Her bannermen rejoice to see him home to the lady regent of Winterfell, the youngest and last surviving trueborn son of Eddard Stark, his direwolf at his side, rejoice for all that he represents, a future less bleak, a castle being reconstructed, life breathed back into the north. It is a terribly large burden and a terribly high pedestal and when they present Rickon to her she wants to weep to see him alive and hold him to her, but she has been taught better than that (and they hold her to such high standards, as well), and a glance at the wildness in his eyes, the way they dart about seeking an escape, tells her that such an advance would not be welcome.
And so she waits.
For weeks she only catches glimpses, he is a ghost in Winterfell (and so many others, she thinks) - a flash of red as he dashes around the corner, the patter of his feet heavier than they’d been when she had seen him last, when he had been a babe, the whip of the huge black direwolf’s tail. Always the wildling woman follows him and Sansa is wearily grateful for her presence, for the little bit of peace that she seems to give Rickon, and though the northern men crane and beg a peek at the little future lord, Sansa refuses to force Rickon to the hall.
It is enough, she thinks, we have all been forced to do too much against our will.
Instead she waits – she is good at waiting.
When she has heard petitions for the day, sitting in her father’s chair with a cushion propped under her feet, she goes to the kitchen and fetches some sweet cakes, lemon (her favorite still, some things still do not change) and cherry (his favorite, she thinks, she vaguely remembers) and lime, and she goes to Rickon’s rooms and she sits and waits.
The first few times he will not approach her; he runs and snatches a cake and then retreats to the safety of Osha’s side, far across the room from the pretty stranger with Tully features to match his own, and she does not push and she does not speak. And soon, still too long for a lonely heart but soon enough, he creeps closer, retreating only to the fireplace, then sitting across the table from her, then staying when Osha leaves the room rather than immediately retreat, and then one day, finally approaching her and she thinks today may be the day, the day he becomes her little brother again and they can begin anew, and they will no longer be alone.
He sits next to her on the bench, half upon her skirts, swinging his legs, and Sansa notes with a pang that he is still so small, he is not yet eight (still younger than she was when their lives turned so sharply, as young as Sweetrobin had been but a fiercer thing by far), and his feet barely brush the ground. He kicks at the hem of her dress half-heartedly and she does not breathe; it is the closest he has allowed her, the first time he has touched her, and she is afraid that any sudden movement will send him crashing off like a startled animal.
“Are you my mother?” he asks suddenly, looking up at her with those bright blue eyes so like her own, and it is the first time she hears him speak, as well, and his voice is raspy from disuse. She is so grateful to hear him speak, rather than his bellowed wordless rages that echo through the halls that it takes her a moment to hear his question, and her breath catches in her throat and she reminds herself to be steel (be steel and it will not cut through to your heart).
Silence hangs between them for a moment and Rickon watches her expectedly. Sansa reaches out and takes his small, cool hand in her own, holding tight before he can spook and pull away.
“No,” she says gently, and she has to clear her throat as the word sticks in her throat. “No, Rickon, I’m your sister, Sansa. Remember?” Ser Davos had brought him in the hall and Lord Manderly had made a great show of reintroducing the two, and both Starks had looked as though they wished to run, Sansa to her last sibling and Rickon just away, away, away.
“Oh,” he answers, and he kicks his feet again, glancing down at his knees and rubbing at a hole in his trousers. She wonders if he fell, if he tore them, if it is new or old. “I forgot.”
“Do you not remember our lady mother?” she asks softly, almost dreading the answer. For all that her family has suffered, the idea that Rickon would not remember when things were happy and whole, that he would only remember fear and blood and running, is what nearly undoes the careful mask she has perfected in order to survive. For all that her memories are of golden princes with hearts of monsters, of lions and dragons that bring the kingdom to cower, of a slim man with lies on his lips and lust in his eyes, there are still times she looks back and remembers things that were bright and happy and good.
She remembers how her mother’s hand had felt on her hair, slender and long and elegant, smoothing the locks into place and humming as Sansa drifted off to sleep, the safest place in the world; she remembers her solemn-faced father, always thought of as so stoic and cool by those he ruled over, sneaking an extra lemon cake onto her plate at dinner and winking at her when the septa did not notice. She remembers the sound of Robb and Jon and Theon laughing in the yard, the sound mingling with the crack of wooden swords, the whoop of victory when one would land a ‘fatal’ blow; she remembers the dirt on Arya’s dress and the gleam in her eyes, and how she would look up when in the godswood and more often than not see Bran grinning down from a tree. She remembers Rickon, so small, learning to walk as they all did by using Lady Catelyn’s dress as an anchor (he trod on it and tore it and she praised him when he took those hard won steps), and then learning to run before Sansa realized it.
(She misses them all so much that at times she can scarcely catch her breath, she pushes it down and away, but she would be lying if she said that she did not miss her mother most of all.)
We were happy once, the words ache in her throat and she wants to tell him, to remind him. All of us. We were a family then and not just of two afraid strangers.
Rickon shrugs, chewing on his bottom lip, and she is suddenly keenly reminded of the baby brother she left behind when she rode off to a new life at King’s Landing (suddenly wishes she had embraced him a bit tighter, but her head had been full of songs and stars and she had not glanced back). “She had red hair. I think.” His eyes flicker almost suspiciously to Sansa’s head and she feels a sharp desire for the drab brown coloring of Alayne Stone once more, for the less sorrowful life of Alayne that allowed her to rest at night. He lifts his head again, and his eyes are still blank as he fixes them on Sansa’s face. “Is she dead?”
Four moons had passed upon Sansa’s return to Winterfell, four moons of whispers that she could not bear (turned into a wolf attacked them all chopped his head off clawed her face sewed it to the wolf she was mad stabbed through his heart the young wolf slit her throat jaime lannister sends his regards a rainfall of arrows stripped her threw her in the river), whispers that made the nightmares worse for the uncertainty of them, the lies and the truths, and she cornered Lord Manderly, seeing his face go ashen when she demanded, tell me what happened to my brother and my mother, and tell it true, and then I wish to never speak of it again and tell your men the same.
“Yes,” she says quietly. “She is dead.”
(She thought one day that the words would be less painful than the first time she heard them in King’s Landing and she knew herself truly alone.)
Rickon nods again, and she is surprised; she expected tears and more rage, at times her little brother seems more like the huge wolf that bounds after him than the child he is and this is the most quiet and still she has seen him since he arrived. “She loved you fiercely,” she adds, feeling a pang of longing for the mother that had loved her, too, and yet wanting desperately to give him some piece of the life he had had, the family he had been born to, the warmth in the brittle north.
“Then why did she leave,” and there is a flat quality to his voice that turns it more into statement than question.
Sansa swallows hard. “To help our brother, Robb. He was a king and he was fighting a war,” and Rickon brightens at that, intrigued at the idea of his brother the king, and Sansa wets her lips, tasting the words on her tongue but now he is dead, too. They are all dead and it is just us, Rickon. She swallows them back, swallows the litany of names and Father and Arya and Bran and you remember Bran, you must, but he must be dead now, they are all dead.
Another day, she thinks – soon, it will have to be soon, but another day.
Rickon tilts his head up, abandoning his task to widen the hole in his breeches. “It is all right,” he declares proudly, and suddenly she is desperately afraid of the power and swagger of confidence in his young voice, afraid of the crown that they will try and cram onto his head (she has had enough of crowns and kings and queens to last her forever). “I do not need a mother. I have Shaggydog and Osha.”
Carefully she rests her hand on the back of his head, uncertain if such a touch will be allowed, so similar to the ones she gave to her sickly cousin and therefore so seemingly unsuited to her wild brother. Oh Rickon, she does not say, everyone needs a mother because their mother is gone and the words will serve no good and Sansa has learned to push through the regret (it is the only way to live, she has found.) “You have a sister,” she reminds him when he does not pull away. It is not a mother, she knows, but it is something in a world that seemed determined to leave them with nothing, and had she not cared for Sweetrobin after her aunt fell? Could she not do the same for the brother she loved as she had done for the cousin she had pitied?
Rickon wrinkles his nose, as though it is something that he has never encountered and something he need consider. “Yes,” he agrees after a moment and Sansa feels a smile break across her face as he reaches across the table for another cake.
She allows it, as her father had.