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after the battle is over (but before the legends begin)

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Winterfell is running on a skeleton crew, a handful of servants with dark half-moons under their eyes, all exhaustion. No fear, now. But relief isn't the same as happiness, is it? That'll come later, for some of them. Most of them, Sansa hopes. 

She can't do much about it but hope, now. She lasts as long as she can last, mechanically giving orders and sending messages and writing notes to her future self for Winterfell's repair, because she knows she won't remember half of this later. By moonlight, the ruined castle wall looks unreal, picturesque. It's not so viscerally threatening when she knows there's nothing living or undead beyond it anymore, but still, she posts guards to it on instinct. When there's no more orders to give, and tomorrow morning's meal at least is guaranteed, Sansa goes out there herself, scales a watchtower, and leans against the parapet. She imagines it's a little warmer now, or rather that the air bites her face with less viciousness, that it takes longer for the cold to sink into her skull. But maybe that's just fancy.

In the east, the black of the sky gains a little color. Not blue, not yet, but there's a new richness to it. Half an hour and it'll strike indigo. At the sight, Sansa is nearly satisfied. Later, she will realize this is all Arya's fault, or rather, something Arya said: "Seven hells, Sansa, just do it. What are our chances of seeing another sunrise?"

Well, Sansa hadn't done it. And she's seeing the sunrise anyway.

Indigo comes, and footsteps follow a few minutes after. She turns in time to see Jon emerge, his dark hair flecked with snow. 

Sansa offers him a half-smile that’s more shape than feeling. She's very tired. Allowances should be made for that. "Who told tales?" 

"Nobody. There isn't a servant here who'd do it to you, much less by telling me. You made it easy, though, standing by the torch. Who else here has hair of fire?"

"Tormund, perhaps."

"Not likely."

"No, he's sleeping from now till the end of winter, like a bear."

"As we all should." Jon looks at her. Not pointedly (they're not kids anymore), but with a sort of sleepy reassurance that she finds comforting.

“I know,” Sansa murmurs, but she doesn’t leave just yet. Maybe true dawn will bring her peace. There's blue in the sky, and lighter streaks where clouds begin to form; it’s less than an hour left. She leans forward heavily on the battlements, Jon at her back in companionable silence, until she sees the sun breach the horizon. It’s still not enough.

Silently admitting defeat, she turns from it and makes for the stairs. Jon doesn’t follow. Instead, he heads across the battlements in the opposite direction, moving slowly in accordance with his bruises, and saying merely: “Spring rooms, second left.”

It’s enough for Sansa. It’s almost too much, actually. Jon shouldn’t know enough to tell her that,  and yet here she goes, weaving her way around dead bodies and rubble into the keep, descending until she reaches the level of the hot springs and the baths and a handful of small rooms. Outside the small wooden door, the second of a row on the left side of the hall, she hesitates. She can’t bring herself to go in, but she knows herself well enough to know that her  own bed now would only bring bad dreams. She’s gotten used to warmth beside her. Doesn’t like needing that, but what she likes has little bearing on how it is.

She presses her forehead to the door and closes her eyes. The wood is smooth, dry, and unyielding, but she could very nearly fall asleep against it. How long has it been? More than a day straight, no sleep, and the battle of a lifetime in between. She has to sleep. There isn’t any other choice.

Mercifully, the door’s hinges have been oiled lately, and it glides open silently when she finally turns the handle and steps inside.

And there he is, looking smaller asleep and swamped in two or three big furs, his hair so caked in blood and sweat and dirt that it’s barely recognizable as golden. Sansa, too, can all but taste the grit and ashes on her, but at least he looks like he’s at peace. 

It makes her feel guilty for possibly disturbing him. He’s in the middle of the bed, too, so there isn’t much chance she can creep in without at least brushing against him a bit.

“Peter,” she whispers, just so she can tell herself she tried to give him fair warning. There’s a motion to her left, and her eyes dart to it.

There, all leaning against each other and the wall, sitting on a long, low wooden bench, sit his siblings. Susan’s the most vigilant, though she looks frightened and disoriented; she’s awake with a sort of flinch, and patting Edmund’s knee before she really knows what’s going on. He, for his part, has a knife out of his boot before he quite knows where he is. Only Lucy, the youngest and the sweetest, sleeps on, her mouth half-open and her head in Susan’s lap. 

They, at least, are all clean, and they look as well as they can. If Sansa were to guess, that’d be Susan’s work. She has a mind for the practical that Sansa has always instinctively understood and appreciated. How much she appreciates Susan, how much she appreciates all of them, she hadn’t fully understood before, but now, when Susan simply reaches over and pats a bare bit of bench beside Edmund, Sansa thinks she does know. Family. His, hers, a bit of both, and her chest warms at it as she closes the door quietly behind her and sits. She doesn’t sit like the other three, all draped over each other, but it’s enough to sit beside them for a while, and watch him breathe.

Sansa slips into something like a trance, eyes on his face but mind floating nowhere, till again there’s a flicker of motion and she blinks heavily and sits up a bit. 

Peter awakens slowly but fearlessly. He opens his eyes, sees he’s in a place he’s never been before, and looks around a bit until he finds Sansa. Then he smiles. That smile is like plunging into the delicious warmth of the keep’s hot springs, and Sansa gives him a smile in return without thinking, without trying. Gods, but that smile. If happiness is the flowers on the vine, this is the root. They were never supposed to be this lucky.

Peter holds that look for a long moment, and then his eyes drift over to his siblings. They’re all asleep now, Susan snoring gently, Lucy’s mouth fully open, Edmund slouched at an uncomfortable angle. Sansa pats Susan’s knee, and Susan takes it from there, waking up the other two. They fuss over him unguardedly, like Sansa’s presence on the bench doesn’t matter in the most trusting possible way, and Lucy cries a little. When Peter sits up to hug them all, it’s almost funny. The dirt and bloodstains and ash on his face and his neck all end abruptly at his shoulders, like an extreme tan after a five-year summer, except that instead of a farmer’s shirt, the paler skin has been caused by a king’s armor. Sansa smiles again at that, until the three other Pevensies finally let go of him, and she can see the three new scars, still pink, across his chest and shoulders, evidence of Lucy’s cordial from the night before.

The Pevensies talk among themselves, until Susan glances over at Sansa. It’s the briefest look, and not at all unfriendly, and Sansa knows that on her own face there’s nothing but contentment, but after that Susan gently plucks Lucy and Edmund away, saying things about letting him rest and the three of them needing to find their own beds and breakfast besides. It isn’t until the door closes behind them that Sansa rises from the bench and heads for the door too.

“Sansa, wait,” Peter says. 

She likes the way he says her name. Nobody else says it with quite that same softness. 

“I’ll be back,” she says. And soon enough, she is, this time with a bowl of warm water from the hot springs and some cloth. There’s hardly a clean washrag left in the entire keep, all strips and squares of clean fabric having been used for bandages, but she’s scavenged an old undershift she’s long outgrown, and torn that up. It will do. 

They wipe their faces and hands clean, a quick and clumsy job. Sansa can’t help looking at him every few seconds. It’s not only that she rarely sees him unclothed (he wears the same old, faintly stained Calormene shirt to bed every night), but also, there’s more new scars on him now than there used to be, and that has her biting down on a question with all the self-control she has left: how many times? Does Lucy have any cordial left, at this point? From her vantage spot with Susan on the battlements, Sansa saw him seem to go down half a dozen times. Or maybe that was only the night. It went on so long, she no longer knows how much she truly remembers, how much is half-imagined. It feels ghoulish and strange to think of it now, now that they’re in a bed, and quiet, and no longer within reach of death, but those memories have left their mark on her, and so she’s watching him. 

Pete bears it with his customary grace, even when they’re mostly clean and she puts the candle out and lies down beside him, still looking every now and then. She almost thinks she’s gotten away with it. But then he reaches out, tucks a strand of her hair behind her ear. His fingertip barely grazes her skin, but she nearly shivers anyway. It’s warm. But then that smile on his face, rising, hopeful, and she knocks aside his hand. 

“I beg your forgiveness,” he says, stuttering nearly, blue eyes horrified. “My lady, I did not—I tell you plainly, I only meant—”

This language again, my lady, and thou, and by your grace. The old Narnian courtliness of their early marriage, before he eased into Winterfell’s more brusque way of speaking. They’re going backwards. How miserable. They’re almost over, and they’re going backwards. Sansa can’t help it.

“I can’t leave with you,” she says. She wants to say it clipped and  flat, but it comes out straining to be plaintive, like she needs him to understand. Which she doesn’t. She only needs him to accept it. She stiffens her jaw a bit and goes on: “It’s cleaner if we don’t. Don’t you think?”

“I know you can’t leave, Sansa.” And again, the way he says her name, like it’s something he must keep whole. “I would never ask that of you.”

Touching her is close enough to asking, she wants to say, but she’s not sure she could say it right. Her head’s muddled, and the furs are thick over her shoulders, and she couldn’t have this conversation with him well when it was broad daylight, so why would she try it now? Instead, she settles for a simple, “Goodnight.” It tastes pyrrhic.  

Sansa’s nearly asleep when Peter’s voice comes again out of the darkness: “I might ask to stay. If you would have me.”

Her answer doesn't come as swiftly as she would like. But it is steady. “You have a country.”

“I can’t go back.” Peter's voice is very quiet.

The words hang in the air, and for a moment, she to turn her back to him and pretend it didn't happen. It has finally come, the hidden catch in her marriage. She's waited for it for so long, kept waiting to see the violence of his broad shoulders put to dark use, and then, failing that, kept waiting to see him proved some kind of liar, some kind of plotter, and then, failing that, she simply expected him to die. But somehow, between the time they sighted the first White Walker stepping into the far-out circle of torches, and the time that she turned the handle of this room's door, she forgot that she was supposed to be waiting for the curse in this third husband to finally show. 

An exile. What is it he's done to deserve that? His shipwrecked subjects are all loyal to him, many of them to the death. And they love him, gods, they love him. Perhaps it wasn't so bad a crime. Perhaps it was only treachery against a ruler they hated. Treachery's a relatively bloodless crime, in the scheme of royal destruction, if you do it right.

Her jaw hurts.

"Sansa?" He says it so quietly, her husband, that he must have wondered if she's fallen asleep. So softly, like he doesn't want to wake her, if she has. It's enough to break her heart.

“The Night Witch is dead,” she says. It takes every year of King's Landing to keep her voice from sounding precarious.

“The last time I was in Narnia, Aslan told me I would never come back. He never lies. He can’t, or better, he won’t.” 

Sansa can tell, by the way he’s shifting, that Peter’s on his side now, looking at her even in the dark. She refuses to look back. 

“I asked the Centaurs about my fate. They read the stars, and they told me I would die in a world that was neither Narnia nor the place of my birth. I thought—I guessed—that I might die here, in battle. Now that the battle is won and I am alive, I still think I may die here, after some time. If you let me. If I could.”

Sansa knows better to question either his god or his prophets. They led him here, after all, in their own strange fashion. Perhaps they protected him, too. But she can't imagine surrendering to that fate herself; she'd rather fight the Seven than be kept from Winterfell.

"You would die here?" she says. It's a repetition, but necessary. She wants to hear it from him again.

"If I can never go home, then the home of my wife is as good a place as any." Peter has always sounded honest, and worse, he has always been honest. Without question, despite all her questioning.

Sansa tries to imagine it, that kind of a future. It should be easier than this. It's not as if she never daydreamed about such a thing before, but of course, in all her daydreams, the Night Witch was killed early on, and the wall of Winterfell was whole, and the godswood never saw blood spilled, and Lucy's little bottle of cordial stayed full. Most of all, in her daydreams, he wasn't himself; he was some version of himself whose deepest thoughts she always knew, like magic.

"I understand that marriages in Westeros are not considered binding until they have been consummated, and I am hardly a fit match for the Queen in the North, once I have abdicated and Susan is High Queen. But you will always need a sword hand, and I could still serve. You'll need a Queensguard."

Above them, the keep has begun to move a little. The dawn brings with it a new shift of guards, and soldiers, wounded or whole, will begin wakening, and the first group of gravediggers will start their long and brutal task, and the first group of pyre-builders, too. But there will be cooks, too, a dozen of them, at least, to deal with the armies assembled. Soon she'll be called upstairs, and Peter will come with her. He will sit at her right hand, Jon at her left, Brienne glowering behind, and Arya will prowl in the background. They have more than simply survived. They have saved enough to build a real life, this time. A life with enemies, but free nonetheless. There are Starks in Winterfell.

Something in Sansa settles, completely, at last.

"You can stay," she says, "as my husband. However..."

"Anything," Peter says, like an oath.

"...you cannot die."

After a moment's silence, she can hear the smile in Peter's voice: "I'm not sure that is an order I can follow."

"I am your Queen," she says, swift and sure and smiling back.

"Yes." And he sounds deeply satisfied with that. "Yes, you are."

If Sansa had some sleep in her, she is sure she would have something clever to say to that. She might even be able to work up something sweet, or rather, let something sweet loose from the cage she keeps inside her. But now that he's staying and the last of her unease is gone, her body has decided to take over. If it is not in danger, it demands rest.

She reaches over and tucks her hand into the crook of his elbow, like they're going on a walk. He covers her hand with his own for a moment, and then rolls onto his back. It's warmth enough.

Sansa closes her eyes and curls a little closer.

"Tomorrow," Peter says, a promise. Years later, she will remember this as the real wedding ceremony, the true vows. One word apiece.

"Tomorrow."