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they tumble down

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They’re alone in the godswood, Jon and her, walking through a world of white that swallows up all noise save the snow crunching under their boots. He’s been quiet since he returned with a shipful of invaders--and got quieter still once he learned about his true parentage. She’s quiet too, now, should’ve said something minutes ago but he keeps walking and she’s trailing after, her carefully rehearsed speech lost somewhere back at the courtyard along with her conviction.

He won’t like what she’s about to propose, but she likes it even less. That’s the problem. The longer she stays silent, the longer it takes before she has to do something she promised herself she’d never do again.

It has to be done, though.

She’s heard the whispers around Winterfell, the speculations about him, his Targaryen blood, and Daenerys. Sometimes Arya dons a face Sansa doesn’t want to know where she got, and moves around the castle to learn what people say when they think no one important is listening.

It’s rarely kind, gossip. But the situation is stable, for now. Ravens have flown through snowfall from house to house, carrying words of the crumbled wall and the dead crossing into the land of men. When death is knocking on your door to turn your families into wights, it doesn’t take much to turn a king’s betrayal into a noble sacrifice that secured the living their only chance of winning.

But once it’s all over, once the dead are shattered and Daenerys’ armies and dragons don’t mean protection but oppression, Sansa fears the Northern lords’ loyalties will wane.

They’re a fickle lot, after all. If they have any reason to suspect he’ll favour his Targaryen side, they’ll break faith.

They need to marry, Jon and her, it’s the only solution. She learned that in King’s Landing, where harsh realities knocked a little girl’s dreams of gallant knights out of her head and filled the aching emptiness with lessons about politics and duty and games. Daughters were commodities that formed alliances and brokered peace. By marrying one of the Northern lords’ daughters--and by marrying off his sister to one of their sons--Jon will prove his heart belongs to the North.

She throws him a glance. His eyes are locked at the ground, his jaw clenched together; he’s so far away in thoughts she doubts he remembers her walking by his side.

“Jon,” she says.

His head snaps up to look at her and it takes a second for his eyes to focus. He doesn’t talk to any of them--not her or Arya or Bran--about what’s bothering him even though he so clearly could use it. Identity crisis, Sam calls it, but Sansa can’t quite relate. Throughout her life, she’s been so many people, always adapting to survive, but at her core she remained a Stark. Arya’s the same.

But then, Jon never did feel like a true Stark, did he?

They’ve stopped by the old tree with a wound in its enormous trunk leading to a roomy hollow. They used to play there as children, hiding in the tree’s embrace while Robb pretended to be a grumkin looking to steal some children. Well, Sansa rarely did. When her siblings played, she often sat inside with her sewing, or stayed at the pools with a book, her skirts arranged prettily around her as the others rumbled around the trees. Always the perfect lady, wasn’t she, in a family of roughhousing children. Always trying to make her mother proud.

She does have one memory, though, and she shares it to put Jon at ease, to warm him up before the dreaded topic.

“Do you remember that tree?” she says. “When Arya and I hid in there, and a caterpillar fell in my hair so I shrieked and Robb found us instantly. She got so angry she tried to make me eat it.”

“I remember hearing about it.”

Sansa closes her eyes. She could kick herself. “I’m sorry. I assumed you were there.”

“It’s all right. I was probably…”

“Off sulking in a corner?” she fills in and it earns her a smile, so rare now, and she feels herself return it.

He meets her gaze for the shortest moment before turning to look out over the woods, gesturing at it with a gloved hand. “Is this why you brought me here? To talk about memories?”

“No. I wanted to talk about marriage.” She pauses when he stills, his eyes round and blank and staring resolutely at the tree instead of her, but as he remains silent she goes on. “Jon, I know this is the last thing you want. But I think you and I--”

A firm hand around her elbow cuts her off. He pushes her into the tree hollow, squeezes himself inside too. They stand so closely together she feels his breath on her lips and the heat of his body against her own, the toes of their boots kissing.

“Varys,” he whispers and then she hears it, the careful melody of the eunuch’s studied voice. Tyrion’s too. “I don’t trust them.”

Cloaked in shadows, they listen to Daenerys’ advisors speak. They rarely use names, rarely say what they mean, and use shorthand to which Sansa’s not privy. Their meaning is still clear, though: they wonder about Jon and Daenerys. Sansa has wondered too, has seen the looks Daenerys sends Jon’s way. People do talk, too, about Targaryens and their penchant for marrying their relatives.

And yet she can’t hold back a gasp when she learns Jon’s bedded the Dragon Queen.

The hollow is narrow enough she feels him go rigid.

But then his hand is around her arm again, as though to steady himself, and his body presses against hers, his lips close to her ear.

“It’s over,” he whispers, his warm breath and soft beard tickling her, and there’s a strange sensation in her stomach she can’t quite define. Disgust, yes, and relief that it’s over but also anger and... and something else. Something that makes her nervous, that makes her shiver.

He rubs his thumb over her arm. “Are you cold?”

“I’m fine,” she whispers, suddenly aware of how close he is, how he’s not removed his hand yet. How she doesn’t really want him to.

How being this close to someone who wants nothing in return from her awakens something within her: a need to be closer, perhaps in his arms, wrapped in his cloak, in the safety of him, where she can breathe in leather and warm skin. Where she can finally relax, far away from the exhausting games she’s so often forced to play.

His clothes rustle, his elbows nudge against her, and then he’s close again, so close her breath hitches and the strangest thoughts try to enter her mind. She squeezes her eyes shut to ward them off and waits for... she doesn't know what. But then the weight of his cloak settles on her shoulders and he moves back, miles away, cold air rushing to fill the space between them.

It reminds her of another time a man put a cloak on her shoulders, that she’ll soon have to enter a third unwanted marriage to clean up Jon’s mess, and the anger that has festered inside her chest ever since she received the raven about his bending the knee seeps out of her mouth.

“Don’t be an idiot.” Her voice is dark and low, as hard and sharp as the dragonglass he betrayed his family for. “You’ll freeze to death and then your precious Dragon Queen will leave us all for King’s Landing.”

“If I didn’t freeze to death when I fell into that bloody lake, I won’t freeze to death now either.”

He forgot himself, speaking a little louder than a whisper, and she presses a finger to her lips, glancing out the opening. Only a tuft of blond locks can be seen of Tyrion, who is shielded behind the gorgeous charcoal cloak of Varys. They’re still speaking, oblivious to their audience, and Sansa realizes she’s not listened to their words in quite some time.

“Have you seen the way he looks at her?” Varys asks and Tyrion mumbles something under his breath she can’t discern, but it pulls a throaty chuckle from the eunuch. “True, my friend. Very true. But what about her?” he continues. “She’s hard to read, that one.”

“Perhaps I should ask my brother,” Tyrion says and Varys laughs again, but the laughter dies when Ghost comes bounding out of the woods, his mouth glistening red from a fresh kill.

“Ah,” Tyrion says, “I believe that’s our cue to leave. His master is never far behind.”

Sansa keeps an eye on Ghost as they leave, but the direwolf stands still as though he knows not to reveal their hidden place. Jon’s breaths are heavy and the leather of his gloves creaks as he clenches and unclenches his fist. A nervous tic of his, she’s noticed, as though he’s spent so long fighting his hand misses Longclaw whenever it’s in its sheath. But there’s not much to be nervous about out here. Perhaps it’s impatience. He has better things to do than huddling up with her inside a hollow tree while listening to castle gossip.

“Who were they speaking of, do you think?” she asks anyway, because anything is better than the uncomfortable silence eating away at the pocket of intimacy they created. “That last bit.”

Jon’s quiet for such a long moment she’s about to repeat her question, louder this time, when he finally replies. “Brienne and Tormund?” His voice is hoarse and he clears his throat before continuing. “He took a fancy to her the moment he saw her.”

“Oh, of course. He’s not a very subtle man.”

Jon chuckles. “No. No, he’s not.”

“I suppose it explains why they should ask ser Jaime. They’re close.”

“Aye.”

“It’s nice, you know,” she says, softly. “Hearing you laugh again.”

His eyes meet hers, so dark, with glints of waning sunlight reflected in them. They drop to her lips, or perhaps the dark is playing tricks on her, but that sensation is back in the pit of her stomach and she doesn't understand any of it.

But then Jon heaves a sigh, deep enough that she feels his chest expanding. “I think we can leave now.”

He slips outside without looking at her and keeps his back to her as she slips out of his cloak, as though she’s doing something indecent.

“Thank you,” she says, handing it back. “You’re very kind. But I really didn’t need it.”

Jon shrugs, and puts the cloak back on in one smooth movement, the wool billowing around him. “Ghost, to me.”

The direwolf pads after him as Jon strides toward Winterfell, his boots kicking up snow as they make deeper tracks beside the faint prints of their old ones already softened by the constant precipitation.

“Jon,” she calls after him, lifting her skirts as she tries to catch up. “We still have matters to discuss.”

“After supper.”

If a back can look angry, his does, especially behind that dark cloak that does its best to convey the turmoil of emotions Jon has bottled up as it flaps dramatically behind him.

She understands now, though, his silence and anger the past few days. Why he’s not talked to any of them about what troubles him. Why mentioning marriage elicited such a strange reaction.

He’d probably planned on marrying Daenerys before learning who he was. Perhaps he’s hoping he can still, somehow. But that would ruin everything they’ve worked so hard to accomplish.

After supper, it is, then. Food and mead in his belly will cushion the bitter pill she’ll have him swallow.