My skin has turned to porcelain, to ivory, to steel.
Bless him with salt, bless him with stone, bless him with steel.
Sansa stares silently at the Ironborn men gathered in front of her, in her hall, can barely believe it when she lays eyes on Theon – not whatever is left of Reek but Theon, what little she has glimpsed of the man he would become when they jumped and fled amplified, moulded into a person whole – in their midst, their leader, clear as day. He looks good, so good, even healthy if you look beyond the way he holds himself and shifts his weight away from his bad foot.
He’s talking to Daenerys, answers her questions dutifully, but his eyes keep darting back to Sansa, like she is the only person that matters, even though Daenerys is his queen. And when he swallows and opens his mouth to answer Daenerys’ question – “But why aren’t you with her?” – his eyes are on nobody but Sansa. It’s plain to see for everyone – even the dragon queen must notice – but for once, Sansa doesn’t care. For once, she is selfish.
There is something on his face, impossibly soft, the expression gone as quick as it came, as his eyes dart back to Sansa. He doesn’t say anything, the silence stretching beyond infinity. Sansa can feel Daenerys’s eyes on her as well, but it doesn’t matter, not when those stormy eyes are on her alone, can’t seem to leave her, not for long. His words ring through the hall, but he is addressing her, his words meant for her and nobody else. “I want to fight for Winterfell, Lady Sansa.”
The world blurs.
“I’m not touching you.”
Everyone around them – the Maester, the Ironborn, the cursed Dragon Queen – ceases to exist, that voice which used to belong to a broken wisp of a man the only thing that matters. “If you’ll have me.”
“I’m not touching you.”
The long procession through first Winterfell and then the Godswood, the newly fallen snow crisp under her boots, the way to the heart tree lit by flickering lanterns, the Boltons at the end of it, Theon’s pitiable state at her side fight their way up inside as she rushes towards Theon, no words enough to tell him how she feels, practically throws himself at him and doesn’t let go.
“I’m not touching you.”
I didn’t think I’d ever see you again, she thinks, the words caught in her throat, tears threatening to spill from her eyes, and she feels him stiffen in discomfort, for just a moment, before he lets himself fall. Her grip tightens even further around his form. Instead of pulling away, like she feared, his hand comes up, grips her shoulder and he pulls her even closer, so impossibly close. I never dared to hope you’d survived. Her hand finds his way into his hair and she pulls him even closer, pulls his head down, down against her shoulder and he feels strong, stronger, but he melts into her touch anyway, all held tension going out of his body.
Jon had told her Theon was at Dragonstone and she had wondered how he had ended up swearing himself to Daenerys Targaryen, of all people, but he was of the sea and taken from it, he had been a hostage and a prisoner even before Ramsay got his claws into him, and much more horrible things afterwards. She didn’t have reason to hope he would ever come back here, when he had lived through such unspeakable horrors. But he had come back, not to Winterfell, but to her. “I want to fight for Winterfell,” he’d said, but what he meant – at least, what she hoped he’d meant – was “I want to fight for you.”
Perhaps it’s selfish to think such things. Gods, she thought she would break, shatter into a million pieces, hadn’t even realised she was missing something, someone, until he stood before her, hair curling into his eyes, and everyone else ceased to matter. All that matters is his hands splayed on her back, relief coursing through her, through them both. The consequences, another mark in Daenerys Targaryen’s books against Sansa Stark, don’t matter. She and Theon have history, shared suffering, but more importantly, shared survival. They matter.
Here, at the end of the world, they finally have each other and for just this moment, she feels whole.
Relief floods through him as Sansa pulls him close, tension that had become so much second nature for him that he didn’t even know he held it, releasing itself into the hug, into her. He holds back the tears – not in front of Yara’s men, not in front of people, not in front of her – but his eyes feel wet all the same, and he burrows deeper into her arms, and her hand on the back of his head as she pulls him down and against her, is steady and warm.
She feels so good, so solid beneath his fingers, as he splays them across her back, holding onto her as best as he can. She’s his lifeline, his anchor, and he didn’t even know, never even realised how much he needed to see her again and have her look at him with her Tully blue eyes in turn, have them be filled with anything but contempt. That it is not just acceptance, but relief, gladness, he finds in there is more than he has ever dared to hope for.
When they part, the hall is cleared, or perhaps that’s just what he remembers, because nothing else seems real but her; blue and copper and dark grey. “I’ll find you quarters. You need a fire,” she declares, her voice heavy, thick. Her eyes seem so clear, purposeful, even with the red veins showing that she is not as steady as she seems.
Winterfell is full of people, bustling with activity, and even as he tries to not make eye contact, not accidentally brush against anybody else, Theon thinks it may be a blessing in disguise. It’s easier that way to convince himself it is the Winterfell of his youth, always full of people great and small – not the one of the Prince of Winterfell and burned children’s bodies; not the one of Reek and Ramsay, pain and suffering, humiliation and torture. But still, it’s too much for now, his senses too taut, whispers real or imagined everywhere.
He doesn’t want to leave Sansa’s side, never wants to let her out of his sight again, fearing that she might disappear, but he is easy to exhaust these days and exhaustion makes his bones heavy, winter creeping into them worse than he remembers. The summer snows he hated so much were nothing against this abominable cold, even with the warm press of bodies around him, Winterfell’s heated walls.
Theon shifts his weight as his foot starts cramping, but his only options are bad and worse and he has to steady himself against the walls more than once, the cold of the stone interwoven with the heat of the hot springs beneath, a short respite to his stiff fingers as he catches his breath, takes the weight off his feet.
The quarters Sansa assigned him are not his childhood rooms – those likely given away to some lord or other, if they are even inhabitable – but small ones, close to the kitchens and their fires, close to where Jon used to sleep. When he was a different man, he would have taken it as a slight, but there are few stairs and he doesn’t have to share the way they had to when they were boys and guests came, won’t have to explain why he awakes shaking, sweating, crying, with a seemingly unintelligible stream of words on his lips.
He lays down for just a moment, only to make his body obey him again, at least he thinks so, but when Sansa comes to him and settles on the edge of the bed, she greets him with “good evening” and then immediately apologises for the bare state of the room. “I thought the shorter routes and warmth might suit you.” She doesn’t mince her words, gives a meaningful look to his foot, and he is so grateful, wouldn’t know how he’d have dealt with it if she’d tried to coat it into pleasantries.
“Don’t apologise. You don’t have to accommodate me, especially not when there are a thousand people in your home,” he says, trying to make it sound like a joke, but he is thankful for her sheer presence, especially with all her responsibilities he can’t even begin to fathom.
The smile she gives him is wan, one that doesn’t quite reach her eyes, still rimmed in red. “But I do,” she replies simply and reaches out for him, takes his hand into hers, closing so very carefully around his, like she’s afraid to hurt him. Little does she know that he’s always hurting.
“I won’t break,” he tries to assure her, voice catching in his throat. Not any further than I have been. She gives him a doubtful look, but she doesn’t question. Her hand around his tightens, her fingers awkwardly lacing themselves through what remains of his, her thumb caressing scar tissue.
Tears of relief start spilling from his eyes, unbidden, and he fights down the urge to wipe at his eyes, to not let her see his shame. But it’s not shame, it’s a simple release of strain, his shoulders and his bones feeling so much lighter, once he is done. Sansa calmly waits for the tears to subside, only continues to hold his hand. “Will you come outside with me? You need to eat.” She looks at him firmly, the order so delicately framed as a question and a statement that he can’t deny her, even if people that are not Sansa seem to feel like too many to endure. “Ser Davos has roped a bunch of volunteers into making soup for everyone in the castle. I heard it’s dreadful.” The corners of her mouth turn up, crinkling, as she says it.
He would follow her to the end of the world.
Joffrey. Littlefinger. Ramsay. Poisoned. Throat slit. Fed to hounds.
Tyrion. Tyrion roams Winterfell’s halls now, jests at their ill-fated marriage, but she can’t help thinking that he has been a man grown and she a child, flowered or not, and he still hadn’t done anything to stop it from happening, unconsummated as it had been. It’s childish, the thought, but the resentment lingers.
They all wanted something and they all had taken, each in their own fashion.
Even Margaery had never wanted her for her, not truly. (She doesn’t know that, can’t know that, she tries to remind herself, but she doubts, doubts so much, bitterness and bile coiling deep in her gut. She wants to believe Margaery’s friendship and touches were genuine, but she and Lady Olenna always had plans. Plans that benefited Sansa, too, but those plans had never come from the kindness of their hearts.) King’s Landing is vile and she would be glad to see Cersei and Daenerys both to burn it to the ground and each other with it. Except. Except there’s people who have suffered enough already and they don’t deserve to lose their homes, just because another highborn lady can’t bear the thought of that cesspit to remain standing for even one second longer.
She feels the Hound’s eyes follow her, as she tries to make as many people as comfortable as she can, ensure everyone at least has a blanket and a bowl of food in their hands, that fortifications are built the way people who hopefully know more about sieges than her have specified. Clegane, Lannister, both, and Targaryen eyes burn into her as she moves through people, her people, and tries to make what preparations she still can. Innocence is a thing of the past.
But Theon. Theon had never taken, had never asked for anything, even when he’d been whoring his way through Wintertown and the castle’s servants, back when she was little more than a child, when he’d been but a boy caught in that awful stage between childhood and adulthood. Maybe things would have changed had she grown older at home, had their paths not forked and then crossed again at the unlikeliest of intersections. Perhaps Theon would have demanded too, with time, but she can never know now, can she? Who they would be, had King Robert not commanded Father to go to King’s Landing to be his Hand, had she not begged Mother and Father to marry Joffrey like the silly little girl she had been.
But Theon. He doesn’t stand as tall as he used to, but Sansa herself has grown, too, stands taller than many men. He doesn’t carry himself with the same cockiness, he’s got bones that never healed properly, he’s limping at the best of days, and he never was one to withstand the winter as easily as any of the Northmen, but Sansa herself in particular. Sansa was born at the end of winter and it is said that children born in winter, the ones who survive, can withstand the cold better than others, in order to survive their first months. She likes to imagine it is true, with the way she sees Jon huddle under his thick furs, many layers more than she is wearing. It may well be nothing more than a tale, a story to comfort in those long days, months, years even, of darkness and cold, but she doesn’t mind the cold. She may have her mother’s Southron looks, but she is of the North, with winter in her bones.
Someone asks her a question and she replies, but if anyone asked her even a minute later, she wouldn’t know what she’s said. Everything seems to move around her, even as she tries to make the castle safe, do her part to prepare for the coming battle, to not be as useless as she fears she is.
But Theon. There are so many things that can be said against him, but all she sees is the storm in his eyes, the face of a man so desperate for forgiveness, that she wants to throw her arms around him again, to tell him she has long forgiven him and whoever says otherwise will have to face her wrath.
And so her feet find the way to the small room she has given him, barely more than a cupboard, and the way his eyes fill with hope as soon as he sits up, with careful movements, gives her more comfort and reassurance than she has felt in a long time.
When Theon wakes with a pain more present than he has ever felt, even through the fog that fills his mind, it is in a hall filled with the wounded and the dying, surrounded by the stink of mould and rot. He can feel every bone in his body as he moves, and some that aren’t even present anymore besides, his hand feeling its way to his gut, a large, thick bandage seemingly holding all his innards in.
It is Jon’s black brother, Samwell Tarly, who finds him awake and reaches for him as he croaks, “Sansa.”
Tarly rises and nods, and it takes an eternity, but Sansa does arrive, a vision sent by the Drowned God himself, or perhaps from her own gods. Her hair is braided messily, large strands sticking out of it, a whole part not even contained by it anymore and there is a smudge of dirt on her cheek and a stain on her dress, simple cotton, undyed. She looks like she hasn’t slept in years and at the same time like she has just been roused from bed, and she is the most beautiful sight in the world.
She looks down at him and tears fall from her eyes, a sight he has seen too often as of late, before she has even knelt down next to his cot, pulling his hand close to her breast in a helpless gesture, lifting it to her lips, clasping it tightly between her own. The words he wants to say stick to his throat and she shakes her head at him. “Careful,” she cautions, “you might tear your stitching and I will be very cross if you do. Skin is so much harder to sew than cloth.” Her voice sounds stern, but it is said with a small, fond smile, her grip tightening around his hand again.
But he can’t help himself, has to know if it was all worth it. “Bran?” he asks, his voice something between a whisper and a rasp.
“Safe,” she replies. “Arya killed the Night King. It’s over.” A dry laugh escapes him, and he regrets it the moment it does as everything in his body seems to rearrange itself in an incredibly unpleasant manner. The way her lips thin tells him it is nothing but, but he believes her, at least for the immediate future, for them. It is over, as far as she, as he, is concerned and that is enough.
“Broken,” he adds, not quite knowing what he intends to say, still trying to think through the thick cloud inside his mind he believes to be milk of the poppy. If it is, and he is in this much pain even now, he doesn’t want to think of how much pain he’d be in without it.
Sansa furrows her brows at him in puzzlement, before she settles on, “No. We’re survivors.” The emphasis she puts on the little syllable, we, doesn’t escape him.
He gently pulls his hand out of her grasp and as she chases it with her own, he uses it to point at her hair with a shaking finger. “Your braid,” he declares and finally his voice seems to start working again, in some manner.
Sansa takes the end between her fingers, twisting the copper hair between them. “It’s been a little stressful,” she says quietly. “It’s not important.”
“Is,” he argues, and shifts to bring himself into a sitting position. His abdomen hurts, and he has to hold himself upright with his hand and Sansa has to support him as he settles, but he manages. He motions for her to turn around and with a small smile, she does. With trembling, twisted fingers, he pulls the small leather band off of her hair, and cards through it, trying to put it into some semblance of order before he starts rebraiding it. Sansa leans back into him as he does so, both remaining quiet, so he can fully focus on the task he’s set himself, one that seems to be the most important thing in the world right now. It’s not as easy as it used to be and it doesn’t come out as neat as he would have liked it to, but it is neater than it had been before. As he looks at it, he realises he is proud of his accomplishment, small as it may be. At least she doesn’t have to walk around looking too dishevelled anymore. If he could do anything else to ease her burden, he would. He’s sad he has to add to it. Sansa slips the leather band back on the end of her new braid, tightens the knot herself, that requiring more dexterity than he can manage.
“Stay with me,” she says, voice low, turning as she speaks, still with her hands on her own hair, to look at him. “You belong here. With me.” A small expression crosses her face again, a tightness that says something he can’t quite make out yet, but he will learn what it means in time. They have time now. As that realisation sinks in, for the first time in an age, perhaps ever, the heavy walls of Winterfell don’t feel oppressive.
He manages a small smile and a nod. Sansa shifts on the cot, leans closer into him, one hand on the small of his back, still supporting him against her own weight, and one on his cheek. She just looks at him, rivers meeting the sea, before she leans over and presses her lips into the crook of his mouth, half lips, half cheek, the purpose clear – leaving him a way out. Theon turns his head, just slightly, so their lips find each other’s and they almost tumble over, Theon not strong enough to support the weight Sansa adds as she sinks into and against him, forgetting herself.
Forever, he thinks, and “always,” he whispers against her lips, as they break apart to catch their breaths, the stink of death almost forgotten. This time, he will not break his promise.
“The Queen in the North! The Queen in the North! The Queen in the North!”
Theon’s heart is fit to burst with pride as the newly hammered direwolf crown is lowered on Sansa’s head, copper hair flowing long and loose over her back. Theon’s wounds still haven’t healed, probably never will, not in full – his body has been through too much. He leans heavily on a cane, takes his weight off of his twisted foot, off the gut wound where the Night King had skewered him, but he remains standing. He owes Sansa that much.
Theon resents Bran, Arya, Jon for their absence, but is grateful for Ser Brienne’s presence. He would guard Sansa with his life if it came to that, without a doubt, but Ser Brienne would undoubtedly be more successful in the endeavour.
He braces himself as the swords come up, again and again, uncomfortably reminded of another coronation, in a hall much stuffier than this. Sansa looks more certain, more confident, in her role than Robb ever had, as her eyes sweep across the assembled crowd and lock with his, a twinkle her eyes.
The lone wolf dies, but the pack survives, but where is said pack? Strewn across all corners of the kingdoms. Sansa tries not to let bitterness cloud her thoughts, thanks the gods for the people who remain to her. Her eyes find Theon’s across the crowd, leaning severely on the cane he had rejected very loudly at first, but his face shines with pride.
As she leaves the hall, her coronation, she pauses by the side of the door, to wait for Theon to catch up, the thump of the cane heavy on the flagstones. On any other day, she would worry, that they draw too much attention, but she is beyond caring. She is not giving anything up, not after what she has been through, not after everything and everyone she’s lost, with even her living siblings beyond her reach. Not after everything that has been taken from her, not after everything she has done to get it back.
Theon places a kiss on her temple, just below the metal of the crown as he reaches her. “My queen,” he greets her, voice low, mischief in his eyes. The quiet snort she gives in reply is not very dignified, but it reminds her who she is, beyond that title, who they are.
“My Hand,” she greets in reply, tapping the direwolf pin on his chest with a finger, causing Theon to snort in turn, as he reaches for her hand with trembling fingers, only to bump against her own which are also reaching for him. Together they retire to the queen’s chambers, putting themselves and each other first.
They had begun in pain and suffering. Their journey is not complete and never will be, but what matter is that they have each other. Nobody will be able to take away their pain, only they themselves can work towards that, but neither will anybody be able to take away the bond that links them. The bond they have forged.