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Eyes like ice chips, eyes like steel frozen over— this is what gives his pummeling fists pause, this is what causes the red to bleed from his vision. He looks closer, ears ringing, his arms moving slowly like dragging through water, like they are dragging through the river of bodies and blood and mud. 

She is composed, careful— and afraid. Quickly he searches for horror or revulsion and finds none. She is not afraid of him, then (the part of him that is buried in battle sighs in relief) and she couldn't be afraid for him, as the battle is won, and not a muscle twitches in the body beneath him. Could she be afraid for herself, still? The words she had spoken the night before come to him, the confession that had chilled him to the bone; If Ramsay wins, I'm not going back there alive. But he is sitting astride her monster, her tormentor, the man who brutalized her—

He is seeing red again, and he drags a ragged breath through his nostrils. 

His gaze rises to her, seeking a lifeline, and he understands when he meets the determined set of her small mouth. This is her kill.

It's easy, after that, to remove himself from Ramsay's body. As he stands over him he tries to memorize the bloody features, that ugly smirk destroyed. Already he knows he will need to draw on this image in the future, when he will pray for Ramsay's resurrection so he could pummel him and bloody him and hurt him over and over.

But he won't be able to. Ramsay Bolton is already beyond his reach, already dead. 


 

When he hands over the keys, Jon already knows he has to look for her that night. He acknowledges her right to her own revenge but a wild, desperate part of him almost calls her back the moment their gloves brush; to do what, he doesn't know. To offer to go with her. To tell her to take some men with her, to take Tormund or the lady Brienne with her, to take them both. But he bites his tongue, telling himself that he will post guards outside the kennel, far enough away to give her the privacy she deserves, close enough to help if the tides turn. 

Even the thought of the possibility makes his throat dry. No, he will not post guards. He will post Tormund and Brienne. 

“Inform me as soon as the lady Sansa has left the kennels and you have escorted her safely to the lord’s chambers,” Jon tells Brienne, surprised as he always is by the force of her reassurance. He believes the sworn sword when she says she would die for her lady, and this calms Jon, wanting to give Sansa every protection he can. He wishes he could wait upon the ramparts himself, but he already knows the tasks and conversations will drag deep into the night. He will have to find a maester if there is one and prioritize the care of the wounded, he will have to counsel with Davos and Tormund and the northern lords whose men fought for him, he will have to arrange a rigorous guard of Winterfell and send men to Wintertown, he will have to send ravens... it could not all be done tonight, but he will do everything he can and the rest will be done tomorrow and the day after that. 

Later, he is surprised when the round-faced squire is the one to find him, waiting a respectful distance until Jon calls him forward, and tells him in hushed tones that Sansa is in the godswood. 

Alone?”

Podrick recoils slightly but is quick to shake his head. “The lady Brienne is with her, my lord.”

Jon nods and pats the man’s arm. He itches until he’s able to walk away, having excused himself from the lords and bidden everyone retire for the night. 


Even in the black of night, even against the blood red leaves of the weirwood tree, Sansa's hair is a beacon. Her once braided hair is now loose over her back. Jon walks to that sheet of silky copper, acknowledging Brienne and Podrick with a quiet thanks as he passes, noticing her hand go around her squire’s elbow and pulling him back with her. Sansa does not turn at his crunching footsteps, nor when he settles beside her at the root of the tree. 

Her eyes are trained somewhere below the weeping face on the weirwood trunk, her face betraying nothing. “Are you all right?” he asks, quiet and tentative. 

“It’s done.” Her hands, folded over one another in her lap, shift slightly, the fingers curling around each other.

He breathes out. “That’s not what I asked.”

She glances at him. “Do you remember what I said, the first day at Castle Black?”

He remembers so much about that day, every detail, but he knows what she is calling him to. She had repeated this sentiment to him many times over the last few moons, and he suspects they have become their own form of armor. I’m not alone anymore. I’m grateful. 

It still shocks him that Sansa is content with so little, still curls his fingers into fists when he contemplates how much she must have suffered to feel so grateful at merely being safe, merely being with him.

“Sansa. It isn’t wrong if you felt scared or upset or shocked. If you feel any of those things, you can tell me.”

He knows her well enough to know she won’t. Still. “If there’s anything I can do. Any change, anything you need, to make you more... comfortable. Just tell me.”

Sansa’s eyes soften a bit. “Thank you. We’ll have much to do, Jon. It’s ours again.”

“Aye. It’s yours.” He looks at the weirwood tree. How long has it been since he sat here? Could it have been with father? He swallows the lump in his throat. “You’re the lady of Winterfell now.”

“I have been lady of Winterfell already. In name, at least.” He watches the furs on her shoulders rise as she takes in a shuddering breath. “I haven’t been out here since .... we married. He locked me in my chambers after that.”

Here it is— it hasn’t even been a day, and Jon wishes he had Ramsay’s face under his heel. He tries to control the rage coursing through his body. “Which chambers?”

Sansa’s lips part as she looks at him, startled. Then her eyes lower with understanding. “My childhood chambers.”

He closes his eyes. “I’m sorry.” How many times has he said those words in response to her suffering? Always so inadequate. He breathes and tries to remember his point. “You will take the lord’s chambers. I had them prepared for you.”

“Jon, you should—”

“I won’t hear of it.”

Her voice is softer when she protests. “You’re the eldest. I can take Robb’s chambers, or—”

“You’re the lady of Winterfell. It’s your right.”

He doesn’t say the words, but he should have known she would hear them anyway. She’s much too smart to miss them. So he isn’t surprised when she says, “You’re a Stark, Jon. Through and through.” Her hand moves towards his, settling atop his glove as light as a feather, yet he feels pinned in place. “You fought for our home like father would have. He would be so proud of you.”

Jon drags his gaze from the slender black of her gloved fingers to her eyes, and is shaken by the earnest in them. Shame ripples through him. It was she who fought for Winterfell. He— he had fought only for her. 

“I wish I could have saved Rickon,” he says, because this is the only other truth. He remembers Sansa's adamant we know he has him, we do, in response to his doubt when they had read the letter, her insistence that they fight smarter, her warnings. He's the one who lays traps. Don't do what he wants you to do. Mistakes, so many mistakes he’d made. “If I’d just listened to you....”

“You can’t think like that. Jon.” He listens to the slide of fabric against snow and grass as she shifts to face him, his arm automatically reaching out to steady her. He keeps his hand there, beneath her elbow. Her knees are pressing into his thigh. Her hand reaches up to rest on his arm. “I wish I hadn’t been right, Jon. I prayed to be wrong.”

He can’t look up. “I could have done something. Gone into Winterfell to save him. Before the battle. I could have—”

“A suicide mission. Jon... there were many possibilities. You’ll make yourself mad thinking of them all, regretting them all.”

When he closes his eyes, he sees his lord father and the tiny Rickon, the smallest of them all. He sees Sansa minding the child for her lady mother, the only one of the children who had the patience or the desire to do such a thing. He looks at Sansa. How they had all misjudged her, even then. 

“Thank you for bringing me home, Sansa.”

She looks at him curiously, a tiny line forming between her brows.

His hand slides from her elbow to her wrist. He takes her hand and places it on his chest, holds it there. She can’t feel his heartbeat through the layers, but her eyes widen and her chin trembles slightly, and for a second he is terrified that she really is that smart, that she understands perfectly. “I wouldn’t be here without you.”

She draws her bottom lip between her teeth, worries it a little. He knows she doesn’t like thinking about how he had died before she had turned up at the gate, and neither does he. He doesn’t let himself contemplate what would have happened to her if he hadn't been there, only flushes with gratitude that he was. 

But no, this is Sansa, he reminds himself. Even if he hadn't been there, even if he had (somehow, impossibly) denied her, this fierce woman would have taken back her home on her own. 

As if she hears his thoughts, she straightens her back and gives his arm a squeeze before pulling back. “There’s much to do, Jon,” she says again, and Jon is equal parts admiration and disbelief at this woman. His sister, he reminds himself. “We should retire. I can’t imagine how exhausted you must be.”

Suddenly he feels it, the weight of the day, the weight of the battle and the bodies dragging him down. Without Sansa’s hands on him, it is all too easy to feel it. 

Jon helps Sansa to her feet and they leave the godswood behind. It would be there tomorrow. 

Chapter Text

Ramsey is dead.

The lord’s chambers are smaller than she remembers. Slowly, Sansa shrugs off her cloak and stretches out her glove clad hands in front of the fire. Eventually she removes her gloves and lets the warmth seep into her fingers, prickling the icy skin. She takes her time. She is not ready to turn around. 

When she does, it takes her breath away. The large wooden headboard that had seemed so intimidating to her as a child. She had much preferred the soft down of her own many feather pillows in her own bed—the same plush that had, in her imprisonment, swallowed her screams and suffocated her. Her eyes run over the details, all the pieces of furniture that had been a comfort to her on nights she was ill or scared. The layout is exactly the same, as if Lord Eddard Stark and the lady Catelyn had only just stepped out. If there was any evidence of Roose— or worse, of his son, but she cannot even think it— Jon must have removed it. 

Ramsey is dead. He’s gone, dead. 

Sansa releases a breath she isn’t aware she was holding. The slight smile falls from her lips when she hears a knock on the door.

Her eyes dart around wildly— she spots a pair of scissors and grabs them before opening the door a crack. A slight woman with a kind smile is standing behind it, her eyes on her feet. “My lady. It is a pleasure to see you well. May I help you undress and prepare for the night?”

A handmaiden. Sansa wonders who chose her, who told her to come. She is too tired to ask, and too frightened not to. “Thank you, but I do not require assistance. Good night.”

Her eyes dart up. “Is there anything I can do for you, my lady? Anything I can bring?”

Sansa’s eyes narrow by the slightest degree; even with her heart beating so quickly she is careful not to reveal too much. “What's your name?”

“Reina Perek, my lady.”

Sansa files the information away. She gives Reina a smile. “I fondly remember a few men and women from your house from my childhood. When I would visit the cloth shops in Wintertown, Linla Perek always had linens for me in the most brilliant colors.”

Reina flushes deeply, her voice is pleased when she speaks. “She was my aunt, my Lady.”

“Was? I’m sorry.”

She nods. “Is there anything my lady requires?”

Sansa knows there are many a lady who would be shocked at a servant’s insistence and repetition when the command has already been given, the question already answered. She is not offended, but she is surprised; like she always does now, she stores the details in case they ever require further examination.

But when Reina turns up her doleful eyes at her, Sansa thinks she understands her. The servants in Winterfell have been Bolton prisoners, too. This handmaiden could have been one of them, and while Sansa cannot know how much or how little the woman had suffered in that time, she can see the gratitude shining in her eyes.

Sansa allows her mouth to soften. “I thank you for your attentions and service. Soon, the halls of Winterfell will be filling with guests, and there will be much work. You may take the night to rest and prepare. I myself will require no handmaidens, not tonight or in the future.”

Despite the small frown on her face, Reina nods and bows and takes her leave. As the door closes and the bolt slides in place, Sansa releases a heavy sigh, releases the scissors from her trembling fingers. 

Ramsey is dead. 

Sansa removes her gown with ease. The last time she had a handmaiden was in the Eyrie; since then she had fended for herself. In the beginning it had been difficult; she remembers the dress she wore in her flight to Castle Black, how she had twisted and turned painfully to unstitch it, how when the great filthy thing was finally pooled around her feet she had struggled to peel her shift from her skin inch by painful inch, the satin sticky with her blood.

Since then all the dresses she wears are by her design, and she is able to remove them without help. She picks up her cloak from the chair and hangs it over the large looking glass before removing her shift. She does not look at her naked body; she does not wish to ever do so again.

Ramsay is dead. 

Sansa tries to ignore the painful, itchy lines across her body where several cuts have opened up during the day’s hard ride and other exertions. This was easier to do when the mission to retake Winterfell occupied her every thought, when she wasn’t standing in the place it had all happened in.

She swallows. Ramsay is dead.

Although the slide of a clean shift on her unclean skin is grating, she has no will to somehow procure a tub and water for a bath, no will left at all tonight.

For all her talk of being home and being the lady of Winterfell, this newfound autonomy is unfamiliar, unsettling. Her mother’s and her Septa’s teachings of how to be a lady are still in her mind, but the memories of her years of imprisonment are sharper. In King’s Landing and the Eyrie, handmaidens did their commanders’ bidding to her body without any input from her. In her marriage to Ramsey, the only one allowed to access her bodily needs in this way was Myranda, whose wicked touch and sharp smile were so cruel she would rather the dirt and the blood and the bodily fluids cake on her skin than be subjected to her care. 

Sansa shakes away the memories. It doesn’t matter. She reminds herself it is liberating to be able to control this aspect of her life. She will count her blessings.

Sansa settles onto the bed, each strained muscle and sore wound making itself known in these final moments before sleep. But there is no sleep; suddenly her mind is recalling every frame of every face of every dearly beloved and departed Stark, the arrows in Rickon's body the sharpest image, a long and thin body unknown to her, so different than the rounded child she’d cuddled. Tears sting her eyes and slide into her hair. That monster.

But Ramsay is dead, she reminds herself wearily, praying for a few hours of sleep before facing what she knows will be a difficult day ahead. 

Her tears are about to turn into tears of frustration when she hears a heavy crash of something on the door, followed by a hushed and angry murmur. Sansa is already on her feet, the scissors once more in her hand, her eyes searching the room for any other weapon, the soft glow from the hearth revealing nothing. She will have to start sleeping with a dagger, immediately, she instructs and chastises herself—but she has no dagger tonight. The thing hits her door again, heavy like a man's body or a battering ram. Her chin wobbles and she bites her lip so hard she tastes blood. 

She will go down screaming. She will strike at his eyes and his balls with the scissors and she will scream until the whole keep is awake. Jon will come to her. A shuddering gasp leaves her lips when she realizes she has no idea where he is, he didn't mention where he would be sleeping, and if he has taken Robb’s chambers then he is very far indeed. Jon won’t —

"...stop that, Ghost, you’ll wake her, come here."

The bolt is removed from the door and the door is open before Sansa is even aware that her feet have moved. Jon stands a few paces away in a half crouch, his hand in the scruff of Ghost's neck. In that single second she also registers the number of torches on the walls and the two guards at the end of the hall. One of them is Podrick, standing a few feet closer to her door than the other, who stares resolutely ahead.

Jon’s head jerks to her. “I’m sorry, I tried to get him not to...” His voice trails off, and when he speaks again there is a note of apprehension in his voice. “Sansa?”

His eyes widen as they move from her face to the scissors. He straightens and he has crossed to her in a flash. “What happened— ”

She raises a hand to cut him off. Her eyes slide to the guards. She forces her voice to be perfectly calm. “Come in, Jon. ”

Jon looks pained when he protests, “Sansa, it wouldn’t be... ”

Proper. Sansa holds back a laugh. Nothing that happened to her the last time she was home was proper.

Jon is staring at his shuffling feet, occasionally glancing at the guards. He is concerned with how it would look to walk into her chambers in the middle of the night—an odd fondness twists in her chest, a yearning for the nights in Castle Black, when they rarely slept in separate chambers. Jon didn’t care about propriety then, he only cared about soothing her nightmares.

She is wary of the guards too, but in a different way. She refuses to be overheard. She is the Lady of Winterfell now—she won’t show weakness. It won’t be like Castle Black or like all those nights in the tents, it can’t be. Her people won’t respect her if they have to listen to her nightmare-induced screams. Her cheeks heat when she realizes many in Winterfell have heard worse from her, have borne witness to the essence of her nightmares firsthand. 

Ramsay is dead. Sansa speaks clearly for the sake of the guards. “Come and sleep by the hearth tonight, Jon, as you did in Castle Black. I am always grateful for your protection.”

Before the last word has left her mouth she already knows he will reject her. She can see it in that martyred look in his wider-than-usual eyes and the tense set of his shoulders. She swallows. “Of course, I understand if you need to sleep in a bed tonight. Goodnight. Can—” The masks slips for a moment, tears springing to her eyes again. “Can you leave Ghost? ”

His gaze falls to her mouth and he frowns. “You’re bleeding,” he murmurs, walking past her, Ghost in tow. The door closes behind them. Sansa watches Jon as he slides the bolt in place.

His shoulders are heaving as though from a great exertion when he turns around to face her. He keeps his eyes on the floor as if he can’t bear to look at her and something twists in her chest— did she misinterpret something, was it not about the guards? His voice is quiet restraint when he speaks. “Are you alright? Did something happen?”

“No. I…” Sansa takes a shaking, steadying breath. “The sounds of Ghost at the door alarmed me.”

“I’m sorry. I lost track of him and found him pawing at your door.” He walks to her until she can see the soft dark pools of his eyes, full of concern as they bear into hers, then fall to her lips once more. “Nothing else happened?”

“No.”

His thumb grazes the bottom of her split lip, hot as a brand. “My own doing,” she whispers, careful when she speaks as the pad of his thumb slips up to the seam of her mouth and she could so quickly taste it, it is so close to her tongue.

He nods. “Sleep, Sansa.” His breath is warm on her face and her eyes slip closed, suddenly so sleepy she can’t stand. His hand under her elbow leads her to the bed, and an indeterminate time later she opens her eyes. Perhaps it is only a minute; the windows are still dark as pitch, and Jon is sitting in the chair by the fire.

“Jon,” she breathes, and she watches him spring to his feet.

“All right?” His voice is a rasp. Gods, he must be exhausted.

“You need to sleep too. You must be ready to drop.”

Despite her bleary half-asleep state and the dark of the room, she registers the shake of his head. “Don’t worry about me.”

“I can’t.” She hears his sharp intake of breath but can’t muster the energy to examine it, nor her own words. She pushes herself up on her elbows. “If you don’t come here and sleep—”

“Alright.”

She sinks back into the bed, and a moment later she feels the dip beside her. He is careful not to touch her, holding his body stiff, but she feels the heat emanating from him nonetheless. His soft murmur brushes over her like a touch. “Get some rest.”

She could laugh— it is so unnecessary and so much, his care for her. Her exhaustion is like drunkenness and it makes her bold. “How did you know?” How did you know to come, how did you know I need you? 

She falls asleep before she can hear an answer.

Chapter Text

Sansa is too warm when she wakes, a warmth that has no place with winter approaching. A white mass has settled onto the lower half of her body, suffusing her with heat. An instant calm descends when she sees the line of Jon’s shoulders, still turned away from her and moving in sleep. Ghost rumbles when she tries to shift him off her legs, sending Jon into a mutter. A few careful moves later, a few painful, prickly shakes of her legs, and she is free to stand and walk to the door, where she is grateful to see Brienne standing guard. 

“My lady. Are you well?”

“Yes, thank you Brienne. Have you had any rest this night?”

“Yes, my lady.” 

Sansa eyes her sworn sword, but the woman wears exhaustion and pain so invisibly that she can’t decide if she is being truthful. Regardless, she makes up her mind to give her rest today. And she would do the same for Jon. 

“Jon is resting inside. Please make sure no one is able to find him until he wakes.”

Brienne’s lips thin but she simply replies in the affirmative.

“Can I ask you for one more thing, Brienne?”

An hour later Sansa feels transformed with skin and hair scrubbed clean and a fresh dress on her body. Her stomach urges her to break fast but she knows that once she does, the keep will know she is awake and the day will begin in earnest. In the silence of Brienne’s bedchamber she is gloriously invisible and isolated, a miracle that she knows she won't feel again for a long time. Already her mind is composing lists; tasks of healing from battle, repairing Winterfell from the damage of the Boltons, and preparation for winter. She wishes to extend the peace of this morning just a little longer.

And so Littlefinger finds her in the godswood, sending trembles down her arms that itch to clench into fists.

"Me, on the Iron Throne, and you by my side."

For the first time Sansa hears his dream, and she suspects it may be the first time he ever gave voice to it, that he may have carried it inside of him until this very moment. An undeniable pleasure twists his lips, which he then tries to mold to her own. Her heart seizes, her extremities freezing as she remembers her last unwilling kiss in front of this tree, and everything that followed.

Ramsey is dead.

But Littlefinger is alive, and he was the one that had sold her to him. His heart beats under her palm that keeps him inches away from her. It takes every ounce of her strength to keep her body from showing her disgust, her rage. 

“It’s a pretty picture,” she says instead, the bile in her throat belying her words.

She is grateful that her back is turned when he starts talking about Jon. Pitting her against Jon, she realizes with a barely contained gasp. Of course he is. The practical, rational part of her that is composed of equal parts Cersei and Littlefinger and Margaery and Tyrion and Olenna chastises her for not expecting it. After all, where does Jon fit in Littlefinger's pretty picture? 

He doesn't. 

She walks away from the godswood with her stomach in a knot and a realization pounding in her head; Littlefinger is already plotting. Plotting against Jon. 


 

At the top of the pyramid where the large windows display most of the sprawling city and the crystal blue sea, Tyrion finds Varys. He was looking for his queen and he nearly retreats when he finds his old friend instead. But Varys has already sensed his presence, Tyrion knows, so he stifles a sigh and walks to the wine decanter. He glances out the window, wondering at what is so compelling about Varys’s view. The sea below is infested with ships.

Varys speaks without turning. “The Kraken and the Dragon, allied.”

“You don’t approve,” Tyrion says, not a question.  

“Euron Greyjoy is not the kind of ally our queen needs.”

Tyrion agrees, but he doesn’t say so. It would be pointless. Daenerys has already agreed to the alliance, and she has proven inflexible. Besides, he won his own victory with Daenerys on another matter.

“He has ships. That makes him the ally our queen needs.”

Varys turns then, dislike dripping from his words. “He’s a kinslayer, a turncoat, he has rebelled against the crown a number of times.”

“So keep a close eye on him.”

Varys steps forward. “You and I have served many a cruel and volatile man we didn’t want to serve. Do you really want to add Euron Greyjoy to that list?”

Tyrion ignores the truth in Varys’s words. He isn’t serving Euron and he never will. He serves his queen, only his queen. He recalls the barely concealed distaste on Daenerys’s face as she had treated with Euron, and uses it to bolster himself.

“The Iron fleet is magnificent. She needs his ships.”

“She has ships. The slavers’ ships. Is that not enough?” Varys tilts his head back, his eyes falling for a moment to the Hand pin on Tyrion’s breast. “What’s this alliance really about?”

Tyrion takes a sip of wine. “Don’t play coy.”

Varys sighs. “So she is leaving to Westeros. And what of this pyramid city?”

Tyrion averts his eyes. “We’ve taken care of it.”

Tyrion thinks of her, resplendent and pale in her lilac gown, as she named him her Hand. He had been named Hand before, to a cruel child king, but it was not on his merit, and he hadn’t received a lick of the recognition he deserved for all the good he’d done.

No, his fate has never been about what he deserved. From birth he was ridiculed for being a dwarf and blamed for his mother’s death. Blamed for Bran Stark’s fall and assassination attempt, blamed for the death of Jon Arryn, blamed for Joffrey’s murder. Humiliation and abuse followed him like a dark cloud, save for the bright spots of kindness from Jaime. Never had he received validation until Daenerys Targaryen pressed the Hand pin to his chest.

“If you and I do our jobs well, we will protect our queen.” He points with his wine glass at Varys. “That should be our only concern.” 

“I hear you are also concerned with Daario Naharis,” Varys says with a shrewd look in his eye. “Why?”

“She will need to be open to marriage alliances.” He downs his wine. “And that man could become a problem.”

The knowing look Varys gives him grates at his skin. “I only want what’s best for our queen,” Tyrion says, defensive.

“If we were serving a king, he wouldn’t need a marriage to strengthen his rule. His claim would be enough.”

“That’s not true. He would wed to produce heirs. A king without heirs is the head of an unstable realm.”

“Our queen can’t produce heirs.”

Tyrion gives him a warning look.

“I know, discussing it… upsets her.”

Tyrion chuckles at the understatement. She accused Varys of threatening her life when he tried to discuss the matter of succession.

“But when we land in Westeros, she will be playing a different game. She doesn’t know, doesn’t really know. You and I do.”

“The great game is terrifying.” Tyrion shakes his head. “You underestimate her.”

“Or perhaps you underestimate the lords of Westeros. They won’t embrace her willingly. It will be even worse with Euron Greyjoy at her side.”

Tyrion scoffs. “The lords of Westeros? We only need to win one great house and the rest will follow. They are sheep.”

Varys raises his brows. “Sheep? The lords of Westeros are snakes… they slither through the grass, searching for the winning side, false promises on their forked tongues.”

Varys isn’t wrong—Tyrion knows more than most how treacherous the lords of Westeros are— but Tyrion shakes his head still.

“They will see her as a dragon,” Varys continues in the gravest of tones. “The people… they aren’t the Dothraki who respond to strength or the slaves who see her as a savior. The people of Westeros don’t need saving. They may not look at her with the welcome and the love she craves.”

“She knows that,” Tyrion snaps. Daenerys isn’t dull or delusional, she isn’t her brother, who foolishly thought the Westerosi people prayed for his return.

“She may know it in her mind, but she still hopes for it in her heart.”

“What are you saying?”

“The best way to serve our queen is to tell her these difficult truths. To guide her with a firm hand. Despite the fiery nature of her… temper.”

Tyrion half grins. “It almost sounds like you’re accusing me of going soft.”

Varys looks pointedly at the Hand pin on his chest. He turns back to the window. “Don’t be so eager to return to Westeros. Don’t forget who waits for us there, who we must contend with.”

“My sister. How could I forget?”

“Ah, yes,” Varys drawls. “But I mean someone else entirely, someone even more dangerous because of his ability to slip your memory.”

Tyrion downs his wine when Varys says the name. “Petyr Baelish.”


 

Varys joins Daenerys at the tail end of her meal with Euron, the man’s boorish laughter echoing off the walls and wrinkling his nose. He has been listening to his crude remarks and exaggerated tales for the better part of three hours, the longest dinner he’s ever listened in on. When Varys finally makes himself known, unable to bear it for a moment longer, he sees that the plates have been cleared away. A decanter of wine, a leather skin, and glasses are all that remain on the low dining table.

“Varys, join us!” Euron lifts the skin high, rowdy with drink. “This here is the best rum in the world. Though it may be too strong for a eunuch.”

“Lord Varys is my esteemed advisor,” Daenerys says, sweet but with an undeniable warning in her tone. “You will speak to him with respect.”

 Defensive, Euron holds up his hands in front of him, palms forward. “I have a nephew who’s cockless. Though I tried to kill him, of course…” His grin broadens. “Not because of that. Because he tried to endorse his pathetic sister over me.”

“Theon Greyjoy.” Varys looks to Daenerys, whose eyes are unfocused and faraway. He hopes she is listening. “He was Lord Eddard Stark’s ward—the late Warden of the North, your grace. Very beloved to the Northerners, who haven’t forgotten him.”

Euron snorts. “So?”

“I do hope you haven’t made an enemy out of him,” Varys says. “We don’t want to alienate the largest of the seven kingdoms before we’ve even stepped foot in Westeros.”

“An enemy out of Theon? You think little Theon’s so important?” Euron starts to laugh, but sobers a bit when he catches Daenerys’s stern expression. “Don’t worry, my Queen. It was Northerners who took his cock.” 

Varys smiles tightly. “Northerners who were unseated by the Starks, who have retaken their ancestral home.”

“It matters not who sits in the North, not until I take my throne.” Daenerys taps her wineglass with a finger. “King’s Landing is my goal.”

“As it should be, my Queen.”

“Lord Greyjoy, leave me to converse with my advisor.”

Euron’s eyes narrow, clearly displeased at the dismissal. He leans closer to Daenerys’s side. “I’m not a Lord,” he whispers. “I’m a king.”

“Not yet.” Her whisper is twice as deadly, the flicker in her eye a harbinger of fire. “You’ve bent the knee to me, haven’t you?”

Euron stares at her with eyes that grow wider. He does not look afraid. He looks enthralled. “Yes, yes, I have.”

“Go on. Do it again.” Daenerys rises gracefully to her feet, staring down the bridge of her nose at him. Her eyelids lower, drunk from the wine and the power. “Bend the knee.”

Without tearing his eyes from her, Euron shifts into the position. Daenerys smiles, staring at the kneeling man for a few long moments, until she is satisfied. “You may leave.”

Euron stumbles out of the chamber. Varys releases a heavy breath, which makes Daenerys chuckle. “Do you really find him so exhausting?”

“Don’t you?” Varys retorts. Euron is simple minded and vulgar and, if he is honest, more than a bit repugnant. He would have thought that entertaining a man such as he would test Daenerys’s patience. Yes, he is fully under her spell—an effect Varys knows she enjoys—but this is not a unique trait in men who meet Daenerys Targaryen. He wonders, not for the first time, what she really thinks of Euron Greyjoy, what she could really be getting out of this alliance.

“Is it truly so important?” Daenerys calls him back to the present. “What you were talking about earlier? Euron’s nephew…”

“That Euron wants to kill Theon Greyjoy?” 

Daenerys nods. “Will it really cost me the North?”

“In truth, I am not certain. Theon Greyjoy betrayed the Starks once, but I heard he helped Sansa Stark escape her captors. She would be the Lady of Winterfell now.”

Daenerys stares at a place somewhere past his shoulder, a habit of hers he has grown accustomed to—sporadic disassociations during conversations, where she looks with wide eyes into a faraway place that Varys cannot see, no matter how hard he tries.

“It doesn’t matter,” she finally says. “They will bow before my dragons.”

She makes to leave the room. Varys calls out to her. “One moment, your grace. I did come to converse with you, not just to divulge you from the pirate.”

She smiles, though irritation and impatience mar it. “What is it?”

Varys looks closely at her before asking the question. “Is it true you’re leaving this city in Daario Naharis’s hands?”

“It’s true.”

“I must advise against this decision, Your Grace.”

She smiles tightly. “The decision has already been made.”

Varys swallows his agitation. “Daario Naharis is a sellsword. He isn’t a prince, or a lord, or a diplomat. He has no education—”

“Neither do I,” she interrupts sharply.

“I mean no insult to the man. He knows how to fight, how to kill, and he is loyal to you,” Varys allows. “This makes him very valuable as a soldier, a military leader, even a Queensguard if you desire. It does not qualify him to rule a city.”

“I will not take Daario with me to Westeros. I can’t.”

“Then don’t. You are under no obligation to Daario Naharis. But do not forget your responsibility to Meereen.”

“My responsibility now is to the people of Westeros. I’m the last Targaryen… I must look ahead.”

This time Varys cannot help the small sigh that escapes him. “Your grace… the city is in a precarious state. It needs a strong, capable leader. And it is your responsibility, no matter where you go, as you destabilized—”

“Destabilized?” Daenerys’s nostrils flare. Her eyes blaze. “Meereen was a slave city. Because of me, future Meereenese generations will never know what it’s like to be born in chains.”

Varys watches the emotions play on her face for a moment, carefully selecting his next words. “You’re right. You did much good here. But if you leave like this, it will all be undone.”

“I don’t believe that. Daario knows my wishes.”

“How can you know that the city won’t return to slavery the moment—”

“I can’t.” Daenerys inhales sharply. Her eyes are rounder than ever, and Varys realizes with a sinking stomach that she has decided not to concern herself with Meereen any longer.

“I must move forward,” she mutters, confirming his suspicions.

“This city is on the brink of destruction,” he implores her. “If you leave now, it will burn.”

Daenerys rolls her shoulders and gives him a small smile, leaving the chamber without answering him. Varys stands in the space she left behind, a single phrase echoing in his head, an invented response to his own plea. Let it burn.

Chapter Text

When Sansa enters the great hall to break fast she regrets her selfish desire for isolation earlier in the day; the keep is in shambles, the maester overwhelmed by the wounded and the confused. Sansa meets Maester Wolkan's eyes over the untouched cold stew before her as he explains the logistics. This simple act of eye contact may be the hardest thing she's had to do, but she does it, still as stone.

Maester Wolkan knows her every struggle and red-hot shame, knows every scar on her body when it was a fresh cut, knows her wounds better than she does. It was Maester Wolkan who stitched and mended her, he who had looked at her torn skin with inscrutable eyes and lips pressed thinly together. It was his hands that smeared foul smelling balms over her scars and inspected between her legs, hands that always paused as if struggling to piece her together again, as if it was impossible. 

It was he who gave her moon tea, the one act that had finally shown her where his loyalties were, an act that had sent her entire body into a tremor and torn grateful sobs from her mouth. He didn't place a hand on her shoulder or speak a single comforting word, he didn't dare, but it was more than enough. The North remembers, she told herself that night as she submerged herself in the bathwater that would soon turn crimson, the moon tea drained and her insides already starting to convulse.

When he has finished speaking she promises to send five fast riders to Wintertown for supplies, to find all the women who can perform a simple stitch and send them to the west side of the keep where Maester Wolkan is drowning in the wounded, and to join them herself as soon as she is able. "I hope it will be enough," she finishes, to which he responds with an astonished: "More than enough, my Lady. Surely. Thank you, my Lady." 

He still looks surprised when she turns up in the large open room that has been turned into a makeshift infirmary, and the expression is mirrored in many other faces as she moves between the wounded with a needle and cloth in hand. The weak sun has set when Brienne interrupts her work. 

"Lady Brienne." Sansa stills the hand that is stitching a shallow shoulder wound as she spares her a glance, and she is smiling when she returns to her work. "I hope you've followed my instructions for today."

"To the letter, my lady."

Sansa didn't expect otherwise, but it relieves her to hear it. This means the Northern lords wouldn't be meeting until tomorrow, and not a single raven has left Winterfell. "And what of my Lord, Jon Snow?"

She doesn't need to look at Brienne to know her brows have risen into her hairline. But she can see the way the Hornwood soldier's mouth falls open. Sansa's nostrils start to flare but she keeps her eyes on the wound, her expression frozen. 

"Lord Snow... he is well. He is asking after you. He will be supping in the Harrow room an hour from now, my lady."

"And I will join my Lord." She places emphasis on the last two words as she has been doing all day, giving the soldier a comforting smile that snaps his mouth shut and returns the warm, contented look to his eyes. 

She rises when the wound is closed and clean and wipes bloodstained hands on equally dirty skirts, a futile movement, before moving to Maester Wolkan for a quick progress report. 

"We have enough, my Lady. I expect the wounded to be treated in full."

She nods, surprised at the swell of pride that hits her. "Please inform me directly if the supplies begin to wane."

"Thank you, my Lady." He bends into a low bow. Sansa's eyes are not the only one following the movement; everyone in the room has paused to watch. "Your service is the reason your people will live."

Sansa turns her head to find many eyes on her, filled with the same warmth that radiates from Maester Wolkan himself. Brienne's mouth is twitching into a small smile. Sansa straightens her back. "The people of the North are everything to me. Thank you for your faith, Maester Wolkan."

With a final nod she walks out of the room. She doesn't let her posture or expression fall until she is alone with Brienne in the lord's chambers. Yet she can't look at her as she sinks into the chair by the hearth. "What was that?"

"Devotion, my lady." There is an unmistakable swell of pride in Brienne's voice.

"I don't understand," she whispers, although already she knows it's a lie. "It was just one day, barely a day."

"I have met many rulers, my lady. None of them would tend to their wounded themselves."

"I'm not a ruler." 

"Not yet."

The words are too close to Littlefinger's for comfort. Her head snaps Brienne. "What are you saying? Are you accusing me of trying to take this away from Jon?"

Brienne's eyes soften. "Nothing could be further from the truth, my Lady. It was not my implication at all. I apologize if I offended."

Already regretting her outburst, Sansa looks away. Her mind swirls with faces blurring together, Littlefinger's and Lyanna Mormont's and Lord Glover's and Littlefinger's again. "I'm sorry. There's a lot on my mind right now. There are many moving pieces. The Northmen can be fickle, and Jon and I...." She sighs. "A bastard and a woman. It will be delicate and difficult, to unite the North."

"And it is important to you to unite them behind your brother?"

A question, not a statement, the rest of it unspoken: why not behind you? Cersei's face flashes before her mind's eye, her slurred words as she told her about the woman's weapon. 

"I've seen what it's like to be a woman in power. Even the best of men will at some point reduce her to her sex, even the most loyal will at some point resist her." Sansa’s mouth twists. "And these are not the best of men, nor the most loyal."

After an extended moment of silence, Sansa looks up to find Brienne frowning. "What? Speak bluntly."

"My lady, it was you who told Ser Davos that he didn't know the depth of Northerners' loyalty."

"That was before we set out to call on the Northern lords for aid. That was before the Umbers, our bannermen, gave my brother to...." She stops, swallows. "It was Northmen who allowed the Boltons to rule here. The Boltons themselves are Northmen who betrayed Robb and killed him. I won't forget." 

Brienne's voice is soft and careful. "It was also Northmen who fought with you to take back Winterfell."

Sansa stares at her lap.

"My lady.... men like Littlefinger are the true threat, yet you keep him here for his command of the Vale. I see the wisdom in that. Perhaps the Northmen deserve the same consideration."

"That's not why I keep him here," she mutters, before raising her voice. "I thank you for your counsel, Brienne."

Properly dismissed, Brienne leaves her chambers. Sansa has barely started to undress when a knock lands on her door. "It's me, Sansa." 

She opens the door and his gaze instantly falls to her blood-red hands and equally bloodied dress. She sees the breath freezing in his throat and his hands stutter out to reach for her. "Jon! It's not my blood. I'm alright."

He stares at her with eyes full of horror. "How—"

"I was helping the wounded. Brienne told me you wanted to sup together, I was about to wash and join you."

Jon nods, the tension leaving his shoulders at once, though he keeps his eyes averted when he speaks to her. "Would you like me to bring you a handmaiden?"

"No." She draws in a sharp breath and holds it, counting to three before speaking again, and she is much more controlled when she does. "Did you sleep well?"

"Aye. I slept well past midday. It's a wonder no one woke me. "

Sansa hears the light ribbing in his tone and smiles as she slips behind her dressing screen. 

"Your sworn shield is quite the woman. I'm afraid I gave her a bit of a hard time when I couldn't find you."

She winces; poor Brienne, who is now owed a most sincere apology from both of them. She rinses her hands in the basin, watching the water turn pink. 

"No one knew where you were." His voice isn't so light now.

"The entire hall heard me announce to the Maester I would spend my day assisting him."

"You should be escorted by guards. Only people you trust, like Brienne." 

Sansa scoffs. "There's no one I trust like Brienne."

A moment passes before Jon speaks. "I won't let anyone by you who you don't trust to keep you safe. It's important you're escorted and your chambers guarded, day and night."

She steps out from behind the screen in a fresh gown. "I agree." 

He looks taken aback. She raises a brow. "I expected an argument," he explains. 

"Why?"

"Because you'd think I was overstepping, or paranoid. That you'd find being guarded stifling or unnecessary."

"Never unnecessary." Sansa gives a wry smile. "I see threats everywhere."

Jon's face falls and a strange part of her yearns to reach out, the same part that compelled her to touch him when he mourned Rickon, the part that seeks to reassure him and comfort him and wipe pain and disappointment from his face.

Instead she brings her hands together and crosses to him. "We've fought to take back our home, but it will take another fight to keep it. A different kind of fight."

Jon looks at his feet. "There's only one kind of fighting I'm good at." 

A small smile tugs at her mouth, though her heart feels like it will break into a million pieces. Cersei Littlefinger Margaery Tyrion Olenna, her makers, her teachers in deceit. Suddenly she wishes she could switch places with him, that she could be the noble one with a sword in her hand who fights on the battlefield, instead of the snake who fights with whispers and lies. 

"Me too."

Chapter Text

Rough hands shake her in the middle of the night. “Queen Daenerys! Wake up! Wake up!”

Daenerys starts, feeling the ship rock beneath her, so strange to her still. Her eyes find Missandei’s frightened face in the darkness. “What is it?”

“You have to make him stop,” Missandei pleads.

Minutes later, Daenerys reaches the main deck. Despite the deep black of the night sky, the world is lit with fire. Arrows fly over her. Men scream and run and fall. Daenerys doesn’t move for a moment, stunned, absorbing the chaos. A sudden, hard slam shoves her to the ground. She screams. But it is only Missandei, frazzled and frightened above her, who pushed her to the ground to save her from an arrow flying too close.

Her shriek alerted several Unsullied soldiers, who rushed to her. “Take me to Euron Greyjoy,” she commands. They fall into formation around her, shielding her body as they move across the deck.

Varys and Tyrion, disheveled from the night, stand near the pirate. Euron throws his arms in the air when he sees her, a manic grin on his face. A gash on his cheek has covered his neck with blood.

“Queen Daenerys!” He roars, fire raining around him. “I give you your first victory!”

For a moment it is easy to forget the context; the words send an undeniable thrill through her. But she quickly returns to reality. She is still shaking with rage from what Missandei told her.

“You used my soldiers to attack Yara Greyjoy?”

Euron shrugs. He has to yell to be heard over the rage of battle around them. “She happened upon us!”

“Are we off course?” Daenerys snaps at Tyrion, who shakes his head.

“I swear to you, I didn’t go looking for her, my queen.” Euron steps to her, his eyes full of heat. “Would you have me do nothing?”

“Without my command, yes, you do nothing.” The words are a snarl ripped from her throat; she watches with no small amount of delight as Euron cowers beneath her power. “You endangered my dragons, my armies, my advisors. You could have endangered me.”

Euron swallows visibly, though his eyes are still bright with defiance. She is starting to suspect that may be his permanent state. “My queen, let me—”

“No. If you act outside my orders again, you will die a traitor’s death.” Daenerys looks around the turbulent sea, the ships alight with flame. She glares at Euron. “Finish it.”

She waves at Tyrion and Varys to join her, a legion of soldiers protecting the small group as they move below deck.

“It will be our victory, your grace,” Tyrion mumbles. “I suppose we can take comfort in that.”

“I can’t help but wonder how many soldiers we lost,” Missandei retorts.

“Yara Greyjoy was traveling to Mereen. Why else would her fleet be on the Narrow Sea?” Varys says, dismayed.

He doesn’t say it, but Daenerys hears it. The implications. That she is unwise, that she foolishly lost a potential ally.

“If we were on Westeros’s shores, I would burn him.” Daenerys stifles the swell of anger at the volatile pirate who could prove to be more difficult to control than she thought. “But we’re not.”


Jaime waits for Cersei in her bedchamber, drinking from her wine. It is his third cup and this is truly fine wine, fragrant and flavorful— unsurprising. But three cups have done nothing to dim his mind, nothing past a pleasant tingle in his fingertips. His pain is sharp. His eyes sting. 

He pours another cup.

To Jaime’s mind, his life has been long and eventful. Although men in their sixties and seventies would sneer and call him young, it certainly feels long to him. Unbearably so. He’s seen horrors, he’s felt the bite of pure shock more than once in his life. Still, his life as Lannister and Kingslayer and sister-fucker didn’t prepare him for the sight of Cersei on the Iron Throne.

For the first few seconds the prick of dread was unfounded, even made him feel guilty. Then his mind caught up and deduced what must have happened to allow Cersei to sit on the throne, to allow the throne to be vacant at all.

No. Not him. Not Tommen.

Then, as if sensing his thoughts, Cersei’s eyes slipped away from him.

Helpless, Jaime could do nothing but stare at her, begging her with the heat of his gaze to look his way, to explain. But she only looked resolutely ahead. When the crowning ceremony was over she disappeared beyond the hulk of the Mountain and a legion of guards who quickly swept from the throne room.

He should have followed, Jaime tells himself now, except his feet felt like lead. He stared around at the faces he didn’t recognize and felt like screaming—why are you all just standing there, when Tommen isn’t here?

When he was finally able to move, he went to Cersei’s chambers, where he sits now. But the night hours have dragged and he doesn’t know where she could have hidden herself. She is hiding from him, he knows it. He senses it with the connection only they share.

And why shouldn’t she? She knows you know.

The scrape of the door jolts his head to the right. None other than the bearer of news himself stands in the doorway. Anger swells in Jaime at the sight of him. “What are you doing here? Where’s Cersei?”

“She is dealing with urgent matters, Ser.” If Qyburn is surprised to find him here, he doesn’t show it. Instead he takes several steps into the chamber, peering at Jaime in that unnerving way of his. “Are you well?”

Jaime doesn’t give him the satisfaction of a response. Qyburn has already seen enough from Jaime today. It was Qyburn who told him of his last surviving child’s fate, and out of everything between him and Cersei he thinks it is this that he will never forgive.

“Tommen was such a gentle soul,” Qyburn says. “Queen Cersei truly loved him. I am sorry.”

Jaime barely nods, his jaw so tight it could snap. He wants to spit at him, the sniveling snake. As if he doesn’t know the role he played, the role he must have played for any of this to happen.

“I’ll wait here for her. Tell her that.” Jaime is able to look at Qyburn then. “Tell her if she wants to sleep in her chamber, she will have to see me.”


In the coming days Jaime feels bitterness bloom within him like the ugliest plant, its black leaves touching more and more of his thoughts, as Cersei does her best to avoid him. 

They only spoke once. In the morn after his return and her coronation, they had stumbled into each other in the hall. Her face fell for a single, vulnerable moment before she embraced him. The chains at her breast felt cold through his thin shirt. Dazed from drink and stunned to feel her arms around him, he instantly stiffened. She drew back, so her eyes were on his when he blurted out, “Tommen?”

Her face was stone but her eyes shone. “He’s gone.”

“How?” She tried to step around him but he grabbed her shoulders. “How, Cersei? Tell me.”

An ominous clamber and a dark shadow told Jaime the Mountain stepped up to him, but Jaime couldn’t look away from Cersei’s face quite yet.

Let go of me.”

Jaime obeyed the cold command, watching his sister raise a hand to scrape the place where he’d touched her. He stared at her, appalled, floundering. He never had a true place in any of his children’s lives, but this was a new cruelty.

“Please,” he begged. She ignored him.

Now Jaime watches from a high perch as she and her Hand converse over the new map of Westeros, the painter still diligently at work on his hands and knees. Cersei is in another one of her dark structured dresses—everything she wears now is black as death, adorned with hard bits of silver. There are no more bright colors, no more Lannister gold—ironic, since she has never reminded him more of their father. But didn’t he dress the same way?

“I know it took a long time, but you can do it again,” he hears her tell Qyburn. Qyburn responds in a whisper that doesn’t reach Jaime’s ears. She should be whispering too, but Cersei doesn’t do that.

Minutes later her gaze flits up and she sees him. A scowl touches her mouth before she sweeps from the room. Jaime could choke on his frustration. I would have killed every child in Riverrun to return to her, and she won’t even look at me.

That was what he said to Edmure Tully, anyway—that he would take anything, do anything, to return to Cersei. The desperation that had flooded his veins when he took his own cousin’s life years ago returned when he looked into Edmure’s eyes.

If it’s true, why does he feel so hollow? Why is he nearly sick with revulsion when he discovers the truth of the wildfire?

It takes Jaime a long time to piece together the truth of what happened. No one is eager to talk about it despite the plume of smoke still visible from the red keep’s windows—eyes turn to the throne or drop to the ground whenever Jaime asks. This in itself unsettles him beyond comprehension, but he decides to shake it away until he knows the full truth. Eventually, he does. On the day of Cersei’s trial, the Sept of Baelor had gone up in flames, every person within perished. Death by wildfire.

His son hadn’t perished within, as he had initially suspected. He had leapt to his own death.

As if she senses the change within him—and perhaps she does—Cersei comes to his chamber the night he learns the truth. Jaime has been drinking, every sip reminding him of Tyrion. He clings to the unbidden memory of his brother to avoid thinking about every other member of his family.

Cersei joins him at the table and only speaks after she has downed half a glass of wine. “I want you to be the leader of the crown’s armies.”

It is a mild surprise, but Jaime feels nothing beyond the irritation that she still wants more of him, that she hasn’t come here to talk about Tommen.

“Westeros is ours for the taking. The lords have been invited to the capital to bend the knee. We need their loyalties and their armies, and there is no one but you to lead them. We will make father’s dreams come true, you and I….a Lannister legacy.”

“And what Lannister will take the mantle of this legacy when you and I are dead?”

Cersei looks at him from underneath her lashes. Her grip on the stem of her glass tightens. “I looked at his face, after his fall. It was my punishment.”

Jaime blinks, aghast at the mental image of his son’s sweet face, mangled and broken.

“You will not punish me too,” she hisses.

“Punish you? I only wanted to speak with you.” His voice breaks. “To learn what happened to our son from his mother, rather than roam the keep like a beggar for scraps of information.”

“It’s too painful.” Cersei turns away from him, twisting in her chair. “I won’t talk about him.”

“It won’t make the guilt any less,” Jaime says. He would know.

Her eyes are suddenly burning, with anger and derision. But her voice is a bare whisper, her words slow and drawn out. “And why would I feel guilty?”

“You killed his wife.” Jaime stares at her, focusing every part of his brain on reading her. He needs to know if she did it, he needs to know if the Sept burned at her hands.

“That whore who used both of my sons as rungs on a ladder to become queen?” Cersei sneers. “Her death is unfortunate, and only because of what it did to my son. But it wasn’t at my hand.”

My son. Jaime tries not to flinch. “You deny it?”

“Yes.”

He has been terrified of hearing her admit it was all her doing, but this is somehow worse. He finds himself pressing, “How did Tommen avoid the Sept, then, if it was not your doing?”

“That was my doing.” Cersei’s mouth twists. “I wanted to protect him from seeing his mother on trial for disgusting crimes. I sent Ser Gregor to him. I tried to protect him.”

“I believe you,” Jaime says, suddenly weary. “You’ve always been good at using the truth to tell lies.”

Cersei rises. She crosses the room in slow stroll that is only more terrifying because of her muted anger, rolling off her in waves.

“Soon I will have an army magnificent enough to hold Westeros and defeat all my enemies. You will lead them.” Her voice drops, softer and more deadly. “We won’t speak of this again.”

He has been craving her company and attention for months and days, but when she leaves he draws in a magnificent breath of relief at being blessedly alone. His breathing grows shallower until it is nothing more than stuttering gasps, and he is crying. His children are all dead, and every horrific thing he’s done—for her—was utterly senseless.

 

Chapter Text

Deep in her cups, Sansa laughs so genuinely that it occurs to Jon this may be the first time he's heard her laugh. Compared to another’s laughter her laugh can hardly be called boisterous, but it is so genuine and free and unguarded that Jon thinks on nothing else for minutes after. He wants to hear it again. He aims to make her do it again.

Sansa was reluctant to drink at first, covering her wine cup with her hand every time the servants passed. Jon didn’t pressure her, he never would, but a part of him wondered if this is simply what she prefers now or if this restraint is motivated by fear. He remembers when she wordlessly commandeered his ale on that first night in Castle Black. He hasn’t seen her drink since. Her words from earlier in the evening came back to him; I see threats everywhere.

She couldn’t begin to understand how those words made him feel; simultaneously hopeless and helpless and, strangely, mourning. For the Sansa of his childhood didn’t see threats anywhere, was sweetly naive about the evils of the world, so trusting and giving and whole. This Sansa has seen so much of that evil that she can’t stop being suspicious or afraid. At least, that’s how he understood it, and this was what terrified him most; that he didn't understand at all.

He wondered when he would stop being surprised at how much Sansa has changed, if he would ever let go of the image he had of her from childhood, an image he hadn't contemplated even once until Sansa had shown up at the Castle Black gate, but now cropped up again and again.

Well after the food had been served and many bowls and plates were piled atop each other in haphazard, licked-clean piles, she leaned into his side and whispered, “No one else is coming?”

Jon looked around at their dinner companions in the Harrow room, one of the smaller dining chambers for meals that sat somewhere between intimate and public, such as this. Brienne and Podrick sat opposite them on the table, Davos and Tormund further down with a handful of free folk. This was everyone he’d invited for their first supper in Winterfell. “Aye, no one else.” She took his words as some kind of permission, summoning the servant to fill her cup with wine.

Now her cheeks are pink and Tormund has migrated to their table to tease laughter from her with his wild stories, which Jon initially objected to until Sansa murmured to him, “I don’t mind. I’m enjoying myself.”

So Jon sits back, thinking that maybe he can allow himself some enjoyment too, when the door opens. No one notices the slide of the door in the din of loud conversation and laughter, no one except Jon, and his eyes narrow when a man slips in noiselessly.

Littlefinger.

But Sansa is only a hair behind him, despite the wine in her system. The smile falls from her face by degrees and her back goes rigid as her eyes lock on the back of Littlefinger's head. A deep frown turns down the corners of her mouth. Then she is blinking rapidly and her lips thin, and Jon looks away from her to watch Littlefinger, who is turning towards them.

No. Towards Sansa. Jon may as well be a plank of wood in the wall behind him, for Littlefinger’s beady little eyes are focused entirely on Sansa, drinking her in with a hunger that has Jon clenching his fists under the table.

“Stop it, Jon.”

His eyes snap back to Sansa, whose mouth is barely moving behind her cup. “Control yourself,” she mutters, before lowering her cup and pushing her chair back.

“What are you doing,” he hisses through his teeth, his hand darting out and steadying her as she wobbles on her feet, his body curving towards her.

"I have to. This is for the best." Her eyes dart between his face and Littlefinger at a frantic pace until they finally settle away from him. Her mouth moves into a small smile and Jon knows that Littlefinger must be close, might even be standing right up against the table, but he can't tear his eyes away from Sansa's flushed cheeks and the infinitesimal sway of her body. "I'm going on a walk with Petyr."

"Are you mad?"

"You wound me, my Lord."

Jon's head snaps to the man who is, indeed, standing across the table, directly across from Sansa. Jon's eyes narrow and he tries to control his expression, tries to keep his twitching mouth from curling into a snarl.

"What do you say, Lord Baelish? Would you like to take a walk?"

"My apologies, my lady." Littlefinger's eyes are now locked onto Jon's despite who he is addressing. "I have come to dine with our new friends, so we can all become.... better acquainted."

"I understand, my Lord. A pity that I will have to find someone else to escort me to my bedchamber."

Jon's blood freezes in his veins. Sansa turns her head this way and that, avoiding looking at him in a way that can only be intentional. "Enjoy your supper," she says.

"Must you leave us so soon?"

Spots of color spring to Sansa's already flushed cheeks like she just pinched them. "I'm afraid I've been in my cups. I must retire."

Jon swallows. What in the seven hells is she doing?

"Very well, my Lady." Littlefinger releases a small sigh, then chases it with a slight smile. "I can hardly deny you."

Sansa nods and tugs herself out of Jon's light grasp, Jon who suddenly feels bereft without her arm in his hand, Jon who is terrified. He springs to his feet and has half a mind to—no, he is definitely going to follow their retreating forms—when a hand on his shoulder pushes him into his chair so forcefully the breath is knocked out of him.

"Settle down, little crow."

Jon glares at Tormund and rises again. Sansa and Littlefinger are at the door.

"My woman is following them," Tormund whispers in his ear. "She told me to get you under control."

"I don't—"

"Who is that man? Why does he make you react that way?" Tormund chuckles. "All you little men, pining after that girl...."

Jon grasps the ends of his armrests so tightly it starts to sting his palms. "That man...." He can barely push the words through his clenched teeth. "That man sold Sansa to Ramsay Bolton."

Tormund stares at the door Sansa and Littlefinger have just disappeared through. But Brienne is noticeably absent as well. "My woman won't let anything happen to your sister. He may be evil, but he's a little man. If he touches a hair on her head, she will cut that hand clean off."

At the end of his statement, his voice turns rough with a twisted admiration that makes Jon so uncomfortable he has to look away. "She said they're going to her chambers."

"My woman cares more about you kneeler's rules than most. From what I hear, she doesn't even like you going into Sansa's chambers." Tormund chuckles and fixes him with knowing look. "Quit your worrying. She won’t let him past the door."

Despite the tips of his ears burning with embarrassment, Jon tries not to panic, tries to let Tormund's reassurances work. Brienne is a formidable warrior, perhaps even better than him; he hasn't had the chance to spar with her yet, but he's heard from Sansa and Podrick and Brienne herself how talented she is. He remembers the story she told them of her fight with the Hound over Arya, a story that he and Sansa had absorbed in complete silence with wide eyes, greedy for information about their sister, though it wasn't Sansa's first time hearing it.

More importantly, Brienne cares even less about politics than Jon does, and she would kill anyone without a single consideration for the consequences if it means keeping her vow to protect Sansa.

"Alright," Jon grumbles, bringing his cup to his lips, wondering for the first of many times that night why Sansa did what she did, what she knows that he is too stupid to notice.


Jon tells himself that he won't check on her, but he knows from the first that it's a lie. He breathes a sigh of relief when he sees the familiar tall frame and the shine of yellow hair only inches from the door frame.

"Is Sansa alright?"

Brienne nods. "She is asleep, my Lord."

"Did— did anything...." Jon swallows. He doesn't even know what he is asking.

Brienne eyes him as if she is trying to figure that out herself. "The Lady Sansa is well."

He gives her a curt nod. That will have to be enough.

"Thank you." He starts to walk away before adding, "Not just for tonight."

Brienne lowers her chin in a nod of acknowledgement, and Jon turns away before he can ask for more. Enough, enough, enough.

Chapter Text

Littlefinger is going to kill Jon. 

He is going to kill Jon if he sees the look on his face, Sansa knows this. Jon's expression is an absolute twist of disgust and anger and hate, and he is so lucky that Littlefinger hasn't noticed it yet, hasn't noticed him at all because she herself is noticeably compromised and this has arrested all of Littlefinger's attention. For the moment.

Gods, she shouldn't have touched the wine. That was stupid, she was stupid.

Even in her inebriated state, she knows one thing; she has to separate them, now. After less than a moment of indecision she decides that it can't be Jon; he would be difficult to persuade, obtuse in his righteous anger, he would resist and ask questions. But Littlefinger loves to be alone with her, loves to prey on her when he thinks she is weak.

So she dangles the word bedchamber in front of him like bait, ignoring the shudder that slips down her back at the hunger in his eyes. The tense pull in the space between Sansa's shoulders snaps and releases when Littlefinger agrees to leave the room with her. She closes her eyes and allows herself a single moment of relief at diffusing a situation that could have slipped into something horrible.

Her stomach swoops uncomfortably as the door to the Harrow room closes behind her. A deeply panicked part of her wants to look back, wants to make sure Brienne is behind her. She only spared her a single, pointed glance before Littlefinger reached her, but Brienne was already looking at her with an intense focus, so she knows it was enough. She hopes it was enough.

Her mouth feels like it's full of cotton and she wonders what to say now, how to occupy him.

"It's not often that I see you in such a state, my Lady."

"It's true, I don't usually indulge."

"In fact, I would say this is a first," he continues. Sansa tries not to wince; he is obviously delighted to have  like this. "In all our shared time in King's Landing, you didn't take to your cups to celebrate... or to grieve."

Sansa keeps the tumult of emotions brought on by his words pushed down. "I was surrounded by enemies, I tried to keep my wits about me. But now I'm home."

Let him think her wits dulled, her defenses down. Let him think her unguarded, celebrating, happy to be home.

"It must be such a relief, to be among your own people again."

"I am grateful to those who answered the call. Who helped me take my home back."

Littlefinger hums low in his throat and Sansa knows she said the right thing. She hates that she has to lean onto his arm as they walk, not sure how much of it is part of her ploy and how much is necessary to remain upright.

"Lord Royce has informed me that he intends to stay in Winterfell."

Sansa takes a moment to run through the options as quickly as she can, to ascertain what it is he wants to hear. In truth she hoped Lord Royce would stay, as he was loyal to her father and Littlefinger was anything but. She is sure Littlefinger isn't happy; he wants to be her only tie to the Vale. "That is surprising. Lord Royce is welcome to stay as long as he likes, of course, but I had assumed he would return to the Vale when the battle was through."

"You still need his army, do you not? Your brother will not stop reminding anyone who will listen that the real war is yet to come."

Her stomach drops at the mention of Jon. "The Lord of the Vale is here to command his men."

He chuckles. "My dear, I am not a military man."

Sansa puts a hand to her head. "Of course, I... wasn't thinking. I assumed Lord Royce would return to Robin's side."

"Yes, he cares for the boy." He gives her a small smile. "But we all make hard decisions in times of war."

She groans. "I hope I am given a fortnight of peace before I have to make any more hard decisions."

"I hope so too, my love. I would give you peace, if I could." His eyes meet hers. "Perhaps one day, I shall."

They turn a corner. Sansa could count the steps to the lord's chambers from here, less than a hundred; close. Soon this will be over. She wonders absentmindedly if he is following her lead or if he knows the way to her chambers as well as she does. The thought makes her shudder.

"You must forgive me, Petyr, I haven't done my duty to you as hostess. I hope your chambers are comfortable?"

Littlefinger waves a dismissive hand. "I've been taken care of."

Sansa curses herself inwardly; she really hasn't done her duty, not at all. She has no idea where anyone is staying, here in her home. The thought makes her feel defenseless and powerless, like she is still Ramsay Bolton’s Lady of Winterfell. In the last day she has been constantly moving and trying to think of everything and she feels so bone-weary, yet there are still things slipping through the cracks.

"Will Jon Snow's wildlings be staying in the keep as well?"

Sansa's tired mind tries to come up with the right reply. "I don't know," she finally says when she's been quiet too long. "You must forgive me, Lord Baelish, for not having answers tonight. I haven't done much but rest."

"Oh, I doubt that," he says, but just like that they've arrived at her chambers. Littlefinger releases Sansa's arm and she almost sags against the door, both from relief and the lack of support, but then he turns on his feel to face her.

He stares at her in silence, waiting for her, she realizes, and Sansa's heart beats erratically in her chest.

"Thank you for escorting me," she finally speaks.

"It's my pleasure." His voice is barely audible, husky. He leans in and every muscle in her body seizes. She doesn't want to do this here; not here in Winterfell, not when she is stronger and she is home. She doesn't want to let him do this as she did in the Eyrie, as she did when she thought she had no other choice, before he sold her, before she reclaimed her home.

But then he takes her hand in both of his, giving it a firm squeeze. "Goodnight, Lady Sansa."

"Goodnight, Lord Baelish." She hopes her voice is not the tinny whisper that reaches her ears. She doesn't reach for the doorknob until he rounds the corner.

"My lady."

Thank the gods. Sansa peers over her shoulder down the other end of the hall, where Brienne is walking towards her. "Come in."

In the safety of the chambers with the door bolted behind her, Sansa lets all pretenses fall, unable to do much more than stand in place, shaking like a leaf.

"Lady Sansa! Are you alright?"

"Yes." She fights to steady herself. She clasps her hands together and drags a thumb over her knuckles. "Thank you, Brienne. Thank the gods you understood."

Brienne draws herself up to her full height. "I made a vow to you, my lady."

Sansa is unable to hold back a watery smile. "You keep it honorably. Every day."

Her sworn sword's eyes begin to widen and shine and Sansa turns away, not wanting to embarrass her.

As she begins to prepare for bed, Brienne speaks again. "If I may, my lady..." Sansa nods her consent. "You handled yourself well tonight. That can't have been easy."

Sansa rubs her knuckles absentmindedly. "It isn't."

"But I fail to see why it was necessary."

She sighs as she pulls on a clean shift. "It was necessary because of Jon's temperament."

"His temperament? I have seen him angry, my lady, but only when it was deserved."

Sansa can't help a smile at that. "You're right, and Littlefinger would have deserved it. Every bit of it." She bites off the last words with an anger that surprises her, then takes a calming breath. "Jon is like my father. He shows the people he doesn't like exactly how he feels. He believes himself honor-bound to act."

"Why shouldn't he?" Brienne says hotly.

This defense of Jon surprises Sansa, until she realizes that isn't what this is at all; it's an attack on Littlefinger. In this, Brienne must see herself and Jon aligned. The two must be itching to simply chop his head off and be done with it.

"My lady, you may not need him to command the knights of the Vale. If he is so dangerous you feel the need to... humor him to such degrees, perhaps it would be better if you allow Lord Snow to bring him to justice."

"Jon can't be the one to move against him." Sansa makes sure her tone leaves no room for argument. "If I let Jon act like my father, he will die like my father."

"My lady, you can't protect—"

"Yes I can." Sansa whirls in place so quickly Brienne almost flinches. "I didn't stop them killing father, I was too stupid to do anything. Not this time."

She swallows as the rotten image of her father's decapitated head flicks across her mind; no matter how much time passes, it never loses its potency. She remembers every sickening detail.

She starts to pace. "Littlefinger may have already moved against Jon. If he hasn't, I have to keep him from making that decision. If he has, I need to find out what he's done, and I have to undo it."

At some point Brienne's hand has moved to the hilt of her sword. "You kept them apart for Lord Snow's sake. I see now, my lady."

Sansa drops to the bed, suddenly weary.

"I will help. If I can keep you out of Littlefinger's way, I will." Brienne's jaw is locked with determination or anger, her gaze faraway in thought. "Do you believe Littlefinger will attempt to harm you here?"

He would harm her, oh he would like to harm her, for all his talk of love. He would harm her and punish her for her lack of love for him until she prays for death. But he would never give it to her, not so long as she has Catelyn’s face to kiss, Catelyn’s body to drown in. "Harm me? Yes."

Brienne's jaw clicks.

"But he will kill Jon." Sansa makes a point of meeting Brienne's eyes. "I'm sure of it."


 Jon is on the highest walls of Winterfell, watching Melisandre's dark outline grow smaller and smaller against the white snow, when she finds him. They stand in silence for a few moments, Jon trying to collect his thoughts that have been scattered this way and that in this never-ending morning. First there was the emotional struggle of touching the table where his lord father sat, where Lady Catelyn sat, where Robb and Rickon sat. Where Sansa sat. Then Davos's heartbreaking revelation and Melisandre's banishment.

But Sansa was the first thing on his mind when he woke, wondering if she was awake yet too and if she was alright, comparing his disturbed sleep to the one from the night prior, the one with her in her bed.

So he asks her, although he thinks he may have decided not to last night— he can't remember. He asks her if she trusts Littlefinger after what he did to her.

"Only a fool would trust Littlefinger." Again, that wry smile. The one that reminds him she's seen too much of the worst parts of the world.

Does she trust him? The question enters his mind, unbidden. He has been running on adrenaline and concern for so long that he hasn't pondered this, hasn't pondered Littlefinger's presence and the role Sansa played in it and what it means that she hid it from him.

He knows she saved him; he has acknowledged this and thanked her for it. She won the Battle of the Bastards, she won Winterfell, through and through.

As if Sansa hears his thoughts, she says, "I should have told you about him." Sansa pauses and so does Jon, with bated breath. But Sansa doesn't say his name, doesn't illuminate anything further about Littlefinger or his place in her life. She is simply talking about the battle. "About the knights of the Vale. I'm sorry."

Her face is filled with such true remorse that Jon cannot bear it. He walks until his face is only inches from her own.

"We have to trust each other." His breath is white in the space between them, his voice is thick with sincerity, with something close to begging. He doesn't know what she isn't telling him, but he prays she will count him on her side, that she will remember it is them two against the others, that her enemies are his.

His glove cups her cheek and pulls her forehead to his lips, his eyes squeezing shut as he pours his fealty into this moment, as he seals his vow with a kiss.

She is staring at his feet when he pulls away a moment later than he meant to, and but her lips are quirked up the slightest bit, so his heart starts beating again. She looks at him with wide and shining eyes, and his gaze is pulled against his will to her lips, and he turns away with a parting nod before he does something terrible.

Enough.

But she calls him back and tells him words he didn't know he was waiting to hear all his life, of course she does, wrenching such happiness from him it hurts. It hurts to think of the Stark words, of Ned Stark's staunch belief, of everyone who hurt him, the same people who hurt Sansa. But Sansa is happy as the snow kisses her hair, snow that holds new meaning now, and so is he; he looks at the sky and the snow and he can't help but laugh.

Chapter Text

As she stands on the high walls of Winterfell, she feels Jon's lips on her skin like a brand.

He has left minutes ago, but Sansa's feet haven't shifted. She stares at the sun as it struggles against the gray and white landscape. She thinks of Jon's dark eyes turned liquid as he struggled to tear them from her face.

Her fingers start to tingle despite the cold, and she curls them into her palms.

She tries not to think on it again, and she manages relatively successfully until they break fast side by side. Again she feels the imprint on her forehead, the proof of— what? His trust? His care? 

His kiss. 

"The lords are meeting today at midday," she tells him, more to remind herself. There is a most difficult day ahead, and Sansa will need every bit of her mental energy. 

"I know," Jon says around a full mouth. 

She lowers her voice. "We are meeting first. Privately."

Jon swallows his food and looks at her. "Why?"

She clears her throat. "I should have clarified. You, me, Davos."

"Davos won't be much use today," he grumbles. "Why are we meeting?"

"It's important that we have a smaller council to make decisions before we… make decisions."

Jon stares at her for a while before releasing a sigh and returning to his food. "Whatever you say, Sansa. You're better at this than me."

The words are praise but his tone is insulting; Sansa spent enough time with Cersei to know tone holds truth far often than words. She lowers her voice to a bare-whisper so that none of the diners around them, a collection of knights and lords and free folk, can hear. "Would you prefer to make all your decisions on the spot, under the watchful eye of people who want a reason to call you wrong? Especially when you feel bound to keep your word? Or is it my selection you take issue with?"

His eyes slip closed for a moment. "It's a very clever idea. I'm sure it will be a great help." He looks at her with eyes so tired, eyes that seem to yearn to be shut forever. "But I'm allowed. I'm allowed not to want it."

Sansa blinks. She knows he isn't talking about this meeting or any meeting. Terror grips her. Has she done all of this for nothing?

She snaps her gaze from his and straightens her back, lifts her chin, but again her voice is the slightest whisper— it would be beyond disastrous if anyone overheard. "If you don't want to lead us, Jon, inform me. But if you do it, do it fully. Do it well."

His voice is small and hurt. "Sansa, I didn't—"

"The North has gone through too much. It needs a true leader." She pushes her chair back. "Davos has already been informed. The meeting is an hour in your office. Decide."


 

When Jon appears, Sansa doesn't let her shoulders drop in relief like she wants to. She only gives him a glance and a quick nod. The sight of him standing hesitantly in the doorway with a tray of steaming tea and three cups does something to her stomach. 

"Well, what's the point of a secret meeting if you're going to leave the door open for all to hear?" Davos tuts and moves behind Jon to close the door, taking the tray from him. "Smells good."

"Lemon mint," Jon says, his eyes darting to her. Sansa meets his entreating eyes and reaches for a cup. 

Some grueling hours later they have a table covered in parchment and something resembling a plan. They have successfully agreed on a list of Northern lords to summon to Winterfell for a meeting in a moon's time. This task took up a significant bulk of their time, as Sansa and Jon kept disagreeing on whether to invite the lords who refused to help them retake Winterfell.

"Sansa, the lords who answered the call are here already," Jon said, exasperated. "What's the point?"

But she won on not inviting the Karstarks or the Umbers, refusing to relent no matter what Jon or Davos said, the image of Rickon's arrow filled body fueling her.

They drew up a list of issues to present in this meeting and the one in a month. The focus of today's meeting would be fortifying Winterfell and more permanent plans for placement of all currently within its walls. Jon agreed after some resistance to postpone the discussion of the war against the dead. 

They agreed on a stance regarding every point so as to present a united front to their people. Sansa learned of the many lords' placement within the keep, which gave her a significant sense of relief, and they reworked the map to accommodate the coming influx as best as possible. They decided to present the lords with the gift of a feast in ten days’ time.

"It will be difficult." Sansa bit her lip; the struggle with the food stores would only grow worse, she knew. "But it's important for morale to celebrate, to thank them for everything they sacrificed."

Jon gave her an understanding look that instantly put her at ease. "We will discuss the food shortage and prepare for winter. We will manage."

We. 

When the final matter is concluded and Sansa and Jon have slumped back in their chairs, Davos excuses himself. The way Jon looks after his retreating figure has Sansa asking after him. "He received some ill news," Jon explains.

"Will he be alright?"

"Yes." Jon rubs a hand over his eyes. "I'm sorry about earlier."

Sansa looks at him, trying to read him. She has become quite good at not allowing her own hopes or delusions taint the truth of what she can actually see in front of her—a lesson hard learned from many mistakes— but she still makes errors with Jon, despite him being one of the most transparent men in Westeros. 

"I took your presence here to mean that you've decided." She presses her lips together. It's difficult to be speak so plainly, to ask. "Will you lead as Warden of the North?"

"I will."

He says it as seriously as he says anything, and it should be enough, but it bothers her, it pushes her the wrong way. She wants to push him back. "But you don't want to?" 

Jon gives her a dark look. She presses on. "You said so this morning."

"You speak as if I've never had command. I was Lord Commander of the Night's Watch. I took it seriously. I died for it."

"You didn't want to be Lord Commander either."

"Who told you that?"

Sansa lifts her chin, not letting his hot gaze get to her. "Dolorous Edd."

"Oh? And what else did Edd tell you?"

"He told me Stannis Baratheon offered you lordship of Winterfell, and you refused." Sansa watches with a spike of perverse pleasure as Jon's eyes blow open with shock and hurt. "He told me that before I came to Castle Black you were going to leave the North, to go beyond to where there's nothing but summer heat."

Jon blinks. "Why...?"

Sansa sighs. "He was thanking me, Jon. He said he wished you could have stayed with the Night's Watch but that he's grateful to me for keeping you in the North, for reminding you of who you are and what you care about, because you will still stand beside him to fight the Night King." The words pour out of her, rushed. "I need to know that you won't do the same thing, even if you are betrayed, because it could happen. I need to know you will be a Lord and Warden, that you will stay in Winterfell."

Jon's eyes snap to hers. "Do you think I'd leave?"

A cold slips over her. She is afraid of that, exactly that. "I'm not sure." She speaks slowly, working out her thoughts with each word. "I know you would stay in Winterfell if there was no one looking to you for command or care. But I push you to embrace more... you resist it. It frightens me."

Jon's eyes are as wide as saucers, his body absolutely still. "I don't want to you to think I'd abandon you. That I'd fail you."

"And would you fail or abandon the North?"

All at once, she can feel it— pieces within her clasping together. She and the North. One and the same.

Jon takes a moment before answering, which she appreciates, and when he does it is full of conviction. "No."

Heart pounding, Sansa nods and gets to her feet. She has just turned away from the table when his voice arrests her. "Wait."

She does.

"Sansa, you—" He pauses and even with her back turned to him she can imagine him dragging a hand over his eyes, or his mouth or his bearded jaw, as he often does. "You don't understand. If you think command of the Night's Watch and being Lord of Winterfell are the same to me, you don't understand me." 

Sansa inhales and opens her mouth to speak, but he is too quick.

"I used to dream of being Lord of Winterfell when I was a child. I would think only a great deed would ever earn me such a thing, and I would dream of saving father’s life."

A gasp tears itself from her body; Sansa turns slowly, as if moving through water, to look at his face. She has to see his face.

"When I got older I understood that no heroic act would ever make me Lord of Winterfell. The only thing that might..." His face twists on the edge of breaking, his features contorting to hold in the pain. "Your deaths. If my brothers died childless. Even then, there was you and Arya. When Bran fell from the tower, I felt the shame for the first time, the disloyalty I'd harbored in my heart for ever wanting to be father's heir. And every day since, worse and worse with every loss..."

His voice breaks at the end of the last, and his breath stutters as he attempts to collect himself. "Winterfell is Robb's by right, it’s Bran's and Rickon's. But I never.... you say I don't want it, but it's all I wanted. Those dreams are dead. There's nothing good about being Lord of Winterfell... it was bought by blood. My brothers' blood." 

Sansa rushes to his side. She bends to her knees beside him, pulling his hand with both of hers and clasping it tightly over her chest. All she can see are his eyes, twin pools of pain, wet with unshed tears. He stares at her like he is begging. "Sansa, I never wanted harm to come to any of them."

"I know. I know."

"When I say I don’t want it... what I mean is—"

"I know. I understand now." She has to cut him off, because every word is causing him pain, and she can't stand it if he looks any worse, she won't be able to handle it if a single tear slides down his cheek. "It makes you a good man, Jon. The best man."

A line of confusion and contemplation appears between his brows. She has never felt closer to him than this moment, has never seen him more clearly, and what she sees is so pure and good and reminds her so much of everything Stark that she wants to look away. But she doesn't. She repeats the words she said to him this morning, words she will repeat until the guilt is washed away.

"You are a Stark." When his jaw clenches and his hand jerks within hers, she clasps it tighter, dragging him closer to her heart. "You didn't buy that with blood, Jon. You didn't buy Winterfell with blood. You didn't buy it at all. You were born from Lord Eddard Stark. Before anything happened to our brothers, you were born from him. Do you understand?"

"Sansa..." His eyes are shut and his voice is a rasp of pain. "I'm a bastard."

"That doesn't matter." Her voice is getting higher by the second, closer and closer to breaking. "You deserve Winterfell just as much as our brothers did."

He looks at her from beneath barely opened lids. "You deserve Winterfell."

"And if I'm the one who wants you to be Lord?" Her eyes narrow the slightest degree, challenging him. "If I want you at my side, if I want us to do this together?"

His gaze grows with heat. "Yes."

"I believe that you'll be a good ruler precisely because of everything you've said. I know rulers." She shuffles closer to his side, impossible as she is already pressed against the leg of his chair, her hands and his sandwiched between his leg and her chest. "You will have help. Your advisers. Me. I'll defend you, I'll stand by you. I need to know you'll stand by me—"

"Of course, Sansa." His voice is as rough as gravel. "Don't doubt it for a second."

Minutes pass but neither of them moves. Sansa’s knees start to ache but she ignores it. Her legs grow numb and she ignores that too. All she feels is Jon’s hand in hers.

They stay still until a knock falls on the door, and Sansa could have stayed still until night came and they both fell asleep. Instead they rise together and straighten themselves out, brushing their hands over their clothing as if they wear the intimacy of the shared moment like a layer of dust. They offer each other tremulous smiles and Sansa reaches for his hand. Together they walk to the hall where the Northern lords wait. Together. Like they have been since that first night at Castle Black. Like we will be always.

Chapter Text

A flash of that yellow hair and Tormund is sitting straight, the horn of goat’s milk forgotten in his suddenly loose grip. Those sky blue eyes. She is broad and strong, taller than even him—fuck, he has never seen a woman like her.

It takes several prods for Tormund to address Davos, who has abandoned his ale to look at him like he has two heads. “What, man?”

“She is a lady,” Davos says, a new layer of sternness in his voice Tormund hasn’t heard before.

“I see that.” Oh, he sees it. He sees her fine shoulders and her lovely legs underneath that knight’s armor she wears. He sees the pretty line of her mouth. Those hips would be good to birth babes. A dozen giant babes to take over the world, capped with flaming red or pale yellow, Tormund wouldn’t mind either. He wouldn’t care the slightest bit.

Brienne hasn’t noticed him yet, and that won’t do. He jumps to his feet. “I was hopin’ you’d find me,” he calls.

She notices him then. That scowl she seems to wear only around him— and that rat-like man they call Littlefinger, he’s noticed, but only when his back is turned—graces her face. The only appropriate response, of course, is a grin.

He shoves his drink in her direction. “Come to forget?”

She eyes the horn in his hand like it’s the carcass of a dead animal.

“Hello, Ser Davos.” Her tone changes completely when she addresses his companion, and the change makes his grin widen.

“Good evening, my lady.”

“Just Brienne,” she says, tightly. Tormund observes the lines in her neck tighten—he aches to rub the tension from there, from all the other lines and curves of her body.

“It’s morning for me, actually,” she tells Davos, not him, that much is clear. She moves around the kitchen, gathering bread and cheese into a plate.

“Need help with that?” He is still grinning, he can’t help it around her. He knows his grin isn’t a pretty thing, and for the first time in his life he almost wishes it was.

“No.”

“Didn’t think you would,” he says, unable to keep the smirk or the raw admiration from his voice. Though he would give her his fists and his sword and his blood the second she lets him, she doesn’t need them—no, this fearsome woman doesn’t need him at all.

He rushes to the icebox where he knows they keep a bit of chilled fish. One of the kitchen girls took a liking to him and showed him these kitchen secrets, and although Tormund didn’t entertain her—of course he didn’t, he only has eyes for the big woman, his woman—he is grateful now for that kitchen girl, as he presents Brienne with the fish.

She eyes his offering and promptly ignores it, although Tormund knows she likes the fish—he’s seen her favoring it at multiple meals.

“Would you prefer the meat?” He says, completely unnecessary, but he has to try. He has to keep trying.

“Don’t concern yourself with what I eat,” she snaps.

A hundred filthy responses cross his mind. Instead he says, “I wouldn’t dare.” He decides to be amicable for once and somehow it makes her angrier, she is near-seething beside him.

“Are you riding out to the wildling settlement with the lady Sansa tomorrow?” Davos interrupts. Yet when Tormund glares at Davos for the interruption, the older man is frowning at him.

“Free folk,” Brienne gently corrects, and if he wasn’t already in love, he is now. “I am. And you will be accompanying Lord Snow?”

“Yes. Did—”

“I’ll be there,” Tormund interjects, although neither of them comment or even look his way.

“Did Lord Snow tell you what time we would be departing?” Brienne continues, her voice frustrated. “I would like to ascertain the journey’s safety for Lady Sansa.”

“In the morning before—”

“My people wouldn’t hurt her.” Tormund takes advantage of the swell of defensiveness and that touch of anger in him to crowd her, watching her eyes widen by degrees as his puffed up chest comes closer. “They know who she is.”

“I didn’t mean you.” It’s a vicious snap though her words are kind. Her eyes harden to flints of ice as she turns their full power on him. “Anyone who dares to try and hurt my lady will meet with my sword. Southern, Northern, free folk.”

She thinks she’s putting him off, he knows, though she couldn’t be more wrong. That might work on weaker men but it does nothing but entice him. “I know it.”

Her eyes slip away from him and she moves for the door. “Goodnight, Ser Davos.”

“What did you mean, then, about the journey’s safety?” It isn’t the cleverest question but Tormund wouldn’t call himself a clever man. Besides, he just needs to keep her here, just a bit longer.

Her eyes shift, and Tormund already knows before she speaks that she’s hiding something. She and her lady, the little crow’s kissed-by-fire sister, always keeping their secrets. “I need to check on Lady Sansa’s horse. She doesn’t like riding.”

“Do you like riding?” And I don’t mean horses.

“I’m quite good at it.”

Tormund smirks and his eyes rake down her form. “With those legs, I bet you are.”

When he looks up she is glaring, the fire in her eyes making all her other looks to him feel like caresses. Her rage sends the blood right to his cock. He grins. Oh, she is delightful. 

“You are ignoble and uncouth,” she hisses, words he doesn’t understand, and that’s alright. He understands her meaning perfectly well. She storms from the room but leaves the cloud of her rage behind, thickening the air. He grins at Davos but the older man’s face is twisted up like a prune.

“I like her,” Tormund tells Davos before he can open his mouth and say something that might actually shake the grin from his face. Something about how she’s a southern lady knight and he’s a lowly savage who doesn’t deserve her. No, he knows that already, and it wouldn’t upset him to hear it. It would upset him if Davos said he didn’t stand a chance at making her happy.

But the old man only suckles his drink and mutters darkly. “No kidding.”

The two drink in silence for a few minutes until Davos speaks up. “She’s important to Lady Sansa and she’s important to Jon.” Ah, there it is. “Take care with her.”

“You think I wouldn’t? We treat our women better than you southerners do.”

Davos doesn’t ask for clarification, only holds up his hands. “All I’m saying is, don’t give Jon a reason to reconsider keeping you around.”

“He’s a good man,” is all Tormund says in response, unbothered by the doubt the old man was trying to place in his head. Davos may be Jon’s advisor but Tormund knew his place with him, too, and it was not one of little importance.

Speaking of Jon…

Tormund gulps from his horn until the liquid is trickling into his beard. “I’m going to ask you a question.” He takes Davos’s silence as consent. “Is it you kneelers’ way to want your sisters?”

Beside him Davos coughs. “What?”

“To want them, to fuck them, to wed them. Is that the way between brothers and sisters down here?”

“No! What gave you that idea?” Davos sputters. “Well there were the Targaryens, they wed brothers and sisters, but they were frowned upon…”

“Hm,” is all Tormund says in response, thinking.


 

Jon startles awake, rubbing his cheek where it had sunk into the hard wood of the chair. As his eyes adjust the weak light of the fire illuminates a mass of auburn red and black in the chair beside him.

He and Sansa must have fallen asleep in their chairs before the hearth in her bedchamber, exhausted from the day's work. He rubs his eyes as he walks to her, lowering himself to his haunches to get a better look. She is folded up in a way that can't be comfortable, her head hanging forward, chin ghosting her chest. He hooks a finger under her chin and tilts her head back, dragging the sheet of hair back with it. She does not wake, but her eyelids flutter, the only change on her otherwise peaceful face. 

Carefully, he slips an arm behind her knees and works the other under her arms. With a huff he gathers her into his arms and walks her to the bed. 

“Jon,” she mutters. Her eyes are half open, closing again, and as he starts to lower her to the bed she speaks again. “Help.”

Fear seizes him. “What?”

“Help me... my dress.”

He is so relieved he can’t help but chuckle, until he considers what she’s asked him. He feels his face heat. “I’ll get you a handmaiden.”

Her eyes are already closed. Jon tucks her more securely into the bed so she isn't at risk of falling off the edge, then toes across the room and calls to the recognizable guard a few feet away. “Podrick.”

“My lord?”

“Sansa and I fell asleep by the fire. I’ve just woken up. Please fetch a handmaiden to help her prepare for bed.”

Minutes later Jon nods at a woman who shuffles past him into the bedchamber. Jon and Podrick stand side by side for a quiet, awkward moment. “I’ll escort her when she’s finished,” Jon explains. 

“There’s no need, my Lord. If you wish for her to have an escort, I’ll—”

A scream silences him.

Jon is already pushing into the chamber, a dull roar in his ears. He is at Hardhome, he is on the fields outside Winterfell, he is on the blood soaked soil of Castle Black—

He is in Sansa’s bedchamber. His eyes find her first. She stands half dressed, a light shift covering her shoulders and chest, her dress peeled away, hanging half undone at her hips. Her mouth is open. Tears stream down her face. A dagger is clenched in her hand.

The handmaiden is on her back, crawling away from Sansa, and it was she who screamed. She is saying something now, but Jon can’t hear her. He grabs Podrick’s arm and meets his eyes, hisses, “Get her out of here. Take care of her. No one hears of this.”

Podrick is throwing concerned glances at Sansa, but he gulps audibly and nods at Jon. “Yes, my Lord.”

“Good man.” He pats Podrick on the back and takes a tentative step towards Sansa. He doesn’t see the two leave— he only has eyes for Sansa— but he hears the door close.

“Sansa...” He holds his hands up with his palms forward, wary of frightening her. “You’re alright. Are you alright?”

Her chin starts to tremble. Her voice is like a frightened child’s. “Who was that, Jon?”

“A handmaiden. She was preparing you for bed. Did she hurt you?”

“She touched me.” Her voice breaks. “I was asleep and then I was awake and someone was pulling my clothes off my body

A sob breaks off her words. The sound, her words and their meaning, gut him but he cannot tear his gaze from the dagger in her hand. It sways dangerously in her loosening grasp.

“Sansa. I’m here. She’s gone.” In his growing panic he suddenly can’t find the words he needs. “Sansa, please give me the knife. I can’t— I don’t want you to hurt yourself.”

She looks at him with an inscrutable gaze, and he wonders if she understands him.

“I… I won’t hurt you.” Perhaps she is afraid to be defenseless with him. Perhaps she is frightened of him, after all. He wouldn’t blame her. “Put it on the ground, please. Can you do that?”

When she finally obeys, the breath rushes back into his body with such an intensity he is suddenly gasping. He fights to control himself. It is she who gets to fall apart now, not him. He needs to be strong.

“What’s wrong?” She blinks at him, awareness flooding her gaze. “Your chest—are you—?”

“I’m fine.” She will not worry about him now, it wouldn’t be fair. Yet a part of him can’t help but register the sweetness of her concern—even now she is capable of it. He is unused to such attentions.

“Sansa, I’m sorry I brought the handmaiden. I—”

“You brought her?”

Her gaze burns with accusation, and although he understands why she reacted the way she did, he doesn’t understand how he was supposed to anticipate it. “You were half asleep, you asked me to help you—undress. I thought I did the right thing.”

Her cheeks are suddenly so pink, and she wraps her arms around herself as if just noticing that she stands half-dressed before him. Jon swallows, trying not to notice it himself.

“I—said that? What else did I say?”

A beat. “Nothing,” Jon says, breathless.

“It was my fault, then,” Sansa says in a clipped tone, deeming the matter closed as a prim and proper Septa would.

His chest aches. “No, Sansa. It wasn’t.”

“I…” She heaves a sigh. “Jon, I won’t be using any handmaidens. No one gets to—no one can…”

She stands, forlorn in the middle of the chamber, wrestling with words in her mind. “I understand,” Jon says, wishing he was better with words himself.  

“If something like that happens again, just let me sleep in my clothes.”

“Alright.”

“Promise,” she demands, hot.

“Sansa, I won’t let anyone touch you.” He rakes a breath through his nose to ease the rage that creeps up on him at the unwelcome thought of Ramsay. “Now I know that includes handmaidens. No one. I promise.”

“You can,” she breathes, too fast, then presses a hand over her mouth.

His heart stutters to a stop. Two small words—but he imagined them, surely he has.

Her wide eyes meet his. “I only meant… You don’t frighten me.”

Tears fill his eyes, astonishing him. This feels like a gift, one he doesn’t deserve.

“You don’t know what that means to me.” His voice is gruff. “Thank you.”

Sansa nods. She lowers herself to the bed, her dress sprawled around her lap like the petals of a flower. Jon understands she means to be left alone. At the door, he cannot help a glance back at her, sitting at the very edge of her bed, hands lifted to her mouth, staring at the wall.

“Will you be alright?”

“Yes.”

One more look at her, frozen like ivory. That night sleep doesn’t come. He lies awake with worry for her, an undercurrent of something darker beneath it. He can’t help but feel he has already compromised her, already done something to not deserve her trust.

Chapter Text

Sinking into the scalding bathwater, Jon can do nothing but sigh in relief. The heat is glorious to his sore muscles, until—he bares his teeth in a hiss when his shoulders start to descend beneath the surface. The wound, still caked in blood, burns.

Early that morning he visited the new settlement of the free folk. As soon as they arrived Sansa was off her horse, asking thoughtful questions, inquiring about the food, the furs, the firewood, and the weapons. Her eyes leapt over the camp whenever she wasn’t making notations on a scroll. Though Jon was preoccupied with his own tasks through the visit, his attention was never too far from her.

It was brighter under the open sky, and Sansa had shone under it, her auburn hair glinting in the light, her cheeks pink from riding. Jon watched as children flocked to her and asked to touch her hair. “Kissed by fire,” they said, and many a man and woman too. “Lucky girl,” others would say, and Sansa would look away, her smile not so genuine then. Some of the little ones dragged their red haired friends and parents to show off to Sansa, and Sansa would bend low and kiss the cheeks of the lucky child, or she would stand and smile indulgently with the equally put-upon adult, the two exchanging knowing looks.

The sword came late in the morning. If Jon hadn’t been attempting to speak to four of them at once he would have noticed the attack a moment earlier; as it was, the sword nicked his shoulder. By the time an enraged Tormund leapt to his defense Jon had dealt the same blow. The wildling man was on the ground, clutching his arm, yelling about knights. Both Davos and Tormund looked to him, waiting for the second blow, the death blow. But Jon sheathed Longclaw. He would not take an able bodied man’s life when the army of the dead was at their door.

Luckily, Sansa was gone by then, back to Winterfell with Brienne and a small retinue. As he struggles to dress without agitating his shoulder, he remembers her saying that she would make these trips to the free folk settlement a habit. His worry follows him out of the bath and into his office.

He is poring over ledgers when Davos knocks and enters. “There’s a matter I have to bring to your attention.”

His grim expression alarms Jon. “What? Out with it.”

“Your sister is receiving marriage offers.”

Jon’s mind suddenly blanks. He stares at Davos. “It’s been six days.”

Davos straightens his back as if steeling himself. “Lady Sansa is a beautiful young woman. She’s Ned and Catelyn Stark’s daughter and the Lady of Winterfell, one of the most advantageous matches any man in the seven kingdoms can make—”

Jon holds up a hand, and Davos—mercifully—stops.

“Key to the North,” Jon mutters darkly. “That’s what she told me they called her, those fuckers in King’s Landing. Littlefinger too. A key to be bought and sold. And you would have me sell her?”

The threat in his voice would have any man drawing back, but Davos doesn’t. “No. But you should be informed.”

Jon forces himself to take a breath. Davos is only the messenger—he isn’t the one who deserves his anger. “Who?”

“Lord Tallhart, Lord Glenmore, Lord Blackwood, Lord Cerwyn—”

“Stop,” Jon orders, suddenly exhausted. He rakes a hand over his face. “Cerwyn? He didn’t answer the call… Does he think he’s good enough to marry her?”

Davos doesn’t answer. Jon slumps back in his chair, his head aching. “Haven’t they been listening? The war is coming, and all they can think about is marriage…”

“Men don’t stop being men in times of war.”

Jon glares. His advisor and friend isn’t normally so offensive or obtuse. He curls his fist underneath the desk and reminds himself, again, that Davos isn’t the one who deserves his anger.

“Don’t mention this to me again.” Jon returns his attention to the ledgers before him, deeming the matter closed.  

“With all due respect, I’ll have to.”

Jon glares at his advisor, who continues. “I’ve spent some time with Lady Sansa the last few months. If there’s one thing I learned from her, it’s that turning a blind eye, as much as you may want to, can have consequences.”

Jon can’t help the small quirk of his lips. “‘Knowledge is power.’ That’s what she says.”

Then he thinks of her in her bedchamber the night before, a dagger in her hand, fear in her eyes, and the slight smile vanishes.

“Sansa will not marry.”

“She’s a highborn lady who—

“That wasn’t a request or an invitation to debate.” Now Jon is shouting. “Sansa will not marry.”  

Davos sighs. “I know she has suffered. But eventually she will marry, to carry on the Stark line.”

“Then she will only marry when it’s her choice,” he snaps, and the wound in his shoulder twinges. He winces.

“Have you seen the Maester for it yet?”

Still seething, Jon ignores Davos’s concern and his probing look. “I’m fine.”

“Lady Sansa won’t like that,” Davos says before leaving the room, and Jon swears he glimpses a smirk on the older man’s face. He settles back in his chair and rubs his good hand over his face. Davos is right.


 

Though it is barely evening Sansa cannot keep from raising her hand to her mouth to stifle her yawns. It was a hard day, from the early morning ride to the free folk settlement to the hours in the infirmary assisting the maester. The settlement was not far outside Winterfell’s walls; Brienne had assured her beforehand that the ride wasn’t long, but that if she wanted to walk then she would accompany her. But Sansa didn’t want to draw attention to herself as the only person of the party who didn’t ride out.

Riding put a strain on Sansa’s body, pulling old wounds open and bringing the pain anew. They were the wounds on her back and her thighs and the backs of her legs, places she couldn’t easily reach; wounds that had never been treated properly after the frenzy that was her escape from Winterfell. All day she felt the acute pain and the stings, consequences of the ride. Bending for minutes at a time to painstakingly stitch a wound together was no easier on her and now she aches everywhere. I won’t see a maester, though one stands before her, a man she almost trusts.

No, she does trust him. Maester Wolkan had agreed without question when she asked him to allow her to review all the ravens that came into Winterfell, even if they weren’t meant for her eyes. She would not have asked if she did not trust him, and he had earned that trust. But not with my body. Not yet, not anyone, maybe not ever.

“My lord, come with me to a more private chamber.” The gravity in Maester Wolkan’s low tone causes Sansa to still her hand and look up from her work. She catches the back of him, a silhouette she’d know anywhere, that characteristic bun.

As soon as she has a free moment Sansa follows the path they took. From behind a closed door Sansa hears low tones. After a moment of indecision, she presses her ear to the door. The words don’t become discernable but she thinks she recognizes the low brogue of Jon’s voice. What could he want with the Maester? Worry eats at her and she knocks before she can change her mind.

Maester Wolkan cracks the door open, hiding the room from her eyes. “Can I help you with anything, my lady?”

“Is Jon with you?”

Before he can answer Jon himself calls from behind him. “Come in, Sansa.”

Maester Wolkan opens the door wide enough for Sansa to step in. She raises her eyes to where Jon sits and barely stifles a gasp.

His cloak and doublet lay discarded beside him. He wears only a tunic unlaced so that it hangs on him strangely, covering most of his chest and one shoulder but exposing the other, which is red with a wound. She raises her eyes, finding his already on her, waiting.

“You’re hurt,” she whispers, though there’s no need for it.

“A scratch.”

His eyes are kinder now, bunching a bit in the corners in a way she’s come to appreciate as much as a smile.

Sansa takes a hesitant step towards him, eyes falling again to his shoulder. She has seen a thousand wounds, yet she cannot approach this one. She’s aware of the Maester looking at her but she can’t do anything differently. She can’t don a mask or pretend, not with Jon sitting there bleeding.

She meets his eyes once more and finds her voice. “You’re alright?”

“I promise I am,” he says, and she relaxes, because Jon doesn’t make promises lightly.

Maester Wolkan moves between them and resumes his cleaning of the wound but Jon doesn’t move his eyes from her. Sansa wants to ask him how he incurred it but isn’t sure if she should until they’re alone. Patience. She follows the movement of the maester’s hands to distract herself but it is far from soothing. She’d think she was desensitized to blood but seeing Jon’s darken the white rags makes her avert her eyes sharply.

But the rest of Jon’s exposed skin is far from unmarred. The edge of a scar so deep and dark it looks black disappears into his tunic. With a jolt she realizes he is wearing the tunic because he hides his scars too. Sansa remembers the betrayal he suffered and anger rises in her chest. Fear too, fear for him, fear of everyone in this castle and outside it who would seek to hurt him again.

There is nowhere else to look besides Jon’s eyes. It’s clear he means to reassure her. His face betrays nothing as Maester Wolkan works, not even a flinch from the pain, and Sansa wonders what her own face reveals.

Keep it together. Much worse is still to come. The war against death itself is coming, and Jon would be in the middle—in the front—wherever the danger is paramount, that’s where he will be, because that’s Jon. She wraps her arms around herself, wincing, thoughts of Jon’s body limp as a rag doll—

“Sansa!”

Jon’s sharp use of her name brings her back to the room. He’s alright, she tells herself, staring at him to absorb the truth of it. He isn’t fighting the Night King, he isn’t dead.

Not yet.

“Bring her a chair,” Jon says, and Maester Wolkan quickly obeys, as she feels a chair poking the backs of her knees a moment later.

“I’m sorry,” she says as she sinks into it. She presses a palm to her forehead and finds it hot. “I just feel a bit faint. I haven’t eaten.”

Jon doesn’t look pleased at that, nor reassured. “Are you ill? Would you like the maester to—”

“No.” Sansa inhales and softens her voice. “You’re the one who’s injured, Jon, you need his attentions more than I.”

Sansa jumps to her feet before either man can object. “I’ll retire early. I’m sure some food and sleep will set me right.”

She sweeps from the room with her heartbeat ringing in her ears. The plans she has been making return to the forefront of her mind. Sansa clicks her jaw, deciding. She cannot waste any more time. We have so many enemies now. That’s what Jon said before he pressed his lips to her forehead. She ignores the fluttering in her stomach at the memory and focuses on his words. He was right, and any one of those enemies could take him. I’ll protect him— she makes her own vow, mirroring his to her, though he does not hear it.                                                                               


 

Podrick was the one to find her supping alone in her chambers. “Lady Sansa would like to speak you before you retire.”

Brienne stood and spoke around the food still in her mouth. “Is it urgent?”

Podrick cracked one of his grins. “No. You can finish your meal, my lady.”

“Stop that,” Brienne admonished, not knowing what exactly she was reprimanding him for, but Podrick understood. This was just their way. A moment later the squire had taken the offered seat beside her and joined her in eating.

After the meal was through and Podrick departed to his own chambers, Brienne moves through the keep’s halls to the lord’s—no, the lady’s chambers.

A low rumbling sound, like an animal’s growls, can be heard even from here. Brienne quickens her step, turning the corner in a matter of seconds. At the end of the hall she sees Jon’s white direwolf, though he is more Sansa’s than Jon’s now, the way he trails after her and sleeps in her bed. His teeth are bared, his throat rumbling in warning, red eyes are trained on a man who stands hesitantly outside. Excellent wolf, you are.

Littlefinger starts to walk away the moment he sees her, but Brienne won’t have that.

Pardon me, my lord,” she all but yells at him. “Can I have a word?”

His back is still to her and he doesn’t respond, but after a moment he stops his walk. He is a clever man and knew she would not let him walk away.

Brienne stops beside the wolf and looks at the chamber door, wondering if Sansa was within. The wolf’s presence here strongly suggested she was, and that made Littlefinger’s presence even more alarming.  “Why are you here?”

“For the same reason you are, I suspect.” He turns slowly and inclines his head, that small smile on his mouth making his face look even more rat-like. “My lady.”

Brienne places a hand on the hilt of her sword. She never was known for being subtle. “I’m here to protect Sansa. I doubt that’s your intention.”

His smile doesn’t budge but he arches a brow. “I can’t wield a sword with much skill, but I’ve protected her much longer than you.”

“Where were you when the Bolton bastard had her?” She doesn’t mention the fact that it was by his hand that Sansa ended up with Bolton in the first place. She doesn’t need to. The anger in Littlefinger’s eyes and his lack of response thus far made it an unnecessary addition.

“Why are you here?”

“I have business with Lady—”

“Here in Winterfell.” Brienne takes no small satisfaction in the way Littlefinger’s mouth snaps shut. “You are Lord Protector of the Vale. You should be in the Vale.”

Littlefinger’s mouth curls. “Does your lady know you’re speaking to me this way? She’s all but begged me to stay. I don’t think she’d appreciate you going against her wishes.”

“That doesn’t change this.” Brienne pulls on her sword so that several inches of the stunning Valyrian steel show. “Stay away from her.”

Littlefinger’s eyes drop to her blade for a second, just a second, not nearly long enough. “I know what you think of me,” he drawls. “Brothelkeeper, Master of Coin… a grubby man who takes what he can get without discernment. But that man is dead.”

Brienne pushes her sword into its scabbard and turns to enter Sansa’s chamber before glancing at Baelish over her shoulder. “I don’t think of you at all.”

Chapter Text

It takes Arya six days to get out far enough away from The Twins that little orphan girls don’t come up to her, lost and crying.

The first time it happened she was so stunned that she wanted to hit something—anything, anything, except of course the little girl with the tear stained cheeks in front of her, the girl who had with a few words destroyed all of Arya’s hard-won victory.

“My father’s gone, he didn’ come home,” she sobbed, clutching Arya’s trousers so that she couldn’t run away. Not that Arya wanted to, yet. She was concerned for the girl, who couldn’t have been older than five. She had little teeth missing, like Arya did when she left Winterfell. This girl was younger than Rickon was then, and the thought made Arya’s stomach hurt.

“Who’s your father?”

The girl’s face twisted up like it hurt to think the name. I know what that’s like. Fresh tears spilled from her eyes. “Arwood Frey.”

It had felt so good to kill the Freys. It felt so good that Arya had tasted it, in her mouth, and suddenly recalled that she had loved the cinnamon hot cakes that would come out of the Winterfell kitchens. Old Nan would load them with so much spice that everyone but Arya would cough. It’s easy to forget those things when you’re no one—and nothing makes you feel like no one more than killing.

But that’s not true, is it? No, killing the Freys had tasted so good because it was Arya Stark killing them. Arya Stark of Winterfell. She’d even said the words before she slit Walder Frey’s hideous throat. “The last thing you’re ever going to see is a Stark smiling down at you as you die.” Killing the Freys tasted like Arya Stark’s victory, her vindication, like the culmination of everything she’d suffered and bled for. It felt like she was telling all the Starks, but especially Mother and Robb, here you go, I am doing this for you. It felt like she was telling them she loved them.

And then this girl ruined it. And she was only the first.

She wanted to slap them, especially the older boys who could take it, they really tempted her, and she thinks she might have done it if she didn’t already know her mouth would taste like ash afterwards. She wanted to hold them while they cried, and just scream and scream and scream until her throat stopped working. She wanted to yell at them and shake them and tell them this was just how the world worked. Your parents killed other people’s parents, or else they got killed by other people’s parents, and then you grew up to hate whoever killed your parents, or whoever they killed, and on and on the cycle kept going. That they better harden up and learn how to hold a sword, because that’s just the way the world worked.

But Arya didn’t do any of those things. She only tried to avoid them. They made her sick.

Now that a whole day’s passed without a single confused orphaned child stumbling into her way, Arya can breathe easier. On the second day she feels much better, and her stomach holds down the food she cooks over the fire. When Arya says the names as she lays down to sleep, she feels like herself again.

The North remembers. That’s what she told Walder Frey’s wife, who looked to be about her age—that makes her grimace, and she relishes killing him all over again. Arya is all that’s left of the North. Bran and Rickon are dead or not dead.  Theon Greyjoy had killed them or not killed them. Jon is dead or not dead—he is at the Wall, anyway, and if he didn’t forsake his vows when they took Father’s head or stabbed Robb’s chest, he never would. He would die there.

Arya’s face twists, just like that little orphan girl’s. It hurts to think of Jon. It hurts to remember him and love him, to imagine him alive but so far away, so disconnected from everything that’s happened.

The last is Sansa, and she’s no different—dead or not dead—though her story is the most confusing. The scraps of news—it was generous to call them news, it was more like gossip—that Arya heard of Sansa were so wild and disconnected that she disregarded them all as fables. Sansa was a Lannister but not Joffrey’s Lannister, Sansa was a Tyrell, Sansa was lost at sea on a ship to Dorne, Sansa was a murderess who used poison instead of blades, Sansa was a girl who wore wolf’s skin at night. That last made her laugh. Wolf girl. That’s Arya, not Sansa. Arya’s all that’s left of the North, and she’ll make sure everyone remembers.  

The horse she stole is a good one, strong and fast, and Arya thinks he’ll be able to get her to King’s Landing without any problems at all.


The queen sits in her preferred chair in his laboratory. Between them on the table is a litter of raven scrolls and a few maps—more for his benefit than hers. Despite the years Qyburn spent at the citadel, he has found that her knowledge of Westeros’s geography is better than his. They are accustomed to having their private conversations here, the Queen and her Hand—and although it is where he is most comfortable, it was she who insisted on confining their delicate conversations to this chamber. He suspects it’s because she knows almost everyone in the Red Keep avoids it by a wide berth. But the queen always looks comfortable in the place that frightens everyone else—though she never drinks wine in here.

“Is there anything else?”

 There is much weighing on her mind, Qyburn can tell, but the news must be delivered. The queen trusts him to always tell her the truth, to never underestimate her.

“Daenerys Targaryen is sailing to Westeros.”

The queen keeps her emotion—shock, dismay, disgust, Qyburn can only guess—under control. Her face reveals nothing, but the tightening of her jaw and the slight curl of her lip.

“How?”

“The Iron Fleet, your grace. Euron Greyjoy has allied with Daenerys and brought her to Westeros.”

“Traitor,” she snaps. “The Greyjoys are nothing but traitors. We have allowed them to live in Westeros too long. They should have perished long ago.”

“I don’t doubt it, your grace.”

“Her armies?”

“The Unsullied and the Dothraki… combined… some twenty thousand strong. And the three dragons.”

The Queen’s hand curls into a fist on the table. “Are they indestructible?”

Qyburn sneers. “No one is.”

“The dragons.”

“No.”

“Good,” she says, and Qyburn accepts the small token of appreciation. He has been working. “We are surrounded by enemies, Qyburn, and now a Targaryen could attack King’s Landing any day. We must fortify the city against her.”

Qyburn nods. He will give her answers to her questions. He will give her solutions to her problems. He always does.


I killed the wrong one.

The glass shatters against the wall, and Cersei brushes her hands over her skirts, suddenly calm. She didn’t used to be prone to these private fits of violence, but ever since she screamed her throat raw in the High Septon’s filthy dungeons, she discovered the astounding relief that came with simply releasing… everything. It felt good.

As she studies the broken shards and bits of metalwork, she wonders if she had other outlets for her rage, before. No, she didn’t. She stifled it as women were supposed to do, ever the dutiful daughter. No longer. She is queen of the seven kingdoms and if Robert could have his whores, she could have her violence. Men are allowed their indulgences. So are queens.

Daenerys is sailing to Westeros. It took a bit of self-control not to react then. It was the memory of Father’s words that calmed her, assured her, reminded her that it would be dealt with. “Dragons haven't won a war in three hundred years,” he’d said. “Armies win them all the time.”

Joff had fought, he’d been frightened of the dragons still. How ironic it was that he was right, her precious boy, who didn’t often exhibit wisdom but had unknowingly been wiser than any other on the small council that day.

Until there comes another…

Cersei shakes the hideous face and the hideous memory from her mind. Hasn’t it haunted her enough? Motivated her beyond reason? Calmly, Cersei walks to the looking glass.

…younger and more beautiful…

Her hair is curling past her chin. Soon it will brush her shoulders. Soon it will cascade down her back like liquid gold.

… to cast you down and take all that you hold dear.

Her image wavers before her, as if she is trembling. She has unseated kings. She knows how easy it is. But they were violent and stupid, they were men. They ignored threats while she shrewdly perceives them, she acts. Margaery was not the queen from the prophecy but she had to die anyway, and the dragon bitch would soon follow. She remembers how good it felt to get her revenge on Septa Unella; this would feel even better.

“Fetch my brother,” she tells Ser Gregor. She would tell a servant but then Jaime might not come. Only Ser Gregor moves him now.


In all his years in King’s Landing Jaime has never known the city as intimately as he does now. In those times he’d had little reason to leave the Red Keep, as he always stayed close to the king, whatever king it was. He had no desire to leave it neither, as the city was putrid with heat and poverty. Now it is the oppressive walls of the Red Keep he cannot bear. Since his return he spends most of his days walking the city. He wears a light hooded cloak due to the growing chill but he doesn’t really need to. He is not recognizable, no longer a golden lion at all.

But Cersei has never been more of a Lannister. Every time he beholds her he feels a jolt, feeling the ghost of their father in the room. And yet—yet—that doesn’t feel right. Tywin was ruthless and unscrupulous too, but he understood the importance of keeping his hands clean. He understood the importance of allies, which is why he’d tolerated the Starks and the Tyrells, Aerys and then Robert and forced Jaime too as well. But Cersei doesn’t force herself to tolerate anyone anymore, and the result is unsurprising.

No allies. Not enough lords came to bend the knee. Travel takes time but that isn’t it, and Cersei is smart enough to know that, and she is frustrated. She thinks she is hiding it, but the servants whisper about the things she breaks. Or perhaps she isn’t trying to hide it—that sounds more like Cersei, this Cersei that doesn’t hide or apologize for anything.

Or perhaps Jaime is wrong. Perhaps Cersei isn’t frustrated at all about the lords who don’t seem eager to bow to her, perhaps she hasn’t even noticed, as she spends so much of her time whispering with her Hand and disappearing into the dungeons for hours. He wants to see what they’re doing down there—he already knows it’s something they’re doing, he knows it like he knows his own name—but he can’t bring himself to investigate. He already hates how much time he spends thinking about Cersei. But every time he sees her glittering black dress turn a corner, or catches a snippet of a low sentence uttered to Qyburn, she commandeers his thoughts for the rest of the day.

“News goes slowly to the north,” he hears her distinct voice as she passes outside his chamber door, which he didn’t bothered to close the night before when he was deeply drunk. His head still pounds but the word “north” jolts him awake. Brienne. He listens closely. “I don’t want him to have any information… let’s keep them guessing for a while. What have your birds…”

She fades away and Jaime tries to deduce the meaning of her words. He only heard her talking of the north a few other times, when she was seething about Ned Stark’s bastard killing their Bolton allies. He knows nothing else of the current state of the north; he doesn’t like to think about it. He can’t remember Sansa Stark’s face, not really, but he remembers her hair was a vivid copper red, and he remembers every detail of Brienne’s face when she left to find her.

And she did. He remembers receiving the news in Riverrun, the way Brienne’s nostrils flared and every other part of her was still when she seethed, “I don’t think you know many girls like her.” He hadn’t meant to insult her or doubt her when he said he hadn’t held out much hope for Sansa’s survival, only that it was the way the world worked, so he had softened with truth. I’m proud of you. It was one of the few times, perhaps the only time, he would speak truthfully in Riverrun. But they stood on opposite sides then, as they always seemed to do. “I’m a Lannister,” he’d all but yelled at her, when all she did was call him honorable. He chose Cersei again, and the images blur before his eyes—the Blackfish's straight back and Edmure covered in sweat and dirt, Brienne in that little boat, hand rising slowly… and when Cersei summons him he wonders if it was he who summoned her.

He follows the Mountain quietly to Cersei’s bedchamber. When she beholds him it is with a coldness he used to love in her, how it would entice him. Now her nose wrinkles and Jaime recognizes the disdain she held for Tyrion directed at him. He wonders if it’s because he is now the one who drowns his conscience in drink.

“Call our bannermen,” Cersei commands without preamble. “Prepare our armies to mobilize.”

Do we still have fucking bannermen? But he doesn’t say that. “Are we going somewhere?”  

That wasn’t right either; Cersei’s nostrils flare. “Daenerys Targaryen is sailing to Dragonstone, with three adult dragons, and an army twenty thousand strong.”

Jaime blinks. Aegon had bent Westeros to his will with one dragon—one. He tries to picture a dragon but can’t, can only picture Balerion the Dread’s skull, and when it roars its fire is emerald green.

“Euron Greyjoy brings her here. And do you know who else stands at her side? Who has advised her and helped her to our shores?”

Jaime closes his eyes, and his face must betray something, because Cersei chuckles, pleased. “That’s right. Our traitor brother who you love so much. Who killed our son and our father.”

“He didn’t kill Joffrey,” Jaime snaps—again, the wrong thing to say. He never knows the right thing.

Cersei’s face twitches with barely concealed rage. “How can you still defend him?”

Jaime looks at her. Family’s what lives on. It’s all that lives on. Do you understand? “He’s our brother.”

“He’s no brother of mine. Kinslayer,” she sneers. “Is it love or pity that moves you?” She doesn’t wait for an answer. “How could you love a traitor?”

Jaime felt bare and vulnerable a moment before, but now he could laugh at the irony. “What’s treason? We’ve had more kings and queens in the last twenty years than I can count.”

“It’s treason when it’s directed at us,” Cersei snaps. “If he’s a Lannister, if he’s your brother, his treason is even worse.”

Her words don’t affect him the way she clearly wants them to. Jaime shrugs. “I killed a king. You killed a queen. I hardly think we can hold our heads above Tyrion’s.”

Cersei laughs as if he’d meant to make the joke, which he hadn’t, he only heard it when it was too far out of his mouth. She pats his hand as if they are aligned now. Jaime jerks his hand back. He realizes she didn’t deny killing Margaery this time.

“‘Two kingslayers,’” he mutters. “That’s what Walder Frey said to me. He said we were the same, he and I, cut from the same cloth… do you know what it’s like to have a man as vile as he look at you and say it’s like looking in a mirror? Kingslayer, oathbreaker… but I knew why I did it. To save lives from death by wildfire.”

Cersei has stilled beside him. Jaime looks at his golden hand. The bright sunlight pouring in from the window creates a brief ripple of color, true blue as Brienne’s eyes, corn-yellow as her hair.

“You did what the mad king dreamt of. What I killed him for promising.”

Don’t say you didn’t. If she objects or protests or corrects him or so much as shakes her head, he will leave the table and run, and he doesn’t think he’ll ever stop.

But when she does speak it is in a deathly whisper, so low it sends a chill down his back. “Don’t threaten me, Jaime.”

He didn’t. He isn’t. His mouth opens but it feels dry and it holds no words.

She pats his hand again, then lingers. It feels both familiar and unfamiliar, the soft skin of her hand on his. Jaime drags his gaze to hers. Her eyes are steady, lethal, and lovely, so lovely. “I don’t handle threats idly,” she promises, and it falls into place for him too; it wasn’t a threat, it was a promise.

But still he says nothing. Despite the rush of clarity he is still woefully confused, paralyzed by the frustration of knowing how he feels but having no idea how to act.

“Call our bannermen,” she orders again, but this time it’s a question too.

“You have my word,” Jaime finally speaks. The word of a kingslayer.

Chapter Text

Lyanna Mormont waits beyond the door Brienne is guarding. Sansa asks if she has been comfortable in her stay, and the little lady, predictably, holds up a hand to cut the small talk. 

"If you don't want people to know we're meeting, you should consider a different guard. Brienne of Tarth is hard to miss, and everyone knows she follows you. They only have to look for her to know where you are."

Sansa quirks a brow. "Why do you think we're meeting in secret? This is my office, it is the middle of the day."

"We see each other at least once a day, at meals, in meetings. If you wanted people to know what you're about to ask me, you would have done it then."

Sansa ducks her head, trying to hide a smile. She admires the little lady, her fierceness and her loyalty, and she's intelligent too— Sansa did not expect her to notice as much as she has. Half the time she wants to scoop her up and pretend it's Arya she's hugging. Of course, if she ever tried, she would probably lose both arms.

"Lady Mormont, you once called me Bolton and Lannister. Would you say the same today?"

Her response is swift and sure. "I would cut out my tongue before I called you anything but Stark, my lady."

Although she expected them, the words fill Sansa with pride. "Do you believe I act with our people's best interest in mind? Would you trust me to make decisions for the North?"

Her dark eyes watch Sansa without speaking for a full minute. "You saved my men in battle. You brought the knights of the Vale and won the North. I believe you would use others for the sake of the North. But not the other way around."

Sansa tries not to wince at that ugly word. It's true, you do use people. Cersei Littlefinger Margaery

"I have more use for your men, if you would give them to me, Lady Mormont. They would not be entering into battle or anything so noble, but it would be just as important, just as vital for the well-being of the North." 

Lyanna's eyes narrow. "Why my men?"

Her mouth quirks upwards. "They are each worth ten mainlanders."

If Lyanna is pleased, she doesn't show it. "How many would you need?"

"Ten."

"And would I be permitted to know what it is they're doing?"

Sansa shakes her head. "This is where I ask you to consider my earlier question. If you trust me to act with the North in mind."

Lyanna pinches her lips together. Then she leans forward. "When I told you Brienne of Tarth is too obvious a guard for someone trying to hide, I was trying to help. I trust you."

Sansa feels both commended and aggrieved; a common reaction to Lyanna's words, she supposes. "Hiding and secrecy are important, especially in what I do. But cleverness can only get you so far. Even the cleverest person can be taken down by blade." Sansa is aware of that, very aware. "And that is why Brienne will always be my guard. Cleverness doesn't make you safe. Safety makes you safe."

"If you truly feel this way, perhaps you should consider learning to defend yourself." Lyanna gets to her feet, effectively ending the conversation. But she doesn't depart until Sansa has stood too. Lyanna bends her head in a deep bow. "You have your men."


 

Nine days after the wolf banners return to Winterfell, Jon hears it— the first hushed painful whispers about the red-haired lady of Winterfell. 

Jon is passing from his solar to the great hall when he hears two servants in congress. ".... her hair shines again. Oh, she looks so much like her lady mother. How sad it was when..."

He stops, his ears straining. 

"... much better. Only five moons away from him, and I can tell. She looks a bit fuller. Healthy."

A murmur of assent. "She was skin and bones."

Another woman scoffs. "Like the starvation was the worst of it? My niece Chrystane washed her sheets. She said you could wring out the blood." 

He feels sick for the rest of the day, the churn of his stomach so threatening he doesn't dare eat a morsel of food. His face twists when he sees Sansa in the great hall— luckily she doesn’t notice him, and by the time she is alerted to his presence he has been able to school his expression into something he hopes is more neutral. 

But he can't keep it up for the rest of the day, the words ringing in his head. You could wring out the blood.

Sansa's sheets. Sansa's blood.

In the evening he and Sansa sit in congress with the lords who intend to contribute men to the glass gardens project, and despite the conversations that grow more convoluted, Sansa raises an eyebrow at him, a question. She looks concerned, and he wonders how awful he must look, how plainly he wears his feelings on his face. When he doesn't, can't meet her eyes for more than a second, let alone give her the reassuring nod meant to give, she waits a few diplomatic minutes until this particular vein of conversation runs its course, then excuses herself and pulls Jon aside.

"Are you alright?"

He makes himself look at her. "Aye."

"Jon."

He wants to ask, but he doesn't want to ask. He wants to ask because it's burning him not to know, to be left to his imagination. Yet he doesn't want to ask, because his imagination is better than the truth; and this is what rattles him the most. He knows Ramsay was a monster, a husband so cruel he drove Sansa to flee, had driven her to the desperation of jumping from the walls of Winterfell. But he never pictured sheets soaked in blood. He isn't creative enough, isn't cruel or smart enough, to picture that. 

And if he knows, if she tells him, it will burn under his skin forever, because Ramsay is already dead. 

Regardless, he can't have this conversation with her in a room full of impatient northern lords.

"I didn't sleep much. I'm worried, over Arya and Bran." The lie comes easier than he thought it would. 

Sansa gives his hand a comforting squeeze along with a knowing look. "I have nightmares about them too," she says, before turning and addressing the lords, the lords who had allowed her tormentor to live in these halls, he who had allowed her to remain here when a few days' ride would have saved her, and he wonders how this woman has so much strength. 


The base of the weirwood tree isn’t comfortable but Bran has spent so much time here it is almost warm. He sees so much now, he sees everything now, and the memories which are not his flood his mind, confusing him. He touches a hand to the white bark, travelling, seeking.

When he is done watching, he returns to the world, finding his body shivering from the cold and from the unsteadiness of his breaths.

At the sound of crunching footsteps, he swipes at his cheeks with clammy hands. Whether it is Meera or Uncle Benjen returning, he does not want either of them to see him cry.

As soon as Meera comes into view she drops the small carcasses slung around her shoulders. “Rabbit for dinner,” Meera grins. “I wish I could say I got these, but I didn’t. Your uncle did.”

Bran returns her smile. “Where is he?”

She shrugs, and Bran does not pursue a further answer. Although Uncle Benjen spends most days and nights by their side, he would often disappear for hours without any warning before or any explanation after. He returns with new cuts and burns from each trip, and the occasional game that he would cook and they would all eat gratefully.

Meera joins him on the bed of furs he sits on, burrowing into his side. Even through her furs, she is ice cold from the hunt. Bran wraps an arm around her, wishing he could do more.

Comfortable minutes pass until Meera breaks the silence. “What did you see?”

Bran feels the lump in his throat grow. “I saw them throw Mother’s body in the river. I saw them put Grey Wind’s head on Robb’s body. Arya was there, on a horse, crying—”

Meera shifts so that she's holding him. The cradle of her arms around him, tight and solid and real, silences him, but he is crying again.

“Why are you doing this to yourself?” Meera’s admonishment is both gentle and frustrated. “Stop looking for it, stop watching those awful things that happened to your family.”

His voice is raspy with tears, pain, and truth when he answers. “I seek them out because I don’t want to forget what Bran Stark cares about.”

Her hold tightens on him. Bran’s arms circle her back and clutch at her with a similar desperation.

“Is it really so frightening?”

Bran barely keeps a shudder from wracking his body—she would feel it, and he doesn’t want to alarm her. “I see so much now. I have to remember which memories are mine… Meera, I don’t—I can’t—lose myself.”

When she pulls away, much too soon, Bran sees tracks of tears cutting through the light layer of dirt on her face. “You can look at other things to remember what it means to be Bran Stark. Happy moments from your childhood.” She bites her lip. “It may not be as strong, but I won’t let you torture yourself.”

Bran knows she is right, and he understands her intention. He doesn’t tell her that watching those happy memories is painful, too. To watch himself climb towers and walls, able to walk and run and chase. To see Arya beat him at archery, to see Sansa singing songs to herself sweetly in the halls, to witness his parents’ love and trust in each other. To see—Rickon—

“You’re right,” he tells her, a trembling smile curving his lips. “That’s a good idea.”

By the time night starts to descend, the rabbits are cooked. Meera makes a brave but obvious attempt to distract him with lighthearted and meaningless conversation. But there is nothing lighthearted in the world, and there never has been—he can see it all—

“Jon and Sansa are in Winterfell,” he tells her suddenly. He avoided looking for his living siblings for as long as he could, terrified of what suffering he would find, knowing he could do nothing to help them. He was pleasantly surprised to find Jon and Sansa together and home. He was shocked to watch Arya exterminate the Freys.

Then he had entered a black hole of curiosity, watching everything his siblings had endured. When he surfaced, weak and dismayed, Meera told him he was gone for two days.

“They’re home? Are they safe?”

Bran thinks of Littlefinger, of everything he has seen of the man, of the web of danger he is spinning around them. He wishes he could be in Winterfell now, to warn them.

“No one is safe.”

Meera nods. “I wish we could go to Winterfell. We’re so close.”

“You know I can’t.”

“Are you sure?”

Bran nods. He had known it in the Three-Eyed-Raven’s cave, heard it from Uncle Benjen’s mouth, and seen it in his own mind.

“I can’t cross The Wall. There’s magic inside it that keeps the Night King and his army trapped here. With his mark on me, if I cross, the Night King will be able to follow.”

Meera gives him a wan but true smile. “You’re a hero, Brandon Stark.”

An unexpected pleasure shoots through his chest. He smiles as she looks at her, twisting the last bit of meat off the rabbit. She’s the true hero—a lord’s daughter who didn’t have to be involved in this at all. She didn’t have to risk freezing off her fingers and toes. She had sacrificed and lost so much to help him.

“I can’t cross,” he says it before a lesser part of him can stop himself. “But you can.”

Meera stares at him.

“You can return to your father. I have Uncle Benjen. He’ll protect me.”

He and Uncle Benjen were cursed, but she wasn’t—she was a pretty girl with a bright future who had no business wasting away beside him.

“I’m not leaving you,” Meera says, her voice a bit hoarse. Bran bites back a smile. He doesn’t say anything else.

Chapter Text

When the day of the feast comes, Sansa has put all her newly acquired men to good use.

She spends every moment she can in the days prior dedicated to her plans, to fortifying Winterfell in ways that don't involve war or walking dead men or food. She defends Winterfell against whispers and shadows that pinch in the dark.  

Whereas beforehand Podrick was the only one watching the ravens— a task that, combined with being her personal guard, exhausted him— now there were two more men that ensured word didn't go out of Winterfell without Sansa knowing its contents.

When Jon hands her a piece of parchment one afternoon and she sees the red welt dominating the back of his hand, she gasps louder than she intended, her eyes jumping to his. He is quick to soothe her with warm eyes and reassurances but not an explanation, and she doesn't relent until he provides one, his shoulders slumping forward in surrender. “There was a fight.”

“The free folk and the knights?”

His eyes narrow at her. “You know about that?”

Sansa has to keep herself from rolling her eyes. “I’m the Lady of Winterfell, I would be remiss if I didn’t know about it.” Her eyes drop to the broken skin on his hand. “Why didn't you tell me?”

When his shoulders slump and he admits, “I didn’t want to add to your troubles, you already deal with enough,” she believes him. 

“It makes sense,” she says, starting to pace. “Tempers are running high. Differences are making themselves known, now that the adrenaline of the battle has faded and the threat of a dead army doesn't yet feel real.”

Jon nods. “I have to find some way to manage them.”

“I’ll try to—”

“Sansa.” He interrupts her with a stern look he has taken to using quite often with her. She isn’t sure how she feels about that. “I will take care of it. You’re doing too much already.”

Though an argument is on the tip of her tongue, she relents, deciding to let this go for now. He’s not wrong.

Late that night, she gives Maester Wolkan a carefully crafted list of poisons she has agonized over for days. “Find the antidotes,” she instructs him, before marching five men and women before him. "Train them in simple healing so that they can take over the wounded, and you can do your research."

Although the Maester’s threshold is quite high, he sputters out a protest. “My lady, this is unheard of. These people haven’t passed through the Citadel. I can’t—”

“Maester Wolkan, these are unprecedented times. White walkers haven’t threatened us in thousands of years. I daresay the Citadel’s rules don’t matter much in that regard.”

“I see your point, my lady. But—”

“I prioritize the lives of my people over anything else. As a maester, you value life as much as I do.” 

 He nods slowly. “Yes, my Lady.”

“Thank you. There is a man named Samwell Tarly at the Citadel you can write to if you need access to the Citadel’s information.” She looks at the men and women who are already touching the Maester’s tools and books. They are Northerners from Wintertown who answered with unabashed eagerness when she sent Davos to collect people interested in healing. These are curious people who were brave enough to leap into an unfamiliar situation, will now have the ability to save lives. Looking at them makes her swell with pride, swell with love for the north. 

There is a twinkle in her eye when she says, “I’ll bring more when I can.”


 

When Jon emerges from the bath he sees something on the bed he didn't notice on his way into his bedchamber. As he dries himself he walks closer, the pile of fabric turning into something distinct. He picks up the tunic, black-blue as the night sky, intricate silver thread crawling up the sleeves. 

“Direwolves,” he murmurs as brings it closer to his face, so close the thick fabric brushes his nose. A lump forms in his throat. As if she hasn't given him enough already.

His chest, his shoulders, his very skin seems to swell with pride as he slips the layers over his skin. When he clasps the doublet over his chest— another one of Sansa’s creations, dark leather with shoulders covered in a light layer of gray fur— he wonders if she knows how much she's giving him, as she cloaks him in Stark sigils made by her Stark hands. 

The walk to her bedchamber is shorter than it’s ever been. When he greets Brienne he can’t help the smile on his face. “I will escort lady Sansa to the feast.”

“One moment.” Brienne opens the door and disappears behind it, emerging a moment later with a nod of assent. “My lord. I will see you at the feast.”

Sansa is sitting with her back to him in front of a small looking glass, her quick fingers moving through her elaborately styled hair. A black cloak obscures her form. She is smiling as she talks. “I had to send her away. She wouldn’t have changed for the feast otherwise, and she might have been in those clothes for days.”

Jon watches her expression change in the mirror, her smile falling and her eyes lowering. “She never rests.”

“She wants to do right by you.”

“Well, it should be different from here on out. I’ve secured some guards to help relieve her. She has other things she wants to do, you know. She wants to help with your training efforts, Jon. She would be very useful.”

“I’m sure she will. These new guards...” He trails off, unsure of how to phrase it. Do you trust them? But she told him she didn't trust anyone the way she did Brienne.

“Brienne will stay close. But she needs rest if she is to be at her best.” Sansa meets his eyes in the mirror. “You look handsome.”

His heart stutters, the words taking him completely by surprise. He looks down at himself as if he didn’t just spend minutes staring at his reflection before leaving his bedchamber. “Thanks to you,” he says, a bit too gruffly, waiting a moment before he can trust himself to meet her eyes. “When did you have time to make this?”

She waves a hand dismissively, and he holds back a sigh. He knows she doesn’t have time in the day. They are both drowning in new responsibilities, and Sansa takes on more than she needs to. He wonders if she sleeps at all. You could wring out the blood— the words jerk into his mind, threatening to steal his breath. Does she spend her nights sewing by candlelight because it is preferable to nightmares?

“Are you sleeping well?”

Her brow furrows, as if surprised by the question, and he supposes it doesn't make much sense. “I sleep well enough.”

Jon takes a step forward, wanting to wipe that dejected and confused expression from her face. “I love the clothes, Sansa. They’re....” He swallows. “Well made. One of your many talents.”

Her lips quirk up. “You remind me of Septa Mordane. She... she saved my life. Did I ever tell you that?”

Jon’s throat is blocked. He thought he knew about Sansa’s years away from home, but keeps discovering he knows so little; and here is another sliver of terrifying information. “No.”

Sansa lays her hands down on the table in front of her. “I was awful to her.”

“I doubt that. She always praised your sewing and your manners. She seemed very happy with you. A proper lady, even when you were a girl.”

Her mouth twists and Jon sees a sliver of regret and self-loathing. “A stupid girl who didn't know anything.”

He is quick to correct her, quick to move so that he’s standing by the table, his back to the wall so he can look down at her. “A girl who saw good everywhere. There’s nothing wrong with that. I wish...” I wish you could have stayed that way. Even if it meant they would never be standing in this room together, even if it meant he would stay her least-loved brother, because then Sansa would not have suffered.

“She would be proud of the woman you are,” he finally says. 

“I hope so…” Her tone is worrisome to Jon, but then she’s getting to her feet, and he extends a hand to help her move from behind the bench. Sansa shrugs off her cloak.

Underneath is a dress of dove gray with twin direwolves on her ribs. The direwolves’ bodies curl around hers until their tails intertwine on the small of her back.

He stares, mesmerized. The dress shimmers slightly where the light hits, and Jon doesn't know enough about cloth and needle to understand how, so he contents himself to think it is just her, for her skin is glowing too. 

He doesn't think he has ever seen her in such a light color since she was a child, and it makes him smile wistfully. The dress is still fitting for winter, with a high collar and no skin exposed but that of her face and hands. Yet she seems exposed, he feels exposed, because she has matched them. He in his dark blue with silver thread, she in her dove gray with midnight thread. 

Dragging his gaze back to her face, he is embarrassed to find a small curving her mouth and a knowing look in her eyes, as if she knows what he is thinking. But she can’t know, or her lip would be curling in disgust. I’m not thinking anything disgusting, he reproaches himself. She is beautiful, that’s all. And she must know it, a woman as intelligent as she. 

He realizes her hand is still resting in his. Acting on instinct alone, he pulls it to his lips, pressing the barest of kisses to her knuckles. “You look every bit the Lady of Winterfell.”

Her eyes are more black than blue when he looks up at her, still not having released her hand. She trails her fingers up his forearm and rests at the juncture of his elbow, leaving a shiver in her wake. Wordlessly, they leave the room, and Jon escorts her to the great hall.

A hush falls over the assembled group. A hundred pairs of eyes follow them as Jon leads Sansa through the long tables to the one at the head, the place he had never been allowed to sit before. Ears burning, Jon pulls out Lord Eddard Stark’s chair and waits for her to take her place.

The silence does not allow them to speak without being overhead, but Sansa’s eyes blow open in protest. She gives him a pointed look, hesitating in front of the chair. Jon stares resolutely ahead as if he cannot see.

He hears the smallest of sighs escape her lips before she gives the assembly a generous smile. He waits for her to lower herself into the chair before taking his own seat at her side.

A round of servants weave their way through the tables with pitchers of ale and skins of wine. The conversation begins and stilts before starting again, the pattern repeating itself for a few uncomfortable minutes until Sansa whispers, “You should say something.”

He is perfectly capable, but he looks into her eyes for confirmation anyway. Are you sure?

When she nods he stands. Total silence overcomes the hall once more.

“Tonight is a night for celebration. The battle is won!” A cheer bursts from the hall. “The North is out of Bolton hands because we all worked together. To our victory!”

Jon raises his tankard of ale and by the time he has returned to his seat, uproarious laughter can be heard. He looks to Sansa and finds her smiling.

By the time the second course has been served, Jon has been whisked from table to table and is now barely standing by the free folk. His throat stills burns from the suspicious milky substance Tormund forced him to drink. He guzzles tepid water and tries to focus on the wildling woman who is talking to him. 

“These people don't like us. Not the stiff lords, not the shiny knights.”

The woman is loud and several knights turn to sneer at her, perhaps her intention. 

“The battle would have been lost without the Knights of the Vale, every free man and woman slaughtered.” Jon makes a point of speaking just as loudly as she. His eyes flick to where Sansa sits at the head of the room, Lord Royce by her side now, their expressions serious as they converse. “They saved you.”

“And didn’t we save you, King Crow?” The woman’s gaze burns holes into him. “We were the first ones to pledge in this fight, two thousand wildlings for your castle.”

“We didn’t fight for him, and we didn’t fight for this.” Tormund, now at Jon’s shoulder, gesturing at the great hall around them. “We fought because the freak who held this castle was coming north to slaughter us all.”

If Tormund's words affect her she doesn't show it. “We did fight for him.” She shoves Tormund with a hard hand when he starts to protest. “But we can disagree. We should leave here, Tormund. Our people should go south.”

“The Night King is coming,” Jon says. “Your people know that better than anyone.”

“Mance Rayder knew it, and he wanted us to go south.”

“Mance is dead.” Jon doesn’t try to keep the irritation from his voice. “And everyone here in Winterfell, everyone everywhere will be too if we don't defeat the Night King. The only way to do that is together.”

“Tell that to your knights.” She pushes past Tormund for a drink before walking away.

“Vrewa isn’t the only one. They’re unhappy.” Tormund sighs as he sinks onto a chair beside him. “The fights aren’t stopping.”

Jon knows of this, having tempered a few of the worst ones himself.  But there are bigger issues at hand. “We’ll manage.”

By the time Jon rejoins Sansa at the head table the room has slipped into a new stage of drunkenness and relaxation. The stiff lines between lords, soldiers, free folk, knights, and servants have blurred just the slightest bit, if only to allow people to share drinks or flirtatious whispers. The doors have been swung open as people filter in and out. 

Sansa gives him a smile as he takes his seat, a genuine smile that touches her eyes. Then she says, “This was a success. They’re happy.”

Jon notices her crystal eyes, her posture straight as ever. She hasn’t had a drink, then—he wonders if she spoke to anyone tonight on anything outside the well-being of Winterfell.

“And you?” When she doesn’t answer, he adds, “Everything doesn’t have to be political.”

The smile does not drop completely from her face, but it trembles slightly in a way that makes him regret his words. “But that’s the way it is.”

He sighs. “I meant, I wish you’d enjoy yourself.”

When she doesn't answer, Jon pours himself another ale. After finishing most of it in two gulps, he is able to look at her again. She is staring resolutely ahead, her face inscrutable. He has never been good at reading her and is even worse at it when he’s drunk, but he notices her hands are held together so tightly in her lap it must hurt. He follows her gaze to where Littlefinger sits, alone. 

“Don’t.”

He is drunk, or he wouldn’t have said that. Now her gaze is turned to him, open in mild surprise. “He’s a man who must be managed.” She smiles tightly. “I know what you’re thinking. It won’t be like that night. I haven’t had anything to drink. And I won’t again.”

His chest hurts. “You should be able to if you want—”

"No, I was stupid,” she cuts him off, biting off the last word with a malice that surprises him. “I thought I could go a night without politics. Without games.” 

Is it twice in one night now that she’s called herself stupid? Three times? He remembers how, on the night she’s speaking of, he was the one who assured her no one else would be joining them. Before she started drinking, she had asked him if it was safe. He still doesn't know what happened that night after she and Littlefinger departed, but what he does know is that he never wants to see Littlefinger’s face again.

“You should speak to Lord Royce. The knights need to feel they are as important to you as the free folk.” Sansa stands. “This is ruling.”

He pushes his ale aside and does as she bids. As he and Lord Royce lightly compare military experiences and discuss the declining weather— he doesn’t seem like the most talkative man, and neither is Jon— he positions himself to keep a watchful eye on Sansa, never letting her out of his frame of sight. He is still watching her when Lord Royce politely excuses himself. He is watching when Lady Mormont interrupts Sansa and Littlefinger, watching when Sansa excuses herself and walks with Lady Mormont and a few of her men out of the hall, and only then does he breathe a sigh of relief.  

That night his addled mind cannot seem to decide if it wants to have nightmares about hungry green eyes on a sniveling rat’s face or young boys with daggers who feel betrayed— or a girl tied to a bed as blades slice open her ivory skin. But he wakes several times in a cold sweat, tremors wracking his body until Ghost nudges him calm. 

Chapter Text

The whispers don't stop.

The first moon that passes over the walls of Winterfell pulses with new life. Stewards, handmaidens, cooks, blacksmiths, and servants of all kinds bustle with energy and gratitude over the expelled Bolton forces. Jon sees this in the grateful smiles and the reverent "my lord"s— a title that is strange to hear in Winterfell, a feeling that does not fade by the twentieth or the hundredth time he hears it.  

In the beginning Jon wanted a complete change of the guard and the household of the keep. This was something he and Sansa had disagreed on; she reminded him that they would find no substitutes for their servants that would be any more or less loyal. "The entire North was under the Boltons, not just the Winterfell keep," she told him, and he conceded. 

Although he initially held onto doubt, searching for betrayal in every corner of the keep, he eventually sees. He remembers Sansa's bold "the north remembers" at Castle Black when she had challenged Davos for not knowing the true fiber of Northerners. He remembers her pleading but steely gaze as she gave him the both the push and permission to claim his Stark blood and ask the Northern houses for aid. He comes to see that these people who had served under Bolton's rule of Winterfell without protest were prisoners too, he sees it in the huddled heads and quiet sobs from all who had lost their kin to Ramsay's cruelty. He feels a well of sympathy for them when he imagines what it would be like, if he had to know that Arya or Bran had suffered such a fate— and his stomach twists when he realizes that he has no idea what fates Arya or Bran have suffered, and worse, that Sansa was the one who had suffered the worst at Ramsay's hands.

"His dog, he'd call her, except he loved his dogs," an old woman's words reach his ears as he walks to his office one night. It is a few days after Jon heard the first disturbing words—wring out the blood, still fresh in his mind and stealing sleep from him—and he is so startled that he stops walking and grips the wall, suddenly untethered. 

He stands still until he can walk again, and with every clipped footstep he wonders why he can suddenly hear all of this when he doesn't remember ever being privy to the words of servants when he was a boy in Winterfell, despite he and Robb's and Theon's wanderings. He wonders if he is paying attention. He wonders if he is seeking it out. 

He tries to stop. 

He is ordering a bath one night when he hears, "her screams that shook those bloody banners on the walls...." and Jon quickly presses his hands over his ears, exhausted, not caring if the gesture is childish, unwilling to hear another word lest he not sleep for a single minute that night. 

He and Podrick are leaving the training yard one morning, panting and covered in a sheen of dirt and sweat, when a woman's heavy voice reaches his ears. ".... unconscious in her bathwater... dirty with blood... probably praying to drown."

Jon's eyes leap to Podrick's, whose face is scrunched up in confusion or hurt. "They didn't think they could revive her," the voice continues.

"How many times?"

"Too many." Her voice drops even lower. "One time—"

But Podrick has had enough. He puffs out his chest and turns the corner. "That's enough of that. Back to your work now, ladies."

By the time Jon finds the strength in his legs again and reaches him, the women are gone. 

Jon is in the forge receiving a report when a blacksmith’s description of Ramsay Bolton's knives makes him lose focus. "Little more than fruit knives. Perhaps they were fruit knives. Gods, it was awful, he used them and much worse on the Lady Sansa—"

The words cut off with a yelp, and Jon realizes he his feet have carried him into their line of sight. The look on his face must be the reason the two stumble over their apologies as they quickly back out of the room. Or perhaps it is his fists clenched at his sides. 

When launderers enter Sansa's chambers they begin to talk as they sift through her clothes, not seeing Jon in the high backed plush seat by the hearth. He is waiting for Sansa to discuss a raven from the Karstarks, but the scroll and its contents lie forgotten in his fist as he hears a sharp gasp.

"Enith told me, but..."

Against every instinct in his body Jon turns his head. The launderer is holding up a shift, a delicate sheer thing, and Jon's face would be burning to be looking at one of Sansa's intimate garments like this, but he can't think past the spots and stripes of rust-brown on the fabric. The image in front of him wavers for a moment. His breath thunders in his ears.

"I never see smallclothes, amongst her things," the other launderer is saying. "I heard she burns them and makes more."

"Poor girl... of course she does. Because of the bleeding."

"... how bad could he have hurt her, there?" Her audible shudder twists Jon's stomach past the point of pain and this time he is sick, alerting the women to his presence and shocking them into running to his side. He hurls what little his stomach holds until he is heaving, dry, unable to stop. 

After each of these incidents he is unable to meet Sansa's gaze for at least a day, a difficult feat as she seems to love to direct those brilliant blue eyes at him when they plan, when they argue, when they so much as greet each other. What is usually quite lovely becomes unbearable with the whispers burning in his ears, searing his mind with images he never wanted to see, worse than all the death and misery he's seen, impossibly worse than what he's seen at the very end of the world. 

The day after the appalled launderers clean his vomit from Sansa's hearth, Jon makes up his mind to talk to her. He isn't sure what he's going to say, but he can't ignore the bloodstained shift, can't ignore the fact that she is bleeding, now, and yesterday and the week before, when they sat in meetings and at meals and even in the godswood. The fact of her pain was hard enough to stomach when it was a thing of the past, but knowing she is suffering now is more than he can bear. 

"Jon," she says when she opens the door to her chambers, her voice light before she catches his expression. "What's wrong?"

"There's something I have to ask you." He walks past her into her chambers and his eyes fall on the chairs, but he is vibrating with nerves; sitting is out of the question. 

"Tell me, Jon." Her voice is steel but her hands are clutching each other in a vice grip, the nails digging into the skin and he is scaring her, curse him. 

"I saw... I heard...." Jon knew this would happen. He struggles to find words for what he wants to ask. He swallows a great lungful of air and soldiers on. "I need to know if you're well."

The muscles in Sansa's face jump, her brows rising and her mouth curving up, then down. "I don't understand. This is what you wanted to ask?"

"Sansa," he groans, wishing he could communicate everything in that single word. "I saw something yesterday, and I'm very sorry if it's not proper, I didn't mean to see it, but I did. The launderer held up your shift... it was bloodied."

His voice fades into a croak by the last word, and she has gripped the back of the chair before her, like it is holding her upright.

"I won't ask," he is quick to say. "I won't, not unless you want me to, and you can tell me as much as you want. I will listen and I will give you whatever you need. But when I see that... I have to say something. I have to do everything I can."

Her face is inscrutable once more, and if it wasn't for her trembling lip, he would think her made of ice. "I'm alright."

"How did this happen? Who did this to you?"

Her eyes jump to him then, cut him like glass. "You know who."

He chokes on the name. "Bolton?"

She nods, a sharp jerk of her chin.

"You've been with me for six months, Sansa. You came to me six months ago. You're telling me you've been bleeding from those wounds this entire time?" His voice rises steadily and he fights desperately to control it. 

"The journey—" Her jaw clicks shut. "I told you. I had to jump from the walls. I had to swim through ice water and ride horseback for days at breakneck speed. I had to fight— try to fight— the hounds—"

The cage around Jon’s unnatural heart constricts further and further with every word, with every realization of how blind and ineffectual he’s been. He had only asked her once at Castle Black, nervous and embarrassed, if she needed any physical attention, and he hadn’t fought her when she refused, trusting her to ask for what she needed. He had crushed her to his chest when he’d seen her in the courtyard— had he hurt her then? For months after they had slept in tents and various keeps as they traveled the north, and she had ridden horses for hours without complaint. He should have looked closer, should have known better. You know nothing, Jon Snow.

Sansa is starting to tremble and he raises his hands slowly, palms forward. "It's alright," he murmurs, and he waits for her to still before continuing, as gently as he is able. "Have you seen a maester since?"

"Yes."

Something in her tone makes him press. "Have you let him examine you?"

A moment passes before she opens her mouth, and Jon doesn't know if it means anything—perhaps it means nothing—but she is miles better than him at lying and at pretty much everything else, so he holds up a hand. "Don't lie to me about this, Sansa. By all the gods. Don't lie about this."

There must be something in his face because her shoulders drop the slightest bit. "No." 

"All that time you spend with Maester Wolkan, and not a minute of it for you?"

"He gives me balms to help," she says, chin rising, defiant.

"Balms?" The image of the shift returns to his mind, the lines of mottled blood. Open wounds, open wounds on Sansa's back, and gods know where else. His eyes sting. "You need more than that."

"I won't let him look at me. I won't let anyone look at me again."

Jon tries not to unpack those words, tries to forget them so they won't fuel new nightmares. "Is there someone else? Anyone else, I don't care where. I'll find them, I'll bring them here."

A cloud falls over her gaze. "No."

"Do you not trust Maester Wolkan? If you don't, tell me. I'll accept it, I won't press you."

She closes her eyes before she answers. "I trust him, as much as I can trust any maester."

Jon nods. "Then let him help you. I need you to be well."

Her head is already shaking before he is through. Long minutes pass and she doesn't speak, only shakes her head in mute refusal. 

He presses his palm to his chest, a futile attempt to stop the ache there. "Sansa… I’m begging you.”

Her eyes follow the movement of his hand on his heart, then move up to trail over his face. He watches her lips open to drag in breath. 

"I'll try. I'll try to bring myself to go to him."

He crosses to her in a single bound, his shaking hands rising to cup her face, her eyes blue and wary and vulnerable. "I'm so sorry, Sansa. I would do anything to take your suffering from you, I would—" He swallows and stops, he could go on for days, and it doesn't matter at all, does it? "I'll protect you."

He can almost see the various protests gather in her mouth. No one can protect me. Instead she mumbles, "You can try.”

"I am trying, now, by asking this of you. Do you see that?" He realizes he's apologizing, asking her to forgive him for any transgression, for bringing this subject to the forefront of her mind.

"Yes." The admission is dragged from her, barely pushed through her teeth. Jon doesn't care. If she sees the maester, if she starts to heal, anything that gets her there will have been worth it. 


 

Sansa makes an effort to acknowledge the people she passes on her walks through Winterfell's keep and grounds, whether they are efficient trips from room to room or walks of leisure. If she is in not short on time, a rarity, she will use titles and names; her mother's rearing and her time in King's Landing have taught her to never forget a name or a face. 

But today even the slightest nod of acknowledgement as she passes through the halls is difficult. The meeting of the North’s complete forces is in three days, and the Northern lords have been trickling into Winterfell for days now. Jon is growing more sour by the day as the slightest mention of the army of the dead is shut down by derision or nonchalance.

Or perhaps it is she who is fouling his mood, she who now seems to offend him by her mere presence. When they sit together to eat he watches every morsel touch her lips, his brows drawn together. When she drinks tea or water he watches her throat. When they cross each other’s paths his eyes rove over her form, his eyes burning with concern or whatever stupid thing he thinks gives him permission to look at her like she is no longer Sansa, like she is something to be pitied. 

If only he knew. Her wounds were at their worst at Castle Black and yet he didn’t look at her the way he does now. He didn’t know then, she reminds herself, though of course he doesn’t know now, she thinks derisively. Not really. No one could know, no one except Theon, the only other person to be looked upon by Ramsay’s cold eyes and touched by his colder hands—

Ramsay. Is. Dead.

Sansa struggles to inhale and exhale with each step. This path is especially difficult, the path to the maester’s chambers. Against her will her mind conjures memories of walking this way, often with cruel Myranda at her side, after Roose would force his son to tend to his wife’s well-being. A cruel charade by everyone involved; Roose only cared about procuring an heir, and Ramsay only went through the song and dance to appease his father, his brutality continuing behind closed doors.

This morning she awoke with grim determination to keep her word to Jon. The dryness of the winter air aggravates her skin to cracking and bleeding. This morning she was barely able to rise from bed without stifling a moan.

That would not do, especially with the threats facing the north. Sansa needs to be at her strongest. Yet when she stands before Maester Wolkan she swallows the words she meant to say; she speaks only of sleeping troubles. He gives her a draft for it and they spend a few minutes discussing his progress on other tasks.

I tried. Jon could not be angry with her. In fact, she doubts he will broach the subject again, as it was evidently difficult for him to do so once. She too struggled to hide her emotions during that conversation, and she knows that Jon doesn’t like to cause her distress if he can avoid it.

She is wondering what she will say if Jon does question her when Littlefinger turns the corner ahead. Quickly the glass vial she holds is shoved out of sight, curved into her palm. "Lady Sansa," he calls out from across the way, his pace noticeably quicker as he moves to reach her. "But you are a sight." 

"Thank you, Lord Baelish." She is grateful not to be fresh from the attentions of the maester to her wounds now that Littlefinger's happened upon her—who knows what she would have looked like? Instead, she is perfectly composed, and she thanks the gods for that.

He falls into step with her. "Maester Wolkan is fortunate to have your assistance."

"From the results I see, he is a very competent maester." 

"He must be. Your wounded were taken care of in such a short time, and from such a brutal battle no less." Littlefinger looks at her in a way that makes her skin crawl. "They have you to thank." 

Sansa lowers her gaze to her feet. "I have no healing talents, my Lord. I can’t claim credit.”

He chuckles— or is that a scoff? "There's no need for that with me. You know I see you for who you really are, for who you will become."

Sansa barely keeps the frustrated sigh in her throat. "And who is that, Lord Baelish?"

"Wardeness of the North. Then… Queen of the Seven Kingdoms." He whispers the last.

How little he knows her, she thinks to herself. How little he understands her. To think she would want to be queen, let alone his queen. To think that she would ever want to go south again, to think that power is what she craves, when her only wish is the safety of her family and her people.

"It feels we are far removed from that future, my Lord." Sansa doubts he will reveal his plan to her, but perhaps she’ll get a some sense of his direction.

"The future is already here. Soon there will be more northern lords gathered in the great hall than there have been since the days of your father. They should follow a trueborn Stark again." 

"The lords will make the right decision," she says simply. 

"And if they don't?"

"This is the north, Lord Baelish, not the south where everyone trembles and bites their tongues before their rulers, only to slit their throats when their backs are turned." Steady, steady, she tells herself, inhaling deeply to calm her speech. "The northern people are allowed to think freely, to voice their thoughts before us."

He tuts. "Fear has a reasonable place in ruling, my dear. You will see."

"It's important to earn their fealty. Their respect."

"Their love?" Littlefinger arches a brow and the smile playing around his mouths suggests he is quite pleased with himself. "I do see Margaery in you." 

Sansa stops in her tracks then quickly resumes walking, hoping he didn’t notice the slip. She turns her face slightly to the wall, not wanting him to see her surprise at the name she hasn't heard in so long.

"You befriend the maester, you tend the wounded. I have heard you visit Wintertown's poor and orphaned, feeding and clothing them... even those wildling savages are not exempt from your kindness. You are even better than Margaery, my sweet, you will surpass her in every way."

"I learned quite a lot from her." She smiles tightly. "I hope she is well."

Littlefinger's step slows to a halt. Sansa turns to look at him. There is a strange pull to his mouth, the muscles there twitching, and his eyes are inscrutable when he says, "Margaery is dead."

Chapter Text

"You're not eating."

Jon looks up from the list composed in Sansa's delicate, flawless hand at Davos's gruff accusation. "You're growing thin."

"I'm fine."

"That won't do. You're small enough already."

Jon bites back a frustrated sigh, but his nerves ease when he looks up and finds a small smile on his advisor's face. But there is also the knowing look in his eyes.

"I've been ill," Jon says, looking down at the parchment again in an attempt lie more convincingly. Though it isn't exactly a lie, he thinks wryly; worry for Sansa turns his stomach, thinking of her suffering steals his sleep. 

"Whatever it is..." Even without looking Jon can sense Davos's shrewd gaze, and he tries to sit tall and nonchalant under it. "Take care of it. You're no help to anyone at less than capacity."

"You're right," Jon acquiesces. "Any affairs we need to discuss?"

"Lord Manderly arrives today."

"Right." The quickly approaching meeting returns to his mind. In three days it will fall to Jon to convince them to fight a threat they have never seen.

"There have been thefts from the Vale guests. Lord Royce is not happy. He says he is trying to control the knights but I wouldn't say he's trying very hard."

Jon grumbles. "What's been stolen?"

"Gold, weapons, women."

"Women?"

"Whores," Davos says after a pause.

Jon thinks this over. "The free folk don't take whores. It's not their way."

Davos half-smirks. "I'd say you're overestimating them. Men are men, and they are more hot-blooded than most."

Still, it doesn't sound right to Jon. "What else? Has the fighting escalated?"

"No, but I heard something... not from a reputable source, it may be nothing."

"Speak."

"Some of the wildlings may be thinking of moving further north."

Jon blinks; he didn't expect that.

"Closer to Last Hearth," Davos elaborates. "I'm not sure why, and it was a... woman of the night who gave this information. Podrick. She told Podrick, he told me," he is quick to explain.

"The Umbers won't like that," he mutters. They are already on shaky ground with the Umbers, and Jon isn't sure if how he wants to move forward with them; a complication like this isn't ideal. More than anything he cannot risk losing any more of the free folk force.

"I need to talk to Tormund." He adds the task to the mental list of the day ahead. He is halfway to his feet when Davos stops him.

"Before you do anything else, eat. Threats are coming from every direction, as you can surely see. You need to keep your strength up."

Jon decides he will honor Davos's request— or he'll try. But first he will go to the training yard, where he can see a cap of yellow hair from his window.


 

"Lady Brienne."

If she is surprised at his interruption of her training, she doesn't show it. Instead she dismisses her sparring partner and strides over to him, managing to look dignified even with her chest heaving from the physical exertion.

"My lord."

"There's something I want you to do."

Her chin rises and her eyes narrow. He wonders if she is surprised or maybe even offended, as she doesn't need to take orders from him. But she must be curious, at the very least, because she waits for him to elaborate.

"There are many in this keep, servants and the like, who worked here during Bolton rule and talk of that time." He wonders how much he should say. "They talk about the lady Sansa."

The way Brienne's nostrils flare tells him she knows exactly what he means, which twists his stomach and strengthens his resolve. 

"I won't let them speak about her that way. It's disrespectful. And... I can't risk her hearing it."

She looks down at him, appraising. Her hard expression does not reveal her thoughts. "I agree," she finally speaks. "She doesn't need the reminder."

"I would ask you to help me end it."

Brienne nods, mouth set with determination.

"If you hear anyone talk about her, tell them that won't be tolerated, by order of their Lord and Warden of the North." Though the words are strange in his mouth it feels right to use them this way, for Sansa. "Say it so that anyone nearby will hear and learn. Tell them that the punishment is displacement. Then bring them to me."

"Displacement?"

"I know, Sansa wishes to keep the servants... She says they were Bolton prisoners too."

He waits for Brienne to argue, to defend Sansa's wishes. Instead, Brienne lowers her eyes to the ground before saying, "Lady Sansa is too kind."

"Yes, she is." Despite everything Jon finds himself fighting a smile. "For her sake, I will make sure they are relocated to Wintertown with good prospects."

"Won't that just move the gossip to Wintertown?"

"The people of Wintertown love Sansa."

For the first time Jon sees something resembling kindness in her eyes directed at him. "They don't talk out of hate. It's out of pity."

Jon closes his eyes against the images that flood them, and speaks with a hard voice. "The Lady of Winterfell deserves respect and deference and admiration, not pity." He sighs. "If it fails, I will think of stronger measures."

Brienne bows her head. "Yes, my Lord."

As he walks away after having thanked her, he feels marginally better than he has in weeks, more grounded. He thinks he may be able to eat some soup, and even a bit of hard bread, after all.


Jon is returning to his office after having just received Lord Manderly's traveling party— Sansa was notably absent, which worries him— when he is accosted by Tormund and at least another dozen free folk and northmen.

The lower half of Tormund's face and neck is covered in blood. All the men look similarly injured. "What—!"

"Those fuckers," Tormund growls. "They're blaming us, but no one saw what happened!"

At that an uproarious protest springs from the rest of the men, and Jon yells over them until they are quiet. "Someone tell me what happened!"

Through differing testimonies Jon pieces it together. A group of free folk were traveling north of Winterfell when a Vale hunting party happened upon them. The wildlings claimed to be hunting too, in search of bigger game for furs. When the knights saw that their group contained a few Northern girls, they accused the wildlings of kidnapping and worse crimes. 

"The girls got hurt in the fight. One of them is refusing to speak and keeps asking for your sister."

"Where is the girl?"

"Infirmary," a Northman tells him.

"See the maester," Jon orders Tormund, pointing to his nose, his feet already moving on a path he's memorized. "We'll meet you there."

But Sansa is not easy to find. She isn't in her office or his. He hopes she hasn't chosen this day to leave Winterfell on some mission or other— especially with this turn of events, especially when he has seen Brienne and Podrick within the keep and thus they would not be protecting her. Worry thunders through his ears and quickens his step. He decides to check her bedchamber, although it is an unlikely place for her to be during the day, before leading a search party for her. He has to knock four times before the door opens. "Sansa, where have..."

The words die in his throat. Her eyes are swollen and red-rimmed, her face blotchy and the delicate purple shadows beneath her eyes more obvious than ever. 

"Yes, Jon?"

"What's wrong?"

She turns away from the door without closing it, so Jon takes it as an invitation. He follows her to the window, where she has stopped, her face a breath away from the glass. 

"It's not a good time," she says after a moment. 

"I'm sorry." When she doesn't speak he continues. "There was a fight and a woman was asking to speak to you. It can wait."

Her eyes don't move from the nothing she is staring at. Jon's gut churns with concern but he doesn't want to push her. He has just about made up his mind to leave when she says, "I received some news."

He is surprised at the relief that overcomes him when he realizes she's going to speak to him. 

"Margaery Tyrell..." She rests her forehead on the glass. "She was my friend. She's dead."

The name is not new to him; Jon knows of the Tyrell family and knows of Margaery as Joffrey's short-lived wife. The news of their union was the last news he had of Sansa until she appeared at Castle Black. The raven mentioned "Lady Lannister's" suspicious disappearance, and Jon remembers hoping his sister was somewhere safe and far from the Lannisters and not sparing her another thought— he burns with shame to think of his quick dismissal now.

"Cersei killed her." Sansa’s eyes meet Jon’s, full of pain, imploring. "She burned the Sept of Baelor with wildfire, Jon. Gods— she killed hundreds to get to her." 

"That's..." Jon tries to wrap his head around this destruction, around something he's never seen. "I'm so sorry."

"Cersei thinks she's so smart, but Margaery was better." Her voice grows sharper with each word. "She did what Cersei never could, she had the people's love, she had Joffrey wrapped around her finger, something I could never do.... I remember when she strode into the throne room and took him. She didn't have to do anything more than that— just by ending my betrothal to him I would be in her debt. I remember how happy I was, to be free... for about a minute, before Littlefinger....”

She trails off but Jon will not have it. “Until he what?”

“Nothing,” she sighs. “He told me… that Joffrey could hurt me even worse now. He could still... visit me... and not even owe me the care he owes a wife.”

Jon fights the itch to break things until the rage is gone, fights the urge to choke the life out of a man already dead. He could never take his justice against Joffrey, but Littlefinger… Littlefinger was not dead. He was here, in his own keep, yet Jon’s hands were barred from moving against him, and that felt infinitely worse.

"When I would watch Margaery by Joffrey's side... the way she would smile at him... it didn't seem the same woman who walked with me and spoke of Highgarden, who wanted us to be sisters." She sighs. "But I learned. We are all liars in King's Landing."

The last irritates him. "And you liked this woman?"

She glares at him. "You don't know what it was like."

"I'm not judging—"

"Yes, you are.”

“I didn’t—”

“I thought I would die there."

The words shouldn't be surprising and yet Jon feels shock. His hand finds her arm and he thanks every god there is when she doesn't push him away. 

"I thought I would die there like father. I kept waiting for Joffrey to give the order, for Cersei to poison my food. I tried to give them reasons not to hurt me. I called father and Robb traitors. Do you judge me for that too?"

"Never," he swears. It's himself he judges, himself he hates, for not riding down the Kingsroad and saving her. 

She shakes her head, the movement pressing more of her face to the glass. "They hurt me anyway. I should have told the truth. It's what Arya would have done."

The image of little Arya staring daggers at Joffrey and Cersei is both amusing and terrifying. Jon pushes it from his mind. "You did the right thing. You survived." 

"Yes, I did. By not trusting anyone." She fiddles with a frayed thread at her sleeve. "Shae told me not to trust anyone. But Margaery was so kind, she tried to help me escape, and I latched onto hope, onto her.... I was stupid." 

"Sansa, stop saying that."  

"I was—"

"Smart, strong, resourceful." He looks at her evenly. "I've met many different people, at the Watch, beyond the Wall, and most of them were good at surviving. But not one of them could have survived King's Landing. You could. You did."

"It isn't something admirable, Jon," she mumbles.

"And why not?"

She shrugs, the storm in her downcast eyes belying thoughts he wishes she would give voice to, so he could protest each and every single one. 

His hand skates across the window until his fingertips brush her cheek. "Come away from there," he mumbles, cupping her ice cold cheek in his palm. "You are clever, Sansa, and you are good and admirable, too. Whatever brought you home, it was the right thing to do."

Whatever brought her to him. He feels his chest seize with something other than pain as he looks at her face in his hand. He wants to lead her to the bed and press linen-wrapped ice to her red, swollen eyes. He wants her to sleep for days until the purple shadows under her eyes are gone. He wants to feed her lemon cakes and other hot, sweet things until there is color in her cheeks again. 

A hint of a smile blooms across her pale face, then she heaves a great sigh. "Let's go talk to that woman," Sansa says, something shuttering over her eyes and she is all duty once more. "What was the fight about?"

Chapter Text

The woman is small in stature, made even smaller by the way she holds her knees to her chest. Her dark hair is matted in places and a long stitch runs across her forehead, a smaller one through the corner of her mouth. “Reina Perek,” Sansa breathes by Jon's side.

“You know her?”

“Just her name.” Sansa walks ahead and Reina’s face transforms at the sight of her, splitting into a smile that must hurt her injured mouth.

“My lady! I didn't think you would actually come— but, of course you would, I didn’t mean that, my lady. You are so kind…” She only seems to notice Jon then, once she has drunk her fill of Sansa. She gives him a curt greeting. “My lord.”

Sansa descends onto the cot by Reina’s side and takes one of her hands in hers. Reina’s eyes fall to their joined hands and double in size.

“Are you well?” Sansa asks. “That looks like it hurts.”

“It does,” she admits, sheepish. “It’s nothing but I’m not even used to scrapes. Maester says I’ll heal just fine.”

“I’m glad to hear it.”

Reina’s mouth opens, but no words spill forth. Her eyes flick to Jon. She doesn’t want to speak in front of him, that much is obvious. Before he can decide if it is safe to excuse himself and leave Sansa with her, Sansa says, “Get some rest over the next few days. If you need anything, you can come to me.”

A gentle dismissal— Sansa isn’t looking at him, but he understands. Even though Reina won’t talk in front of him, Sansa doesn't want him to leave. So he won’t.

Reina’s eyes switch from him to her, and Jon decides to rush it along. “Do you want to tell us what happened?” he asks gently.

After a moment, Reina nods. “It was awful, it happened so fast…” She repeats the story Tormund told Jon, which he relayed to Sansa on the walk here. “The knights attacked first, I'll admit that. But the wildlings lost control. It was..." She shudders.

Sansa speaks in a soft voice. “Do you remember who hurt you?”

She nods, resolutely not looking at Jon when she says, “The wildlings.”

Jon wants to know more; he wants to ask if it was an accident, if the free folk had deliberately sought to hurt her and the other women, and which man it was exactly— Jon has no intention of allowing the crime of hurting a woman go unpunished while he is lord of Winterfell, no matter who the perpetrator is. But he bites his tongue. Every time the girl’s eyes land on him, she becomes tight-lipped. Let Sansa speak to her.

“Fights can be confusing and terrifying.” Sansa squeezes Reina’s hand and Jon wonders if Sansa is speaking from experience. “Even if you aren’t being targeted, it’s like getting caught in a most terrible storm.”

“It felt like a storm,” Reina admits. “I don’t know if they meant to hit us. They were just so angry.”

Sansa’s eyes meet Jon’s for half a second, echoing the growing concern he feels. “What were you doing with the free folk?”

Reina doesn't answer right away. “They came upon us returning to Winterfell and offered to escort us. They said we were at war and we weren’t safe, a couple of girls wandering the woods without any weapons.”

A dozen questions shoot through Jon’s mind, but Sansa asks the most prevalent one, bless her. “What were you doing in the woods?”

Here Reina's face reddens, and her lips thin to the point that he thinks they won’t be getting an answer. But then she says, in a voice so low that he barely catches it, “Direwolves.”

“Direwolves?” Jon echoes, wondering if he heard right. 

Reina’s eyes bear into Sansa’s when she says, “Winter is here. We’ve been hearing whispers that direwolves are in the woods.”

Sansa’s face betrays nothing but her words are slightly shaky when she speaks. “And you wanted to find one?"

“As many as we could,” Reina says. “For you, my lady.”

Her eyes widen. “For me?”

“Direwolves belong to the Starks. You should have them. We want them in Winterfell. We want...” Her eyes drop, a shudder shaking her shoulders. “We don’t want Winterfell to ever fall again.”

A shadow passes over Sansa’s eyes, something so dark it makes Jon ache.

Reina rubs at her eyes, tears falling from them now. “Ramsay Bolton killed my husband.”

“I am sorry,” Jon says, feeling for the woman. He keeps his eye on Sansa, who hasn’t yet outwardly reacted to the name.

“He was a monster,” Reina spits. But the rage and sadness vanishes from her face as she boldly surges forward, taking Sansa’s hands in hers. “But you fought for us, my lady. You withstood Ramsay for us. All to take back the north.”

“What do you mean?”

 “Your marriage… it was all to take back control of the north.” Reina speaks slowly, as if confused. “Wasn’t that the plan, my lady? Marry him, kill him, and become Wardeness of the North?”

Sansa is cold steel again when she demands, “Why do you think that?”

Reina looks shocked at Sansa’s obvious displeasure. “It was the knights talking. They said they heard it from their lord. It made sense.... I apologize, my lady.”

“Lord Baelish?”

“Lord Royce.”

Sansa nods and pulls herself to her feet. “Thank you, Reina. I wish you a speedy recovery.”

“Thank you, my lady.”

“One thing,” Jon says. Both women look to him in surprise, as if they forgot he was there. “Why were the free folk going north when they came upon you?"

“Hunting.”

“Hunting?”

Reina shrugs, but Jon won’t be so easily deterred. “What do you know of the free folk and Last Hearth?”

She sighs as if the mere question frustrates her. “Last Hearth is a rumor.”

Jon frowns, and she continues. “Aren’t the Umbers the ones who gave your brother to the Bolton bastard to be killed? Think on it… it’s pretty clear to me. They want Jon Snow to doubt his men.”

“Thank you… be well,” Jon says by way of farewell, for Sansa has already crossed to leave the room.

In a moment he has caught up with her and he walks by her side, absentminded, as he considers what he just learned. The people currently occupying Winterfell are more unpredictable than he thought, down to the serving girls who journey to the woods to look for direwolves. What a wild thing, he thinks, smiling despite the gravity of the situation. It would be even harder to unite them all than it was to get the men of the Watch to tolerate the free folk— and he hadn’t really done that, he reminds himself. The scars on his body are proof enough.

But the army of the dead is at their door and Sansa is in Winterfell, so he will have to try harder.

“Sansa.” Jon pulls her to a stop when he realizes she is leading them to her office. “You should return to your chambers.”

“It’s still early.” She shakes her head. “I wasted enough time today.”

“You’re tired, upset...”

Sansa scoffs. “There it is.”

One flash of that derisiveness in her eyes and they’re arguing. “There's what?”

“Your pity, the way you’ve been treating me like I’m thin as glass. I'm quite capable, Jon.”

The proud tilt of her chin almost undoes him, almost sets him laughing, because it is ridiculous that he would do something like think her incapable. “You don’t have to tell me. I know it.”

“Do you?”

“I could never pity you, Sansa. Why would I? Pity is for those lesser, and you...” He swallows, overcome. Her eyes soften and he could swear there is a flush of pink in her cheeks.

“I only wanted you to rest because you haven’t stopped moving.” This is true, but there are a dozen more reasons he knows he shouldn't mention. Margaery’s death. Her wounds and the maester’s visit they’d argued over, burning in the back of his mind every second of every day. An echo of Davos’s words come to him and he gives her the reason he thinks will convince her. “The meeting is soon. You'll feel most prepared if you're well rested.”

She wrings her hands. “Are we ready?”

“We are.”

She sighs and he can see in the set of her shoulders that she is close to caving. “I have much to do today. I have to check on the wine and the mead.”

“I’ll do it.”

She gives him a small smile. “And candles.”

“Send a list if you must.” He turns and starts walking in the direction of her chambers. He considers it a victory when she falls into step with him. He does not let the way she holds him at her bedchamber door, fussing over the details of various tasks in an obvious attempt at stalling, taint that victory.

For the rest of the day Jon wonders about her accusation— your pity— and feels properly chastised. Since they argued over her wounds he can admit he has been distant and sensitive and strange around her. That’s the last thing she needs, the last thing she deserves. So he makes a point of visiting her chambers that night after all his duties are done, finding her sitting by the fire with her sewing. He can’t help the pleasure he feels when she tells him she has slept several hours, when she smiles such an open smile at the tea and hot cakes he has brought for her.

“Before you go,” she says when he bids her goodnight. “I wanted to explain something.”

Jon is alarmed when she avoids his gaze. Her hands in her lap start to twitch in small movements, fingers rubbing over her palm. “What is it?”

“What Reina said. About my... my plan with Ramsay. That wasn’t true. Well, that wasn’t the plan.”

He is curious but a thousand times more concerned. “You don’t have to explain.”

“I was never going to kill him.” She lowers her gaze to her lap. “I’m not proud of that. I wish I would have thought to kill him when I could have. Stannis was meant to take Winterfell and save me.”

Jon feels both hot and cold all over. How sure he felt when he rejected Stannis, how confident that he made the right choice. The only cost he thought he paid was his own, a Stark legitimization. Instead he had unknowingly bartered weeks of Sansa's life. There is never a right choice, it seems.

"No one can save anyone. That’s what I learned.”

“You saved yourself.” Jon bends over where Sansa sits in her chair and takes her hand. “You did it all on your own.”

She lowers her gaze. “I didn’t do it on my own.”

Jon frowns. His feelings about Theon Greyjoy are complicated; he hates him and wants to see him gutted, wants to see him dead for what he did to Robb and Bran and Rickon and Winterfell. But Sansa vows he has more than paid the price for his betrayals, and he believes her. Whatever small a role he played in aiding her, how could Jon be anything but grateful, when it is Sansa.

“Give yourself more credit.” He squeezes her hand and meets her eye. “You are strong like every Stark who came before you.”

“It’s because I’m in Winterfell.” They are not the words he expects to hear but they are perfectly right. She says it like a confession. “It’s because I’m home.”

“Then home we will stay,” as if the matter is decided, as if it was ever a question.


“The King in the North!”

The cheer ringing through the great hall sends shivers down Sansa’s spine. Is this how Robb felt? No, this is how her lady mother felt, watching a man she loved be crowned.

Sansa feels the heat of a gaze and looks up, finding Jon looking down at her with such an open expression of disbelief and pride— and a question, too. Is this real? Should this be happening? Do I deserve this?

She beams at him; yes. Yes, he deserves it, he is strong and good and she would protect him so that he would not be taken down like the other strong and good Starks. Oh how proud Robb would be, how proud father would be... to see Starks in Winterfell again, to see the North independent again. Arya and Bran enter her mind, unbidden, and although she tells herself she doesn't pray anymore, she sends out something more than a wish; let them return. Let them be home. Let them be part of this.

Enraptured as she is, she doesn’t notice Littlefinger’s glare until it is much too late. It must be late because the cheer has been going on for long minutes, and in fact she doesn’t think she has looked at him once during the meeting— panic grips her chest. But why should she have to? Resentfully she reflects on the weeks of preparation for this meeting, the stress of managing the friction between the various factions in Winterfell, the hours of preparation shared between her and Jon.

Yet it was only Jon who spoke today. In the beginning there had been some opportunity for her to contribute but as soon as the conversation turned to the upcoming battle it derailed; Lord Royce was shouting about wildlings, Tormund was needling him in turn. Northern lords wanted to return to their keeps. And Jon had managed it all.

She is proud of him, and this is what she wanted. But she hates this feeling, a nauseating uselessness, a sense of utter displacement, like she isn’t home at all. She could be in King’s Landing, she could be in the Eyrie, she could be on Littlefinger’s ship, it wouldn’t matter, she is the same stupid girl she has always been—

Sansa sucks in a breath and wills her thoughts calm. None of that is true, she admonishes herself with a harsh voice like a Septa’s. She is home. She is home because she brought the knights of the Vale. She is useful and she belongs here and she will never go south again.

And she will have to deal with Littlefinger.

He’s the poison. The thought nearly drowns the bass of the northmen’s chants away. One meeting of the eyes and she completely derailed, doubting her capabilities, doubting what she wants, what she herself orchestrated. And now Jon is not just a lord, not just a warden, he is a king. Sansa steals a glance up at Jon’s open, glowing face. He is a king in the most dangerous position a king can be in— a king in Littlefinger’s way.

Chapter Text

Long after the dwellers of Winterfell have fallen into the quiet of their nighttime lives, Sansa finds Jon in the crypts. “It should be him,” Jon whispers when she is close enough to hear.

Sansa swallows the lump in her throat. Jon is staring at a low platform but she keeps her eyes on the wall; she cannot look at the place that holds her youngest brother’s body. Instead she thinks of her encouragements to Lyanna Mormont; the lady of Bear Island had done more and been fiercer than Sansa had ever expected. She thinks on when she had told Jon Winterfell belonged to him, too. That he hadn’t stolen it from their brothers.

“Remember what we talked about.” She aims for a stern voice and fails miserably.

The corner of Jon's mouth quirks up for a half second, then he is solemn again. “Did you know this would happen? I— I don't know how I should feel.”

“Forget ‘should.’”

There is a mixture of shock and heat in his eyes illuminated by the torchlight. For some reason Sansa is blushing. She stares at her feet. “I mean, for now… here. You can be honest. How do you feel?”

He answers slowly, as if tasting each word before speaking it. “Honored. Proud.... responsible.” His shoulders slump.

“Are you afraid?”

Jon glances at her; is that guilt she sees? “If I am?”

“Father used to say that the only time a man can be brave is when he is afraid.”

A broken, tremulous smile shakes his mouth. She watches his body shift the slightest bit to look at Ned Stark's statue.

For long minutes they regard the statues of the departed Starks surrounding them and lament the ones missing. Jon suggests building honorary statues for them as soon as the war is done. “Robb first,” he vows, undoubtedly thinking of the last King in the North.

They have both moved slowly so that their arms almost brush now, the side of her body ghosting his. She wonders if she can actually feel the heat of his body through this near-touch or if she is imagining things. She wonders if they will ever get a chance to build these statues, if fighting will ever be done.


 "The King in the North..." The words are little more than a snarl, transformed from the triumphant cheer that rang through the great hall into something ugly. Petyr Baelish's eyes are narrow slits and angrier than Sansa has ever seen them, a loss of control that frightens her.

"Careful, Lord Baelish. He is my brother.”

"Half brother, bastard brother." A harsh laugh escapes him. "How the lords chose him over you I will never understand."

Sansa lowers her head. "They are reluctant to be led by a woman."

"They listen to that Lady Mormont well enough." He pierces her with a stare and Sansa stiffens, knowing he is testing her reaction. "People flock to him. Who garners more faith than a reluctant king? Who inspires more passion than a war hero such as he?"

Loathe as she is to do it, Sansa places a hand on his arm. "You saved us all from certain defeat. They won't forget."

His eyes drop to the point of contact. His mouth twists. "My dear, that is ancient history by now."

"We still need the Vale in the war to come. The army of the dead is coming. Jon is the only one who has faced them. They need him to survive." You need him, she implores silently. Can he see that? Can he see that clearly enough to not count Jon as an enemy?

"The Vale is loyal to you." Littlefinger's hand falls upon her own, keeping it still on his arm as they walk. "The knights will fight with the King in the North."

Sansa arches a brow.

"I have declared for House Stark. He is my king now. No matter the enemies that come along with such a decision."

"Enemies? Like who?"

"Cersei Lannister."

"If you have truly declared for us, then she was always your enemy."

He shakes his head as if to dismiss her words. "She will not leave you be. She will consider you to be in open rebellion."

"That was always going to be the case, since we will not bend the knee to her son."

"A whisper has reached my ears… that Tommen Baratheon is dead. He perished with the Sept of Baelor."

Sansa halts. "She killed her own son? That doesn't make sense. That's not Cersei."

"Cersei isn't known for her ability to keep a cool head. Her need for vengeance often renders her blind, and she was bound to make a mistake." He smiles tightly. "Albeit, a terrible mistake. It is but a whisper for now, unconfirmed. We will soon know if it is true. If it is, the throne has never been in a more precarious position."

A thousand thoughts and concerns plague her. She wonders how he has this information when she doesn’t, who his spies are. She wants to remind him that survival against the army of the dead is more important than the throne; she wants him to leave forever, is so weary of him that she has half a mind to tell him to go south if he wants, and good riddance. But if he is indeed suggesting taking the Iron Throne by conquest, he will need the Knights of the Vale— and she will not allow them to go south.

"My priorities are here, for now," Sansa speaks carefully. "I must protect the northern people from the threat at our door."

A beat passes. "And I have no wish to rule over a graveyard."

"Then our interests are aligned."

A slimy quirk of a smile. "Of that I have no doubt."

Sansa cannot repress a shudder, wondering with panic if he is mocking her.


 The crypts are the best place for his dealings. It is a spiritual place, a Stark place, and no one but Sansa and the bastard ever go there. It only takes one well-placed spy to inform him of their movements, and so the crypts become the best place for the business he does when he doesn’t want to be seen.

Petyr goes into the crypts as soon as the sun sets. He was told that both Sansa and the bastard visited the night before, at an hour much too late in his opinion. Dear Sansa spends too much time with the new king, more than what their positions demand. Petyr would allow this to bother him more than it does, but he only has himself to blame. He pities Sansa; she is so damaged that she flocks to her half-brother because he is familiar but not at all worthy. Petyr clicks his tongue. Ramsay was a mistake… a costly mistake.

He has an hour to conduct his business before his meeting, and then he must make an appearance at the great hall for supper. He wants to miss it—he can think of many better uses for his time, and the thought of watching the King in the North eat his supper with his bride by his side invites many an unpleasant memory—but he told Sansa he supports her brother, and appearances must be kept.

Thankfully the servant girls come at the appointed time; despite the precautions he takes, Petyr doesn’t like to linger. He pays them for their lies and the beatings they took. “The wildlings tried to escort you, but they only wanted to hurt you,” he had instructed them to say, and it worked. Petyr expected more of a reaction from chivalrous Jon, but perhaps he had overestimated his chivalry and underestimated his love for the wildling beasts. It was no matter. The plan was still in place.

More than that, he thinks with the taste of victory in his mouth. It took only the slightest well-placed whispers to turn the kindles of animosity between the wildlings and the knights into a flame. Jon has already been attacked once, by the wildlings he loved so much. Yet the bastard hadn’t even taken his justice. If he had, Petyr would have used it to his advantage. But something stayed his hand, something Petyr couldn’t understand, and that had the desired effect too—now it was the knights who had even more resentment for Jon Snow. Jon was only one of the targets of this plan—it was tailored entirely for the downfall of another— but Petyr doesn’t mind the collateral damage. They will all fall, and in the chaos, he will climb.

Petyr counts the girls as he offers further instruction, realizing one is missing. “Alssa is coming,” one of the girls says, as if she knows his thoughts.

“Of course she is,” Petyr smiles indulgently. If she doesn’t, she is compromised. He decides to wait until he has to leave for his meeting.

Minutes later, he hears footsteps— and instantly knows they are not the servant girl’s. Petyr evaluates his options; there is nowhere he would feel confident hiding, and to be caught crouching behind one of the stone statues would be completely undignified and very difficult to explain. But he doesn’t know the crypts well enough to try finding another way out. The Winterfell crypts are a maze, rumored to twist on and on for miles. Most rumors are lies and exaggerations, but he can’t take the chance of getting lost.

So Petyr places himself at Lyanna Stark’s statue. He waits until the footsteps quiet and even out, signifying its bearer is no longer descending the steps, to draw the candle from his pocket. He is lighting the candle when he hears the footsteps stop, hears the ragged male breathing. Quick tempers, slow minds. Petyr knew it could only be one person, but now he is sure.

“You don’t belong down here.”

Petyr turns as if startled. “Forgive me, my King.”

He watches with interest as the indecision plays out so painfully clearly over Jon’s body. Jon wants to leave of course, but doesn’t want to give him the satisfaction.

So Petyr keeps talking. “This place is sacred. I never took the old gods as my own, much like Cat, but I can feel their power here… it is undeniable.”

Jon was never looking at him to begin with, but now he turns away completely. He stares fixedly at Ned’s statue. Petyr sidles a bit closer. He hadn’t planned this but it could be very useful. He would like to learn a thing or two about Jon’s weaknesses—what would drive him to anger, what would make him irrational. Knowledge is power. That is what he told Cersei when he used her weakness and her shame as a thorn to prick at her side, the secret of the true nature of her relationship with her brother.

“I delivered his bones to Cat myself.” Petyr waves at Ned’s statue. “I knew how much it would mean to her. To all the Stark children. I hoped they would all be able to visit him here, for the rest of their long days… but there is only one left. I am very sorry for that.”

A tic in Jon’s jaw—nothing more. Petyr attempts a different tactic. “I was sorry when he died. We had our differences, but he loved Cat… so did I. She wasn’t fond of you, was she?”

He is still staring straight ahead, with narrowed eyes. “It appears she vastly underestimated you,” Petyr continues. “All her sons are gone, and you have taken the mantle of King in the North.”

Still, nothing—in the way of words, at least. Jon looks murderous, his eyes mere narrow slits that stare stubbornly ahead at his father’s statue. He clearly doesn’t mean to give Petyr anything, and it is more restraint than he expected. Petyr steps back. “I’m sorry for being here when you came to… pay your respects. I can imagine it’s impossible not to think of him at a time like this… wondering what he would think… if he would approve.”

This must affect him, but Petyr hope it hurts him, haunts him when he is trying to sleep. “I will take my leave. Again, I apologize for being here. When I was last in Winterfell, I made a habit of visiting your aunt’s statue with Sansa, a habit that’s become quite dear to me.”

“Her name doesn’t belong on your tongue.”

A reaction. Petyr halts his retreating steps. “No less than it belongs on anyone else’s.”

Now it is Jon stepping away from him, whipping past him to the steps. “She is not married, nor betrothed,” Petyr calls, despite the burning like bubbling acid in his stomach, that this is what moves Jon Snow. “But that won’t always be her situation.”

Jon’s steps halt. He does not turn, but his shoulders heave with the force of his breathing.

“Many would seek to marry her for her claim, to use her. But I see her for who she is… I love Sansa. As I loved her mother.”

A blur of motion and a vice around his neck—Petyr gasps, his hands going to his neck uselessly, his gaze darkening as he loses breath, narrowing to just Jon’s murderous glare.

“Touch Sansa—” His choke tightens, his face twitches with rage. “And I’ll kill you myself.”

His hold tightens, tightens, as if he’s considering doing it anyway— then he releases him. Petyr lands on his feet, not realizing he was lifted against the wall. He barely manages to drag in a breath before his world explodes in a flare of red and pain.

Dazed, Petyr touches a hand to his face, mildly surprised when it comes away red. He punched me. He glares at Jon’s retreating form, black spots dancing across his vision, and then—seven hells. The last of the servant girls stands at the mouth of the stairs, looking between Jon and him with obvious fear. This fucking whore and her timing.

Jon is looking between them, too, disgust mingling with the anger on his features. Petyr knows Jon sees Alssa’s reddish hair, her blue eyes, and the purple bruise on her face. Petyr knows what conclusion he is drawing, and he allows it. It is better than the truth.

“You don’t have to,” he hears Jon say to her in a low tone. “Leave with me now.”

“I—I—” Alssa looks torn for a moment, but then she moves to Petyr with red cheeks. She is right to fear him more than the brutish king.

Petyr grasps her arm. “Not here.” He pushes her forward, past Jon who is standing still as any of the statues, until he is breathing the night air.

He looks at Alssa. He wants to kill her. She has no idea how much trouble she’s caused—even he has no idea, hasn’t yet contemplated the full extent of the ramifications this interaction could have. He rubs at his sore throat. But no matter what he does, how he covers it up, he knows Jon will suspect him after this. The girl has to live.

So he pays her instead. Her hair is a muddied red-brown and his hand lingers by her bruised cheek.

“Stay out of the light,” he says to her. “This will draw attention. More than it already has, I mean.”

His heavy touch draws a wince from her. She nods, looking up at him from beneath her lashes. Her hair isn’t right but her eyes are perfect. Blue as a summer sea. Despite everything, he feels a tightening in his belly.

“Go now.”

Alssa scurries away. Petyr walks briskly back into Winterfell’s keep. He still has a few minutes to prepare for the meeting with the northern lord. And after, he will have to think on what happened with Jon, what he’s learned about Jon. He will have to think about everything.

Chapter Text

In all the corners of Winterfell there is no place that gives Sansa more peace than the godswood. This surprises her, as the things she prayed for as a child in front of this tree led to the deterioration of everything she holds dear, and now she is a woman who never prays. But when she sits in front of the tree, she sees the ghost of her father and her mother, of her siblings both dead and gone, and perhaps it is to them she speaks to, because she finds herself whispering fervent wishes on a voice lighter than the wind.

But Jon is no ghost, and sometimes he finds her there. The two sit in quiet contentment or exchange simple greetings, but they never share small talk here, not in this place.

Littlefinger no longer preys on Sansa in the godswood, not after one such time he happened upon them both at night and quickly slid away when he caught sight of the silhouette of Jon's cloak. Thankfully Jon did not see him, but Sansa did, and held her breath for the few moments it took Littlefinger to disappear— she did not want to imagine why he had sought her out at so late an hour. Then she smiled at Jon so radiantly he had no choice but to smile himself, his brow furrowing in confusion nonetheless when he asked, "What's that for?"

She bit her lip and, not able to explain what a gift it was that he unknowingly shielded her from Littlefinger, said, "For being here."

She tried not to focus on the way his gaze intensified after that, on the fervor in his voice when he said, "Always, Sansa."

Instead she carries his promise close to her heart as she navigates her daily life, through every difficult conversation and every chilling glance from Littlefinger across a room. Through every ill report and tenacious negotiation and moment of discomfort or fear, she carries his "always, Sansa" along with his "where will we go" and a dozen other promises she might allow herself to start believing. Despite what she told him in the tent when he gave her another promise, "I'll protect you", despite the scars on her body and the irritated wounds that seem to be worsening every day. Sansa ignores them and takes stock of her blessings instead.

Littlefinger has not approached her since the day Jon was named king. Since the morning she crossed him in the hall and glimpsed the dark bruise and an eye nearly swollen shut. It is a welcome reprieve, yet Sansa feels unease when she does not see him for days on end, wondering at his actions in the shadows. She wonders about that bruise even as it yellows and fades, wonders who would have crossed Littlefinger in such a way. She fervently hopes it wasn’t who she almost certainly knows it was.

But Jon never mentions it.

These new days are not generous to her and Jon. He barely spends time alone with her, and although Sansa feels a strange yearning when she thinks on this she tries not to take it personally. Jon is, quite clearly, drowning. The lords trip over their own feet in their hurry to secure private meetings with him, though they are just as quick to whisper and wonder about their new King in the North. Searching for dragonglass and organizing weapons training have become even more of a priority as the weather grows colder; a harbinger of death, Jon reminds them all. The blacksmiths and soldiers of Winterfell have never had more work, and Jon does the most.

So Sansa contents herself with the greetings and farewells before and after meetings, the few minutes of conversation Jon always insists on having with her, which never fail to make her calm and content regardless of the other events of the day. When their schedules permit them to share a meal she considers it a blessing, even if they are always in the great hall where someone seeks his counsel or hers.

Jon's face is haggard and his beard and hair growing longer, but he is tight-lipped when Sansa inquires after his health or his sleep. Davos is more forthcoming, always giving the Lady of Winterfell his full attention when she calls on him. He tells her Jon is doing the work of five men and rarely spends more than four hours a night in his chamber. Davos grumbles about the knights of the Vale, who still seek resolution for the fight with the free folk and justice for the attack on the northern women, although the women themselves seem keen to forget the matter. "Perhaps you can speak with Lord Royce," he suggests, and Sansa considers.

It is true that Lord Royce has become one of the most constant of her companions. Much more than a military man, Lord Royce showed great keenness for the work of imports, weapons forging, the smallspeople in Wintertown, and a dozen other matters. He was always respectful and defered to her knowledge of the north, never belittling her for her age or sex, and Sansa latched onto his counsel. At first she worried over Littlefinger’s reaction, but this new Littlefinger she never seemed to see appeared unperturbed. Then she worried over the northern lords' reactions, but saw that they were more concerned with Jon's closeness to Tormund.

“The free folk maintain they were hunting and the northern women weren’t with them,” Sansa tells Davos now. “As I’m sure Jon has told you.”

Davos squints. “You believe them, my lady?”

Sansa doesn’t know what to believe. With such confusing testimonies they had been unable to reach the truth or take any action. Sansa suspects foul play but has no grounds for her suspicions. Winterfell is a hotbed of friction at present, and her concern is keeping it intact. “What I believe is Jon’s trust in Tormund,” she answers Davos. “The northern women want to put the matter behind them. We should do just that.”

“I don’t think it’s over, my lady,” Davos warns, voicing her worst thoughts. “Mark my words.”


Varys has lived in various climates, but Dragonstone is the most irritating, cold and wet. The Essosi soldiers have long since discarded their lighter sleeveless garbs and donned thick, high necked uniforms. The Ironborn seem comfortable— too comfortable, in his opinion— they follow the example of their leader, who prances about as if the ground beneath his feet is his. It is a poor imitation of a true conqueror, a woman like Daenerys who thus far has exuded complete confidence and ownership over every foreign land she has treaded. And yet, here in her home, she looks mystifyingly out of place.

“I thought it would feel different,” Daenerys remarked somberly on their first night, after she had scooped the gravelly sand in her palms and torn down Stannis Baratheon’s banners. Although both he and Tyrion were in the room, Varys knew she was speaking to Missandei. “I thought I would remember something.”

“That is not so strange,” Tyrion replied in a comforting tone. “You were a babe when you left.”

“You mean, when I was taken,” she hissed, fire returning to her dead eyes, fire that had no place in this cold, dark place.

“Of course.” Tyrion held up a placating hand; the other was cradling a wine goblet, already half emptied. “But this is your home, Daenerys Stormborn.”

Daenerys hadn’t spoken for some time after, shadows shuttering over her face. That was over a week ago, and the passage of time did not seem to make her any more comfortable. Today she hovers by the window in the map room, her back to them. Once again they have reached a standoff while discussing strategy, and Daenerys has chosen to depart from the discussion. Varys stifles a sigh as he exchanges a meaningful glance with Tyrion.

“My queen,” Tyrion starts again. “Every ruler needs allies.”

Daenerys holds up a hand. “I am tired of speaking of this. I do have an ally— Euron Greyjoy. Neither of you seem pleased with him. I take your advice, but all you have is criticisms.”

“It’s our duty as your advisers to criticize you when needed.” Varys wishes he didn’t have to spend so much time talking circles to her back. “Euron Greyjoy served his purpose.”

“What are you suggesting?”

Be rid of him. After a moment, he decides against speaking his thoughts. Euron is insufferable and Varys finds himself grateful for the long stints when he disappears to one of his ships. He assumes the pirate to be virtually harmless in the grand scale of things— but he would not underestimate him. Better to keep him and their men on their side; better to keep an eye on him.

“I make no suggestions regarding Euron Greyjoy,” Varys says. “But I urge you to make more alliances. Olenna Tyrell, Ellaria Sand, and Jon Snow. They are the most powerful people in Westeros at present… and they all hate Cersei.”

He hears the sigh Daenerys releases, a choked frustrated sound that blends into the cold wind. “I don’t need powerful allies to take the capital. I have my dragons and my armies.”

“It’s true— if you flew now to King’s Landing the red keep would fall in a day.” Daenerys turns then, eyes glittering at Tyrion’s suggestion, and Varys glares at the dwarf. “But Cersei will not surrender easily. And how many men will die because of that?”

Incredulous, she protests, “And having more allies will prevent this loss of life?”

“Perhaps not,” Tyrion acquiesces. “But you will have their peoples’ support when you take the throne.”

“They will be my people then.”

“Yes…” Tyrion looks at Varys helplessly. Just like every other day, they have made no progress with Daenerys. At least we’ve kept her from climbing onto her dragon’s back and burning everything down. That is no small victory.

“Remember the kind of queen you wish to be.” Daenerys’s eyes are hard as dragon scales as they snap to Varys at his words. “I once told our friend here that you were my choice of ruler because you were stronger than Tommen Baratheon and gentler than Stannis Baratheon.”

“And has that changed?” Challenge burns in her eyes.

“It will if you take King’s Landing by fire.” It is frank, and Varys has always spoken so with her before, but for the first time he feels a spike of fear as he does it. Curious. He stows this away for further examination to focus on the task at hand. “The Red Keep cannot be your target at this point in your conquest.”

“Conquest…?” Daenerys arches a brow, but she does not seem angry, only amused. “I am taking back what’s mine.”


The chill of Dragonstone seeps into her bones. Every day Missandei wakes on this strange island she tells herself she will adapt— she always does— that it could be worse, that it has been so much worse. It is easiest to be optimistic in the mornings. The mornings are the warmest. Her love makes her warm.

It is still a mild shock to wake and find him beside her, arm wound around her back and his nose in her hair. Although Torgo Nudho is sometimes taken with his duties late into the night, she always wakes with him in her bed. In the few days since they confessed their love for each other with their words and their bodies, they have not spent a night apart. I meet Missandei from the isle of Naath… now I have fear. Missandei holds him closer. In the mornings, it is easier to dismiss fear. Easier to pretend they were just two lovers; not former slaves, not soldiers.

But the days are cold, and the new wool-lined clothes don’t help much. Daenerys seems similarly impacted. Missandei worries for her. There are conflicts to be resolved as she grows even closer to her goal, but there has always been conflict. In Essos they had dealt with the Sons of the Harpy, the conflicts between the slaves and the masters, and so many men who opposed them— yet Daenerys’s sun was never so dimmed as it is now, on the shores of her supposed “home”. But it is easy to see why that is. The castle is dark and gloomy and wet, the furthest thing in Missandei’s mind from home. She shudders.

She hopes her queen’s spirits will lift soon, but it does not seem likely. Daenerys is in a fouler mood than ever— she has acquiesced to Tyrion and Varys’s demands to write to the Westerosi potential allies. Missandei asks her if she thinks the move unwise. “If so, you should listen to your own judgment,” she advises her, just as she did in Meereen.

Missandei wonders if Daenerys was also acting on her advisers’ counsel when she allied with Euron Greyjoy. She does not care for the man— not at all. His watery eyes make her skin prickle whenever they fall on her. She does not like the way he follows Daenerys with those eyes. Missandei has seen many a man look at the queen with lust, but the glint in Euron’s eyes is more than that. There is something… hungry about it that makes Missandei genuinely fearful.

She finds she can breathe easier whenever he disappears onto his ship, but today is not one of those days. Missandei has just spoken with Daenerys when she stumbles upon him, lounging against the wall with a foot kicked up. It is decidedly nonchalant, and Missandei knows instantly that it is staged. “Where is she?”

“Who do you speak of?” She does not stop walking, but she resists the urge to speed up, just a little.

“You know who…” He follows her, gait long and leisurely.

“She is in the throne room,” she says. “The opposite way.”

“I’m in no rush.” His grin stretches across his face in a way that looks skeletal, fish-like. “I’ve traveled the world, you know… saw many a woman with hair like yours. Not many women in Westeros like you. Where did you come from—”

She feels a tickle and a prick of clammy heat at her neck. She jolts forward, away, realizing a second later he was trying to touch her.

Missandei called out in Valyrian as she walked away: “Are there any of Torgo Nudho’s men who can hear me?” She hopes one of the Unsullied are nearby, and a moment later her wish is answered as a soldier approaches her from the other end of the hall.

“What is it you have need of?” the soldier asks her in Valyrian.

“An escort,” she answers simply, decidedly speeding her step, wishing to put as much distance between herself and Euron Greyjoy as possible.


That night, Torgo Nudho asks her of the incident. “One of my men tell me you need help from Euron Greyjoy.” 

“Not help, exactly.” Missandei curls her hands around the teacup, relishing the warmth spreading through her fingers. They are sitting on the ground by the fire in her chambers having just completed Torgo Nudho’s reading lessons that she still insists on giving him most nights. She has thought all day about the incident and decided not to mention it to Daenerys. Despite how uncomfortable the man made her, he was Daenerys’s ally, and she doesn’t want to make things difficult for her.

But now Torgo Nudho is pressing her. “Then what happen?”

“Happened,” she gently instructs him. She doesn’t always correct his speech, but she does during their lessons. “He tried to…” Missandei looks down; now she is the one faltering with her speech.

“Yes?” Torgo Nudho’s jaw is set, his low tone impatient.

“He was talking of my appearance… he tried to touch my hair.”

Torgo Nudho is already a man of few words and he is silent now; he rises from the ground in one fluid motion and charges from the room. Missandei hurries after him. “Torgo Nudho!”

His stride is long and quick, and he does not slow for her. Missandei breaks into a run, and when she reaches him pulls on his elbow. “Wait… don’t be hasty, please. He is our queen’s ally.”

“She will not allow this.” His nostrils flare; he looks to and fro restlessly, looks anywhere but at her. “She does not allow men hurt women.”

“I know. That’s why we can’t tell her. She needs him.”

“Why?” His gaze snaps to her then. “He is not a good man.”

Missandei chews on her lip, pondering the question. In truth, she is just as mystified as him. Euron Greyjoy had an arrogance, a crudeness, and a carelessness that reminded her of the masters. Daenerys always stood against men like him, until now…. But, of course, there had been Jorah.

Missandei hates to think of him. She remembers the day she discovered the man was a former slave trader, hence his banishment to Essos. Daenerys had delivered the information casually, but Missandei had felt the ground slip from under her. After, Daenerys had been equal parts distraught and soothing, promising that was no longer the man Jorah was. She had begged her to find it in her heart to forgive him for the actions of his past life.

Missandei couldn’t quite do that, but she hadn’t spoken of it again, even if she was a bit cool to Jorah after that. Then, he had turned out to be a traitor. She had been shocked because his devotion to Daenerys was so obviously true— but she wasn’t surprised he was capable of such deceit. Even a drop of rot will ruin the whole fruit; so they said in Naath.

“She needed him to cross the sea.” Missandei places her other hand on his elbow as his mouth opens to protest. “Westeros is… different. I’m afraid this won’t be the last time we will have to consider a man like that an ally.”

“Do you fear him?”

Missandei takes a moment too long to answer— he turns so fast it’s a blur. “Wait, please!”

He disappears around a corner but she thinks she knows where he is headed. When she enters the map room she finds him there, but only him. He is standing at the very edge, where the wind howls past the windows. A storm is raging. Missandei goes to stand beside him and follows his gaze. It is difficult to see through the night and sleet, but she can see a crowd gathered on the beach, a skiff or two on the dark shore. She glimpses the distinct white of Daenerys’s hair.

“Stay here,” Torgo Nudho tells her in Valyrian. She looks up at him, surprised, and finds his jaw set. He is only Unsullied now. “Go to your room. Lock the door.”

She swallows and nods. They walk together to the door and he turns right; she waits a moment then follows.

When she exits the castle she wraps her arms around herself, steeling herself against the cold and the wind. She walks slowly and carefully to the pale sheet of Daenerys’s hair. About two dozen men stand, but there seems to be no fight. No weapons are drawn. They are all standing still. As she draws closer she hears several low murmurs and picks out a high, female voice— Daenerys— and when she draws closer still she can hear the hitch in it. Is she crying? It seems impossible. Missandei quickens her step through the sand that has turned to slush.

“… I return to your service, my queen.”

She is close now; close enough to see that Torgo Nudho has registered her presence, close enough to see Daenerys’s strained expression. Close enough to see the tall, sandy haired man and his solemn, lined face.

Daenerys nods. “It would be my honor, Ser Jorah.”

 

Chapter Text

If you’re so broken there’s no coming back, take a knife and cut your wrists.

In his hands there is a dagger. He doesn't have a bow and arrow; they were lost to the relentless crashing of the waves on his body. Somehow the dagger was with him when he washed up on the coast, coughing up salt water til he felt he was choking. Theon stares at the dagger now. There is a ruby red spot from where he pricked his finger to test its sharpness. I should. I will. I am that broken, I’m weak, rhymes with—

No. Theon couldn't even think the name. He would never think it again.

The chill is unbearable through his sodden clothes and the dagger shakes in his trembling grip. It's as cold as Winterfell was those last few months, when winter must have been creeping on. To think of winter is to think of Ned Stark, and Theon can't bear to do that. But the rest of his thoughts are Yara, Yara, how he had jumped ship… tears leak from his eyes, mingling with the rest of the salt on his face.

It had been so horrible, so sudden, so— unexpected. Theon thinks he might have been able to handle it better if it hadn’t been so unexpected. What kind of attack is expected, you fool? This wasn’t war anymore. This was demolition.

Euron’s fleet was not a fleet. The dragons transformed it. They didn't release a single burst of flame and yet the sight of them, shrieking against the inky black sky, had Theon shaking uselessly. He forgot how to use a spear or a sword, he forgot that he should be holding a spear or a sword, he forgot about the bow and quiver of arrows strapped to his back, and eventually all sound faded away. All he could hear was the blood pounding in his head, and a cold voice slithered in…

No. He nearly collapsed on the deck, useless. Theon knew it couldn’t be him, but he also didn’t know that. He was unable to do anything more than to wait for whatever was going to happen.

Then it was Euron’s face before him. It was twisted awake with cruel delight like—like—

Theon startled awake as if he had been sleeping. He realized Yara was fighting Euron and she was losing. “I have her… come and get her...” It was a hiss like a snake’s and Theon could not look at Yara’s eyes.

He jumped.

He looks at the dagger. I deserve it, he thinks, I should do it. Everything he did to the Starks—he thought he started to atone for it when he helped Sansa. But what had he really done for her? Left her to freeze? Left her to travel to the Wall alone? Abandoned her, that’s what he did, abandoned her just as he abandoned Yara. Theon failed them both. Once, he was able to tell himself he saved one sister. Sansa. But he doesn't know what happened to her… maybe she’s dead. Just as Yara is surely dead.

What if she’s not dead?

Theon doesn’t like that voice, that voice that sounds reasonable and encouraging, that voice that talks like it doesn’t know all the horrible things he’s done. It sounds like Robb’s voice.

What if you could help her now?

Theon shakes his head to reject the idea, but a small part of him— the part that swore his sword to Robb, that pushed Myranda from the battlements, that endorsed Yara in the kingsmoot— considers it. He suspects he is somewhere off of Blackwater Bay, near the Kingswood. So close to Dragonstone, where Euron and the dragons and the Targaryen were undoubtedly headed. A skiff could get him there. A skiff could take him to Yara.

Make your choice, Theon, and do it quickly… run away little Theon…

It would be so easy to make the cut. Theon stares at the dagger with hate, now, hating it for its simplicity. It would be so easy…

But he doesn’t deserve the easy way.

I don’t want to be forgiven.

He said those words to Sansa. He told her he was going home. What a mess he’s made of that.

What do you want, then?

It is Robb’s voice, again.

I want to be new.


On the day Sansa wakes in such pain she can’t leave her bed, she finds herself strangely calm. This is it. I can’t run from this anymore.

Still, Sansa grits her teeth and tries again and again to leave the bed on her own. She is not helpless, not anymore. She will walk to the maester herself.

She tries to control herself but the pain is searing. The yelps and groans from her efforts prompt her guard to rush in, despite her fevered commands to leave her be.

But the Mormont guard, a man named Jurnor, stands his ground. “I must bring the maester and alert the king right away.”

Sansa was about to agree until she hears the word king. “Not Jon,” she says, sharp and panicked.

Jurnor hesitates. “I must.”

Somehow Sansa’s addled mind thinks of a compromise. “Call to Brienne.”

“My lady—”

“Brienne, she will help me!”

She barely registers Jurnor’s protests as she renews her efforts to leave the bed on her own. Her neck and chest are clammy with sweat, the muscles in her arms shaking as she tries to push herself up. She is dimly aware of the slick feeling under her back and legs—blood, her blood, and maybe something worse. All she knows is that the pain is centered there and her legs will not move.

She looks up and finds, bizarrely, Tormund hovering in the open doorway. He looks at her with undisguised shock, then steps to her guard. “What the fuck is this?”

Jurnor pales at the vulgarity but his chest swells with self-righteousness a moment later. He places a hand on the hilt of his sword. “My lady is ill. You do not belong here.”

“Please,” Sansa moans, surprised at how weak her voice is. “Don’t fight.”

She registers Tormund glaring at Jurnor before moving into the room, his expression softening instantly when he looks at her.

“You can’t go in there!” Jurnor attempts to block Tormund’s way, but the latter pushes him away with no effort, like swatting at a fly.

“Tormund, please summon Brienne.” Sansa attempts to sound as dignified as possible in her current state.

But Tormund will not have it. His face hardens when he moves closer and glimpses the blood. He covers her in furs and then gathers her into his arms.

Sansa is too shocked and pained to react; she can only groan, her tense muscles going limp in surrender.

“Which way’s the healing man, boy?” Tormund roars, and Sansa has a moment to register her future embarrassment, as surely the entire keep has heard him.

Soon she is descended to another bed and it is Maester Wolkan’s concerned face hovering before her. “My lady… please. Let me treat you.”

Sansa nods, finally surrendering. “Help me.”


Tormund kicks his feet at nothing in the hall. He got turned around earlier, still not used to grand castles—he doesn’t think he ever will be—when he recognized the hall of Sansa’s chamber and realized he must have gotten lost. He was about to turn around when he realized Sansa’s door was ajar, with no guard in sight.

Tormund knew by way of Jon that Sansa’s door was always meant to be guarded. He moved stealthily for the door but when he heard raised voices, he ran.

He didn’t expect to find Sansa soaking in her own blood.

When he delivered her to the healing man the door was immediately shut, he on the outside. That was hours ago. He supposes he doesn’t need to be here—certainly no one has asked him to stay—but no one has come or gone, either, and that strikes Tormund as strange. He wants to stay in case of trouble, in case the healing man needs something for Sansa and has no one else to send. At the very least he can return Sansa to her bed when it’s all through. He started this, and he won’t leave until it’s finished.

The only thing that tempts him from leaving his position is the thought of Jon. Someone should tell him—the useless boy who argued with him in Sansa’s chamber said he would do it, seemed positively delighted to be charged with the task. But that was a while ago, and Tormund knows Jon would walk out of a battlefield to be at Sansa’s side in her moment of need. So the idiot guard must not have told him yet.

Brienne skids to a stop in front of him. Her eyes are wild. “Is she in there?”

“Aye—”

“Thank you.” Then she pushes past him so hard his breath leaves his body.

Only a few minutes have passed when Brienne returns from the chamber, but she looks as weary as if it were hours. “The maester needs food,” she says as she moves past him, and Tormund is so surprised she’s speaking to him so normally that for a moment words escape him entirely.

“Wait,” he says—gleefully, too gleeful than what is appropriate. He forces himself to somber considerably. “I’ll do it.”

Brienne looks at the door that hides Sansa as if she wants to consider his offer. “No, that’s alright.”

“It’s nothing,” Tormund insists. He is so eager to do this for her, now that he can finally do something for her. “Sansa would want you by her side. You want that too.”

“The most important thing is that the maester be at his most capable,” she argues, ever the diplomat. Brienne looks uncomfortable and for once Tormund can’t pinpoint why—it isn’t any of the usual reasons he’s come to expect from her. “I’ll be back quickly. I’ll tell the first servant I see.”

It takes Tormund a moment to piece it together. Ah. “You think a servant would be more likely to listen to you than a wildling.”

Her eyes soften and then she shrugs and turns her back and the softness is gone.

“Remember what I said at Castle Black,” he calls after her. “Before you rode south.”

“What are you talking about?” she snaps, shouting to be heard down the hall. Or maybe she’s just shouting.

“Think about it,” he says, voice serious as hers. 

Brienne doesn’t answer, sweeping away. Tormund is dizzy with thoughts of her in her absence. She hangs like a cloud around him and he breathes her in. One day in the training yard, a man called her “Brienne the Beauty” and Tormund was inclined to agree; she was the most beautiful woman he ever saw. But he watched Brienne’s mouth frown, he saw Podrick draw himself to his full, unimpressive height like he meant to fight the man. The man said something else, something Tormund couldn’t hear from his place, but it made his friends laugh and Brienne’s head jerk to the ground. Podrick picked up his sword but there was no need.

Tormund crossed the yard in a flash, knocking the wooden sparring sword from the man’s hand. Without preamble, he punched him square in his offending mouth.

Podrick’s jaw near touched the wintry ground, and Brienne— she wore open shock on her face. But then Podrick had smiled wide and Tormund thought he saw something curving Brienne’s mouth, too.

Tormund is startled out of his memories when Jon appears at the end of the hall, looking like bloody murder. He is panting as if he ran straight from the Wall, and for all he knows he might have. Jon strides down the hall quick, his jaw steeled, and it occurs to Tormund for the first time that he may have some explaining to do to Lady Sansa’s brother.

“Her door was open when I passed, I was lost—”

Jon cuts off his explanation with a fierce hug.

“Thank you,” Jon says gruffly when he pulls away— sniffling, not meeting his eyes. “She’s— I would have—I can’t—”

Tormund decides to put the little king out of his misery. “I know. Go to her.”


Sansa wakes slowly, in degrees. At first there is the orange glow of the setting sun coming in from the window, setting the patch of furs her eyes are settled on aflame. She bunches her fingers and knows by the familiar softness that she is in her own bed. She closes her eyes for a moment but when she opens them everything is different—the room is plunged in darkness and her whole body aches. For a moment her mind places her in a different time, Ramsay, and she mistakenly thinks she is in his clutches. But the pain was so much sharper then, consuming, and there isn’t that wet feeling of blood.

“Sansa.”

That isn’t Ramsay’s voice, either, and a total calm consumes her. She tries to force her eyes to sharpen, to find him in the darkness, so that she can be sure. But her eyes fail, so she asks, “Jon?”

“Aye.”

She hears a rustle and a moment later, Jon has lit a candle. It’s only one candle but she squints at the sudden brightness. Jon’s face materializes before her, his eyes red and his face lined with exhaustion. His beard is long and unkempt. It’s a shock to see him that way, and her first instinct is concern.

“Are you alright?” Her voice is a hoarse whisper she does not recognize.

“Me?” His voice sounds wet. She watches his throat move. He runs a hand over his face and holds it over his mouth. His brows come together and there is such naked pain in his downcast eyes.

“Jon, what…” She trails off as she swallows, her throat scratching as if lined with tree bark.

“Here…” Jon reaches for something beyond them and a moment later his hand is warm behind her neck, lifting her head to drink from the cup he holds to her lips. She sucks at it greedily until Jon pulls it away, muttering something in a low voice, something about how she’ll make herself sick.

“What happened?” she asks after he has lowered her head gently to the pillows and returned to his chair at her bedside.

“You don’t remember?”

“I do, I think… I was with the maester…” Her cheeks flame as something returns to her. “Tormund…”

“Aye.”

“Oh, gods…” She wants to cover her face in embarrassment, but her hands feel weighed down where they lay on top of the furs, like lead.

“Don’t worry. Brienne and I have explained your absence. No one is talking.”

She licks her lips which are already dry again, despite the drink of water. She studies him— the too-rigid line of his shoulders and the tiny downward curl of his lip. “You’re angry with me.”

He releases a sigh, a huff of air that seems to deflate him, until all that’s left in the chair is a weary string of bones. “No. Not—not at you. But… Sansa, I asked you to let the maester help you. I begged you.”

Sansa isn’t sure why she’s defensive, why her voice comes out cold. “I said I would try. And I did.”

Her defensiveness raises his own. “Maester Wolkan said you had an infection. An infection could kill you.”

“Anything could kill me!”

“I don’t understand! Is that what you want?” He swipes his hand over his face, a furious motion that does nothing to calm the craze in his eyes. “It’s already dangerous enough! Why would you risk— yourself?”

Sansa almost laughs— a dark, wry laugh. “Do you hear yourself? You’re the one risking your life, involving yourself with the knights and free folk, threatening Littlefinger—” His jaw tics at the hateful name. “—yes, do you think I don’t have my suspicions about that bruise on his face? And soon, you will throw yourself at the Night King.”

He takes a moment to compose himself before speaking, but there is still a vibrating thread of fury to his voice. “I can’t ask my men to fight, to risk their lives, when I would not do the same.”

The images that flicker through her mind flood her with panic— Jon’s body, lifeless— she swallows furiously around her burning throat. She remembers how she tried to shame Joffrey into fighting in the vanguard, in the hopes that he would die.

Now she will do the opposite.

“You wouldn’t just fight…” Sansa hates the words that are going to leave her mouth. Cersei Littlefinger Margaery Tyrion Olenna. “You would do whatever was necessary to defeat him.”

They both know what she means. He stares at her levelly, eyes dark. “Would you ask anything else of me?”

No. And yes. She would not ask him to be anything but honorable, but himself, but she must— she would ask him to become anything, anything that saved him from death. Even something as selfish as her.

“I would ask you to live. Just as you asked me.”

Something lights up in his eyes— then it’s gone. “Aye, I asked you, and still you let it get to this point. Don’t you know…” He swallows visibly. “We only just found each other. We’re the only ones left.”

Sansa sucks in a gasp. “Don’t say that!”

“I don’t want it to be true.” Jon’s voice is ragged. “But you are the only Stark that sits before me, and I will keep you safe.”

“Jon.” She is empty, weary of arguing. “I tried. I went to the maester with the intention of keeping my word. But… I couldn’t do it. It took me back in time… it was too painful.”

“Sansa…” His hands reach out to cradle one of hers where it lays upon the furs— he stares at it, as if he cannot bear to look at her. “I wish I could kill him. I wish he was alive so I could—” He chokes. “—flay him for what he did to you.”

“It’s already done. I took his head.” She curls her fingers towards his, shocking him into looking at her. “You gave it to me.”

“Aye, it’s done. And you will never know suffering again.”

In that moment, she believes him.

 

Chapter Text

Sansa is bedridden for nearly a fortnight, and the King in the North is doubly busy in her absence. He is glad for it. She sleeps for large amounts of the day and night, as if regaining all the rest she’s denied herself, and when she’s awake her cheeks have a hint of color. With every passing day her health increases, even if she isn’t able to do much more than sit up and badger him about the affairs of Winterfell. If she was capable of it, Jon knows she would be attempting to escape her bedrest and resume her duties. But she isn’t, and this both pains and relieves him.

Sansa’s pain is his own suffering, but nothing can keep him from her bedside— nothing but a crown. For the first two days Jon barely left her side, with Brienne as his occasional companion. Davos tried to persuade him to return to his duties, but the word lost all meaning for once, and Davos eventually relented, bringing him only urgent matters to Sansa’s bedside. Only Brienne’s apt argument that having so much disruption near Sansa might hinder her healing convinced Jon to step away. Ghost remained in his stead.

If Ghost was Sansa’s shadow before, he can not be tempted from her side now. He is another mass of fur on her bed, a permanent fixture, and Jon is glad for it— he’s heard of Littlefinger’s attempts to see her. Her guards are, thankfully, unyielding, but knowing the slick fucker Jon was glad for Ghost’s presence so near to Sansa.

Littlefinger isn’t the only one. The story is that Sansa’s ill with a contagion, to provide reason for her being sequestered. Still, it isn’t enough to dissuade people from seeking audiences with her. Jon learns that Lord Glenmore is trying to see Sansa, that his attempts are numerous and unrelenting. Lord Glenmore is courteous and responsible, a good fighter, the head of a smaller house who answered the call. Jon liked the man, until Davos told him of his interest in Sansa. He likes him even less now. When they first cross paths Jon seizes the opportunity to confront him.

Lord Glenmore separates himself from his company and crosses the yard as soon as Jon calls his name. “Your grace. How is Lady Sansa?”

The familiar manner of concern over Sansa irritates Jon, rubbing up against the part of him that compelled him to confront Lord Glenmore in the first place.

“Lady Sansa is recovering. She shouldn’t be disturbed.”

He doesn’t look discouraged. “Of course. I have some news for her… news she was longing for.”

Jon nearly flinches. What does this man, this guest in their home, this stranger, know of Sansa’s longings?

“I have assumed Lady Sansa’s responsibilities for now. Your news, you can share it with me.”

“I know she’d be eager to hear it right away.”

His stubbornness only stokes Jon’s own. He smiles tightly, his “diplomatic” smile that Sansa says looks like a grimace. “I’ll tell her.”

Lord Glenmore looks at him for a moment. He doesn’t have to say it for Jon to know. He wants to be the one to deliver this news to Sansa, this thing she is longing for. He wants to curry favor with her. And if Jon was anyone else, anyone but the king, then this persistent man would never give up his perceived advantage.

Lord Glenmore nods in surrender, then chuckles. “She is fortunate to have such a caring brother.”

The small taste of victory in Jon’s mouth turns sour. Brother. Did Lord Glenmore use that word intentionally, a blow in retaliation for intercepting his news? Does he know—

Know what? There ’s nothing to know.

“Your news?” His voice is tight.

“Yes…. Tell Lady Sansa the gardens have begun to yield fruit. She will be happy to hear it.”

The familiarity rankles him— as if he knows anything about how to make Sansa happy.  

Jon goes to the glass gardens  immediately, walking them in search of— yes, he finds it, the small trees that reach his waist. He stoops to pick several of the bright yellow fruits, filling his pockets and even folding his cloak over to create a sort of pouch, then takes the precious cargo directly to the kitchens, where he delivers it along with instructions.


The smell reaches her first. A sweet, sharp smell, a scent Sansa hasn’t known since the Vale, since Aunt Lysa had plied her with sweets only to make accusations and tears. Ghost perks up too, raising his large head to sniff the air for a moment, before dismissively dropping down to the furs.

Then Jon materializes out of the shadows, a tray balanced between his hands. Her heart surges. "Lemon cakes?”

She’s already smiling. He’s smiling too. “The glass gardens are a success. They’ve begun to bear fruit.”

Sansa feels dizzy from the news, from sleeping all day, from the overpowering smell. “Really? Are the vegetables sprouting? The trees were easier…” She bites her lip, wishing she was well so she could run to the gardens now. Everything was imported from the Reach, and most of the fruit trees had done fairly well, but many of the plants had died on the journey. Some would take years to regrow. “The turnips and radishes are the fastest to grow… are they ready for harvest?”

“I’ll let you know tomorrow. I’ll bring you a full report, if it will ease your mind.”

His voice is touched with mirth even if his eyes are serious and warm. Sansa feels sheepish at her obsessive questions. “That’s alright. I’m sure you don’t have time. It's not important.”

“It is important. We can better feed our people now.”  He’s reached her side, settles the fragrant tray piled high with round cakes and two cups of tea on her bedside table. “But this is the most important bit.”

Warmth spreads in her chest, touches her cheeks. He can’t mean it, that something as trivial as feeding her lemon cakes is more important than feeding their people. It’s an exaggeration, a string of sweet words meant to endear, meant to express… what? Why would he say such things, why would he even bother? Why would he say it so seriously, his eyes so tender and soft as they tend to be when it’s just the two of them and the candlelight?

“Here.” He spreads square cloth over her lap before reaching for the tray, passing to her one of the cakes.

“Sweets in bed?” Sansa giggles. “Mother would be horrified.”

She doesn’t know why— if it was her intention— but suddenly she and Jon aren’t looking at each other. When she takes the first bite out of the lemon cake, her eyes roll back into her head.

“Jon…”

He chuckles. “That good?”

She nods fervently, speaking around the morsel in her mouth in a most unladylike manner. “Please, try it.”

“They’re for you.”

“There’s a dozen at least…” Sansa suspects she could have finished the tray on her own, but she doesn’t want to. “Please share this with me.”

The words convince him, and they spend the night in her bed, crumbs and the first sparks of something resembling true happiness between them.


It is a balm to his soul, to be reunited with his queen. To have her welcome him into her arms, after so long apart from her, after all that pain at the Citadel. This is where I belong. He is whole.

Jorah didn’t expect to return to find everything the same, but he didn’t quite expect it to be so different either. He is surprised at Daario’s absence, but then again Jorah knew his love was shallow. He is surprised at Euron Greyjoy’s place at Queen Daenerys’s side, surprised her advisers supported it. But the biggest shock is the Hand pin, silver gleaming, upon Tyrion’s chest.

Once he believed he would be Queen Daenerys’s Hand. When I take the seven kingdoms, I need you by my side. Those were her words… and she hasn’t yet taken the throne, despite her heralded place as Queen by them all. If she only waited to choose her Hand until she sat on the Iron Throne, he could have been by her side….

But he wasn’t by her side, and he supposes he’s the only one he can blame for that.

He will never leave her side now.

Tyrion Lannister doesn’t appreciate his exalted place. He spends more time drinking and whispering with Varys than at their queen’s side. He seems saddened, exasperated, drunk. Varys is no better, although the man’s eyes are never dulled by drink. But he is frustrated, constantly, and as Jorah stands at Daenerys’s elbow in the map room he thinks, if this is how it’s been, no wonder she seems so miserable.

“It would be an advantageous move,” Varys repeats himself. He has been urging Queen Daenerys to visit some key locations in Westeros with a retinue of men, to endear herself to the lords and their people.

“Trying to get me out of Dragonstone, is more like it,” Daenerys confided in him one night, a wry twist to her mouth. “I don’t trust him.”

“I believe you should trust your instincts,” Jorah replied. “But you chose him to be your adviser for a reason.”

“You like his plan?” Daenerys’s eyebrows rose. “You think his little trip would be wise? Me, traveling alone through the country?”

“You won’t be alone.” No matter where she goes, he will follow.

“He wants me to go without my dragons or my armies. I would be alone.”

Now they're arguing the matter once more, and with every discussion Jorah dislikes Varys’s plan more and more. It would be unsafe; so far Daenerys has been in high unreachable places, fortresses and pyramids, always protected. He can count the instances where this wasn’t the case on one hand; on the ground in the fighting pits, in the old days as Khaleesi. Whether it was the Sons of the Harpy or poisoned wine, her life was in danger.

“I think it’s an awful idea.” Euron is present today, sauntering around the borders of the room, refusing to stay in one place like the rest of them. “You don’t need to waste your time talking to high lords, and especially not the peasants.”

“I disagree,” Varys retorts. “The way you endear yourself to the smallpeople and earn their loyalty is one of your greatest strengths.”

“The people will fall in line when I take the throne. They will see that I offer them freedom.”

“There is some wisdom to it, your grace,” Tyrion says. “Out of Dragonstone, moving, you would not be an easy target.”

“Target? Who would target me? Cersei? Let her, and we can finish this. Or perhaps I should end it…”

Once again Tyrion starts to argue against attacking King’s Landing and Jorah watches Queen Daenerys’s patience thin to a thread. She is frustrated. She is tired.

Jorah was the one to bring Tyrion to Daenerys’s camp— despite his complicated feelings towards the man, he is well aware of his merits. But Varys’s assets are not so definite. He can only be grateful that he will soon be leaving Dragonstone. He wishes Euron Greyjoy would leave too.


Everyone is, of course, insufferable. The council at Dragonstone seems to only reach impasse after impasse, and Varys feels unease when he thinks of how stagnated they are. But no matter. He will soon be leaving to Highgarden.

Ellaria Sand agreed, in the most reluctant manner possible— Varys was surprised when Daenerys didn’t throw the scroll into the fire at the insult— to travel to Dragonstone to meet with her. She made no other promises, no guarantee of alliance, but Varys was… cautiously optimistic. Ellaria Sand had no reason to side with Cersei, and they were the strongest force against her. It would only serve her purposes to join them.

Olenna Tyrell, however, had sent no reply whatsoever, not until Varys wrote her privately. To learn that she had simply not replied to Daenerys out of … spite or pettiness or whatever was not surprising— she was the Queen of Thorns, after all— but Varys was glad Daenerys didn’t know.

The Tyrell matriarch could not be persuaded to make the trip to Dragonstone, and Daenerys could not be persuaded to leave. Varys felt backed into a corner, but he had been in worse places, and a solution came to him. He would make the trip to Highgarden himself.

Daenerys had been surprised at his suggestion, but Tyrion and even Jorah had supported it. The Reach’s health was the best thing for the realm, so he wanted Highgarden on their side, the winning side, the surviving side, because who could win against dragons?


While Sansa is bedridden, her guards report to Jon; a fact that does not escape Sansa’s notice nor her thinly veiled criticism, even in her current state. “This won’t continue,” she tells him one night, even as he serves her lemon cakes once more. “You know that.”

Jon quirks a brow, attempting to appear unconcerned, although unease roils in his gut. He trusts Sansa; he trusts her implicitly. But why does she insist on such singular control over certain things—why are all of his men and his tasks and his time hers to command as well, while he retains no knowledge or control over her doings or her men, when he is their king?

“You don’t want them reporting to me when you’re well?” He knows the answer, but he wants to hear it plain from her. “Wouldn’t want me to know your comings and goings?”

“It’s not that.” Her hands are in her lap atop the furs, twitching towards each other. “No one can serve two people. Everyone knows that. They can’t report to both of us.”

“Fine.” Jon struggles for control; he doesn’t want to show her he’s unhappy with this, especially when she’s still healing and he should be nothing but a comfort to her. “Keep your secrets.”

Sansa flinches. Even before the hurt takes over her face Jon regrets his words. They were petty and instinctual, beneath him and her.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Jon steps away from her bedside. She might not know it, but she returned the blow. The words are insulting and incorrect and too close to another’s, and Sansa’s hair is so brilliantly red even in the dimness of the bedchamber in winter, and suddenly his skin feels tight and he can’t be in the same room as her a second longer.

It was a morning visit, and Jon doesn’t return to Sansa’s chamber until late in the night. He had foregone many of his tasks that day to train voraciously in the yard for much longer than was responsible, sweating out his frustrations. He enters Sansa’s chamber with a bowed head, an apology on his lips, and another plate of lemon cakes.

“You spoil me.”

“No.” He doesn’t do enough. 

Sansa must see something in his face because the smile disappears from hers. This has happened more than one as she lay on her sickbed; an unrelated conversation suddenly delving into her assuring him she was well now. She is good, too good, at reading him. 

“Jon… it’s in the past. I’ll be better now. You don’t have to worry anymore.”

“I can’t do that,” he admits quietly. An internal shield rises, an instinct attempting to shame him, to protect him. Enough, it says, a word he has been steadily ignoring.

Chapter Text

In the bath, Sansa has two companions, where she used to have none. Ghost stands by her tub as if guarding it, and when she stretches out an arm absentmindedly he licks the moisture from her hand. These days Ghost cannot be tempted by anything to leave her, and although Sansa worries over the direwolf being confined to such a small space as her chambers for so many hours, she is grateful for him. He will return to the cold, to his more normal comings and goings, when she doesn’t need him as she does now. 

Her other companion is Brienne. In the days and nights she was confined to the bed, Brienne’s healing hands were second to the maester’s. Although she has no healing skills to speak of, she asked the maester questions and displayed total willingness to do anything he asked of her. Now that Sansa is moving again, it’s Brienne who applies balms to the places Sansa cannot reach.  

Sansa feels little trepidation when she bares her wounds and scars to Brienne. After sharing such an experience, it’s easy to trust her in this new way. 

This new closeness has certainly made it easier to seek Brienne’s counsel, as she is always nearby, as she is now. As Sansa soaks, she seeks Brienne’s opinion on the matter of the knights and wildlings conflict, which was brought to her attention that day by a tense Davos.

“Ser Wydman sought an audience with me today. Making threats.”

“Threats?”

“Not to me. Threatening to leave the keep, is all.”

“What does he want?

“He says he wants justice,” Sansa says. “What he really wants is for Jon and I to exile the free folk.”

“It’s strange that the northern lords aren’t the ones asking for ‘justice,’” Brienne replies thoughtfully. “It was northern girls the free folk attacked, not Vale girls.”

Sansa doesn’t correct Brienne, doesn’t present her theory that she doesn’t think the free folk attacked the girls at all. As she has no alternative explanation, she refrains from comment. “They aren’t noble, any of those girls. They’re from poor families in Wintertown.” Sansa thinks of Reina Perek as she scrubs her neck with soap.

“What do they want? The girls?”

Sansa feels a prick of shame, as she hasn't made an effort to learn the answer to this question. Besides Reina, whose face always lights up with a smile when she sees Sansa in the halls, she hasn't spoken to the other women. She makes up her mind to get more information, not just from the girls but from the knights and the free folk involved; this matter has to be put to bed, the burden eased from Jon’s back. There’s already so much weight he’s carrying.

“My lady?”

“It will be dealt with,” Sansa says absentmindedly.

“Let me help.”

Sansa gives her a kind smile. Brienne, too, is stretched thin. With a Valyrian steel sword and nearly unequaled fighting prowess, she spends many hours training new Northern soldiers or learning from Jon how to fight White Walkers. “You are too valuable where you are.”

“I am most valuable helping you. Protecting you.” 

“You do protect me. You don’t have to worry when you’re not by my side. I have my guards, and Podrick... even Ghost.” She looks fondly at the great direwolf, her guard for true.

Brienne looks away as Sansa rises from the bath, the water gone cold. “I would like to suggest, then… Podrick would be more useful in the training yards and guarding you.”

Sansa considers this as she dresses for bed. “You think he should be removed from watching the ravens?”

“His technique is improving. More importantly, I know he would lay down his life for you. I don’t know about these other guards.”

“Mormont men have their skills,” Sansa says with a quirk of her lips. She thinks of Jurnor, the guard who found her the morning she finally agreed to see the maester, who was fond of walking into rooms before she did to secure their safety.

“I would feel much better knowing Podrick was watching you than watching ravens.”

“It’s quite an important task,” Sansa counters lightly, not showing the immense worry she feels over the change. Littlefinger’s communications are still slipping past her, and who knows what else slips past her too. Her current efforts are clearly inadequate. “I will move Podrick,”

Brienne nods, then gives her a stern look. “There’s something else.”


 The ache in Jon’s neck pinches, his hands cramp, his hair is at an uncomfortable length—he reminds himself for the tenth time to trim it in the morning before the day starts—yet when he sinks into his bed it all disappears, his eyes slipping closed almost instantly. That is the one good thing about the consuming weariness; it leaves no room for nightmares.

When a rapid knock descends on his bedroom door he almost groans in displeasure. With a huff he gets to his feet and opens the door. The irritation evaporates as soon as he sees her. “Sansa!”

She is flushed with color and her hair is dark and damp, pressed to her head, and has he ever seen her like this? Her eyes are lit with fury and even though he saw her just this morning, he feels how he missed her.

Before he can ask her what is wrong—something is clearly wrong—or do anything except flounder with his mouth half open at her state, she pushes past him. A whiff of something light and floral accompanies her, wafting from her loose hair and skin, and is her skin damp too? He swallows and closes the door.

“The Karstarks? The Umbers?Sansa stands by his bed, shaking with fury, in a pale robe much too thin. “Tell me it isn’t true, Jon.”

Jon sighs—and her answering groan is so guttural his stomach drops. He shakes his head to clear it, nauseated with himself. Focus.

“They are two of the largest houses in the north. I have to treat with them, Sansa. I’m their king.”

“And are you a king who invites traitors to his keep?”

Jon nearly scoffs; he has no idea what kind of king he is, and the idea of answering such a question hurts his head. He supposes he is that kind of king, as that’s exactly what he’s done.

He strides to her without thinking. Her proud chin rises the closer he gets to her. His fists clench and unclench at his sides, all weariness gone from his body which pulses with new energy, the insistence to make her see, the desire to persuade her.

“Last Hearth sits between us and the Wall. If the Umbers don’t join us, they will join the army of the dead.”

“They betrayed us!” Her chest is rising rapidly with the force of her anger, drawing his eye until he catches himself. “Robb would have had them hanged as oathbreakers. And that’s the least of their crimes.”

“Smalljon Umber and Harald Karstark betrayed us. They’re both dead,” Jon says. “The new lords are children. We need their men.”

“We don’t,” Sansa objects.

“Believe me, Sansa…. we do. We need every fighter we can get.”

The conviction in his voice does nothing to appease her. Her eyes are blazing, by far the brightest thing in the darkened room. There is no light but that of the dying fire and a single candle by his bed, casting much of her in shadow, bathing the rest of her in a warm glow.

When she speaks her voice is determined, thick with emotion. “The Umbers gave Rickon to Ramsay. I can’t forget that. Promise me you won’t either.”

His chest clenches at the mention of their little brother, at the pain in her voice. “I promise. I haven’t made any decisions.”

Sansa almost rolls her eyes, a small huff leaving her lips. “Not good enough.”

“I make promises seriously, Sansa. That’s all I can give you now.”

She breaks eye contact then, looking away from him with the most forlorn expression on her face. Jon aches to wipe it away, to give her anything she likes if it will make her smile, but he can’t. The need to protect her is stronger—the reminder of the Night King, of his duty to the north. Her arms hover at her sides for a moment before joining at her middle, hugging herself, pushing her breasts—

“You’re cold,” Jon says, eyes averted now too, face burning. “I’ll walk you to your chambers.”

“There’s no need,” Sansa says, hoarse but cutting. She sweeps past him and Jon stands still for a moment, his throat working furiously as her scent assaults him once more. He swallows his frustration and his self-loathing and walks to the door, intent on confirming that Brienne is accompanying her—concern spikes him as he thinks of her walking the keep in the middle of the night in that thin sleeping robe. He makes it in time to see her round the corner with a guard he doesn’t know, and his relief at her safety is marred with something darker than worry. 


 Sansa picks at her fish stew, bringing a spoonful to her lips to find it has already gone cold. She is bundled in one of her thicker dresses, a new creation with brilliantly red weirwood leaves at the collar and crawling up her arms, yet the chill still finds its way underneath to touch her skin. She doesn’t mind. She wouldn’t trade a single one of these cold nights in Winterfell’s great hall for a hundred warm evenings in King’s Landing.

“Here.” Jon pushes his bowl in front of her, eyes knowing and gentle. Wisps of steam curl from its surface.

“Oh.” Sansa’s spine instantly stiffens at this kindness. “No, I can’t. Thank you.”

“I’ve had my fill,” Jon says, reaching for his ale. The way he feigns casualness is so endearing Sansa almost caves. She hasn’t been rude, exactly, since their unresolved late night confrontation regarding Jon’s invitation to the disloyal northern houses—but she hasn’t been herself, either. Jon’s response to her changed behavior seems to be increased vigilance and tender acts such as this; curling his cloak on top of her own when they are outside, commanding Ghost to accompany her when he is already usually there, bringing her tea at odd moments of the day, and Sansa is almost tempted to forgive and forget just to get him to stop.

“Eat, Sansa,” Jon tries again. “It’s hot.”

Sansa shakes her head just as Reina approaches the head table, smiling. She swipes both bowls of stew onto a tray.

“Lady Sansa hasn’t eaten,” Jon protests.

“That’s quite all right.”

 “I’ll bring you a new one, my lady… your grace.” With a bow of her head Reina walks away.

They sup in the great hall tonight, which means both Sansa and Jon are distracted as a myriad of people approach the head table for unofficial audiences. Lord Royce brings up a small matter that cannot wait until morning, and he exchanges a few stiff words before leaving. A wildling woman Sansa vaguely remembers from her scattered visits to the wildling camps, named Vrewa, argues with Jon in an increasingly louder voice until Tormund draws her away. Several knights of the Vale exchange words with her. Among the visitors is Maester Wolkan, who approaches from the back as he always does, passing a scroll into Sansa’s hand. Her eyes jump to his. “Is this urgent?”

“From King’s Landing,” he whispers.

Although there could be no more than thirty diners in the room Sansa feels exposed, as if their eyes and all the eyes in Winterfell have turned to her. She stares at the scroll in her lap, cradled like a baby bird in her palms. She nearly jumps when she feels Jon’s breath at her ear. “What’s wrong?”

She unfurls the scroll and reads it much too quickly, her eyes jumping over the neatly penned words. She shoves it into Jon’s hand, still staring down at nothing, and starts when Jon’s hand curls over her trembling one.

“Sansa,” he says, voice raw with concern.

She cannot look at him yet, not with so many people around—can’t stand the way his concern strips her, the way it invites her to just be. “I’m fine, Jon. Look.”

He takes the scroll and when she finally looks up at him his eyes are deadened, his lips pressed into a thin line.

“Robb received one like it, when Robert Baratheon died,” Sansa says, compelled by some reason to confess. “Written by my hand.”

The softness in Jon’s gaze nearly breaks her. She wishes he would be angry, she wishes she could atone. “Remember what we talked about? You’re not to blame.”

The echo of her words to him in the crypts on the night he was crowned king pulls a startled laugh from her. She presses her fingertips to her lips. Suddenly she feels dizzy. “Cersei Lannister sits on the Iron Throne. She wants you to go south and bend the knee.”

“I won’t.”

“I know that,” she snaps, before berating herself for the slip of control. Still, when she speaks there is a slight shudder in her voice. “We’ve been so focused on the enemy to the north we forgot about the enemy to the south.” 

“If you saw the Night King, you’d think of little else too.”

“I haven’t seen the Night King but I’ve seen Cersei. I’ve seen a lot of Cersei.” A cruel not-smile twists her mouth. “Don’t underestimate her.”

“Hers is a southern army. Winter is here.”

“Winter is no match for her wrath.” The words are clipped and harsh. “She’s convinced I killed her son. She’s found a way to murder every one of her enemies.”

Jon takes a moment to answer. “She won’t be able to get to you. Not here.” He says it like a promise.

A kitchen girl who isn’t Reina arrives with a new steaming bowl of soup but Sansa has never been less hungry. Still, she offers her a weak smile of thanks.

Jon rises to his feet. “I must speak with Davos. Will you be alright?”

“Yes.”

A backwards glance makes it seem like he is loathe to leave her; Sansa shies away from the way that twists her insides. Just as he reaches the end of the room where Davos sits, Podrick approaches her. Despite his ruddy cheeks and dimmed eyes undoubtedly caused by the tankard of ale in his hand, he speaks levelly and with concern. “My lady? Are you well?”

“Am I so easy to read?” She presses a hand to her cheek and finds it alarmingly warm. Podrick’s eyes have widened at her response. “I’m well, Podrick. There are some things I wish to discuss with you. Please, sit with me.”

Podrick’s eyebrows shoot into his hairline. He places his ale on the table to wring his hands, sputtering, “My lady, I can’t.”

Sansa doesn’t have the energy to argue. “Very well. I hear you’ve become a skilled swordsman.”

He smiles, his cheeks reddening further.

“I’m considering removing you from your monitoring duties so that you may train soldiers. Brienne and Jon approve. Would you like that?”

Podrick’s eyes boggle, undeniable delight in them. “You mean it?”

“I do.”

Podrick reaches for his ale again as if he needs the liquid courage before he can express his happiness over this news. Sansa sighs internally; she knew Brienne was right to suggest this, she knew Podrick would be happy, but she is at a loss for a person to replace him. There isn’t anyone else she trusts to monitor the ravens—it will now be entirely left to her Mormont men.

“Lady Sansa, I would be honored… to… I would like…”

The words are choked off. Podrick rubs at his throat, coughing as he staggers a few paces back.

Sansa’s heart beats faster. “Podrick? Podrick, do you need water?”

His coughs turn into desperate gasps. Crimson splotches rise on his face. Sansa jumps to her feet. “Podrick!”

His eyes bulge in his head, turning red. He spits up blood.

“Podrick!”

Her wrenching scream arrests the room, leaving dead silence in its wake. The thump as Podrick’s body hits the floor is deafening.

Then there is chaos, rushing and clamoring and yelling, but all Sansa hears is her heartbeat raging in her ears as she fists her skirts in her hands and climbs over the table. She throws herself over Podrick’s body, screaming for Maester Wolkan, for help. Veins pop in his neck, in his eyes, the red splotches on his face turning purple.

The world slows to a single point as horrid recognition floods her. Sansa wrenches the chain she wears from her neck, unscrewing the needle with clammy hands that refuse to work. When it is finally, blessedly open she reaches with one shaking hand for Podrick’s foaming mouth, trying to hold it open. The needle almost slips, her heart falling to her stomach in that single terrifying moment, and before she can scream again familiar hands are holding Podrick’s lips apart.

Jon, Jon, Jon is here, the nonsensical mantra pounds in her head as she upends the needle, the liquid within trickling past Podrick’s lips.