with all the other emotions on her face, drowning them out with its strength.
“Take Nymeria with you, at least,” she says, a last nod to duty, and Sansa smiles. Arya hates to be without Nymeria, she knows. It gives Sansa’s heart a funny little hitch each time Arya sends the beast with her as if Sansa is just an extension of Arya herself.
“I’ll take Nymeria with me,” she agrees. “Now go on.” Arya grins at her and slips back to the smith, calling over her shoulder that Jon is at the hot springs.
Sansa’s feet pick out the path to the hot springs as if she’d walked it only yesterday. The wood around her is quietly alive, filled with soft rustles and the whisper of the wind. It’s nothing like the constant tumult of King’s Landing. She remembers how she longed for that tumult when she’d left Winterfell, how excited she was for things to happen. That girl she was seems so impossibly young.
She finds Jon at the hot springs as promised, sitting with his feet absently kicking in the water. His boots lie empty beside him, his breeches are rolled up to his knees. He looks so young, the afternoon light washing away his scars and his cares. He looks like Jon. The intensity with which she's missed him is a shock. She puts a hand to the tree beside her, steadies herself and only looks at him for a long while, willing the roil of her emotions to settle. The snap of a twig beneath her foot has him looking over at her, looking so much like their father – no, her father, only hers, she cannot claim Jon as her brother anymore though she has to admit to herself that she’d never treated him as her brother. Their reunion is not exuberant, as his with Arya’s had been, but still her heart feels too full, and she thinks he feels the same by his expression.
“Your Grace,” he says.
“Jon, please,” she chides.
He knows her meaning, inclines his head and says, “I’m sorry, Sansa.”
“You’re alone,” he says, pushing to stand and shaking the water from his feet like a dog.
“Not alone,” she corrects, “I have Nymeria.”
“Still,” he frowns. “You should not be without guard.”
“I’m with you,” she points out. “You would not keep me safe?” It occurs to her that he is the one man she would say such a thing to, the one man she does and maybe ever would trust for the rest of her life. He looks stricken at her words and takes a step towards her, his hand raised as if he would touch her before he falters and drops it.
“Always. Of course I would Sansa, you know that. Sansa…” He struggles with his words for a moment, looking so pained that Sansa wants to cry. “I would have come for you if I could, I would have done anything to find you,” he says simply, more apology in his voice than Sansa can bear.
“I know,” she says softly, and she does. He meets her hand with his when she reaches out to him, and the clasp of their hands is strong, reassuring. She would say more, but she isn’t sure she’s capable of it, and she thinks more words would only pain him further, so instead she says, “I’d like to visit the crypts if I may.”
“You need no permission,” he tells her. “They’re yours more than mine.”
They talk of little nothings as they walk back to the keep, her hand tucked in his elbow, Ghost and Nymeria running off ahead and nipping at each others’ heels. It’s a relief to be with him, she’s surprised to find. He is not like Rickon, not something she’d once known and loved that’s now foreign to her. They’d never been close, so she’s free to learn him now without disappointment of what she’s lost. It makes her too loud, too bright, it brings her laugh too easily, but he doesn’t seem to mind.
“Tell me of your Wildling Queen,” she says as they walk.
“She’s hardly mine,” Jon smiles. “I’d have to steal her for that.”
“The freefolk believe a man isn’t worthy of a woman unless he’s strong enough to steal her.” Freefolk, she thinks. Not Wildlings. She catalogs it away to remember, wanting to be as respectful and careful with these people to the North as Jon is.
“Would they fight you? The rest of them, that is. If you tried to steal a woman.”
“She would fight me,” Jon laughs. “Any man who tried to steal Val would probably end up short of fingers if not dead.” It takes Sansa aback. It’s a world away from the lessons of her Septa, from her own training that she was to be prim and proper and pleasing. She has a sudden, fierce regret that she was not raised a Wildling – freefolk, was not raised free – and was never encouraged to deal with the men who touched her in such a way.
“You admire her,” she says, the words not a question.
“Very much,” he says. Sansa isn’t used to such uncomplicated admiration from men. In her experience, admiration is always laced with a desire to possess. And an anger at being denied. “You’ll admire her as well, Sansa. And I think she’ll like you very much. You have such steel in you.”
“I don’t,” Sansa objects automatically, though warmth creeps through her at his words.
“You do,” he tells her, and his tone brooks no argument. She has half a mind to remind him that she’s Queen of Westeros, and if anyone is forbidding argument, it will be she, but then she laughs and holds his arm a bit tighter to her side.
The crypts are musty and cold, smelling of dust and water and something stale. Sansa had wanted to come here, she’d wanted to see Robb in all that’s left of him, but each step they take feels heavier and more leaden, until she thinks she can barely walk by the time they reach him. The sword over his knees is bright and new still. Too bright and new. He was too bright and new to die. Sansa feels a tear slip down her face as she reaches forward to touch his cheek as if it’s Robb himself encased in stone rather than a carved statue.
“Do you think we’ll ever be whole without him, Jon?” she asks, her voice sounding too loud in the hush even though she speaks in barely more than a whisper.
“I don’t know, Sansa. I hope so.” His honesty means more to her than any platitude ever could. She turns to him, moves her hand from Robb’s face of dead stone to Jon’s face of rushing blood and scarred skin, touching him more gently than she thinks she ever has before. Jon’s flush is visible even in only torchlight, but he doesn’t move away.
“He would have been so proud of you,” she says. “Robb. And father. I know he wasn’t your true father,” she rushes on when Jon opens his mouth. “But he loved you, Jon. And he would have been proud.”
“No less proud of you,” Jon says in return. He leans into her hand on his cheek, only a bit but enough for her to feel it. She holds it there for a moment longer. He closes his eyes, and she succumbs to the urge to run her thumb over the dark crescent of his eyelashes. Then she drops her hand to take his, and they stand there, looking on their long-gone brother, clinging to each other until it’s long past time to rejoin the living.
Chapter 8: fate plays cyvasse
It’s all strange this time. Years have passed since she was last here, but Asha doesn’t think it a trick of memory that Winterfell feels so different now. It was almost winter when she was here last, and now it’s the deepest part of a long summer, but that’s not what makes it feel so changed. Asha thinks it’s she who’s changed, or possibly the whole of the world, and perhaps Winterfell only seems different for having stayed the same despite the ruin that sits deep in the stones of every tower.
It’s that sameness that Arya seems to respond to – since the Queen’s party arrived, she’s immersed herself in a life that once was; the hours she doesn’t spend in Jon Snow’s company are devoted to the smith who lurks in the forge, someone Asha gathers she’d known before. The two of them fight constantly, so constantly that Asha knows of their feelings for one another. That first day they’d rowed so fiercely that she could hear them as she passed the forge, some tedious lover’s quarrel about who left whom. Arya would in probably take exception to being termed lovers, but Asha has seen enough to know such things even if Arya has not. They’re curious creatures, these Starks, so averse to simply taking what they want, even when it’s offered up to them for dessert. They pay the gold price, even in love. Strange to imagine Theon growing up among them, as one of them.
It nettles Asha, how sometimes she feels driven to apologize to the Queen for him. Sansa makes no judgment – she’s never said so much as a word to Asha about him – but neither does she intervene when Arya picks at the wound, condemning Theon and Theon alone for the ruin of all she held dear. Some prickly, obstinate part of Asha prevents her from saying that he acted on his own, contrary to any plans of hers or her father’s, that she had urged him to abandon Winterfell and return to the sea. Instead she counters Arya and paints a world of shaded greys that could put a dove’s plumage to shame. She defends her brother though once she wanted nothing more than to throttle him for a fool. Such loyalty is unfamiliar. It gives her a strange, paradoxical kinship with these Starks, one that she isn’t sure she likes.
“Defending my brother,” she said once to Alysane, with a sigh that she put on only partially for effect. “All this time with Starks is turning me into one.”
“How very terrible for you,” Alysane had clucked in false sympathy. Asha had made a sour face in response. She knew better than to expect any quarter from Alysane. Mormonts are near as bad as Starks on such things.
It is inconvenient, then, that being in Winterfell seems to press her to Theon’s defense at every moment, what with the evidence of his crimes written on the walls in scars and soot, on the face of young Rickon Stark who looks not to the Queen but to the wildling woman as his family. In the ghosts of Starks not-so-long dead tucked into corners like cobwebs.
Asha’s brother haunts her here like a shade. He’d gained nearly his entire weight once over when she’d seen him last, so that at least he’d not seemed so cadaverous even if he could not grow back missing teeth or toes. But here she can only see him gaunt and trembling in her mind. Here he is still the broken creature that this place made him. It had been difficult not to look on him with revulsion those first months, so difficult that it shamed her. The worst was the shuffling walk he’d adopted, a rickety totter that even a crawling babe could outpace. Asha had often fought the terrible urge to push him along, to shout at him to hurry. With each shambling step, she saw him as he’d been the day she left him in Winterfell to stubbornly meet his fate, hale and whole and her brother. Each shambling step had condemned her. It had been a relief when Sansa Stark had called her away from Pyke to serve in her Queensguard. A relief and a reprieve.
Ironic, that at Pyke she saw him in her mind as he once was, and here she only sees him as he is now. It’s a cruel enough irony to seem almost fitting.
Sansa, true to form, never says a word about Theon to Asha, not even when Asha can see the pain in her eyes at Rickon’s stiff mistrust, his discomfort at being around so many people he does not consider his family. Asha almost wishes she would, wishes she would round on Asha in anger the way Arya does all too frequently, the smith now standing silently at her back, the two of them already a pair even if they’ve not admitted it to themselves. But the Queen only steels her shoulders and retreats into herself, into some carefully chambered place that leaves her face almost serene, barely ruffled by any disquiet or unhappiness. She might as well scream her pain for how it shoots into Asha like a dart, making uncharacteristic guilt twist through her.
“He has been punished enough,” she wants to say, both in anger and in a queer sort of apology, a penance he has paid and paid and paid. But she says nothing and is glad of the increasing hours the Queen spends with Jon Snow, allowing him to take the place of any guard she might need. She is different when she’s with him, more spirited and content than Asha thinks she’s ever seen her, and despite herself, Asha is glad of it. Another way she’s going soft.
“So you’re a Greyjoy,” the wildling woman – Osha – says to her one day, a day Asha is at a loss with no Queen who needs guarding and no tasks to command her attention. She stiffens at the question, mentally readying herself as if for a blow. It seems an apt punishment, whatever her role may have been. But Osha merely says, “Your kind do seem to end up with Starks, don’t they?”
It’s not a question that’s meant to be answered. Asha would argue the point, but she’s starting to see that it’s rather more truth than lie.
Chapter 9: the undiscovered country
It’s a startlingly beautiful place, the North. Brienne had not expected it to be so. But then she’s rarely had the luxury of thinking on beauty when she’s come to a place; always before she’s been searching or fleeing or hiding. Now she is only one of many, here with her queen in this wild, cold place that’s so far from anything she’s ever known before, and she cannot contain her surprise.
“Yes, it’s beautiful,” Obara grumbles, her words muffles by the furs she keeps snugged up to her nose as much as possible. “You’ve said so half a hundred times.”
“I have not,” Brienne laughs. She’d been surprised to find Obara easy to laugh and spar with, despite her fierce demeanor and Brienne’s own reserve. “Besides, it is truly lovely.”
“It’d be lovelier if it were warm,” Obara says. Brienne decides against pointing out that if it were warm, most of what’s lovely about it would melt. Instead she looks out over the land that stretches before her, filling her vision. Obara has humored her in coming up to the top of the Wall, but Brienne knows she’ll not be willing to stay long. Everything is white and blue and grey, more shades of each color than she knew existed.
“Arya should have come. This is not to be missed.”
“Arya has better things to occupy her,” Obara says. “Warmer things.” She looks at Brienne and clarifies unnecessarily, “Gendry-shaped things.”
“I somehow managed to absorb your meaning, Obara,” Brienne says. Obara shrugs.
“Thought I’d be perfectly clear for the eternally pure among us,” she says. “I’d like such warmer things to occupy me as well. Some of these crows aren’t half ugly. Some of the freefolk are handsomer still.”
“I cannot be the only one who remembers speaking an oath and taking a vow when we joined the Queensguard,” Brienne says. Obara makes a noise distinctly like a snort.
“Oath. Pah. Oaths are cold. We can hardly be expected to keep them in such conditions. Besides, I’ve seen you flitting about Jaime Lannister like an overgrown butterfly.” Brienne feels her cheeks heat despite the cold, not at Obara’s description – Obara has a way of teasing that Brienne knows is not meant to harm – but at her own transparency.
“I do not flit,” she mumbles.
“Of course you don’t,” Obara agrees. “And Alysane doesn’t pluck the rose of Highgarden nightly.”
“We’re a sorry excuse for a Queensguard, aren’t we?” Brienne sighs. She’s been trying not to think on Jaime, but it seems he is in everything – in the golden hair of the wildling queen so like his own, in the rakish swagger of the men as they preen and strut before their new audience of women. In the feel of her hand when it slips beneath the furs at night as she touches herself in the way she’s given up feeling shameful over. Not that his hand has touched her so, nor any other part of him, but she’s imagined it and sometimes there’s something in his gaze, some warm intent, that allows her the indulgence of thinking he’s imagined it as well. She’d not expected to miss him so much on this journey north. Not that she’d ever be fool enough to tell him so, the smug bastard.
“You think about him even now,” Obara says. “I can tell by that stupid look on your face.”
“Have you nothing better to do?” Brienne asks in irritation.
“I’ve heard tell these freefolk steal their women,” Obara says thoughtfully. “Perhaps I might, er, persuade one to be stolen.”
“I won’t tell if you won’t,” Brienne offers. Obara laughs and pokes her hand out from her fur cocoon to clasp hands in agreement.
“You’ve got a bargain,” she says.
Chapter 10: unteachable wildness
The Wall suits Alysane. It’s not like home, not at all, but she likes the biting cold air, the wildness of everything, from the land to the weather to the people. She might not mind spending more than a bit of time here. Pity she’d never convince Margaery to come. She’d likely agree with Obara that it’s “colder than a fishwife’s teat,” though perhaps not with such colorful language. But Alysane thinks that perhaps even Margaery would find some beauty in this place, and she wishes she were here to share it.
“I’d have thought you’d be glad to get away from her,” Asha says uncharitably. She’s not one to withhold her opinion under normal circumstance, and her tongue is looser than usual now that they’ve been drinking for an hour at least, sharing horns of ale with Jon Snow around the fire while the two Queens, of the Freefolk and of the Seven Kingdoms, speak late into the evening in a private chamber that apparently was once the Wildling Queen’s cell.
“Asha doesn’t care for Margaery,” Alysane tells Jon.
“I’ve heard she’s a great beauty, and exceptionally lively,” Jon says, though Alysane notes he says nothing of Margaery’s reputation as the wife of kings who die too soon, something that inclines her warmly towards him. He’d taken Asha’s drunken talk of Alysane and Margaery’s relationship without so much as a blink, something else that raised her estimation of him. “You’re a good man, Lord Snow,” she says now. “I understand why the Queen seeks out your company so often.”
“Jon, please,” he corrects her, his cheeks turning the dull pink of pleasure or embarrassment or perhaps both, though Alysane thinks it more to do with Sansa’s preference for him than it does with Alysane’s assessment of his character.
“Stop changing the subject,” Asha barks.
“What is the subject?” Jon asks, and Asha pauses in consideration.
“I’m not sure,” she admits. Then she rounds on Alysane and fixes her with an almost accusing look. “What about your children?” It’s so out of nowhere that Alysane can only blink at her in confusion.
“What of them?”
“You’re with Margaery, but you have children.” Asha regards her as if she’s proven some brilliant point.
“And they’re grown and living their own lives and care little for where and upon whom I put my mouth,” Alysane counters evenly.
“But the getting of them was done with a man,” Asha persists. Alysane sighs. Why Asha is harping on about this now, Alysane doesn’t know; it’s never seemed to trouble her before. She feels a bit of temper prickling under her skin, but Jon diffuses it with a grin.
“We always heard told it was a bear,” he says. Alysane laughs and grins right back.
“He was furry enough to pass for one,” she says. “And I enjoyed it plenty. Just as I enjoy being with Margaery. So I fail to see your point, Asha.” Asha rolls her eyes and tips her horn back to drain it.
“Never mind,” she says, filling it again and tipping more into each of their cups as well. “You can be so vexing when you’ve a mind to it.”
“I can be vexing?” Alysane asks in disbelief. Asha does not answer, merely sticks her tongue out at Alysane, and the gesture is so childish and silly that it makes Alysane giggle, though to be fair, the spirits probably help.
“Don’t see how it makes sense, is all I’m saying.”
“I like cock and I like cunt,” Alysane shrugs. “It’s not precisely complicated.”
“I don’t see the appeal of cunt,” Asha says thoughtfully, and it has Alysane giggling again, even Jon snickering a bit. Asha shakes her head and looks towards the door of the chamber where Sansa and Val are still sequestered, showing no sign of emerging any time soon. “They’ve been in there forever. I’m surprised Sansa can last in the same room with such a chilly woman without freezing.” Asha makes a brr noise and mimes a shiver.
“I like her,” Alysane says.
“You would,” Asha snorts. “You’ve a taste for difficult women.” Alysane cannot stop herself from laughing at Asha’s unintentional meaning.
“Oh, I’d wager Val has a delicious cunt,” she says with an exaggerated leer. It’s said as a jape, but merely the thought of it warms her from the inside. Jon chokes mid-swallow and looks at her, his expression half amazement and half amusement. She flicks her hand dismissively at him. “Please, Jon, don’t tell me you’ve not imagined such a thing. You may look at the Queen – at our Queen as if she hung the moon but you’re not dead.”
“I am quite alive,” Jon allows, looking a bit flummoxed at having his obvious regard for Sansa pegged so neatly. “And I’d wager she does. Val. Have a delicious cunt.” He laughs a bit disbelievingly, as if surprised to hear himself saying the words at all, let alone in front of two women he barely knows.
“Gods, but I miss cunt,” Alysane sighs.
“You have your own, should you wish to get reacquainted,” Asha says drily.
Alysane shakes her head, the movement making her vision swim. “Not the same,” she says. “There’s just something about making a woman peak and come apart for your tongue.”
“I miss it too,” Jon says wistfully, his face gone slack and dreamy, apparently at the memory of it. Alysane laughs, raising her horn of ale to him, his own making a dull sound against it when they clink them together.
“You really both like it that much?”
“Gods, yes,” Jon says, his tone so fervent that no one could think him a liar.
“The taste,” Alysane says.
“The feel of her thighs around your ears,” Jon offers. “The way she trembles and clutches your hair…”
“Oh gods, I love it when Margaery does that.”
“Like she can’t bear for you to move away.”
“Yes!” Alysane says. “And that hitch in her breath?”
“Gods, amazing,” Jon agrees.
“This is definitely not the conversation I imagined when I sat down to drink with you two,” Asha says, and Alysane pokes her in the side and grins.
“You never were very creative,” she says.
Chapter 11: my blood alone remains
There’s a bite to the air atop the Wall. It’s bracing after being shut up inside for so long with Val as they discussed matters of realm and region. Sansa shivers and pulls her furs closer about her, even going so far as to stamp her feet in a decidedly un-Queenlike manner. It’s been a point of pride for her that she’s born the harsh weather far better than her mostly-Southron guard. She is of the North still, no matter the style of her hair or the cut of her gown. But she cannot deny that she is cold.
“You fit well here,” Val tells her.
“You tease me.” Sansa’s accusation is good-natured, and Val laughs in reply.
“Not at all,” she says, then grins at Sansa. “Despite the way you fidget like a child to keep warm.”
“I’ve never experienced such cold,” Sansa admits. It strikes her how comfortable she is with Val; there are many with whom she’d not even express such a small weakness. Too many would only take such an admission as reason to seek out greater weaknesses. That’s something Sansa has learned the hard way.
“It’s worse out there,” Val says, waving her hand towards the wild expanse beyond the Wall. “I’ve seen men freeze where they stood.”
“Truly?” Sansa asks, amazed. She feels a bit like a child, like she did when Old Nan told her tales.
“Truly. Though that was in the worst storm I’d ever seen. Such a thing does not happen regularly.” Val spares a glance over her should at Castle Black. “More’s the pity, perhaps.”
“Why do I feel you’ve several candidates in mind?” Sansa laughs.
“Because you’re a clever girl. They’re better than they once were, but they do far too much leering for my tastes.”
Sansa can only grimace in agreement. She’s no longer used to such avaricious looks; most men have learned to hide such a thing in the presence of a Queen. But here at the top of the world, so far from everything, it seems these men have forgotten. It makes Sansa pull the mantle of authority more firmly over her shoulders, puts pure ice into her gaze when she looks at them. She refuses to be diminished by their lust. No longer is she a girl at the mercy of those who would use her. They cannot make her forget who she is by reminding her who she once was.
“Have you ever thought to leave?” she asks Val.
“The Wall?” Val asks drily. “Every second I’m here.”
“The North,” Sansa says with a laugh. “The Wall and all that’s beyond it. Have you never thought to leave and make a home somewhere else?”
Val gives an immediate shake of her head, no hesitation in it. “No. This is my blood. This is where I belong.”
A curious sense of relief curls through Sansa. She’d known Stannis offered Winterfell to Jon, and Val along with it. Jon had refused – of course he refused, he’d hardly be Jon if he hadn’t – but Sansa has wondered more than once if Val might have gone with him willingly, if she would have taken the life as Lady of Winterfell that might have been Sansa’s. She’d not expected to feel so territorial at the notion. It would have made no practical difference if Jon had claimed Winterfell, and taken Val as his wife. Nothing would be changed from what it is now. But Sansa knows that it would have mattered to her; Winterfell was hers to take or pass to Rickon. The choice of it is what mattered, the freedom to choose her own path. That is a freedom she guards fiercely these days.
Nor had she expected to feel so territorial about Jon. It’s more jealousy, really, though not the wistful envy she felt watching Jon and Arya reunite, nor the regret of seeing Rickon look to Osha as if she were his true family rather than Sansa. It’s not even the envy of another life, which she’s felt more times than she could count, all through those desperate days in King’s Landing under Cersei’s thumb and in the Vale at Littlefinger’s whims and mercies. No, this is the same, old-fashioned, blood-heating misery she’d felt when Jeyne Poole made eyes at a Lord’s son that Sansa thought of as hers. It’s a feeling Sansa never expected to experience again, and it’s more than a little disconcerting. It’s only that Jon and Val have such an easy way between them, a familiarity born of shared hardship. Val knows a Jon that Sansa never could.
She does not realize Val has left her alone with her thoughts atop the Wall until she hears Jon call her name tentatively. He’s standing at the other edge of the Wall, near the lift, Brienne behind him staring off into the distance to give her Queen some crude approximation of privacy. By the expression on Jon’s face, he’s called her name more than once.
“Jon,” she says in greeting.
“Forgive me, I’ve interrupted.”
“I was only wool-gathering. Please, join me.” She tilts her head in invitation. It’s on the tip of her tongue to say she’s missed him, but it seems a silly thing to say when she’s seen him each day they’ve been here. But she has not talked with him, hasn’t walked with her hand tucked in his elbow, hasn’t spent time merely silent in his company, as they’d done more and more often in Winterfell and on the road here. There’s something old-fashioned about the way they’ve gotten to know one another. It’s almost like a courtship, she realizes in surprise. But he’ll stay in Winterfell, and she’ll return to King’s Landing. Strange how such an idea makes her so heartbreakingly sad now.
“You look quite at home up here,” he says, oblivious to the tack of her thoughts. Despite the sadness still curling in her breast, Sansa smiles, pleased.
“Val told me much the same,” she says. “I think you both humor me.”
“Not at all,” he protests, but she waves it away.
“With my hair? I stand out like a flame amidst all this ice.”
“It’s lucky.” Hesitantly, he catches one long streamer of her hair in the loop of his finger, holding it in such a careful way that Sansa is instantly reminded of their childhood together, how they danced around each other, perpetually unsure how to relate. “They would call you kissed by fire here.”
A look crosses his face, a shadow of remembered pain. She considers asking him of the source of it, but decides to leave him his secrets, as he has left Sansa hers.
“I confess, it is strange sometimes to look at you and see a woman grown,” he says after a short silence. “Not always, but you’ll say something you might have said once, and I’ll turn to look at you and be surprised not to see the little girl who never let her hems get muddy.” Sansa smiles at him, knowing every bit of her fondness for him is writ large on her face.
“My hems have had quite a lot of mud on them since then,” she says, “so to speak.”
“You are still the lady you always were.”
“There are different kinds of ladies,” Sansa answers easily. “I imagine Val has had muddied hems a time or two.”
“Or two hundred,” Jon laughs. “How are you finding her?”
“You were right. I like her, very much. I like everything here.” She pauses and considers the men she spoke of with Val. “Well, most everything.” Jon looks curious, and she knows if she told him, he would be upset and protective, that he would do what he could to shield her from those men and any others. But she doesn’t need his protection; the desire is enough.
“Had we more time I would take you farther north still. There’s a grove, Sansa, that’s so beautiful… I thought of you when I first saw it.”
“You thought of me?” she asks, absurdly pleased. He only smiles in answer. Warmth unfurls beneath her breastbone like a new leaf. When they’d first begun their correspondence, she’d been ashamed at how infrequently she truly thought of him over the years. It was only with time that she realized how much he was in her mind, how she’d unthinkingly patterned herself as Alayne on him – not just to help her be brave, but in his quiet strength, and his belief in the goodness of people even in the face of overwhelming bad. He was always there in her mind, though she’d not realized it. Always in her heart. No matter how far apart they were, she in the south and him here, guarding the north.
“Do you miss it?” she asks suddenly. “This part of your life?” Jon considers a long moment, his brow knitting into a slight frown.
“Sometimes,” he says, and he sounds like he’s surprised by the answer. “So much of it was terrible, but there was good as well. And I felt like I belonged.” His expression becomes wry and he rolls his eyes a bit. “Until they tried to kill me, that is. It seemed…simpler somehow. I know that it wasn’t truly, but it seems that way now.” Sansa nods. She understands such feelings. But it pains her to think of Jon here, far from family, alone and isolated. As isolated as she was in the Vale, a girl who became bastard-brave, just like him. Impulsively, she tugs a glove from one hand and sets it on his cheek, his skin cold against the relative warmth of her own. He goes still, his eyes wide and fixed on hers.
“You were not made for this life, Jon,” she says, her voice thick with emotion. She’s a bit embarrassed by her candor, but she can’t seem to stop the words that crowd on the back of her tongue. “There is too much love in you. It would be such a waste.”
“Sansa,” he says, his voice equally thick. He covers her hand with his own, pressing it against his cheek, the leather cold on her fingers.
“Come with me to King’s Landing.” The words are hanging in the air between them before she even realizes she’s saying them, but she knows the instant she hears them that she means them. Jon holds her hand tighter to his cheek and closes his eyes for a long moment.
Without opening them, he says, “Do you ask me as my Queen?”
"No,” she says. “Nor do I ask as one who was once your sister." She lets anything else she might offer unsaid, knowing that if this is right, he'll understand what she does not say. He opens his eyes and searches her own. Then he tugs her hand from his cheek and holds it to his lips, his breath warm on her knuckles.
"Yes," Jon says at last. "I’d go with you anywhere."
Few words have ever given her such joy. They are grinning at each other like fools, she realizes, but it feels too lovely to stop. His hand is warm in hers and when she squeezes it, he squeezes back. Snow is beginning to fall; it scatters through his black curls, on his cheeks and eyelashes, like that long ago day she left Winterfell. Sansa smiles. Some things are simple after all.