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The Bastard of Winterfell

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Prologue

Sansa Stark paced the floor in the bedchamber she shared with her new husband, wringing her hands and trying desperately not to panic.  The hour was late, and she knew that Tyrion would return to their chamber soon.  She had endured a particularly trying day, and she wasn’t at all prepared for what she knew she must do as soon as her husband returned.

The day had started like any other.  Sansa and Tyrion had broken their fast in their own chamber, and then, Tyrion had gone off to do small council business.  Sansa had gotten dressed and joined Margaery Tyrell for a turn around the garden.  It had all been quite ordinary and mundane until . . . until . . . Joffrey had found her, just as she’d been making her way back to her rooms for the afternoon meal.

He’d cornered Sansa in a deserted hallway, pushed her up against the wall, and viciously groped her while whispering threats against her ear.  Sansa had been unable to do anything but stand there trembling in fear.  Had Margaery not suddenly come upon them, Joffrey might have made good on his threats right then and there.  As it was, he’d been forced to remove his hands from her person and pretend that he’d just been leaning in to tell her a secret joke about his uncle.

Of course, Margaery hadn’t believed a single word, but she’d played along just fine.  She’d sidled up to Joffrey, wrapped her arm around his, and led him off in the opposite direction, leaving Sansa free to make her escape.

Sansa had made a mad dash for her room, slamming the door behind her and locking it.  She’d spent the rest of the day hiding in her bedchamber, trying to decide what to do about Joffrey’s threats. 

Even now, she could still hear his words inside her head.  You like it when I touch you, don’t you?  Wait till I put myself inside you.  I’m going to make you scream.

Sansa shuddered at the memory, and she stopped dead still.  She stared at the door, her heart pounding, her limbs trembling.  She could still feel Joffrey’s hands upon her, his fingers biting into her breast, his hand trailing up her thigh.  Nothing would make the feeling go away.  Nothing. 

More words flooded her brain as she stood there lost in her own memory.  If my uncle can’t put a baby in you, I’m going to do it for him.  No woman should still be a virgin weeks after her wedding night.  Don’t worry, my dear Aunt Sansa, I will take care of you, even though my uncle can’t.

Suddenly, the door handle rattled, and Sansa nearly jumped out of her skin.  She watched as someone tried to push the door open, but of course, it wouldn’t budge because it was still locked.

Had Sansa been capable of speech, she would have asked who it was, but she was too terrified to even draw breath.  It wasn’t until she heard Tyrion swear that she knew who was behind the door.

“Sansa, are you in there?  Open the door.”

In a great burst of relief, Sansa rushed forward, struggling to unlock the door with numb fingers.  Eventually, she got it open and stood back so that Tyrion could enter.

As he stepped inside, he looked up at her and instantly asked, “What’s wrong?”

Sansa shook her head, determined to pretend that she was perfectly fine.  “Nothing, my lord,” she said, both her voice and her manner belying her words.

“Nothing?”  Tyrion raised a skeptical brow as he turned and closed the door behind him.  Then, he locked it for good measure, something he’d never done before.  When he turned back around, his eyes met hers once more.  “Would you like to try that again?”

“No, my lord.”

Tyrion scowled.  He meandered into the room, heading straight for the flagon of wine on the table in the center of the chamber.  “You weren’t at dinner,” he said as he poured himself a glass.  “Is there a reason?”

“I wasn’t hungry.”

Tyrion laughed, the sound short and bitter.  “Of course.”  He took a sip of the wine and then turned and eyed her thoughtfully.  “Have you, by any chance, seen my nephew today?”

Sansa looked away, suddenly unable to meet Tyrion’s gaze.  She wanted to deny that her current state had anything to do with Joffrey, but she wasn’t a particularly good liar, especially when she was in such distress.

“I see,” Tyrion said.  He was quiet for a moment.  When he spoke again, he asked, “Did he hurt you?”

Sansa shook her head again.  She still couldn’t face Tyrion.

She heard him put his glass down on the table.  “Sansa, look at me, please.”

It took all her willpower to do as he asked.  When she did, she found him staring up at her with deep concern.

“I know you think you can’t trust me,” Tyrion said.  “I know you think you’re alone in this.  But you are my wife, Sansa, and nothing could be further from the truth.  I am your lord husband, and I am sworn to protect you, even against my own family.  Even against the king.  I would never let any harm come to you.  I swear it.  By the old gods and the new.  If Joffrey has done something to you, you must tell me so that I know how to protect you and I know how much of his cock to have Ser Bronn cut off.”

A nervous laugh escaped Sansa’s throat at the thought of Joffrey losing his manhood, but she suppressed it as quickly as she could.

“Ah, that’s better,” Tyrion said, his expression lightening.  “Now, will you please tell me what happened?  I don’t make idle promises or idle threats.  If Joffrey has hurt you, he will pay the price.”

Sansa studied her husband for a long moment.  There were very few people in her life she could trust anymore.  She trusted Shae, of course, even though Shae had warned her not to.  And she trusted Margaery, although she didn’t always quite understand Margaery’s motives.  And then, there was Littlefinger, but Littlefinger was far from the Red Keep at the moment, and so, she could no longer rely on him.  And that was it.  The only people she trusted in all of King’s Landing.  Did she dare add her husband to the list? 

“Well?” Tyrion prompted when she didn’t answer.  “I promise, I’m not going to judge you or punish you for telling me the truth.  I just want to know what that bastard did so that I know what to do to him.”

The idea of someone, anyone, inflicting punishment on Joffrey was simply too tempting for Sansa to ignore.  She’d seen Tyrion stand up to his nephew once before, the day Joffrey had commanded that she be stripped and beaten before the Iron Throne, and she knew he could stand up to him again. 

“He . . . the king . . . he . . .”

“Yes?” Tyrion asked, his attention keenly focused on Sansa.

“He came upon me in the corridor as I was returning to my room for the afternoon meal.  He pushed me up against the wall and . . .”  The words died in her throat.  They were so very hard to say.  Not just because Joffrey was king.  Not just because accusing him of assault was treason.  But because Sansa was still reeling from what he had done to her and just speaking the words made it all feel real again.

“Go on,” Tyrion said softly.  “You’re doing fine.”

Sansa inhaled a steadying breath and forced herself to continue.  “He groped me, and he threatened me.  He said if you were not going to put a baby inside me, he would do it himself.”

Tyrion’s eyes darkened, and his jaw clenched.  Sansa could see that he was angry, but whether he was angry with Joffrey or angry with her, she didn’t quite know.  Could he have been lying to her?  Had he told her that he would protect her just to get her to confess the truth?  Sansa’s heart thudded against her ribs as she waited for him to speak.

“What stopped him?” Tyrion asked, his voice painfully tight.  “What stopped him from making good on his threat?”

“Margaery Tyrell came upon us and stopped him before he could go any further.  She led him toward the gardens, and I locked myself in here.  I haven’t opened the door since then.”

Tyrion nodded slowly, as if he was taking his time absorbing and analyzing every last word she had said.  Sansa waited for him to speak, her breath caught in her throat.  It took him longer than she would have liked.  By the time he opened his mouth again, she thought she might faint.

“I’m going to assign you a personal guard,” Tyrion said, then quickly thought better of it.  “Better make that two guards.  From now on, you will not go anywhere alone, and that door,” he pointed to it with a fierceness that belied his calm, “that door stays locked at all times.  Understood?”

“Yes.”  The word was barely a whisper.  It was so weak, in fact, that it almost sounded like a sob.

“Oh, Sansa,” Tyrion said, instinctively moving toward her, “please, don’t cry.”

“I’m not crying,” she said, forcing a strength into her voice that she simply didn’t feel.

Tyrion stopped, leaving a considerable distance between them.  He looked as if he wanted to reach out to her, to take her hands, to offer her comfort, but he didn’t.  And Sansa was glad.  She wasn’t ready to take comfort from a Lannister just yet, not even her husband.  She had yet to reach that level of desperation.

“I am going to protect you,” Tyrion said.  “Joffrey may be king, but my father keeps him on a tight leash.  I will speak with him about this, and I will make sure that Joffrey never bothers you again.”

“Are you certain Lord Tywin won’t agree with him?”

“What?” Tyrion seemed surprised by the question.

“You’ve said from the beginning that your father commanded you to consummate this marriage.  Are you sure that he won’t simply side with Joffrey?  Does Lord Tywin care who puts a baby inside me as long as it’s a Lannister?”

Tyrion’s gaze grew hard, and again, Sansa wondered if he was angry with her or if his fury was directed at someone else.

Suddenly, he tore his eyes away from her and stared out into the room.  “Fuck,” he swore violently.

Sansa wasn’t used to swearing, though she already knew that Tyrion was quite fond of it.  She didn’t know what had caused the sudden outburst, but she knew it couldn’t be anything good. 

It was a long time before Tyrion looked at her again.  When he did, there was a clarity in his gaze, a resignation, that made her skin flush cold.

“I wish I could tell you that you’re wrong,” Tyrion said.  “I’d love nothing more than to tell you a fairytale, than to tell you that my father will protect your virtue at all costs.  But that would be a lie, and I can’t lie to you, Sansa.  You’re my wife, and I would never lie to you.”

“Then what can we do?” Sansa asked, afraid she already knew the answer.  “I don’t want Joffrey to ever touch me again.  I would do anything to keep that from happening.  Anything.”

There was promise in her words, challenge, defeat.  It was all there.  All Tyrion had to do was take advantage of it.  Sansa didn’t want to lie with him, she truly didn’t, but she feared the alternative more than she feared going to her husband’s bed.

“Sansa.”  The word was a sigh on his lips.  “You don’t want to know what we should do.”

“Tell me anyway,” she replied, her voice hard, steadfast.

Tyrion’s bottom lip quivered as he fought with himself, trying to form the words but failing.  “I can’t.”

“Try.”

Tyrion sighed heavily, and Sansa could see the disgust in his eyes.  “The only way to make sure that Joffrey can’t steal your virtue is for you to surrender it to someone else.  And, as I am your husband—” 

He couldn’t finish the thought, but he didn’t have to.  Sansa already knew what he’d been going to say.

“I would have to surrender it to you.”

Tyrion nodded, not a single word passing his lips.  It was as if the most loquacious man in all of Westeros had suddenly gone mute, rendered speechless by the thought of bedding his wife. 

“And there’s no other way to ensure that he won’t rape me?” she asked, hoping beyond hope that Tyrion’s agile mind might be able to think of some preferable alternative.

“Even if you surrender yourself to me,” Tyrion croaked, “nothing can ensure that he will never rape you, except, perhaps, his much-longed-for death.”

“But if you bed me?”

“It might put it off indefinitely.  If my father knew that our marriage had been consummated, he might be more inclined to keep Joffrey away.  But it is no guarantee.”

Sansa chewed the inside of her bottom lip, weighing her options carefully.  Even though she was married to Tyrion, she was still holding out hope that Robb would come and rescue her, that he’d break down the walls of the Red Keep and carry her away long before she’d ever have to lie with Tyrion Lannister.  Then, the marriage might be annulled, and she’d be free to find true love, just as she’d always longed for.  Giving herself to Tyrion now would shatter that dream forever, and Sansa wasn’t sure she was quite prepared for that.  However, the alternative was much worse, and so she warred with herself, uncertain of where her heart and her fear would lead her.

Although she barely knew Tyrion, he had always been kind to her.  He had never once mistreated her or struck out at her in anger.  He was always kind, patient, understanding.  If she went to his bed, she knew there was a chance that he would be just as kind, patient, and understanding there as he was during their walks in the garden or during their morning meals.  Giving herself to Tyrion would be heartbreaking, yes, but it wouldn’t be violent, it wouldn’t be angry, she wouldn’t be lying beneath him listening to him spit threats in her ear.  He’d be gentle, he’d be considerate.  She just knew he would.  And even though it would make her ache in the deepest recesses of her soul, it would not destroy her the way being brutally raped by Joffrey would.

And so Sansa finally made her decision.

“I would rather be bedded by you than be raped by Joffrey,” she said, the sound hollow in her throat.

Sansa’s words hung between them, the air thick with tension.  She knew there was no going back.  She had made her wishes known, and now, she had no choice but to wait and see what Tyrion would do.

For the longest time, he did nothing but stare at her.  He seemed to be just as much in shock as she was.  As the silence dragged on, Sansa’s anxiety rose like bile in her throat and she fought the urge to break down and cry.

Finally, Tyrion’s words cut the silence.  “And I would rather that you not give yourself to me out of fear.  I told you on our wedding night that I would not share your bed until you want me to.  Wanting me to share your bed because you think it’s better than being raped by Joffrey is not exactly what I had in mind.”

“And yet, that is the reason.  The only reason.  But I want it just the same.”

Tyrion squeezed his eyes tightly shut.  He scrunched up his face, as if he were in pain, before swearing softly.  When he opened his eyes, he looked at Sansa again.  “Are you sure?” he asked, his voice hoarse.

“I am.  If we continue to wait, Joffrey will use it as an excuse to rape me, and I can’t let that happen.”

“As I’ve already said, he may rape you anyway.  You may be saving yourself nothing by giving yourself to me now.”

“I will save myself the horror of having my maidenhood forcibly taken from me.  It will be little consolation, of course, if Joffrey gets his way, but at least it will be something.  At least, for once, I’m the one making the decision about what happens to me.  Not you, not Lord Tywin, not Joffrey, but me.  And that’s about the best I can hope for right now, but it’s enough.” 

There were tears in her eyes by the time she finished talking, but they didn’t fall against her cheeks.  Sansa held herself with all the dignity and grace she possessed.  She had made a decision – her own decision, for herself – and she was determined to see it through till the end.

“Well?” Sansa asked as Tyrion continued to stare silently up at her.

“Well, . . . I suppose I have no choice but to give you what you want.  But only if you’re sure.”

“I’m sure.”

Tyrion sighed, his shoulders slumping with the effort.  “All right then.  When do you want to do this?”

“Now,” Sansa replied, without giving herself even a single moment to reconsider.

“Now?”  There was an incredulity in his voice that surprised her.

“Yes, now.  Right now.  Tonight.  Before he has another chance to get me alone.  Before he makes things even worse in retribution for having been thwarted today.”

Tyrion’s eyes seemed to lose their focus as he looked about the room in disbelief.  Eventually, his gaze settled on the bed, and Sansa watched him intently, curious to see how he intended to proceed.

“I . . . I suppose it would be best,” he said, his eyes never leaving the bed, “if you were to get undressed and get beneath the covers before I join you.  I’ll dim the lights, if you like, so that it can all be done in the dark.”

Sansa’s eyes drifted toward the bed as she began to imagine the coming ordeal.  She had always dreamed about going to her marriage bed with a man she loved.  Her father had once promised to find her a husband who was brave and gentle and strong.  That was the man Sansa had always fantasized about being with, but now, she was faced with reality, and reality couldn’t have been more different.  She didn’t hate Tyrion, not really.  But she didn’t love him either, and she certainly didn’t want him.  She knew that what they were about to do wouldn’t be pleasant, but it wouldn’t be unbearable either.  She was certain she could endure it, if only to save herself from a worse fate.

The time for talking was done.  Without another word, Sansa moved across the room, stopping beside the bed and waiting for the light to fade.  She heard Tyrion scrambling about behind her, moving from candle to candle, lamp to lamp, extinguishing each flame in turn.  When it was finally dark enough for Sansa to feel comfortable, she began undressing.

Despite her firm resolve, her limbs shook with every movement and her fingers fumbled helplessly at the ties of her gown.  She felt like she was reliving her wedding night all over again, only this time, Tyrion wouldn’t stop her before she pulled off her shift.  He wouldn’t declare his intention to forgo his duty, and he wouldn’t spend the night sleeping on the divan.  No, he would allow her to undress completely, and then, he would join her in the bed and finally make her a woman.  All because she feared Joffrey more than she feared her loveless marriage.

“Is everything all right?” Tyrion asked from somewhere behind her in the ever-darkening room.

“I’m fine,” Sansa said, her voice quavering with the effort.

“If you’ve changed your mind—”

“I haven’t.  Please, finish with the lights.”

Sansa turned her attention back to the ties at her waist, and Tyrion continued his work.  She pursed her lips together, concentrating with all her might on the silken cord that held her gown together.  A few more tries and she finally made purchase, pulling the knot loose and allowing the fabric to fall open.

Sansa shrugged out of her gown, laying it at the bottom of the bed.  Then, she reached for one of the straps holding her shift in place and slowly slid it down her arm.  The room behind her had grown quiet, but Sansa did her best to ignore it.  Whether Tyrion was watching her or not made no difference.  She was his wife, and her body belonged to him.  If he wanted to watch her, then so be it.

With trembling fingers, Sansa reached up and pulled down the other strap.  Then, summoning up all the courage she possessed, she pushed her shift down over her breasts and past her waist, finally allowing it to slip to the floor.  For a moment, she just stood there, feeling the cool evening air caressing her naked flesh, wondering where Tyrion was and if he was excited by the sight of her or disgusted by it.  Although instinct told her to dash beneath the bedclothes, she was too numb to even move.

“Are you undressed yet?” Tyrion asked, his voice sounding like a phantom’s in the near-darkness. 

Sansa was surprised that he didn’t already know the answer to his own question.  He must not have been watching her after all. 

“Yes,” she whispered, her throat too tight to form anything but a single syllable.

“Then get into bed.  You don’t want to catch cold.”

Without turning around to look at him, Sansa pulled back the covers and climbed into bed.  The room was not pitch-dark.  Although all the lights had been extinguished, there was still a full moon outside that shone brightly through the unshuttered windows.  It was enough light to see the soft outline of the curtains hanging around the bed, but not enough to detect the patterns in the fabric. 

Sansa lay on her back, the blankets pulled up to her chest, her fingers clutching them tightly.  She knew she had asked for this.  She had no one to blame but herself.  And Joffrey, of course.  Tyrion wasn’t coming to her because he wanted to hurt her.  He was coming to her because she had asked him to, because she had convinced him to, and she could not fault him for that.  No matter how much she wanted to.  Despite the pounding of her heart, she wasn’t about to be raped, she was about to consummate her marriage.

Sansa focused on the canopy above her as she listened to Tyrion preparing himself for bed.  She wondered if he would come to her naked or if he would wear his shift.  She hoped for the latter, of course, but it was a small, false hope, and she knew it.

Time seemed to stand still as Sansa waited.  She counted the seconds with the beating of her own heart, and it felt like an eternity before Tyrion finally joined her.  When he did, he moved up along the other side of the bed, pulled back the bedclothes, and climbed in beside her. 

Sansa held her breath, waiting for Tyrion to move.  Even though he was at least a foot away, she could feel the heat radiating off his body.  She sensed rather than saw that he was completely naked, and the thought terrified her.  She wondered if she should try to back out while she still had the chance.  But she was certain that, even if she tried, Tyrion would demand that they continue.  He was a man, after all, and she had led him this far.  Men had needs that Sansa only barely understood, and she knew that sometimes they had difficulty controlling them.  Why should Tyrion Lannister be any different?

“Sansa?” his voice came to her in the semi-darkness, soft and low and warm.

“Yes?”

“I know we’ve come this far, but I have to ask you, one more time, are you sure this is what you want?  If you’ve changed your mind, there’s no harm done.  We can both just go to sleep and pretend this never happened.”

Sansa was stunned silent.  It was as if Tyrion had read her mind.  He was offering her exactly what she was hoping for, an out, a reprieve, but she knew she couldn’t take it.  If she did, they’d just have to play out this same little scene the following night, because once she came back to her senses, she would still be desperate to do anything to foil Joffrey’s plans, even give herself to Tyrion Lannister.

“No,” Sansa said, forcing the word from her throat.  “No, I want this.  I want it done, and I want it done now.  Please.”

“As you wish.”

Sansa’s heart sank, and she closed her eyes, hiding herself in the darkness behind her closed lids, praying to all the gods, both old and new, that she would survive the coming night with as little suffering as possible.  She waited for Tyrion to touch her.  And waited and waited. 

Finally, Sansa opened her eyes and turned her head on the pillow, catching her first glimpse of her husband beside her.  “What’s wrong?” she asked.

Tyrion was lying on his side, looking at her with eyes full of longing and regret.  “I know this isn’t what you want,” he said.  “I know you don’t want me.  I know you’re only doing this because you feel you have to.  But that doesn’t mean it has to be torture for you.  I don’t want it to be torture for you.  I want it to be pleasant, pleasurable even.  I want to help you, Sansa.  Please, let me help you.”

“How?”

“Have you ever—?” he stopped as if searching for the right words.  “Have you ever imagined what it would be like to lie with a man?”

Sansa’s cheeks burned hotly, and she was thankful that Tyrion couldn’t see the flush of her skin in the shadowy room.  Of course, she had imagined what it would be like to lie with a man, more times than it was proper for a lady ever to admit.  But she couldn’t tell Tyrion that.  What would he think of her if she told him the truth?  He would accuse her of being a slut, no better than a common whore.  She would not, she could not, admit to her husband that a single impure thought had ever raced through her mind.  She simply could not disgrace herself in such a way, not even if her husband demanded it.

“I . . . I have never—”

“Sansa.”  Tyrion’s voice was firm, almost commanding as he cut her off.  “I want to help you.  If I’m going to do that, we’re going to have to be honest with each other.”

“I am being honest,” she said, her cheeks growing even hotter.  “I have never imagined such a disgraceful thing in all my life.”

Tyrion laughed.  “And who said it was such a disgraceful thing?  Your mother?  Your septa?  Somehow, I think that Catelyn Stark, of all people, finds nothing disgraceful about spending the night in her husband’s bed.  After all, she managed to give him five children.  Had she found it that disgraceful, I’m sure she would have found a way out of it.”

Sansa didn’t like Tyrion talking about her parents, but he did have a point.  Her mother had taught her not to be afraid of the marriage bed.  She had told her about the pain, but also the joy.  The problem was, in Sansa’s mind, there could only ever be joy if there was also love.  But without love, sharing her husband’s bed was a duty to be endured, not a pleasure to rejoice in.  And there was definitely no love between her and Tyrion.  Their coupling was a duty, plain and simple.  Nothing more.

“You shouldn’t talk about my mother like that,” Sansa said.  “It’s indecent.”

Tyrion laughed again, though the sound was softer this time.  “All right.  My apologies to you and Lady Stark.  Though I meant your dear mother no slight.  She is a strong woman who knows her own mind, and she should be commended for that.”

“Do you think we could get on with it?” Sansa asked, her nerves starting to get the better of her.  The sooner they stopped talking, the sooner they could begin.  And the sooner they began, the sooner it would be over with.

“Forgive me, my lady.  I had no idea that you were so eager for me.  I do not wish to keep you waiting.”

Sansa wanted to scream.  She was in no mood to be teased.  But she held her tongue, careful not to give him yet one more reason to keep talking.

But he kept talking anyway.  “If we are going to do this,” Tyrion said, “then there’s something I want you to do for me.”

Sansa’s heart lodged in her throat.  “What . . . what is it?” she asked, the words barely discernable.

“I know you said that you’ve never imagined what it would be like to lie with a man, and while I would never doubt your word, I would like you to pretend for me that you have done just that.”

“What?  Why?”  Sansa was thoroughly confused.  So confused, in fact, that for a moment, she completely forgot to be nervous.

“I know I am not the husband of your dreams.  But there must be someone in your past who you adored so fervently that you wanted to . . . marry him.”

“Yes,” Sansa scoffed, “Joffrey.”

“Other than Joffrey.”

Sansa thought for a moment.  “Well, there was Ser Loras.”

She thought she heard Tyrion choke.  “Yes.  Ser Loras.  That will do.  Have you ever imagined what it would be like to . . . be married to Ser Loras?”

“Of course.  We were betrothed after all.”

“Well, then, as much as it pains me to say this – for reasons I think you’re a bit too inexperienced to understand – I want you to close your eyes and imagine that I am Ser Loras.”

Sansa laughed.  She hadn’t imagined herself capable of laughing at that moment, but what Tyrion was suggesting was simply too absurd to respond any other way. 

“I see you find that amusing,” Tyrion said, not a hint of resentment in his tone.

“I’m sorry,” Sansa replied, trying to hide the mirth in her voice.  “I don’t think it’s amusing at all.”

“In the dark, when your eyes are closed, I assure you, you will not be able to tell the difference between me and the Knight of Flowers.”

“I mean no offense when I say this, my lord, but I sincerely doubt that.”

“Then close your eyes and let me prove it.”

There was more challenge than command in his tone, and Sansa was too proud to back down from a challenge.  Especially a challenge issued by a Lannister. 

She eyed Tyrion skeptically, and then, when she was certain he wasn’t going to admit that he was bluffing, she turned her head on the pillow so she was once again facing the canopy above.  Sansa held her breath for a moment before finally closing her eyes.  She doubted Tyrion’s assertion that she couldn’t tell the difference between him and Loras Tyrell in the dark, and she looked forward to proving him wrong.

Sansa exhaled and settled herself into the mattress.  When she was finally ready for him, she said, a smile in her voice, “All right, you may begin, . . . Ser Loras.”

Sansa had expected Tyrion to close the distance between them immediately, but he didn’t.  Instead, she felt his hand skim her shoulder, and then, he picked up a stray lock of her hair and let it cascade over her skin, sending a sudden chill rippling down her arm.  Although it was an unexpected feeling, it was not altogether unpleasant. 

Tyrion paused then, and Sansa waited in breathless anticipation for him to continue.  So far, he was right.  She couldn’t tell the difference between him and Loras Tyrell, but hardly anything had happened yet, and she knew that would soon change.

Eventually, Tyrion reached out again, this time trailing his fingertips up her left arm to graze her collarbone.  His fingers against her flesh felt surprisingly soft, and it was easy for Sansa to pretend that there was a different man lying in bed beside her. 

From her collarbone, he skimmed his way up along her neck, to tease the sensitive flesh behind her ear.  Sansa’s skin heated in response, and a soft sigh escaped her throat.

Slowly, ever so slowly, Tyrion glided his fingers down along her flesh, retracing the path he had already tread.  Then, when his fingertips reached her wrist, he started his journey upward again, this time, caressing the delicate skin along the inside of her arm, warming her blood even more.

Tyrion took his time tracing the lines of her body, exploring her flesh with just the pads of his fingertips, and nothing more.  Not once did he touch anything but her arm and her neck and her cheek, but it didn’t matter, because every caress felt like the sweetest sin, and Sansa could scarcely believe that it was Tyrion Lannister touching her so tenderly.  The more he touched her, the more she burned, and soon, there was a longing deep inside her that she had only ever felt in her fantasies.  She knew what it was, of course, but it was difficult for her to admit it, even to herself.

Sansa thought Tyrion might continue like that all night.  After all, she knew that the moment he got on top of her, she’d be able to tell the difference between him and Ser Loras.  There was no doubt about that.  But Tyrion had other plans. 

Sansa didn’t feel him move closer.  She was simply too enraptured by the sensation of his fingers gliding along her flesh.  Without a word, without a warning, Tyrion leaned forward and kissed her neck.

Sansa gasped, and her eyes flashed open.  She stared at the canopy above her in disbelief as Tyrion’s lips moved against her skin.  She flushed warmly all over, nowhere more so than between her legs, as he continued to kiss her, seemingly oblivious to her response.

Sansa’s first instinct was to pull away.  After all, Tyrion had overstepped his bounds.  She wasn’t ready for him to be kissing her yet.  And yet . . . and yet . . . it felt so good.  It felt more than good.  Sansa had never felt anything so pleasurable in all her life, and all she wanted to do was drown in the feeling.

Slowly, Sansa’s eyes drifted closed, and she succumbed to the pure ecstasy of Tyrion’s kiss.  Soon, his lips were blazing a warm trail down her neck and across her collarbone, then up again, along her throat and jawline.  With each kiss, he moved closer to her lips, and Sansa wasn’t sure if she wanted him to make contact there or not.

Sansa had never kissed Ser Loras.  She had wanted to, but she never had.  The only man she had ever kissed was Joffrey, and she still hated herself for it.  She’d been such a little fool to fall in love with him.  She wasn’t a fool anymore, of course.  But she still hated herself, just the same. 

And now, Tyrion Lannister was about to kiss her, and instead of being horrified by the idea, Sansa was surprisingly intrigued.  She could pretend all she wanted that it was Loras Tyrell in bed beside her, but the truth was, she was acutely aware that it was Tyrion Lannister.  It was Tyrion who was making her blood sing, not Loras.  And it was Tyrion whose lips were going to capture her own, if only he would move a little bit closer.

Tyrion’s fingers stroked her neck as his lips continued their path upward.  He kissed her cheek, her brow, her forehead.

Sansa moaned softly, desperate for him to finally kiss her lips.  He was her husband after all.  He had every right to kiss her properly, and she didn’t understand what was taking him so long.  If he was going to do it, he should just do it and be done with it.  It was unfair of him to torture her so, and yet, he seemed in no hurry to end her torment.

Sansa gripped the bedsheets to keep herself from squirming against the mattress.  Her fear had completely dissolved.  Now, all she felt was impatience, impatience and need. 

Sansa wanted to reach out and touch him, to put her hands on either side of his head and guide him to her lips.  But she couldn’t.  She was no wanton.  She was a lady.  And she needed to act like one at all times, despite the urges welling up inside her. 

Desperate to convince Tyrion to give her what she wanted, Sansa did the only thing she could do.  She pleaded with him for mercy.  “Tyrion, please.”  The words were little more than a whisper, but they were enough.

A moment later, Tyrion moved closer, so close that Sansa could feel the bare skin of his chest against her arm.  And it wasn’t the only thing she felt.  There was a hardness pressing against her hip that she knew could be only one thing.  Sansa’s heart lurched in her chest, but she was too far gone to panic.  There was something oddly thrilling about knowing that Tyrion’s manhood was ready for her.  Instead of frightening her, it heated her blood even more.

And then, suddenly, Tyrion was kissing her full on the lips.

Sansa sighed into his mouth, enraptured by the exquisite pleasure of Tyrion’s kiss.  His lips were soft, gentle, warm.  He tasted like honeyed wine, and Sansa was desperate for more of him.  His kiss was nothing like Joffrey’s.  It wasn’t calculated or cold.  It was passionate, fiery, real.  Before Sansa knew what was happening, Tyrion dipped his tongue into her mouth to taste her, and instead of pulling away, she moaned again, reveling in the sweet invasion.

All thoughts of Loras Tyrell were suddenly gone.  Now, all Sansa could think about was her husband, Tyrion Lannister, kissing her and touching her and leading her toward womanhood.  Now, she had no fear, no regrets.  Everything her mother had told her about the marriage bed was true.  And although Sansa didn’t love Tyrion, she knew he would protect her and cherish her and see her through this initiation with as much care and tenderness as possible.

Without conscious thought, Sansa’s arms moved from her sides, and suddenly, her hands were in Tyrion’s hair, pulling him closer.  He groaned deep in the back of his throat, and Sansa knew he was pleased.  She was glad he was pleased.  He was doing her a kindness, and she wanted to return the favor.  There was no point in pretending that she didn’t want him, that she didn’t enjoy what he was doing to her.  Sansa didn’t want to hold back.  She wanted to be a good wife to Tyrion, even if it was only in the bedchamber.

Tyrion continued to kiss her until they were both breathless.  When he finally broke the kiss, he pulled back just a little, and Sansa opened her eyes, her arms draped lazily about his neck.  They stared at each other in the hazy darkness, so much unspoken between them.  Sansa wanted to speak, but she couldn’t.  She wanted to tell him how grateful she was for what he was doing, how much his kindness meant to her.  But she couldn’t.  All she could do was reach up with tentative fingers and caress his cheek.

Tyrion closed his eyes and leaned into her touch, seemingly lost in the feel of her hand against his skin.  His flesh was just as heated as hers, and she knew he wanted her just as much as she wanted him.

It took a great deal of courage, but Sansa leaned forward then and placed a gentle kiss against his lips.  When she fell back against the pillow, she looked up at Tyrion again to find him staring back at her in silent wonder.  She could tell that he wanted to speak, but she prayed he wouldn’t.  She feared that whatever he might say would break the spell she was under, and Sansa needed the spell to last.  She needed to see this through till the end, while she was still enraptured by his touch.

Tyrion opened his mouth to speak, but Sansa shook her head, warning him against it.  She slid her fingers into his hair again and drew him closer, kissing him softly.  In an instant, she was lost again, so overcome by the feel of his touch and the feel of his kiss that she could barely think.

Soon, Tyrion’s hands grew bolder.  His fingers caressed her hips, her thighs, her stomach . . . her breasts.  Sansa gasped as his fingertips grazed along one nipple and then the other, sending a spiral of heat straight to her sex. 

Tyrion kissed her deeply, then pulled himself away.  A small sob of protest escaped Sansa’s throat, but there was nothing she could do to make him stay.  His lips moved from her mouth to her neck, and then lower, to the valley between her breasts.

Sansa held her breath as Tyrion explored her body with his hands and his mouth.  He trailed a line of kisses up the side of one breast and then down the other.  Then, without warning, he took one aching nipple into his mouth and sucked on it gently.

Sansa’s eyes shot open, and she gasped in surprise.  She couldn’t believe how good it felt to have Tyrion suckle at her breast.  It felt wicked and sinful, and oh so very right.  Instinctively, Sansa’s eyes drifted shut and her hands moved to the back of his head, drawing him even closer.  She felt Tyrion smile against her breast, obviously pleased by her reaction.

Eventually, Tyrion pulled away, but only long enough to move to the other breast and lavish it with the same attention.

Sansa felt like she was going to melt into the mattress.  Her skin was on fire, her womanhood burning with a desire she had never fully felt before.  As much as she wanted Tyrion to continue touching her, she had an even stronger desire for him to push her legs apart and finally make her a woman.  It amazed her that she could want Tyrion Lannister, of all people, so completely.  But she did.  There was something almost magical about his touch. 

When Tyrion was done worshipping her breasts, he moved lower, trailing a path of soft kisses across her ribs and down her stomach.  As he kissed her, his fingers also trailed southward, skimming along her thigh and then slipping between her legs.

Sansa’s whole body stiffened as he made contact with her sex, causing Tyrion to quickly pull his hand away.

Sansa instantly regretted her reaction.  She had wanted to see what would happen when he touched her, but her apprehension and inexperience had momentarily gotten the better of her, and she didn’t know how to tell him that it was all right, that she wanted him to try again.

Tyrion rested his hand against her thigh, then began gliding it northward once more.  Sansa looked down at him again.  Without allowing herself a chance to overthink – her heart thrumming in her ears, the blood rushing to her cheeks – she reached for his hand, covering it with her own and guiding it toward her sex.

Tyrion lifted his head, his warm kisses ceasing that very instant.  He stared up at her, the questioning in his gaze clearly visible even in the dim light.

Sansa nodded, wanting him to know that it was all right for him to continue, telling him, without words, what she wanted.

Tyrion smiled softly.  Then, his eyes still focused on her face, he began to move his fingers between her legs.

Sansa fought the urge to tense again.  She didn’t want to do anything that might scare Tyrion away.  So she kept her breath steady, her eyes locked with his, and watched him as he began to touch her in a way she had never even imagined possible.

Slowly, gently, Tyrion slid his fingers along her warmth, teasing, playing, seducing.  He nudged her folds apart and ran a single finger along her length, and Sansa waited in breathless anticipation for him to push himself inside. 

But he didn’t. 

No.  Instead, he grazed his thumb against the very top of her sex, drawing small circles against a single, glorious spot hidden beneath her folds.

Sansa nearly cried out in ecstasy.  Her eyes closed of their own accord, and she sank even deeper into the mattress, her entire body focused on the single spot where Tyrion was touching her.

Soon, he allowed his other fingers to touch her as well.  He stroked along her entrance, while his thumb continued to drive her mad with pleasure.

It wasn’t long before Sansa felt as if she was on the brink of something wonderful.  She pushed herself firmly against his hand, begging him for something she couldn’t even name.  The instant she did, Tyrion backed away.

A strangled sob tore from Sansa’s throat.  She opened her eyes to look down at her husband, silently pleading with him to finish what he’d started.  But she could tell by the look in his eyes that he had no intention of continuing.

“Please,” she said, the sound so raw that the word was barely recognizable.

“Not yet,” Tyrion whispered.

Sansa wanted to argue with him.  She didn’t understand what he was waiting for.  But she held her tongue, simply because she couldn’t catch her breath long enough to form a coherent sentence. 

Tyrion put his hands on her knees and slowly urged them apart.  Then, he climbed between them, and Sansa finally knew why it was that he had stopped.  Even though she desperately wanted her pleasure, they were there for a much more important purpose.  Tyrion needed to take her maidenhead before they finished, and it would be much easier for both of them if he did it while she still wanted him.

Tyrion positioned himself at her entrance.  She could feel his heat against her skin.  He looked up at her, his eyes filled with uncertainty. 

“Are you sure you want this?” he asked, his voice hoarse.  “This is your last chance to turn back.”

Sansa knew she wanted it, knew she wanted Tyrion.  Suddenly, it had nothing to do with Joffrey anymore.  She wanted her husband, she wanted Tyrion, inside her at that very moment.

“Yes,” Sansa said, “please.”

That was all the encouragement Tyrion needed.  He nodded, then leaned forward and placed a chaste kiss against her stomach.  When he rose again, he locked his gaze with hers, and quickly thrust his hips forward, pushing into her in one swift movement.

Sansa cried out, resisting the urge to squeeze her eyes shut.  His entrance had been painful, but not as painful as she’d expected.  He felt hot and heavy inside her, and she was surprised by just how big he was.  She had expected his manhood to be particularly small since he was a dwarf, but that was certainly not the case.

“Are you all right?” Tyrion asked as he held himself still inside her, his hands resting on her hips.

Sansa nodded.

“Did it hurt?”

“Yes.  But the pain’s gone now.”

He smiled at her gently.  “Good.  Are you ready for me to continue?”

Sansa swallowed the lump in her throat, then nodded.  She watched as Tyrion slowly began to move his hips.  In an instant, her desire flared to life again, burning deep inside her.  Sansa wanted to watch him, to stay present in the moment with him, but she couldn’t.  She was too overcome with sensation.  Her eyes soon drifted closed, and all she could feel, all she could think about, was Tyrion moving inside her, driving her onward to some unknown paradise she was desperate to reach.

Foreign, animal sounds poured from her throat, matched in fervor only by the noises Tyrion was making.  His movements started off slow, gentle, but soon, he was driving into her with considerable force, and Sansa was clutching the bedsheets with all her might, trying to meet him thrust for thrust.  Suddenly, she wasn’t a genteel young lady anymore.  She was a direwolf hungry for release, hungry for her mate.  Sansa pushed herself against him, urging him to penetrate her as deeply as he could, urging him to make her whole.

In no time at all, Tyrion worked her into a heated frenzy.  Sansa’s entire body was strung tight with anticipation, and she was certain she would break at any moment.  A few more fevered thrusts, and suddenly, she crashed over the edge, screaming out Tyrion’s name as every nerve in her body pulsed with pleasure.

Tyrion continued to move inside her, sending little shivers of ecstasy radiating from her womanhood as he desperately fought for his own release.  Soon enough, a great roar tore from his throat, almost like a lion’s, and he spilled his seed deep inside her.

Tyrion collapsed against Sansa, resting his head against her breasts.  She was too tired to push him away, but even if she’d had the strength, she wouldn’t have made him move.  His weight was a welcome comfort.  Without conscious thought, she wrapped her arms around his back and gently stroked the curls at the nape of his neck.

Sansa had never imagined that inviting Tyrion into her bed would feel like this.  She had thought it would be an ordeal, a tragedy.  But it was nothing of the sort.  He was a kind and gentle lover, the kind of man poets wrote songs about.  He knew how to touch a woman’s body and her soul, and Sansa would be eternally grateful to him for what he’d given her that night.  He had saved her from Joffrey, and he’d made at least one of her girlhood dreams come true.

Sansa could have stayed like that forever, but Tyrion had other ideas.  When his breathing had finally returned to normal, he pulled himself away from her, climbing from between her legs and lying on his back beside her.

Sansa instantly felt bereft.  She sat up, reaching down to grab for the covers which had somehow found their way to the bottom of the bed during their encounter.  She covered herself to her chin, and then lay back against the mattress, missing Tyrion’s warmth and wishing he was still in her arms.

Tyrion reached for the corner of the blanket, pulling it over himself so that they were both now lying naked beneath it.  He crossed his arms over his chest and stared up at the canopy.  “Are you all right?” he asked, his voice sounding warm and small in the near-darkness.

“Yes,” Sansa replied, hugging herself tightly.

“I’m glad.  I’m glad that you’re safe, and I’m glad that you let me love you properly.  Thank you, Sansa.  You’ve given me a gift, and I won’t forget it.”

Sansa was startled by his words, almost baffled by them.  He was the one who had given her something, not the other way around.  Yes, she had surrendered her maidenhead to him, but as her husband, he had already been entitled to it, so she’d hardly given him anything.  She wanted to thank him for what he’d done for her, but he didn’t give her the chance.

“Good night, Sansa,” Tyrion said before she could utter another word.  He turned on his side, giving her his back and effectively putting an end to the conversation.

Sansa stared at Tyrion’s back for the longest time, wondering if she should try to talk to him.  There was so much she wanted to say, but she simply didn’t have the words.  Although Sansa had discussed such matters with other women – her mother, Septa Mordane, Margaery Tyrell – she had never talked to a man about such things, and she didn’t know how to broach the subject.  She wished, more than anything, that Tyrion would just turn around and crawl into her arms again.  It had been so long since she’d held anyone in her arms, so long since anyone had held her, and she was desperate for the contact.

But she couldn’t ask him to come to her.  She simply couldn’t.  He had done her a kindness, that was all.  Their relationship had not suddenly changed because of it.  They were still strangers forced into a marriage that neither one of them wanted.  Just because they had found pleasure in each other’s arms, didn’t mean that they now had feelings for each other.  Sex was sex, not love.  And Sansa Stark was wise enough to know the difference.  It didn’t matter that her heart still beat wildly from the memory of Tyrion’s touch or that her soul ached a little with want of him.  It wasn’t love.  It was lust, plain and simple.  And Sansa knew she must do her best to remember that.

Chapter Text

Chapter One

The fog was thick as the ship moved closer to the shore, but that didn’t keep Tyrion Lannister from standing on deck and watching the city lights glisten through the haze.  The first proof he saw that he’d truly reached King’s Landing was the Red Keep, its towers spiraling above the landscape like a castle in the clouds.  His gut clenched involuntarily at the sight of it, a flood of dark memories drowning his soul.  He had spent the past five years trying to forget all of it, and he’d thought he had.  But a single glance at the Red Keep and it all came back to him.  Every slight, every pain, every terror.  Tywin Lannister was dead now – Tyrion had made sure of that himself – and so were Cersei and Joffrey.  There was no longer anyone in the Red Keep who had a personal reason to hate him, and yet, he despised the place just the same.  He had no intention of ever going back there, no matter who sat on the Iron Throne.

Jon Snow.

Tyrion almost laughed.  If someone had told him on his first trip to Winterfell that the young bastard would one day be king of the Seven Kingdoms, Tyrion would have died laughing.  The boy had been impossibly green then.  Overly sensitive, inexperienced, the last boy in the world one would imagine becoming Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, much less the King of Westeros. 

And yet he had.

A lot had changed since Tyrion had last seen the shores of his homeland.  His sister was dead, Daenerys Targaryen was dead, and her dragons with her.  Now, Jon Snow – or more precisely, Aegon Targaryen – sat on the throne.  Rumor had it that his love for the Dragon Queen had burned quite brightly until he’d been forced to end her life, sacrificing the woman he loved to defeat the Night King.  The second coming of Azor Ahai some called it, but Tyrion had his doubts.  Either way, the war was over.  Jon had executed Cersei for her crimes, and all was right with the world.

And it was finally safe for Tyrion to return to Westeros.

Tyrion had been in a tavern in Norvos when he’d first heard the news, getting drunk and trying to con a particularly stupid bard out of his last halfpenny.  The Night King was dead.  Cersei Lannister was dead.  And Westeros was safe again, at least until another mad king decided to sit upon the throne.

Tyrion had gathered up the pennies he’d been hoarding, called in his debts, and had managed to scrape together just enough to fund his passage home.  It had taken months, but now, he was almost there.  Soon, they’d be making port, and his life would finally begin again.

It had been a long, lonely exile for Tyrion.  He’d been separated from Lord Varys early on, and their paths had never crossed again.  He’d heard rumors that Varys had eventually found his way into the court of Daenerys Targaryen and had helped her reach Westeros.  Of course, Varys had lost his life for it, but at least he’d died doing what he believed was right.

Tyrion, on the other hand, had spent years traveling the breadth and width of Essos, trying to find something meaningful to occupy his time with while he tried to avoid being captured and dragged back to Westeros.  The first year had been the worst.  He’d seen ghosts at every turn, around every corner.  He’d taught himself to sleep with one eye open, just so he could finally get some rest. 

Eventually, he’d become so poor and unkempt and dirty that no one in the world would have been able to tell him apart from all the other worthless dwarves roaming the land begging for alms.  And so he had finally begun to let his guard down.  Now, he could go anywhere, speak to anyone, without fear of discovery, and not just because he was barely recognizable, but because all those who wanted him dead were already in the grave themselves.

Suddenly, the ship lurched to one side, nearly knocking Tyrion off his feet.  He gripped the railing to keep himself upright, his eyes never leaving the scene before him.  King’s Landing was growing closer by the minute.  Although it was the middle of the day, the clouds cast a shadowy pall over everything.  It was still winter, and from a distance, the city looked quiet and peaceful, as if it were hibernating and just waiting for summer to reawaken it.

Tyrion had no plans for what would happen when he reached the shore.  It didn’t really matter what happened as long as he could finally plant his feet on home soil again.  He felt tired and weary, old beyond his years.  He had heard through whispers and rumors that his brother Jaime still lived, that he’d married a fine lady and was now the Lord of Casterly Rock.  Tyrion hoped it was true because, if it was, maybe he’d finally be able to return to the Westerlands in peace.  If it wasn’t true, Tyrion feared what had become of the Rock.  Had it fallen into disrepair, a mere relic of its former glory?  Or had some unknown lord taken command of it, someone appointed by the new king?  Tyrion had too many questions and not enough answers, but he knew it wouldn’t be that way for long.

Another half hour passed, and the ship finally moored in port.  The city was much busier than it had looked from afar, the wharf bustling with people going about their daily business.  It was obvious to Tyrion that no matter who sat on the Iron Throne, little seemed to change for the smallfolk.  They were still poor.  Their lives were still hard.  It was all the same.

Of course, Jon Snow had barely been on the throne six months and the country was still reeling from years of endless war.  Perhaps the boy would make things easier for his subjects if given enough time.  As Tyrion remembered him, he was an honest boy, earnest and altruistic.  If anyone could effect change, it was Jon Snow.

Tyrion clambered down the gangboard with the other passengers, no one paying him particular attention.  But then, why should they?  He was certain that as far as most of Westeros was concerned, Tyrion Lannister was long dead and happily forgotten, just like his father and sister.

Tyrion walked the streets, taking his time to observe his surroundings despite the bitter cold.  He held his cloak tightly around him with gloved hands, warding off the worst of the winter sting.  How many times had he walked these streets when he’d lived in King’s Landing?  A dozen times?  A hundred?  Everything looked different now, and yet, eerily the same.  But maybe it was the snow that did that.  He had never seen King’s Landing in winter before.  Perhaps the only difference now was that there was snow on the ground and a chill in the air.

As unwise as it was to visit the haunts of his past, Tyrion was drawn to the same familiar places he had known in his previous life, before he’d been convicted of Joffrey’s murder, before he had murdered his own father and made his escape across the Narrow Sea.  And so he found himself hiding from the cold in an old familiar tavern in Flea Bottom, having a beer and huddling at a small table in the corner, listening to the men and women reveling around him.

Tyrion had gotten very good at being inconspicuous, despite his unique stature.  He had learned to listen more than talk, a skill it had been very difficult for him to hone.  He listened now for any bits of truth that wafted on the air – gossip about the new king, whispers about Cersei’s execution, fears about the future of Westeros.  The talk was much more detailed than what he’d heard in Essos, but nothing told him what he truly needed to know.  He needed to know what had happened to Jaime before he decided what to do next.

Tyrion was on his first bowl of stew and his second tankard of beer when the door burst open and a familiar voice rang out across the room.

“Hey, barkeep.  I’m gettin’ married tomorrow.  One round on me!”

The entire room cheered in appreciation, and a bunch of men scrambled from their tables to rush the bar for drinks before the new arrival changed his mind.

Tyrion stayed exactly where he was, his head bent over his stew, his heart pounding against his ribs.  His first instinct was to look up, to make sure that the voice matched the face he remembered.  But he wasn’t ready to reveal himself just yet.  He still needed time to reacclimate to his surroundings before he exposed himself and there was no going back.

Tyrion listened intently as the tavern benefactor got himself a table and called over a serving wench.  There was some slapping and giggling and promises of a glorious night to come.  The more the man spoke, the more Tyrion was certain that it was Ser Bronn of the Blackwater.

Tyrion forced himself to finish eating his stew, the chunky liquid feeling like rocks in his stomach.  He didn’t know what to do.  Did he want to talk to Bronn?  Should he talk to Bronn?  The problem was, he had no idea who Bronn was working for, and if it was an enemy – because gods only knew who might still want him dead – Tyrion didn’t know if he could trust his old friend or not.  He had no money to offer him, no way to keep him quiet if he threatened to reveal Tyrion’s secrets.  And yet, Tyrion longed to see a familiar face, just once.  It had been far too long.

It was a good half hour before Tyrion finally had the courage to raise his eyes and look around.  When he did, he found Bronn staring at him from across the room, his expression as implacable as ever.

Bronn slowly shook his head.  Then, he nudged the girl off his lap, stood, and made his way toward Tyrion, his drink still in his hand.  He looked older, though no less cynical than usual.  All his limbs were still attached, so Tyrion knew he couldn’t have done too badly in the war.

Tyrion’s first instinct was to hide his face, and his second instinct was to run.  But he did neither because he already knew he was caught.

“Knew it was you,” Bronn said as he sat down in the chair opposite Tyrion.  “Been waiting for you to show your face for half an hour.  Never remembered you being a coward.”

“I’m not a coward,” Tyrion said, washing down the lump in his throat with a mouthful of beer.  “I’m just being cautious.”

Bronn laughed.  He looked around the room.  “Cautious?  Who here do you think is going to recognize you, other than me?”

“It wasn’t really them I was worried about.”

“Oh, no?  That mean you were worried about me?”

“It’s been five years,” Tyrion reasoned.  “I have no idea who’s pocket you’re in now.”

“I’m not in anyone’s pocket,” Bronn said, sitting up taller and straightening out the front of his leather tunic.  For the very first time, Tyrion noticed the fine cut of his clothes, the gold trim around the edges.  Either Bronn had murdered and stripped a very rich dead man or he had moved up the social ranks of his own accord in the time Tyrion had been gone.

“Don’t tell me someone finally made you a lord,” Tyrion said in disbelief.

“I’m about to become Lord of the Twins, actually.  Gettin’ two castles, not one.  And a pretty wife to go with them.  You missed a lot while you were gone.”

The mention of the Twins set Tyrion’s teeth on edge.  That was where Catelyn and Robb Stark and all their men had been murdered at his father’s command.  It was an awful business, something Tyrion did his best never to think about.  The Red Wedding, as it had come to be known, had destroyed more than Robb Starks’ chance to take the throne, it had destroyed Tyrion’s very last chance at happiness.

“What’s wrong with you?” Bronn asked, cutting through Tyrion’s thoughts.  “You look like you’re a thousand miles away.”

“Sorry.”  Tyrion shook his head, chasing away the memories.  “You were saying?”

“Where have you been all this time?” Bronn asked, leaning forward so that he could rest his arms on the table, closing some of the distance between them.

“Where haven’t I been?”

“Well, Westeros, that’s for damn sure.  You look like shit, by the way.  In case no one’s told you.”

“Thanks.  I honestly had no idea.”  Tyrion took another sip of his beer.  He didn’t need Bronn to tell him that he looked like shit.  He was more acutely aware of it than anyone.

“What are you doing here now?” Bronn asked when Tyrion finally put down his tankard.

“What do you think?  My sister’s dead – at least, I’ve heard she’s dead – so what possible reason could I have to stay away?”

“You’re still a Lannister, and there’s now a Stark on the Iron Throne.  I’d think that’s reason enough.”

“Jon Snow has nothing against me.  As far as I know, anyway.  Why should that concern me?”

Bronn let out a long, low whistle, and the hairs on the back of Tyrion’s neck stood on end.

“You really don’t know, do you?”

“Know what?”

“You abandoned his cousin.  Fled Westeros and never came back for her.  I would think that’s reason enough for him to hate you.”

“Sansa?” Tyrion asked in disbelief, the word feeling foreign on his tongue.  He hadn’t spoken her name in five long years, and it felt very strange to say it now.

“Yes, Sansa.  Your wife.  Or don’t you remember that part?  Just how drunk are you?”

“Not drunk enough.  I’m only on my second beer.”

Bronn snickered.  “Well, you never came back for her.”

“And how could I?  I was wanted for the king’s murder.  I escaped my own execution.”

“Yeah, but you could have made some kind of effort.  As is, you left the poor girl to fall into Littlefinger’s hands, and by the time she made it back to Winterfell, she already had a babe in her arms.”

Tyrion shook his head, trying to break free of his stupor.  “What are you talking about?”

“Sansa Stark.  Your wife.  She has a child.  The Bastard of Winterfell they call him.  Seems rather fitting, if you think about it.  Winterfell lost its old bastard – turned out he wasn’t a bastard at all – and now it’s got a new one, thanks to Sansa Stark.”

This was certainly not the news Tyrion had expected.  He had expected to come back to Westeros and discover that his marriage to Sansa Stark had been dissolved.  After all, he’d assumed that everyone thought he was dead, so why shouldn’t she have moved on with her life, married someone worthy of her and started over?  Tyrion was more confused than anything.  He had wanted to ask Bronn about Jaime, but now, he needed to know the truth about Sansa before they went any further.

“Who . . . who is the father?”  It was all Tyrion could think to ask.

“Well,” Bronn said with a laugh, “she claims it’s you.  But no one believes that.  I’d assume it was Littlefinger if I hadn’t seen the boy myself.  Looks nothin’ like him.”  Bronn shrugged.  “I suppose the father could be anyone, really.  After you left, she spent a good long time in the Vale under Littlefinger’s protection.  Gods only know what she got up to when she was hiding out up there.”

Tyrion hated to think that Littlefinger had fathered Sansa’s child.  He couldn’t think of a worse man for her to attach herself to.  Littlefinger was a manipulative, conniving monster, a whoremonger and a villain.  Tyrion hoped it was anyone but him, anyone at all.

“Where is she now?” Tyrion asked.

“I told you, Winterfell.  She took up there after Jon came to King’s Landing and Bran went to live north of the Wall.  Her and her little sister are the only Starks left.  Someone had to take over Winterfell.  It made the most sense that the Lady Lannister should be the one to do it.”

“She still uses my name?” Tyrion asked, the words hollow in his throat.

“Yeah, well, what choice does she have?  She’s got the boy, after all.  Had to give him some sense of legitimacy, even if no one believes it.”

“And I’m assuming the child is . . . normal?”

“What?  You mean not a dwarf?”

“Yeah.”

“Why do you think no one believes her?  Besides the fact that a pretty thing like her would never want to bed the likes of you?”

Tyrion nodded.  He hadn’t thought the child was his, not really.  He and Sansa had only spent one night together, and that had been so very long ago.  Before her family had been murdered by his.  Before his entire world had fallen apart.

“Is she all right?”  Tyrion needed to know.  He had no intention of ever returning to Winterfell, of ever seeing Sansa Stark again, but he had to know if she was well.

“By all accounts.  She’s pretty close to her cousin now.  They send ravens back and forth all the time.  I think she’s all right.”

“And how do you know what goes on in the Red Keep?” Tyrion asked, ever suspicious of his cunning friend.

“Oh, didn’t I mention that?  Who do you think gave me my title and my two castles?  None other than King Aegon himself.”

Tyrion was surprised by the news.  In fact, he didn’t think he could have been more shocked if a full-grown dragon had suddenly appeared in the sky and burned off the roof of the tavern.  “And what, pray tell, did you do to convince the new king to lavish you with such gifts?”

“I helped fight the Night King.”

“Did you really?”

“And I wasn’t the only one.  Your brother was there too.  Which is why good old King Aegon let him keep Casterly Rock.”

The blood stilled in Tyrion’s veins as he stared at Bronn, trying to figure out just how true his words were.  This is what Tyrion had come to King’s Landing for, this information, to find out if Jaime was really still alive.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Bronn laughed.  “Find that hard to believe as well?”

“My brother . . . Jaime, is he still alive?”

A broad smile slowly spread across Bronn’s lips as he leaned back in his chair, stretching his long legs out beneath him.  “You really don’t know, do you?”

“I don’t know anything,” Tyrion snapped.  “Just rumors I’ve heard on the other side of the Narrow Sea.  I want to know, is Jaime alive or is this all just an elaborate lie designed to drag me out of the shadows?”

“Oh, he’s alive all right.  Right before the battle, your brother turned on Cersei.  He tried to bring the Lannister army north with him, but they refused to leave your cunt sister.  So he headed up north on his own, a lone knight riding straight into certain death, and he helped us win the war.  Jon Snow couldn’t ignore him after that.  Couldn’t execute him either.  So,” Bronn shrugged, “he gave him a castle.  And all is quiet in the Westerlands.”

Had the story come from anyone else, Tyrion wouldn’t have believed it, but he knew Bronn, knew how to read him.  Bronn was getting far too much pleasure from telling the story.  There was no way he had made it up.

“Well?” Bronn asked when Tyrion failed to speak.  “What do you think?”

“I think . . . I think . . .”  Tyrion didn’t know what to think.  He had been so certain that it was all a lie, that the rumors about Jaime taking Casterly Rock were just that, rumors.  But now that he knew the truth, the world was suddenly a very different place.  He wasn’t alone anymore.  He wasn’t without family or friends.  He had Bronn and Jaime, and that was quite a great deal more than he’d had just an hour earlier.

“Yes?” Bronn prompted.  “You think . . .?”

“I think, in the morning, I will be on my way to Casterly Rock.”

Bronn laughed.  “Don’t you think you should be on your way to Winterfell?”

“Whatever for?”

“Your wife and her bastard son?”

Tyrion had no interest in heading north, nor in seeing Sansa Stark again.  Better for her to continue to think that he had abandoned her or that he was dead.  Her life would be much easier without him in it.  Perhaps she’d even remarry someday, as long as he stayed away.

“I think it would be best for all concerned if I forgot all about Sansa Stark,” Tyrion said.  “Let her live her life as she chooses without me in it.”

Bronn shook his head, making a tsking noise with his tongue.  “And what happens when news reaches Winterfell that Tyrion Lannister has suddenly appeared at Casterly Rock?  What do you think is going to happen then?”

Tyrion pushed aside Bronn’s concerns with a wave of his hand.  “Nothing in particular.  I’ll stay at the Rock, if Jaime will allow it, and I need never see her again.”

“And how do you think the new king is going to feel about that?”

Bronn had a very good point.  When Tyrion had married Sansa, he’d had no idea that someday she’d be the king’s cousin.  Had anyone else been on the throne, Tyrion might have gotten away with abandoning her forever, but Jon was a proud northerner, a Stark through and through.  He would not take a slight against his family so easily.  Kind though he had always been to Tyrion, this was different, and Tyrion knew it.

“What is it that you suggest?” Tyrion asked, afraid he wasn’t quite prepared for the answer.

“Come with me up to the Red Keep.  See Jon.  Talk to him.  Tell him what you’ve been through and let him pardon you for Joffrey and Tywin’s murders.  Then, you can go north and claim your rightful place as the Lord of Winterfell.”

“The Lord of Winterfell?” 

“Well, you are married to the Lady of Winterfell, that would make you its lord.  You can take the title away from that little bastard before he’s old enough for it to go to his head.”

This was all too much for Tyrion to take.  He’d come back to Westeros hoping to live a quiet, unassuming life.  In his fantasies, he’d imagined Jaime granting him a small piece of land where he could live in peaceful solitude, growing grapes and drinking wine.  He’d imagined having his own vineyard and his own vintage and happily drinking himself to death.

But there were no vineyards up north, at least not the kind Tyrion had envisioned for himself.  In the north, grapes could only be grown in a glass garden.  And suddenly, all of Tyrion’s fantasies came crashing down around him.  He’d spent five years without being weighed down by the twin shackles of duty and honor.  And then, the moment – the very moment – he’d stepped on home soil again, he’d been captured and chained as if he’d never escaped at all.

Tyrion didn’t want to return to Winterfell, and he sure as hell didn’t want to return to the Red Keep.  “What makes you think that Jon Snow is going to pardon me for anything?” he asked, determined to veer the conversation away from Sansa Stark and her bastard son.

“As I recall you tellin’ it,” Bronn said, “he rather liked you when you last met.  Besides, everyone knows you didn’t kill Joffrey, and you did our new king a great favor by murdering your father.  Of course, he’ll pardon you.”

Tyrion wasn’t so sure.  Politics were a funny thing.  You could be allies with someone one minute, and the next thing you knew, they could be chopping off your head.  Ned Stark was a perfect example of just how fickle the winds blew in King’s Landing.

“I think I’d rather avoid the Red Keep altogether, if it’s all the same to you.”

“What?  Too much of a coward to go before the king?”

“Too tired, quite frankly.  The truth is, I don’t want any of this.  I don’t want a pardon.  I don’t want the king’s gratitude.  I don’t want Sansa Stark or the title that comes with her.  I just want peace and quiet and to not live like a hunted animal for once.  That’s all.”

“And yet, you are a Lannister, and with that come certain responsibilities.”

“Gods, now you sound like my father,” Tyrion swore.  “I will not go before the new king and beg for a pardon.  I’m not ready for the world to know I’m alive yet.  I’m not ready for any of this.”

“Well, you can’t go straight to the Rock.”

“And why not?”

“Because that will offend the king when he finds out that you’re still alive.  If you’re going to go anywhere, go north.  See your wife.  Decide from there what you want to do.”  Bronn laughed.  “Perhaps you can pretend that you missed her so much that you had no choice but to race to her side.  Who knows?  That just might impress the king.”

Tyrion hated all his options, absolutely all of them, except going to Casterly Rock.  But Bronn was right.  He owed fealty to the new king, whether he liked it or not, and it was best to do as little to offend him as possible.  Tyrion could travel to Winterfell, just a nameless dwarf riding alone on the kingsroad, see his wife, and assess his options up north.  He could send word of his arrival to Jaime before he left.  It wasn’t ideal, by any means, but it was better than facing Jon Snow or incurring his wrath.

“I suppose there’s no chance of you accompanying me on this journey north, is there?” Tyrion asked.

Bronn snorted.  “I’m getting married tomorrow, to a lady.  There’s no way I’m missing out on my own wedding, and wedding night, for the likes of you.  I’d ask you to stay for the ceremony, but you seem determined to go.”

“I am.”

“Then go.  But be careful not to show your face to anyone who might recognize you.  I’m sure somewhere there’s still a bounty on your head, and if you get captured, you’ll just end up right back here, standing before the king.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”  Tyrion raised his tankard.  “To you and your lovely new bride.  I’m assuming she’s lovely, isn’t she?”

Bronn nodded.  “With big tits.”

“Well, to you and your lovely new bride, may you have a happier marriage than I ever did.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Two

Sansa Lannister stood on the covered walkway between the Great Hall and the armory at Winterfell, watching her son spar with her sister in the yard below, a light flurry of snowflakes drifting around them.  It was the dead of winter, the snow more than three feet deep in the fields beyond the keep, but here, inside its walls, most of the snow had been shoveled away or packed down so that life could continue on as it always had.

Sansa could see her breath misting in front of her every time she breathed, but she barely noticed it.  Her attention was on little Eddard, doing his best to fight like a warrior despite the fact that he wasn’t even quite four and a half years old.

Eddard didn’t look very much like a Stark, but he acted like one.  He was brave and proud, and he understood duty and honor far better than the average child his age.  Of course, he wasn’t all Stark.  Even if the world refused to see it, he had inherited much from his father, and Sansa’s heart ached just a little every time she looked at him.  He may have had her Tully blue eyes, but he had Tyrion’s unruly blond hair, and every time he opened his mouth, she heard Tyrion’s voice.  Not the deep, honeyed tones that made her blood sing, but his words, his inflections.  Eddard was an intelligent child, curious, loquacious, precocious.  Sansa imagined that Tyrion had been much the same way at Eddard’s age, and it warmed her heart just as much as it pained it.

Eddard was half warrior, half scholar, an odd combination in a four-year-old, but there was no doubt that he would make a superb Lord of Winterfell one day, even if half the kingdom believed he had no right to the title.  Sansa tried not to let the gossip bother her, but it was always there.  She knew what people thought, and there was nothing she could do or say to change their minds. 

The sky was heavy with storm clouds, and Sansa knew it wouldn’t be long until the snow began to fall in earnest.  There would be another foot at least before morning.  Sansa didn’t mind though.  She had always liked the snow, and besides, Eddard reveled in it.  She was certain he’d be out at daybreak the next morning, making snow castles and throwing snowballs at anything that moved. 

In the yard below, Arya goaded Eddard into attacking her.  He raced forward, wooden sword in hand, intent on striking his aunt, but Arya easily sidestepped his assault, and little Eddard ran headfirst into a pile of snow.  Sansa quickly descended the stairs to the yard, determined to put an end to their training session for one afternoon.

“That’s enough,” she said as she moved up behind her son, intending to pull him out of the snowbank.

But Eddard pushed himself out without her help, and when he turned over and looked up at her, he was laughing.  “Can’t we do it again?”

“No, you cannot do it again.”  Sansa reached down, putting her hands beneath his arms and pulling him upward so that he could stand on his own two feet.  Without thinking, she began to wipe the snow from his cloak and tunic, though there was so much of it that it was nearly a lost cause.  “That’s enough for one day.”

“Oh, let him do it again,” Arya said, a genuine smile on her face.  “It was funny, and he enjoyed it.”

Sansa scowled at her sister.  “No, that’s enough for now.”  She turned her attention back to Eddard.  “Go to your chamber and change your clothes.  It’s almost time for the afternoon meal, and you can’t be seen in the Great Hall like this.”

“Just one more time?” Eddard pleaded, his stubborn streak shining through.

“No, not one more time.  Not any more times.  Now, go,” she said, with a slight pat to his bottom.

Eddard grumbled something under his breath as he headed toward the keep, something Sansa was sure she didn’t want to hear.  He reminded her very much of Tyrion at that moment, and Sansa tried her best to ignore the resemblance, lest she think too much about the past.

“You sound just like Mother when you say things like that,” Arya said as they stood there watching after Eddard.  “You were born to be the Lady of Winterfell, that much is certain.”

Sansa began walking toward the keep, and Arya fell into step beside her. 

“I really wish that wasn’t true,” Sansa replied.  “It would mean Mother was still here.  And Father.  I’d much prefer that they still ruled over Winterfell.  My ambitions are certainly not what they once were.”

“Yes.  There was a time when you wanted to be queen, remember?”

“I’d rather forget.  I’d rather forget a lot of things.  If I could just go back in time, change all of it—”

“Then you wouldn’t have Eddard.  And somehow, I don’t think you could give him up for anything.  Not Mother and Father.  Not Robb and Rickon.  You wouldn’t really go back because you’d lose him, and we both know you couldn’t bear that.”

Sansa hated to admit it, but it was true.  She loved her parents with all her heart.  Loved Arya and Bran and Jon.  Loved Robb and Rickon.  But she loved no one more in all the world than Eddard.  He was the greatest joy she had ever known, the one shining light in the darkness of her life.  He made everything seem worth it – every tragedy, every loss.  She thanked the gods every day for him because, without him, she would have given up on living a long time ago.

“No,” Sansa said, “I suppose I wouldn’t go back.  I’ve already lost too much in my life.  I don’t want to lose anything more.” 

Sansa wasn’t just talking about the family who had fallen in the years since she had first left Winterfell.  She was also talking about the husband she had lost.  For years she had assumed that Tyrion was dead, hearing not a single word of him after he had escaped King’s Landing.  But then, she had been reunited with Bran – or at least, what was left of Bran – and he had reassured her that Tyrion was still alive.  Of course, it had been six months since she had seen Bran, and she feared every day that circumstances had changed.  Just because Tyrion had been alive six months earlier, didn’t mean that he was alive now.  And even if he was, it didn’t mean she would ever see him again.

It had been more than five years since Sansa had last seen Tyrion.  The last time she had seen him had been at Joffrey and Margaery’s wedding.  He had held her hand as a troop of dwarves had made a mockery of Robb’s death.  And when Joffrey had kicked his cup under the table and demanded that Tyrion retrieve it, she had gotten it for him, feeling a desperate need to help her husband the way he had once helped her.  If Ser Dontos had not hurried her away from the feast after Joffrey’s murder—

Sansa didn’t want to think about what would have happened.  She was certain she would have stood trial right beside Tyrion, been convicted of regicide, and Eddard would never have come into this world.  Sansa had spent a long time feeling guilty for having abandoned her husband, but had she stayed, things would have been worse for them both.

As if Arya could somehow read Sansa’s mind, she said, “You’re thinking about him again, aren’t you?”

Sansa’s heart skipped a beat, and her body flushed with warmth.  Arya had an uncanny ability to sense what she was thinking.  That hadn’t always been the case, but things had changed considerably between them since they’d both returned to Winterfell. 

“I don’t know who you’re talking about,” Sansa replied, her voice trembling despite her best efforts.

Arya snorted derisively.  “Don’t you?”

Sansa looked down at her sister as they continued to amble across the snow-packed earth.  “No, I don’t.  I’ve lost a lot of people in my life.  They all mean a great deal to me.”

“But he means more than most.”

Sansa’s cheeks burned hotly, and she turned away, hoping Arya wouldn’t see.  But there was no hiding anything from Arya.

“Why can’t you admit it?” Arya asked, her tone as cool and seemingly disinterested as ever.  “You’ve been waiting five years for him to come home.  Why pretend when it’s so painfully obvious?”

“It isn’t painfully obvious,” Sansa snapped.  “I think you’re just seeing something that isn’t there, that’s all.”

“You mean the way you see a goodness in him that isn’t there?”

Sansa stopped, forcing Arya to come up short beside her.  She turned and looked down at her sister.

“There is good in him,” Sansa said, speaking with her heart before her head could think.

“He murdered his own father.  He murdered your handmaiden.”

“We don’t know that,” Sansa said, lowering her voice, hoping no one had heard the accusation.

“Yes, we do.  Who else would have done it?  Lord Tywin?  Don’t tell me Tywin Lannister murdered your handmaiden and that Lord Tyrion was simply avenging her death.  He murdered them both.  Everyone knows it.  Perhaps it’s best that he hasn’t come back to Westeros.  You’re better off without him.”

Sansa shook her head.  “No, I’m not.  He’s my husband.  No matter what he’s done, he belongs by my side.  I’m sure, whatever he did during his last day in King’s Landing, he had a very good reason for it.  I loved Shae,” Sansa said, her voice quivering with emotion, “but I didn’t know her like I thought I did.  I didn’t really know her at all.  And only Tyrion knows what happened between them that night, and until he can tell me himself, I cannot judge him for it.”

Arya rolled her eyes and started walking again.  Sansa was tempted not to follow, but she didn’t want to seem like a coward, especially in front of her sister.  So, in a few long strides, she caught up with Arya again, hoping that the conversation was over.  But it wasn’t.

“When are you going to admit the truth?” Arya asked, slowing her pace as they drew closer to the keep.

“What truth?”

“That you’re in love with him.”

“I am not in love with him,” Sansa said, horrified that Arya would even make such a suggestion.

Arya turned her head, skewering her sister with cynical eyes.

“I am not,” Sansa reiterated.

“And yet, you defend him when he’s done the indefensible.  You wait five long years for him to return when there is little indication that he ever will.  You tell Eddard ridiculous fairy stories about him—”

“I do not—”

“Yes, you do.  Eddard thinks his father is some kind of hero because of you, but he isn’t.  He’s just a man, like any other.  Worse than most, actually.  But you can’t seem to see that because you’re still so moonstruck over that one precious night you spent together.”

Sansa’s skin flushed even hotter, but she refused to turn away from her sister, refused to hide like a petulant child.  She was sorry now that she’d ever told Arya about what had passed between her and Tyrion.  Had she known it was someday going to be used against her, she would never have spoken in the first place.  That night, all those years ago, felt like little more than a dream now.  The very next day, Sansa had discovered that the Freys had murdered her mother and brother, and everything had suddenly fallen apart.  It had taken her a long time to learn to trust Tyrion again, and by the time she had, it was already too late.

It took Sansa a moment, but she finally replied, “It has nothing to do with that.”

“Doesn’t it?”

Arya stopped, just outside the door to the Great Hall, and Sansa stopped with her.

“No, it doesn’t,” Sansa said.  “You don’t know Tyrion like I do.  He’s not like the other Lannisters.  He was always kind to me.”

“Yes, because he wanted something from you, something that you were more than willing to give him.”

“That isn’t fair,” Sansa said, her tone hardening.  “Tyrion didn’t ask anything of me, and he only took what I was willing to give.  He’s a good man.  Better than most.  Better than any I’ve ever known.  And I won’t let you slight his memory.”

“His memory,” Arya scoffed.  “That’s all he really is to you now, isn’t he?  A memory.  A hazy, beautiful, fading memory that you can dress up however you like whenever the world around you gets too dark and scary.  I don’t blame you, Sansa.  We all have things we cling to for comfort even though we know we shouldn’t.  I just wish the thing you chose to cling to wasn’t going to break your heart.”

“He’s not going to break my heart.  How can he?  I’m never even going to see him again.”

“Let’s hope that’s true.” 

Arya turned then and disappeared into the keep, leaving Sansa staring after her.

Sansa’s heart was racing, and she could feel every nerve in her body trembling softly beneath her skin.  It was as if Arya had ripped open her soul and poured salt in the wound, and Sansa suddenly felt like crying.  She reminded herself that this was why she always kept her feelings for Tyrion hidden, why she never spoke his name unless she absolutely had to, why she never brought him up in conversation.  She knew to do so would be to open herself up to ridicule, and she had already suffered enough. 

Sansa knew what she felt for Tyrion was foolish.  They hadn’t known each other very long, and despite one glorious night of passion, there had been little intimacy between them.  And yet, when she lay alone in her bed at night, it was his arms she imagined wrapped around her, his body she imagined pressed against hers.  It was him she dreamt about.  Him she longed for.  She knew he wasn’t much more than a ghost, a figment of her most fanciful daydreams.  But it didn’t matter.  Sansa wanted to believe that she and Tyrion shared something special.  She needed to believe it.  It was the only thing that made the nights bearable, the only thing that got her through her loneliness.  She had waited her whole life for a handsome knight to sweep her off her feet and steal her heart, and somehow, at least in her fantasies, Tyrion had become that knight.  He was the love she had waited for all her life, and she was counting the days until he finally returned to her.

Chapter Text

Chapter Three

The road from King’s Landing to Winterfell was a great deal more treacherous than Tyrion remembered, but then, the first time he’d traveled it, he’d been part of a caravan and it had been the height of summer.  Now, the road was snowy and slippery, a danger for travelers at every turn.  Before allowing him to leave for Winterfell, Bronn had taken Tyrion to the local stables and outfitted him with the finest horse Jon Snow’s money could buy.  After nearly a month on the road, the horse was finally starting to show some wear, moving slower and more cautiously the farther north they traveled.

The only saving grace in the entire journey was the fact that the kingsroad was kept relatively clear by royal decree so that provisions could continue to flow freely from south to north and north to south.  While the snow had piled up in the fields beyond, the kingsroad had remained passable, though some spots had proven more difficult to navigate than others.

Although Tyrion had taken Bronn’s advice about going north, he hadn’t given up on being reunited with Jaime.  Before leaving King’s Landing, Tyrion had sent a raven to Casterly Rock, telling his brother that he was still alive and on his way to Winterfell.  It wasn’t as if Tyrion thought Jaime was going to head north to meet him there, but he wanted Jaime to know that he was still alive, just in case some tragedy befell him on the road and they never saw each other again.  Thankfully, no one was interested in the contents of a message sent by a surly, unkempt dwarf, so Tyrion had little fear that the note would be intercepted before it reached the Rock.

It was late evening on the last leg of Tyrion’s journey when Winterfell finally came into view.  He had thought about stopping in the winter town and getting a room for the night so that he could approach the keep in broad daylight come morning, but he had ultimately decided against it.  He wasn’t quite sure how he was going to get past the gates of Winterfell without revealing his identity, but he was certain his chances were better in the dark than they would be in the bright light of day. 

And so he urged his horse through the streets of the winter town, past the sleepy cottages with their snow-covered roofs and smoky chimneys.  He was no hero, no warrior.  There was no way he was going to be able to storm the castle and break inside.  And for the life of him, he couldn’t remember if there was a way to sneak past the walls.  He was sure there must be, for someone more familiar with the castle, but if Winterfell held any such secrets, they were a mystery to Tyrion.

Which meant that he only had one option, and that was to go straight to the East Gate.  Had the ground not been covered with four feet of snow, Tyrion might have avoided the main gate and tried to approach from the south or the west.  But there was no clear path around the walls of Winterfell, and the only gate accessible to him was the gate off the kingsroad.

Tyrion slowed his mount as he approached the East Gate, waiting for the guards to meet him.  They came forward, two young men with swords at their hips, looking him up and down as if they had never seen a dwarf before in their lives.

“State your business,” the one to Tyrion’s left demanded.  He was a tall boy with short blond hair, probably no more than twenty.  He looked hardened for his age, but then, he had undoubtedly seen more fighting and death in the past year than Tyrion had seen in his entire life.

“I am here to see the Lady of Winterfell,” Tyrion answered.

The other guard snickered.  His hair was as black as pitch, and he was no older than his companion, but he looked just as wizened.  “The Lady of Winterfell doesn’t have time to meet with beggars.”

“Do I look like a beggar to you?”

The boy opened his mouth to speak, but Tyrion cut him off.

“Before you answer that,” he said, “take a look at my horse.  Does it look like something a beggar would ride?”

The boy’s eyes traveled down the length of Tyrion’s mount.  Even after almost a moonturn on the road, it was still a fine piece of horseflesh, there was no denying that.

“So you stole it from somewhere.  Even more reason not to let you in.”

Tyrion laughed.  “And how exactly do you think I could have stolen a horse?  Look at me.  Do you think I strike fear into the hearts of men?  Do you think me capable of being a highwayman and robbing travelers on the road?”

Both guards eyed him doubtfully.  They looked more confused than convinced by his words. 

“I assure you,” Tyrion said, “I am a descendant of a great house, and I’ve come here to bring Lady Lannister news of her husband.”

“Lady Lannister doesn’t have a husband,” the fair-haired boy replied.  “He’s long dead.  Everyone knows that.”

“No, everyone does not know that, not for certain.  I must see Lady Lannister at once.”

“No, you must turn that horse around and leave at once.  Unless you want me to introduce you to my fist.  Or would you prefer the sword?”

This wasn’t going at all as Tyrion had hoped it would.  The guards had already made up their minds about him.  As far as they were concerned, he was a feckless dwarf on a stolen horse.  If they let him past the gates of Winterfell, it would only be to escort him to a cell to await trial for thievery.

“Well, get on with you now,” the other guard urged when Tyrion failed to move.  “You can’t stay here all night.”

“But Lady Lannister—”

“Has no time for the likes of you.”  The boy moved closer, unsheathing his sword in silent threat.  “Turn around now, or you’ll be spending the night in a cell.  It’s your choice.”

Although being escorted to a cell would mean that Tyrion might eventually see Sansa – at least when he came before her to stand trial – he had no idea how long he’d be held captive before he got his chance to see her.  Horse thieving was a severe offense, punishable by death.  If these guards really thought he was a horse thief, they might let him linger in his cell for many moons before they even informed Sansa of his presence.

“Well, now,” Tyrion said, “if you put it that way—”

But he never got the chance to finish.  The guards had obviously had enough of his tongue for one night, and the blond one reached up and dragged Tyrion off his horse before he could say another word.

“That’s enough of you,” the boy grumbled.  “We’re taking you in.”

He dragged Tyrion a few feet toward the yard before a calm, steely voice said, “Let him go.”

The guard stopped.  He scanned the surrounding darkness, looking for the source of the voice.  A moment later, a small figure stepped out from among the shadows, eyeing them coldly.  It was Arya Stark.

“You heard me,” she said.  “Let him go before I take out my sword and you end up with a few extra holes in you.  Do you understand?”

The boy instantly released Tyrion and backed away slowly, obviously intimidated by Lady Arya.  She had changed a great deal since the last time Tyrion had seen her.  She had changed so much, in fact, that he almost hadn’t recognized her.  But there was no mistaking her dark eyes or her slight stature or her Stark pride.  No, even though she no longer looked like a lady, that was definitely Arya Stark standing before him, and no one else.

She made a wide circle around Tyrion and the two guards, walking slowly with her hands clasped behind her back.  She looked like she didn’t have a care in the world.  She certainly didn’t seem surprised to see Tyrion, but then, perhaps she didn’t recognize him.  Although his voice was the same as it had ever been, he didn’t look very lordly in his beggar’s rags.  Perhaps she thought him just an aimless wanderer stopping to ask for alms.

When Arya had completed one full circle around them, she stopped directly in front of Tyrion, her eyes focused on him with the keenness of a predator.  “Leave us,” she said, sending the two guards scurrying away, and just like that, she and Tyrion were alone.

A spark of cold dread crept down Tyrion’s spine as the once-little girl stared at him in chilling assessment.  Under different circumstances, he might have opened his mouth and tried to talk himself out of the current situation, but there was something so ruthless in Arya Stark’s eyes that he didn’t dare breathe a word.  He knew he’d have a chance to speak once she spoke.  But until she opened her mouth, he was going to keep his shut.

“You say you’ve come with word of my sister’s husband,” Arya said, finally breaking the silence.

“Yes,” Tyrion replied, his throat suddenly dry.  “From Essos.”

“Is he alive then?”

“Yes.”  Tyrion was surprised that Arya didn’t recognize him.  She had looked at him so intently that he’d been sure she’d figured out who he was.

“And when is he coming back?”

“I think that is a question best answered just for Lady Lannister.”

“And why did he send you?  Why does my dwarf of a brother-in-law need another dwarf to deliver his messages?”

“It’s a long story.  One I’d be more than happy to tell you over a hot bowl of soup and a large glass of wine.”

She looked down her nose at him.  “Do you really think you’re going to be allowed in the castle looking like that?  I could smell the filth on you from ten feet away.  Surely, you don’t intend to meet with Lady Lannister looking and smelling like that.”

Tyrion didn’t care how he looked or smelled.  In truth, he wanted to meet with Sansa just as he was.  He wanted to look as sad and miserable as possible when she finally saw him so that she would send him away without a second thought.  No one but Bronn – and hopefully, Jaime – knew he was alive yet.  And if Sansa Stark decided that she didn’t want him for a husband anymore, it could stay that way.  He’d turn around, leave Winterfell forever, and never darken her life again.

“I think I look just fine,” Tyrion said with a laugh.  “I only need a moment of her time.  I’m sure she can withstand the smell for that long.  After all, she was born a Stark, and I hear the Starks are quite a hearty lot.”

Arya’s eyes raked over him in quiet appraisal, and Tyrion held his breath, wondering if she intended to let him in or if she was going to turn him away.  When next she spoke, all she said was, “Grab your horse and follow me.”

Tyrion exhaled a relieved sigh, his breath crystallizing in a cloud of smoke in the cold evening air.  He turned around just long enough to seize his horse’s reins before following Arya Stark into the yard.

He looked around as he walked, taking in his surroundings with acute interest.  It had been more years than he could remember since he’d last visited Winterfell.  The keep had changed a great deal since then.  Now, it wasn’t just the library that lay in snow-covered ruins.  It was obvious that the castle had been hit hard by the war, and more than one outbuilding had been burned to the ground.  It looked as if the Great Keep was mostly intact, with only the odd stone missing here and there.  Even though the destruction could have been far worse, it all looked bleak in the dim evening light.  A hazy half-moon hung overhead and a few torches spluttered in the wind around them, but beyond that, all was dark and quiet.

When they reached the entrance to the Great Hall, Arya called over a stableman.  “Take his horse,” she commanded.  “Brush it, feed it, and give it shelter for the night.”

Tyrion opened his mouth to protest, he had no intention of staying more than an hour, but Arya lifted a hand in warning, instantly silencing him.

The stableman dutifully took Tyrion’s horse and led him away, leaving Tyrion no choice but to follow Arya into the Great Hall.

The hall, at least, looked no different than the last time Tyrion had seen it.  He recalled that visit quite fondly, in fact.  It was the one time he had been able to do something kind for Bran Stark, and he was glad that he’d had the opportunity.  He had asked Bronn what had happened to the boy and had been informed that he’d somehow become a greenseer, the Three-Eyed Raven, and now lived north of what was left of the Wall, never to return.

It was a shame, really.  Bran Stark was his father’s last remaining male heir.  By rights, Winterfell should have been his.  But Bronn had said that Bran Stark no longer existed, at least, not as he had once been.  He was a shell of his former self, a hollow husk stripped of his humanity and living only for his visions, an almost otherworldly being who had no place in the lives of men.  Tyrion could scarcely imagine such a thing, but he knew it must be true or else Bran would be there now, sitting at the head table, interrogating him upon his arrival.

Tyrion stopped when they reached the center of the Great Hall, and Arya immediately turned around to face him. 

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Waiting.”

“You’re not to wait here.  You’re to follow me.”

“But this is the Great Hall.  Traditionally, this is where the Lord, or Lady, of Winterfell meets with messengers.  I shall wait here for Lady Lannister, if it’s all the same to you.”

The truth was, Tyrion didn’t want to be alone with Sansa in the confines of her solar, or worse, her bedchamber.  He just wanted to meet with her for a moment, let her see for herself that he was alive, and be on his way.  It would be easier to do that if they met in the Great Hall.  The hall was cold and impersonal.  It was where Sansa conducted business on a daily basis.  And this was business, plain and simple.  Nothing more.

“If you wish to speak to my sister tonight,” Arya said, “you will follow me.”

“But why?  You said yourself, I am in no state to be granted an audience with her ladyship.  Surely, she would prefer to sit on the opposite side of the hall, as far from me as possible, as I give her my message.”

Arya’s eyes darkened.  It was a subtle change, but it sent another chill racing down Tyrion’s spine.  He didn’t remember Arya Stark being quite so scary.  He remembered her as an energetic child, eager to explore and play with the boys.  But now, she was a killer to her very core.  Tyrion didn’t know how many men she’d killed, but he could tell by the look in her eyes that it was far more than he ever had.  He didn’t want to cross her.  He valued his own safety far too much for that.

“And as you said,” Arya reminded him, “my sister is a Stark and we Starks are a hearty lot.  Follow me.”

Arya turned on her heel without another word and headed toward the doors at the far end of the hall.  Tyrion could do nothing but follow.

They exited the Great Hall and entered the maze of corridors that ran through the main keep.  Tyrion didn’t know where she was taking him, though if he’d had to guess, he would have assumed it was Sansa’s private living quarters. 

With each step they took, Tyrion’s anxiety grew.  He had spent a moonturn on the road headed north to be reunited with his wife, and in all that time, not once had he felt the slightest fluttering in his chest at the thought of seeing her again.  But now that their reunion was only moments away, the blood was racing through his veins and his heart was pounding against his ribs.  He didn’t know what he expected or what he feared.  All he knew was that, for better or for worse, he was nervous about seeing Sansa again. 

When Tyrion and Arya finally stopped, it was in front of a heavy wooden door.  Arya pushed the door open without knocking and ushered Tyrion inside.  The room was a large solar, warm and comfortable, a fire already burning in the hearth.  Tyrion’s eyes darted around, searching for Sansa, but she was nowhere to be seen. 

“Wait here,” Arya said.  And then, before Tyrion could utter a single word of protest, she drew the door closed behind her and disappeared.

The breath caught in Tyrion’s throat as he stared at the closed door.  Suddenly, he felt like a caged animal.  There was no escape now.  The next time the door opened, Sansa Stark would be standing on the other side of it, and after five long years, he would finally see his wife again.

Tyrion had a fondness for Sansa that went well beyond what a man should feel for a woman he’d been forced to marry for political reasons.  She was a smart girl, kind, well-mannered, always trying to behave like a lady even in the worst of circumstances.  She had a good sense of humor, though as he recalled, she barely ever allowed herself to laugh.  There’d been a time when he’d been certain that they could make each other happy, but it had been tragically brief.  It had lasted all of one night and had ended the next day when they’d both discovered that her mother and brother had been murdered at his father’s command.

After that, the coldness between them had returned, and as hard as Tyrion had tried to break down her walls, he’d never quite succeeded.  His last memory of Sansa was at Joffrey and Margaery’s wedding.  Sansa had bent down to retrieve Joffrey’s cup for him.  She had handed it to him with a kindness and understanding in her eyes that haunted him to this very day.  In that moment, that look had given him hope.  And had things been different – had Joffrey not been murdered minutes later, had Tyrion not been convicted of his murder and gone into exile – they might have had a chance to rebuild the connection between them.  They might have had a chance at happiness.

Tyrion tore his eyes away from the door and gazed about the room.  There was a long sofa beside him, and on one of the cushions was a little hoop of needlework.  He smiled despite himself as he picked it up, careful not to spoil the fabric with the dirt on his fingers.  The stitches were straight, delicate, measured.  Just like the girl who had made them.  No matter how chaotic the world got, no matter how much things changed, there were some things that were always constant, like Sansa Stark and her needlework.  She had always loved sewing, and she had always been extraordinarily good at it.

A wave of emotion flooded Tyrion’s throat, and he nearly choked on it.  He laid the hoop down on the cushion again and steeled himself against his feelings.  He moved as far away from the couch as he could, determined to keep this meeting as cold and impersonal as possible.  He was just there to make his presence known and to offer Sansa a way out of a marriage he was sure she no longer had any use for.  That was all. 

Tyrion clasped his hands behind his back and turned toward the fireplace, silently waiting for his wife.

Chapter Text

Chapter Four

Little Eddard was just drifting off to sleep when there was a soft rap at the door.  Sansa leaned forward and placed a gentle kiss against his mop of curly hair before blowing out his candle and moving across the room.  She opened the door and slipped out into the corridor, not at all surprised to find Arya waiting for her there. 

“You’re needed in your solar,” Arya said plainly.

“Needed?” 

“There’s a messenger here to see you.  He says he’s come with word about your husband.”

Sansa’s heart dropped to her stomach, and all the blood drained from her face.  She stared at Arya for one breathless moment, trying to make sense of her sister’s words.  “Tyrion?”

“Do you have another husband I don’t know about?”

Sansa couldn’t even answer.  She just shook her head in silent disbelief as she turned and began to make her way down the corridor toward her solar.  Arya instantly fell into step beside Sansa, accompanying her with a disinterested calm that Sansa found slightly irritating.  Arya was acting as if the messenger’s arrival was an everyday occurrence, as if it meant nothing more than the average tenant farmer visiting to make a report on their grain stores.  But it was definitely more important than that, much more important.  Sansa hadn’t heard word of Tyrion in months, not since Bran had left.  She’d thought she’d never hear anything about him again, so this was an unexpected blessing. 

At least, she hoped it was a blessing.

For all Sansa knew, the messenger had come to tell her that Tyrion was dead and would never be returning to Westeros.

As Sansa and Arya approached her solar, Sansa’s limbs began to shake, and she feared, if she wasn’t careful, she might faint. 

“Are you all right?” Arya asked as they stopped in front of the door.

“What?”  Sansa had barely heard the question.  She’d been too lost in her own thoughts.

“Are you all right?  You look pale.  Well, more pale than usual.  Are you sure you’re up to this?”

Sansa swallowed the lump in her throat and nodded her head.  The motion made her feel slightly ill.  “Yes.  I’m ready.  Good or bad, I’m ready.”

“Well, good or bad depends on your point of view, I suppose.”

Sansa’s eyes snapped to Arya.  “What does that mean?”

“Just that it depends on whether you’re hoping your husband is alive or dead.  If you’re hoping he’s dead, you might be sorely disappointed.”

Sansa’s breath hitched in her throat.  “Tyrion’s alive?”

Arya shrugged.  “You’re going to have to ask the messenger.”

That was all the encouragement Sansa needed.  She immediately turned toward the door and pushed it open, stepping inside and scanning the room for the man who was going to tell her what had become of her long-lost husband.

And then she saw him, standing in the center of the room, his back turned toward her.  He wore a long, dark cloak, caked with mud and grime from the road.  It was tattered and torn and looked thinner than the blankets they used to cover the horses at night.  The man stood no taller than Tyrion, and Sansa couldn’t help but wonder if her husband had finally returned to her.  She held her breath, waiting for him to turn around, hoping beyond hope that it was Tyrion and not just a messenger come to tell her his fate.

Slowly, the man turned toward her, and Sansa’s eyes immediately fixed on his face.  His skin was brown with dirt, half his face obscured by an unruly beard, but his eyes—  Sansa would have recognized those eyes anywhere.  It was Tyrion, come back from the dead, come back for her.

Sansa sobbed in relief, and her eyes filled with unshed tears.  She stared in mute astonishment at the man who had haunted her dreams for so many years, the man she’d nearly given up hope of ever seeing again.  She wanted to run to him, to fall to her knees and wrap her arms around him.  She wanted to hug him close and make sure that he was real.  But she couldn’t.  Her limbs wouldn’t move.  She was numb all over, and all she could do was stare.

And Tyrion stared right back. 

There was something in his eyes that she couldn’t name – pain, longing, wonder.  She wasn’t sure.  But he made no move to come to her either.  He just stared at her as if the Narrow Sea stood between them, as if she was far beyond his reach. 

Sansa’s bottom lip trembled as she struggled to speak.  She only managed to say a single word.  “Tyrion?”

He nodded his head, so slightly that he almost didn’t move at all.

A stray tear rolled down Sansa’s cheek, and she instinctively reached up to swipe it away.  “Where . . . where have you been?”

“Pentos.  Norvos.  Everywhere that ends in an -os,” he joked.  “Except Westeros, of course.”

The sound of his voice seeped through Sansa’s skin like warm honey, sinking into her heart and making her feel oddly whole for the first time in more years than she could remember.  She’d forgotten how beautiful his voice sounded, how rich and deep and comforting.  It was a balm to her weary soul, and she was ever so happy to hear it again.

“What . . . what are you doing here?”

Tyrion’s eyes darted to Arya for a moment and then back to Sansa.  “I came here to make sure that you were well.  I’ve only just returned to Westeros, and I needed to see you.”

“Arya said that you’d sent a messenger.  I was expecting to meet with a messenger.”  It was a stupid thing to say, and Sansa knew it, but she wasn’t thinking clearly at the moment. 

Arya laughed.  “You don’t really think I’d mistake the Imp for anyone else, do you?  But I let him keep up his charade.  It seemed to make him feel better.”

Of course, Arya had recognized Tyrion.  Arya was so keenly observant that it was almost frightening sometimes.  Sansa just wished that Arya had told her the truth from the beginning.  She might have been better prepared to face Tyrion if she had known that he was waiting for her in her solar.

Sansa’s eyes scanned down the length of her husband.  He looked tired and world-weary.  And cold, very cold.  She didn’t know what they were supposed to do now, but she knew that, first and foremost, they needed to take care of Tyrion’s immediate physical needs.

“Arya,” Sansa said, “have a room readied for Lord Tyrion.  And a bath, fresh clothes, and a hearty supper.”

“No, my lady, no,” Tyrion interjected before Arya could even move.

“And why not?  You look like you’ve had a long journey.  You need to eat and refresh yourself.”

Again, Tyrion’s eyes moved to Arya for a moment before quickly settling on Sansa once more.  “I have no intention of staying.  I just need a private word with you, please.”

Sansa was thoroughly confused.  Tyrion had obviously traveled a long way to see her.  Why in the world was he suddenly so eager to leave?  Whether he knew it or not, Winterfell was his home now, he was lord of the keep.  There was no reason for him to go, especially in his current condition. 

Sansa looked at Arya, who was patiently waiting for further instruction.  Sansa couldn’t read anything in her sister’s eyes.  She was as inscrutable as ever. 

“Arya, give us a moment alone, please.”

“Would you still like me to make arrangements for my brother-in-law’s comfort?” Arya asked.

“Yes, thank you.”

Tyrion grumbled something under his breath, but both Sansa and Arya ignored it.

“As you wish, my lady,” Arya replied.  She cast a sidelong glance at Tyrion, as if in warning, before turning around and exiting the room.  She closed the door securely behind her, leaving Sansa and Tyrion alone for the first time in five long years.

The silence that settled between them was deafening.  Tyrion glanced awkwardly about the room, looking at everything he could except Sansa.  She didn’t understand why he was acting so strangely.  She knew it had been a long time since they had last seen each other, knew a lot had changed for both of them, but he was still her husband and she was still his wife, and that alone should have been enough to quell the awkwardness between them, but it wasn’t.

Unable to bear the tension any longer, Sansa finally broke the silence.  “You said you wanted a moment of my time.  Well, you have it.  What is it that you’ve come to say?”

Tyrion finally looked at her again.  His eyes slowly traveled up the length of her, from the hem of her gown to the top of her head.  He seemed to be memorizing every last inch of her, though she wasn’t quite sure why.  He searched her eyes for a long moment before he finally spoke.  “I only came here to Winterfell to make sure that you were well.  I have no intention of staying.  But before I started my life again, I needed to see you one last time.”

Tyrion’s words couldn’t have been more cryptic, and Sansa didn’t know what to make of them.  “Why?” she asked.  “Why leave at all?  You’re here now.  And even though many years have passed since we last saw each other, you are still my husband, and Winterfell is yours by right.”

Tyrion shook his head.  “I don’t care about my rights, but I do care about you.  I’m sure you’ve been through a lot while I was gone.  I’m sure the last thing in the world you ever wanted was for your dead husband to show up in the middle of the night and disrupt your ordered life.  You’ve suffered enough, Sansa Stark.  You deserve your freedom, not a lifetime shackled to me.”

“It’s Sansa Lannister now, or had you forgotten?”

Tyrion laughed bitterly.  “No, I’ve never forgotten.  But maybe it’s time that I did.  Maybe it’s time that you did too.”

“Why are you doing this?” Sansa asked, the pain in her voice unmistakable.  “Why did you come all this way if all you intended to do was abandon me again?”

“I’m not abandoning you,” Tyrion said, his voice gaining strength as he spoke.  “I’m giving you your freedom.  I’m letting you go.  I’m prepared to walk out of here tonight and pretend that I died back in Essos.  I’ll take a new name, start a new life.  No one need ever know that I didn’t die on foreign shores.  I’m giving you what I can only imagine you’ve always wanted, the freedom to move on with your life.”

The blood began to heat in Sansa’s veins, and she fought to keep her temper under control.  This was not at all the way she had imagined their reunion, and she had imagined it more times than she cared to admit.  In her more romantic fantasies, she’d imagined Tyrion running into her arms, holding her, kissing her, telling her that not a day had gone by that he hadn’t thought of her.  The years apart had only made her grow fonder of him.  The more the world had battered her, the more his past kindnesses had meant to her, until she’d clung to them for dear life in her darkest hours.

But this, this was not what she had expected.  And it hurt more than Sansa could bear.

“You . . . you did come all this way just to abandon me again.”

“What?”  Tyrion seemed genuinely surprised by the accusation.  “No, no, of course not.”  He took a step forward as if he meant to comfort her, but then, just as quickly, he stepped back.  “I came here to find out what you wanted, where you were in your life.  I thought, if given a choice, you’d want me to go.”

“Well, you thought wrong.”

Tyrion’s eyes narrowed on her in quiet disbelief.  He stared at her for the longest time as if he didn’t quite understand what she was saying.  Finally, he replied, “You can’t possibly mean that.”

Sansa straightened her spine in a show of determination.  “I do.”

“But why?  Not that I’m not flattered.  I am.  But why would you want me to stay?  What possible reason could you have for wanting me by your side?”

“You’re my husband.  Isn’t that reason enough?”

“No, I can’t say that it is.  You can always get a new husband.  As long as the world thinks I’m dead, there’ll be no harm in it.”

Sansa gritted her teeth, fighting the urge to say something biting and cruel.  She was angry, oh so very angry, and she didn’t want to lash out at Tyrion, even though he more than deserved it.  She was a lady, after all, and she refused to lose her temper like a petulant child. 

Sansa inhaled a calming breath before she finally spoke.  “You may think that lying to the world is perfectly acceptable.  You are a Lannister, after all.  But I am a Stark, and Starks don’t lie.  We have honor, and we respect our duty, and we live by both.  I am not about to lie to the world and tell everyone that my husband is dead when he is very clearly alive.  I am not going to take another man as my husband while I am still beholden to you.  You may leave Winterfell, if you wish, but that will not change anything for me.  I shall remain as I am, ever faithful to my lord husband.”

A biting laugh escaped Tyrion’s throat, and he shook his head.

“What?” Sansa asked.  “What about that do you find so funny?”

His expression suddenly sobered.  “Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.”

“It must be something.  Do you doubt my faithfulness?  Do you think me fickle and flighty like the girls in King’s Landing?”

“No, I don’t.  But I do know that you have lived for many years believing that you would never see your husband again.  And I know that I am not the only man who has ever shared your bed.  I think your declaration would be much more convincing if you were honest about that.”

Sansa balled her hands into fists at her side.  She was dying to lash out at Tyrion, but she held back.  Her fidelity, or lack thereof, had become a much-loved topic among gossipmongers all throughout Westeros.  Sansa was surprised that Tyrion had already heard the rumors.  She was surprised even more by the fact that he actually seemed to believe them.

“How dare you?” she said, the words low and venomous.

“Oh, quite easily, I assure you,” Tyrion replied flippantly.  But then, his tone suddenly turned serious.  “Please, don’t think that I’m judging you or that I hold it against you.  I’m not, and I don’t.  But if you are going to make me stay, then I would at least like us to be honest with each other from the beginning.”

“Make you stay?” she asked, her voice strained almost to the breaking point.  “I can’t make you do anything, can I?  If you want to go, go.  I won’t stop you.  But I’m not going to admit to something that isn’t true just to make you stay.  I’m not going to confess to some imagined sin just because you won’t believe the truth.”

“Sansa, you don’t have to lie to me—”

A cry of pure feminine fury tore from Sansa’s throat.  “That’s enough!  Stay or go, I don’t care, but I am not going to pretend that you are dead.  If people ask, I will tell them the truth.  I will not marry another man just so you can have your freedom.  You will be as beholden to me as I am to you, whether you like it or not, Tyrion Lannister, because that is the promise you made when you covered me with your cloak in the Great Sept of Baelor, and now that you’re back among the living, you must stay true to your vow.  Just as I must stay true to mine.”

Sansa didn’t wait for Tyrion to reply.  She turned around and stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind her.  She was trembling all over, her limbs shaking uncontrollably, and she thought she might be sick.  She had waited so long, so very long, for Tyrion to return to her.  She’d thought that their reunion would be so different, but it had been nothing short of a disaster.  Tyrion didn’t want to stay with her.  He wanted to continue to roam free – free of duty, free of honor.  He wanted to be a vagabond once more, a murderer in exile.  Well, if that’s what he wanted, Sansa wouldn’t stop him.  She wouldn’t say another word to try to convince him to stay.  If he wanted to go, he could go.  Sansa was certain that Tyrion would be gone by morning and that she would never see him again.

Chapter Text

Chapter Five

Tyrion stood alone in Sansa’s solar, staring at the closed door in complete shock.  Never had he imagined that his reunion with Sansa would end like this.  He had expected her to be relieved by his offer to set her free from their marriage, but instead, she had been offended.  He wished now that he hadn’t said anything about her infidelity.  He should have stayed silent on the matter and just tried to talk her into letting him go.  But no, he had been blunt.  He had pushed for honesty, and that had been a mistake.

Tyrion dragged his eyes away from the door and looked around the room.  The fire was still burning brightly in the hearth, and he was drawn to its warmth.  Suddenly, he felt colder than he had while traveling the snowy road to Winterfell.  He felt empty inside, hollow, broken.  All he really wanted was a hot bath and a nice warm bed.  It had been so long since he’d had either.  Even though, a few minutes earlier, he’d been more than prepared to turn down Sansa’s hospitality, now, he didn’t think he had the fortitude to step out into the cold, dark night again. 

All at once, the strength seemed to drain from Tyrion’s limbs, and he collapsed onto his knees in front of the hearth, staring blindly at the roaring fire.  He didn’t know what to do anymore.  He’d had everything all planned out, he’d been so certain about all of it, but now, he was floundering.  Sansa was hurt, more than hurt, and he didn’t want to leave with things still so bad between them.  Perhaps if he gave her some time – a night, just one night – she might settle down enough to rethink her decision and let him go without any animosity between them.

But for now, Tyrion could do nothing but wait.  He would wait until morning, and then, he would try to talk to her again, try to convince her to see things his way.  He had to try, just one more time, for the sake of the good memories they shared, few though they were.

Tyrion didn’t know how much time had passed when the door quietly opened again.  Without even turning around, he knew it wasn’t Sansa.  He was certain she was too angry to even look at him at that moment.  No, it was either Arya or a servant come to throw him out or to tell him that his chamber was ready.

The visitor was silent for some time, but finally, a familiar voice broke the quiet.  “Are you coming?” Arya asked.

Tyrion continued to stare into the flames.  “Are you going to toss me out into the cold?”

She laughed.  “I probably should, but by all rights, you’re the new Lord of Winterfell, so it wouldn’t be my place to toss you out, even if I wanted to.”

“The Lord of Winterfell,” Tyrion said, the words like ashes on his tongue.  He finally turned and looked up at Arya.  “Tell me about the old Lord of Winterfell, the one who held the title before I got here.”

“You mean Eddard?”

“Yes, Eddard Lannister.  Tell me about him.”

Arya moved farther into the room, finally closing the door behind her.  “What do you want to know?”

“Whose child is he, really?”

“Yours.”

Tyrion shook his head.  “You don’t expect me to believe that, do you?”

“I don’t know what you’re inclined to believe, quite honestly.  I don’t know you that well.  But I do know my sister, and I do know what my brother Bran has told me, and I believe them both when they say that Eddard is your son.”

“What does your brother Bran have to do with this?” 

Arya took a few steps forward, closing some of the distance between them.  “Bran sees things, visions of the past, the present.  He is the Three-Eyed Raven now.  He saw Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark get married.  He saw my Aunt Lyanna give birth to Rhaegar’s rightful heir, Jon Snow.  And he saw you and Sansa together, and he knows it is your child that she bore.”

Tyrion stared at Arya in horror.  The idea of Bran Stark seeing him and Sansa together stunned Tyrion to the very core.  “That . . . that’s absurd.”

“It’s not absurd.  It’s the truth.  And Eddard is your son, whether you choose to believe it or not.”

Tyrion hadn’t even seen the boy yet, but he was already convinced that there was no feasible way the child could be his.  According to Bronn, the boy was perfectly normal, nothing like the deformed little monkey that Sansa claimed had sired him.  Besides, it seemed nearly all of Westeros thought Sansa had been unfaithful to Tyrion.  Surely those rumors were grounded in some semblance of fact. 

Of course, Tyrion didn’t hold Sansa’s infidelity against her.  He understood that he was no woman’s ideal of manhood and that even someone as dutiful as Sansa Stark might feel compelled to find comfort in the arms of another.  But what Tyrion hated was the idea that Sansa was lying to him.  The only good thing that had existed between them back in King’s Landing had been the truth.  They’d always been honest with each other – at least, he’d always thought they had – and he wanted that now.  It was all he wanted, in fact.  He wanted them to be open and honest with each other so that they could part on good terms.

“I’ve been told,” Tyrion said, “that nary a soul in Westeros believes that child is mine.  Why should I be any different?”

“Because you’re his father.  Because you know my sister.  I know you weren’t together long, but even so, you should know her better than that.  She’s a Stark.  She takes her duty very seriously.  As do we all.  She would never be unfaithful, and you should be ashamed of yourself for even thinking it.”

“It’s a nice fairy story, isn’t it?” Tyrion mused.  “The beautiful maiden, beholden to the ugly dwarf, is so pure of heart, so virtuous, that even after he murders her handmaiden and disappears across the Narrow Sea, she still remains faithful to him.  You know, I think I like the sound of that.  I’ve never tried my hand at writing fairy stories for children, but maybe I’ll write that one someday.”

“So, you did murder her handmaiden.”

Tyrion blanched.  He’d known he should have left that part out.  But he was no coward, and he wouldn’t deny the truth now.  “I did.”

“Why?”

Why.  Such a simple word, and yet, so perilous.  “Why?  I don’t think I owe anyone an explanation, least of all you.”

“You owe Sansa one.  She still doesn’t understand why you did what you did.  Perhaps, before you abandon her again, you might explain yourself.”

Tyrion didn’t think he could explain himself.  He’d spent five painful years trying to run away from the things he’d done before he’d left King’s Landing.  He knew that dredging it all up now just might cripple him.  “It doesn’t matter why I did what I did,” Tyrion said.  “It’s in the past now, and I have no intention of remaining at Winterfell for very long.”

“So you are staying the night then?”

Arya seemed less than inclined to let him stay now, but Tyrion didn’t think he had the strength to venture out into the cold again.  He felt very weak, and he didn’t want to argue anymore.  “Yes,” he replied, “for your sister’s sake.”

“Ha!” Arya laughed, the sound mocking, bitter.  “You haven’t ever done anything for my sister’s sake.  You’re just as selfish as the rest of the Lannisters.  You can pretend all you want that it isn’t true, but I know what you are.  I know who you are.  And if you do anything, anything at all, to hurt my sister, I will kill you.”

Arya’s voice was so cold, so threatening, that Tyrion didn’t doubt her for a second.  He knew, if he ever did anything to truly hurt Sansa, Arya would slit his throat while he slept.  Suddenly, the cold, snowy night was looking a lot more desirable to Tyrion than a warm bed and a decent meal. 

Tyrion finally pushed himself to his feet, relinquishing the comforting warmth of the hearth.  “Perhaps it would be best if I found myself some lodging in the winter town for the night.  I don’t want to stay where I’m not welcome.”

“And risk discovery?  Absolutely not.  It’s not often we see dwarves in this part of the country.  One look at you and the gossip will start.”

“Then maybe you’d like to set me up in the kennels with the other dogs.”

Arya laughed, though this time the sound was one of genuine amusement.  “If only I could.  But my sister would definitely have something to say about that in the morning, and I really don’t want to cross her any more than you do.”

“Afraid of your sister, are you?” Tyrion asked in challenge.

“Not afraid, no.  Frankly, I just don’t want to be bothered.  I’m not particularly fond of hysterical females.”

“Well, that makes two of us.”

“Are you coming then?”

“Yes,” Tyrion said with a regretful sigh.  “Lead the way, Lady Arya.”

Arya shuddered at the use of her title, but she didn’t reprimand him for it.  She just turned around, opened the door, and ushered Tyrion out into the corridor.  “Your room is this way,” she said as she started to walk, not bothering to slow her pace so that he could keep up with her longer strides.

Tyrion scrambled after her, walking as fast as he could without losing his footing.  By the time Arya stopped at another door, Tyrion was nearly out of breath.

“These are your chambers,” she said, “for now.  There’s food and a hot bath waiting for you.  There are fresh clothes too, though I doubt they’ll fit properly.  Perhaps your wife will take them in for you before you leave.  She does love to sew and mend.”

“Thank you,” Tyrion said, genuinely appreciative of the kindness Arya had chosen to bestow on him.  “I am grateful for your help.”

“Don’t thank me.  I’m just following my sister’s orders.  If it were up to me, I’d probably throw you out a window and let you sleep in the snow.”

“It wouldn’t be the first time someone picked me up and tossed me out a window.  It’s one of the perils of being a dwarf.  People think they can just manhandle you at will.”

“Well, you’re safe for tonight, but only because the lady of the keep commanded it.  Remember that.”

Arya said nothing more.  She didn’t even wish him a good night.  She simply gave him one last look of warning, turned around, and disappeared down the corridor.

Tyrion stood there for the longest time, watching after her.  His limbs were stiff, and he felt numb all over.  Now that he had finally started to warm up, his body was beginning to fail him.  He feared, if he didn’t move soon, he might collapse right there in the hallway.

It took a great deal of effort, but Tyrion finally turned around and pushed open the door.  His joints ached with every movement, but somehow, he managed.  The instant the door was closed behind him, he sank back against it, taking a moment to get his bearings.

The chamber was surprisingly large for one given to an unwanted guest.  There was a big bed in the center of the room, a roaring fire burning in the hearth, and a wooden tub full of steaming hot water just waiting for him to climb inside.  From the corner of his eye, Tyrion saw a small table set with a tray of food and a flagon of wine.  As much as he wanted to immerse himself in the waiting bath, more than anything, he needed a drink.

Tyrion pushed himself away from the door and staggered to the table, leaning against it for support.  He lifted up the flagon, his arm shaking more than he would have liked, and poured himself a glass.  He downed half of it in one gulp, taking comfort in the familiar warmth of the wine burning down his throat.

When he lowered the glass, his eyes unconsciously fell to the plate of food on the table, and his stomach rumbled with hunger.  He picked up a hunk of bread and tore into it, thankful to finally have something decent to eat.

Soon, he had downed two glasses of wine and had eaten his fill of bread and meat and cheese.  When he was certain he could stand on his own again, he finally let go of the table and began stripping the clothes from his body.  He’d been wearing the same garments for so long now that they were little more than rags.  Bronn had offered to outfit him with a new tunic, breeches, and cloak before he’d left King’s Landing, but Tyrion had refused, preferring to travel in peasant garb.  No one had any interest in a beggarly dwarf.  It was always safer to travel in rags than in finery.

Once he was naked, Tyrion slowly made his way across the room, careful not to let the weakness in his legs drag him to the floor.  The tub had been placed near the hearth so that the water would stay as warm as possible.  When Tyrion finally reached it, he climbed in and sank beneath the surface of the water, enjoying the feel of the heat seeping into his bones.

Tyrion sighed contentedly.  He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a hot bath.  It must have been years.  He had spent so long being poor and anonymous and itinerant that he could scarcely remember the luxuries of his past.  This was one he had definitely taken for granted, and now, he was going to enjoy it to the fullest.

Tyrion knew he should scrub himself clean, wash the dirt and mud and sweat from his body before anything else, but he had no desire to move.  The water was too intoxicating.  So instead, he leaned his head back against the rim of the tub, closed his eyes, and tried to concentrate on the delicious warmth enveloping his body.

But the peace lasted only for a moment.  The instant Tyrion’s eyes were closed, all manner of wretched memories assailed his mind – doubts, fears, regrets.  He could see it all as if it had happened just yesterday.  Joffrey’s death, Shae’s betrayal, his father’s mockery.  He could feel Shae’s necklace in his hands as he pulled tightly and strangled the life from her body.  He could feel the kick of the crossbow as he let loose an arrow and coldly shot his father.

Tyrion shuddered, and his eyes flashed open.  He stared at the flames in the hearth, wondering if he would ever find peace.  But he already knew the answer.  He would find peace when he was dead and not before.

Tyrion swore softly, cursing himself for a fool.  He’d been a fool to ever believe that he could have even a single moment of happiness in this life.  And he’d been a fool to return to Winterfell.

Knowing that he would get no rest in the tub, Tyrion sat up straight, reached for the bar of soap that had been left for him, and began to wash himself clean.  He scrubbed and scrubbed until his arms shook with the effort, desperate to shed the grime from his skin.  He dunked his head beneath the water, washing his hair vigorously, before dunking again to rinse out the soap.  He washed his beard too, and for a moment, he thought about shaving it off, but there was no razor, and truth be told, he rather liked the beard.  It had become something convenient for him to hide behind.

When the last of the dirt had been washed from his body, he finally got out of the tub and dried himself off.  Then, he made his way toward the bed where a fresh tunic had been laid out for him.  It was a fine white linen, finer than anything Tyrion had worn since he’d left King’s Landing.  He shrugged it over his head, enjoying its fresh scent as it settled over his weary body.  It was a little too long, falling almost to his ankles, but it would do. 

Tyrion was tempted to pour himself another glass of wine, but he was far too tired to even make it to the table.  Instead, he climbed into bed, slipped beneath the covers, and stared blindly up at the ceiling above him.

He was reluctant to close his eyes again, dreading the nightmares he knew would come.  But he was exhausted.  It had been a long time since he’d slept in a warm feather bed, and he didn’t want to waste the opportunity while he had it because, come morning, he would be leaving Winterfell for good.

For a moment, Tyrion’s thoughts drifted to Sansa.  He wondered where she was, what she was doing.  Was she still furiously angry, or had she calmed down enough to stop spitting fire?  He’d never seen her lose her temper before, but he hadn’t been surprised by it.  He’d always known that, deep down inside, she was just as fiery as her red hair.  In fact, if he hadn’t been the target of her fury, he might have found it almost arousing.

Tyrion turned onto his side and groaned into his pillow.  Throughout their years apart, the single night he had spent in Sansa’s bed had haunted him more than he cared to admit.  He’d thought about it whenever he’d been feeling particularly low, and it had always made him feel stirrings in odd places.  Sometimes, when he’d remembered that night, he’d even fooled himself into believing that it had been his name Sansa had whispered in the dark and not Loras Tyrell’s.  But Tyrion knew that was just a fantasy, a trick of his overactive imagination and faulty memory. 

That one night had made him believe that he and Sansa might have had a chance at happiness, if only fate hadn’t intervened.  But it had, and now, their chance had long since passed.  He would never share her bed again, and they would go their separate ways on the morrow.

Tyrion buried his head in his pillow and closed his eyes, praying for his demons to let him rest.  He needed to sleep for just one night.  He needed to suppress the pain and the memories and the regrets just long enough to fall into oblivion.  He clutched the furs tightly in his fists and willed himself to sleep.

Chapter Text

Chapter Six

Sansa barely slept that night.  Not long after she’d stormed from her solar, Arya had come to her door, wanting to talk about Tyrion, but Sansa had been in no mood to talk.  She’d sent her sister away without a second thought and had spent the rest of the night fuming.

Sansa couldn’t believe that Tyrion had come all the way to Winterfell just to accuse her of infidelity and tell her he intended to abandon her again.  That was not the Tyrion Lannister she had remembered, that was not the Tyrion Lannister she had been waiting five long years for.  But then, her memories of the past grew hazier every day.  Perhaps she’d just imagined his kindness, perhaps reality had been much different and she had simply been too naïve to see it.

Now, morning had come, and Sansa sat on the edge of her bed, fully dressed but unable to stir from her room for fear of seeing Tyrion again.  She knew he had spent the night.  Her handmaiden had told her when she’d come to help her dress.  Of course, her maid didn’t know their visitor’s true identity, but it didn’t matter.  Sansa knew, and she had no desire to see him again.

Every muscle in Sansa’s body suddenly tensed.  Facing Tyrion Lannister in the harsh light of day was going to be anything but pleasant.  She was certain that he was going to be even more ruthless now that he’d had a good night’s sleep, and she didn’t know if she was prepared for it.  She wished that he had just left in the middle of the night as he’d originally planned.  Then, she could have gone on hating him without ever having to see him again.

Sansa stared out one of the high windows on the wall opposite the bed.  A light snowfall shimmered beyond the frosted panes, but she barely noticed it.  Her heart was too broken for her to see or feel anything beyond her own suffering.  If she’d had the luxury, she would have stayed in bed for the entire day and forgotten all about Tyrion Lannister, but she was the Lady of Winterfell, and she had too many responsibilities she simply couldn’t ignore. 

The peaceful silence of Sansa’s chamber was suddenly broken by the sound of the door opening behind her.  There had been no knock, no warning, just the gentle creak of the door moving on its hinges.  Sansa knew who it was.  There was only one person in all the world who would ever walk into her chamber without knocking.  She inhaled a steadying breath, willed away the tears that had pooled in her eyes, and turned around to face her son.

Eddard was just closing the door behind him when Sansa turned around.  She rose from the bed and walked across the room so she could be closer to him.

“Good morning, dear heart,” she said, a smile brightening her face.

Eddard whirled around and instantly barreled toward her.  Sansa dropped to her knees so that he could throw his arms around her neck and hug her tightly. 

“Morning, Mother.”

Sansa held Eddard close, one hand on his back, the other on the back of his head.  She didn’t ever want to let him go.  He was the only thing she had that made her feel safe and whole and happy, and she would protect him with her very life.

Eddard squirmed in Sansa’s arms, obviously wanting to be free, and she was finally forced to let him go.  But she didn’t let him go too far.  She held him by the forearms, keeping him in front of her so she could look him over and make sure that he was safe and sound.

“You weren’t at breakfast,” he said.  “Why weren’t you at breakfast?”

Sansa smiled softly, not wanting Eddard to see the trouble in her eyes.  “I didn’t sleep well last night.  I didn’t wake until late, and I missed the morning meal.  I’m sorry.”

“Did you have nightmares?” he asked, genuine concern in his voice.

Of course, she’d had nightmares, but Eddard didn’t need to know that.  “I just had a troubling night, that’s all.  But I’m fine now.”  Sansa quickly stood, taking Eddard’s hand and leading him toward the door.  Desperate to change the subject, she said, “Tell me, what do you have planned for the day?”

Eddard’s demeanor instantly changed.  The worry fled from his face, replaced by unbridled enthusiasm.  “Aunt Arya is going to take me to the forest to hunt.  She said she didn’t want to stay in the keep today, so she’s going to take me with her.”

Sansa could only imagine that Arya wanted to make herself scarce to avoid Tyrion.  She knew her sister was not happy about his return and probably wanted to get as far away from him as possible.  If Sansa had been able to stomach the idea of going hunting, she might have asked to join them.  She was in no mood to see Tyrion either.

“Well, be careful,” Sansa replied.  “And make sure you’re home in time for your lessons.  You don’t want to keep Maester Wolkan waiting.”

“I won’t.”  Eddard pulled on her hand, encouraging her to bend down so that he could kiss her goodbye. 

His gentle caress against her cheek made Sansa’s heart swell with affection, and she almost sobbed at the contact.  “Be safe, my love,” she said as she stood to her full height.  “I’ll see you at the afternoon meal.”

“Yes, Mother!”  He turned around and bounded out of the room, a huge smile on his face, off to slay dragons – or woodland creatures, at least. 

Sansa leaned her head against the doorjamb and sighed softly as she watched him go.  Eddard was her greatest joy in life, and if anything ever happened to him, she didn’t know what she would do.  For years, little Eddard had been the only thing that had gotten her out of bed each morning, the only thing that had kept her going.  If she hadn’t had Eddard to care for, she might have given up a long time ago, let herself be crushed by the weight of the tragedies that still haunted her every day of her life.

Sansa stood there for the longest time, staring blindly down the corridor.  It was already late morning, and she knew she had plenty to do, but she couldn’t get Tyrion out of her mind.  She wondered what he was doing at that very moment.  Was he in his chamber, feasting and laughing, spewing epithets about his unfaithful wife?  Or was he still abed, sleeping off the fatigue of countless weeks on the road?

Even though Sansa didn’t want to face him again, she knew she’d eventually have to, and she didn’t want to put it off for too long.  The longer she waited, the more it would eat away at her.  The sooner she got it over with, the better.

So, despite the gnawing anxiety in the pit of her stomach, Sansa went in search of her husband.  She knew where he had spent the night.  He’d been given one of the family chambers in the main keep, not a room in the Guest House.  He was the Lord of Winterfell, whether he was willing to admit it or not, and it would have been shameful to treat him as nothing more than a visiting guest.

With unsteady legs, Sansa made her way to Tyrion’s room.  She stood outside his door for a long time, quietly listening for the slightest sound.  But the door was too thick for any noise to carry through, and Sansa had no idea what she might find when she finally opened it.  For a single instant, she imagined finding her husband beneath one of the village whores.  Although no such women lived in Winterfell itself, there were plenty of them in the winter town.  Sansa wouldn’t have been at all surprised if Tyrion had snuck one in for the night, just to repay her for her supposed infidelity.

Sansa shook her head, quickly chasing away the thought.  She knew she was letting her imagination get the better of her.  The man she had found in her solar the night before had been weary from the road.  The exhaustion – and the stench – had dripped off of him, and she doubted he’d had the energy to call for a whore to warm his bed.  She was being petty and foolish, and she knew it.  And she was better than that.

Sansa squared her shoulders and raised her chin just a fraction higher.  If she was going to talk to Tyrion again, she would do it with dignity and grace.  She wouldn’t lose her temper.  She wouldn’t jump to conclusions.  She would be calm and rational.  She would listen to him, he would listen to her, and somehow, they would come to a reasonable understanding, whatever that might be.

Without letting another moment pass, Sansa raised her hand and knocked softly on the door.  If Tyrion was asleep, she didn’t want to wake him. 

Sansa waited for an answer, but none came.  She tried again, just in case he hadn’t heard her the first time, but still, there was no reply.

Sansa bit her bottom lip, wondering if she should leave.  If she left, she didn’t know when she’d have a chance to talk to Tyrion again.  She had many responsibilities as lady of the keep, and she knew she might not have another spare moment until after the evening meal.  She hated the thought of putting off their meeting until then.  Sansa made a quick decision, and slowly, quietly, pushed open Tyrion’s door.

The room was dark except for the gentle glow of the fire burning low in the hearth.  There were no candles burning, and the windows were still shuttered.  All was quiet, and Sansa was careful not to make a sound as she inched into the room and eased the door closed behind her. 

She scanned the semidarkness for Tyrion, spotting a small lump beneath the furs on the bed.  She pushed herself away from the door and crept closer, wanting to get a better look at him.  As she passed, she noticed the empty plate on the corner table, the half-full flagon of wine.  Tyrion had obviously had his fill of food and drink before crawling into bed the night before.

Tyrion’s clothes lay in a heap beside the table.  They smelled almost as bad without him in them as they had when he’d been wearing them.  Sansa would make sure to tell one of the servants to have them burned.  Even if Tyrion decided to leave, he couldn’t leave in rags.  She would see him outfitted properly before he left Winterfell.

As Sansa neared the bed, she caught a glimpse of Tyrion’s golden curls peeking out just beyond the covers.  Even though Tyrion’s hair was darker, it reminded her very much of Eddard’s.  They were so alike, her son and his father.  It pained her to know that Tyrion didn’t believe that Eddard was his.  Perhaps, if Tyrion saw him—

Sansa couldn’t finish the thought.  She didn’t want Tyrion to see Eddard, not with things the way they were between them.  Once Tyrion was being reasonable, once things were more settled, she would introduce her husband to his son, but not before.

When Sansa finally reached the bed, she saw Tyrion’s face just above the furs, his eyes closed, his brow furrowed in fitful sleep.  She wondered what he was dreaming about.  Was it a nightmare?  She had nightmares all the time, and she’d simply come to accept them as a normal part of life now. 

Sansa took her time examining Tyrion’s face.  He had changed so much since she’d last seen him.  He was older, of course, but it was more than that.  He looked weary, haggard, as if he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders even when he was at rest.  The scar she had once found so frightening had faded considerably.  It was still there, but it wasn’t red and angry anymore.  It was a thin, white line that spoke of a long-ago time best forgotten now.

The quiet of the room, the dim light, the intimacy, reminded Sansa of something else best forgotten.  What a little fool she had been, all those years ago, when she’d asked Tyrion to bed her for fear of Joffrey.  If only she had waited a little longer, she might have made it out of the Red Keep with her virtue intact.  Joffrey had been murdered not long after she’d given herself to Tyrion, and Littlefinger had helped her escape.  If only she had waited, she might now be married to a man who actually wanted her, instead of a man who was about to abandon her for the second time.

But then, if she and Tyrion had never consummated their marriage, she wouldn’t have Eddard, and she wouldn’t have the one beautiful memory she clung to in her darkest moments.  It was all so very sad and tragic.  She had waited so long for Tyrion to return, only to be rejected by him the moment he’d opened his mouth.  Sansa had learned a long time ago to stop hoping for things that could never be.  She’d been a fool to hope that Tyrion Lannister still cared for her.  A sad, pathetic fool.

Sansa decided that it was best not to disturb Tyrion.  He was obviously tired and troubled, and she didn’t want to make matters worse for either of them.  She turned away from the bed, intent on leaving before he awoke, but the sound of her name on his lips stopped her.

“Sansa.”  The word was soft, barely a whisper, but she heard it just the same.

Sansa turned around to look at Tyrion.  He snuggled deeper beneath the covers, but he was still sound asleep.  Was he dreaming about her?  Sansa nearly laughed at the thought.  If he was dreaming about her, he must have been having a nightmare, because she knew he held no softness in his heart for her.

Sansa turned around again, determined to leave, but her legs wouldn’t carry her.  She wanted to know what Tyrion was dreaming about, she wanted to wait and watch and listen.  She wanted to see if he called out her name again, if he said anything more.  She knew she would never have another opportunity to be alone with him like this, and she wasn’t willing to give it up, not just yet.

Despite her better judgment, Sansa turned back toward the bed.  She moved closer, easing herself down onto the edge of the mattress so that she could watch her husband.  For some inexplicable reason, her fingers ached to reach out and touch him, to run through his hair, to caress his cheek.  An unbidden sob escaped her throat, and she curled her hands into fists in her lap, resisting the urge to act on the impulse.  How easy it would be to just reach out and touch him, to slip down onto the mattress beside him and beg him to show her comfort just one more time before he walked out of her life again forever.  But Sansa couldn’t do that.  She wouldn’t do that.  She still had her pride, and that was enough to keep her sitting upright, her hands clenched in her lap.

As if he felt her restlessness, Tyrion began to move again.  He fidgeted beneath the blankets, her name falling from his lips, “Sansa.”

Sansa held her breath, waiting for Tyrion to say something more, but he didn’t.  Suddenly, his body twitched to life, his eyelids opened, and she found him looking back at her with hollow eyes.

They stared at each other for the longest time, neither one saying a word.  Sansa didn’t know what to say.  She’d been caught spying, and she knew it, and there was no pretending otherwise.

The instant the shock wore off, Sansa slipped from the bed, standing up and smoothing out her skirts, trying her best to looked dignified.  “You were talking in your sleep,” she said in a mad rush.  “I was concerned, and I wanted to check on you.”

Tyrion pushed himself up into a sitting position, resting back against the headboard.  The furs fell to his lap, leaving him exposed from the waist up.  It had been a long time since Sansa had seen him in such a state of undress, and there was something oddly unsettling about it.

“I’m surprised that you were concerned at all,” Tyrion said.  “I thought you didn’t care one way or the other what happened to me anymore.”

“You are my husband,” Sansa replied, her tone hardening just a bit.  “It is my duty to care about your welfare.”

Tyrion laughed.  “Of course, the dutiful answer from the dutiful bride.  Why am I not surprised?”  He looked her over thoughtfully.  “Tell me, dear wife, have you also come to fulfill your other wifely duties?”

Sansa’s cheeks flushed warmly at the insinuation.  She was shocked that Tyrion had even suggested such a thing, but then, Tyrion had always reveled in saying shocking things, so she really had no reason to be surprised now. 

Sansa didn’t know how to answer him, so she decided to play coy.  “And what wifely duties are those, my lord?”

A bittersweet smile crossed his lips, but it was fleeting. “Oh, I’m sure you can remember.  I know it was a long time ago, but something like that, you never forget.”

Sansa did remember, better than he thought.  She wondered what he would do if she told him that she was there to share his bed.  Would he laugh at her?  Would he reject her again?  Sansa was nearly certain that he would.

“Is that what you want, my lord?” she asked in challenge.  “For me to service you?”

The question hung in the air between them like an executioner’s axe – heavy, unwieldy, deadly.  Tyrion’s eyes narrowed on her, ever so slightly, as if he was trying to read her emotions.  Was he tempted to say yes?  Did he want her to slip into bed beside him and perform her wifely duties?  Did he want her at all?

Tyrion moistened his lips, then cleared his throat.  When he spoke, his voice was hoarse.  “No, that’s all right.  You don’t need to do anything.  I’m fine.”

Sansa sighed, her shoulders slumping with the effort.  She was surprised to discover just how disappointed she was by Tyrion’s answer.  After everything he had said the night before, she should have been happy to be spared sharing his bed, but she wasn’t.  It had been so long since she’d known the comforting touch of anyone but Eddard and Arya, and their hugs and kisses were not like Tyrion’s.  Eddard and Arya made Sansa feel like a mother hen.  Tyrion made her feel like a woman.  And she missed that more than she wanted to admit.

Sansa stepped back from the bed, suddenly feeling smothered by Tyrion’s rejection.  She tried to act calm, as if it hadn’t bothered her in the least.  She prayed he couldn’t see the disappointment in her eyes.

“You’ve missed breakfast,” Sansa said, looking idly about the room, trying to avoid his gaze.  “Would you like me to have something brought to you?”

“I don’t want to be any trouble.”

“It’s no trouble.”

Another silence settled between them, nearly as awkward as the last.  Finally, Tyrion said, “What are you doing here, Sansa.  Really?”

“I told you, I came to check on you.  That’s all.”

“Do you always check on your guests by sneaking into their rooms and watching them sleep?”

Sansa’s heart beat a little faster, and she finally forced herself to look at Tyrion again.  “You’re not a guest, you’re my husband.  And the last time I saw you, you looked like something one of the dogs had dragged in.  I just wanted to make sure that you were all right.  Don’t worry, it won’t happen again.”

“You’re right, it won’t,” he said.  “Because I won’t be here another night.  I’m leaving right after breakfast.”

And suddenly, they were back to that.  Sansa had hoped that Tyrion had changed his mind since the last time they’d spoken, but obviously, he hadn’t.  She didn’t understand why he was in such a hurry to leave.  He had come a very long way to see her.  Why didn’t he want to stay even for a little while?

“So,” Sansa said, “you’ve made up your mind then?”

“It hasn’t changed since last night.”

“And do you still intend to play dead for the rest of your life and force me to live a lie?”

Tyrion shifted uncomfortably in the bed, and Sansa could tell that she’d struck a nerve. 

“I understand the dictates of your Stark pride,” Tyrion said, “but pride can only take you so far in life.  Think about what you’re asking, Sansa.  Really think about it.  Do you really want to be married to all of this,” he held his hands out to his sides as if presenting himself to her, “for the rest of your life?”

“You are my husband, Tyrion Lannister.  We were wed before all the lords and ladies of King’s Landing, and although most of them are now dead, the fact remains that I am still your wife.  We consummated our marriage.  We brought a child into this world.  Just because you are in denial about it, doesn’t make it any less true.  I, for one, do not run away from my problems, or from the truth, but then, I’m not a coward like you.” 

The words were out of Sansa’s mouth before she could stop them, and Tyrion physically winced in response.  She knew it wasn’t exactly fair to accuse him of cowardice.  Yes, he had fled Westeros and gone into exile, but he’d had very good reason for doing so.  He’d had the courage to stand up for himself during his trial for Joffrey’s murder.  And he’d had the courage to put an end to Tywin Lannister’s life when no one else would do it.  But he was threatening to abandon her now, and she desperately needed to change his mind.

“Yes,” Tyrion said softly, “I am a coward.  I don’t think anyone has any doubts about that, least of all me.  But I’m not leaving because I’m a coward.  I’m leaving because I think it’s what’s best for you.”

Sansa laughed bitterly.  “Please, don’t do me any favors.”

“I’m serious.  You don’t want to be married to me, not after the things I’ve done.”

“I know the things you’ve done.”

“No, you don’t.  Not all of it.  And hopefully, you never will.  You deserve to be happy, Sansa.  After everything you’ve endured, you deserve it more than most.  I don’t want to take that away from you.  If I leave, if I pretend that I never returned, you can start over, have what you’ve always wanted, a handsome prince by your side, true love, all of it.”

Sansa shook her head, never breaking Tyrion’s gaze.  “You don’t have any idea what I’ve always wanted, do you?”

He shifted on the bed again, sitting up taller against the headboard.  “As I seem to recall, you were always a fanciful girl, a romantic.  Although you thought you loved Joffrey once, what you really loved was the idea of him, the man you thought he was.  You wanted to be the heroine of an epic ballad, beautiful and fair.  You wanted to be swept off your feet by a handsome prince and live happily ever after.  That was always your dream, wasn’t it?”

“Dreams change.  People change.”

He eyed her curiously.  “Did your dream change?”

“It did.  Long after you left.  So don’t tell me what I want, Tyrion Lannister.  I’m telling you what I want.  I want you to stay.  I want you to take your rightful place as the Lord of Winterfell, and I want you to be a father to your son.  That is my dream.”

Tyrion scowled the moment she mentioned Eddard, and it felt like a dagger piercing Sansa’s soul. 

“But that is not my dream,” Tyrion replied.  “I don’t want to be the Lord of Winterfell.  I don’t want a wife who only wants me because it is her duty to do so.  And I don’t want to raise another man’s child.  I’m sorry, Sansa.  I truly am.”

Had Tyrion stopped before bringing Eddard into it, Sansa might have been able to control her temper.  But as it was, she could feel the blood heating in her veins.  She didn’t care so much what Tyrion thought of her, but the fact that he could deny his own son made her angry in a way she couldn’t even put into words.  “You haven’t even seen Eddard yet,” she said, her jaw so tight that her mouth barely moved.

“I don’t need to see him.  I’ve heard the rumors.  And if he’s as perfect as I’ve been told, there’s no way he’s my son, which is probably a blessing for him.  The boy deserves better than a murderous, lecherous, drunken dwarf for a father.  And you deserve better for a husband.  Please, Sansa, find someone else and just let me go.”

Sansa didn’t know what to say.  She was so livid that she couldn’t even speak.  She turned on her heel and slowly walked toward the door, forcing herself to remain as calm as possible.  She feared if she gave rein to her baser emotions, she would storm from the room like an angry child. 

Sansa finally reached the door, her fingers slipping around the handle, the metal cold against her bare skin.  The sensation had a slightly sobering effect on her, and she wondered if she should try, one last time, to reason with her husband. 

Exhaling a calming breath, Sansa released the handle and slowly turned around to look at Tyrion again.  He was still in bed, staring at her from across the room.

It took all of Sansa’s resolve to force herself to speak.  “I know you don’t want anyone to know who you are.  And I have no intention of revealing your true identity to anyone while you’re here.  But since you are here, and you’ve come all this way, you should meet Eddard, just once.  I know you think all the rumors are true.  I know you think the worst of me.  But it’s the least you can do after everything you’ve put me through.  I want you to meet him.  I want you to look in his eyes and then tell me that he’s not your son.  If you really believe that he’s not yours, what do you have to lose?  You’ll see him, you’ll deny him, and at least I’ll know that I tried to give my son his father back.  At least I’ll know I tried.”

By the time she was done, there were tears in Sansa’s eyes, but she ignored them as she waited for Tyrion’s reply.  He was staring at her with a pained expression, and she wasn’t sure if it was pity or guilt that she saw on his face.  She really didn’t care which it was as long as he agreed to her request.

“This really means that much to you,” he said, his voice thick with emotion.

“Yes, and I don’t think it’s too much to ask.”

Tyrion nodded.  “All right, I’ll meet the boy.  But then, I’ll be on my way.”

“Arya’s taken him out hunting this morning.  Then, afterwards, he has lessons with Maester Wolkan, but he should be free just before the afternoon meal.  I’ll come and fetch you when he’s ready.  All right?”

Again, Tyrion nodded, though this time, he didn’t say a word.

Sansa quickly turned around and slipped out of the room before she was tempted to say anything more.  She didn’t want to keep arguing with Tyrion.  That wasn’t the way to fix what was wrong between them.  Whether he decided to stay or decided to go, she wanted him to at least acknowledge that Eddard was his son, and she wanted his permission to let the world know that he was still alive.  Sansa didn’t want another husband.  She wanted the one she already had, the one she’d been waiting five long years for.  Even if Tyrion did ultimately decide to abandon her again, if he gave her what she wanted, he would at least leave her with some semblance of peace.  There would be no more wondering, no more waiting, and her precious son would finally have the legitimacy he’d so long deserved.

Chapter Text

Chapter Seven

Tyrion didn’t see Sansa again for several hours.  He spent the day resting in his room, eating and drinking and trying to imagine what it was going to be like to meet little Eddard Lannister.  He knew what Sansa wanted now.  She wanted legitimacy for her son.  She wanted Tyrion to publicly declare that the boy was his, even though, by rights, he was the legal father simply because he was her husband and Eddard had been born after they’d been wed.

Tyrion was afraid to face the child, not because he didn’t like children – he had loved Tommen and Myrcella with all his heart and mourned their loss every day – but because he knew he wouldn’t see himself in the boy, and it was going to break his heart. 

How wonderful would it be to believe that Sansa Stark had born him a son?  A healthy, beautiful boy who was strapping and strong.  But Tyrion knew that wasn’t likely.  The gods had already proven how much they hated him by making him a dwarf and killing his mother the very day he’d been born.  They would not look kindly on him now and suddenly start bestowing blessings upon him just because he had survived longer than he’d had any right to. 

No, Tyrion was certain – just as certain as Bronn and the rest of Westeros – that the child wasn’t his.  He would take one look at the boy and know it in an instant.  He would see Sansa in little Eddard, of that he was sure.  But he’d also see some other man.  Maybe Littlefinger, maybe a stranger.  Either way, it would hurt, and Tyrion wasn’t quite prepared for it.

When Sansa finally came to fetch him, it was just past noon.  Tyrion had been dressed for hours, putting on the ill-fitting tunic and breeches that had been left for him in his chamber the night before.  The clothes were obviously meant for a child, not a man, but he was sure they were the closest thing to his size the servants had been able to find.  Before Tyrion left the north for good, he would have to stop in the winter town and find someone to tailor them so that he could at least travel in comfort.

“He’s ready for you,” Sansa said as she stood in the open doorway, her back rigid, her eyes masking her emotions. 

Tyrion had forgotten how good she was at hiding her own pain.  She’d become an expert at it during her time in King’s Landing, and he knew he would have to remember that.

Tyrion took one last sip of the wine in his hand and climbed down from the chair beside the table.  He looked up at his wife, but she wouldn’t meet his gaze.

“This way, my lord.”

Ah, so it was back to my lord, was it?  If Tyrion had been so inclined, he would have insisted that she call him by his given name, but the more formality between them, the better.  It would make it easier when he finally left Winterfell and they went their separate ways.

Sansa led Tyrion through a maze of corridors, and he couldn’t keep track of where they had been and where they were going.  It had been a long time since he’d explored the halls of Winterfell, and he didn’t remember them as keenly as he would have liked.

Eventually, they stopped in front of a large door at the end of a long corridor.  All was quiet, not a single soul to be seen down the entire length of the hall.

Sansa finally turned toward Tyrion again.  This time, she met his gaze, though it felt almost as if she were looking through him.  “With winter come,” she began, “we were never able to repair the library tower, so Maester Wolkan had all the remaining books moved to this chamber.  When he’s not outside pretending to kill White Walkers or ride dragons, Eddard spends most of his time in here.”

“Does he know who I am?” Tyrion asked.

Sansa shook her head.  “I told you I would keep your identity a secret, and I meant it.  I’m always true to my word.”

“And is he prepared to see a dwarf walk into his own personal sanctum and disturb his peace?”

“I think he’d enjoy it very much, actually,” Sansa said with a hint of a smile. 

It was the first time Tyrion had seen her smile since he’d returned to Winterfell, and it was like a balm to his weary soul.  For a moment, he lost himself in Sansa’s smile, his mind wandering to happier times, before they’d both lost so very much.

“All right, then, my lady.  Lead the way.”

Sansa turned and pushed the door open.  She quietly stepped inside, allowing Tyrion to follow behind her.  The room was quite small, the walls lined with only half a dozen bookcases, the shelves empty here and there.  Winterfell’s library had been decimated the night someone had tried to murder Bran Stark.  Tyrion wasn’t surprised that, in the chaos of the wars that had followed, no one had yet to restore it to its former glory.

Tyrion didn’t see the boy at first.  Sansa still stood in front of him, and all he could see was a long table and a couple of comfortable chairs beside the hearth.  It wasn’t until Sansa stepped aside that Tyrion caught his first glimpse of the child.

Little Eddard Lannister was lying on the floor, a huge volume tucked under his folded arms, his head bent forward as he poured over whatever it was that he was reading.  One page of the book was all words, but the other was a detailed drawing of a soaring dragon, and Tyrion could only imagine that it was some kind of history book, the kind that he had enjoyed reading as a child.

Tyrion didn’t let that fact affect him in the least.  He turned his attention to the boy, examining every last inch of him.  His hair was as blond as spun gold, a curly mop of sunlight shining like a halo around his head.  His limbs were long and well-proportioned.  Even lying down, Tyrion could tell that he was particularly tall for his age.  Definitely no dwarf’s child.  Definitely not his son.

The boy didn’t look up as Sansa and Tyrion stepped farther into the room.  He was too engrossed in his reading to even notice their presence.

“Eddard,” Sansa said softly, “come here.  There’s someone I’d like you to meet.”

Eddard’s head snapped up, and Tyrion saw his face for the first time.  There was no denying his Tully blue eyes.  They were every bit his mother’s.  His features, however, were not quite as delicate, and there was an endearing chubbiness to his face that Tyrion knew would fade with time.  His hair was so blond and his face was so innocent that he almost looked like Tommen.  But Tyrion knew that was just wishful thinking on his part.  All children looked sweet and innocent at that age, even the broken ones like Joffrey.

Eddard’s eyes grew wide the instant they settled on Tyrion.  He scrambled to his feet, his gaze never wavering.  He looked like he had just seen a dragon for the first time, or some other mythical creature, and it made Tyrion feel like little more than a spectacle.

“Come here, Eddard,” Sansa coaxed.

With slow steps, the boy skirted around the book and made his way toward them.  As he approached, his eyes traveled from the top of Tyrion’s head to the tips of his toes, absorbing every last detail with hungry curiosity.

“You’re a dwarf, aren’t you?” the boy said without waiting for any kind of introduction.  “I’ve never seen a dwarf before.”

“Eddard, that isn’t polite,” Sansa scolded.  “Apologize at once.”

Tyrion laughed.  “There’s no need for that.  I am a dwarf.  Why shouldn’t the boy point it out?  Everyone else does.”

“I’m not a boy,” Eddard said.  “I am the Lord of Winterfell.”

Tyrion couldn’t argue with that.  “Yes, I know.  Eddard Lannister.”

“And who are you?”

Tyrion wasn’t sure how to reply.  He didn’t know what Sansa had told her son about him, and he was afraid to say the wrong thing.  But ultimately, Tyrion didn’t have to answer at all, because Sansa answered for him. 

“He came here to deliver a message,” she said, “but he’ll be leaving soon, and I thought you might want to meet him before he goes.”

“Oh, yes, I’ve always wanted to meet a dwarf,” Eddard replied, his eyes still transfixed on Tyrion.  “Thank you, Mother.”

“Why don’t you sit down and show our visitor the book you’ve been reading?” Sansa suggested.  “I think he might find it quite interesting.”

Tyrion cast a sidelong glance at Sansa.  He had no desire to sit down with the child and read a book.  He had agreed to meet the boy, that was all.  He sure as hell had no intention of getting to know him. 

“Oh, he doesn’t have to do that,” Tyrion protested.  “I really must be going sooner rather than later.”

“But Aunt Arya said it’s too snowy to travel,” Eddard interjected.  “She even made us come in early from our hunting trip.” 

Eddard pouted, just a bit, and Tyrion fought the urge to roll his eyes.  If Sansa thought she was going to induce him to stay by parading her precocious little son in front of him, she was about to be sorely disappointed.  Adorable or not, Tyrion had no intention of getting attached to the boy.

But before Tyrion could offer another word of protest, a chubby little hand wrapped around his own and started pulling him toward the center of the room.

“Come on,” Eddard said, “I’ll show you my book.  It’s my favorite.”

Tyrion looked pleadingly at Sansa, begging her to extricate him from his predicament, but she just smiled back at him.

“You two boys have fun,” she said.  “I’ll be back for you when the afternoon meal is served.”  And then, without another word, she slipped from the room and closed the door behind her.

Tyrion’s heart sank as he realized just how trapped he was.  A moment later, Eddard was sitting at his feet, tugging his hand and urging him to sit beside him and look at the book.

Tyrion didn’t know what else to do but to sink down onto the carpet beside Eddard.  He didn’t want to hurt the boy or offend him.  Eddard was an innocent and needed to be treated as such, regardless of who his father was.

“Do you like dragons?” Eddard asked.

“Dragons?”  Tyrion’s mind was worlds away, and he was having difficulty focusing on the present.

“Yes, dragons.  Like Queen Daenerys’ dragons – Viserion, Rhaegal, and Drogon.  They’re all gone now, but I did get to see them fly once.  It was like magic.  Have you ever seen a dragon?”

Tyrion looked down at Eddard with a bittersweet smile.  “No,” he said, “never.”  Tyrion had always wanted to see a dragon, and had he returned to Westeros before the end of the Great War, he might have had his chance.  But now, the very last of the dragons were gone, having perished in the war with their beloved queen, and it was just one more regret Tyrion had in a life full of regrets. 

“Well,” Eddard replied, “you can look at them in this book.”  He moved the book so that it was now in front of Tyrion and started pointing out all the ways in which the illustrator had gotten things wrong – the eyes were too large, the spikes too sparse, the tail too short.  Apparently, the little Lord of Winterfell was now an expert on dragons having seen them fly just once.

Tyrion sat cross-legged on the floor, only half listening to Eddard regale him with his knowledge of the legendary creatures.  Tyrion was fascinated, not so much by what the child had to say, but by how he said it.  There was a tone to his voice that was oddly familiar, a keenness in his eyes that reminded Tyrion just a little bit of himself.  Being near the boy made him feel the connection acutely, and for one brief instant, he wondered if Sansa had been telling the truth all along.  But he dismissed the idea just as quickly.  He had never fathered a child before – not that he was aware of, at least – and he was certain that if he had, he could never have produced a child as beautiful as little Eddard. 

Tyrion examined the boy quietly, searching his face for any hint of his true paternity.  The one thing Tyrion didn’t see in him was Littlefinger.  There was no hint of the smarmy bastard anywhere in the boy, and it was a great relief.  Tyrion didn’t know what Sansa had endured after she’d left King’s Landing, but he was certain that most of it hadn’t been pleasant.  He couldn’t imagine all the lies Littlefinger had told her during their time together, but he knew it was a miracle she wasn’t more jaded after having spent so much time under Littlefinger’s thumb.

“Do you know magic?” Eddard asked, suddenly breaking through Tyrion’s thoughts.

“Magic?  Why would I know magic?”

“You’re a dwarf.  Don’t dwarves know magic?”

“Not that I’ve ever heard.  Perhaps you’re confusing us with fairies or elves.  We’re not mythical creatures.  We’re people, just like you and your lady mother.”

“My father is a dwarf,” Eddard said offhandedly, his eyes still focused on the book.

The breath seized in Tyrion’s throat, and for a moment, he thought he might suffocate.  He had to force himself to breathe again, the effort more difficult than he had imagined.  “Your father?”

“Yes, Tyrion Lannister.  He’s a great man.  He fought in the Battle of the Blackwater and killed the evil Lord Tywin.  My mother says he’s a hero.”

Tyrion was stunned silent.  Sansa had told Eddard that he was a hero?  Tyrion could scarcely believe it.  But then, what mother didn’t want to fill her child’s head with grand stories about the man who had supposedly sired him?  Even if it hadn’t been Tyrion’s seed that had brought the boy to life, Eddard still carried his name, and as far as society was concerned – officially, at least – he was his father.

Tyrion was curious to see what the boy actually knew about him, so he asked, “And where is your father now?”

“Away, across the Narrow Sea.”  Eddard finally flipped the page in his book, his eyes fixated on yet another drawing, this one more lurid than the first.

“Have you ever seen him?”

“No.  He went away before I was born.  Mother says he might come back someday.  I hope he does.”

Tyrion fell silent.  He didn’t want to say the wrong thing, ask the wrong question.  It was obvious that Eddard believed Sansa’s story just as much as Arya did.  Did that mean that it was true, or just that Sansa wanted it to be true?  Tyrion shook his head, chasing away the thought.  He focused his attention back on Eddard, hoping to learn something more from the boy.

“And does Lady Lannister want him to come back?” Tyrion asked, unable to stop himself.

“Oh, yes,” Eddard said, looking up at Tyrion with eager eyes.  “Just as much as me.  I’m hoping when he comes back, he’ll bring me a dragon from the other side of the world.”

Despite Eddard’s reassurances, Tyrion doubted that Sansa had been counting the days until his return.  But he couldn’t say that to the boy.  Instead, he replied, “I’ve been to the other side of the world.  There are no dragons left.”

Eddard frowned.  “Then I hope he brings me a little brother.  I want a little brother, and Mother says I can’t have one unless Father comes home.”

Tyrion suppressed a laugh.  The tales Sansa Stark had told her son were growing taller by the minute.  “I’m not sure that’s how it works,” Tyrion said.  “I don’t think your father can just bring you home a baby.”

“Well, then he and Mother can make one.  They made me.  They can make another.”

Tyrion was suddenly struck by the intelligence he saw in Eddard’s eyes.  The boy was so keen, so eager, so certain.  Tyrion had to look away, lest he start believing something he’d be a fool to believe. 

Without a hint of warning, Eddard asked, “Do you know my father?”

Tyrion locked his eyes on the book, staring at the image of a blue and green dragon setting fire to a small village, the inhabitants running for their lives in the foreground.  He saw the picture, but he didn’t see it.  His mind was too preoccupied with other things.  “I know Tyrion Lannister, yes,” Tyrion said flatly, his eyes still focused on the book.

“Is he a hero?”

“He . . .”  Tyrion didn’t want to lie to the boy in any way, so he used his cunning to avoid answering the question directly.  “I’m sure your father is everything your mother says he is, brave and strong and heroic.” 

Whoever he might be.

“Do all dwarves know each other?” Eddard asked.

The boy had a gift for asking impertinent questions, but Tyrion was starting not to mind.  “No,” he replied with a genuine laugh, finally looking at Eddard again, “not all dwarves know each other.”

“I’m hoping my brother is a dwarf,” Eddard said as he began idly flipping through the book.  “That way, I would always be bigger than him, and I could protect him and keep him safe, even when he couldn’t protect himself.”

“Well, yes, that’s one way of making sure that you’re never overshadowed by your younger brother.  But I’m sure, if you had a brother who wasn’t a dwarf, you’d love him just the same, wouldn’t you?”

“Oh, yes, but I’d much prefer it if he was.”

Tyrion was fascinated by the way Eddard’s mind worked.  There was a formality about his speech and his manners that reminded Tyrion very much of Sansa, but he was also unabashedly blunt in his opinions, as peculiar as they were, and Tyrion admired that fact. 

Not wanting to give Eddard any kind of false hope, Tyrion replied, “I don’t think that’s what the gods have planned for you, I’m afraid.”

“Why?  My father’s coming back someday.  I know he is.  And then we’ll all be a family – mother and father and Aunt Arya and my baby brother.  And Winterfell will be a happy place again, like it was before the White Walkers came.  I know it will.”

Tyrion sighed heavily.  He leaned back, resting his palms against the floor, his shoulders slumping in defeat.  The unwavering hope in Eddard’s voice was heartbreaking.  He truly believed the fairy story his mother had told him.  He thought, one day, his father would return to him and they’d all live happily ever after. 

For a moment, Tyrion suddenly wished that it was all true.  He wished that he was the hero that Eddard believed him to be.  He wished that he could give the boy everything he’d ever dreamed of, but he couldn’t.  He was no hero.  He was barely even worthy of drawing breath.  Eddard deserved better.  He deserved a father who was worthy of him, a man he could truly be proud of.  And maybe he would find that one day, once Tyrion was long gone and Sansa had finally found someone deserving of her.

Eddard looked up at Tyrion when he failed to reply.  “Don’t you believe me?”

The last thing in the world Tyrion wanted to do was destroy a child’s dreams, so he said the only thing he could say, “For your sake, I hope you’re right.  The gods have never been kind to me, of course, but maybe they’ll favor you.  After all, you are a Stark, and even though the Starks were nearly wiped out by the war, you’re still here and your mother’s still here and Lyanna Stark’s son is on the Iron Throne.  Perhaps those are all signs of good things to come.”

“I’m not just a Stark.  I’m also a Lannister,” Eddard said proudly, sitting up a little bit straighter.

Tyrion caught his breath, surprised that a Stark could ever take such pride in calling himself a Lannister.  It was the last thing in the world Tyrion had ever expected, and he didn’t know quite how to respond.  “Well, you do have the Lannister name, don’t you?”

“Yes, just like my father and my uncle Jaime.”

“Do . . . do you know your uncle Jaime?”

“Oh, yes.  He was here at Winterfell when the White Walkers came.  He’s a hero too.  He helped save the north, and cousin Jon gave him Casterly Rock because he was so brave and strong.”  Eddard went back to his book again.  “He wasn’t afraid of anything, and he told me a great many stories about my father.  I like him a lot.”

A sudden rush of air escaped Tyrion’s throat, something between a laugh and a sob.  So, Jaime had been at Winterfell?  Had helped bring down the White Walkers and saved Westeros?  Of course, Bronn had told him nearly the same thing, but hearing it from the mouth of a child somehow made it more real.  Tyrion suddenly imagined Eddard sitting on Jaime’s lap, listening to stories about their childhood.  It was hard for Tyrion to believe that Jaime would have made such an effort if he hadn’t truly believed the boy was his blood.  But then, maybe he’d only done it because he’d missed his own dear children so very much.

Tyrion wanted to ask Eddard more about Jaime, but he didn’t get the chance.  Without warning, the door suddenly opened, and Sansa stepped into the room.  “The afternoon meal is ready,” she said.  “It’s time to put the book away.”

Eddard closed the book and scrambled to his feet, taking the large volume with him.  It was nearly half his size, but he held it lovingly, as if it weighed little more than a feather.  When Tyrion finally stood, Eddard offered him the book.

“Would you like to borrow it?” he asked.  “It belongs to the library, but Mother won’t mind if you take it for a while, as long as you don’t take it out in the snow.”

Tyrion was flattered by the offer, as unexpected as it was, but he had no intention of staying at Winterfell long enough to read the book.  “I think it might be best if we left it in the library.  I wouldn’t want to see anything happen to it.  But thank you just the same.”

“All right,” Eddard replied, a touch of disappointment in his tone.  He turned away then and waddled across the floor, the weight of the book throwing him slightly off balance.  When he reached the nearest bookcase, he slipped the book onto one of the low shelves.  Tyrion was surprised by how dutiful the boy was, but then, he was Sansa’s son, and if there was one word that described Sansa Stark, it was dutiful.

When Eddard returned, he went straight to his mother.  “Can my new friend eat with us?”

Sansa opened her mouth to speak, but Tyrion cut her off. 

“Oh, no,” he said, “that’s quite all right.  I shall take my meal in my chamber, if it’s all the same to you.”

But Sansa wasn’t going to let him escape so easily.  “I think it would be quite nice if your new friend joined us, Eddard.  Why don’t you run along to my solar?  I will meet you there.”

“Yes, Mother.”  The boy turned and looked up at Tyrion again.  “You’ll come too, won’t you?” 

The hope in Eddard’s eyes was undeniable, but Tyrion knew he couldn’t give him the answer he wanted.  So instead, he replied, “Apparently, I need to have a word with your mother before I do anything else.  Do as she says and run along now.” 

Tyrion could feel Sansa’s eyes boring into him, but he did his best to ignore it.  He watched as little Eddard Lannister turned around and raced out of the library.  The moment he was gone, Sansa closed the door behind her, and Tyrion knew they were in for another difficult talk.

Chapter Text

Chapter Eight

The library was deathly quiet as Sansa and Tyrion stared at each other across the silence.  Outside the unshuttered windows, the snow was falling in wailing gusts all around Winterfell, but it was nothing compared to the tension that had built up inside the small, cloistered room.

“Well?” Sansa asked, desperate to know what Tyrion thought now that he had finally met his son.

“Well, what?”

“You know what.”

Tyrion sighed heavily, breaking her gaze and running a hand over the back of his neck in agitation.  “He’s a fine boy,” Tyrion said when he finally looked at her again.  “Smart and robust and tall.  Very tall.”

“I am very tall,” Sansa countered, her words as cold as the wind howling outside the windows.

“Yes, and I am not.  There’s no way—”

“There’s every way.”

Tyrion shook his head.  “I know what you want me to say, my lady.  I know why you shut me up alone with the boy.  You wanted me to be charmed by him, to believe, for some unfathomable reason, that he is my son when he is clearly not.”

“Clearly?  Is it that it’s clear, or is it that you’re just unwilling to see the truth?”

“You and I were only together once—”

“All it takes is once.”

“You spent more time alone with Littlefinger than you ever did with me.”

“Littlefinger?”  Sansa nearly choked on the word.  Of course, she had heard the accusation before, but it hurt even more coming from Tyrion.  “Littlefinger is not Eddard’s father, I can assure you.”

“Then someone else,” Tyrion said with a resigned shrug of his shoulder, “but not me.  You spent a long time in the Vale—”

“Trying to hide, trying to survive.  Do you really think I went to the Eyrie to find myself a lover?  I was already with child when Joffrey was murdered.  Eddard was born nine months after you and I were together.” 

Tyrion didn’t reply, and Sansa could see that she wasn’t getting through to him.  There was something distant in his eyes that told her he had already made up his mind about everything. 

“Why do you find the truth so hard to believe?” she asked, utterly confounded by Tyrion’s obstinance.

“Eddard is a fine child,” he replied.  “He’s going to make a wonderful Lord of Winterfell someday.  But look at me,” Tyrion glanced down at himself before meeting her eyes again, “do you really expect me to believe that I helped make him?  He’s perfect and beautiful . . . and tall.  And everything that I’m not.”

Sansa opened her mouth to protest, but Tyrion cut her off.

“I’m not angry with you, Sansa.  I’m not judging you for what you might have done while we were apart.  It doesn’t matter to me.  But I can’t believe that Eddard is my son.  I just can’t.  And there is nothing you can do or say that will ever change my mind, so please, just let it go.”

His words were like a knife to her heart, and for a moment, Sansa couldn’t even speak.  In her fantasies, she had imagined Tyrion coming home, meeting his son, and being overjoyed to know just how much they had both longed for his return.  But this, this she hadn’t expected.  Of course, Tyrion thought Eddard wasn’t his son.  Half of Westeros thought Eddard wasn’t his son.  Not only had Sansa had ample opportunity to cuckold her husband, but Eddard was as far from a demon monkey as it was possible to be.  Although others couldn’t see the resemblance between him and Tyrion, Sansa could.  She saw it every time Eddard laughed and every time he said something clever.  He was Tyrion’s child, whether Tyrion wanted to believe it or not, and Sansa didn’t know how they were going to move forward if Tyrion refused to accept the truth.

“So, I suppose that means you still intend to go then?” Sansa asked, not knowing what else to say.

“Yes, as soon as the weather lets up.”

“It’s a bad storm.  Maester Wolkan said it will probably last for days.”

“Then perhaps I will find a room in the winter town and wait out the weather there.”

Although there was an inn in town, Sansa could only imagine that Tyrion intended to get himself a room in the local brothel.  That was what he was renowned for, wasn’t it?  Drinking and whoring?  Sansa was disgusted by the idea, but she knew she had little hope of stopping him.  She was certain Tyrion had not been faithful to her while he’d been across the Narrow Sea, so why should he start being faithful to her now?

“You’re welcome to stay here, if you like,” Sansa offered.  “You’ll be more comfortable.”

“No, not really.  I can’t say that anything about this place makes me feel comfortable.”

Sansa suddenly felt the urge to cry, but she fought back the tears, not wanting Tyrion to know just how much his words had hurt her.  He’d been back at Winterfell for less than a day, and already, their relationship was in tatters.  She didn’t know how things had gone so bad so quickly, and she had absolutely no idea how to fix them.

“Well, then,” Sansa said, “I won’t force you to stay, but there is one thing I must ask of you before you go.”

“You’ve already asked one thing,” Tyrion replied, holding out his hand toward the spot on the floor where he had sat beside Eddard, “and I granted it.  Now, you want something more?”

“I want your permission to tell Jon that you’re alive.  I don’t want to be a widow anymore.  I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”

“You may not think so, but I—”

“You’ve been gone for five years, doing gods-only-know what.  I bore you a child and have had to endure nothing but ridicule and accusation for it.  My honor has been slighted, my very character questioned.  All I am asking is for you to stand up, stop being a coward, and admit to the world that you are alive so that I don’t have to spend the rest of my life living a lie.  That’s all I ask.”

Tyrion’s brow furrowed, and he stared at her in quiet contemplation.  When he finally spoke, he said, “You’re asking a great deal.”

“Am I?  What does it matter to you if people know that you’ve returned, alive and well?  You still intend to leave, and I won’t stop you from going.  Go, live your life, drinking and whoring until you die.  I don’t care.  But I won’t pretend that I am free when I am not.  And I won’t take a new husband while I am still married to the old one.  I am a Stark, and I have my Stark pride, and I’m not giving it up for you or for anyone else.  You owe me something, after all the years I spent waiting for you.  At least give me this.”

Tyrion pressed his lips together, and Sansa was sure he was fighting back the urge to swear.  She knew he wanted to move on with his life, that he didn’t want to be fettered to her and Eddard and Winterfell for the rest of his life, and that wasn’t what she was asking.  The night before, that’s what she’d been asking, but not now.  Now, she was just trying to salvage what little she could for herself.  At the very least, she wanted the world to know that he was still alive, that he was still her husband.

“You took a vow,” Sansa said.  “Just because you were gone for five years doesn’t mean that you aren’t still beholden to it.”

Tyrion sighed.  “Sansa—”

“Tyrion.”

“Are you sure this is what you want?  I understand that you have no desire to live a lie, but it’s a small price to pay for your peace of mind.  This is your only chance to be happy, Sansa, to live your life as you see fit.  If you tell Jon the truth, that’s it.  It’s over for you.  You will be beholden to me until one of us dies.  You’ll never find your knight in shining armor, your prince charming.  This,” he held his hands out to his sides, “this is it.  This is all you’ll ever have.”

Sansa wanted to tell him that that was quite enough for her, but she didn’t.  She knew he wouldn’t believe her.  Over the years, he’d become her idea of a knight in shining armor – the brave, gentle soul who had shown her kindness and compassion in her darkest hours.  He had given her the single greatest gift she had ever received, Eddard.  And she was certain, had he been willing to stay, she could have been quite content with him by her side.

“I am not a little girl anymore,” Sansa replied.  “I am not waiting for a charming prince or a knight in shining armor to come along and rescue me.  I’ve rescued myself.  And now, I want what’s rightfully mine.  Are you willing to give it to me?”

“Only if you’re certain it’s what you truly want.”

Sansa straightened her spine, an unconscious signal that she had more than made up her mind.  “It is.”

“Then, who am I to deny you?” Tyrion asked.  “You’re right, it’s the least I can do.  You may send word to Jon.”

Sansa was instantly overcome with relief.  She had won a small victory, but it was more than she had expected to win.  “Thank you,” she said, forcing her voice to remain steady, lest Tyrion sense just how much his words had affected her.  “And we should send a raven to Casterly Rock as well.  Your brother Jaime is there, and he will be glad to hear the news.”

“It’s already been done.”

Sansa was surprised by Tyrion’s reply.  “Has it?”

“Yes, right before I left King’s Landing for Winterfell.  I wrote to Jaime and told him that, once my business here was through, I intended to make my way to the Rock.”

“Is that still what you intend to do?”

“Of course.  But it seems I’ll have to wait longer than I expected, thanks to these damned northern winters.”

“And what do we do about Winterfell?”

“I beg your pardon?”  Tyrion seemed genuinely confused by the question.

“By rights, you are now the Lord of Winterfell.  And if we are going to inform the king that you are alive, then our bannermen should know as well, and the smallfolk, of course.”

“And little Eddard?”

“Yes.  And Eddard.”

Another silence fell between them.  Their conversation had come full circle, and neither one of them was comfortable with it.

“He wants a baby brother, you know?” Tyrion said awkwardly, his eyes suddenly unable to meet hers.

“Yes, he’s told me that many times.  He has some silly idea that dwarves are magical, and he’d very much like one for a brother.” 

“He also seems to think that I’m some kind of hero,” Tyrion added, looking up at her again.  “I wonder where he got that notion.”

After everything that had happened between her and Tyrion, Sansa was unwilling to admit that she had been the one to put the idea in Eddard’s head.  She didn’t want Tyrion to question her motives for telling Eddard that he was a hero.  “Well,” she replied, “children often have quite fanciful imaginations.  Sometimes, it’s difficult to tell where their ideas come from.”

Tyrion eyed her shrewdly, as if he didn’t believe a single word she had said.  “Of course.”

Sansa looked away, gazing idly about the room, wondering where they could go from here.  Finally, she forced herself to look at Tyrion again and asked the one question she was most afraid to ask, “So, shall we tell Eddard the truth then?”

“You mean that I’m not his father?” Tyrion said with a laugh.

Sansa scowled, and Tyrion instantly sobered.

“It was a joke,” he said, in an obvious attempt to pacify her.

“Well, it wasn’t funny.”

“No, I suppose not.” 

Tyrion fidgeted on his feet, and Sansa knew he wanted to run.  He felt trapped, she could see that, but they were both trapped in this situation – Tyrion with a family he didn’t want, and Sansa with a husband who didn’t want her.  It was perfect.

“All right,” Tyrion finally conceded, “tell the boy.  Tell all of Winterfell.  I suppose, if I’m stuck here, it’s only a matter of time before someone figures it out anyway.  I mean, how many dwarves are there in the world, and how many of them have ever made it this far north?  Someone’s bound to make the connection eventually.”

“Will you be staying in the keep, or are you planning to get a room in the local brothel?” Sansa asked before she could stop herself.

Tyrion nearly choked.  “Well, that was cold, wasn’t it?”

“It’s what you do, isn’t it?  At least, from what I’ve heard.”

“I’m sure you’ve heard a lot of things that aren’t necessarily true.”

“I’ve heard a lot of things that I wish weren’t true, but that’s a conversation for another day.  Are you staying or not?”

Tyrion’s eyes turned toward the row of high windows running along the far wall of the library.  Even though it was the middle of the afternoon, the sky outside was dark, the snow falling heavily beyond the window panes.  Tyrion looked back at Sansa.  “I don’t think I fancy going out in that, to be honest.  I’m so short, I’d likely get buried the instant I step foot outside.  No, if it’s all the same to you, I will stay at Winterfell until it’s safe to travel.”

“And do you plan to continue to hide in your chamber, or will you be taking meals with the rest of us?”

“I would rather limit my interactions with those who live in the keep, for the time being.  I don’t plan to be here long anyway, and I’m not looking to make any connections that will soon be broken.”

Tyrion meant Eddard, of course.  He didn’t want to get close to his son, to get to know him.  Sansa knew that, once Eddard discovered Tyrion’s true identity, there would be no keeping the boy away from his father, but Tyrion didn’t need to know that.  Even if he skipped every single meal with the family, Tyrion would have to face Eddard again, whether he wanted to or not.

“Well, then,” Sansa said, “I will have your meals brought to your chamber.”  Her eyes slid down the length of him, taking in his clean but ill-fitting clothes.  “And I will send a seamstress as well.  We can’t have the new Lord of Winterfell looking like a peasant.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Tyrion said, examining the simple linen garments he wore.  “They’re not so bad.  I just wish they fit better.”

“I’ll send someone to your room to measure you.  You’ll have new clothes by morning.”

Tyrion shook his head.  “I don’t want any poor, old washerwoman spending the entire night hunched over a needle and thread just so I can have something to wear.  What happened to the things I came in?”

“I had them burned.  They were beyond repair.  You need a new wardrobe, and I will see to it.”

Tyrion grimaced, though he made no further protest.  Sansa didn’t understand why he was so opposed to claiming his rightful place as the Lord of Winterfell.  He had murdered the Hand of a King, and yet, upon his return to Westeros, he had a title, a wife, a child, and a keep waiting for him.  He should have been on his knees, thanking the gods for their blessings.  But instead, he wanted to eschew everything they had given him.  It made little sense to Sansa, but she was done arguing for one afternoon.

“I will leave you now,” Sansa said.  “I’ll send a raven to Jon after luncheon, and then, I’ll talk to Eddard.”

“As you wish, my lady.”  Although there was no derision in Tyrion’s tone, he couldn’t have spoken with less enthusiasm. 

Sansa took one last look at him, knowing she was doing the right thing, but hating the fact that all her dreams had been destroyed.  She had wanted so much from Tyrion, expected so much, and he had let her down.  She would have to remember never to get her hopes up again. 

Chapter Text

Chapter Nine

Tyrion stayed in his chamber for the rest of the day and long into the night.  Sansa had been good to her word, sending not only his meals to his room but a seamstress as well.  The old woman had addressed him as “my lord,” but had given no other indication that she’d known who he was, and Tyrion had begun to wonder if Sansa had revealed the truth to her people or if they still believed he was just a messenger.

Until their conversation in the library, it had been Tyrion’s intention to leave Winterfell without ever revealing his identity to a single soul.  But the blizzard raging outside was treacherous, and he would have been a fool to try to traverse it simply to avoid his duty.  And he did have a duty to Sansa, he knew that now.  He had committed himself to her in the Great Sept of Baelor, and for better or for worse, as long as he lived and breathed, he was still beholden to her.

Of course, that didn’t mean he had to stay by Sansa’s side, but it did mean that he couldn’t pretend he was a faceless, nameless vagabond anymore.  He was Tyrion Lannister, Lord of Winterfell, and with that came certain obligations he could no longer ignore.

Tyrion sat in a straight-backed chair before the hearth, staring into the roaring fire, a glass in his hand, his mind clouded with unpleasant thoughts.  He hoped to stay in his chamber until the snow let up – whether that be in three hours or in three days – and then be on his way.  He didn’t know what Jon Snow would think when he received word that the Imp of Casterly Rock was still alive.  Although Sansa seemed to think Jon would welcome the news, Tyrion had his doubts.  All he needed was for Sansa to tell Jon just how unhappy she was, and he might find himself being dragged back to King’s Landing to stand trial for any manner of crimes.  Tyrion didn’t want to think about it too much.  He felt like a caged animal just waiting to be slaughtered and skinned for someone else’s supper.

The quiet solitude of Tyrion’s chamber was suddenly broken by a soft, low rap at the door.  The hour was impossibly late, so late, in fact, that Tyrion had been certain the entire keep was already abed, but evidently, he’d been wrong.

For one insane, irrational moment, Tyrion thought it might be Sansa.  He knew she wanted nothing to do with him, but her son wanted a baby brother, and Tyrion was under the impression that she would do just about anything to make the child happy.  But Tyrion quickly dismissed the thought.  After everything he had said to her since his return, he was certain that Sansa despised him, and he knew she would never share his bed again.

Before Tyrion could answer, the door began to open, and he leaned over the edge of his chair so that he could see the door from over his shoulder.  “Who’s there?” he asked, his heart beating an anxious rhythm.

There was no answer, just the pad of tiny footfalls as Eddard took a few unsteady steps into the room.  He had his big book of dragon tales in one arm and was trying to push the door all the way open with the other.  He looked like he was going to topple over at any moment.

Tyrion’s heart lodged in his throat.  The last time he had seen Sansa, she had told him that she intended to reveal his identity to Eddard, and Tyrion was suddenly scared to face the boy.  He feared what Eddard might do or say if he now knew the truth.

And yet, Tyrion couldn’t let the child continue to struggle, so he quickly put his glass on the table beside his chair and scrambled to his feet.  He rushed forward, reaching for the book.  “Here, let me help you,” he said, plucking the heavy volume from the child’s arms.

“Thank you,” Eddard said as he finally got the door all the way open and toddled into the room.  He turned around and pushed it closed behind him, using both hands to move the heavy wooden door.

Tyrion sighed.  This was not at all how he’d wanted to spend his night.  Sleep had been elusive, of course, but he’d hoped to drink at least another flagon of wine before the sun came up. 

“What are you doing here?” Tyrion asked, his voice quavering slightly.  “Shouldn’t you be abed?”

“I couldn’t sleep,” Eddard replied as he turned around again.  “Mother said you would be leaving as soon as the snow stopped, and I wanted to finish showing you my book.” 

“And did your mother say anything else about me?”  Tyrion had to know.

“No,” Eddard answered, shaking his head, his golden curls swaying with the movement. 

Tyrion exhaled a relieved sigh, thankful that Sansa hadn’t revealed his identity to the boy.  It would be a lot easier to leave Winterfell if Eddard didn’t know the truth, easier for Tyrion and easier for Eddard.

Before Tyrion could say another word, Eddard asked, “Can we read the book again?”

Eddard’s eyes were so damned earnest that Tyrion just couldn’t resist them.  They were so much like his mother’s eyes.

“All right,” Tyrion said.  “I can’t sleep anyway.  Let’s read some of this book.”

Eddard’s face instantly brightened, and he raced to the big bed in the center of the room. 

Tyrion had intended for them to sit on the rug by the hearth, but apparently, Eddard had other ideas.  It was obvious that what he really wanted was a bedtime story, and it had been a long time since Tyrion had told anyone a bedtime story.  The last time it had been Tommen and Myrcella curled up beside him.  This time it would be Sansa Stark’s precocious little son.

Eddard scrambled onto the bed, scaling it like Bran Stark had once scaled the walls of Winterfell.  Tyrion walked across the floor, placing the book on the mattress before climbing up himself.  Together, they settled back against the headboard, the book so large that, when Eddard opened it, it covered both their laps.

“Where would you like me to start?” Tyrion asked, idly flipping through the pages.  Although he hadn’t noticed it earlier, the book looked oddly familiar, and Tyrion suddenly realized that it had been one of the books he had read on his last trip to Winterfell. 

“Read me the one about Aegon I and how he used his dragons to conquer Westeros.  That one’s my favorite.”

“All right then, Aegon I it is.”

Tyrion turned a few more pages, and Eddard hunkered down at his side to listen to the story.

For Tyrion, there was something oddly comforting about having a child curled up beside him.  With Eddard’s head bent over the book, only his golden curls visible from the corner of Tyrion’s eye, Eddard looked just like Tommen, and it was easy for Tyrion to pretend that he was back in King’s Landing, telling dragon stories to his beloved nephew.  It was easy for him to pretend that the last eight years had been nothing more than a bad dream, if only for a moment.

“There it is!” Eddard exclaimed, pointing one chubby finger at the page as soon as it came into view. 

“Indeed, it is.”  Tyrion cleared his throat and began to read.

The story was an old one, one Tyrion had heard told and retold many times, but it never got boring.  Dragons were fascinating creatures, as were their Targaryen masters.  Within minutes, Tyrion was as deeply engrossed in the story as Eddard, and he read with a passion and a fervor that he hadn’t felt in a long time.

He read about Aegon and his sisters sweeping into Westeros and laying waste to all who opposed them.  He read about the burning of Harrenhal and the invasion of Dorne.  It was all quite thrilling, even after so many years, and Tyrion was surprised to find that he was thoroughly enjoying himself.

As they reached the climax of the story, Eddard gripped the sleeve of Tyrion’s nightshirt, clinging to him for dear life.

Tyrion looked down to find that Eddard’s knuckles had gone white.  He gently patted the boy’s hand to comfort him.  “It’s all right,” Tyrion said.  “It’s almost over.”

Eddard clutched his shirt even tighter.  “I know.  This is the best part.”

Tyrion chuckled and went back to reading, leaving Eddard exactly as he was.  Tyrion finished the story with all the fire and gravity that a tale of dragon conquest deserved.  When he was done, he closed the book and leaned back, feeling oddly satisfied for some strange reason.

Eddard finally relinquished his hold on Tyrion’s sleeve.  “Read me another.  Please, please.”

Tyrion shook his head, unable to chase the smile from his face.  “No, I think that’s enough for one night.  What if your mother discovers you’re not in bed?”

“She won’t come looking for me till morning.  Read me another, please.”

Had the hour not been so late, Tyrion might have acquiesced, but as it was, he was finally growing tired and he didn’t think he possessed the stamina to give the performance that Eddard was expecting.

“I’m a tired old dwarf,” Tyrion said.  “I’m afraid I don’t have the energy to read you another one tonight.”

“Then I’ll read you one.”  And before Tyrion could protest, Eddard opened the book again and started turning the pages, looking for his own tale to tell.

Tyrion cringed inwardly.  He’d had children read to him before, and it was always an ordeal.  They’d stumble over the same word a dozen times before he’d have to intervene and do the reading for them.  He was in no mood for such altruism tonight.  All he really wanted now was sleep.  “Don’t you think you’d rather save it until morning?  It’s very late.”

“Don’t worry.  I’m not tired,” Eddard reassured him. 

A moment later, the boy settled on the story of his choice and began to read.  His voice was loud and clear, his inflections highly dramatic, as if he was determined to put on a performance every bit as theatrical as Tyrion’s had been.  He breezed over the words, reading as if he’d been born with a book in his hand.

Tyrion was beyond impressed by Eddard’s knowledge of the written word.  He had never known a child who was so well-versed in his letters.  Well, except for one.  But Tyrion refused to make any more comparisons between himself and the little boy sitting next to him.

As Eddard wove his tale, Tyrion finally began to relax again.  Instead of staring at the illustrations as Eddard read, Tyrion watched the boy intently.  His eyes were bright, his face enraptured by the words as he flew over them.  Had Tyrion had a son, he would have wanted him to be just like Eddard – smart, clever, passionate, stubborn.  Tyrion wondered which of those traits the boy had inherited from his mother and which had come from the man who had sired him.

Tyrion didn’t know how long he sat there watching and listening, but when Eddard was finally done, he looked up at him for approval.

“Well?” Eddard asked.

“That was brilliant.  Are you sure you don’t want to join a mummers’ troupe?  You’d make a marvelous actor.”

“No,” Eddard replied without giving the matter a second thought.  “I am the Lord of Winterfell.  I will stay here all of my days.”

“Well, if that is what you wish, then I hope that is what the gods grant you.  Now,” Tyrion said, closing the book for him, “you really should run along and get some sleep before your mother finds out about this.”

“Can I stay with you?” Eddard asked as he burrowed down deeper into the mattress.

“No, you definitely cannot stay with me.”

“But why?  I like you.  You’re good at telling stories.”

“Yes, well, there will be time for more stories tomorrow.  But for now, you must go.”

But Eddard was determined to stay.  He pushed the book farther onto Tyrion’s lap, then slipped under the furs before Tyrion could stop him, nestling himself against one of the pillows.

Tyrion fought the urge to swear.  “This is highly unconventional,” he argued.  “Maybe you should go crawl into your mother’s bed.”

Eddard yawned, pulling the covers up against his chin.  “No, I’ll stay here,” he said.  Then, he closed his eyes and exhaled a contented sigh.

Tyrion didn’t know what to do.  He had never expected the boy to fall asleep in his bed.  Eddard had put him in an awkward position, and he wasn’t sure how to get himself out of it.

Tyrion knew he couldn’t move Eddard even if he wanted to.  The boy was more than three-fourths his height, and there was no way Tyrion would be able to carry him off the bed if he didn’t want to go.  But Tyrion didn’t want to spend the rest of the night in the chair either.  He was thoroughly exhausted now, and all he really wanted was a comfortable bed and a good night’s sleep.

Without allowing himself to think too much about his own motives, Tyrion eased the book from his lap and pushed it to the bottom of the bed.  It was damned heavy, and he didn’t feel like getting up just to move it. 

Once the book was out of the way, Tyrion lay down atop the furs beside Eddard, resting his head on his own pillow and turning so that he could face the boy.  Eddard was already fast asleep, and Tyrion took his time examining him thoughtfully, looking for what he knew Sansa wanted him to see.

There were traces of Lannister in him, even a blind man could have seen that, and for a moment, Tyrion’s heart stilled in his chest.  Had Joffrey gotten to Sansa after they’d been wed?  Had he forced her to—?

Tyrion shook his head, chasing the thought away.  If Joffrey had raped Sansa back in King’s Landing, she would have been too traumatized to hide the truth.  She would never have been able to keep it a secret, and Tyrion would have ended up murdering Joffrey himself.  No, Joffrey wasn’t Eddard’s father.  But if not Joffrey, then who?

At the time Eddard must have been conceived, there had still been plenty of Lannister men roaming about Westeros.  If the boy had Lannister blood, his father could have been any one of them.  Surprisingly, the person Eddard most reminded Tyrion of was Jaime, but Tyrion knew that Jaime would never have betrayed him like that.  It was the only thing in the entire world that Tyrion knew for certain.

Of course, there was a part of Tyrion that knew he was avoiding the obvious conclusion.  The gods had always been cruel to him.  There was no way in the seven hells that they had suddenly decided to take pity on him and bless him with a beautiful wife and a beautiful child.  No matter how much he longed to believe that Eddard was his son, he simply couldn’t.  He didn’t deserve what was being offered to him, and he was terrified to let himself feel even the slightest pang of false hope.  He had done that many times before, and it had never ended well.

No, Tyrion decided that he would stop looking for hints of himself in the boy because, even when he found them, they just made him feel more uncertain.  Tyrion had been a fool too many times in his life.  He was done being a fool.  He would not believe, he could not believe, that Eddard was his son, for fear of having his heart shattered again.

Tyrion exhaled a defeated sigh and finally allowed his eyes to close.  He focused on the soft, sweet sound of Eddard’s breathing as he slowly drifted off to sleep.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Ten

The next morning when Sansa entered her solar to join Eddard and Arya for the morning meal, she was surprised to find Arya sitting all alone.  Ordinarily, Eddard was the first one at breakfast each morning.  He took considerable pride in dressing himself and sitting at the head of the table, waiting for his family to join him, always eager to behave like a proper Lord of Winterfell.

Sansa sat down beside Arya and waited for Eddard.  When the food arrived and Eddard didn’t, a sinking feeling settled in the pit of Sansa’s stomach and she immediately went in search of her son.

Sansa headed straight for Eddard’s bedchamber.  As soon as she reached it, she threw open the door and rushed inside.  The room was empty, the bed was in disarray, and the clothes that had been laid out for Eddard the night before were still lying on the chest at the foot of the bed. 

Sansa’s heart pounded against her ribs, and she raced from the room, practically running back to her solar.  Although Eddard was a spirited child, he took his responsibilities as lord of the keep very seriously.  Sansa knew he would never go anywhere without her approval, knew he would never disappear without a word.

“Did you find him?” Arya asked as Sansa skidded into the room.  Arya didn’t even bother to look up from the table.  She was too busy eating her breakfast.

“He’s not in his room,” Sansa said, the panic rising in her voice.  “His bed hasn’t been made, and his clothes are still there.”

Arya seemed wholly undaunted by this information.  “Have you checked with Tyrion?”

“Tyrion?”  Sansa had completely forgotten about Tyrion.  She’d been too worried about Eddard’s disappearance to think about anything else.

“Yes, Tyrion.  You might want to check with him before you go alerting the guards.”

Had Sansa not spent the past year living with Arya, she might have been put off by her sister’s seeming indifference, but she wasn’t.  It was obvious that Arya knew something that Sansa didn’t.  But then, Arya seemed to know everything that went on at Winterfell even before it happened.

Sansa inhaled a steadying breath, willing herself to remain calm.  Without a word, she turned around and left her solar, heading straight for Tyrion’s chamber.

Sansa traversed the hallways with hurried steps, fighting the urge to run.  When she finally reached Tyrion’s door, she stopped for a moment, trying to get her bearings.  This was the second time in two days she had started the morning by going to his room, and she didn’t want him to misconstrue her intentions.  She wasn’t there because she wanted to see him.  She was there because she was looking for Eddard, and for no other reason.

Sansa didn’t bother to knock.  She was simply too anxious, and she didn’t have the patience to wait for Tyrion to answer.  She needed to know if Eddard was in Tyrion’s chamber before another moment passed.

Slowly, quietly, Sansa pushed the door open, peeking around the edge just far enough to see inside.  The room was much as it had been the previous morning, though this time, there were two bodies in the bed, not one.

Sansa exhaled a sigh of relief as her eyes settled on little Eddard snuggled beneath the covers.  “Oh, thank the gods,” she whispered.  She leaned her head against the door, suddenly needing it for support.

Sansa knew she should go, leave Eddard and Tyrion to their rest, but she was utterly entranced by the sight of them.  They were both sound asleep, little Eddard beneath the furs, Tyrion above, Eddard’s beloved book of dragon tales at the foot of the bed.  Sansa didn’t know how they had ended up in that position, but she was sure she could imagine.  Her heart surged with emotion, and she had to fight back the tears as she quietly watched her son and her husband lying fast asleep on the bed.  It was something Sansa had thought she would never see, and it affected her profoundly.  Tyrion had denied Eddard in every way he could, but when it had come down to it, he’d done the right thing.  He hadn’t sent the boy away, he’d welcomed him to spend the night, and it gave Sansa the tiniest sliver of hope that, perhaps, they could have a happy future together after all.

As enchanting as the scene before her was, Sansa knew she couldn’t stand there all morning just staring at the bed.  She decided she would let Tyrion and Eddard sleep for as long as they liked.  She was sure they were both exhausted, and they simply looked too serene to disturb.

As Sansa began to pull the door closed, it creaked on its hinges, and she cringed inwardly, hoping the sound hadn’t woken them.  But before she could make her escape, Tyrion’s voice broke the silence.

“Sansa?” 

Sansa’s heart beat a little faster, and she stopped her retreat.  She was tempted to ignore him, but that was the coward’s way out.  Instead, she inched the door open again and stepped into the room.  Tyrion was on his feet by the time she closed the door behind her.  He rounded the bed and crossed the floor, stopping directly in front of her but leaving a considerable distance between them.

“I know this looks rather odd,” Tyrion said, his voice low and quiet.  It was obvious that he didn’t want to disturb Eddard any more than she did.

“No.  There’s nothing odd about it.”

“What are you doing here?”

“Eddard didn’t come to breakfast.  When I went to his room, his bed was empty and his clothes were still there.  I had no idea where he’d gone, then Arya suggested that I check with you.”

Tyrion fidgeted on his feet.  “I told him he couldn’t stay.  But he wouldn’t listen to me.  The boy’s damned stubborn.”

Sansa fought back a knowing smile.  “Yes, I know.”

“He came in here with that book and wouldn’t leave until I read him a story.  And then, he insisted upon reading one to me.  At that point, he was so deeply ensconced in the bed that I couldn’t have moved him if I’d tried.”

It was hard for Sansa not to grin at Tyrion’s supposed misfortune.  Although he was trying to pretend that he was annoyed, his performance wasn’t particularly convincing.  “Well, I’m sorry if he inconvenienced you.  I’ll have a talk with him, and I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Tyrion turned his head and looked at Eddard, still sleeping soundly on the bed.  “I didn’t say that.  He’s a child who loves to read.  It would be terrible to quash that impulse just because it’s inconvenient.  I wouldn’t want to discourage his enthusiasm for the written word.”

“Of course,” Sansa replied, wishing she could laugh but holding herself back.  She had just offered to keep Eddard away from Tyrion, and yet, he’d given her a perfectly good reason not to.  If Tyrion had really wanted nothing to do with his son, he would have seized upon the opportunity to exile Eddard from his chamber once and for all.

“Tell me something,” Tyrion said, turning back to look at her.  “Why haven’t you told him yet?”

Sansa didn’t need to ask Tyrion what he was talking about.  He obviously knew that she hadn’t revealed his identity to Eddard yet.  She’d tried the day before – oh, how she had tried – but she hadn’t been able to find the right words.  Tyrion had every intention of leaving Winterfell as soon as possible, and Sansa feared what it would do to Eddard to finally have the father he had always wanted and then lose him a few days later.  Sansa knew that Eddard had to be told the truth, but she just couldn’t bring herself to do it.

“Well?” Tyrion prompted when Sansa didn’t reply.

“I don’t know how to tell him.”

“You’ll have to tell him soon, before the servants figure it out and he hears gossip in the hallways.”

“The sooner I tell him, the happier he’ll be.  But I fear . . .”  Sansa wasn’t sure she should continue.  She didn’t want Tyrion to think that she was trying to manipulate him, because she wasn’t.  But the words had to be said.  “I fear that if he knows the truth, he’ll be happy for a time, happier than he’s ever been in his life, but the moment you leave, it will devastate him beyond repair.  I’m scared to hurt him like that.  He means everything in the world to me, and I don’t want to see him suffer any more than he already has.”

“Then maybe we shouldn’t tell him.  Maybe it would be best if I left now.  I know the weather is bad, but surely, I could get as far as the winter town without issue.  It’s just beyond the gates.  I could go now, and Eddard need never know who I am.”

Sansa shook her head.  “No.  This is his one chance to know you for who you really are.  I’m not going to take that away from him.  Years from now, I don’t want him to hate me when he finds out that the kind man who visited Winterfell when he was a child, the one who read him bedtime stories about dragons, was really his father and he never knew it.  That would just be cruel.

“I’m not kind,” Tyrion said, the words so low that Sansa wasn’t sure she was meant to hear them.

“You are, Tyrion.  You could have barred your door against Eddard last night, but you didn’t.  You let him in, and you were kind to him.  Just as you were always kind to me.”

There was regret in Tyrion’s eyes as he stared back at her, regret and something else that she just couldn’t name.  “But it wasn’t enough, was it?  It wasn’t enough to save you from heartache or suffering.”

Sansa knew they both had regrets.  Although Tyrion had done his best to protect her and comfort her when they’d first been married, his father and Joffrey had done all they could to make her life a living hell, including murdering her mother and brother.  While Sansa was certain that Tyrion had not been involved in that horrific plot, he hadn’t been able to stop it either, or to make things better once the dreadful deed had been done.

“We are all in this world to suffer,” Sansa said.  “I didn’t always believe that, but the last eight years have taught me that lesson.  The best any of us can do is try to ease each other’s suffering.  And you did try when we were in King’s Landing.  You were kind to me, and patient, and understanding.  I haven’t forgotten that.  And I won’t forget the kindness you’ve shown Eddard either.”

“What do you want, Sansa?” Tyrion asked, his eyes narrowing on her in question.  “What do you really want?”

“I want you to stay.  I want us to be a family.  Gods know, I’ve already lost so much of my family.  I don’t want to lose anyone else.”

“But your dreams—”

“I’ve told you I’ve outgrown them.  They were the silly dreams of a silly little girl, and that’s not what I want anymore.  I want my husband and my child and Winterfell.  That’s what I want, and nothing else will ever make me happy.”

Tyrion stared at her, his eyes glassy with disbelief.  She could tell that he wanted to say something but that he just couldn’t find the words.  All he managed was, “Sansa . . .”

There was a sudden rustling on the bed, and Sansa turned away from Tyrion to look at Eddard. 

He scrambled from beneath the furs, rubbing the sleep from his eyes with the back of one hand.  “Mother?”

Sansa spared a glance at Tyrion.  He was still staring at her as if her words had meant something to him, something deep and profound.  She moved toward the bed, turning her attention back to her son, afraid to look at Tyrion for too long.  She had said too much, and she knew it.  Now, she just wanted to pretend that it had never happened.

“You gave me quite a scare,” Sansa said to Eddard.  “I thought someone had stolen you from your bed.”

“I’m sorry.  I just came for a bedtime story.”  Eddard strained his neck, looking all about the room for Tyrion who was half hidden by the tall footboard at the bottom of the bed.  “Has he gone?”

“No, no,” Tyrion answered.  “I’m right here.”  He walked around to the opposite side of the bed, stopping directly across from Sansa. 

“Oh, good,” Eddard replied.  “I was afraid you left without saying goodbye.”

“No, I wouldn’t do that.  You’re the Lord of Winterfell after all.  You should know everything that goes on in the keep.  I would never sneak out without saying a proper farewell.”

Eddard turned to Sansa.  “Have I missed breakfast?”

“No, it’s still waiting for you.  Come,” she said, holding out her arms to him, intending to carry him from the room.  “Let’s leave Lord Tyrion alone for a while.  We’ve bothered him enough for one morning.”

Eddard’s eyes widened in disbelief.  “Lord Tyrion?”

Sansa’s heart froze, and a cold flush swept her entire body.  She hadn’t realized what she’d said until Eddard had questioned it.  How could she have been so foolish?  She hadn’t been thinking clearly, and she’d just made a terrible mistake.

Eddard’s eyes darted to Tyrion, and when Sansa turned to look at her husband, she saw his head bent toward the floor, as if he was afraid to face his son.

“Tyrion Lannister?” Eddard asked, his voice filled with wonder.

Sansa didn’t know how to respond, what to say or what to do.  Eddard was staring at Tyrion in amazement, and Tyrion looked as if he wanted to run.

“Are you Tyrion Lannister?” Eddard asked again when no one replied. 

It took Tyrion a moment, but finally, he raised his head and met Eddard’s eyes.  “I am.”

Eddard’s bottom lip began to tremble, and Sansa thought he might try to speak, but he didn’t.  A second later, he jumped off the bed, launching himself at Tyrion and throwing his arms around his neck.  In Eddard’s unbridled enthusiasm, he nearly knocked Tyrion to the floor.

“Eddard!”  Sansa rounded the bed, horrified by her son’s rash behavior.

By the time she reached them, Tyrion had regained his balance and was holding Eddard awkwardly in his arms.  He looked highly uncomfortable, but he made no move to push the boy away.

“I knew you’d come back,” Eddard mumbled against Tyrion’s neck.  “I just knew you would!”

Tyrion stared at Sansa over Eddard’s shoulder.  His expression was blank, nearly unreadable.  She knew this wasn’t what he wanted, but the truth was out, and there was no way to take it back. 

Eddard continued to cling to Tyrion, rambling on about how happy he was to finally have his father home.  It wasn’t until the initial shock wore off that Tyrion finally lowered Eddard to the ground.

“I’m glad that you’re so happy to see me,” Tyrion said, his hands wrapped around Eddard’s upper arms, holding him in place.  Even from several feet away, Sansa could see that Tyrion was shaking, and she wondered if he was holding onto Eddard to reassure the boy or to keep himself from falling to the floor.

“Why didn’t you tell me the truth?” Eddard asked, the pain in his voice unmistakable.

Sansa didn’t wait for Tyrion to reply.  She moved closer, sinking to her knees and reaching for her son.  She urged him to turn toward her so that she could look in his eyes.  “That was my doing,” she said.  “I wanted you to have a chance to get to know your father before we revealed the truth to everyone.  No one in Winterfell knows Lord Tyrion’s true identity.  Not yet.  It’s a secret that only you, I, and Aunt Arya know.  You like keeping secrets, don’t you?”

“Yes.  But why do we have to?”

Sansa glanced at Tyrion.  His face was flushed, his hair was disheveled, and he was dressed in a nightshirt that was two sizes too big for him.  “Does he look like a proper lord to you?”

Eddard turned and examined Tyrion thoughtfully.  “No, of course not.”

“Well, until he does, who would believe that he is the rightful Lord of Winterfell?  Your father has traveled a great distance to return to us, and he has endured many hardships.  He needed some time to recover before assuming his duties as lord of the keep.  Once everyone knows the truth, things will change, and I wanted us to have this private time together as a family before that happened.”

Nothing that Sansa had told Eddard was inherently false.  It all made perfect sense to her, and she prayed that it would make perfect sense to him.  She didn’t want there to be any awkwardness between Eddard and Tyrion, or any mistrust.  She wanted Eddard to forget all about their deception so that he could start enjoying having his father in his life before Tyrion walked away again.

“Does this mean that I’m not the Lord of Winterfell anymore?” Eddard asked.

Of course, that was exactly what it meant, but Sansa was reluctant to admit it.  She hated disappointing Eddard.  He’d had such a hard life already – living in exile in the Vale, surviving the Great War – she hated doing anything that might hurt him.  But now, she had no choice but to tell him that, while he had gained a father, he had lost the right to call himself the Lord of Winterfell.

“You’re still Lord Eddard Lannister,” Sansa said.  “And that’s never going to change.  And someday – hopefully, a very long time from now – you’ll be the Lord of Winterfell again.”

Eddard moved his eyes from Sansa to Tyrion, and Sansa followed his gaze.  Tyrion still looked stunned, and Sansa wished he would say something more, but he seemed to be at a loss for words.

“I don’t mind,” Eddard said to Tyrion, “because it means I have a father now, just like I’ve always wanted.”

Tyrion’s eyes softened as he looked down at his son, and Sansa’s heart swelled with unspoken joy.  If they could have stayed that way forever, just the three of them, Sansa would have died happy.  She had imagined this moment so many times, and two nights earlier, she’d thought it would never happen.  But it had happened, and Sansa would be eternally grateful for it.  It was obvious that Tyrion cared for Eddard, even if he refused to believe that the boy was his.  There was simply no denying that.

“I’m glad that I could make you happy,” Tyrion said.  “I’m glad that you’re not disappointed.”

Eddard shook his head adamantly.  “Oh, no.  I’ve never been so happy!”  He looked like he was about to burst, and Sansa was sure he wanted nothing more than to run through the halls of Winterfell telling everyone that his father had returned.  She was happy for him, even though she knew his joy would be short-lived.

“Good,” Tyrion said softly.  “I’m glad.”

Without warning, Eddard threw his arms around Tyrion’s waist and hugged him again.  Tyrion reached up with both hands and tentatively patted Eddard on the back.

“You’re a good boy,” Tyrion said.  “A good little lord.  And any man would be proud to call you his son.”

“Are you proud of me?” Eddard asked, pulling back so he could look up into his father’s eyes.

“Yes, very proud,” Tyrion replied, his voice catching in his throat.  “And your mother is proud of you too.  Isn’t that right, Lady Lannister?”

“It is.”

Eddard hugged Tyrion again, then finally let him go.  He turned toward Sansa.  His eyes bright with expectation, he asked, “Can I tell Maester Wolkan?”

“Yes, you can.”  Sansa knew that the rest of the keep would have to learn the truth eventually.  And Winterfell’s new maester was a very shrewd man.  She was sure he already suspected that their mysterious visitor was the rightful Lord of Winterfell.

“Can I send a raven to cousin Jon and Uncle Jaime?”

“It’s already been done, but if you want to write to them and tell them how happy you are, you can do that.  Ask Maester Wolkan to help you.”

“All right,” Eddard agreed. 

He turned away then, obviously intent on racing to Maester Wolkan’s chamber, but he traveled no more than two feet before he spun around and threw himself into Tyrion’s arms again.  He squeezed his father tightly.  “I love you,” Eddard said.  “You’re the best father in the world.”  Then, he turned and ran off on his mission, determined to tell all of Winterfell that his long-lost father was finally home.

The silence that followed was painfully awkward, and Sansa didn’t want to be the first to speak.  She hazarded a glance at Tyrion, afraid of what she might find.  He was staring at the floor again, his brow furrowed, his shoulders slumped in defeat. 

When Tyrion just continued to stare at the floorboards, Sansa was forced to break the silence.  “I should leave you,” she said softly.  “I’m sorry for all the intrusions.” 

Sansa stood and walked to the door, hoping that Tyrion would call her back, but he didn’t.  She left the room without another word spoken between them.

Chapter Text

Chapter Eleven

Tyrion was shaking.  Every nerve in his body was trembling, and he thought his legs might give out beneath him.  He had known that Eddard would eventually learn the truth, but he hadn’t expected the experience to be quite so visceral.  Eddard loved him unconditionally, adored him, revered him.  And Tyrion felt like the worst kind of liar.  There was nothing admirable about him, nothing heroic or brave or worthy.  And worst of all, he wasn’t even Eddard’s real father.  Whatever Sansa said, whatever Sansa believed, it just wasn’t true, and Tyrion felt utterly wretched.

When he was certain that he could move without collapsing to the floor, Tyrion took a few cautious steps toward the bed, wrapping his arms around the bedpost and holding on for dear life.  He closed his eyes, fighting back the tears.  He felt like a fool.  He wanted it all so badly – Sansa, Eddard, Winterfell – so badly he could taste it, and yet, he knew he was just deluding himself.  His entire life, all Tyrion had ever wanted was to be loved unconditionally.  The only person who had ever come close to showing him that kind of affection had been Jaime.  But beyond that, no one had ever really cared for Tyrion very much at all.

Despite his determination to remain strong, Tyrion was suddenly overcome with emotion, and he began to weep.  He sank to the floor, his arms still wrapped around the bedpost, and leaned his head against the mattress, the tears finally falling in earnest. 

It felt good to cry.  It had been a long time since Tyrion had cried.  He hadn’t shed a single tear since the night he had murdered Shae.  After that, he had spent months in a drunken stupor, too numb to feel anything at all.  Once the initial shock had worn off, the numbness had lingered, becoming a vital part of his self-preservation.  But now, Tyrion was finally starting to feel again, and it was all simply too much for him to bear.

He cried for Shae.  He cried for his father, and for Cersei, and for Myrcella and Tommen.  For little Eddard and his dream of the father he would never meet.  For Sansa and her silly girlhood dreams.  For the five long years of his life that he would never get back.  For what might have been.

Tyrion cried until he nearly choked on his tears.  Then, he finally let go of the bedpost, turning to sit on his backside so that he could gaze at the dying embers in the hearth.  His eyes stung, and his nose was stuffed swollen.  He could feel the heat in his cheeks, and he knew his face was probably bright red.  He was sure he looked like shit, but then, what else was new?

Tyrion stared into the hearth, a thousand thoughts running wild through his head.  More than anything, he just wanted to run.  He wanted to put on his ill-fitting clothes, find his horse, and gallop off into the countryside, the crippling snow be damned.  He wanted to get as far away from Winterfell as possible before he no longer had any desire to leave.  Because what Sansa and Eddard were offering him was tempting beyond measure – a family, a home, acceptance, . . . love.  It was everything Tyrion had always wanted, and he knew he didn’t deserve any of it.

Tyrion could still feel Eddard’s arms around his neck, clinging to him like a drowning man to a lifeline, and an unbidden sob escaped his throat.  How easy it would be to fall in love with Eddard, whether the boy was his son or not.  There was something so endearing about him.  He was so much like his mother that Tyrion couldn’t help but love him.

Tyrion sighed.  He’d buried his feelings for Sansa Stark a long time ago.  He’d always cared for her, always loved her, in his way.  Although he’d adored her from the start, he’d never truly believed that there could be anything more between them than friendship, even after he had shared her bed.  Sansa was an extraordinary woman, she always had been, and she deserved far better than to spend the rest of her life beholden to a half-man who could never truly be worthy of her.

And yet, she had just stood before him and said the one thing he had never expected her to say.  I want my husband.  Tyrion wasn’t quite sure what that meant, whether she wanted him by her side or in her bed.  Either way, it was more than he had ever expected, and he was stunned by the very thought.

For a brief moment, Tyrion let himself imagine what life would be like if he chose to stay at Winterfell.  Although he knew Sansa could never truly love him, he knew she could make him happy.  And so could Eddard.  He could easily envision himself falling into a comfortable little life with a wife and child by his side, ruling the north, restoring Winterfell to its former glory.  He wondered, if he stayed long enough, if Sansa would someday ask him to share her bed again.  After all, Eddard was already demanding a baby brother and Winterfell could always use another heir.  Would Sansa willingly sacrifice herself to him one more time in hopes of conceiving another child?  Tyrion couldn’t even begin to imagine what it would feel like to share Sansa’s bed again.  It had been a long time since he had been with a woman, and he wasn’t even sure he remembered what to do with one.

Tyrion shook his head, trying to chase away the thought.  He was getting ahead of himself by leaps and bounds.  He didn’t even intend to stay at Winterfell, so there was no point in speculating about such a future.  He already knew the future.  The snow would stop, and he would head for Casterly Rock.  That was it.  Simple and easy and painless. 

Tyrion laughed, nearly sobbing with the effort.  Even he didn’t believe his own lies anymore.

The empty silence was suddenly broken by a knock at the door, and Tyrion swiped at his cheeks, trying to dry away the evidence of his tears.  He could tell by the light streaming through the unshuttered windows that it was still morning, and he was certain that his breakfast had finally arrived.

Tyrion scrambled to his feet.  “One moment.” 

Instead of heading to the door, he walked over to the washbasin and doused his face with cold water.  Even if his visitor was just a servant come to deliver breakfast, he didn’t want to look like he’d spent the last hour crying like a newborn babe.

When Tyrion was sure that he didn’t look like a total disgrace, he turned back toward the door.  “Come in,” he said in a calm, clear voice.

The door opened, and Arya Stark stepped inside, followed by a maidservant carrying his breakfast tray.

Tyrion groaned inwardly.  The last thing he needed was a visit from his sister-in-law.  All he wanted was to eat his morning meal in peace.

Tyrion could feel Arya’s eyes boring into him from across the room.  Instead of meeting her gaze, he focused his attention on the maidservant.  He watched as the woman crossed the floor and put the tray on the small table in the corner.  Then, she turned around and offered him a small curtsy before leaving the room and closing the door behind her.

The atmosphere suddenly felt stifling, and Tyrion wished he was anywhere else in the world at that moment.  Even the dirtiest gutter in Essos was preferable to being shut up alone in a room with Arya Stark.

Tyrion knew he couldn’t avoid facing her forever.  She was standing between him and the door, and it was obvious that she had no intention of leaving until she got whatever it was she had come for.

It was with great reluctance that Tyrion finally raised his eyes to Arya’s.  The look he saw there was inscrutable, and yet, he knew she could see right down into his very soul.  He shivered at the sensation but fought the urge to look away. 

“Lady Arya, is there something I can do for you?”

Arya moved farther into the room, stopping at the foot of the bed.  She threw something onto the furs.  “Here,” she said, “these are yours.  The seamstress finished them this morning.”

Tyrion hadn’t even realized that Arya had been carrying anything, but now, he saw the fine set of clothes she had tossed onto the bed.  She’d brought him a dark blue woolen doublet with breeches, hose, and boots to match, all of exceptional quality.  Tyrion looked them over with glassy eyes.  It had been a long time since he’d worn anything so refined, and he was surprisingly apprehensive about the prospect.

“It will take some time for her to finish your entire wardrobe,” Arya continued, “but Sansa wanted you to have these for now.”

Tyrion looked up at Arya again, her expression as blank as ever.  “And what do you want, Lady Arya?  Still hoping to throw me out a window?”

“If you hurt my sister and my nephew, I’ll do worse than that.”

Tyrion laughed.  “I certainly don’t doubt it.”

“Eddard’s already told half the castle who you really are.  The next time you step out of this room, it’s going to be as the Lord of Winterfell, so you’d better make sure that you’re ready and that you’re worthy of the title.”

“But I’m not worthy of the title.  I never have been.”

“Well, it’s yours now, and if you do anything to disgrace those who held the title before you, I will kill you.  Make no mistake.  You get one chance, Lannister, one.  My sister may think you’re a kind and gentle soul, she may even fancy herself in love with you, but I am not blinded by my emotions.  I judge everything by what I see.  And if I find you lacking, I will not stay silent.  My father would be horrified to know that a Lannister has taken his place.  Don’t make me regret letting you live to walk in his footsteps.”

Arya’s threats were powerful indeed, but they were nothing compared to her assertion that Sansa could ever fancy herself in love with him.  It was all Tyrion heard.

“I can assure you,” he said, with absolute certainty, “your sister does not love me.”

The hint of a smile pulled at Arya’s lips for one brief instant.  Had Tyrion blinked, he would have missed it completely. 

“And everyone says you’re so clever.”

“I am clever,” Tyrion said with genuine pride.  “In fact, I think that’s my only redeeming quality.  Well, that and my winning sense of humor.”

“My sister may have grown up a lot since the last time you saw her in King’s Landing, but in her heart, she’s still the same girl she always was.  She still believes in true love and fairytales and knights in shining armor, even though she’s had her heart broken one too many times.  Whatever you do, don’t break it again.”

Tyrion couldn’t help but wonder who else had broken Sansa’s heart.  Had Eddard’s father used her for his own pleasure and then abandoned her when he’d discovered that she was with child?  Or had they been in love but unable to wed because Sansa already had a husband?  Tyrion didn’t think he wanted to know.

The only thing Tyrion did know for certain was that Sansa didn’t love him, and therefore, there was no way he could ever break her heart.  Although Arya was a fine fighter, with a keen ability to size up her opponents, she didn’t know the first thing about love.  Not romantic love, anyway.  Yes, Sansa had told herself a fairy story about what would happen when he returned, but her desire for him to come back had nothing to do with love.  She wanted a father for Eddard, she wanted a husband to rule Winterfell by her side, but that was all. 

“I promise you,” Tyrion said, “I am not going to break her heart.”

“Good, because she’s already been through too much, and she doesn’t deserve any more heartache in her life.  And neither does Eddard.”

Tyrion didn’t want to talk about Eddard.  He knew how Arya felt about his relationship with the boy, what Arya thought, and to discuss the matter again would just be to talk in circles.  So Tyrion abruptly changed the subject.  “You’ve told me how you think Sansa feels—”

“How I know Sansa feels.”

“And how you feel,” Tyrion said, ignoring Arya’s admonishment.  “But what about the rest of Winterfell?  Are the servants and the stable hands and the stewards willing to accept me as their new lord, or would they much rather have my head?”

“I think that remains to be seen.”

“But surely you know which way the wind is blowing.  I would appreciate it very much if you would give me a report on the weather.” 

Tyrion held his breath as he waited for Arya to reply.  He knew she was not particularly fond of him, but she had expressed what seemed like a genuine desire for him to succeed, at least until she felt he had proven himself unworthy.  Would she be honest with him?  Would she tell him what he needed to know to navigate the politics of the north?  Or would she ignore his pleas and set him up for certain failure?

“You may be Sansa’s husband, but you are also a Lannister,” Arya replied.  "A year ago, that meant that the average northman would have killed you on sight just for your name alone.  The only reason Eddard was safe was because he had Stark blood running through his veins.”

Tyrion wanted to point out that it was probably also because no one believed that Eddard was a trueborn Lannister, but he held his tongue.  That was a door he had no desire to open again.

“And then,” Arya went on, “the White Walkers came, and Jaime Lannister defied your sister and rode north to join our fight.  I must admit, until I got to know him, I had never thought well of a single Lannister besides Eddard, but even I could not deny what an asset your brother was to the cause.  He fought for Westeros, he fought for the north, like he didn’t care whether he lived or died.  He killed a lot of White Walkers, saved a lot of lives.  And because of that, I think the people of Winterfell, and our northern brethren, will be less likely to despise you than they might have been just one short year ago.”

“And yet,” Tyrion said, “I am the man who abandoned their lady and her child for more than five long years.”

Arya snickered.  It was the first time Tyrion had heard her laugh, even derisively, since she was a child. 

“I think they were all grateful that you stayed away,” Arya said.  “After Jon and Littlefinger drove Ramsay Bolton out of Winterfell and Sansa finally returned, I think the people of the north were relieved to be free of outside influences.  No one was sorry to see Sansa return alone.  They were just happy that there was a Stark in Winterfell once more.”

“What happened between Sansa and Littlefinger?” Tyrion asked before he could stop himself.  Bronn hadn’t been able to tell him much, and all Sansa had said was that Littlefinger wasn’t Eddard’s father.

“I don’t know all of it,” Arya replied, her voice growing quiet.  “She hasn’t told me all of it, and I don’t think she ever will.  But when they returned to Winterfell – when we all returned to Winterfell – the true extent of his treachery was finally revealed, and Sansa and I put an end to his life once and for all.”

“Sansa?”  Tyrion couldn’t imagine Sansa putting an end to anyone’s life, not even Littlefinger’s. 

“She delivered the sentence, and I carried it out.  Our father used to say, the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.  But Sansa doesn’t have the stomach for inflicting pain, even on the most deserving, and we made our decision together – Sansa, Bran, and I.  Together we decided his fate, and together we gathered in the Great Hall and watched the blood flow from his veins when I slit his throat.”

Arya painted a gruesome picture, and Tyrion wondered exactly what Littlefinger had done to deserve such a fate.  Of course, Tyrion didn’t doubt that he had deserved it, but he wondered just how bad the whoremonger’s treachery had been.  “May I ask what the charge against him was?  I knew Littlefinger for a long time, and I can’t help but wonder which of his many crimes finally did him in.”

“He orchestrated Jon Arryn’s assassination.  He murdered our Aunt Lysa.  Through his lies and treachery, he purposefully started the conflict between the Starks and the Lannisters, a conflict that led to a brutal war.  He betrayed our father and sent him to his death.  And gods only know what else.”

Tyrion stared at Arya in silence.  He couldn’t imagine how the Starks had been able to prove any of it, but he didn’t doubt that every word was true.  Whatever Littlefinger had been after – whether it had been the Iron Throne or Catelyn Stark or just the joy of watching the world burn around him – he had done everything in his power to make it happen.  He had destroyed more innocent lives than Tyrion could count, and suddenly, Tyrion was glad that Littlefinger was dead and that his wife had been the one to pass the sentence.

“And who brought testimony against him?” Tyrion asked, too curious to stop himself from inquiring.

“Bran.  He sees all and knows all.”

“Because he’s the Three-Eyed Raven?”

“Yes.”

“I’ve heard that Bran lives north of the Wall now,” Tyrion said, still wanting to know more.  “Is that true?”

“It is.  After the war, he had no desire to stay and look after Winterfell.  He had no desire for anything, really.”

Tyrion couldn’t quite imagine a Stark, any Stark, turning his or her back on Winterfell.  Its snows ran in their blood, and they were as tightly connected to the keep as they were to each other.  He knew that Bran Stark must be in a wretched state to not have the slightest care for his ancestral home. 

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Tyrion said with all sincerity, the words passing his lips without a second thought.

Arya’s eyes suddenly softened, and Tyrion could tell that was the last thing in the world she had expected him to say.  At first, he thought she wouldn’t even acknowledge his words of sympathy, but then, she said, “All we’ve had is loss for eight long years.  But I thank you for the sentiment, anyway.”

Tyrion nodded, not knowing what else to say.

Arya turned away from him for the first time since she’d entered the room.  She looked at the table in the corner where the maidservant had left the tray of food.  “You should eat your breakfast.  The rest of us have already had ours.”

“Yes, thank you.”

Arya’s eyes moved back to Tyrion.  “And remember, the next time you walk through that door, it will be as the Lord of Winterfell.  Don’t make me regret helping you.”

A cold chill swept down Tyrion’s spine, but he held his ground.  “I won’t.”

“Good.”

Arya turned around and left the chamber without another word. 

Tyrion closed his eyes and exhaled a heavy sigh.  The weight of the world was suddenly on his shoulders, and he didn’t know how to deal with it.  Upon his return to Westeros, all he had wanted to do was forgo duty and honor and live a quiet life of solitude.  But it was becoming more and more apparent that Sansa and Arya had no intention of letting him leave Winterfell as long as there was breath in his lungs and blood flowing through his veins.  The moment he donned his new lordly attire and stepped out of his bedchamber, he would be shackling himself to a lifetime of responsibilities that he knew he didn’t want.  But what choice did he have?  Like it or not, he was the Lord of Winterfell now, and he could no longer run from his obligations, no matter how much he wanted to.  Unless he could think of a clever way out, Tyrion was certain he was going to be stuck at Winterfell for the foreseeable future.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twelve

News of Tyrion’s return spread like wildfire throughout the north, and suddenly, Sansa’s days were filled with endless audiences with bannermen and smallfolk, all clamoring to see the new Lord of Winterfell so they could take his measure.  Tyrion, for his part, was no more thrilled by the proceedings than Sansa was.  Together, they spent long hours in the Great Hall meeting with petitioners and gawkers alike.  The Lord of Winterfell had finally returned, and it seemed that everyone in the land felt the need to pass judgment on him.

Thankfully, most northerners looked kindlier on Lannisters now than they had in the past, especially after what Jaime had done for them, and their biggest concern seemed to be whether the man who had murdered Tywin Lannister was there to aid them in their struggles or to steal power for himself.  They feared Tyrion was more like his father and Cersei than he was like Jaime, and they were waiting for him to prove his worth, one way or the other.

For the fortnight following his arrival, Sansa and Tyrion fell into a steady routine.  Tyrion still took breakfast alone in his chamber every morning, but afterwards, he would meet her in the Great Hall to conduct business.  Once the morning’s work was done, he would join the rest of the family – his family, whether he was willing to admit it or not – in her solar for the afternoon meal.  Then, it was back to work for a few more hours before they finally parted ways until dinner.

When Sansa and Tyrion were meeting with bannermen and tenant farmers in the Great Hall, there was nothing but business between them.  But at meals, at least, Tyrion had finally begun to relax.  He spent most of his time entertaining Eddard, but occasionally, he’d offer Sansa a warm smile or tell a particularly amusing joke that he knew would make her laugh.  He wasn’t quite as jovial as he had been back in King’s Landing, but he still had a wry sense of humor, and Sansa found it a refreshing change from the gloom that had settled over Winterfell since the war.

On one such evening, Tyrion was engrossed in telling Eddard a dragon tale he had heard while traveling through Essos.  Eddard had brought a few of his toys to the dinner table – a habit Sansa didn’t entirely approve of – and Tyrion was using them to illustrate his story as they both ignored their dinner.

“And then, the dragon swooped down and burned the errant knight right where he stood,” Tyrion said as he held the carved wooden dragon aloft, swirling it in large circles in the air, before finally driving it downward to attack the little wooden knight beside his dinner plate.  “Ahhhhh!”  As the dragon knocked over the little knight and flew away, Tyrion made a dreadful noise that Sansa assumed was supposed to be the sound of someone being burned alive.

Eddard laughed and clapped his hands in approval.  “And then what happened?”

“And then, the dragon flew back,” Tyrion arched his arm in the air once more, flying the dragon over the table, “and burned him again, just for good measure.”  The dragon flew low, hitting the recumbent knight and pushing him across the table as Tyrion made that godsawful noise again.  “Ahhhhh.”

This time, Arya laughed.  But Sansa didn’t think it was funny.  Whenever Tyrion was at the table, Eddard lost all interest in his food, simply too enraptured by his father’s stories to concentrate on anything else.  And it wasn’t just at the dinner table that Eddard hung on Tyrion’s every word.  He was still sneaking into Tyrion’s room at night so they could read together, and Sansa was surprised that he and Tyrion were getting any sleep at all.  She had never seen Eddard happier, which is why she kept her disapproval to herself.  She didn’t know how long Tyrion intended to stay, and she didn’t want to take a single moment of happiness away from her son. 

The blizzard that had stranded Tyrion at Winterfell had lasted for six days.  Now, even though the heavy snows had stopped, the roads were still treacherous and the winds bitterly cold.  Tyrion had made no mention of leaving again, but Sansa knew it was just a matter of time before he was gone.  Once the weather was more hospitable, she was certain he’d be on his way and out of their lives forever.

As Tyrion continued telling his story, Maester Wolkan quietly slipped into the room and approached Sansa.  “I’m sorry to disturb you, my lady, but there’s been a raven from the Red Keep.”

The room instantly fell silent, and all eyes turned to Sansa and Maester Wolkan. 

Sansa put down her fork and took the letter, her fingers trembling slightly as she broke the royal seal.  She held her breath and unfurled the scroll.  It read:

 

Dear Sansa,

I have received your letter about Lord Tyrion’s arrival.  If he intends to take his place as the Lord of Winterfell, I trust that you will keep me abreast of his activities, for we must monitor his loyalties.  And if there ever comes a time when you no longer want him to sit in Father’s stead, I wish to know it so that I can make the necessary arrangements to relieve him of his duties.

I pray that you are well, sister, and that your husband’s return has brought you comfort and not sorrow.

Yours, Jon

 

Sansa crumpled up the parchment and tucked it into her pocket, her whole body trembling.  “Thank you, Maester Wolkan.”

“Is there anything I need to know, my lady?”

Sansa forced herself to look at him, forced herself to pretend that Jon’s words hadn’t affected her.  “No.  It was just a personal note from the king, welcoming Lord Tyrion to the family.”

The look in Maester Wolkan’s eyes told her that he didn’t quite believe her, but Sansa knew he wasn’t about to contradict her.  “Of course, my lady,” he said with a slight bow of his head.  “In that case, if I am not needed, I shall let you return to your meal.”

“Thank you.”

The room stayed silent as Maester Wolkan made his way to the door, closing it quietly behind him. 

When Sansa turned her attention back to the table, she found Tyrion staring at her.  She could tell that he didn’t believe her either, and she suddenly wished that she was a better liar.

“Finish the story,” Eddard urged, eagerly tugging on Tyrion’s sleeve.

“Oh, right,” Tyrion said, as if he’d completely forgotten what he’d been doing before Maester Wolkan had entered the room.  Tyrion pulled his eyes away from Sansa and turned toward Eddard.  “Yes, the bloodthirsty dragon and the rivers of fire.”  Tyrion went back to entertaining Eddard, but there was an edge to his voice, and Sansa could tell that his mind was on the small piece of paper stuffed in her pocket.

Sansa went back to her meal.  She could feel Arya’s eyes upon her, and she wished she could just retire for the evening and be left alone in peace.

Arya leaned in close, her knee brushing against Sansa’s beneath the table.  Her voice was low and soft as she asked, “What did it really say?”

Sansa’s eyes darted to Tyrion, to see if he had heard Arya’s question, but he kept his focus on Eddard, and she couldn’t tell for certain. 

“Exactly what I said,” Sansa replied, looking askance at Arya.  “Jon has acknowledged Tyrion as the new Lord of Winterfell, that’s all.”

“Of course, it is.”  As Arya leaned back, Sansa felt something brush against her hip.  An instant later, the letter was out of her pocket and in Arya’s hands.

“Give that back!” Sansa demanded, her voice shrill with alarm.

“No, I think I’ll keep it.”  Arya stuffed the letter in her own pocket, out of Sansa’s reach.

The rest of the table had gone quiet, and Sansa could feel Tyrion and Eddard watching them. 

“That isn’t for you,” Sansa snapped.

“That may be true, but I’m going to read it anyway.”

Sansa had to fight to control her temper.  Had she not been a grown woman and the Lady of Winterfell, she would have thrown herself at Arya and forcibly wrested the letter from her pocket.  “Arya,” she warned darkly.

But Arya just laughed.  “Yes?”

“Give me back that letter.”

“Or what?  What could you possibly do to me to make me give it back?”

Sansa knew there wasn’t a single threat she could level against her sister that would have any weight.  Arya didn’t fear anything, least of all Sansa. 

Not wanting to argue with Arya in front of Tyrion, Sansa turned back to her meal without answering.

“That’s what I thought,” Arya said.

Sansa concentrated on eating her dinner.  The truth was, there was nothing in Jon’s letter that Arya couldn’t see, but the same was certainly not true for Tyrion.  Sansa wanted to drop the matter as quickly as possible, before Tyrion started asking questions and she had to concoct more lies.

When both Sansa and Arya remained silent, Eddard and Tyrion finally went back to their storytelling and the evening meal returned to relative normal.  Ordinarily, Sansa took great pleasure in watching her husband and son together, but Jon’s letter had rattled her, and she found it impossible to enjoy anything at that moment.

Sansa hadn’t known what to expect when she’d written to Jon a fortnight earlier.  She’d half expected him to send a small army of soldiers to Winterfell to arrest Tyrion for crimes against the crown.  Although Tyrion’s crimes had all been committed before Jon had taken the throne, officially, he was still a fugitive, and Jon had every right to arrest him if he wanted to.  Even though Bran had assured both Jon and Sansa that Tyrion had not murdered Joffrey, there was no denying that he had murdered Tywin Lannister. 

And Shae. 

But Sansa tried not to think about that.

Sansa ate her dinner in silence, forcing the darkest of her thoughts from her mind.  She didn’t particularly like the idea of spying on Tyrion for Jon, but she understood why he had asked her to do it.  Although Tyrion and Jon had known each other once, had even traveled to the Wall together, that had been a long time ago, and they had both been very different people then.  Tyrion had been the dissolute son of the most powerful man in Westeros, and Jon had been nothing but a bastard about to swear his life away to the Night’s Watch.  Now, their circumstances couldn’t have been more different.  Tyrion was the Lord of Winterfell, and Jon was king of the Seven Kingdoms.  Oh, how their fortunes had changed!

Even though Jon had asked Sansa to keep him informed of Tyrion’s activities while he was at Winterfell, she was certain that she would never have anything nefarious to report.  Despite Tyrion’s refusal to trust her, Sansa still trusted him.  She knew he was a good man, even if he didn’t believe it himself, and she knew he would make a splendid Lord of Winterfell one day, perhaps even rivaling her father in wisdom and kindness.

The thought brought Sansa’s eyes back to Tyrion.  Eddard was now telling his own story, and Tyrion was laughing heartily at the boy’s theatrics.  Tyrion had been the acting Lord of Winterfell for less than a fortnight now, but he’d done quite an admirable job of it.  He’d heard a lot of criticism, a lot of doubt, from the men and women who had come before him, and he’d taken everything in his stride.  He’d listened, reasoned, considered, and above all, been respectful of everyone who’d addressed him, from highborn lord to the lowliest of the smallfolk.  He was a wise man, there was no denying that, and he seemed willing to use that wisdom for the betterment of the people and not the betterment of himself.

Eddard’s story suddenly grew serious, and the laughter died away as Tyrion furrowed his brow in concern for the wounded dragon that lay lifeless in Eddard’s hands.  As Eddard continued to weave his tale, Tyrion glanced at Sansa, their eyes meeting for the briefest of moments.  He smiled softly at her, then turned back toward their son.

In an instant, there were tears in Sansa’s eyes, and she lowered her head to hide them.  The novelty of seeing Tyrion and Eddard together had yet to wear off, and it always struck a chord deep inside her soul.  And sometimes, when Tyrion looked at her, she felt something else, something more, something she’d thought never to feel again.  But she refused to get her hopes up.  She and Tyrion were married, yes, but they weren’t lovers, and she doubted they ever would be again.  He thought her faithless and fickle, and she was certain that he intended to leave her as soon as he could.

Dinner didn’t linger much longer after that.  Soon, Eddard’s tale was done, and he was trying to pull Tyrion out of his chair so they could go down to the crypts to play a game of hide-and-seek by torchlight.

Tyrion, however, refused to move from his seat.  “I think your Aunt Arya is much better suited to such a game than I am.  Why don’t you ask her?”

But Eddard didn’t even bother to ask.  Instead, he raced around the table and began tugging on Arya’s arm, trying to drag her to her feet.

Arya skewered Tyrion with her eyes, and he simply smiled back at her. 

“Have fun,” he said.

“Oh, I will.  And I won’t forget this.  I promise.”

Arya finally allowed Eddard to pull her from her chair and drag her out of the room.  When the door closed behind them, the silence was deafening.

Tyrion and Sansa sat at opposite ends of the table, their eyes never meeting.  Without a word, Tyrion picked up his glass and took a long drink.  When he was done, he looked up at Sansa, finally breaking the silence.  “I suppose Jon is none too pleased with the current turn of events.”

Sansa was surprised that Tyrion wanted to talk about Jon, but then, she already knew he hadn’t believed her lies any more than Arya had.  Sansa reached for her wine, taking a sip before answering.  “Jon didn’t say any such thing.”

“But he must have said something to put such a somber look on your face.”

Sansa put down her glass, deciding that she needed to be as honest with Tyrion as she possibly could.  “He wants to ensure that you make a suitable Lord of Winterfell, and he has tasked me with seeing to it that you do.”

“And if I fall short?”

Sansa paused, not sure how much of the truth she should tell Tyrion.  Jon’s letter had been written in the strictest confidence, but Tyrion was her husband and she had no desire to keep secrets from him.  “If you fall short,” Sansa answered, “I am to tell him straight away.”

“Ah,” Tyrion said, leaning back in his chair, his glass still in his hand, “so he can have me arrested.  Tell me, do you think he’ll just throw me in a cell, or do you think he’ll take my head?”

“I suppose that will depend on what crime you’re accused of.”

“Well, I’ve committed many crimes, so he’ll have a long list to choose from.”

Sansa was tempted to ask Tyrion about Shae.  For five years she had wondered why he had murdered one of the only people in King’s Landing who had ever been kind to her.  She knew, of course, that they’d been lovers.  It had all come out in Tyrion’s trial.  She also knew that Shae’s body had been found in Lord Tywin’s bed.  What she didn’t know was what had driven Tyrion over the edge, why he had murdered his lover and then passed the same sentence on his father.  He could have left King’s Landing without ever having seen either one of them again, but he had chosen to go to Tywin’s chamber, and that choice had ended in tragedy.

“I see you’re wondering exactly what is on that list,” Tyrion said when Sansa remained silent.

“No, not what, but why.”

“Why?”  Tyrion’s eyes narrowed, and he leaned forward, obviously surprised by the question.

“Why did you murder Shae?”

The shock in Tyrion’s eyes was unmistakable.  He stared at Sansa for a long moment, the air heavy between them.  She thought he might deny it, after all, he had never been convicted of Shae’s murder.  But he didn’t.  Instead, he answered, “Because I was angry.”

A cold chill flushed Sansa’s entire body as she stared in silent horror at her husband.  She had not expected such an answer.  She had expected him to make excuses, to say that he had killed Shae because she had betrayed him or because he’d been fighting for his life.  But no, he had offered no excuses, just a simple answer, an answer that Sansa found frightening.

“Is that what you do when people make you angry?” Sansa asked, the words hollow in her throat. 

“No, it’s not.  But that . . .” Tyrion closed his eyes and scrunched up his face, as if disturbed by the memory, “that was different.”

“How?”

Tyrion opened his eyes and looked at her again.  “Shae betrayed me in the cruelest of ways.  She stood before all of King’s Landing and swore that I had murdered Joffrey when she knew I was innocent.  She made a public mockery of everything we had ever shared, and then, when it was all over, she went to my father’s bed as if it all meant nothing to her.”

“She was a whore,” Sansa said, the word feeling impossibly foreign on her tongue.  “What choice did she have but to do your father’s bidding?  How can you blame her for trying to save herself?”

“Because she swore that she loved me,” Tyrion replied, the pain in his voice unmistakable.  “I would never have betrayed her the way she betrayed me.  I would have let them kill me before I ever spoke a word against her.”

“And yet, you killed her yourself.  How pure could your love have been if you could do something like that to her?”

Tyrion stared at Sansa for a moment, then looked away.  “Yes, I know,” he said, his voice little more than a whisper.  “Don’t think that I don’t regret it.  Don’t think that I don’t know that I’m a monster, because I do.  You asked me why I killed her, and I told you.  I’m not defending myself.  I’m just answering your question.”  He finished his drink, leaning his head back so that he could capture every last drop of wine.  Then, he put down his glass and climbed from the chair.  Without another word, he turned away and headed toward the door.

“Tyrion, wait!” 

He stopped but didn’t turn around. 

Sansa rose from the table.  She crossed the room, leaving a comfortable distance between them.  “I didn’t mean to attack you,” she said.  “I cared for Shae.  She was one of the few people who was ever kind to me in King’s Landing, and when I heard what she really was, and when I heard what you had done, I didn’t know what to think, what to believe.  I know she betrayed you.  I know that, had things gone differently, that betrayal would have led to your execution.  I know all of that.  I just needed to know why, so I could understand how my friend’s life ended at my husband’s hands.”

Tyrion slowly turned around.  He looked up at Sansa, and she thought she saw the sheen of unshed tears glistening in his eyes, but perhaps it was just a trick of the candlelight. 

“I’m sorry, Sansa.  I never even thought—  I’m sorry.”

“I know you are.”

“I loved her,” Tyrion said.  “I truly did.  But she hurt me more than anyone else ever has.  I didn’t intend to kill her.  I didn’t intend to kill my father either.  I went to his chamber that night to confront him, to make my hatred and anger known.  I wanted to frighten him, terrorize him, maybe leave him wounded and helpless, but I never wanted to kill him.  And I never expected to find Shae in his bed.”

Sansa nodded, words suddenly failing her.

“If I could go back and do it all over again,” Tyrion said, “I would never have gone to that room.  I would have fled King’s Landing straightaway and never looked back.  You have no idea how many nights I’ve lain awake wishing that things had been different, wishing that I hadn’t lost my temper, that I had simply turned around and walked away.  There is nothing in my life I regret more than killing Shae.  Nothing.  Not even killing my father.”

The sincerity in Tyrion’s voice was unmistakable, and Sansa had no doubt that, if he could, he would go back in time and change everything.  But he couldn’t.  Neither of them could.  And now, their only choice was to move forward and do their best to live with the mistakes and regrets of the past.

“Do you hate me?” Tyrion asked.

Sansa was startled by the question.  So startled, in fact, that she didn’t even think before replying.  “No, of course not.”

“But I murdered someone you cared for.  Surely, you cannot forgive me so easily for that.”

Although Sansa’s emotions were conflicted, she knew who deserved her loyalty and her forgiveness.  “I didn’t really know Shae.  I thought I did, but I couldn’t have been more wrong about her.  You weren’t the only one she implicated in Joffrey’s murder, and while I understand why she swore that you and I conspired together, she still betrayed me just as she betrayed you.  I miss her sometimes, and I mourn her loss, but she was no handmaiden.  She was the woman who was sleeping with my husband.”

“I wasn’t sleeping with her,” Tyrion said plainly.

“You need not lie about it,” Sansa replied.  “It doesn’t matter now.”

“Maybe it doesn’t, but you should know the truth.  Since we’ve been wed, I have not bedded another woman.”

For a moment, Sansa stared at Tyrion in stunned silence, not knowing how to react.  She was almost tempted to laugh.  His confession sounded like a joke.  “You don’t really expect me to believe that, do you?”

Tyrion laughed to himself.  “No, of course not.  But it is the truth.  Though that doesn’t mean you have to believe it.”

“Just like you don’t have to believe that Eddard is your son.”

“Yes, I suppose it is just like that, isn’t it?”

“You can’t expect me to trust you when you refuse to trust me,” Sansa replied.

“I guess neither one of us can expect the other to believe us when we say such ridiculous things.”

Sansa shook her head.  “Eddard being your son is not ridiculous.”

“Yes, it is.  It’s just as ridiculous as the idea of me being celibate for five long years.  So I think, in this case, we’re just going to have to agree to disagree.  Because I can’t believe you any more than you can believe me.”

“Because you don’t want to.”

“Because I can’t allow myself to.”

“What’s the difference?”

Tyrion sighed.  He looked away from her then and gazed idly about the room.  “It doesn’t matter.  I really should be going.  I should leave you to your needlework or whatever it is you do alone after dinner.”  His eyes finally found hers again.  “I will see you tomorrow morning in the Great Hall.  Sleep well.”  And then, without another word, he turned and left the room.

Sansa stood there staring at the closed door, not knowing what to think or feel.  Hearing Tyrion’s account of what had happened with Shae had been painful, not just because he had ended Shae’s life in a blind rage, but because he had loved her with a passion that still haunted him.  Tyrion had loved Shae with all his heart, and it was obvious that he still loved her, despite what he had done.

In Sansa’s more desperate, pathetic dreams, she had imagined Tyrion falling in love with her.  She knew it was foolish, of course.  There was nothing about her that could ever truly tempt him.  He thought her a silly little creature, overly emotional and immature, just a child to be protected and coddled.  Even though they had spent one night together as man and wife, that didn’t mean that he saw her as a woman.  She had no experience with men beyond a few stolen kisses and one night in her husband’s bed.  She could never compare to a woman like Shae, skilled in the arts of love.  She would always be just a burden to Tyrion, the last great suffering his father had inflicted upon him before his death.  She was an obligation, a responsibility, and nothing more.

And so was Eddard.

Sansa knew that Tyrion cared for Eddard, but the boy was just as much of a burden to him as the rest of his life at Winterfell.  Whatever affection existed between them now would likely melt away like the snow in summer when Tyrion finally abandoned them again.  Sansa knew it wouldn’t be long until he was gone, and she just prayed that, when he finally walked away, she’d have the strength to let him go.

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirteen

The next fortnight was particularly trying for Tyrion.  He and Sansa barely spoke outside of the Great Hall, and despite his best efforts, his attachment to little Eddard seemed to grow exponentially by the day.  The weather had warmed just a bit, and the roads were finally passable, but Tyrion was reluctant to leave.  He’d finally started to feel useful for the first time in a long time, and he wasn’t ready to abandon his new post just yet.

Tyrion had always thrived on politics and planning and intrigue.  And while there was very little in the way of intrigue at Winterfell, as far as politics and planning were concerned, there was still a great deal to be done.  The north had suffered devastating losses during the war, more so than any other region in the realm, and it was in desperate need of an experienced leader to at least see it through the winter. 

Navigating the concerns, complaints, and varied personalities of the local inhabitants had proven particularly challenging for Tyrion, but he liked the challenge.  It made him feel alive in a way he barely recognized.  It made him remember why he had refused to leave King’s Landing when Shae had begged him to all those years ago.  He had always needed to be active and involved with the world outside of himself in order to feel like his life was worth living.

And so he had stayed at Winterfell even after he had been free to leave.  Although, truth be told, he’d never really felt as if he was free to go.  The morning Maester Wolkan had informed everyone that the kingsroad was clear, Arya had given Tyrion a look that had threatened unimaginable suffering if he so much as stepped foot outside the castle gates.  Even though Arya didn’t seem to trust him, she was determined to see him stay, if only for Sansa and Eddard’s sakes.

One afternoon, about a month after Tyrion’s arrival, he was sitting at the desk in the small study that he had claimed for his own when there was an urgent knock at the door.  “Come in,” he said as he looked up from his work and turned toward the sound.

The door opened, and a maidservant stepped inside.  Her face was flushed, and she was out of breath.  “Lady Lannister sent me,” the girl said.  “You’re needed in the Great Hall at once.”

Tyrion didn’t wait for an explanation.  He hopped down from his chair and headed straight for the door.  “What’s wrong?” he asked as he walked past the girl, making his way out into the corridor.  “Is it Eddard?”

“No, my lord.  You have a visitor.”

A visitor?  Tyrion couldn’t imagine who had come to see him.  He didn’t have any friends in the north, and hardly any acquaintances.  If it had been just another petitioner – a bannerman or a tenant farmer – Sansa could have addressed the matter on her own.  Tyrion wasn’t sure why he was being called to the Great Hall, but he was determined to find out. 

With hurried steps, Tyrion traversed the maze of corridors that led to the Great Hall.  The instant he passed through the open doorway, his feet faltered and he stopped dead still.  There were nearly a dozen people milling about, but he saw no one beyond the pair chatting amiably by the hearth, Sansa and . . . Jaime.

A small sob escaped Tyrion’s throat at the sight of his long-lost brother.  He had thought it would be months before he saw Jaime again.  Tyrion had no idea what Jaime was doing at Winterfell, or why he had come in such dangerous weather, but he didn’t care.  All he cared about was the fact that his brother was standing right in front of him, mere feet separating them instead of hundreds of miles.

Tyrion stood there, frozen to the spot, until Jaime’s eyes finally found him.  Jaime smiled broadly, as if he was just as happy to see Tyrion as Tyrion was to see him.  Then, without another word to Sansa, Jaime left her side and made his way across the hall. 

Tyrion finally regained the ability to move, and he started toward Jaime.  His legs shook as he crossed the floor, but it didn’t matter.  All that mattered was getting to the brother he hadn’t seen in five long years.

The moment Tyrion was within reach, Jaime leaned down, wrapped his arms around him, and hugged him tightly.  “Dear gods, it’s good to see you!”

“What are you doing here?” Tyrion asked, struggling to get the words past the lump in his throat.

The position they were in was awkward for both of them, and Jaime finally released Tyrion and stood to his full height.  He looked down at Tyrion again, his eyes bright with unspoken joy.  “You said you were headed for Winterfell, so I headed for Winterfell.”

“But I would have come to you.”

Jaime laughed.  “When?  When you grew tired of your beautiful wife and adoring son?  When you were through meddling in the affairs of what’s left of the north?”

“My wife may be beautiful,” Tyrion said, “but beyond a father for her child and a lord to rule by her side, she has no use for me.”

“Really?” Jaime asked, a hint of cynicism in his voice.

“Yes, really.  And as much as the boy adores me, he isn’t mine, so what’s there to stay for?”

Jaime’s eyes darted to Sansa and then back to Tyrion again.  “And she told you this?  She told you that Eddard isn’t your son?”

“No, of course not.  She swears that he is—”

“Because he is.”

Now, it was Tyrion’s turn to laugh.  “Don’t tell me she’s somehow managed to convince you too?  You and Arya Stark seem to be the only people in all of Westeros who think that boy is mine.”

“Have you looked at him?” Jaime asked.  “Really looked at him?  Or have you spent the last month avoiding him because you feel his very existence is some slight against your Lannister pride?”

“I haven’t avoided him.  I tried, but he made that impossible.”

“Of course, he did.  He’s your son, and he’s been waiting his whole life for you to come home.”

Tyrion shook his head.  “I don’t believe it.  And nothing anyone does or says is going to convince me.”

“Even though he looks just like Tommen at that age?”

Tyrion was silent for a moment.  He was surprised that Jaime had mentioned Tommen.  Even though Tyrion had been in Essos when it had happened, he knew how Tommen had died, knew how he’d thrown himself from a window after Cersei had murdered his beloved wife, Margaery.  The loss had been painful for Tyrion, but he was certain it had been even more painful for Jaime, and he suddenly felt very ashamed of himself for having forced his brother to bring it up in the first place.

Tyrion dragged his eyes away from Jaime’s, unable to face him a moment longer.  Somehow, he managed to reply, “Even so.”

Sansa came up beside them then, and Tyrion immediately turned his attention toward her, thankful for the distraction.

“Lady Sansa,” he said cheerfully.  “I hope you don’t mind that my brother has arrived so unexpectedly.”

“Lord Jaime sent word of his arrival days ago,” Sansa answered.  “I thought it would be best to let it be a surprise.”

Tyrion was moved by Sansa’s thoughtfulness.  Jaime’s arrival had definitely been a surprise, and had Sansa told Tyrion about it beforehand, he likely would have done nothing but worry until Jaime had reached Winterfell.  Sansa had made the right choice, but then, she usually did.  She was a very astute young woman, almost as clever as her husband. 

“Well, it certainly was that,” Tyrion replied.  “Thank you.”  He finally turned back to Jaime, the earlier tension between them gone.  “I’m sure you’ve had a long journey and would like a hot bath and a warm meal.  We can catch up later if you like.”

“Not so fast,” Jaime said.  He turned back toward the hall and held out his hand, beckoning someone forward.  “There’s a lady I’d like you to meet.”

Tyrion turned away from Jaime and saw a tall blonde woman headed in their direction.  Her hair was short cropped, falling just below her ears, but in every other sense, she was the perfect picture of womanhood.  She wore a long, sapphire blue gown, with a matching cape to ward off the cold.  She was no great beauty, and yet, she was undeniably captivating.  She seemed oddly familiar, but Tyrion was having trouble placing her.  He wondered if he had seen her at court, but too many years had passed for him to recall.

When the woman finally reached them, Jaime turned back to Tyrion and said, “You remember Brienne of Tarth, don’t you?  She’s now my wife.”

Brienne of Tarth.  Tyrion stared at Lady Brienne in silent wonder.  Yes, they had met before, a very long time ago, but he’d never imagined that she might someday be married to Jaime. 

Tyrion was so stunned that he could barely speak.  He tried to form a coherent reply, but all he got out was a single word, “How?”

Jaime laughed.  “What do you mean, how?”

“I mean, I never imagined that you . . . that you even would marry.  I mean . . .” Tyrion stumbled over his words, realizing, quite quickly, that he was making Lady Brienne highly uncomfortable.  He inhaled a steadying breath, looked her directly in the eyes, and said, “What I mean is, congratulations, my lady.  My brother is a very fortunate man.”

The hint of a smile tugged at her lips.  “I am the fortunate one, my lord.  I intended to be a knight, not a wife, but I am quite happy with your brother by my side, much happier than I ever could have imagined.”

“But of course.  You’re married to the most handsome knight in all of Westeros.  Why shouldn’t you be happy?  Every woman who’s ever met him has wanted him.  The gods must favor you greatly.”

“I don’t know how the gods feel about anything,” Brienne said, slipping her arm around Jaime’s and moving closer to him.  “But I know how I feel, and I know how Jaime feels, and that’s all that matters.”

Tyrion looked up at his brother again, meeting his eyes.  Tyrion could almost swear that Jaime was blushing. 

“I can see that my brother loves you a great deal,” Tyrion replied.

“And I love him, more than I could ever express with words alone.”

Jaime broke Tyrion’s gaze and cleared his throat, obviously uncomfortable with the conversation.  “Yes, well,” Jaime said, “we really should be getting settled.”  He turned his attention to Sansa.  “My lady, will we be staying in the Guest House again?”

“Yes,” Sansa answered, “everything has been prepared for you.  I shall show you the way.”

Jaime cast Tyrion a sidelong glance as he and Brienne followed Sansa out of the Great Hall. 

Tyrion just stood there, silently watching after them, his heart sick with envy.  He had never imagined Jaime finding such unconditional love, nor had he imagined Jaime loving anyone but Cersei.  But Jaime loved Brienne of Tarth.  It was obvious to anyone who looked at him.  He loved Brienne, and he was proud to call her his wife.

Tyrion wanted what Jaime had so badly he could taste it – an adoring wife and a true, abiding love.  Even though Tyrion had his own wife, his relationship with Sansa wasn’t based on love or even affection.  It was based on duty and honor, nothing more.  Although sometimes it seemed as if Sansa cared for him, Tyrion knew she didn’t love him, and she sure as hell had never looked at him the way Brienne of Tarth looked at Jaime.  Tyrion would have given just about anything for Sansa to look at him that way, but there were some miracles even the gods themselves couldn’t perform.

As Jaime and Brienne finally disappeared from the Great Hall, Tyrion heard quiet footsteps pad up behind him, but he didn’t turn around.  He knew who it was.  He had been back at Winterfell long enough now to recognize the sound of Arya’s skulking anywhere.

“They make a fine pair, don’t they?” Arya asked as she stopped beside Tyrion.  From the corner of his eye, he could see that her gaze wasn’t fixed on him, but on the empty doorway across the hall. 

“They do.”

“She’s not the type of woman you’d think he’d fancy, is she?”

“No, I suppose not.”

“Whether you love him or hate him,” Arya said, “there’s no denying that he is beautiful.  Personally, I never thought him capable of looking at a woman like Lady Brienne and seeing the beauty in her.  But then, I suppose one never can tell, can one?”

Tyrion finally turned to look up at Arya.  “And what is that supposed to mean?”

Arya shrugged.  “Just that appearances aren’t everything, and if even someone like Jaime Lannister can look beneath the surface and find beauty there, maybe there’s hope for you and Sansa yet.”

“What . . . what are you saying?”

But Arya didn’t elaborate.  She just gave Tyrion a knowing look and ambled off in the other direction.

Tyrion stood there in stunned silence, barely able to comprehend what had just happened.  Had Arya been implying that just as Jaime could see the beauty in Brienne of Tarth, Sansa could see the beauty in him?  The idea was utterly preposterous, and Tyrion didn’t understand why Arya had even suggested it.  As far as Tyrion knew, Arya hated him, and he couldn’t help but wonder what kind of game she was playing.  Even after a month of living at Winterfell, Tyrion was still wary of his sister-in-law.  He didn’t know what she wanted from him or even what she thought of him.  The only thing he knew for sure was that he needed to be careful around her.  Arya Stark loved her sister and her nephew more than anything in the world, and Tyrion knew that if he ever hurt them, there would be hell to pay.

Chapter Text

Chapter Fourteen

That night, the entire family gathered in Sansa’s solar for the evening meal.  It was a joyous affair, even for Sansa.  Eddard had been thrilled by the arrival of his favorite uncle and had insisted upon sitting next to him at the table, monopolizing the conversation whenever he could.  Eddard regaled Jaime with stories of his exploits with his father, detailing every last thing they had done together since Tyrion’s arrival.  There had been snowball fights and late-night stories and games of hide-and-seek in the crypts.  Jaime laughed at the idea of Tyrion playing nursemaid, and Tyrion laughed right along with him, obviously overjoyed just to be in Jaime’s presence.

Sansa said very little as the larger personalities at the table dominated the conversation.  Between Tyrion, Jaime, Eddard, and Arya, there was barely a chance for anyone else to speak.  Thankfully, Brienne was seated beside Sansa, and they were able to talk quietly between themselves while the rest of the table was otherwise engaged.

“Thank you for your hospitality,” Brienne said, her tone conveying genuine gratitude.  “I know that hosting our party must be a bit of an imposition, particularly in the midst of winter.”

Sansa offered Brienne a warm smile.  “No, not at all.  Both Tyrion and Eddard are glad for the company, and I’m glad to see them both so happy.”

“I know you’ve waited a long time for this.” 

It was obvious that Brienne wasn’t talking about her and Jaime’s visit.  She was talking about Tyrion’s return, and they both knew it.

“Yes, it’s been a long time,” Sansa replied evenly, trying to keep the emotion from her voice.

“And has it been all that you expected it to be?”

Sansa’s eyes drifted to Tyrion.  He was sitting at the other end of the table, laughing at something Arya was saying.  He wasn’t paying the slightest bit of attention to Sansa, so she knew it was safe to answer.  She looked down at her plate, avoiding Brienne’s piercing blue eyes.  “It has not,” she said as she absently toyed with her food.

“I must admit, I am sorry to hear that.  Jaime was quite certain that Lord Tyrion would be overjoyed at returning home and finding you and Eddard waiting for him.  I’m sorry if that isn’t the case.”

Sansa wished that she and Brienne were not surrounded by a roomful of people at that moment.  She knew Brienne quite well, they had spent a good deal of time together both before and during the war, and she wished nothing more than to confide in her old friend, but she couldn’t.  Not now.  Not with Arya’s keen set of ears just a few feet away.  Not with Tyrion watching from the other side of the room.

“Nothing has been as either one of us expected,” Sansa said, finally raising her eyes to look up at Brienne again.  “But then, whatever is?”

“Very little, I’m afraid.”

Jaime’s voice suddenly carried down to them from the other end of the table.  “What are you two ladies talking about so gravely down there?  This is a celebration, not a funeral.”

Brienne turned toward her husband.  Even when she was annoyed with him, there was still love in her eyes, and it made Sansa’s heart ache just a little.  More than anything, she wished that she could have what Jaime and Brienne had.  It was obvious to anyone who looked at them that they were deeply in love.  It was like something out of a fairytale. 

“Not all of us feel the need to laugh like hyenas at the dinner table,” Brienne answered.  “Sansa and I were just having a civilized conversation.”

“Oh, is that what you call it?  It seems to me that you and Lady Sansa think you’re above the rest of us.  I don’t think I’ve seen either one of you laugh all night.”

“Well,” Brienne replied, “perhaps if you said something that was actually funny, we would laugh.”

Jaime laughed at that, and so did the rest of the table, including Sansa.

“Oh,” Jaime said, “that is a bit harsh, Lady Brienne.  And certainly no way to talk to your lord husband.”

“If my lord husband is so sensitive that he can’t even take a slight against his sense of humor, or lack thereof, then perhaps he is not worthy of being my lord husband at all.”

There was more laughter from all around, and Jaime’s eyes sparkled as he gazed at his wife with genuine affection.  She was a clever woman, and more than a fitting match for the likes of Jaime Lannister.  They were perfect for each other, and Sansa had never felt happier for them, or more envious.

“Does this mean you intend to have our marriage annulled?” Jaime asked.  “Tell me, will it be on the grounds that I lack a sense of humor or that I’m too sensitive for my own good?”

“Both.”

Jaime’s smile broadened, and Brienne’s carefully honed façade finally broke, and she smiled back at him. 

That must have been all Jaime had wanted, a smile from his wife, because he finally relented and went back to entertaining the rest of the table.

Sansa watched Brienne from the corner of her eye.  She was blushing like a maid as she turned back to her meal, and Sansa’s envy suddenly deepened.  Tyrion never looked at her the way Jaime looked at Brienne.  Jaime looked at Brienne as if the sun and moon rose in her eyes, as if she was the most beautiful woman who had ever walked the earth and he was unworthy of being in her presence.  Sansa knew that Tyrion would never look at her like that, and it wounded her deeply.

Dinner lasted a bit longer than usual that night, and when it was finally time to retire for the evening, Eddard refused to leave Sansa’s solar. 

“It’s past your bedtime,” she said as she ushered him toward the door.  Everyone else was still seated, lingering around the table.

“But Uncle Jaime just got here.”

“Yes, and he will be here tomorrow too.  You can see him in the morning.  Maybe he’ll take you out for some sparring if you ask him nicely.”

“Will you?” Eddard asked, turning toward Jaime with large, hopeful eyes.

“I think that can be arranged,” Jaime replied.

“Oh, thank you!”  Eddard raced forward and launched himself at his uncle.

Jaime leaned down in his chair so that Eddard could wrap his arms around his neck.  They shared a quick hug before Jaime ordered Eddard to bed.

Eddard did as he was told, not because Sansa had commanded it, but because his Uncle Jaime had, and he loved his uncle almost as much as he loved Tyrion.

“And no sneaking into your father’s chamber tonight,” Sansa warned as she led Eddard back toward the door.  “It’s been a long day, and he needs his rest.”

“Yes, Mother.”  The words held just a hint of impertinence, but since Eddard was already on his way to bed, Sansa chose to ignore it. 

Eddard toddled off with one of the maidservants, and Sansa turned back toward the table.

“It has been a long day,” Brienne said as she laid her napkin next to her plate.  “I think it would be best if we retired for the night as well.”

Sansa couldn’t keep the disappointment from showing on her face.  It had been so long since she’d had a conversation with anyone that wasn’t about grain stores or building plans or Eddard’s paternity.  For one night, she had actually been able to relax a little, to forget some of her cares and woes, as she’d listened to the happy voices chattering around her.  But now, the evening was at an end, and suddenly, it was all over. 

Sansa nodded graciously in Brienne’s direction.  “Of course,” she said.  “It is late.”

Brienne rose, as did Jaime and Tyrion.

Jaime turned toward Sansa.  “Thank you for a lovely evening.  I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed myself so thoroughly.”

“You are quite welcome,” Sansa replied.

Brienne rounded the table, moving up alongside Jaime and gently slipping her arm around his.  It was a small gesture, but it tortured Sansa just the same.  They looked so beautiful together, and she was certain, once they were alone, they would do more than simply fall asleep in each other’s arms.

Jaime and Brienne said their goodnights before leaving the room and heading for the Guest House.  Sansa stared after them, suddenly wishing that she was Brienne of Tarth, not because she wanted Jaime Lannister, but because she wanted to be loved by a man more than she cared to admit.

Sansa didn’t notice the silence around her until it was broken.

“Well,” Arya said, finally getting up from the table, “I think I’ve had enough family togetherness for one night.  Maybe Brienne will forgo her gown on the morrow and meet me in the yard for a sparring match as well, do you think?”

Sansa looked at Arya, a little surprised to see her still in the room.  “I’m sure she wouldn’t mind.  And I think Eddard might enjoy sparring with her too.  She’ll be gentler with him than either you or Jaime, and I think I’d prefer that.”

Arya laughed.  “Of course, you would.  If you had your way, you’d keep him locked up in the library for the rest of his life, reading books and stuffing his head full of knowledge, just like his father.”

Sansa glanced at Tyrion.  He was standing beside the table, finishing off the last of the wine in Jaime’s glass. 

Sansa looked back at Arya again.  “Eddard may be a Lannister, but he is also a Stark, and he must learn to fight like one.  I’ve always known that.  Don’t pretend that I haven’t.  He can spar with whoever he likes tomorrow.  I won’t interfere.”

Arya smiled at her in that cold, cool way she had before heading toward the door.  She stopped for a moment when she finally reached her sister.  “Goodnight, Sansa.”  Then, Arya turned her attention to her brother-in-law.  “Tyrion.” 

But before either Sansa or Tyrion could reply, Arya was gone, closing the door behind her.

Sansa suddenly found herself alone in her solar with only her husband for company.  She hadn’t kept count of how many glasses of wine he’d consumed that evening, but looking at him now, she was certain it had been quite a few.  His cheeks were flushed, and he seemed just a little unsteady on his feet.  She wondered if he had imbibed so much because he had been celebrating Jaime’s return or because he had felt just as uncomfortable as she had in the presence of such a happily married couple.

Sansa drifted away from the door, silently studying Tyrion from across the room.  She watched as he reached for the flagon of wine in the center of the table and emptied the last of its contents into his own glass.  Then, he turned around and looked up at her, holding the glass aloft as if to ask if she wanted to finish it off.  Sansa shook her head, and Tyrion downed the wine himself.

When he was done, he slammed the glass down onto the table.  “Well, that was a fun night, wasn’t it?”

“You’re drunk,” Sansa said, suddenly certain of that fact.

“Yes, I am.  And it feels wonderful!  Have you ever been drunk, Sansa Stark?”

“Never.”

Tyrion smiled wryly.  “Then you don’t know what you’re missing.”  He turned and scanned the length of the table as if searching for another flagon, but there was only the one.  He scowled and turned around to look up at Sansa again.  “Perhaps we should call for more wine.”

“I don’t think that would be wise.”

“Why?” Tyrion asked, his eyes lighting with mischief.  “Don’t you like to have fun?”

“Of course, I do.”

“Then, why don’t you?  Have fun, that is?  You never have fun.  Never.  Not even when everyone else around you is enjoying themselves.  Why is that?”

Sansa didn’t want to answer.  Tyrion was drunk, that much was clear, and she was under no obligation to humor him.  She hadn’t seen him drunk since their wedding night, and the association alone made her uncomfortable.  But Sansa didn’t know how to simply walk away, so despite her overwhelming desire to end the conversation right then and there, she replied, “I am the Lady of Winterfell.  I have responsibilities—”

Tyrion laughed, stopping her before she could go any further.  “Responsibilities?  What responsibilities did you have tonight other than to be a gracious hostess and to laugh at your guests’ jokes?  Oh, no, this isn’t about responsibility, or honor, or duty, or any of that.  This is about you hating the fact that I am here and wishing I were gone.  If you didn’t feel that you needed a father for Eddard and someone to help you rule Winterfell, you’d want nothing to do with me, and we both know it.”

Sansa stared at Tyrion in utter shock.  Nothing could have been further from the truth, and she didn’t understand how he could even think such a thing.  Perhaps the wine had gone to his head and he didn’t know what he was saying. 

“Is that what you think?” Sansa asked when she was finally capable of speech.  “Is that what you really think?”

“Of course, it is.  You’ve barely spoken to me in a fortnight.  If it wasn’t for our responsibilities in the Great Hall every day, I doubt we’d speak at all.”

“I don’t want you gone,” Sansa said, her voice almost shrill.  “I’m sorry if my devotion to duty and honor is somehow offensive to you.  I’m sorry if I’m not entertaining enough for your liking, but I do have a duty to fulfill, a duty to my people and to Winterfell, and I can’t be laughing and joking all the time like some people.”

“I don’t joke all the time.  And frankly, I find very little to laugh about here at Winterfell.”

Sansa tore her eyes away from Tyrion, afraid that she might say something she wouldn’t be able to take back. 

They stood there for a long time, neither one saying a word.  Finally, Tyrion broke the awkward silence.  “I’m sorry, Sansa.  I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

“That’s all you ever do, isn’t it?  Hurt me?”

He didn’t answer, and Sansa turned to look at him again. 

He was staring across the room, watching the flames dancing in the hearth.  “I think . . . I think we’ve gotten very good at hurting each other.”

Sansa’s breath caught in her throat.  That was the last thing she had expected Tyrion to say, and she wasn’t going to waste the chance that he’d suddenly given her.  “Then how do we fix it?  How do we stop?”

Tyrion laughed, but the sound quickly turned into a sob.  “I don’t know,” he said, his voice thick with emotion.  “I just don’t know.”

Sansa didn’t know either.  She didn’t know how to even begin mending what was broken between them.  She didn’t even know if it could be mended.  As long as Tyrion didn’t trust her, they could never have a happy marriage.  Trust was more important to a marriage than even love, and there was very little trust between them.

“Did you see them tonight?” Tyrion asked, his eyes still fixed on the flames in the hearth.

Sansa was surprised by the question.  “Did I see who?”

“Jaime and Brienne.”  Tyrion finally turned and looked up at Sansa again.  “I’ve never seen my brother so happy.  He loves her with all his heart.  And she loves him.  That much would be obvious to a blind man.”

“They’re very fortunate.”

“Yes, they are.  And we are not.”

Sansa and Tyrion stared at each other across the chamber, and Sansa wondered why he had felt compelled to say such a thing.  It hurt, more than she could ever put into words, and she did her best not to let the pain show on her face.

“What do you want, Tyrion?” Sansa asked, her voice trembling slightly.  “What do you really want from me?”

“The truth,” he said.  “That’s all.  Tell me who Eddard’s father is.  I won’t tell another living soul.  I give you my word.  But I must know the truth so that you and I can move forward, so that there can finally be some trust between us.”

Had he said anything else, Sansa might have granted his request, but she was not about to lie to him for the sake of his pride.  It wasn’t her fault that he refused to believe the truth, and she would not tell him a falsehood just to keep the peace between them.

Sansa turned around and headed toward the door, intent on leaving.  She refused to have this same argument with Tyrion again.  It never got them anywhere, and it only ever drove them further apart.

“Sansa, wait!”

Sansa halted, just shy of the door, and listened as Tyrion shuffled awkwardly toward her, the wine obviously making it difficult for him to stay upright.  When he finally stopped, she turned around to find him standing a few feet away, swaying slightly on his feet.

“What?” she asked, her tone as icy as a northern winter.

“What . . . what do you want?”

“Me?”  She had expected him to question her again about Eddard’s paternity, not to ask her what she wanted.

“Yes, you.  I’ve been so caught up in my own suffering and my own self-pity that I haven’t stopped to think about what you want from me.”

“I want you to trust me, just as much as you want me to trust you.  But we’ve already agreed that neither one of us can have what we want in that regard.”

“How do you feel about my brother?”

Sansa stared at Tyrion in stunned silence.  She didn’t know why he had asked her such a thing.  She could only imagine that it had something to do with him being drunk.  “What kind of question is that?”

“I saw the way you were looking at him tonight, like you wanted something that you just couldn’t have.”

Sansa’s mouth gaped open as she struggled to comprehend Tyrion’s words.  He was accusing her of wanting Jaime.  That was it, wasn’t it?  Was he so petty and jealous that he couldn’t see what was clearly right before his eyes?  It wasn’t Jaime’s love she wanted, it was his, but she knew she was never going to get it. 

“Is that really what you think of me?” Sansa asked, barely able to form the words.

“I don’t know what to think.  I hardly know you, Sansa Stark.  All I do know is, the look in your eyes tonight was unmistakable.”

Sansa shook her head, taking an unconscious step back.  The closed door was right behind her, and she leaned against it, afraid she might crumble without the support.  “I know you think me unfaithful, but to accuse me of wanting your brother is going a step too far.  I like Jaime.  He’s smart and he’s funny and he’s charming.”

“And handsome.”

“And one of the most handsome men I have ever met,” Sansa replied with unabashed bravado.  “But you do me a disservice by believing that I want him.  Although it may not have been true in the past, your brother is a good man now, and he loves Brienne with a passion that I . . .” Sansa faltered, struggling to catch her breath, “that I can’t even begin to imagine.  No man has ever felt about me the way that Jaime Lannister feels about Brienne of Tarth.  When you see me looking at him with longing, it’s not because I want him.  It’s because I want someone to look at me the way Jaime looks at Brienne.  I want someone to love me like that.”

There were tears in Sansa’s eyes by the time she finished, and she didn’t even bother trying to hide them.  She was so tired, so lonely.  She didn’t care if Tyrion knew the truth about her anymore.  Even though she had grown up a great deal in the past five years, deep down, she was still that same stupid little girl who had always believed in true love and fairytales and knights in shining armor.  She was still a hopeless romantic whose heart ached every time she was reminded of what she could never have.

“Sansa—” Tyrion began, his voice warm and soft, but she was too afraid to let him finish.

“Don’t,” she said, cutting him off.  “I don’t want to hear whatever it is you have to say.  You had your chance.  Now, I would just like it if you would leave me alone.” 

Sansa turned then and opened the door.

Tyrion stared up at her with sad, sympathetic eyes.  He opened his mouth to speak, but she scowled at him, stopping him cold. 

Tyrion broke Sansa’s gaze and walked to the door.  He paused just long enough to say, “Good night, my lady,” before moving past her and stepping into the hallway.

Sansa didn’t even bother to reply.  Instead, the instant Tyrion was over the threshold, she slammed the door closed behind him. 

For a moment, Sansa just stood there, listening to the sound of Tyrion’s footsteps retreating down the corridor.  As soon as he was gone, she fell to her knees and began to weep.

Chapter Text

Chapter Fifteen

By the time Tyrion reached his chamber, he was trembling all over.  He closed the door behind him and sank to the floor, leaning back against the door for support.  He stared out into the darkened room, his mind fraught with uncertainty. 

Sansa – Sansa Stark – wanted to be in love.

It was a startling revelation, one Tyrion had never expected her to make.  Of course, he’d always known that she had once been the kind of girl who loved ballads and fairy stories and dreamed of marrying her prince charming, but until that night, she had adamantly sworn that she had left those girlhood fantasies behind.  And then, all it had taken was one evening in his brother’s company, and she was suddenly that little girl again.

Tyrion wondered why Sansa had admitted the truth.  She could have simply thrown him out of her solar without offering a single word of explanation.  After all, he deserved no better.  Not only had he accused her of infidelity, but he had accused her of wanting her own brother-in-law.  He had insulted her honor, yet again, and she’d had every right to be furious with him.

Tyrion leaned his head back against the door and closed his eyes.  He could feel the effects of the wine already beginning to wear off.  He hadn’t drunk quite as much as he’d wanted to, and yet, he’d still made a mess of things.  He should have just said goodnight and been on his way before he’d done something to hurt her again. 

Because that was all he ever did, wasn’t it?  Hurt her?  Even though she’d sworn that she wanted him to remain at Winterfell, every time they were alone together, it ended in disaster.  Tonight, Sansa had confessed that she wanted someone to love her the way that Jaime loved Brienne.  Well, Tyrion wanted the same thing, more than Sansa could ever know.  But no matter how desperate Sansa was for love, Tyrion knew she would never let him be the one to love her, and he didn’t blame her in the least.  She deserved better.  She deserved a handsome, charming, honorable man by her side, not a monster.  And despite Tyrion’s fine new clothes and the grudging respect he had gained at Winterfell since his arrival, deep down inside, he was still a monster, he was still the man who had murdered his own father and his former lover, and there was no way that either one of them could ever forget that.

Tyrion sighed heavily and forced his eyes open.  Although the hour was late for everyone else, it wasn’t particularly late for him.  Even so, he couldn’t remember the last time he had felt so tired.  All he wanted was a nice warm bed and the luxury of slipping into a dreamless oblivion.

It took a great deal of effort, but Tyrion finally managed to struggle to his feet.  He staggered to the bed, leaning up against the bedpost to strip off his clothes.  Since his return, he had been outfitted with an entire wardrobe befitting his new title, but even though there was a clean nightshift waiting for him at the foot of the bed, he ignored it, choosing to sleep in his linen tunic instead.

Tyrion crawled up onto the mattress, burrowed beneath the furs, and willed himself to sleep. 

***

The next morning, Tyrion awoke with a violent headache, the direct result of his excessive drinking the night before.  By the time he crawled out of bed and made himself presentable, he had missed breakfast.

Instead of trying to find himself something to eat, Tyrion went off in search of Eddard and Jaime.  He found them in the yard, sparring with wooden swords, the snowy earth and the cold northern air doing nothing to dampen their spirits.  Tyrion ascended the stairs that led to the covered bridge between the Great Hall and the armory.  He settled himself in front of one of the open windows so that he could observe them. 

Eddard spent most mornings in the yard training with Arya.  It was as much a part of his education as the hours he spent behind closed doors with Maester Wolkan.  Arya never went easy on the boy.  She treated him like a full-grown man, not a child, and she always pushed him to the limit.

Jaime, however, was a bit gentler, and Tyrion enjoyed watching the two of them together.  Seeing them side by side, it was impossible to ignore the resemblance between them, and Tyrion wondered if, perhaps, Sansa had been telling the truth about Eddard’s paternity all along.

Tyrion shook his head, chasing away the thought.  It was too painful for him to even comprehend.  If Eddard was his son, it meant that Sansa had been faithful to him, had been patiently awaiting his return, for five long years, and Tyrion didn’t want to imagine that kind of suffering for her.  He much preferred to think that Sansa had known love at least once in her life, other than the single night she had been forced to let him into her bed.  She deserved some happiness because, gods knew, she had suffered more than enough.

But it wasn’t just for Sansa’s sake that Tyrion refused to believe that the boy was his.  He’d spent his whole life playing the fool for everyone – his father, his sister, Shae.  Tysha.  He didn’t ever want to play the fool again.  And if he let himself believe that Eddard was his son, truly believe, when the truth finally came out – as he was sure it someday would – he would be devastated beyond imagining.  Tyrion had known great heartache in his life, but he didn’t think anything could ever compare to the prospect of believing that Eddard was his son and then having that belief destroyed.  It was better never to believe than to have his heart broken again.

The activity in the yard below intensified, and Eddard finally managed to strike a blow to Jaime’s abdomen.  “I did it!” Eddard cried out in victory.  “You’re dead.”

Jaime looked down to find Eddard’s sword pressed firmly against his stomach.  He chuckled softly.  “So it would seem.”  Then, he collapsed onto the snowy ground, lying there like a lifeless corpse.

Eddard laughed as if it was the funniest thing he had ever seen.  He approached Jaime with confident steps, poking him a few more times with the tip of his sword, just to make sure he was really dead.  But Jaime still had some life left in him.  Without a hint of warning, he sat up, snaked his right arm around Eddard’s waist, and dragged him to the ground, laughing as he shoved a fistful of snow down the back of Eddard’s tunic.

Eddard squealed in delight, squirming from Jaime’s grip and climbing to his feet.  When they were both standing again, Eddard threw a particularly large snowball at Jaime, hitting him square in the chest.

Jaime leaned down to scoop up a handful of snow, but before he could reach the ground, Arya interrupted them.

“That’s enough of that,” she said, stepping between Jaime and Eddard, instantly putting an end to their fun.  “The yard is for serious training, not snowball fights.  Brienne and I would like our turn, if you don’t mind.”

Tyrion held his breath as he waited to see what would happen next.  He was silently hoping that Jaime would throw a snowball at Arya, but even the legendary Kingslayer was not that brave.  Jaime stood up straight, wiping the snow from his gloves and turning his attention to Eddard.  “Shall we call it a day then?”

“Yes,” Eddard said eagerly.  “I want to see Aunt Arya and Aunt Brienne fight with real swords.”

Jaime smiled at him gently, then reached out to muss the golden curls atop his head.  “All right then.  Good fight.”

Eddard beamed at Jaime’s praise before he turned and ran off to the edge of the yard.  He climbed up onto an empty wagon and settled in, his eyes focused on Arya as he waited for the fight to begin. 

Brienne stepped forward then, casting a quick glance at Jaime.  The instant their eyes met, something magical passed between them, something Tyrion could feel even from yards away, and suddenly, he remembered what had driven him to drink so much the night before.

Jaime mounted the stairs to the covered bridge and joined Tyrion, standing just to his right.  Together, they stared down into the yard, watching as the fight began.

“You have a real knack with the boy,” Tyrion said.  Although Tyrion and Eddard often played with wooden swords, that’s all it ever was, play.  Tyrion had no skill as a swordsman, and so he could do little more with Eddard than pretend that they were going on adventures together, hunting dragons and fighting White Walkers.  It was nothing like the training Eddard received from his aunts and uncle.  Such training was simply beyond Tyrion’s abilities.

“Well, I should have a knack with him,” Jaime replied.  “He is my nephew after all.”

A bitter laugh escaped Tyrion’s throat, but he refused to say anything in reply.

Jaime rested his forearms on the windowsill and leaned down so that he and Tyrion were closer in height.  “Do you want to tell me why you believe that Eddard isn’t your son?”

“I’d be more inclined to believe that he’s your son than mine,” Tyrion said.  “Just look at him.  It’s like seeing Tommen all over again.”

A heavy silence settled between them, and Tyrion was instantly sorry that he’d mentioned his nephew.  He knew how painful the loss was for Jaime, and he hadn’t meant to dredge up the tragedies of the past.  He’d regretted it the day before when he’d forced Jaime to mention Tommen, and he knew he had made a grave misstep now.  Tyrion wanted to apologize, but he feared that anything he said would just make things worse.

It was a while before Jaime spoke again.  “He does look like Tommen,” he said.  “Which is why I have to wonder why you don’t believe that he’s your son.”

Tyrion turned toward Jaime, and Jaime pulled back just enough to look down at him.

“Look at me,” Tyrion said.  “What do you see?”

“My pain-in-the-ass brother.”

Tyrion couldn’t help but laugh at that.  “Besides that?”

Jaime sighed in exasperation.  “Is this because you’re a dwarf and he’s not?”

“It’s more than that.”

“How so?”

“Sansa Stark is an extraordinarily beautiful woman, and I am the Demon Monkey of Casterly Rock.  She and I were only together one time—”

“All it takes is one time.”

Tyrion ignored Jaime’s comment.  “My point is, after she disappeared from King’s Landing, gods only know where she went and who she was with.”

“She went to the Vale with Littlefinger.  Everyone knows that,” Jaime said plainly.

“Yes, but who knows what they encountered on their travels, who they encountered on their travels.  The boy’s father could be just about anyone.”

Jaime shook his head.  “I’m surprised Sansa doesn’t want your head on a pike,” he said as he turned back toward the yard to watch Brienne and Arya again.

Tyrion turned as well, though he saw little of what was going on below them.  “It isn’t quite that bad.  I don’t think she wants my head on a pike just yet.  I think she’d much prefer that I simply do my duty and keep my distance.”

“And acknowledge Eddard as your trueborn son.”

“Yes, that too.”

Jaime paused again.  “So, what is it?  What is it that’s really keeping you from seeing what’s clearly in front of your face?”

Tyrion’s gaze drifted across the yard to Eddard.  He was still sitting on the empty wagon, thoroughly enraptured by the sight of his aunts fighting a few feet away.  His feet thumped rhythmically against the wooden wagon wheel as if he was impatient to join in the sparring himself.  He was everything that Tyrion could have ever wanted in a son – brave, passionate, clever.  And that, more than anything, was why Tyrion couldn’t let himself believe that the boy was his.  The gods had never been kind to Tyrion before, and he knew this was all just a trap, the setup to some sick joke that the gods were playing for their own amusement.

“Well?” Jaime asked when Tyrion didn’t answer.

“There’s no way that I could ever make a child as perfect and beautiful as Eddard,” Tyrion replied, his eyes never leaving the boy.

“Just because you’re a dwarf doesn’t mean that you couldn’t have fathered a normal child.”

“You don’t know that.  How many dwarves have you met in your life?  And how many of them have had children, normal or otherwise?”

“Grand Maester Tarly says it’s possible.  He found accounts of it in several old scrolls in the Citadel library in Oldtown.”

“Grand Maester Tarly?”  Jaime had said the name as if Tyrion should know who the man was, but other than the fact that he was probably a member of House Tarly, Tyrion knew nothing of him.

“The new Grand Maester of the Red Keep.  He’s one of King Jon’s most trusted advisors.  They were in the Night’s Watch together.”

Tyrion found this bit of information quite interesting, and he couldn’t help but wonder what kind of man this Tarly fellow was.  He had obviously made a significant impression on Jon Snow if he’d been appointed Grand Maester.  But that was a conversation for another day.

“Yes, well,” Tyrion said, “just because there have been dwarves who have fathered normal children before, doesn’t mean that I’m one of them.  Besides, like I said, Sansa is an extremely beautiful woman.  She can have any man she wants, and it’s impossible for me to imagine that she kept herself only unto me after we parted ways.  I don’t blame her, of course.  I would have done the same thing in her position.  I just don’t like the fact that she insists upon lying about it.”

“Have you always been this deeply in denial?”

Tyrion nodded.  “Probably.  About a lot of things, I suppose.”

“That boy over there,” Jaime said, “is four and a half years old.  He had to have been conceived during Sansa’s stay in King’s Landing.  And unless you’re accusing her of sleeping with someone else while the two of you were still sharing a bedchamber, how can you claim that Eddard isn’t your son?”

Tyrion shook his head.  After five years of wandering aimlessly through Essos, time had become a hazy concept for him.  In his memory, there were long periods of time that stretched on infinitely and others that flitted by in the blink of an eye.  Although it was difficult for Tyrion to fully grasp just how much time had passed since he’d fled King’s Landing, he knew that it was entirely possible that someone else had fathered Sansa’s child.

“Perhaps the boy came prematurely,” Tyrion answered.  “Just because a babe is supposed to take nine months to gestate, doesn’t mean they always do.  That child could have been conceived a fortnight, a moonturn, two moonturns, after Sansa left King’s Landing.”

From the corner of his eye, Tyrion saw Jaime shake his head.  “You know, you’re lucky she’s even speaking to you at this point.  She has every right to throw you out if she wanted to.”

“Ah, but she doesn’t want to.  Not because she wants me around, but because she needs help running Winterfell.  The war hit pretty hard up here, and it’s definitely not a job for one person.”

“And that’s it?  That’s the only reason you think she wants you here?”

“And she wants a father for the boy.”

Jaime lifted his left hand, and a second later, Tyrion felt something strike the back of his head.

“Ow!” Tyrion exclaimed, turning dark eyes on Jaime.  “What the hell was that for?”

“For being an idiot.  And maybe to knock some sense into you.  Just be glad it wasn’t my other hand.”

Tyrion lifted his fingers to the back of his head and felt for a lump, certain he would find one there.  His head was already splitting from the night before and getting smacked by Jaime had made the pain considerably worse.

Jaime sighed and pushed himself away from the wall, standing to his full height.  “Do you know what Brienne would do to me if I even hinted at the idea that the child she’s carrying isn’t mine?”

Tyrion’s eyes widened in surprise.  “Are you saying that Lady Brienne is pregnant?”

A soft smile quirked Jaime’s lips, and Tyrion knew the answer before his brother even replied.  “We’re hoping it’s born in the spring.”

Tyrion stared up at Jaime in silent wonder.  After everything that Jaime had been through, after all the loss he had suffered, it was heartening to think that he was making a new family all his own.  “I . . . I don’t know what to say,” Tyrion replied.  “I suppose congratulations are in order.”

“Thank you, Tyrion.  That means a lot to me.”  Jaime turned his gaze toward the yard again.  “We haven’t told anyone yet.  But we won’t be able to keep it a secret forever.”

Tyrion looked down at Brienne.  She was as lean and agile as ever, and it was hard for him to imagine that deep within her womb a tiny little life was taking shape.  Out in the yard, sword in hand, she didn’t look at all like a lady.  She looked like a warrior, and Tyrion found himself wondering what kind of mother she would make.

“Do you really think it’s wise to let her keep sparring?” Tyrion asked, his eyes still fixed on his new sister-in-law.

“Brienne knows what she’s doing.  She’s not too far along yet, so there’s no danger to the baby.  Arya fights fair.  I’m not worried.”

Tyrion tore his eyes away from the yard and looked at Jaime again.  It took Jaime just a bit longer to turn away from Brienne and look at Tyrion.

“Why did you make her travel with you all the way to Winterfell just to see me?” Tyrion asked.  “Surely, in her condition, she would have been better off if she’d stayed at Casterly Rock.”

“She’s fine,” Jaime said.  “In fact, she insisted upon joining me.  Neither one of us wanted to be apart for even a single night, much less weeks or months on end.  I couldn’t leave her behind.”

Tyrion understood why, of course.  Jaime didn’t even have to say it.  The love he felt for his wife was clearly reflected in his eyes, so deep and abiding that it made Tyrion’s soul ache with envy.  “She’s a very lucky woman,” Tyrion said, struggling to keep the emotion from his voice.

“No, I am a very lucky man.  I don’t deserve her, and I know it.  Not after everything I’ve done.  But for some inexplicable reason, she loves me, and I could never walk away from that.  I live to make Brienne happy.  I love her so much that, sometimes, I can’t even put it into words.  She’s here,” Jaime said, clutching his heart, “all the time, making me who I am, making me whole.  And I would never do anything to jeopardize that.  Never.”

Jaime’s words sounded like a warning, but Tyrion hadn’t asked for advice.  “I’m happy for you, Jaime.  For both of you.  I know you don’t think you deserve Brienne’s love, but you’re wrong.  You’ve come a long way since you lived to serve Cersei, and you’ve changed more than any of us.”

Jaime shook his head.  “You think you know all my sins, brother, but you don’t.  I—”

Tyrion held up a hand, cutting him off.  “I don’t want to know.”

“But Bran Stark—”

“Please, let’s just leave the past in the past.  Whatever you’ve done, the woman you love has forgiven you for it, and I forgive you as well.  We need never speak of it again.”  Tyrion turned away, desperate to put an end to the conversation.

“All right, if that’s how you feel.”

“It is.”

“In that case, I have one piece of brotherly advice for you, and you’re going to stand here and listen to it whether you like it or not.”

Tyrion was sure he knew what was coming, and he was in no mood for it.  “If it has anything to do with Sansa Stark, you can save yourself the trouble.”

“I’m not the only one who’s done terrible things in the past.  You . . . you murdered our father.”

“Yes, I know.  I was there.”

“You murdered your lover.”

“Again,” Tyrion said, “you’re not telling me anything that I don’t already know.”

“And I’m sure you’ve done many other terrible things that I know nothing about.”

“Well, it’s nice to know that you think so highly of me.”

“What I’m trying to say is, we’ve both done unspeakable things in the past, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t deserve to be loved.  It doesn’t mean that we don’t deserve to be happy.  You deserve to be happy, Tyrion, more than most people I know.  Life has been cruel to you from the moment you took your very first breath.  Now, you have happiness staring you in the face, and you refuse to reach out for it because you think you don’t deserve it, because you think you’re some kind of monster who is fated to walk the earth tortured and alone.”

“That’s not it,” Tyrion replied, but then quickly reconsidered.  “Well, yes, it is.  But no, it isn’t.  It’s not just that.  Not really.”  His gaze settled on Eddard again, the beautiful little boy with the golden hair and the sparkling blue eyes.  He was everything Tyrion had ever wanted and the one thing he simply couldn’t let himself have.  “Happiness is an illusion,” Tyrion said, “a trap, the precursor to the cruelest of jokes the gods choose to play on us mere mortals.  I won’t let myself be fooled, not again.  Not for you or for anyone else.”

Tyrion stepped away from the window and turned toward the Great Hall.  He was done talking for one morning.  He didn’t want to hear another word out of Jaime about how he should live his life.  Yes, they had both sinned, there was no doubt about that, but they weren’t on even footing.  Jaime had always been handsome and brave, heroic and strong.  The ground itself had cowered at his feet since the day he’d been born.  The world had been created for men like Jaime Lannister.  It was kind to them, and it forgave their sins far more readily than it forgave the sins of misshapen dwarves.  Tyrion knew Jaime’s intentions were good, but he’d had enough of his brother’s lecturing for one day.

Before Jaime could stop him, Tyrion walked away.  Despite the pounding in his head, he was off to find himself a much-needed flagon of wine.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Sixteen

Sansa didn’t have a chance to be alone with Brienne until late that afternoon.  Brienne and Arya had spent the morning sparring in the yard and hadn’t come inside until right before luncheon.  They’d had just enough time to clean themselves up before coming to the table.  Eddard and Jaime had joined them as well, but Tyrion had been conspicuously absent, a fact that still rankled Sansa as she and Brienne sat alone in her sitting room.

Although Brienne had gone to the yard that morning in fighting leathers, she was now dressed in a velvety gown of deepest green.  The darkness of the fabric warmed her pale complexion, and she looked undeniably pretty in the late afternoon light.  There was a lovely glow about her skin, and Sansa assumed it was the result of hours of vigorous exercise in the cold, northern air.

As they sat in the matching chairs by the hearth, Sansa tended her embroidery and Brienne quietly sipped a cup of tea.  Sansa had tried to teach Brienne the intricacies of needlework once, but she’d had no more success with Brienne than Septa Mordane had had with Arya.  Perhaps there was something about wielding a sword that precluded a woman from being able to wield a sewing needle.  One was so heavy and cumbersome and the other fine and delicate.  They were both pointy at one end, but that was where the similarities ended.

“Eddard is very happy to see Jaime,” Sansa said, her head bent over the hoop in her hands.  “I hope he hasn’t been too much trouble.”

“Oh, not at all.  Jaime loves his nephew, and he enjoys every moment of their time together.  You should have seen them in the yard this morning.  I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen Jaime so happy.”

Sansa glanced up, offering Brienne a sly smile.  “He’s always happy when he’s around you.”

A slight blush crept into Brienne’s cheeks.  “Yes, well, I am happy when he’s around me too.”

Sansa’s smile broadened, and she went back to her work.  She was truly happy for Jaime and Brienne, especially for Brienne.  Brienne of Tarth had been her mother’s sworn sword, and when Sansa had needed protection from the world, and from Littlefinger, Brienne had been right by her side.  Sansa had never met a truer, more loyal soul than the Maid of Tarth, and she was glad that Brienne had finally found happiness.  She deserved it more than anyone else Sansa knew.

“I see though that you and Tyrion do not feel the same way,” Brienne said, breaking through Sansa’s thoughts.

Sansa’s fingers stilled on her needle, and it took her a moment to compose herself.  She’d known they couldn’t avoid the subject forever.  In fact, Tyrion was the reason Sansa had asked Brienne to tea in the first place.  She wanted to talk to someone about him, and she knew she’d find a much more sympathetic ear in Brienne than she would in Arya.

Sansa rested her needlework on her lap and looked up at Brienne.  “No, I can’t say that we do.”

“But you’ve waited so long for him to return to you.  Even when Jaime and I left for Casterly Rock after the war, I know you were still hoping he would come home.  And not just because you wanted him to rule Winterfell by your side.”

The heat rose in Sansa’s cheeks, and she fought to hold Brienne’s gaze.  Brienne knew Sansa’s heart better than she knew it herself.  This wasn’t the first time Sansa had confided in Brienne about Tyrion, though she’d never made her feelings explicitly known.  “Unfortunately, the fantasy I created in my mind is nothing like reality.  Tyrion refuses to believe that Eddard is his son, and there is nothing I can do to convince him otherwise.”

Brienne’s eyes narrowed in confusion.  “Has he given you a reason why he refuses to believe it?”

“Too many.  He doesn’t believe anything I say on the matter.  He simply doesn’t trust me, and if he refuses to trust me, I have no idea how to trust him.”

Brienne was thoughtful for a moment, her eyes looking through Sansa as she worked on the problem.  “But surely he can see that Eddard is a Lannister.  It’s as clear as day to anyone who looks at him.”

“Even if he does, he refuses to admit it.  Perhaps he thinks that Eddard is a Lannister, just not his son.”

“Does he think Jaime is the father?” Brienne asked, clearly horrified.

Sansa laughed.  “I don’t know what he thinks.  And honestly, at this point, I don’t want to know.”  She turned back to her needlework, the pain suddenly too much for her to bear.  She sewed steady, even stitches, imagining each time she pierced the fabric that she was piercing Tyrion’s flesh instead.

“And yet, you still love him.”

The needle slipped in Sansa’s hand, and she pricked the tip of her finger.  She stared down in mute shock as the blood began to pool a dark crimson. 

Sansa had never admitted that she loved Tyrion.  Not to Brienne, not even to herself.  She felt an affection for him, but that was all she was willing to admit.  He was her husband, after all, and back in King’s Landing, he had protected her as valiantly as any knight.  In the quiet darkness of their bedchamber, he had made her a woman, loving her with a tenderness that made her heart sing even now.  She had spent five long years without him, building him up in her memory until he had become more fantasy than reality.  She loved the fantasy, she admitted, but she did not love Tyrion Lannister.

It took a moment for Sansa to recover from her shock.  When she did, she raised her finger to her lips and sucked the blood dry.  She didn’t know how to respond to Brienne.  She didn’t know what to say. 

Sansa finally looked up.  There was deep concern etched on Brienne’s brow, and Sansa hated the fact that Brienne was so worried for her.  Brienne was no longer sworn to protect Sansa, and yet, she seemed gravely concerned for her welfare.

“I don’t love him,” Sansa said, her voice hollow.  “I never did.”

“Are you certain?  It’s all right if you do, you know?  No one’s going to judge you.  He is your husband after all.”

“I don’t even know him anymore.  I thought I did, but he’s returned a changed man.  And whatever I may have felt for him once has long since disappeared.  It’s slowly slipped away, day by day, since his return.  In another moonturn, another year, I doubt I’ll even be able to stand the sight of him.”

“I’m sorry, Sansa.  I know this isn’t what you’d hoped for.”

Sansa was struck by the sudden urge to cry, but she resisted it admirably.  “I was foolish to hope for anything, really.  I barely knew Tyrion when I escaped King’s Landing.  Anything I may have felt for him was just a fantasy of my own making.  Tyrion Lannister – the real Tyrion Lannister – is not the man I thought he was.  And I was foolish not to realize it sooner.”

“But are you sure?”

“Of what?  That he’s a lying, whoring, drunken misanthrope who would rather hate me and feel sorry for himself than even attempt to be happy?  Yes, I am very sure of that.”

Brienne nodded, Sansa’s tirade putting an end to whatever argument she had been intending to make. 

“I’m sorry, Brienne,” Sansa said, truly contrite.  “I didn’t mean to snap.  I know you’re just trying to help.”

“I wish there was something I could do to help.  It pains me to see you suffering so.  Jaime and I came here hoping to see you and Tyrion happily enjoying domestic life.  I don’t think either one of us expected anything like this.”

“Neither did I.”

Brienne sighed, looking away for a moment, gazing into the roaring fire beside them as if she could somehow find answers there.  When she finally looked at Sansa again, she said, “Maybe Jaime can talk some sense into him.  He is his older brother after all.  And a Lannister.  Maybe Jaime can make him listen to reason.”

“I doubt it.  Tyrion is impossibly stubborn, as stubborn as Eddard is when he refuses to spend the night in his own bed or to eat the green, leafy vegetables on his dinner plate.  And yet, Tyrion refuses to see the resemblance.”

Brienne chuckled softly, relieving some of the tension in the room.  “Well, if you put it like that, I can’t imagine why he hasn’t already claimed the boy as his own.”

A smile pulled at Sansa’s lips, but she fought it back.  “It’s frightening just how alike they are.  Eddard is every bit as stubborn as Tyrion.  And as smart, and as clever.  When they sit together and read every night after the evening meal, it’s as if Tyrion is telling stories to his own shadow.  They are so similar sometimes, in their speech and in their manner, that it takes my breath away.  And then, I feel the pain of Tyrion’s rejection of us both so acutely that my heart aches with the tragedy of it all.”

“But he hasn’t really rejected you, has he?” Brienne reasoned.  “He’s still here.  And he doesn’t have to read to Eddard.  He could completely ignore him if he liked, and no one could say a word about it.”

Yes, that was true.  Sansa wasn’t entirely sure why Tyrion treated Eddard the way he did.  Even though Tyrion didn’t believe that Eddard was his son, he had never once given the boy the slightest indication that he had any doubts about being his father.  Sansa was thankful for that at least.  It was the one saving grace in an otherwise disastrous situation.

“I am willing to admit,” Sansa replied, “that as far as his interactions with Eddard are concerned, Tyrion’s behavior has been beyond reproach.  But as for the rest of it, I fear he only remains at Winterfell because Arya has threatened him with bodily harm if he even thinks about leaving.”

“You don’t really believe that, do you?”

Sansa unconsciously straightened her spine.  “I most certainly do.  When he first arrived, he only intended to stay the night.  We let everyone believe that he was just a messenger because we feared what would happen if he disappeared the very next day.  It took a great deal of persuading just to convince him to let me send a raven to Jon telling him that he was alive.  If a storm hadn’t rolled in that night, he would have left the very next morning.”

“Have you heard back from Jon?” Brienne asked in an even, thoughtful tone. 

“Yes.  He commanded me to spy on Tyrion and report back to him.  So far, I’ve had nothing to report but a job well done.”

“Really?”  Brienne arched a brow in question.

“Tyrion has proven to be a fair and just Lord of Winterfell.  And while I wouldn’t say that the people adore him, he has managed to earn their grudging respect.  I don’t know what I’d do without him, quite frankly.  The only place we work well together is in the Great Hall.  But once our duties for the day are done, we barely speak.”

Brienne was quiet for a moment, her cheeks suddenly tinging a darker shade of pink.  “May I ask you a very personal question?” 

Sansa wasn’t sure she wanted to know what was coming, but if she couldn’t trust Brienne, she couldn’t trust anyone.  “What is it?”

“Have you and Lord Tyrion shared a bed since he returned to Winterfell?”

Sansa blushed so fiercely that she was certain her cheeks were as red as her hair.  Her first instinct was to look away, to hide her embarrassment.  But she was a married woman, and so was Brienne, and there was no shame in talking about such things in the privacy of her own sitting room. 

“No, we have not,” Sansa replied, surprised that she was able to keep her voice from trembling.

“And do you want to?”

Sansa stared at Brienne, the question hanging heavily in the air between them.  Sansa didn’t want to discuss her own desires with anyone.  She’d been as celibate as a septa since the night Eddard had been conceived, and she always did her best to pretend that she was perfectly content to be so.  But she knew the truth was written on her face, as clearly as if she had spoken the words, so what was the point in trying to deny it?  “I . . . I wouldn’t be averse to performing my wifely duties if Lord Tyrion insisted.”

“And do you think he will insist?”

“No.”  Sansa didn’t even have to think about her answer.  Despite his claim that he hadn’t bedded another woman since they’d been wed, she was certain that Tyrion had found other ways to satisfy his lust.  She hadn’t received a single report that he’d snuck off to the winter town to find himself some intimate company, but that didn’t mean that he hadn’t.  All it meant was that he hadn’t gotten caught.  “My husband does not need me to fulfill his carnal desires.  I’m sure he has other women for that.”

“Sansa.”  Brienne’s tone was surprisingly reproachful.  “Don’t you think you’re being a bit unfair to Lord Tyrion?”

“In what way?  He’s always had a reputation for consorting with whores.  I am not naïve enough to think that Tyrion remained faithful to me for five long years.  I may once have been a very stupid little girl, but I’m not a little girl anymore.”

“I don’t know what Lord Tyrion did while he was across the Narrow Sea, but while he’s been here at Winterfell, are you certain that he’s been unfaithful to you?”

“There is little in this world that I am more certain of.”  Sansa looked away, finally taking up her needlework again and attacking it with renewed vigor. 

From the periphery of her vision, Sansa saw Brienne lift her teacup, and for a while, they just sat there in silence.

Sansa’s cheeks were flaming red, and it wasn’t from the heat of the fire.  She was angry, angrier than she had been in a long time.  She had wanted so much from Tyrion, thought so much of Tyrion.  Although she had never truly expected him to come home, fall into her arms, and confess his undying love, she had thought that they’d be able to make each other happy, or at least, content.  She had not expected the strife, mistrust, and animosity that had existed between them since the day he had returned, and it wounded her to her very soul.

Sansa struggled for some time to get her temper under control, but it wasn’t until she stopped stabbing her needlework that Brienne spoke again.

“I was glad when you asked me to join you for tea this afternoon,” Brienne said softly.  “There’s something I wanted to tell you about me and Jaime.”

Sansa sighed heavily, willing away the last of her anger.  She wanted nothing more than to be a good friend to Brienne, but she couldn’t do that if she was still furious about Tyrion.  Sansa looked up slowly, happy to see a warm, kind look waiting for her in Brienne’s eyes.

Brienne offered Sansa a sheepish smile.  “We’re going to have a baby.”

Sansa was stunned by the news, and it took her a moment to react.  The pain and the anger of a moment before were suddenly forgotten, and she smiled brightly at Brienne.  “That’s wonderful!”

Brienne’s hand instinctively went to her belly.  “We just found out before we left Casterly Rock.”  She laughed.  “Jaime offered to cancel the trip, to wait for Tyrion to come to us, but I wouldn’t allow it.  He was worried about me traveling in my condition, but I’m not even showing yet, and I’m a lot heartier than that.”

Sansa couldn’t chase the smile from her face.  “I’m glad you did come.  No wonder you’re glowing.  You’re going to have a baby.”

“Jaime Lannister’s baby.  Can you believe it?”

Sansa laughed.  “Oh, I can.  I see the way he looks at you.  Truth be told, I’m surprised this didn’t happen sooner.”

“It wasn’t for lack of trying, I can assure you.”

Sansa’s blush deepened, but she didn’t look away.  “I am truly happy for you, Brienne.  After everything you’ve both been through, you deserve this.  You deserve to be happy.”

“You deserve to be happy too,” Brienne said levelly.

Sansa turned her attention back to her needlework, unable to stand Brienne’s gaze any longer.  “I am as happy as I could ever expect to be,” Sansa said.  “I have Eddard.  I have Winterfell.  What more could I want?”

“We both know what more you could want.”

Sansa’s whole body flushed cold, and suddenly, she didn’t want to talk about Tyrion anymore.  It hurt too much.  “I’m too practical to go on wanting things that I can never have,” Sansa said, keeping her voice even with the rhythm of her sewing.  “I’ve already learned that lesson more than once.  I’m done hoping and praying for things beyond my reach.  Now, all I want is for Eddard to be healthy and happy.  I have no other desires beyond that.”

“Somehow, I doubt that,” Brienne replied.

Sansa held her breath, trying to keep her pulse from racing.  She loved Brienne dearly, but she couldn’t stop herself from envying her.  Brienne had the life that Sansa had always dreamed of – a loving husband, a happy home, a baby on the way.  Sansa would never have another child, or her husband’s love, and it was all too much for her to bear. 

“You can doubt all you want,” Sansa said, “but it’s true.  I can’t allow myself to want more than I have.  My heart simply couldn’t survive the disappointment.”

From the corner of her eye, Sansa saw Brienne put her teacup down on the table beside her.  She looked up from her sewing, thinking that Brienne was about to leave, but she wasn’t.  She was just sitting there, watching Sansa with a heartbreaking sadness in her eyes, and Sansa knew then that Brienne pitied her, and it made her feel a great deal worse.

“My good news has wounded you deeply, hasn’t it?” Brienne said.

Sansa wanted to deny it, but she couldn’t.  She was sure Brienne could already see the answer in her eyes.  “It isn’t you.  I don’t begrudge you your happiness.  Truly,” Sansa said, attempting a smile.  “But you have the life I’ve always wanted.  You have a husband who loves you, a husband you adore, and you’re about to bear his child.  I’m certain he doesn’t have any doubt that it is, in fact, his child, does he?”

“No, of course not.”

“I envy you all of that.  I don’t want to – gods know I don’t want to – but I can’t help myself.  It simply hurts too much.”

“You know, it isn’t too late for you and Tyrion.”

“Yes, it is.  As long as we continue to mistrust each other, there can be nothing more between us.”

“I’m not entirely sure that’s true.”

“I can’t love a man I can’t trust, and Tyrion will never care for me, so what could there possibly be between us?”

“Winterfell only has one heir.  And while that’s better than it could be, the truth is, most noble families produce a great many heirs, just to make sure that their name carries on.”

“What does that have to do with me and Tyrion?”

“Your mother and father had five children, three of whom were male.  And yet, after all was said and done, who inherited Winterfell?  You.  Three sons and not one of them was able to take over after the war.  Robb and Rickon are gone.  Bran is in no state to rule.  You have one son, Sansa.  One.  Your parents had three, and even that wasn’t enough.  Maybe you and Lord Tyrion need to concentrate your efforts on producing another heir while you still have the chance.”

Sansa’s heart beat a frantic rhythm, and she could feel the blood rushing through her veins, heating her skin.  She couldn’t believe what Brienne was suggesting.  It was simply unthinkable.  “I . . . I could never . . . we could never . . .”

“Why not?  You’ve done it before, and you said yourself, you wouldn’t mind terribly if Tyrion asked you to fulfill that particular marital duty again.”

“Yes, but . . . I could never ask him to do such a thing.”

“Even though it makes perfect, practical sense?”

It did make perfect, practical sense.  Tyrion and Sansa were both heirs to great houses.  They had one child.  Just one.  And if anything happened to that child, gods forbid, their legacy would die with him.  Eventually, Winterfell would fall to someone outside the Stark family, and Sansa would fail every last one of her ancestors, but especially her mother and father.  “I . . . I don’t think he wants to.”

“You won’t know until you ask.”

The heat rose even higher in Sansa’s cheeks.  “I can’t imagine asking him such a thing.”

“Well, I think you should.  He is the Lord of Winterfell, after all, and he does have a duty to protect the future of the north.  The best way to do that is to produce another heir.  I don’t think it would be an unreasonable request on your part, if you are so inclined,” Brienne said, a knowing look in her eyes.

Sansa almost laughed.  She could sit there all day denying the truth, but Brienne knew what she wanted.  Brienne knew that Sansa wanted Tyrion in her bed, knew that she wanted to be close to him again.  And Brienne, true friend that she was, was giving Sansa a way to get exactly what she wanted without having to sacrifice her pride.  Sansa was grateful for the advice, but she couldn’t quite say the words.  “I . . . I will consider it.”

“Good,” Brienne replied with a soft smile, obviously pleased with Sansa’s answer.  “And there’s no rush.  I don’t think Lord Tyrion is going anywhere anytime soon.”

“I sincerely doubt that.  I’m starting to suspect that Tyrion will leave when you and Jaime depart for Casterly Rock.  It’s been his intention to return there from the start, and when you and Jaime go, it will give him the perfect excuse to leave.”

Brienne’s smile faded.  “I’m so sorry, Sansa.”

Sansa shook her head.  “I suppose, since you’re with child, you’ll have to leave here sooner rather than later, won’t you?”

“Unfortunately, yes.  Jaime had hoped to stay here for as long as you would have us, but under the circumstances, it would probably be best if we stayed no more than a moonturn, while I can still travel without danger to the child.”

A moonturn.  That wasn’t long at all, really, not after it had taken them just as long to travel to Winterfell from Casterly Rock.  Sansa was disappointed, but she understood.  Jaime and Brienne had only come north so that Jaime and Tyrion could be reunited.  Now that the brothers had seen each other again, Jaime and Brienne had more pressing matters to attend to back home, and Sansa knew that Tyrion would leave right along with them.  Although he hadn’t mentioned leaving in more than a fortnight, she was certain he wouldn’t pass up such an attractive opportunity to go.  He could travel in good company, his beloved brother by his side, all the way back to his childhood home.  After all, what possible reason could he have to stay?  Tyrion had already done his duty by Winterfell.  He had sat in the Great Hall nearly every day since his arrival, offering his counsel and advice.  But the snows were beginning to thaw, and life would soon get easier for the northern folk.  There was no imperative to make Tyrion stay.  Sansa was certain that he would be gone before another month passed, and she would never see him again.

“We will miss you,” Brienne said.  “Very much.  Maybe, when the baby is born, you and Eddard can travel to Casterly Rock to visit us.  I know Jaime would like that, and I have no doubt that Eddard would too.”

“I doubt Tyrion would approve.  Once he is rid of us, I am certain he would prefer to stay rid of us.”

“Oh, Sansa.”

“It’s all right,” Sansa said, holding back her tears with a bittersweet smile, “it’s fine.”

“It’s not fine.”

“Well, it has to be.  Eddard and I spent years living without Tyrion, and we can do so again.”

“I wish you didn’t have to.”

“I wish we didn’t have to either.  But I learned a long time ago that life isn’t ever truly fair and we must suffer the whims of the gods as best we can.”

“You could ask him to stay, you know?”

“No, I couldn’t.  I’m sure he’s made up his mind, and nothing I can do or say will sway him.”

“Then ask him to give you a child before he goes.  It’s the least he can do if he intends to abandon you again.”

Sansa didn’t think she had the courage to ask Tyrion to visit her bed again, but Brienne had a valid point.  Tyrion was about to abandon his family and all of his duties as the Lord of Winterfell.  The least he could do was try to produce an heir before leaving.  “We’ll see,” Sansa said, unable to commit herself to anything more. 

Sansa turned back to her needlework, her hands suddenly trembling.  Since the morning after his arrival, she’d been certain that she and Tyrion would never lie together again.  But now, the possibility was suddenly before her, and it made every nerve in her body hum with anticipation.  She knew Tyrion didn’t want her, knew he had absolutely no use for her, and yet, she wanted him.  And maybe, just maybe, she would have him again, even if it was just for one night. 

Sansa’s heart fluttered against her ribs, and she tried her best to remain calm.  Her hopes were starting to soar, and she knew she needed to keep them fettered to the ground, lest she foolishly risk her heart again.

Chapter Text

Chapter Seventeen

That night at dinner, Tyrion sat quietly at his end of the table, observing everything that went on around him.  He wasn’t in a jovial mood, not after Jaime had lectured him on the bridge that morning.  Of course, he spoke when spoken to, as not to seem too unsociable, but for the most part, he just ate his food, drank his wine, and sat there feeling sorry for himself.

The meal was just as lively as it had been the night before, Sansa and Brienne making up for Tyrion’s lack of involvement.  A few times, Sansa actually laughed at Jaime’s jokes, and Tyrion couldn’t help but feel a pang of jealousy.  Watching them all together – Sansa, Arya, Jaime, Brienne . . . Eddard – Tyrion was struck by what a happy little family they made.  It instantly reminded him of the fact that, while he had been out aimlessly roaming the world, trying to run from his problems, they had all been here at Winterfell together, braving the winter and fighting White Walkers.  It had forged a connection between them that Tyrion didn’t think he would ever be a part of, and in that moment, he was certain that they would all be better off without him.

Halfway through the meal, Eddard began regaling everyone with a story about the last time he and Arya had gone down to explore the crypts, and Jaime took the opportunity to lean in close to Tyrion for a private word.  “You’re awfully quiet tonight.  Still being obstinate and feeling sorry for yourself?”

“Something like that.” 

Tyrion took a sip of wine, and Jaime sat back.  There was nothing his brother could do or say to lure him out of himself.  He was in no mood for revelry.  All he wanted was to finish his dinner and retire to his chamber without incident.

Jaime turned back toward the table and said something that made Sansa laugh.  The sound was as bright and cheerful as a birdsong, and Tyrion wished he had been the one to bring her such joy.  But then, there was far too much tension between them for that. 

Tyrion lowered his head toward his plate and concentrated on his meal, determined to survive the evening as best he could.  Ordinarily, he couldn’t get through a single meal without Eddard talking to him incessantly, but since Jaime’s arrival, Eddard’s attention had been directed elsewhere, and Tyrion was surprised to find just how much he missed it.

Just as it had the night before, the meal lasted a bit longer than usual, and when everyone had emptied their plates, Sansa suggested that they all retire to her sitting room so that they could continue enjoying each other’s company for a while longer.  Tyrion tried to protest, but neither Jaime nor Eddard would allow him to decline the invitation.  And so, before Tyrion quite knew what was happening, he found himself in Sansa’s sitting room, seated in a large chair by the hearth, while everyone else gathered around the matching sofas in the center of the room.  There was a book on the table beside the chair, and he picked it up, pretending to read as he quietly observed what was going on around him.

Jaime continued to entertain everyone with his undeniable charm, his devoted wife by his side.  Sansa sat across from them, her needlework in her lap, while Eddard and Arya sat on the floor playing war with Eddard’s wooden soldiers, joining in the conversation whenever it suited them.  And again, Tyrion was struck by how cozy and domestic it all seemed.  They were the perfect picture of a happy family spending a cold winter evening together, and suddenly, Tyrion felt more like an outsider than ever.

An hour passed, then two.  Finally, it grew so late that Eddard began to show signs of fatigue.

“I think it’s time for bed,” Sansa said, putting down her needlework, obviously intending to stand.

But Eddard was in her lap before she could rise.  “Please, let me stay, Mother.  I want to hear more of Uncle Jaime’s stories.”

Sansa looked down at Eddard, and Tyrion could see her warring with herself.  She always tried her best to be a strict disciplinarian, but she often failed in that regard.  Eddard was Sansa’s one weakness.  She hated to see the boy suffer even in little ways, and so, more often than not, she succumbed to his pleading.

“If you don’t go to sleep now, you won’t wake up until noon, and then you’ll miss your morning training.”

“Please,” Eddard begged with the tone of a child who knew just how to get his own way.

Tyrion knew Sansa was going to give in even before she spoke.

“All right,” she said, “but just a little while longer.”

“Thank you!”  Eddard wrapped his arms around his mother’s neck and hugged her tightly.  Then, he snuggled down into her lap, resting his head against her shoulder so that he could turn and watch his uncle Jaime.  Tyrion knew it wouldn’t be long until Eddard was fast asleep.  He’d simply had too much excitement for one day.

While everyone else continued to talk, Tyrion continued to observe.  Sansa had one arm wrapped around Eddard, her hand resting gently against the back of his head.  As she chatted with Jaime and Brienne, she idly stroked Eddard’s hair, running her fingers through the curls at the base of his neck. 

Tyrion sighed longingly, the sound so soft that it didn’t carry across the room.  His eyes fixed on Sansa’s fingers and their gentle movement, his heart wishing for something he knew he could never have.  Tyrion wondered what it must feel like to be so close to Sansa Stark.  Although he had known her touch once – just once – the memory was so old and faded that he could scarcely call it a memory anymore.  It was more like a dream, a fantasy, something that had happened to someone else a lifetime ago.  Tyrion longed to feel Sansa’s arms around him again, her fingers in his hair.  It wasn’t a sexual longing.  It was something more, something deep and visceral and as old as time itself.  Tyrion wanted to be loved, to be cared for, to be a part of something bigger than himself.  He wanted Sansa to love him, but he could not – he would not – ever ask her for her love.

Tyrion tore his eyes away from his wife and stared down at the flames flickering in the hearth.  He wanted to be anywhere else in the world at that moment, but there were too many people between him and the door for him to make his escape.  So Tyrion just sat there, listening to their stories, their jokes, their laughter, pretending not to notice how truly empty he felt.

Although the conversation around him was loud enough for Tyrion to hear every last word, it barely registered through the foggy haze that had settled over his brain.  It wasn’t until Jaime said, “It looks like he’s asleep,” that Tyrion was finally roused from his stupor.  At first, he thought that Jaime was talking about him, but no, a quick glance at the center of the room and Tyrion saw that it was Eddard who had fallen fast asleep.

“I should take him to bed,” Sansa said.

“No, let me.”  Jaime got up from the couch and crossed the floor.  He reached down to take Eddard from Sansa’s arms.

“Are you sure you don’t mind?”

“No, not at all,” he replied as he gently hefted the boy upward.  “I need the practice, after all.”  Jaime glanced at Brienne, and a soft look passed between them.  The kind of look that tore at Tyrion’s soul.

“I’ll come with you,” Brienne said, standing up and moving to his side.  “You’re not the only one who needs some practice putting a child to bed.”

Standing there together like that, Eddard fast asleep in Jaime’s arms, Brienne by his side, they looked like the perfect little family.  Anyone seeing them at that moment would have had no trouble believing that Jaime was Eddard’s father and that Brienne was his mother.  They looked so blissfully happy together, and it made Tyrion feel just a little bit ill.

“Good night, Sansa,” Jaime said.  He glanced about the room.  “Arya.  Tyrion.”

Arya hopped up from her spot on the floor.  “I think I’ll go too.  I don’t have the luxury of sleeping till noon like Eddard.  Good night, Sansa.”  Arya didn’t even bother to acknowledge Tyrion as she followed Jaime and Brienne out into the hallway, closing the door behind her.

An uneasy quiet fell over the sitting room.  Tyrion expected Sansa to make her own excuses and disappear just as quickly as everyone else had, but she didn’t.  Instead, she picked up her needlework again and went back to her sewing.

Tyrion turned back to his book, trying to make sense of the letters on the page, but the words all seemed to bleed together.  He was acutely aware of Sansa sitting on the other side of the room, of the sound of her breathing and the rhythmic movement of her needle against the fabric.  He wanted to talk to her.  He wanted to know what was going on in her mind at that moment.  Why hadn’t she run from him when she’d more than had the chance?

Tyrion knew that if he stayed where he was, he’d never get any answers, so he climbed down from his chair and reseated himself on the couch beside his wife, leaving enough space for two people between them.

“You’re very good at that, you know?” he said, trying his best to make idle conversation even though his mind was fraught with anxiety.

“I had a very good teacher,” Sansa replied, not missing a stitch.

“Septa Mordane, correct?”

“Yes.”  The word was barely a whisper, and Tyrion wondered if she was picturing her Septa’s head on a pike as she said it.

“She would have been very proud of you.”

“Why?” Sansa asked, still not bothering to raise her head.  “Because I can stitch a sampler?”

“No, because you’ve grown into a fine young woman, regal and dignified, just like your mother.”

Sansa’s fingers finally stilled.  They never talked about her parents.  Never.  Her mother’s murder had been one of the things that had driven them apart all those years ago back in King’s Landing.  It was a painful subject for both of them, and Tyrion usually did his best to avoid it at all costs.  But Sansa did remind him of her mother, in the best possible way, and he felt she had a right to know it.

After a moment, Sansa began to move her needle again.  “My mother was a much better Lady of Winterfell than I will ever be.  She made a warm and loving home for her children, and even though she had a kind heart, she was never weak like me.”

Tyrion was startled to hear Sansa say such a thing.  She was one of the strongest people he had ever known, and he had no idea how she could be so wrong about herself.  “You’re not weak, Sansa Stark.”

“Aren’t I?  Then why do I still cling to my dreams like a petulant child?  Why can’t I let go of the past, give up hoping for what I know I can never have?  I am the Lady of Winterfell.  The time for daydreaming is over, and yet, my heart rules me more than my head, and I simply can’t steel myself against it.”

“And why would you want to?”

“Because my heart is weak, and it makes me weak.  And that is not what Winterfell needs.  It’s not what Eddard needs.  It’s not what you need.”

Tyrion had the urge to move closer to her, to take her hand and offer her comfort, but he resisted.  He didn’t know why she was telling him any of this.  Perhaps she was still self-conscious about what she had confessed to him the night before.  Whatever her reasons were for confiding in him now didn’t matter.  He just wanted to help her in any way he could.  “You need not worry about me,” Tyrion said.  “I don’t want anything from you, and I admire you exactly as you are.”

Sansa finally lifted her head and met his eyes.  “Do you?  Do you really?  Even though you think I’m a faithless liar?”

“I don’t think that.”

“Yes, you do.  And you’re a liar if you can’t admit it.”

Tyrion rubbed the back of his neck in agitation, fighting to hold her gaze.  He didn’t want to flee, though every nerve in his body was telling him that’s exactly what he should do.  He didn’t want to fight with Sansa again.  He’d been trying to pay her a compliment, and he’d made a complete mess of it. 

Tyrion dropped his hand to his lap.  “I think you are a strong and capable woman,” he said, ignoring the issue altogether.  “I think you are a wonderful Lady of Winterfell and an absolutely amazing mother.  There is so much to admire about you that, sometimes, I’m simply in awe of you, and I’m sorry that it’s taken me so long to say it.”

“Do you really think those things?” Sansa asked, her tone softening a bit. 

“Yes, I do, every damned day.  I’ve just never said it before, and I’m sorry for that.”

Sansa was quiet for a moment, and Tyrion had no idea how she was going to reply.  He was surprised when all she said was, “Thank you.”

Tyrion shook his head.  “Don’t thank me for telling you the truth.  You are the most extraordinary woman I have ever met.  You survived King’s Landing, you survived the Vale, and you survived the Great War all on your own.  A weak woman would have crumbled at the first sign of adversity, but you persevered.  And now, here you are, running Winterfell with the same grace and wisdom as your dearly departed mother.  I know she would be very proud of you.  I am very proud of you.  And you should be proud of yourself.”

“It’s not that easy,” Sansa said, “not with all my failings.”

“We all have failings, some of us more than others.  You don’t have anything to be ashamed about or sorry for.  You’ve done what you had to do to survive, and whatever that may have been, it got you where you are now, and in the end, that’s all that matters.”

Sansa stared at Tyrion for a moment, and then, she nodded.  Without a word, she turned back to her needlework again, and Tyrion exhaled a sigh of relief.  Soon, a comfortable silence settled between them as Sansa continued her sewing and Tyrion pretended to read.

After some time, Sansa’s voice finally broke the quiet.  “Jaime and Brienne intend to leave for Casterly Rock in a moonturn.  Do you intend to join them?”

Tyrion eyed Sansa over the edge of his book, knowing that this was a conversation he did not wish to have.  He had been mulling over the possibility of leaving Winterfell ever since Jaime had told him the news that morning, but he had yet to make a decision.  “I am considering it,” Tyrion admitted.

“I’m surprised you’re even considering it,” Sansa replied, her eyes still focused on her work.  “I thought you would have made your decision already.”

“You mean, you thought I’d already begun making plans to leave.”  Tyrion closed the book so that he could give Sansa his full attention.

“Yes.”

“Well, I haven’t.  I’m sorry to disappoint you.”

“When do you think you’ll know for certain?”

“Are you so eager to see me leave?”

Sansa paused, and Tyrion thought she might not answer him, but finally, she said, “I just want to know how much time we have, that’s all.  If you’re going to be leaving in a moonturn, we need to prepare.”

“For what?”

“For life without you.”

“Would that be so terrible?  You’ve lived without me longer than you’ve ever lived with me.  I’ve only been here a month so far.  Surely, my leaving won’t disrupt your life so very much.”

Sansa dropped her needlework and turned to look at Tyrion.  There was a hardness in her eyes that hadn’t been there before, and he wondered if she was upset with him again.  “Eddard adores you,” she said.  “You have proven yourself a wise and capable Lord of Winterfell.  Yes, you have only been here a month, but the help you have given me, and my people, has been invaluable.  Eddard will be devastated when you go, the smallfolk will doubtlessly be disappointed, and our bannerman will lose whatever sense of respect they have for you.”

“And you, Sansa?  What about you?”

Sansa was silent, and Tyrion wondered just what was going on inside her mind.  Did she want to say something biting and cruel, or did she want to confess to tender feelings, despite her better judgment?  “I have no desire to rule Winterfell alone, but I will not make you stay.  You’ve done as I’ve asked.  You allowed me to tell Jon that you are alive.  You’ve seen Winterfell through the worst of the winter.  You’ve done your duty.  You are welcome to go if that is your wish.”

But for the first time, it wasn’t. 

Tyrion stared at Sansa, wishing nothing more than to take her in his arms and kiss her senseless.  He knew he had no right to touch her, but he longed to do so, just the same.  She looked so beautiful, so grave.  He wanted to kiss the frown from her lips and make her sigh with contentment.  He had only managed to do that once in all the time they’d been married, and he wished, more than anything, that he could do it again.

“Well?” Sansa said when he remained quiet.  “Is that your wish?”

Tyrion shook his head.  “No, it’s not.”

“Then, you won’t be going?”

“I . . .”  Tyrion wanted to tell her that he was going to stay for the rest of his life, that he would never leave her again.  But he knew he was just getting caught up in the moment, and he didn’t want to make a promise that he might later regret.  Everything was happening so fast, and he wasn’t ready to swear his life away just because he was desperate to be close to his wife again.  “I don’t know.”

Sansa’s whole body stiffened, and the look in her eyes grew darker.  “Which means, you will be leaving in a moonturn, just as I thought.”

“It means, I don’t know what I’m doing,” he bit back, his temper suddenly flaring.  “It means I will make a decision when I make a decision and not before.”

“If you are going to leave, there’s something I want from you first.”

Tyrion laughed.  “Oh, gods help me, I can only imagine.  What is it?  Would you like me to gather the entire north in the Great Hall and declare that you have never been unfaithful to me and that Eddard is my trueborn son?”

Tyrion regretted it the instant the words were out of his mouth.  Sansa’s eyes turned stormy, and he didn’t think he had ever seen a deadlier look in his life, not even from Arya. 

Sansa was seething with anger, and it was obvious that she was trying very hard not to scream.  Tyrion braced himself, waiting for her to give full rein to her fury. 

But she was Sansa Stark, after all, the most even-tempered, self-controlled woman Tyrion had ever met.  She took her time tamping down her anger before opening her mouth to speak.  “Why would I ask you for something that you have already sworn never to give me?”

“Then what do you want?”

“I want another child.”

Tyrion stared at Sansa, his heart barely beating, her words clawing at his brain without making purchase.  A child?  She wanted a child?  He couldn’t even comprehend the idea.  It was simply too foreign to him. 

“Nothing to say?” Sansa asked archly, her words as chilly as a cold, northern night.

Tyrion struggled to reply, his mouth trying to form words but failing miserably.  Finally, he managed to force something past his lips.  “You . . . you can’t mean it.”

Sansa straightened her spine, which was no small feat since she was already as rigid as a corpse.  “I do.  You’re going to leave in a moonturn, whether you’re willing to admit it or not, and before you do, I want you to give me another child.”

The weight of her words crushed the air from Tyrion’s lungs, and he couldn’t breathe, let alone speak.

“Eddard is the sole male heir to Winterfell,” Sansa said.  “Should anything happen to him, gods forbid, there would be no one to take his place.  Jon is King of the Seven Kingdoms.  If he ever has a son, that child will sit on the Iron Throne.  Bran will never set foot south of the Wall again.  And Arya has sworn never to marry.  Eddard is all we have, and if, for some horrible reason, he cannot take his rightful place as lord of the keep, the days of the Starks ruling Winterfell will be over and it will be my fault.” 

Tyrion had never expected such a proposition from his wife.  Her reasoning was sound, of course, but that didn’t make it any easier to take.  It was true, if something happened to Eddard, either now or in the future, there would be no one to follow after him.  But Tyrion wasn’t sure if Sansa knew just what it was that she was asking for.  To make a child, they would have to lie together again, and he couldn’t imagine how they could manage that with all the animosity and distrust that still separated them.  The last time he had gone to her bed, there had been a tentative trust between them, but now, they didn’t even have that.

“Do you realize exactly what it is that you’re asking me to do?” Tyrion questioned, wanting to make certain that Sansa had completely thought this through.

“Yes, I do,” she replied, her resolve unwavering.  “You and I have shared a bed before.  I’m sure we can survive it again.”

Had circumstances been less dire, Tyrion would have laughed.  He hadn’t realized that the one night he had spent in her bed had been such a hardship for her.  As he recalled, in his dark and distant memory, she had seemed to take some pleasure in it, even if she had been thinking about someone else the entire time.  Tyrion wanted to say just that, but he was afraid that, if he did, she might slap him.  Instead, he asked, “Are you sure you can really survive it?”

“I can.  And while I’m certain it will be a trial for you, it is your duty as the Lord of Winterfell.  Surely, you can fulfill that duty before you abandon us again.  If it helps, just think of me as one of your whores.”

Tyrion’s fingers tightened around the book in his hands, and he had the sudden urge to throw it across the room.  He knew what Sansa thought of him, she had made that abundantly clear, but she couldn’t have been more wrong.  Tyrion wanted to argue with her, but he knew it was a fight he just couldn’t win.  “When do you want to do this?” he asked, his voice painfully tight.

“When?”  Sansa seemed surprised by the question.

“Yes, when?  Tonight, tomorrow, the night before I leave for Casterly Rock?  When?”

Tyrion could tell by the look on Sansa’s face that she was tempted to tell him to take her that very night, just to preserve her pride.  But even Sansa Stark wasn’t that brave.  Her cheeks were flushed a flattering shade of pink, and he could see a hint of embarrassment hiding behind her stunning blue eyes.  It took her a moment, but finally, she said, “I will speak with the ladies of the keep and ask their advice about the best time to conceive.  I would not want to have to go to your bed more than once if I can help it.  A woman can only suffer so much in one lifetime.”

Tyrion opened his mouth to speak, but he never got the chance.  Sansa abruptly stood, putting an end to his halfhearted effort. 

“The hour grows late,” she said.  “I think it would be best if you left now.” 

Tyrion was still in shock, but the cold look in Sansa’s eyes forced him to move.  He pushed himself off the couch, the book still clutched in his hands as he struggled to balance himself on unsteady legs.  He was numb all over, from his head to his toes, and he had no idea how the hell he was going to make it back to his room because he was barely able to move. 

Tyrion looked up at Sansa.  He wanted to say something, make things better somehow, but for once in his life, he was at a loss for words. 

“I will tell you when you are to come to me,” Sansa said.  “You needn’t worry.  I will give you fair warning.”

Tyrion nodded, his head feeling like a lead weight on his shoulders.  He slowly turned around then and carefully made his way toward the door, afraid he might lose his footing at any moment.  When he finally reached the door, he grabbed the handle for support and pulled it open, the effort far more difficult than it should have been.

Tyrion glanced over his shoulder at Sansa.  She was standing in the middle of the room, her posture rigid, her hands clasped in front of her.  There was no warmth in her eyes, only impatience.  She was waiting for him to go.

“Good night, my lady,” Tyrion said, the words raw in his throat.

Sansa didn’t bother to reply, and he reluctantly turned away again, closing the door as he stepped out into the hallway. 

When Tyrion was finally hidden from Sansa’s view, he leaned back against the door and swore violently, “Fuck!” 

This was not what Tyrion had wanted.  It was not how he had imagined bedding his wife again – and oh, he had definitely imagined it.  But not like this.  The first time they had been together, it had been because Joffrey had threatened Sansa’s virtue.  Now, it was to produce an heir.  Sansa didn’t want him any more now than she had back in King’s Landing.  The years hadn’t made anything better between them, they had just made everything worse.

“Fuck,” Tyrion swore again, fighting the urge to bang his hands against the door behind him.  Sansa was determined to see this through, and he knew he had no right to refuse her.  He had a responsibility to her and to Winterfell, and he had no choice but to do his duty, whether he liked it or not.