Every time Tyrion fell back asleep, the niggling worry that he wouldn't wake assailed Sansa. Though he was "well" again, she slept less than she had before, fussing over and checking for the least signs of worsening. Tyrion responded with only confusion—which did not calm her.
"Sansa Stark," he said the next morning.
A sudden smile escaped her. "You remember?"
His brow wrinkled unevenly. "I don't remember why a Stark girl should be my wife. You did say wife, did you not?"
Brushing her skirts free of wrinkles in a habit that perhaps she recalled her mother once having, Sansa shook her head and rose to bring over a tray of breakfast. "It is more complicated than I could explain, even if you did remember everything."
"It sounds right, though," he said after sipping the honeyed milk. "Your name. It sounds familiar. I know I've said it often, for it comes easily to my lips."
There was such an innocence in him as he rambled, frowning, still trying to take in his new situation. Sansa sometimes found herself flushed, with embarrassment or joy she could not always say. It had never felt so good to be near him as it did now, even though she wore herself out with worry and giving him proper care. Tyrion's limbs after so long abed were too unsteady to allow him to leave the bed—Sansa took on all nursing duties despite his protests. It took much of her day to bring him food, bathe him, shave the beard that he said he did not like now, rub ointment into his scars, and add or remove blankets depending on his temperature.
"Do you have nothing else to do?" he mumbled after the third day. (This day, he said, he remembered her from when she was younger, in particular the brilliant hair. "It's like your mother's, is it not?")
"Much else," Sansa admitted. "But I would rather be here."
He frowned and scratched his ear. "Joffrey. That bastard Joffrey—weren't you to marry him?"
Sansa froze and felt ease leave her. "What?"
Tyrion squinted and pounded his fist against the mattress. "The way you moved just now. I remember King's Landing, you and me and that wretched nephew of mine. We weren't married. Nay, marriage wasn't even on my mind. That I remember. How long ago was that, ten years? I remember you looking like a girl, and miserable too."
How could she forget, when every memory came to visit in turn, filling her nightmares with all the terror she forbade during the day. Someday, possibly, he would understand that those were the first and deepest scars that would never go away. She nodded, swallowed slowly. "Yes, all that's true. Even then, though, you were always kinder to me than Joffrey."
A look of horror crossed his face. "Gods above, I should hope so. I don't think of myself as a bad man."
Sansa laughed weakly. "You're not. But once you were someone I could not trust, one among many."
He stared at her for a long while, and without anything further to say she tidied up the room and carried soiled bedding to the servants so that they could wash it. When she returned, opening the windows for a moment to freshen the air, he called to her from across the room.
"What am I missing? I don't like being left out of some mystery, and these memories come back so slowly. What aren't you telling me?"
Sansa could only press her lips together and look outside, then close the window and return to his side. "I shouldn't tell you. I would not do it all justice."
He frowned and reached out to touch her hand. "I swear I'm not as weak as I seem. I can handle truth, good woman."
She laughed a little and patted his hand. "Then you remember very little of herself."
That made him scrunch his face up and let out a painful breath. "So you, at least, know me well. I suppose that's good to know." Then his eyes drew together and he scanned her face closely. "I hurt you before. That's why you didn't trust me."
Sansa breathed in swiftly, the air almost hissing through her teeth. "You remember?"
"No. But you look..." He waved a hand and trailed off, a heaviness making his mouth twist to the side.
Sansa turned her gaze away and swallowed again a rogue lump in her throat. Then, in barely more than a whisper, "Most of it wasn't you, Tyrion. Most of it is old hurts made by cruel, cruel people. You've apologized to me and I've forgiven you—that is all that matters to us now."
She turned back to look at him, hearing a strained sound in his voice. The look of self-hatred wasn't a new one on his face, but this time especially it was one she hated. "Your guilt can't help me, Tyrion," she snapped. "It only makes it harder to love you and if you think I want that then you are a fool."
Tyrion blinked, with more clarity in his eyes than she'd seen in so long...so so long. "Sansa," he said in a low voice. "I must beg for more patience. I don't understand."
"I know you don't," she said, inhaling deeply and then letting it all out.
"I know that too."
He sighed, lay back, then scrunched his face again. "Are you the only one who cares to see me?"
"Of course not," she murmured. "I'll bring your family in, if you're ready."
Tyrion shrugged. "Might as well."
Sansa hurried from the room, breathing a little quickened. It would have been so straightforward if he'd woken fully healed and she could have confessed her love and...and all that entailed. Awkwardness, instead, made her flustered and unsure. Some things were easier, others infinitely more complicated, and while her head had logical answers her heart seemed to overwhelm her too often.
Finding love had always seemed so much simpler in songs. Those stupid, stupid songs...
The ship to Pentos passed through every winter storm, so it seemed. Wood creaked and vomit joined salt-water on the decks, even in Dany's lush cabin. Irri, her brown skin turned a sickly color, moaned and turned on the bed. Even Jorah had a greenish cast where he stood at the window and watched the raging seas.
"How close?" Irri asked yet again, hands pressed over her belly.
"Days still," Dany said and stroked the woman's clammy brow. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed how Jorah watched her every movement. Still insecure, still worried. She'd refused to choose between her two loves and he felt sure that one day she would choose and it would not be him. Foolish. But loyal, and she would prove him wrong in the end. They were both hers.
Irri moaned and closed her eyes. "When we land, I demand that we buy horses."
Dany managed a tiny smile, the first in weeks. "Horses?" Demand? she thought also, amused and yet pleased.
"We are building our own life, and I want horses," Irri said with a fierceness that seasickness could not squelch. "They know well to stay away from this cursed poison water."
Dany's smile grew. "True, yes. We can be Dothraki again, like in the beginning. We can start our own khalasar."
Irri smiled back, eyes half-opening. "I shall be Khal Irri and you the blood of my blood."
Dany faked horror. "What is this? Am I not still your khaleesi?"
"Yes. Khaleesi to my khal, for no Andal can be khal. It is known."
Jorah snorted but Dany only laughed and kissed Irri's brow. "Yes, my khal," she teased.
"It is known," Irri murmured again and smiled, tangling her fingers with Dany's.
The ship rocked back and forth on the waves and had Irri any food left in her belly it probably would have joined the rest on the floor. Yet it was better here. King's Landing and all its troubles were far gone. Westeros was no longer her task to rule and she was free. Free to love, free to live, free to leave all her burdens in her wake.
Eventually Irri dozed off and Jorah came to wrap his arms around her. Dany hummed to herself, resting her head against his shoulder. "When we are Dothraki again," she murmured, "you must not wear your heavy armor."
"Give me a painted vest and an arakh," he whispered into her hair. "I am yours, Daenerys. We have given up Westeros for good."
And Dany smiled and buried all her sorrows where they could not bring her tears.
"Curse dragons and the day I ever thought I would want to see one," Tyrion growled as his knee gave way and he nearly crashed to the stone floor.
Sansa had a firm grasp on his hand and helped him up again. "When was that?" she asked, avoiding mentioning the fall that so clearly hurt his dignity. "When did you want to see one?"
He made a low noise and attempted again to walk across the room. "Oh, I was probably four...five...too young to know anything but that if I didn't have a dragon, no one would ever fear me."
She could have been cruel and reminded him that, no, many had feared him—herself included—but she only tsked quietly. "You have much better talents than causing fear."
"And what are they, hmm?" He'd been recovered for over a month now, and save a few dark patches all his memory was returned. Limbs still held onto weakness, though, and at first he'd cursed them and said he'd always been twisted and dwarflike so why not a cripple as well. Sansa glared him into submission; for all the embarrassment he showed she knew he wanted to walk again. It was all they spoke of, most days. She helped him to health again and they spoke of that or his memory, testing its solidity. Nothing more, for Sansa had her embarrassments as well and a dignity that made her shy.
"You are intelligent, compassionate, just, self-aware, loving," Sansa listed off, a talent for each wobbling step he took. She held her arm steady for support, watching each step in case he should stumble again. While she had grown taller, he did not seem so outrageously small as he once had. Love was very blind, maybe. "You are well-read and battle-savvy, and good with animals and most people."
He scoffed, raising one eyebrow. "Now there you exaggerate most criminally, Sansa. You and my niece and nephew do not count for most people. Besides, I believe Nymeria sees me as her pet, not the other way around."
On hearing her name, the wolf who'd been flopped on her side by the fire lifted an ear and made a sniffing sound.
"Companion, fine," Tyrion corrected himself and rolled his eyes.
Sansa laughed under her breath.
At last he made it back to the bed, climbed the short stairs, and sat on the edge of the mattress with a sigh of relief. "Well. Now, if there's a fire in the castle, we know I can make it just to the door before realizing that I would rather die in bed."
She sat down next to him and gave him a look. "If there is a fire, I will have Nymeria carry you out." On impulse, she found his hand with hers and squeezed gently. Unexpected moments of silence followed, and she wondered if she should pull back—but didn't. His hands were smaller than hers, but warm and somehow comforting to touch. Sansa had rarely felt a comforting touch in the span of her life, when all touches were called into account.
Before the awkwardness reached its zenith, Tyrion cleared his throat. "Had I realized I would not die, when the Wall fell and I with it, I still should not have expected this kind of welcome at Winterfell. I hope Daenerys didn't threaten you into this."
"Into what?" Sansa raised her eyes from their joined hands, not quite sure of his meaning.
"Taking care of me, of course." Tyrion didn't quite meet her eyes. "I'm already so far in your debt, there's no need for..."
"Hush," Sansa said, soft and short. A flutter of emotions turned her stomach over, but she swallowed it all. "I did it willingly." She tightened the hand around his just a fraction of an inch and tried to will herself calm again.
But then he looked up at her, looking braced for hurt—or perhaps hurting already. "Why?"
She'd answered it every night since the beginning of the war, only deep in her heart where no one else could hear. She'd kept back the answer for months when he struggled to remember simple things about their history. Now, the words fell from her lips before she could even pause for breath. "Because I love you."
Tyrion held her gaze for another few seconds. Then, barely audible: "Oh."
Sansa inhaled deeply, biting her lip and glancing over to the window to break the too-strong tension. "Are you going to tell me that I don't? That I shouldn't? That I'm just lying to you or myself or maybe even both?"
"I'm thinking about it," she heard him say.
"Well, I don't care," she said firmly, turning back and steeling her jaw. "I don't." After all the lies and awkward truths, these words felt precious. Not quite a joyful truth—not if he didn't love her back—but hopeful. Sansa had already sacrificed her last defenses for hope, she could hardly stop now.
When he finally laughed, it sounded almost like crying. "There is no one like you in the world, Sansa. Gods be good, no one else like you."
She swallowed the lump in her throat, unsure and too caught up in the importance of the moment to see clearly. Her wretched heart beat too fast and she heard herself murmuring, "I don't think that's true..."
"I've traveled the world, I know it is," he said, hoarse and suddenly vulnerable. "The world is full of good women, and remarkable women, and even women who don't hate me once they know me. None like you, though. None I could love like you. Unless you're a fever dream and I'm still asleep..."
Sansa shook her head violently, feeling like her heart would now fly away, too happy to stay grounded with her. His face looked so soft, all the hard twisted lines as nothing compared to the warmth in his eyes—the love had been there before, but never so strong as now. "I'm not a dream, I promise," she whispered, and when he smiled she returned it.
My husband. This time the words seemed to fit.
"Are you sure you're not a dream?" he asked, the teasing tone not hiding even a little of his hesitation as he turned inwards, releasing his hand from her grasp.
She only nodded. The closeness threatened to steal her breath away—had her own heart not been pounding so, she might have heard his too.
Though he could barely reach, Tyrion brushed fingers through her hair and slid them to cup the back of her neck. He'd smiled at her so many times, but this one was simply from intimacy. Sansa shivered, but not in fear, and leaned in to close the distance. He kissed her then, just barely. There was nothing perfect about his mouth against hers, nor was it her first kiss, yet Sansa thought the love in it might envelop and never release her—and she liked it.
When he pulled back, still looking as if he'd not be surprised if she ran away, she couldn't contain her smile nor the impulse to cup his face in her hands and kiss him again. The impulse had been good—she liked it even more the second time.
"I love you," he whispered shakily when the kiss ended again.
"Do you?" she asked, forehead pressed against his, breath catching in her throat.
He laughed and stroked her cheek. "Very, very much."
"That's good..." Sansa wondered if this was what made minstrels write songs. "I mean—I love you too."
He snorted, and Sansa ducked her head and laughed, for relief and for love and for the unmatched healing of a wanted kiss. Then Nymeria nosed them apart with a look of disdain, and after that the laughing didn't stop until they were both red-faced and weeping. It rang through the halls and nothing so good had been heard in far too many years.
Winter still ruled the lands outside, but inside Winterfell it was as warm as summer.
The loud thumps from within the wagon kept frightening Brienne's horse. Sandor ignored them pointedly, except for a few times when he kicked back, but Brienne's horse whinnied and shied every time the thunderous noises started again.
"Don't you think a few minutes of talking would have been worth all this?" she asked the Hound, not for the first time on this journey North.
"You think she'd have coming willing?" Sandor laughed mockingly.
"He's right," came the boy's voice from within the cart.
Brienne sighed. The pious Hound she'd found on the Quiet Isle had made a reversal at the sight of this one girl, and she found herself a skeptic of it even to this day—yet perhaps it was not extraordinary, for there had always been that Lady Stark he talked about, who was not her Lady Stark. Regardless, he'd lost some quietude when they found their prisoner, and Brienne no longer felt particularly honorable among his company. The last time she'd felt honorable, it had been when Jaime—dear, doomed Jaime—gave her Oathkeeper. Now she brandished a simple unnamed blade and did not dream of knights. Yet she would keep her oath, just as (in a perverse way) Sandor was doing as well.
Two scarred giants such as themselves met no resistance on the road, even with the border disputes that had been rumbling ever since Daenerys Targaryen left for Essos. The Tullys' land had been easy enough to pass through, and Robert Arryn did not rule the Mountains of the Moon with as much paranoia as his mother had. The North, however... Sandor had been right about one thing, and an open show of force had saved their skin more than once.
Somehow Brienne doubted that this would be the case once they arrived at Winterfell itself.
The last few hours that she had to doubt, nothing changed. Thumps from the wagon scared her horse; Sandor growled; Brienne questioned her life's purpose. At last they came to the gates.
"Prisoner for Lady Stark," Sandor growled.
"Who?" the guard demanded.
"None of your fucking business." Sandor had a foot and a half on the guard, and used it and his ferocious face quite well. "Take us to Lady Stark."
The guard scampered off and they waited.
"We should get her out," Brienne said, frowning.
"You want the scratches? Be my guest." Sandor spat in the wagon's direction, though as always his bluster had a bit of awe in it.
A few scratches would be worth the honor of a proper meeting. Brienne braced herself and opened the back of the wagon. Gendry sat, bored and eating a wrinkled winter apple, looking more like Renly now than he ever had as a boy. The log-shaped bundle on the wagon's floor flopped back and forth while making muffled angry sounds.
"She's got a lot of anger," Gendry said with a shrug. "Still going strong."
"I could hear," Brienne said, and cracked her knuckles. "Well, we're here. If you don't want the wrath, you'd best get out now."
Gendry laughed and hopped out of the wagon before she could ask twice.
Brienne dragged the wrapped and bound prisoner out and set her upright before slicing the ropes around the upper half. She'd barely begun unpeeling the blanket before a gag was spit in her face and a snarling face made to bite at her nose.
"Enough," she ordered, hefting the young woman up with one arm to keep her from getting a foothold in the mud. "We're at Winterfell, as promised, so fighting is pointless."
"Bloody kidnappers," Arya sneered at her, trying to wrench away. Her shaggy mess of black hair was plastered half to her face, half to the back of her head, but while her face was not pretty it was most certainly a Stark's. Not that Brienne had seen many, but Sandor assured her of the accuracy. "Then you'll be responsible for my traitor sister's death!"
Brienne ignored her and cut away more of the bonds. Though skinny, Arya was quick and strong, and slashed her nails across Brienne's forearm enough to draw blood.
"Bugger your talk of traitors and killing," Sandor growled. He'd changed his mind and came to help with the irascible prisoner. "You've been in Braavos, idiot girl, so don't pretend you know anything about your sister."
"I'm not a girl," Arya snapped, even as Brienne caught her arms and held her from diving towards the Hound. "I'm a woman grown and you can't fucking kidnap me. Gendry, tell them!"
"Tell them what?" the Baratheon bastard demanded, looking decidedly awkward. "That I made you a woman? That's hardly relevant."
"You didn't," Arya scoffed. "I made you a man."
A fierce bout of squabbling only ended when Sandor laughed mockingly at both the "mewling babes". The situation was swiftly growing out of hand and Brienne didn't approve. When Sandor stopped Arya's stream of curses and threats with a hand over her mouth, she let out a short-lived breath of relief.
"Gods fuck you!" Sandor roared, drawing back his hand dripping blood where Arya had bit him.
At that moment, of all moments, before Brienne had even cut the ropes binding Arya's legs, the Winterfell guard returned and said that Lady Stark would see them.
Brienne wasn't sure how they managed to drag Arya to the Great Hall without ending up in pieces, but they did. The girl might have been a "woman grown", but Brienne and Sandor made her look a dwarf. Size mattered more than Arya cared to admit, clearly. Lady Catelyn, I hope you appreciate this, wherever you are...
Inside the hall, oddly enough, Lord and Lady of Winterfell sat at supper with their bastard wards. After such a long journey, Brienne had lost all hope for things to actually be as they'd been rumored. Yet it was true—Sansa looked the very image of the mother that Brienne had once served, a fact that sent a pang of guilt and grief through her even now. Tyrion Lannister, though propped up to the same height as the others, laughed and ate with the rest as if he belonged here. The boy and girl sitting just below them could have been his children, and the direwolf by the fire could have been a family pet. An odd family, but a happy one nonetheless, something Brienne had never thought to see again.
It was Sansa—Queen in the North, Brienne corrected herself—who rose as soon as they were escorted in. "What is this?" she asked, steely confusion in her voice. "You bring me a prisoner but you mistreat her?"
"Lady Stark," Sandor began, and as soon as he spoke both Sansa and Tyrion froze, suddenly recognizing him.
"You were dead," Sansa breathed.
"Was, yes." Sandor didn't mock her. "Not anymore."
"Your grace," Brienne said and stepped forward. "Your mother commanded me many years ago to return you and your sister to her—or to Winterfell, once she was slain. I've been lost most of those years and you returned on your own. It was by chance that another opportunity to fulfill my oath came to me, and so here we are." She awkwardly pulled back Arya's hair from her face. "I'm sorry that we come like this, but she refused to believe that you were not...a traitor."
Sansa's cheeks went pale. Arya only hissed, though she no longer struggled in Brienne's grasp.
"This can't be," Sansa said aloud.
"Sansa, they used another girl in place of your sister before," Tyrion warned, rising to join his lady wife.
Arya suddenly wrenched free, drawing a dagger from thin air somehow (Brienne and Sandor were not stupid and had both stripped her of all weapons long before) and darting across to slide it against Sansa's throat. Before Brienne had time to cry out, Arya snapped loud enough for the entire hall to hear: "I'm no imposter. I've come to avenge father, and Robb, and mother, and everyone who died because of you and these Lannisters."
Brienne couldn't move, caught by the fear that she would now watch both Lady Catelyn's daughters die in hatred and blood.
Then a great beast snarled and Arya went flying back, the direwolf pinning her to the floor and sending the dagger flying uselessly away.
Everyone moved again. Sansa gasped and put a hand to her unharmed throat as Tyrion leapt in front of her and Sandor swore and drew his sword on the pinned Stark girl. Brienne and Gendry shared a look of unsurety.
"Nymeria?" Arya's voice sounded small now, and she did not struggle.
The great wolf held herself with fur raised and teeth bared protectively, and did not release her Brienne had a horrid thought that Arya might actually cry.
The tension broke as Sansa gently pushed Tyrion's hand away and took two steps forward. A look from her, and Nymeria settled down. "Yes, Nymeria." Lady Stark's voice wavered, even while she stood tall. "She came to me when I called and she's been at my side ever since. Waiting for you to come home."
Brienne didn't understand, but this was not hers to understand.
Sansa's eyes glittered with tears, and when the direwolf stepped back at last Arya stood up slowly, not bothering to reach for her knife.
"It must have been horrible living without her," Sansa whispered. "I'm sorry... Arya, I'm so sorry..."
"Sorry?" Arya's voice came out strained, the furrow between her grey eyes making her look like a little girl. "Who are you and what have you done with my sister?"
Sansa laughed strangely, then swiftly took a step forward and embraced her.
Strangely, Arya did not struggle. "Told you," Gendry murmured at Brienne's side. Then Arya made a choking sound and gingerly hugged Sansa back, some of the strain vanishing in a way that only family could cause.
Brienne's work was done. That last duty had been carried out and her heart was unburdened. Now she had only to find Pod again, give him a home, and she might at last settle down. Where that might be, she knew not. Nearly all who she cared about now lay beneath the earth, and she had no allegiance left to direct her. She'd traveled with Sandor for years now, a matter of shared purpose, but now she saw a painful longing in his eyes as he watched the sisters' reunion. Somehow she doubted that Sandor would leave Winterfell now, yet she might as well wait here.
In some ways, Sansa did not recognize her sister. After nine years apart, however, that was hardly surprising. Sansa barely recognized the girl she herself had once been every morning when she looked in the mirror. Arya, though, seemed more wild than ever, and yet full of a terrifying control. One moment she'd be ranting passionately—the next, looking like she might slit a throat. At least this time, Sansa had dealt with far worse.
"Your hair," Sansa had said, mourning the tangle that was atop her sister's head.
Arya looked at her like she was an Other.
"It gets in your eyes and in your way," Sansa explained. Arya had trained with the Faceless Men. A lady of Westeros she would never be, and Sansa no longer required that of her kin. Basic hygiene, however...
"Oh." Arya scrunched up her nose in the Stark family way. "Well if you want to cut it, I won't say no."
Somehow, Sansa convinced Arya to take a bath in the hot springs, far away from the others. Arya's suspicion made social interaction difficult, and Gendry had confided that he barely remembered Arya before she'd shown up to the Brotherhood Without Banners and had no more trust in her. What little she exhibited now, he told Sansa, had been hard wrung from her sister.
Nymeria padded along—anywhere the direwolf went, Arya followed, and that could only mean good in the long run. Once in the godswood, Sansa joined ARya in the steaming bath with a pair of shears, noting how her sister looked less like a wildling once the dirt washed off her skin. For a long time, though, she could only stare at the blue and black tattoos along her back. "Braavosi?"
Arya tensed slightly and nodded.
She wouldn't ask further, not now. Sansa buried her fingers in Arya's hair to scrub out the dirt and grime, expecting resistance, but instead Arya seemed to turn to soft clay beneath her hands. Brow furrowed, Sansa focused only on washing and combing out her little sister's hair—not so little anymore, but still small. Then she heard a whimpery sob and pulled back as if burnt. "What's wrong? Are you hurt?"
Arya turned, eyes red and shoulders hunched, and wrapped skinny arms around Sansa. Hot tears leaked onto Sansa's neck and she didn't understand. "What's wrong?" Sansa asked again.
"Why do you have to sound like mother?" Arya asked achingly. "You always looked like her but..." A strangled sound choked off any further words and she only clung.
"Arya..." Sansa held still, bewildered.
Another sob came wrenched from Arya's throat, then a rush of almost unintelligible words. "I was so close to seeing her and then she died, and I was so close, and if I'd just been faster or better I could have saved her, and I tried to forget but it still hurts and I could have saved her."
Sansa had to swiftly swallow a lump in her throat. "No, no, you couldn't! No one could. We were children, just children."
"I don't think they even buried her," Arya said, with a bitter grief that made her arms shake.
"She's here," Sansa could whisper, and stroke her now-trembling fingers through her sister's hair. "She came home, her and father. Their spirits rest in Winterfell."
Arya shivered but her sobs stopped, her clinging lessening. And then, as if a switch had flipped, she was as calm as if emotion had never touched her face. "You can cut my hair now," she murmured under her breath, pulling away and turning her back to Sansa again.
Lip between her teeth, Sansa continued with her original task, dragging fingertips through Arya's tangled locks and finally snipping the ends with her shears. Something was broken in Arya and home alone could not fix it. Sansa knew how that worked, knew her own brokenness very well. They'd been children once, her and Arya, and then the world had robbed them of childhood and left a black hole in its place. Family, though, was stronger than such emptiness. They'd been born sisters and would die sisters, but not yet. Not for a long time, Sansa could only hope.
They need not rely on sisterhood alone, also, for Arya had Gendry and Sansa had Tyrion. Sansa could hardly guess the exact nature of her sister's relationship with the blacksmith, yet it seemed essential to them both. Gendry made no attempts to leave Winterfell and Sansa would never ask him to.
Her own love was less easy, more stated, and rather more awkward than she'd hoped. Tyrion had a way of treating her gingerly that made her worry, yet any impulsive hungry look that escaped his control made her gasp and turn hard, brittle. Then there were only awkward apologies and explanations and wretched anxiety. Love was simple, trust was not. "They broke you worse than they broke me," he would tell her, giving her hand a squeeze as if to tell her that he understood. But she still flushed in shame and then he would say nothing at all, nor give her even a simple affectionate touch, drawing away with a look of guilt that made her want to weep.
Sometimes it was easier to laugh and smile at the table, to share a sweet kiss before bed, and pretend that the rest did not exist. Pretending made nothing so, however. Love was less a happenstance than it was a journey, and for all her anxieties Sansa needed to keep going on even though she didn't know how. Surely Tyrion must as well, for he was still there, still trying.
Arya's arrival into the family, and all the adjustments necessary, distracted them from each other for a while. Myrcella and Tommen seemed to fear the longlost Stark, and Sansa worked day and night to ease the tensions and conflicts. Tyrion awkwardly attempted to befriend Arya and Gendry, and in an unusual show of maturity Arya didn't rebuff him. There was hope for them all, Sansa thought.
She almost forgot everything but Winterfell's family, in the broadest of senses.
A full week passed and it finally looked like no one would argue over the supper table. For an hour or so at least, Sansa could trust that her diplomacy would go unneeded. Her head in a whirlwind, overwhelmed with so many people, she stepped out of the hall to an empty corridor and took a deep breath of the cool air. Lady Stark fell away and Sansa thought only of herself. She was alone and could be selfish, just for a little.
"Tired of all the people, little bird?"
She opened her eyes in surprise and saw Sandor standing a few paces away, a tall figure in the shadow of a wall-torch. "Yes," she answered simply.
"Then I should leave you," he said under his breath, but made no move to follow his own suggestion.
The torch flickered, its hiss the only sound they could hear. Long years had touched him with age, yet he was the same as ever. Broad-shouldered and massively tall, yet with a fear behind his eyes that was so small. She pitied him still, and wondered what he'd seen. While she'd been buffeted about Westeros, what had he done? "You've not spoken to me since you brought Arya home."
"That was Brienne," the man snorted. "I don't care about your sister, beyond the many bruises she gave me. I came to see you."
That gave her no surprise and Sansa nodded. He whose rage sometimes became passion was touched by calm now, but not in his eyes. Across the corridor she could see them still like embers, dark and glowing. Just like she remembered in her dreams that were not always nightmares.
"Was it a disappointment, to find me alive again?" Sandor took a few steps forward, voice like gravel and jaw set.
"No," Sansa said softly. She'd loved him, in her way, once. Fear had sometimes given way to a desperate desire for someone to want her and to keep her safe. Even when she'd grown weary of the fear, he'd been a precious memory of the fact that there was goodness in the world. Those had been girls' thoughts, however, and now she was nearly one-and-twenty. "I never wanted you dead. I prayed for you."
"Not anymore, though." He gave a half-laugh. "I called you little bird, but that's all wrong. You've lost your littleness. You're a great mother bird now, aren't you, with a whole world beneath your wings. And no songs for me...no, none for the Hound."
Sansa flushed. For a moment words escaped her, but in the end she said only, "I don't sing anymore."
A sadness crossed his face, but he shook it off and shrugged. "Well, could be worse. You're happy enough, right?"
She swallowed and nodded. "More than enough." No need to lie about that anymore, thank the gods.
Sandor looked ready to leave, but he paused a moment and stared at her. "With the Imp?"
Sansa gave a hint of a smile and corrected him. "With Tyrion."
He turned away with a painful laugh, and walked away down the corridor without a single glance back.
When she could no longer hear him, Sansa let out a long breath and closed her eyes again. So many had come back to her and so few had stayed. Yet they need not all stay for her to be happy. Just a handful.
Peace still reigned in the great hall when shereturned, and love drowned out the discomfort every time it raised its head. It was as if nothing had changed while she was gone. Her world stayed together even without her busy hands to construct it.
Sansa took a seat on the rug by the fire and fed Nymeria herring, listening to Tommen sing a song he'd written about kittens. Arya slept with her head on Gendry's lap and Myrcella played at cyvasse with Tyrion. When he looked up from the game and met her gaze, smiling so hard that his eyes crinkled, she found herself grinning back.
Yes, she thought. This is what I want. For always.