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The Thawing of Winter

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Sansa stood outside the sept beside the Gates of the Moon, thinking of her husband waiting on the dais inside as the spring sun warmed her face. The season arrived early, who knew whether real or a tease, but the plants flowered all the same. A lovely day, if only her guts would refrain from twisting like unruly snakes.

Her hands shook as she realized she somehow felt more fear now than the first time, her marriage at the behest of the Lannisters. Nothing could be worse than that, she knew, but the tremors persisted. I must look a fool about to wed the King.

The truth, though, was that she did not know what to expect. She anticipated he would wear a crown, his colors and sigil most likely, and his sword—which one, she did not know. He would be taller now, probably, but as for the rest of him, she was unsure. Even her memories seemed to fail her as she strained to recall images from a lifetime ago. It was said he’d grown older and weathered, that winter, this war, ruling the North, had aged him, that he’d taken wounds, some grievous.

She knew she was not the same either, no matter what he remembered of her. In the time since they parted, she had been a princess-in-waiting, a disgrace, a traitor, a castoff, a wife, a suspected murderer, a fugitive, a bastard, a niece, a nurse, and now a lady. With each, she played the role, acted the part for her audiences of dubious intentions. Sometimes she wondered if this was yet not another character in a never-ending charade, if there would be an end to the maintenance of this façade. Who will he wish me to be?

The chance to wonder evaporated when Petyr stepped up to take her arm. She knew not what to call him now. Lord Baelish? Father? All felt wrong, the former too formal for the man who saved her, helped her escape Cersei’s clutches and King’s Landing and now found a way, however mad, to give Sansa her life back, yet the latter stuck in her throat whenever she tried to utter it. She knew neither what parting words to offer him. Best regards? Many thanks? Those seemed wrong also.

After all that had happened, she could not bring herself to offer gratitude to him. She knew he would ask for his favor later, ask Jon to repay the priceless debt of returning his long-lost sister, the true heir to the North. Sansa already dreaded when that day would come, and she prayed it would not be today, nor tomorrow, nor until they were home in Winterfell and even then some. No, Petyr, whatever he was to her, was not the person she once thought him to be, not a savior or a liberator, but neither was she, and Sansa wondered if the same went for her soon-to-be husband.

She wore the colors of House Baelish—yellow and black—her colors now, but only until she reached the altar. Littlefinger smiled as they waited, smoothing over the velvet of her maiden’s cloak.

“You look beautiful, my lady,” he said, taking her hand between his and kissing her once on either cheek. “Fit for a queen.”

She resisted the urge to shrug away from his touch, which settled at her waist. He wishes to marry me himself. The realization was not new.

Despite the fact that Sansa always dreamed of being a mother, she would rather throw herself from the top-most turret in Winterfell and die childless than marry Petyr or produce his heirs. She’d also dreamt of the moment she’d meet her handsome prince, that magical encounter when their eyes would lock for the first time, but instead she’d had Joffrey, a horrid monster, and now Jon, though kind and a king, whom she’d known since the day she entered this world. She dreamt, too, of the beautiful castle in some warm faraway, exotic place she’d be the lady of, while now she wanted nothing more than to return to the frozen lands and broken walls of Winterfell. And she’d imagined visits to Winterfell so Eddard and Catelyn could know their grandchildren as Sansa had never known her grandparents, but instead they would have solemn walks to the crypts below Winterfell to pay tribute Lord Eddard’s bones and unanswered questions about what became of Lady Catelyn’s.

There was no time, though, to dwell on the fantasies of her childhood, nor revile the horrors of her recent years, as the doors opened before them.

The waiting audience stared, and Sansa started to walk.

She did not see any familiar faces lining the aisle from beneath the netting of her veil, and few of the colors or sigils she knew either. For a moment she feared they recognized her despite the dark hair she wore to conceal her red locks, blackened several times over and done up in the style of the South, and the makeup caked on by her handmaidens this morning, smoothing color over her skin and the lids of her eyes, thickening and lengthening her eyelashes with black. The look was not all that bad, she thought, when she glanced at her image in the reflective glass Ania, her quietest and favorite handmaiden, held up right before she’d had to leave the comforts of her chamber for the unknown outside.

Yet despite the darker color with which they disguised her, Sansa felt paler with each step, the blood draining from her face. She found herself grateful for the lace that shielded her eyes, though she soon realized it was silly to worry for other reasons. Everyone north of the Riverlands who last saw her now laid dead or disappeared, her father and lady mother, Robb and Arya and Bran and Rickon, the entire retinue that left Winterfell, all the friendly hands who she grew up around, perished along with so many others who served her family, whether with sword or serving tray.

“A grim sacrifice,” Petyr had said, counting the murder of her Aunt Lysa at the hands of that depraved singer and the poor, failed health of unfortunate Sweetrobin amongst those gone, too. “But one that now works in our favor.”

Even as she hated him, she knew his words true. Any others believed Sansa Stark dead by now, and few would question the Lord Protector of the Vale and the King in the North anyhow.

It had been a long time since she needed to remind herself of her name, but Sansa knew she would need to when she saw him. They had not seen each other in half as many years as they’d spent together in the first place, and her stomach fluttered with her greatest fear: Will he even know?

The aisle stretched cruelly long, giving her unneeded time to think about the absence of their family. At least, if nothing else, Jon would understand that, the feeling of being left alone in the world, of having nearly everything he’d ever loved ripped away. And she imagined perhaps he would understand it even better than she did, having spent a lifetime as an outcast, only to be sent away to the edge of the world to be brought back again and crowned a king.

Sansa heard stories of Jon’s time at the Wall and how he’d ventured beyond, though most were probably untrue, like as not. Some said Jon had fought dead things come back to life, with flame and blade, or that he himself had become a wildling when he brought the Free Folk back across the Wall, leaving the Night’s Watch to live amongst them, fighting for them, even loving one. More swore Jon had evaded his life commitment of taking the black through death itself, being brought back by blood magic after a mutiny of his men. Still others claimed Jon had become his wolf to escape and to survive, disguised in the skin of another, cleverly concealing himself to plot to avenge his family and the North.

It really didn’t matter what had happened or how, she supposed. It only mattered that Jon survived when so many others had fallen. Sometimes it seemed like they were the only two who remained, and in many ways, they were.

Jon had legitimized her himself, though of course without knowing truly, believing he was taking the hand of the natural-born daughter of Petyr Baelish. And then Jon had accepted the offer of marriage, securing the loyalty of the Vale of Arryn now that the line whose name it bore had ceased to exist, long desiring the land which bordered his other holdings of the North and the Riverlands, previously forever out of his reach, having taken no part in this muddling continuation of war and discontent until now.

From a bastard to a queen, Sansa mused. It would not be the strangest, nor by far the worst, thing that had ever happened to her. Oh, of all the ironies—that her quiet bastard brother from the Night’s Watch would be made King in the North, while she had sunk to her status as the baseborn issue of some nameless tavern wench; that sullen Jon Snow who seemed to enjoy nothing more than polishing his swords in solitude would lead an army, recapture their home, and earn the title of King while she who had been raised for such a position from birth instead found herself locked away in a tower on top of a mountain and caring for sickly little Sweetrobin until his ailments overcame him. She supposed at least she would finally get her misguided wish of being queen.

Certainly it gave everyone what they wanted, but it still seemed wrong. As wrong as the King in the North marrying in a sept, of all places, but Petyr insisted they follow the traditions of the new gods. Another loophole of his making, of course.

“The King can annul it then, if he likes, once you are safely away and your hair grows out bright, beautiful red again,” Petyr said with the smile he must have used to woo Catelyn and Lysa. And then what? she’d wondered, staring back at his saccharine smile. Then I can marry you instead?

The people would be forgiving, Sansa knew, and the old gods, his gods, their gods, she supposed, not offended.

They reached the front and paused before the raised platform in between the towering statues of the Father and Mother. Petyr removed the veil she wore, plain black to match her maiden’s cloak, simple netting not dissimilar from the one he used in her escape from King’s Landing, minus the encrusting of benign jewels and those not so harmless, those which had been used to bring down Joffrey.

But there was no sense in remembering that now, no reason to ruminate on what could have been, so Sansa looked up.

Jon’s striking grey eyes, so like her father’s, like Arya’s, the eyes of the true Starks of Winterfell, stared back.