Work Header

A Violence Done Most Kindly

Chapter Text

Disclaimer: I own nothing, I make no money.

A Violence Done Most Kindly

Chapter One: Hunger

"There is an old sort of magic to sacrifice, after all." - Jon and Sansa. Stark is a house of many winters.

* * *

It would be a lie to say that Sansa understands Cersei now – here at the end.

Here where she warms her brother's bed.

Sansa imagines Cersei looked at Ser Jamie like this once, watching him in his sleep beside her. Or perhaps not. Perhaps theirs was always a quick, furtive fuck. A blinding instant of lust and need, smothered in dark alcoves and behind garish tapestries, a secret, silent thing – clawing at them from the inside.

Perhaps they've never slept the night through beside each other.

Perhaps she regretted it – gurgling out his name while she choked on her own blood.

Sansa reaches up to trace a hand down the side of Jon's face, trailing past his jaw, along the cords of muscle flexing in his throat beneath her touch, whispering down his chest as he groans to wakefulness. She slips her hand to his growing hardness with a surety that might have been foreign to the little dove Cersei once knew.

But then, maybe that is also a lie.

"Sansa," he groans, head thrown back along the pillow, voice rough with sleep and desire.

She braces her lips to his neck, imagines the rush of blood just beneath her mouth – pulls him from slumber with a selfish, desperate yearning she does not regret. "I need you," she breathes into his skin, teeth sinking down.

Jon growls his answer, grabbing her by the hair, yanking her head back and kissing her hungrily. He turns her easily, bracing her back along the bed as he covers her with his weight, already hard and ready in her hand.

Some small part of her wishes Cersei had been her kill. A different, equally intense part of her, is relieved beyond words that she isn't – that she would never be, now.

But more than that – more than a vengeful wrath she's spent too long feeding to ever be free of hunger, to ever be satisfied with a mere raven scroll and the somber, even way Bran announces the news – more than that –

She just needs Jon.

"Come back to me," she whispers against his mouth, moving with him in the dark.

No, she doesn't think she'll ever understand Cersei.

But as she feels Jon slip inside her, as she cradles his groan in the hollow of her throat, as she catches her lips at his temple – she thinks she doesn't need to.

It's a different hunger she feeds now, after all.

Sansa recognizes the sound of Baelish's footsteps well before he's made it to her side. He slinks like shadow easily enough across stone and wood and dirt, but here in the godswood, trudging through snow in the womb of winter, his steps are almost awkward, clunky.

He does not belong here. She knows this now with a certainty she hasn't felt in years.

"My lady, I had hoped to find you here."

Sansa only sighs, glancing away from the red weirwood leaves to meet his gaze over her shoulder. She offers a silent nod in greeting.

Baelish makes his way toward her, smoothing his hands over his robe when he settles beside her. "You have not forgotten what we spoke of when last I found you here, I should hope."

Sansa tugs her furs tighter around her shoulders, eyes drifting back to the weirwood branches. "How could one forget?"

"Yes," he murmurs, eyes drifting down her face and trailing the length of her throat.

She tries not to swallow, not to give notice of her discomfort. He takes a step closer. She resolutely does not take one back.

"This is a very crucial time for us, Sansa, you must know that."

"Cersei is dead," she says in answer, and she thinks maybe it should feel different along her tongue. Lighter, perhaps. Sweeter. Instead, it's nothing but a stringent tartness.

"Yes, and by whose hand? None of my people seem to know the answer to that, except for whispers of faceless girls. Dead end gossip." He looks at her out of the corner of his eye, appraising.

Sansa gives him nothing to appraise. "Is that what matters right now?"

He stays quiet a moment, and then, "It is, until we can ascertain whose side her murderer is on."

Another silence. Sansa stretches a gloved hand out to catch the faint flecks of snow falling from the branches.

"We can't let this opportunity pass us by. Cersei's death has lead to infighting amongst the houses. King's Landing is in near shambles with no discernible sovereign. Qyburn has fled without the support of his queen. The Mountain hasn't been seen since reports of Cersei's death. Citizens are fleeing to the other kingdoms as we speak, and even Daenerys Targaryen has seen the uselessness in conquering King's Landing at this point."

She knows this. She knows this already and she's tired of hearing it. It only ever ends one way.

Baelish reaches for her, grasping her arms and turning her to face him, his gentleness forced and rushed – a falsity. Sansa blinks up at him.

"We have to consolidate power. If we wait too long, this chaos will be of no help to us."

"Then go."

Baelish furrows his brow at her answer, his fingers flexing along her elbows.

She swallows tightly, face a blank visage. "Go to King's Landing then. Consolidate." She lifts her chin. "Go."

His throat flexes, poison tongue pressing back behind pursed lips.

"You can't, can you?" she asks, not unkindly. "Because your power lies here. With me. And with the Vale. You can't abandon either of us without giving yourself a disadvantage."

"Sansa." It's almost a warning. As much a warning as Baelish ever gives – all smooth tones and invaded intimacy. His head inclines toward hers.

"Jon won't go South. Not for that." She extracts herself from his hold slowly, gently, without offense.

Baelish smacks his lips, a minute flicker of irritation crossing his eyes, but it's all he will allow her to see of his disturbance. "The King can be persuaded."

"Not in this. The dead occupy him on all sides. He won't play the game."

"Not even for you?"

Sansa doesn't think too long on the way his eyes flick to her lips for a fraction of a second. "You overestimate my influence."

"Oh, I think not," he says lowly, a curl to his lip that reminds her of purple-faced boy-kings and hound-fed bastards.

No, he does not belong here. Not in the white and cold and wind of home. Not here where her mother used to brush her hair and her father used to beg her hand to dance and her brothers played their knightly parts in her tales dutifully. Not here where she had wanted to bury Lady those many years ago.

Wanted, and never could.

Sansa realizes suddenly, that Winterfell is not yet free.

And neither is she.

In the wake of Cersei's death, the ensuing vacuum of power nearly cripples the kingdoms, with the remainder of the Lannister forces rallying behind a mourning, vengeful Ser Jaime, intent on securing the Reach and the Stormlands. Dorne wastes no time to declare its independence from the Seven Kingdoms entirely, and shortly after the suspicious slaughter of the Freys by unseen Northern hands both the Riverlands and the Vale swear to the North under the threat of a coming dragon queen.

Jon has no time for such politics.

Sansa rails against him openly in the Hall of Lords, demanding his attention to the ensuing fight for the crown, but the dead take precedence in everything he brings to court, and it's not long before ravens are sent to all corners of Westeros begging aid in the coming fight.

Bran watches placidly, neither arguing for or against either of them. Sansa would call him not unlike a piece of furniture if she hadn't better manners, and most days her pleads for his council lands on deaf ears. She ends most gatherings of the lords rife with frustration and nearly frothing at the mouth.

She doesn't need to glance at Baelish to know the look he gives her.

"You think just because Cersei is dead that we are free from the South? That they will not land their hooks into every inch of the North until we are chained to them once more?" Sansa seethes, shutting her door once Jon is through it.

Jon heaves an unsteady breath, fingers pinching the bridge of his nose. "That's not what I think, and you know it," he grits out, sending a dark look her way. "Stop twisting my words."

"Then stop ignoring mine."

"I'm not!" He stalks toward her, stops before he can do anything else. His hands itch at his sides. "Sansa, we can't keep this up – this back-and-forth. We can't afford such a divide, not now."

Sansa takes a purposeful breath, hands folding before her. "I'm with you, Jon, I am but – "

"Are you? Sometimes I wonder." He can't help the scoff that leaves him. He stares at her, keeps her gaze a moment longer, and then he's turning to the far window, a hand raking over his face. He's just so tired, suddenly.

Sansa is deadly still. So still he can't even hear the rustle of her skirts on the cold stone at their feet – can't pick up the scrape of air she pulls through anger-fused lungs.

"And how is your show of the dead going with the other kingdoms, hmm?" she bites out.

Jon snaps his head to her, his eyes narrowing so quickly she might have missed it.

Sansa takes a step toward him. "Are they simply jumping to aid us? Are they gathering the entire might of their forces, marching the sum of their armies North, all on your word?" Something sharp glints in her gaze and Jon swallows his reply back instantly. She scoffs, head thrown back. And then her eyes are eerily blue on his – instantly staggering him. "And have I ever demanded evidence? Have I ever once denounced your claims of the rising dead before the lords?"

Jon has no answer. None that would satisfy, at least.

Something in her softens at his silence, another step taken toward him. "I've never asked you to prove anything to me, Jon."

Jon, she calls him – always.

(There was never anything to prove between them, after all.)

Jon closes his eyes, takes a long, deep breath, exhales just as evenly. When he opens his eyes, she's still there. Still copper-crowned and winter-poised. Still every inch his sister.

And every inch not.

He thinks maybe it's a sickness – this craving of his.

Jon steps into her, the stiff silence descending upon them like a cloak. He's so close. He's so unbearably close, and even though he has yet to touch her, the heat suffuses him – a stifled winter, a burrowing need.

He can see the way her chest heaves at the sudden proximity.

(She's always been his, even when she won't admit to it.)

Jon thrums a tentative hand along her side, fingers grazing the line of her hip.

Her tongue darts out to wet her lips.

It's a lost cause, he knows. Since the moment she opened her door to him, this was only ever going to end one way.

"I know you're with me," he tells her on an exhale, roiled in heat.

She arches a single, fine brow. "Do you? Sometimes I wonder." She almost smacks her lips with self-satisfaction.

A low snarl eases from his lips, his hand bunching in her dress, dragging her to him. She lets him, hands alighting on his chest. He leans into her, nuzzling his temple to hers, breath ragged already.

She makes it so easy.

He's already panting for her.

(She makes it so hard.)

"Sansa," he groans out, fingers trembling as they reach for her laces.

She takes his face in her hands, pulls him back until his eyes are locked with hers. He doesn't still his unlacing of her. He couldn't even if he tried.

So unbearably close.

(He just needs to touch her.)

"You lose one war, you lose them all," she tells him, arching against him.

She's right, he knows. She's right, and yet –

She comes undone so easily in his hands – they need to stop ending their arguments this way.

Because this – the splendid way she hisses beneath his tongue and the subtle way she arches into his hands and the ragged pant of his name (his name) along her bruising lips –is a war they can't afford to lose.

(This is a war they haven't even begun to fight, not truly – not by the light of day.)

"I'm with you," she whispers against his mouth, and he knows.

He knows, he knows, he knows.

And even still –

Some wars aren't about who's right. They're only about who's left.

Arya returns to Winterfell in the dead of night. Ghost clambers to wakefulness at the foot of Jon's bed, the sharp rap on his door jolting him from sleep.

It's Davos at his door. "In the hall, Your Grace," he says, and nothing more.

Jon rushes from the room, following his Hand and the faint shadows Davos' torch casts along the walls. When he turns the next corridor, he sees Sansa emerging from her own chambers, Brienne at her side. Her sworn shield tugs the fallen slip of Sansa's robe over her lady's bared shoulder at Jon's presence, and the motion does not go unnoticed.

"What is it?" Sansa hisses in the night.

He shakes his head, throat parched.

It happens moments later.

It happens when they breach the shadowed hall. It happens when Arya turns from her appraisal of the room, eyes a slate grey that should be comforting, familiar – but are only haunting. She is perfectly still in the filtering moonlight through the tall windows. She is perfectly winter-poised (an eerie reflection of the sister beside him, and distantly, he wonders if either of them knew they'd ever grow to be thus).

It's a crack, a fissure – a lung-scraping quake that sunders through the silent hall.

Ghost is the first to break the stillness, trotting up to Arya with an ease that staggers Jon's heart in his chest. But Arya smiles – smiles – and it's a faint curl of her lips, before she's bending like reeds in the wind, reaching for the direwolf's great maw and threading her fingers through his thick fur, hands gliding over Ghost's face and ears and neck. Something of sorrow and fondness sweeps over her face then. "Hey, boy. You've been keeping watch for me?"

Jon is breaking toward her then, something splintering inside him he hasn't a name for, and then she's in his arms, and he's lifting her up, up, and up, her feet off the ground, her arms around his neck, his broken gasp of her name smothered in her hair, and he's trembling, absolutely shaking against her, absolutely shattered – here, to be here – with his little sister in his arms. He holds her for an immeasurable amount of time, for eons and epochs and yet he'd hold her still, if only he could. It never seems enough.

Jon dips her back to the floor, breathless, glancing back at Sansa, and he stills suddenly at the way she stares at them.

Arya keeps a hand at Jon's elbow, her smile receding. A soft, keen quiet overtakes her. Her eyes shine with tears. "Hello, Sansa."

Sansa takes a step, hand outreaching, and then stops herself. She takes a sudden breath, and Jon is too overcome to think much of it, so he braces a hand at the small of Sansa's back, urging her toward their sister.

He doesn't catch the way Arya's eyes trail the intimate motion of his hand.

"Arya." Sansa's voice catches, and then she's stumbling into her, arms wide, drawing her little sister to her chest.

Arya's eyes shutter closed for a moment, breathing something of relief against Sansa's breast, her hands fisting in her robe at her back, but then she's blinking those grey, haunting eyes open to Jon.

He feels cracked open. Bloody and bare. Jon swallows the trepidation back.

Their sister is returned.

His hand burns beneath the memory of Sansa's heat at his fingertips.

Arya knows.

She knows, Sansa thinks when she catches the derision in her little sister's eyes from across the courtyard. Somehow, she knows.

Sansa steps purposely away from Jon as they walk together below the ramparts.

He furrows his brows at the motion, a hand going to her elbow. "Sansa," he begins.

She huffs her frustration, staying his hand.

He's always been terrible at pretenses.

"Our sister is watching," she mutters beneath her breath pointedly, and she can see the way his spine straightens, the way his shoulders stiffen.

She is Sansa Stark. And he is Jon Snow. And not for the first time has she lamented this – though perhaps not so much as now.

Now when he is close enough to touch and yet the chasm widens ever farther.

This chasm called honor.

(But there is nothing honorable about the ways in which he touches her in the dark of night.)

Jon is silent for long moments, before he comes to an abrupt halt at the edge of the courtyard. Sansa turns to find him staring at his boots, brows furrowed. He heaves a sigh, a calloused hand wiping down his face, and then he's turning swiftly, walking back the way they came. Sansa watches him go, something constricting in her chest not unlike grief. She looks back across the courtyard to see Arya still watching her. Her jaw locks, her barred teeth caught behind perfectly poised lips.

There are some things Arya will never know, she reminds herself.

She will never know the way Jon's eyes grow dark by candlelight, or the way his throat flexes beneath the press of her tongue, or the tremble that racks through him when she slips to her knees at the edge of his bed, bracketed by his thighs.

And perhaps there is something secret and selfish still living in her. Perhaps there is a part of her that revels in the knowledge that while she may not be the favorite sister, she is the only sister who can drag such whines from his throat, who can reduce him to pleading, who can have him panting and desperate as he throws his head back, hand curling in her copper tresses as he pushes her mouth down on his length, hips thrusting shallowing up to meet her.

No, Sansa reminds herself. Arya will never know the dark visage of Jon when the last of his control snaps, when he's pouring filth from his mouth too base even for brothels, when he's rutting into her mouth like something feral, spilling hot and frenzied down her throat as he growls her name through clenched teeth, over and over and over again.

No. Arya will never know the way he looks at her in the aftermath, the way he curls a quaking hand along the curve of her jaw, thumb brushing over her mouth in something perhaps too feverish to be called tender, but just as searing.

She thinks this when she departs from the courtyard.

She thinks this when she feels Arya's gaze following along her back.

She thinks this when she closes the latch behind her to Jon's door that night.

"You're our brother," Arya says like a demand. "You're her brother." It comes out slightly searing this time.

Jon grips at the mantle over the hearth, his back to her. "I still am."

"How could you be?" Her scoff is lined with something faintly like disgust.

Jon closes his eyes at the sound. He draws a deep breath in, lets it to air.

Arya shifts somewhere behind him. "Robb would never have touched her so."

"Aye, and Robb isn't the brother she begs for at night, is he?" he spits just as harshly, whirling on her. He realizes what he says a moment before he catches the look that passes over her face.

It's not a look she's ever directed at him before.

Jon swallows thickly, the words dying in his throat.

Arya looks away, lips pursed tight. She's so utterly still. This whole while, her entire time at Winterfell, she's been nothing but stillness.

Jon wants to shake her suddenly, just to know she's still there. Just to know he isn't the only one missing what they used to be.

He has to tear his gaze from her – has to focus on the lick of flames in the hearth, the flare of copper too familiar to cool this rancid heat in him. "But I'm not Robb, am I?" he whispers, almost like regret, almost like penitence.

(Almost, but not quite.)

"No," Arya answers, so low he might have imagined it. "No, you're not."

He isn't sure what it is he hears in her voice, and he doesn't have the heart to turn to her then, to see for himself, to know the damning censure of her gaze, even when her voice is indiscernible.

She leaves him then, the heavy door of his solar sliding shut with a nauseating finality.

She doesn't even leave a shadow.

(But he thinks he should have expected this. He thinks he should have expected a lot of things.)

Jon has known the permanence of betrayal, the way it sinks into your marrow until you are rife with it, until the sharp tang of it has festered long and sour beneath your tongue, until it is behind every look over the shoulder and every false greeting.

Jon sneaks a glance at Sansa beside him, catches the upturn of her chin while she listens to Lord Glover in the Hall of Lords, the resolute crispness of her blue gaze as she sits regally at the head table.

His hand strays to the ends of her furs hanging over the arm rest. He catches the material between his thumb and forefinger, a small comfort. An anchor in the storm.

He glances back out across the hall. All eyes are on Sansa. All but a lone, accusing pair.

Jon catches Arya's glare from across the hall, nearly missing her lithe frame amidst the shrouding shadows of the Stark banners. The flicker of torchlight is not enough to obscure her frown.

His hand slips from the edge of Sansa's furs beneath the table, his throat dry with an apprehension he's never felt before.

They sit staring at each other for long moments – everything and nothing passing between them – the lords airing their complaints and their needs like a fog around him.

"Do you agree, Your Grace?"

Sansa's voice comes to him like a gale.

Jon snaps his gaze to her, blinking rapidly.

He suddenly remembers.

He remembers that Sansa has seen the evidence of betrayal marring his skin. She's seen the gashes along his chest and not withheld her touch. She's smothered his sobs of recollection to her breast when he's recounted the nooses – the way their feet swayed in the wind like a condemnation.

Sansa has never been party to his betrayal.

Sansa will never be his betrayal.

His fingers search for the ends of her furs once more, gripping tightly beneath the cover of the table – no longer an anchor, but the thing that drowns him.

"Aye," he agrees, never needing to know what he agrees to.

Sansa eyes him with something of sharpness.

Jon looks back across the hall. Arya is gone.

He does not relinquish his hold.

{"Why did you bring her here?"

Bran looks up at Sansa's question. It is a face she used to know once – but not anymore. She holds tight to this image of her brother like sand sifting through her fingers. She wonders if it is not perhaps easier to simply let him fall.

She looks away finally, her hands gripping at her skirts.

The hearth spits another log to cinders before them, and she thinks he means to keep this damn silence always, until, "Because she is needed."}

Chapter Text

Disclaimer: I own nothing, I make no money.


A Violence Done Most Kindly

Chapter Two: Don't Look Away

"She has had enough of men playing to roles they haven't the right to fill." - Jon and Sansa. Stark is a house of many winters.

* * *

"My lady, if I may," Baelish calls to her, catching her after a council meeting, halting her in the hall to her chambers.

Sansa stills reluctantly, nodding to Brienne when she eyes the Lord Protector warily.

"Was there something we missed in the meeting, my lord?"

Baelish makes his way up to her, a smile just this side of a grimace gracing his features. "I had hoped to speak with you outside the council meeting."

"We're speaking now," she grants him, and grants nothing else.

Baelish glances to Brienne at her side, eyeing the way she keeps a perpetual hold on the hilt of her sword. Sansa wonders wildly if he remembers that day, so long ago.

"What if I want you to die, here and now?"

"Privately, if you please, my lady," he says, head inclined in deference.

Sansa watches him for just a moment, contemplating, and then she's nodding to Brienne, continuing the walk to her chambers where she invites Baelish inside, and Brienne stands guard dutifully by the door, though not without a last lingering look of concern. Sansa offers her a small smile of reassurance before closing the door behind her.

"I do wish to grant you what time you need to reacquaint yourself with your long-lost sister, unrecognizable though she may be," Baelish starts, puffing his chest out with the words as he takes in her solar, "But I do hope you haven't forgotten that there is a conversation to be had between us now, especially so because your brother has gained yet another supporter in your sister." He turns back to her with something like self-satisfaction – keen and impossible to miss.

She begins to remove her gloves. "I have not forgotten."

"Good." A step toward her.

Sansa drops her gloves to the desk beside her. "Nor have I forgotten your warnings."

A gleam lights in his eye, perhaps pride (though it is only a vague measure she can discern), or perhaps simply greed. She is disappointed with herself for not having the skill to distinguish them yet at this point.

"My dear Sansa," he begins, already edging toward her, and it is an endearment that sets her skin to tingling, the base of her spine slipping into a rigidity quite like a familiar armor.

His hands light along her shoulders. She wonders when his attentions and his affectations turned from fatherly to that of a lover. It isn't in the motions themselves, the touches, the caresses. It's in the way he looks at her all the while, the words he spews when he touches her so.

And she has had enough of men playing to roles they haven't the right to fill.

"Did you interpret our last conversation as a warning?" he asks curiously, a false touch of concern lighting his voice.

She knows better than to answer such a question truthfully.

His fingers curl around her arms, drawing her closer to him. "Oh Sansa, you must know I never meant it as such."

"I know very little, Lord Baelish, where it concerns you." She allows herself this small honesty. Truth can sometimes tempt the best of them.

The self-satisfied grin that tugs at his lips makes her quiver, though she tempers the reaction before he can register it. "I've been rather transparent with my desires, Sansa, wouldn't you say?"

She only looks at him, unblinking.

"As transparent as the King, I would wager."

Sansa's eyes narrow instantly, her shoulders stiffening.

Baelish keeps one hand curled tight around her elbow, anchoring her to him, his other lifting to trace her cheek. "You're much too smart to think you can play such a game under my nose without me catching wind of it."

She gulps, lips pursed, offering no rebuke, but no admission either. Her skin feels hot – blistering and not her own. "I'm not playing at anything."

"Yes, perhaps that's the tragedy of it," he muses, a mockingly smooth finger edging the length of her jaw. "Tell me, Sansa, how long did you let your bastard brother beg before you finally spread your legs for him?"
Sansa jerks back, but he holds her tight, far tighter than he's ever dared to touch her before, and something flashes in his eyes that looks dangerously like possessiveness.

"You will unhand me, Lord Baelish," she grinds out.

He only grips her tighter, bruisingly so, hand clutching at her jaw now, mouth hovering close to hers, a hiss seethed through his teeth. "Or are you the one who does the begging?" he murmurs, eyes fixed to her mouth, brows angled down sharply in an anger she recognizes all too easily.

Joffrey had that kind of anger. Ramsay, too.

"Not the sort of boy who gives away his toys."

"I said 'unhand me', sir." It's a command now, a wolfish sort of thing snarled through grit teeth.

"I wonder what it took to hear such begging," he croons at her mouth, dark and promising, ignoring her protest.

"If you want to keep that hand," a voice says smoothly from behind them, jolting them apart, "then you'll remove it from my sister."

Sansa whips her head to the far corner of her room, watching as Arya materializes from the shadows.

Baelish clears his throat, backing from Sansa almost unconsciously, his hands blessedly free of her.

"Arya, what are you doing here?" Sansa hisses at her, breathing heavily, hands curling at her sides until her nails press half-moons into her palms.

Arya swings her steady gaze toward her, cocking a brow. "Minding snakes, it seems."

Sansa bristles at the answer.

Baelish collects himself easily, stepping toward Arya. "My lady, if you would only – "

"I'm not your lady," she answers swiftly, gaze cutting back to his. "And neither is my sister."

He swallows, chin lifting. "This was a private conversation you intruded on, Lady Arya."

"Yes, and all the more shame that it's now made public. But don't let that stop you. Please, do continue." Arya motions toward Sansa with a daring scorn.

Baelish looks between the two. Sansa never takes her eyes off her sister.

"Arya, you need to leave."

Arya glares at her, but then she's looking back at Baelish, taking a step, and then another, making her way smoothly toward him until she's standing just a foot away, head cocking as she looks up at him. "I only ever make threats I intend to follow through," she tells him, dark grey eyes wide and unblinking, harrowing in their intensity.

Baelish stares back at her, riveted. His throat bobs uncertainly.

Sansa sucks a sharp breath through her teeth. "Arya."

And then the younger Stark is offering Baelish a mocking smile, a false comfort beneath her deadly gaze. "My list isn't so long that it can't fit another name,"

Baelish furrows his brows, uncomprehending, but she doesn't wait for a response, stalking away from him to stand beside her sister.

Several moments pass in silence, and then Baelish smooths his hands over his robe, clearing his throat. "Well then," he begins.

"Well then," Arya says almost smugly, hands linked behind her back.

Baelish levels her with a steady stare, before looking up to Sansa. That anger is back, brimming just beneath a still, composed surface. Its sourness is no less visceral, even with her sister at her side, and Sansa thinks this must be how poison works – slow and unseen.

"I bid you good evening, ladies," he says in farewell, before stalking to the door, unlatching it, and slamming it behind him.

Sansa takes a long, solid breath, hands finally uncurling at her sides. She glances down to Arya. Her sister is staring up at her, lip curled, a sneer playing at her features.

"You're being reckless," Sansa throws out on a harsh exhale, shaking with it, and shaking with more.

Arya schools her face back to passiveness, making her way to the door as well. "And you're being stupid." She says it with no remorse, and Sansa didn't think it'd hurt quite so much to hear the familiar words again after so many years.

But Arya leaves without saying more, and Sansa's word of thanks is lodged somewhere between her barren tongue and her clenched teeth, as sour as Baelish's anger had been.

"Littlefinger will make his move before long. Arya's seen to that," Sansa huffs reluctantly, glancing toward her younger sister as they sit gathered in her solar.

Jon sighs, leaning his elbows over his knees. "We can't afford this – not now."

Arya doesn't look the slightest remorseful. "He threatened Sansa."

Jon straightens at this.

"Arya," Sansa hisses. "That's not what happened."

Arya lifts a brow her way. "That's exactly what happened, even if he didn't say it in so many words."

Jon opens his mouth to press further, but then Arya is scoffing, arms crossing over her chest. Her words still him. "You leave yourself too open to threats, Sansa. Too open… in other ways, as well." Arya slips a look of accusation toward Jon out of the corner of her eye.

The bile is ripe on his tongue – sharp and pungent. Just like the anger.

"Arya, that's enough," he bites out warningly, purposely not looking at Sansa's suddenly wet eyes, her jutting chin, her stiff, yet trembling hands bunched in her lap.

Arya rolls incredulous eyes his way. "You're both fools. You're both foul, selfish fools," she seethes. Her arms tighten over her chest, her jaw locking tight, like collaring a wolf. Like leashing anguish. "And you'll be the end of us."

"I wasn't the one who threatened the Lord Protector of the Vale," Sansa snaps meaningfully.

Arya's face hardens, her throat flexing. "Should I have let you be, then?" Her voice is impossibly soft. "Should I have let him touch you?"

A flare of possession streaks through Jon – white-hot and instant – but it's dampened by the look upon Sansa's face. It's a look he's never seen before, all at once guilty and pleading and proud.

"They're our family," Bran says from his quiet place beside the hearth, nearly forgotten in the sudden vitriol splashed across the room.

Arya spares him a glare as well. "I know that, Bran. And that's what makes it all the worse."

Jon clamps down on the spiteful rush that floods him. She is his sister, after all, and gods, does he miss her. But this is not what he wanted. "Only the pack survives, Arya. We have to – "

"Don't you dare use Father's words after fucking his daughter beneath this very roof," she spits.

The scrape of Sansa's chair is jarringly loud in the sudden quiet, and Jon can do nothing but watch her stalk to the window, his knuckles white wear he grips his knees, his teeth sinking into his tongue as he bites down on his rebuke, the shame tart and instant and utterly unspeakable.

(There can be no rebuke to truth though, he knows this. Even when he wishes he didn't.)

It's the first the nature of their relations have been brought to air – the first that exactly what it is they're doing has been spoken of so clearly And perhaps it isn't the vehemence with which Arya says it that startles him to silence, or the crudeness in how she says it. Perhaps it's just that it was said at all.

The blaring reality of their sin laid out before them, in no uncertain terms.

Arya digs the heel of her palm into her wet eyes, teeth gritting.

Sansa stares stoically out the frost-lined window, taking a single, long breath in, and then exhaling just as slow. Her jaw works beneath the flicker of candlelight.

Jon looks away.

"We'll need Baelish," Bran interrupts the silence

From her position along the window, Sansa's shoulders stiffen, a look of wariness passing over her shoulder when she glances to Bran.

Jon doesn't like the taste that floods his mouth at the sight.

"We'll need his spies," Bran corrects.

Sansa rubs a worrying thumb into her opposite palm. A sigh like he's never heard from her passes through her lips then. She is an altogether different woman suddenly. "Is there a difference?" Her voice hardly wavers.

Bran's eyes shift to Arya. "One face – many faces."

Arya glances up at the words, her ire momentarily forgotten in place of cautious interest.

Something of a smile tugs at Bran's lips, but it's barely-there and fleeting enough to make Jon question its presence entirely. "Perhaps it's not such a difference," their brother muses.

Jon thinks he should feel cold at the glint that passes through Arya's gaze, but he can't summon anything beyond a vague apprehension.

Instead, he looks to Sansa.

She does not look back.

She leads Baelish to the godswood in the dead of night, and he doesn't see the wolves circling until the mark of his own grave stops him stock still in the clearing.

"Sansa, please," Baelish begs, knees sodden with muddied snow, a gleam of moonlight casting through the weirwood trees to land in slants upon his sweaty, pale face. At his back, Needle stays pressed just between his third and fourth ribs, Arya's wrist poised in shadow, her other arm held at her back, spine straight. She watches Sansa expectantly.

At the gasp of her name from Baelish's lips, Jon takes a purposeful step forward, lip curling, hands fisting at his sides. "Don't you even speak her name," he threatens in a low growl.

Bran's hand at his elbow stays him.

Arya flits slate-grey eyes up at him, narrowing, her lips pursed tightly.

Jon shares a look with her, before he averts his gaze, a heated scoff leaving his lips.

Brienne lights a tentative hand on Sansa's shoulder. "My lady, you do not have to see this."

Through all this, Sansa has stayed resolutely still, a thrum of disquiet washing over her. In her mind's eye, she sees her mother. She sees her father. She sees a brilliant grey banner, direwolves in the wind. She sees a house bloodied by betrayal.

She sees the last song of the mockingbird – words for poison – and she remembers that she has learned the weight of such venom years ago.

"But I do," she answers Brienne, eyes already wet, throat already constricting, even as she nods to Arya.

"Sansa – " Baelish ends her name on a cracked exhale, Needle sliding between his ribs with a quiet slickness.

His mouth is red instantly, lungs flooding with blood.

Sansa starts to shake. She feels Jon's hand at the base of her spine.

"Don't look away," Bran says from his chair beside them –

(Arya is wiping her blade clean before Baelish even hits the snow.)

– "Father will know if you do."

Arya wears Baelish's skin with an ease that quietly terrifies.

Sansa watches the false-Baelish stride across the hall, calling Lord Royce's name in a voice she still finds sets her skin to tingling.

Sansa stares at the cover that is Littlefinger.

A stranger's eyes stare back, unfamiliar in their familiarity.

She had thought condemnation would look different on a face that wasn't Arya's.

She knows now that she is wrong.

"He's not worth crying over," Jon tells her the next night, when she's busy unlacing his tunic, fingers trembling and frantic. Something of sorrow lines his words.

Sansa stills, looking up at him. "I know."

His hand slips up her jaw, thumb brushing along her cheek so achingly slow that she suddenly feels the wetness along it. "Then why are you?" he asks her, not unkindly. It's a whisper between them, an indiscernible secret let to air.

"I'm not," she bites out.

But oh, she is –

She is, she is, she is –

"Sansa." Something breaks in her with how he says it.

(Or perhaps it was always broken, and she's only just now finding the pieces.)

It's a terrifying tangle of grief and relief that fills her at the image of Baelish's face in the red-filtered moonlight, his pleading mouth forming her name so ardently she wants to strike him for it. "I don't regret it," she admits on an exhale, her fingers slipping from Jon's chest as she stumbles back a step.

He follows her, doesn't let her pull away. He cradles her face in his hands, her tears running freely now.

"I don't regret it," she mumbles, head shaking. "I don't regret it, I don't – I…I don't regret it, I – "

He silences her with a kiss, nothing of kindness to it, nothing of mercy. He doesn't give her mouth the chance to form any more words, least of all those.

She's back to unlacing his tunic, and she isn't crying anymore.

But the tangle has only knotted further.

She doesn't know anymore, what to regret in this life.

Her hand meets his flesh.

(She just doesn't know anymore.)

Daenerys razes the northern lands of the Crownlands, pushing toward Harrenhal, and what Sansa assumes will be even further toward the Westerlands. She imagines she could take King's Landing if she wanted, but perhaps vengeance urges her west first. A thirst Daenerys must quench before she takes her crown. A kingslayer she must bring to heel before the whole of Westeros. She must recognize by now that King's Landing is not the seat of power it once was, not with more than half the population already fled. If she wants the seven kingdoms to kneel, then she will have to bring the fight to them. Shouting her claim in the middle of an empty throne room will not get her the subservience she craves and sitting the Iron Throne is not so meaningful without witnesses. So she holds her court at Dragonstone, and pushes west.

Jaime Lannister gives up Riverrun to Brynden and Edmure Tully when the dragon queen's forces push too close for comfort. He focuses on The Reach instead, halting their advance towards Casterly Rock. The Lannisters face enemies on all sides from the rest of the Seven Kingdoms, even with having the largest contingent of men.

And yet, it's still surprising when Jaime Lannister is the first to answer one of Jon's many ravens calling for a peace summit.

('To fight the horde', Jon had said.

'To ensure peace amongst the kingdoms', Sansa had urged him instead, a hand squeezing his wrist, and she watched as the huff of frustration blew from his lips.

Still, he heeded her advice, dipping his quill to the parchment and adopting her calculated words in his missives.)

Jon tosses a scroll to her desk, raking a hand through his curls. "He says he'll come only if he's granted an audience with the Lady of Winterfell," he spits almost mockingly, eyes boring into the parchment as it lays innocently atop her ledgers.

Sansa's brows furrow, fine-boned fingers picking up the scroll to peruse it herself. She licks her lips, looking up at Jon from her seat. "He'll want to know about Cersei."

"You had nothing to do with that."

"Not in his eyes, I imagine."

Jon rests his knuckles along the wood of her desk, leaning over it. "I will kill him before he lays a hand on you."

Sansa takes a deep breath, easing back in her chair. His quiet, violent outburst settles something low in her gut like spitting coals. "And would you have me turn him away over this? When he commands the largest force in Westoros – the kind of numbers we'll need if we want to defeat the dead?"

He doesn't answer her. But he doesn't need to.

Sansa sighs, shaking her head. "We can't win this without allies, you said it yourself."

Jon tears his hands away from the desk, stalking across the length of her solar, staring darkly at the wall, a hand gliding over his mouth. He stalks back along the stones, stopping at her desk again. "I don't like it."

The indignation is easy, ripe in her throat. "It's not your choice."

His eyes flash, his hands curling into fists at his sides. "Aye," he bites out. "It's not."

It doesn't sound like a surrender or an agreement, but Sansa hasn't the patience to argue such a point. "Then the Lady of Winterfell accepts. You can tell him as such when you pen your answer." She links her fingers atop her lap, lips pursed.

Jon clenches his jaw, chest heaving just the once – like trying to rein something in. But then he's nodding his farewell, turning from her, throwing the door to her solar open so harshly that Brienne braces a hand reflexively to Oathkeeper, glancing in on her lady as the King sweeps past.

Sansa scowls at his retreating form, fingers curling into a knot in her lap.

He thinks maybe the right words will come to him at the tip of a sword. They usually do, and he's never been much good without one. So when he invites Arya to a spar at the far end of the eastern courtyard, well enough out of earshot of any passersby, he doesn't waste time.

"Sansa misses you." He sees the moment the smirk slips from her mouth.

She'd been enjoying the spar, he can tell, and while some part of him aches that he's the one to shatter that moment, to temper that glee, a larger part of him knows how to recognize the temporary and the fleeting at this point.

Arya doesn't blunt her swipes, Needle clacking against Longclaw with a sharp ringing. "I doubt that very much."

Jon steps into the parry, teeth gritting. "I know why you've been distant but – "

"If you know, then it shouldn't be so hard to understand." Her swing lands dangerously close to his cheek.

Jon stumbles back, breath breaking from him with a jolt, a flush of anger heating him. "She's your sister. Shouldn't that be enough?"

Arya straightens, a hand held primly at her back, a single brow arched. "It wasn't enough for you, was it? To have her as a sister?" She doesn't hide the contempt now.

Jon huffs his frustration, swinging low, teeth bared when he meets her blade for blade. "Whatever I've done, whatever I've – " He swallows his words behind a grunt. They meet in a clash, eyes locked. "I won't apologize for what I want. Not even to you."

Arya's eyes wet instantly, even while they harden. She shouts as she shoves him back. "You should have known better! You should have – she should have – " She swings again, too wide, staggering back when he parries her almost effortlessly. "It's like I don't even know you anymore!"

He imagines she hadn't meant for her voice to break on that one, and he understands why she covers it with a snarl, another lunge, but he's finding it harder and harder to brace against her vehemence.

Jon knocks her back, bracing his boots in the dirt to steady himself. His chest heaves, the breaths coming ragged and full. "You've no idea what she's been through."

Arya narrows her eyes at him, twirling Needle into an overhold. "The people talk, Jon. I know what Ramsay – "

"I'm not just talking about what Ramsay did to her!" he bellows, stilling her instantly. His gut churns at the name, even still, even now when he bears the marks of that bastard's ruin on his scarred knuckles, even when he carries him with him beneath his skin (and oh, how he would scar worse if it meant he could mar him again and again and – )

Jon closes his eyes, taking a deep breath as he swallows back the rage.

Because Ramsay was not all of it.

"What do you mean?" Arya is standing eerily still, hair slightly disheveled, gloved hand curling around Needle's hilt.

Jon opens his eyes.

(Just a stupid, little girl, Sansa had muttered in a voice so scathing he knew he'd never know the whole of it.

She doesn't like mirrors, he finds. And this, perhaps, makes him saddest of all.)

"I meant down in King's Landing."

Arya doesn't respond, but Needle lowers minutely. Jon takes it as a motion to continue.

Something strikes him then, instant and resounding. "Could you have done it?"

Her brows sharpen down in her confusion. "What?"

Jon licks his lips, continuing. "Could you have held your tongue in the midst of those who killed Father, knowing it would be your head next?"

Arya's chest puffs out, her hiss high and biting. "I would have died to avenge Father."

"And could you have held it knowing that if not, it would be your mother next? Your brother? Your sister?"

Arya stops, throat flexing beneath her tight swallow.

Jon takes a step closer, Longclaw still at the ready. "Could you have taken the beatings, the humiliation, the constant reminder of your helplessness, your uselessness? Could you have listened day after day to the threats on your family? Could you have done nothing, because to do more meant worse than death for those you loved?" He's panting by now, quaking in his own skin, desperate, wretched, lungs full with his woe. He can see her trembling from where he stands. Longclaw tips to the ground, forgotten. "Do you know how she cried for you?"

Arya turns her head away, eyes riveted to the stone wall. The tears are more apparent now, though they never fall. Her jaw works beneath her tight words. "I never asked her to."

"Aye," Jon says, nodding, voice cracking. "Sansa did a lot of things for us we never asked her to."

She looks back at him then, her face fierce, a shadow of distress glancing through her eyes, and then gone. She blinks back the wetness. "I don't know what she's been through, no. Not truly. Not entirely." She tilts her chin up, her voice steady. "But neither does she know what I've been through."

And there it is.

The reminder of how he's failed.

Jon crumbles beneath the weight of such guilt, his head lowering, and he digs the knuckles of his free hand into his eye socket, clearing his throat when he looks back at her and his hand comes away salt-tinged. "I know. And I'm sorry, Arya, I'm so – " His breath catches, and he has to choke back the break, start again. "I'm sorry I couldn't – "

"I'm not saying it because I blame you." Arya sighs, glancing away to the wall once more. It seems a comfort. "I'm not saying it because I blame her either. It just… it just is."

"Would you wish it upon her? What you went through?" He asks it softly, plaintively.

She considers him a moment, eyes a hauntingly familiar grey.

(How like his sister he's always been – and how not.)

"No," she finally answers, Needle lowering to her side entirely, the crinkle of her glove resounding in the blaring quiet.

"I think she feels much the same," he offers her, stepping closer, until he is standing right before her, until he can reach a gloved hand up to brush a lone strand of hair behind her ear.

Arya's eyes flutter shut at the motion, leaning into the touch unconsciously. Her lashes glisten with the unshed tears.

Jon's hand retreats, a long-forgotten fondness creeping out between his ribs. He waits until her eyes shift open once more. He waits until she's looking at him, really looking at him. He waits until he knows she's ready to listen.

"Sansa isn't weak," he tells her, voice steady. "She's just strong in ways you've never had to be."

Arya stares up at him, and she is all at once exactly the sister he left, and yet nothing like her at all.

He wants to reach for her once more, but something tells him not to. Something tells him they're not there yet.

Arya flits her gaze to the side, a heavy sigh leaving her. She wipes at her eyes, clearing her throat. She sheaths Needle without further word, stepping back from him. "I'm not okay with what you two are doing," she says finally, voice clear of tears. She looks back up at him and her eyes are dry.

Jon shakes his head. "I'm not asking you to be." It's easy to be unapologetic. It's easy now that he recognizes how little condemnation means to him. Not with this.

Not with her.

(He will never be sorry for that.)

"But," Arya starts, swallows, starts again. "But I hear you."

Jon stares at her, blinking swiftly.

"I hear you," she says again, and then she's turning and stalking away, their spar forgotten.

He doesn't think they'd have ended in anything but a stalemate anyway, but he hopes.

He hopes.

{The hearth spits another log to cinders before them, and she thinks he means to keep this damn silence always, until, "Because she is needed."

Sansa nearly scoffs, her throat catching on the noise. She blinks the wetness from her eyes. "We never needed her," she says on a harsh exhale.

"We do," Bran counters, no malice in the correction, no reprimand.

"We needed Jon," she manages through clenched teeth, fingers curling over her armrests like talons. She wants to strike him – her little brother. She wants to claw those desolate white eyes out and find the monster beneath – the monster that did this to them. "We still do," she grinds out. It almost seems a pointless grief now.

Bran gives her a long moment of silence, eyes frustratingly vacant. "There can be no Jon without Daenerys."}

Chapter Text

Disclaimer: I own nothing, I make no money.

A Violence Done Most Kindly

Chapter Three: Bone-Deep

"She stops, swallowing back the sob, tasting bile at the back of her tongue. She's told this to no one. Not even Jon. It's been her shameful secret, her bloody burden, all these years. It's been her sole, sundering grief." - Jon and Sansa. Stark is a house of many winters.

* * *

Jon gets word that Theon Greyjoy has arrived at Winterfell when he's mid-spar in the courtyard.

"The Lady Sansa has escorted him to the godswood, Your Grace," Davos tells him as he's shrugging his jerkin back on over his sweat-soaked tunic, tugging the laces closed over his chest with a vehemence so quiet it rattles beneath his skin

"Your Grace," Davos tries again, softer this time, watching the fury lining his king's face.

"Leave me," Jon growls, already stalking through the grounds toward the godswood.

No one follows him past the gate.

Jon has a memory – a faint recollection thrumming its presence at the base of his skull, itching beneath his flesh.

Theon always knew how to hold his drink, even when Jon couldn't, and it's a bitterly cold, fog-touched morning when they wake somehow in the stables, still mostly drunk off the ale Theon pilfered from Jory Cassel, to the mud-soaked hem of Lady Catelyn's skirts.

Jon remembers looking up into her pinched face, sick at the glower she leveled him with.

"Now, which of you two half-wits are responsible for loosing Lord Stark's horse in the night?" she bites out, nothing but coldness in her voice – winter made flesh.

This was the woman who held him in the midst of fever once. The woman who sang him softly to sleep when the coughs wracked his lungs with a fierceness. The woman who brushed a tender palm to his sweat-lined forehead and stayed the night at his bedside.

The same woman – but that woman has been gone for many years now. And it's only a frost-lined gaze and a perpetual frown that greets him these days.

Jon is sick for an altogether different reason, never mind the ale still roiling in his gut.

"It was me, Lady Stark," Theon admits without hesitance, before Jon can declare his guilt, and he shoots a sharp look Theon's way.

Theon glances back, only just a bit more sober than Jon, and he shakes his head. Just a touch. Just minutely enough for Jon to see, and he swallows back his confession, feeling it light along his throat.

Lady Catelyn shoots a hand out swiftly and drags Theon from the stable by his ear, ignoring his yelp of pain and his drunken stumbles in her wake.

Jon watches from his heap of hay, something brewing in his chest he has never learned the words for.

He catches Theon that night after he's spent the day cleaning the horse's stalls, tired hands rubbing his shoulders with exhaustion.

"Why?" he demands, clean and simple.

Theon looks up at Jon with sleep-ready eyes, slouching back along his chair with aching limbs. "I don't remember my mother."

Jon's jaw clenches, his tongue held between his teeth, so tight it nearly bleeds.

And then Theon's shrugging, head lolling back along his chair as his eyes shift to the ceiling. "But Lady Stark's always been more yours than mine. Figured a bastard could use every bit of help he can get." He hadn't even bothered looking at Jon to watch the jab land, eyes sliding closed in his fatigue.

It isn't until the next day that Theon tells him he took the fall because he'd rather clean stables than take Jory's beating, and now that he knows they swiped his ale, it's Jon's turn to take the fall.

And yet –

"I don't remember my mother." The words linger with him for many years.

Jon had been so angry, and so grateful, and so resentful, and so relieved, and he hadn't understood at the time how this one dreadful boy could make him feel all of that at once.

And that's exactly the rub, isn't it? That they were just boys, and it shouldn't mean so much, and it doesn't mean so much, and he doesn't know why the memory reaches him now – now when his hand itches for Longclaw on instinct.

Because Robb had been betrayed. Because Bran and Rickon had been forced to flee their home. Because in the end, blood was the final say. And Theon had chosen his.

It was just a horse. Just a stupid, fucking horse.

But sometimes, Jon remembers the flecked grey of its pelt, the hard wood of the open stall door in his hands, the rush of wind in the night when the stallion had broken free.

Sometimes he remembers their drunken laughs on the wind, a cloudless night backdropping their youth.

Sometimes he wonders what they might have been.

But in the end, it's just a horse. It's just a memory. It's just a mistake.

Jon breaks into the godswood to find Sansa sitting atop a snow-strewn log, Theon standing before her. Their conversation halts at the crunch of snow beneath his boots, heralding his approach.

Sansa's face blanks out into a mask, but for a moment, for a split-right-down-the-middle second, Jon swears he sees affection, fondness, a soft sorrow just shy of yearning fleeting across her face. She tucks it back beneath a veneer of calm easily enough.

That sickness is back.

Jon shakes his head, throat tight.

(Just a memory.)

"Jon," Theon says, like a gasp let to air, the name drawing from him on instinct.

Jon's face hardens, his steps surer as they approach.

Theon seems to catch his mistake, head dipping down, hands curling and uncurling at his sides. "Your Grace," he corrects in a voice like winter, like beaten, weathered branches creaking in the wind.

He makes himself small in the face of Jon's wrath, but it does nothing to still him. Nothing at all to pacify the storm in him.

Sansa seems to see it a moment too late. "Jon – " She hasn't the breath to say more, jolting from her seat, hand out-reaching, when Jon rears a fist back and then swings, knuckles cracking against Theon's cheek, a sharp whip of adrenaline lancing through him as they both stumble back beneath the force of it.

Theon releases a short grunt of pain, but nothing more, steadying easily. He doesn't even hold a hand to his cheek, doesn't do anything but curve his shoulders even further inward, his gaze on the snow at their feet, his jaw quaking with more than just pain.

Jon heaves a thunderous breath, the fury tight in his bones, the ache – that rending, marrow-deep ache – stilling him before his false brother.

(He doesn't realize until many years down the line that 'false brothers' are all he's ever had, really.)

"Jon," Sansa censures, hands going to his arm.

He ignores her. His eyes are only for Theon. "You fucking dare," he spits. "You fucking dare to show your face here – after what you did?"

"I'm sorry," he mutters readily, too readily for Jon's liking. "I'm sorry, Jon." Like a chant. Like the words have made a home in his mouth, worn their welcome out and bled their presence through to his tongue. There's something wounded in them that Jon cannot place.

Jon sucks a sharp breath between his teeth. His fist bunches in Theon's collar, shaking him.

"Jon, stop!" Sansa's tugging now, fingers curling along the leather of his jerkin, arms feeble in their effort.

"You're sorry?" Jon repeats on a scathing exhale, shaking him again, fist at his throat, snarl punctuating the air between them. "Is that what you tell yourself when you remember how they took Robb's head? Is that what you tell yourself when you look at my crippled brother?" His voice pitches high, a tremble to it he cannot rein in.

"Jon," Sansa pleads, tugging at him.

Theon keeps his head hung low, but even from here, Jon can see the wetness dotting his eyes. He shakes him harder, practically quaking with the rage. "Is that what you tell yourself when you see the blood of my family on your hands?" he bellows.

"Stop it!" Sansa yells, pushing furiously at him now, wedging herself adamantly between them.

Theon glances up at the break in her voice, mouth parted as though to speak but only a faint choke escapes him, eyes fixed on Sansa.

It makes the anger flare brighter in Jon's chest – white-hot and gripping.

"Stop it!" she yells again, hands pushing at his chest, forcing her way between them, shoving him off them.

Jon unfurls his fist from Theon's collar, stumbling back from the force of Sansa's vehemence. He shifts narrowed eyes to her. "Sansa, if it weren't for him, maybe Robb would still be alive. Maybe Rickon would still be alive. Maybe – "

"Maybe I would be dead," she answers him evenly.

Jon blinks at her. So does Theon.

They stand there, breathing quietly in the falling snow.

"I wouldn't have made it without him," she says softly, lip quivering. "I wouldn't have made it to you."

Jon's face falls, silence harrowing through the godswood.

Sansa curls a tentative hand into Theon's sleeve.

Jon eyes the motion with something of contempt, but he doesn't deny her, doesn't move to extract her from him. And maybe this is the fall Theon meant. Maybe this is the only way he knows how to pay his debts.

(It's just a stupid, fucking horse.

Except, it was never about the horse.)

Jon levels his ragged breaths, eyes shifting to Theon with a dark, warning sheen. "Why are you here?"

He doesn't like how Theon's first instinct is to glance to Sansa.

She does not unfurl her fist from the Greyjoy's sleeve.

Shifting his gaze back to Jon, Theon lifts his chin just slightly, if only to keep their gazes level. That something wounded is all about him now – like a shroud, a constant shadow.

This is not the Theon Greyjoy he left as a boy.

But in the end, it's just a memory, and Jon has had enough of those.

"Would you believe me if I said I came for her?" Theon motions to Sansa with a tip of his head.

Sansa lets out a small sound of surprise, leaning into him, her knuckles white from where she holds his sleeve. "Theon," she starts, and doesn't seem to know how to finish.

"I would have died to get you there," he mutters to her, face a ruin, and something flickers along her features in recognition, soft and slow. "I meant it."

Sansa wraps her arms around Theon then, holding him tight to her breast, nuzzling into his neck. His hands hover unsurely in the air, and then they're settling at her back, the perfect level of propriety in his embrace, even when Jon can see the way he leashes his own needful comfort.

"I know," Sansa whispers to him, cheek to his, and Jon feels suddenly intrusive at the tender, intimate scene.

Sansa has not shared all that she endured under Ramsay's hold, and she likely never will. This he can live with. This he can learn to let go, even when the rage claws at him without warning sometimes, even when he looks at the scarred skin of his knuckles and aches.

But this is more than Ramsay. This is more than Sansa. It starts with Ser Rodrick's unjustly severed head and then doesn't stop. Not with Bran and Rickon's expulsion from Winterfell. Not with the innocent boys Theon burned in their stead. Not with any of the betrayals he's gifted their family.

It starts and never stops, and this is something Jon knows intimately.

Jon waits until they untangle. He waits until Theon's looking him in the eye when he tells him, "Bran is here."

He wonders if perhaps he shouldn't revel in the dread that glances over Theon's face at the mention. He wonders if maybe this spite is beneath him. He wonders if he's lesser for enjoying it.

He wonders a lot of things, none of which he gets any answers for.

Because in the end, this too, is just a memory.

Sansa is there when Theon emerges from the room with Bran. He's drawn and quiet and near trembling when he closes the door to Bran's solar behind him. She will never know what words passed between them, and Theon shakes his head at her minutely when she makes her way to him, mouth parted, questions lingering at her lips. She stops just before him, mouth closing abruptly.

She will give him this silence, if he needs it.

What forgiveness or punishment he seeks from Bran is his own business. What guilt he cradles so attentively is his own. It is not her place to intrude, though she only wants to help him bear it. She only wants to carry the weight with him.

It clings to them still, this shadow of the past – like a hand at their throats, a harsh whisper at their ears. Some wounds linger.

Sansa knows this intimately, just as Theon does. And so she will keep this silence for him.

Because redemption is not a shared weight, and her shoulders are only so wide.

Because he does not ask more of her than her hand at his arm to guide him through the halls.

Because she refuses to be a lingering wound for him.

They formally receive Theon in the Hall of Lords, with Jon at the center of the head table, Sansa at his side, and Bran at his other. Just behind Bran, Arya stands half-bathed in shadow, hands held at her back. The stance is no less imposing, even in its nonchalance, and Theon flicks his gaze uneasily from hers to face the King in the North fully.

"You said you came for Lady Sansa," Jon says tightly, back a rigid line. "Explain."

Theon flicks hesitant eyes toward Sansa, just for a moment, but a moment is enough. The rush of recollection is cold and vibrant – his trembling hand in hers, fingers worn and half-dead, a long, far drop into the snow off the walls, the biting freeze of the river through her soiled dress.

Sansa sits straighter, her face softening. She offers Theon an encouraging smile, and it seems to be all he needs, nodding imperceptibly before glancing back to Jon.

"I'm here to extend House Greyjoy's wish for an alliance."

Silence pervades the hall. Jon's scoff breaks the quiet like shattered stone. Theon bristles at the sound and Sansa stiffens in her seat.

"If you'll recall, the last time you suggested an alliance to the King in the North, it didn't end so well for him," Jon snarls, hands gripping at his armrests.

Theon dips his head in quiet acknowledgement.

Jon sneers at him. "I have no assurances of you or your family's loyalty."

Theon snaps his head up. "Yara is not like our father. She's a good queen."

"Perhaps your love for family blinds you."

"Can you say any different?"

Jon glares at him, mouth thinning into a tight line.

Theon gulps back his trepidation, hands unnervingly flexing at his sides. He licks his lips, ignores the murmurs starting up around the hall with their audience. "I want to protect my family as much as I want to protect yours, as much as I…" He stops, the words floundering on his tongue. He glances back to Sansa, just for a moment. "I owe House Stark more than I will ever be able to repay. I don't… I don't pretend otherwise. But there's a war coming, if what you say is true, Your Grace, and I don't believe you're the kind of king to turn away an ally – even a Greyjoy – when your own people are at stake. At least, I can't believe that. I can't, and I won't – or else we're already lost."

Sansa can see the way Jon's jaw works beneath his frustration. Her fingers flex over her armrests, the unease tugging at her chest.

"What do you ask of us in this alliance?" Bran's question broaches the quiet.

Theon looks at him steadily, seeming to weigh the words on his tongue before he lets them to air. "Our uncle, Euron Greyjoy, has sworn to the dragon queen in return for her support in taking Yara's rightful place."

Sansa flicks her gaze to Arya briefly, remembering such news when her sister had revealed what she'd learned from Baelish's spies. Arya glances to her as well, a cautious look shared between the two, before they're both returning their attention fully to Theon. He lifts his chin, eyes blinking swiftly. It's a motion of discomfort that Sansa has grown to recognize in him.

"All we ask is that the North supports Yara's claim and the Iron Islands' independence, just as it has the Vale and the Riverlands."

"The Vale and the Riverlands have both offered aid for the war," Jon explains, a deep frown marring his features. "What can the Iron Islands offer?"

"The proof you need to win over the other kingdoms," Theon says firmly, a steady confidence taking hold.

Voices break out in the hall and Sansa lifts a hand in a motion of silence instantly, the lords quieting uneasily. Jon leans forward in his chair, eyes narrowed at Theon. "What did you say?" he demands.

Theon takes a deep, sundering breath. "Yara sailed north about a moon ago, as far north as the ice would permit. Said she'd drag the dead back with her bare hands if that's what it took to get this summit of yours going, if that's what it took to solidify this alliance."

Jon releases a short, stunted laugh, wiping his hand down his mouth as he leans back in his chair.

Beside him, Sansa furrows her brows in concern, a sharp breath drawn from between her lips. "She's mad."

Theon smiles in a way Sansa' never seen before, and she wonders wildly if this is what a brother's love is supposed to look like.

"That she is," Theon agrees beneath a smothered chuckle, shaking his head. "But she keeps her word better than anyone I've ever known." He grows somber then, quiet and still. "I figure Starks of all people can appreciate that."

It's not said in insult, she knows this, and Jon must as well, because when she glances at him beside her he isn't glaring at Theon like he had been only moments ago. He's simply staring at him, lips pursed, reply caught at the edge of his tongue. It's such a perfect picture of hesitation that she has to stop herself from reaching for his hand in some measure of assurance. Instead, she clears her throat. "Your Grace," she starts, if only to get his attention.

Jon turns to her instantly, brows raised. There's a question on his face, but it's a question she cannot read, let alone answer.

And so she only shares what she knows, what she can vouch for without question. "I trust Theon."

Jon's brows angle sharply down in a measure of disapproval, and a huff passes his lips that should anger her, but somehow only makes her want to laugh.

"Olenna Tyrell has turned her armies North," Arya says softly behind them, and Jon inclines his head at her voice. "I imagine we'll be receiving her answer to your request for a summit any day now. I suggest we have something to show for it when they arrive."

Jon nods silently, considering, but then he's flicking that heated glare back toward Theon, a tightness to his still form that Sansa wishes she knew how to ease. "And if your sister fails?"

Theon glances to Bran, mouth opening, and then closing. He takes a steadying breath, voice even when he finally finds the words. "Then House Greyjoy pledges to the North regardless." He looks back to Jon, eyes unblinking. "We will meet the dead with you, one way or another."

Sansa's breath shudders from her, quiet and disused. But Jon catches the sound, turning to her in the ensuing uproar around the hall. She looks at him without words, mouth parting in futility. There is nothing she can say, she finds, to beg his trust in this. Nothing she can say to endear him to Theon in any way that doesn't also betray that which she promised herself never to share.

Because to share her past with Ramsay is to keep him alive.

Because yes, some wounds linger – closed and scarred as they are.

Because she will not reduce herself to an identity defined by the survival of abuse.

"I trust Theon." It is all she offers – all that matters, she finds.

And it is all that's needed, in the end.

Jon heaves a long-labored sigh, wiping a hand down his face. A familiar weariness sets into his frame, and she knows his answer well before he voices it.

"I trust Theon", she had said.

"Trust me", she had meant.

Yes, she supposes she's always known his answer.

Arya enters her solar with a purposeful gait, closing the door behind her slowly.

Sansa glances up at her, eyes narrowing; her sister does not seek her out. She is their brothers' sister. She is not hers – not like she should be.

(Not like she wishes her to be.)

Arya looks around her chambers for a moment, eyes alighting on the sparseness of it, the utter lack of sentimental objects.

"Was there something you needed?" Sansa asks finally, a hand smoothing over the ledger spread out over her desk. She leans back expectantly.

Arya stands at the edge of her desk, hands held behind her back in a mirror image of Sansa's own familiar posture. But Arya's eyes are sure. They are Stark grey and unclouded. "You stayed – in King's Landing, after father's murder."

Sansa notes the use of the term 'murder' rather than 'execution' and eases somewhat under her sister's stare. The distinction is enough to make her forget whether Arya is speaking in questions or facts. She clears her throat, nods her assent. "I did."

Arya watches her a moment, head tilting in a familiar thoughtfulness that is so strikingly nostalgic, Sansa feels the air tighten in her lungs.

"You let them beat you, humiliate you, cage you like a culled wolf." There is no accusation to the words, but Sansa feels it all the same.

The anger flares bright and hot in her chest. Her hands spread slowly over the desk, jaw locking. "You would rather I have fought? You would rather I have given them more opportunity to hurt Robb and Mother? Or you?" Sansa scoffs. "And gods only knew where you were when I was left to Cersei's bitterness, to Joffrey's violent whims." Her eyes harden, something steeling up her spine. Winter takes root in her bones so easily these days. "Did you know they made me take it down from the pike? Father's head? With my own hands, my own – " She stops, swallowing back the sob, tasting bile at the back of her tongue. She's told this to no one. Not even Jon. It's been her shameful secret, her bloody burden, all these years. It's been her sole, sundering grief.

Arya draws in a long, slow breath, shoulders stretching back, arms never unlinking from behind her. If she looks hard enough, Sansa will see the sheen of wetness over her eyes, the quiver in her jaw, the tremble of her lips even as they dip into a harsh frown.

She's gone too far, she thinks. It isn't Arya's fault. No more than it is hers. Seven hells, but they were just children. And even still…

Even still, the resentment lingers. The lonesome wolf in her bares its teeth to the sister that left too soon.

(She doesn't know how to admit to having needed her.)

"Would you have had me fought?" she asks again, this time seethed through bared teeth – this time with the tender weight of regret.

Arya considers her a moment, blinking the wetness from her eyes as though it had never been. Her hands slip from behind her, hanging limply at her sides. Her eyes drift to the desk, unable to meet Sansa's. "If you had fought, you'd be dead."

It's not a new truth. Sansa's thought it herself but –

"And I'm glad you're not dead," Arya finishes softly, eyes still fixed to the desk.

Sansa stills. Her chest aches. It aches and aches and –

She blinks back the sudden tears.

Arya looks up then, eyes hardened once more. Her back straightens, and then she's heading to the door, having said her piece.

Sansa stands so swiftly her chair topples back along the stone floor, clattering sharply in the drawn quiet.

Arya halts with her hand on the door, a look over her shoulder that Sansa will not be able to name for many years to come. "Cersei bled out slow," she tells her evenly. "She bled out alone."

Sansa stands watching her, breathing heavily, worn and spent and desolate. Realization blooms beneath her skin like a bruise.

Arya opens the door. "I wanted you to know that," she tells her. She looks back just the once, and then she's gone.

The door closes before Sansa's whispered 'thank you' can even broach the air, and then she's sinking to the floor, hands fumbling for purchase along the stone, the whisper of her wool skirts a fluttering thing in the quiet of her solar. Her hands curl against the floor until her nails catch along the stone like a wolf's bite, blood at her fingertips. Sansa takes a long, slow breath – lets it to air. She breathes, and breathes, and chokes on it. A single, bone-rattling wail rakes through her lungs, reverberating off the stone walls.

She stays there long into the night, long past the time it takes to recognize the first dregs of freedom, the first glance of light.

She stays there until it is no longer Cersei's golden visage seared into the backs of her eyelids but Arya's.

Her sister.

She has never been a lonesome wolf, she finds – she just took a little longer getting back to the pack.

The North remembers, and so do sisters.

(She knows now how to admit to needing her.)

Jon announces a summit at Riverrun.

Olenna Tyrell has formally answered his request for her presence during the peace talks after the Lannister forces showed their intention to attend when they withdrew from the Reach. The disjointed lords of the Stormlands follow suit quickly. Lord Royce ensures Robin Arryn's attendance and hope for a continued alliance, and Edmure Tully accepts Jon's proposal for the peace talks at Riverrun, granted, of course, that a large enough garrison of Northern forces ensures their protection at such volatile talks, as such an alliance would demand. Jon agrees readily. There is still no word from Dorne.

And then a scroll bearing the wax seal of a three-headed dragon makes its way to Winterfell's rookery.

Jon smooths over the edges of the scroll, recounting its contents to his siblings as they sit in Bran's solar. It's marked with Tyrion Lannister's signature, his own calculating yet verbose speech marking the message as self-penned, rather than any true response from the dragon queen. Jon tosses the unfurled scroll atop Bran's desk with an air of frustration. "She wants Jaime Lannister, specifically, to bend the knee, but her demands extend to all the kingdoms."

"I imagine it took some plaintive urging on Tyrion's part not to demand Ser Jaime's head," Sansa answers, a purse to her lips that signals a serious contemplation.

He wonders if he should be wary of the look.

"According to Baelish's people, Daenerys isn't altogether happy with her advisors," Arya interjects, arms folded over her chest. "She wants to rain fire and blood across the Lannister armies. Over the Reach and the Vale and the North, as well. It'll be a short and bloody war if she does."

Bran nods, eyes alighting on Jon. "She'll pursue peace first, so long as it's in her interest. She recognizes that she cannot secure the people's love if she's only seen as a brutal conqueror."

"And if we choose not to kneel?" Sansa asks, less a question and more a statement.

"Daenerys Targaryen will not permit Northern independence." Bran's voice isn't even apathetic at this point. It's simply there. Like the snow settling on the windowsill, or the hiss of a crumbling log in the hearth, or the flex of Sansa's fingers atop her lap, stiff and poised.

Arya tilts her chin, the rest of her eerily still, one leg crossed evenly over the other.

It's Sansa that speaks. "Northern independence needs no permittance," she seethes out, face a winter visage.

"She thinks otherwise."

"She thinks wrongly," Arya says, voice low and immovable.

Jon glances to her, and then back to Sansa, brows furrowing at the way they each stare unabashedly at Bran, fierce in their refusal. He wipes a hand down his mouth, sighing into his palm. "She'll want an audience."

"She will," Bran agrees.

A steady, thoughtful silence.

Sansa shifts in her seat. "We have more urgent concerns. The dead are – "

"There are no concerns more urgent," Bran interrupts, and Jon is so taken by the firmness of his voice that he hasn't the mind to consider the terror of such a notion.

Because surely the dead would take precedence. Surely the dead were the worst of it.

Bran's eyes slide evenly to Jon's, a quiet confirmation.

Jon's lips part, the breath stealing from him.

"She imagines herself a savior," Bran offers, something flickering in his gaze that Jon is too wary to call ridicule. "Use that."

He can only nod.

They begin the march south the next day, and it isn't until Jon and Sansa and Arya-wearing-Baelish step foot through Riverrun's gates, with Bran lingering behind in Winterfell, that Jon realizes it wasn't disdain coloring his brother's eyes.

It was apathy.

And he doesn't rightly know which is worse at this point.

"Hey there, sweetwater," he says to her.

Sansa blinks up at the Blackfish, watching the way his face softens at her, the way his eyes wet, the way his throat flexes beneath his words. On either side of them, the riverbanks are lush and verdant – a winter-less shore. There is nothing dead here, not yet.

"'Sweetwater'he always called me – my uncle. Your uncle."

Her mother's words are instant and warm at her ear.

She offers a perfect curtsy, not trusting her voice.

Brynden Tully swallows his smile behind a trembling lip. "Her little lady, I see. Her Sansa."

Sansa lifts her gaze to his, something lodging in her chest she thought long lost.

They stand staring at each other for long moments, and then the Blackfish takes her hand. She watches her small, fine-boned fingers being swallowed up by his own scar-riddled palms. But it calms her in a way she thought she'd never feel again – not since her father's head had rolled down the steps at the Sept of Baelor.

"I'm not Catelyn," she finds herself saying, even as her voice cracks. She keeps herself from trembling, eyes fixed to where their hands are joined.

Brynden chuckles, releasing her hand. He stands taller, hands adjusting his belt. He heaves a sigh and it seems all at once regretful and longing. "No, I imagine not."

She flits her gaze up to his, jaw tight.

(She wants to fling herself around him and she doesn't know why. She wants to hold him to her and know the warmth of the river, the freshwater tide, the lull of currents.

She wants to remember what it is to be held.)

Brynden reaches a daring hand out to stroke her cheek. "It's lovely to meet you, niece." And then his hand retracts, his posture straightening just a moment before he dips into a reserved bow, hand held at his chest. "My lady."

(She wants to hold him, she finds.)

There are no rivers like this in the North, and oh, how she misses her mother.

"Please," she urges, hands ushering him up.

He chuckles at her earnestness, rising at her insistence, and Sansa finds that memory is still a bone-deep thing.

"As you wish, sweetwater," he says.

She smiles.

And when Brynden Tully offers himself as a sworn shield to Sansa that very night – that first evening she sits at the table of her mother's childhood home – she finds that yes, memory has always been a bone-deep thing.

As deep as rivers.

{"There can be no Jon without Daenerys."

Sansa narrows startled eyes at him, a crisp blue beneath the salt-sheen. "What?"

Bran heaves a sigh – something of tedium to the sound – like he's trying to explain something to a child.

Sansa bristles at the thought.

"There is an old sort of magic to sacrifice. A strong magic."

"Is that your excuse?" she spits, the anger white-hot and searing at her lips, sudden and vitriolic like she's never felt before, not even for Ramsay. "Is that your excuse for killing him?"

She likes to think it's remorse that has him turning his head, but the reality is closer to indifference when he answers her, "Yes."}

Chapter Text

Disclaimer: I own nothing, I make no money.

A Violence Done Most Kindly

Chapter Four: Nooses

"Sansa has learned to read faces like Arya has learned the wearing of them." - Jon and Sansa. Stark is a house of many winters.

* * *

Sometimes he sees the nooses swaying in the wind. There are always bodies at the ends of them, but they are not always discernible. They swing like dark, hooded shadows, catching flecks of snow so soft even that seems a betrayal in the midst of such brutality, such ardent death.

Jon takes a long, slow breath, easing it out through unsteady lungs. His hands spread over the balcony edge before him, looking out across the Riverlands, the long train of lords and their bannermen arriving from throughout the seven kingdoms for the summit – like a flood of ants.

Beside him, Davos stands watching pensively.

Jon remembers the smell of shit when those traitors died. That much he recalls. The rope had snapped taut and their voices had choked out and their bodies had jerked their final release, an end without glory, without even the dignity of a clean corpse to burn. Their filth had stained the wooden planks beneath their swinging feet for moons after.

"Now I rest", Thorne had said. Jon wants to scoff at the words. Men like them never rest but for the grave, and even that could not hold him.

(He wants to die, he wants to live – sometimes the difference is hard to discern.)

An anger suffuses him – sharp and ripe and fervent. A familiar anger.

Olly had looked upon him with hatred, even in the end, even with a rope at his throat. And maybe the man Jon used to be would have staggered beneath such a stare, would have grieved this loss. But Jon is not the man he used to be, and he startles at the realization that neither does he want to be that man again.

"You'll be fighting their battles forever."

Jon swallows tightly, eyes still over the plains.

Jon knows who his people are, and he will not forget again. Alliser Thorne had that much right, at least. You choose your enemy, and you stick with it, no matter the squalls. You do not let the others into your home. You do not lead them to your hearth. You do not look outside.

Fighting for others has only ever gotten him killed.

So now, he will fight for his.

Yes, Olly had looked upon him with hatred in the end. And Jon had welcomed it. He made sure, after cutting the rope himself, to turn and watch them struggle their last, watch them twitch out the final dregs of their pathetic, traitorous lives.

Because it wasn't hatred on Olly's face anymore. It was a pungent, grotesque fear. A terror so engulfing his blue-tinted skin burgeoned with it, his bulging eyes swam with it.

And it was right.

"Do you ever wonder how things might have happened if I took up Stannis' offer?"

Jon's question is unexpected in the silence, and Davos snaps his gaze to his king, a furrow lining his brow. "Your Grace?"

Jon sighs, gloved fingers curling over the cold rail. "If I'd accepted the Stark name he promised to grant me?"

A long silence blankets the space between them, and Jon sees the nooses swinging once more. Shadows on the wind.

Davos clears his throat. "Begging your pardon, Your Grace, but I don't think you take very well to things 'granted' to you."

Jon answers with a single raised brow, a glance out of the corner of his eye.

Davos leans his weight to one leg, chest puffing out slightly. "I only mean that you… you've rather a talent for 'taking', Your Grace."

The anger alighting Jon's tongue diffuses into a mild tartness, his throat flexing beneath his thick swallow.

Davos inclines his head toward Jon, hands held at his back. "I don't think you'd ever be happy with a name you hadn't taken for yourself," he explains, a faint smirk lighting his features. "Your Grace," he tacks on at the end – almost purposely.

Jon had taken his justice when he let those bastards swing. He'd taken his home when he shattered Ramsay's jaw beneath his fists. He'd taken his throne when the lords hailed him a hero. He'd taken his sister when he wanted her.

Perhaps there was wildling in him yet.

Jon offers a barely-there smirk to his Hand before he's turning swiftly back toward the hall behind him, his cloak billowing in his wake.

The North is his. Sansa is his. And those are the only battles he wants to fight anymore.

He knows who his enemies are. He knows where the nooses lay –

And Jon is not done taking.

He stalks from the balcony, lips pressed into a thin, hard line.

Perhaps he never came back wrong. Perhaps what was wrong was a world that demanded he come back right.

Given the chance, he'd swing the sword again – he'd let hang those bastards every time.

He'd take what was his.

(The nooses never stop swinging.)

When Tyrion Lannister exits the carriage in the middle of Riverrun's main courtyard, Sansa is all of thirteen years old again. She's floundering, alone in the enemy's den, her innocence like crushed dragonfly wings dragging at the ends of her skirts through deadened grass. She is a girl again.

And not in the way women sometimes wish to be girls again.

Arya steps up beside her suddenly, but she is wearing Baelish's face, and what should be comfort at her sister's quiet presence instead hammers at her heart like slow-brimming terror. It shudders beneath her skin like memory.

"Lady Sansa," Tyrion greets, something of fondness lining his voice, and Sansa feels sick suddenly. He looks at her kindly, as he always has, and perhaps that's where things begin to splinter.

The most favorable of her husbands, to be sure, but on his chest rests the pin that announces him as Hand of the Queen, a conqueror intent on chaining the North as fervently as Cersei once had, as all the Southron kings and queens once had. This is not a former husband she greets. This is an adversary – wearing their shared past like false comfort.

"My lord," she answers with an inclination of her head, a practiced smile at her lips.

"Please, Sansa," he urges. "I believe I asked you to call me Tyrion the last time you addressed me so."

"And I believe the last time I addressed you so, you were still my husband," she points out with a raised brow.

Tyrion clears his throat, nodding as though to himself, and then offering a perfunctory greeting to the false Baelish, a strained smile at his lips. His eyes take in the courtyard around them.

"I apologize for my brother's absence," Sansa says, grabbing his attention once more. "His Grace is in talks with my uncle, the Lord Edmure, and Lord Robin Arryn of the Vale. He extends his welcome, however, as well as his thanks for you and your queen's attendance at our peace summit."

"Yes, well, peace sounds absolutely refreshing at this point, my lady. There's been enough death these last few years."

"Speaking of which," Sansa begins, "where is your queen?"

Tyrion's lip quirks slightly at the unvoiced insult, taking note of Baelish's own amused smile following the words. "Daenerys will be here shortly."

"Arriving on dragon-back, I take it. A good show of power."

"You'll forgive her dramatics when you see what kind of queen she is, I'm sure. She'll do much good for Westoros."

Sansa can only offer an acknowledging hum, her own thoughts on the matter kept tight behind pursed lips.

Tyrion's face shifts then, brows furrowed, a keen unrest overtaking him, and Sansa imagines he's thinking of the last queen Westoros had known.

She shrugs her furs closer around her shoulders, licking her lips. "I can't say I'm sorry for your loss, my lord, if I'm being honest" she says as quietly and kindly as possible.

He shakes his head, face pinching tight. "Cersei was….she was…" Words fail him suddenly, and Sansa thinks it's the first time she's ever witnessed such a thing. He swallows whatever he had failed to say, offering a tight smile instead, pulled at the edges like a fish gutted on the hook. He simply nods.

Sansa's eyes flutter to the floor, a grim remembrance shadowing her thoughts.

Sisters can be terrible, wonderous things, after all.

Sansa clears her throat, eyes glancing back up. "Lord Baelish, I believe that is Lord Varys I see emerging from the last carriage."

"I do believe you're right, my lady."

"I'm sure he'd like a visit from an old friend. I'll escort Lord Tyrion to his chambers myself. You may leave me."

Arya nods in Baelish's skin, offering a farewell before leaving the two.

Tyrion watches her go with a wary look. "I had heard he was working for the Starks now."

"An exaggeration, my lord. Petyr Baelish works for no one but himself. You and I both know that."

Tyrion looks back at her with an appraising look. "And yet he seems to have your confidence."

"He has his uses." She lets a secret smirk cross her lips and does not bother to check it when Tyrion catches sight of it. Truth can sometimes tempt the best of them, she reminds herself. "Please, my lord, if you'll follow me." She directs him through an archway at the end of the courtyard and then they're making their way through the halls of her mother's childhood home. It does not escape her that Riverrun will soon be housing both Lannister men her mother had once held prisoner. Sansa squares her shoulders, stalking through the corridors just a touch more forcefully.

War makes strange bedfellows, in the end. And she – they – cannot afford grudges of the past bleeding into the present.

Her mother would forgive her, she knows. Because her mother would have also honored guest right if it meant protection for the North, protection for her North.

The pack survives, after all.

"Your brother and his forces are to arrive any day now," she tells him, breaking the quiet that's overtaken them since they left the courtyard.

Tyrion releases a short, almost anguished chuckle. "So many happy reunions. I daresay I should have brought more wine."

"You may yet need it."

"You know, I don't recall you being quite this sardonic when we were married, my lady."

"You hardly knew me when we were married."

Tyrion is silent at her back for many long moments, and then, "I would have liked to, if you'd let me."

Sansa stops, turning to him stiffly. He almost stumbles into her, hands curling and uncurling nervously at his sides when he looks up to her.

She keeps her gaze cool, her tone civil. "You would do well not to mistake a child's regard for romantic attachment, my lord. I am not the girl you once thought to save."

Tyrion swallows thickly, hands held up as though in surrender, head shaking. "I meant no offense, my lady. I only meant it in true friendship, please."

Sansa considers him for a moment, silent and pensive, and then she's turning back without a word. He follows instantly. They make it all the way to his temporary chambers before either of them speaks again.

It's Sansa this time, motioning to the door with a graceful hand. "Your chambers, my lord."

He nods, stepping toward it, hand on the knob, and then he stops, takes a deep breath, turns back to her.

She watches him expectantly.

"I worried for you, Sansa, when you'd disappeared after Joffrey's wedding. Truly, I had."

"I believe that," she says honestly.

His hand slips from the door handle as he turns fully to her. "I would have protected you, if you'd stayed." There's something fervent in his voice then, almost angry if she looks too closely at it.

She wonders if she will ever escape the anger of entitled men, or if perhaps that has always been the end of any lady.

"You could hardly protect yourself." She tries for indulgent, but it comes out more like disdain.

Tyrion's jaw works beneath his words. "And yet here I am."

Sansa pulls a steadying breath through her lungs, her fingers itching for the hook and pin chain anchored around her throat. "Yes, I suppose murder has its merits," she says calmly, almost admirably, if it weren't for the twitch of her lip signaling her scorn.

Tyrion's eyes widen, and he takes a step closer. "What did you say?"

It comes to her like a gentle hand brushing the hair from her neck, a tug at the laces binding her dress, a tender admonishment when she takes one too many lemon cakes. "We all do what we must to survive," she says lowly, a streak of accusation lining the declaration.

Taking a deep breath, Tyrion tries for words. "Sansa, what I've done – "

"I wasn't talking about you."

Tyrion blinks at her, brows furrowed.

(It comes to her with dark hair and dark eyes and dark humor. It comes to her like the ache of scars.)

"I was talking about Shae." She steadies the quake in her voice, chin lifting. "I couldn't care less for your despot of a father, but Shae was good to me. Shae was kind. Shae deserved better than what you gave her."

Tyrion blanches at the words, eyes widening. "How do you – "

"Bran knows what you did. He tried to tell it to me. I told him I didn't want to know – not entirely."

Tyrion just stares at her, hardly breathing, his jaw clenching beneath his brewing words.

As a girl, she hadn't understood their relationship. As a woman, she still doesn't. And perhaps that is the point.

Tyrion wipes a hand down his face, drawing a ragged breath through his lungs. "Why?"

He doesn't have to specify further. She understands all the same.

Sansa looks off to the far wall, hands gripping themselves tightly before her. She will not shake. She does not shake. "I don't want to know the details. I think I might lose all civility toward you, otherwise, and I can't afford that just now. I just… I can't. Jon needs peace. And I need – " She stops, breath catching, hands flexing in their hold. "I need peace, as well."

Tyrion closes his eyes, face pained, hands bunched into fists at his side. "Forgive me, my lady, but I – "

"I don't," she interrupts curtly, the words already lighting her tongue before she even realizes she's given them air. "I don't forgive you, my lord, not for her. In fact, I don't know how you forgive yourself most days."

His eyes snap open to hers, a heated breath flaring his nostrils. "You said your brother… 'knows'. What do you mean?"

There's a bit of the man she knew in him still, she finds.

"In time, my lord," she says. "Should your queen agree to accompany us back to Winterfell, perhaps you can ask him yourself."

She does not wait for his response. She does not entertain the conversation further. She simply turns from him, stalking back along the hall, low heels clacking in the silence. She simply leaves him.

(It comes to her like a lonely remorse – like the missing of someone you can never get back.)

She cannot ask Bran further – she cannot.

"We all do what we must to survive."

It's the hardest lesson Shae ever taught her.

"Did you kill Cersei?"

Sansa's eyes narrow at the question.

Jaime is haggard. A remnant of a man. His once brilliant blonde hair is dusted with grey and unattractively coarse, the lines on his face telling of years not worth recollection. There's a stiltedness to his stance, a ring of practiced disinterest to his words that betrays his hollowing grief.

But Sansa has learned to read faces like Arya has learned the wearing of them.

The words draw from her lips before she can collar them. "No, I did not."

Jaime clenches his jaw, his one good hand settled along the sword at his waist – a sword that draws her attention like a gale across still plains.

Widow's Wail.

Sansa frowns. Such a foul name. It has no place in the North – in her father's court. Not even when it hails from Ice.

(Such a sword would never stand across from Ned Stark's daughter, or the North knows no justice.)

Jaime nods – slowly, patronizingly, lips smacking with something of disdain. "My sister always warned me not to treat with wolves."

"Yes, well, your sister's dead now, isn't she? So it matters little, I suppose." Sansa offers him little more than a blue-frost gaze, hands held at her back, head tilted slightly as she gauges the Kingslayer.

Jaime's mouth dips into a harsh frown and he takes a step toward her.

Brienne pulls Oathkeeper half out its sheath in a motion of warning, an urge of temperance at her lady's side.

Jaime flicks unsteady eyes at Brienne, and Sansa does not need to look back at her sworn shield to know the hurt that pulls at her features. There is another conversation happening in this room – one she may never be privy to.

There is another war being fought.

Sansa closes her eyes, breathing deep.

She hasn't the heart for this. She hasn't the heart for any of this.

"I didn't kill your sister, but I would have," she says on a voice far steadier than she expects, eyes flickering open to catch his.

Jaime glances to her with furrowed brows, all tense muscles and hardened angles. All sharp grief. He simply looks at her. She almost looks away.

(Almost, but not quite.)

"Given the chance, I would have," she tells him, more sure this time, voice hardly trembling, hands hardly curling and uncurling at her back, chest hardly heaving.

Something startlingly like a chuckle issues from his lips, and then he's wiping his good hand over his mouth, shaking his head, and he looks like he's about to cry, or break something – break her, maybe.

Brienne keeps Oathkeeper hovering half-unsheathed in the air.

And then his chuckle catches in his throat, a sharp bark of laughter bubbling up, and he's turning round, taking in the hall, slowly circling back toward Sansa, his laughter spent and hollow and tear-laced now. Jaime sniffs, brushing a hand under his nose. When he looks back up at Sansa, there's nothing of fury in his face. "No, you wouldn't have," he tells her surely.

Sansa's mouth parts, her denial ready and scathing on her tongue.

Did he know what Cersei had done to her? Did he know how she kept all she held precious at a knife's edge? Did he know how small and lonesome and wrong she had made her feel? Did he know how she imagined winding her own bare hands around her golden neck and wringing her breathless?

Did he know?

Did he know how she had ruined her?

(How she had made her?)

Sansa stares at Jaime, spine tingling, nails digging half-moons into her bundled palms at her back. She doesn't trust her voice just yet.

Jaime nods, seemingly to himself, eyes drifting to the floor between them in the sparse room. "No, you wouldn't have, little dove." There is no doubt in his voice.

Sansa recoils at the moniker, her voice lodged in her throat. She stumbles back a step, finding Brienne's sure hand at her back, staying her.

She wants to spit at his feet. Wants to kick his teeth in. Wants to grab him by the collar and shake him and shake him and shake him until he could see.

Until he could see.

She would have killed her. She would have.

Sansa feels the tears rising without her bidding.

She would have, she tells herself.

She would have.

Her hands itch for his throat, for his face, for his eyes.

(She only needs him to see.)

Because she would have – she would have – she would have –

(She wouldn't have.)

Sansa requests an audience with Olenna Tyrell the moment her forces arrive in Riverrun, and the two find themselves in Brynden's solar that very evening, with the setting sun casting orange slants of light through the open windows beside them.

Sansa folds her hands demurely before her, offering a soft smile in greeting. Behind her on one side is the Blackfish, her sworn shield and Tully ally. On the other side is Baelish, or at least, the face of him. Olenna grants the false Baelish a single, appraising glance, but it isn't enough to garner mention. Instead, she offers her greetings, settling into the chair opposite Sansa with two Tyrell guards at her back. Sansa barely notes their presence.

"I had feared the worst for you when I heard of your marriage to the Bolton bastard. I'm glad to see he's gotten his due." Olenna fixes her skirts around her, leaning back with a comfort that irks Sansa, though she finds it difficult to place why.

"Are you?" she asks, a single brow raised.

"Of course, my dear girl."

"I am not your 'dear girl'," she answers back, face blank. "I am a lady of my house and you will address me as such, my lady."

Olenna thrums her fingers along her armrest, an interested smirk playing at her lips. "Very well, my lady. Let us not dither about then, hmm? Why have you summoned me thus?"

"I have not 'summoned' – "

"For one who demands transparency, you're awfully keen to deflect it, Lady Sansa."

Sansa purses her lips. She likes Olenna Tyrell, she finds. She always has, if she thinks too long about it. But liking her has done nothing for her. 'Liking her' has not changed the fact that she indirectly shouldered Sansa with the blame of Joffrey's death, pinning her with Cersei's ire, as though she hadn't enough torment from that woman.

No, this could not stand. But Sansa is not foolish enough to throw away a card worth playing simply because of honor.

She's seen what that does to those she holds dear.

"I've called you here to negotiate your allegiance," she says at length.

Olenna rests her elbows along her armrests, folding her hands before her in a casual, disinterested manner Sansa has never been able to master. She cocks her head with that familiar, nonchalant smirk. "My allegiance, hmm?"

Sansa nods.

"And where do you propose it should be?"

"With the North."

Olenna fairly nearly snorts, if a snort could sound lady-like. "It is a fool's errand, this war of yours. Old tales of even older threats. Dust on the wind. A falsity."
"Then why are you even here?"

Olenna considers her a moment, a wrinkled finger drawn over her lips in contemplation. "Our people are tired of war." She is suddenly older and frailer than Sansa remembers, an intangible exhaustion writ across her face.

Something softens in Sansa. A memory, maybe. A fondness and recollection so far gone she'd thought it lost. The taste of lemon cakes. Olenna's weathered hand in hers when she tugged her toward the garden – speak freely, child – and the tender caress she gave her cheek at Joffrey's wedding.

The caress that stole the vial of poison from her necklace – the ruse in her touch.

Sansa's face hardens at the remembrance. Wolves aren't the only ones who protect their own. This she knows. And she loved Margaery, more than she will ever be able to say aloud (because such affections outside of family have never ended well), and some part of her – the part that had watched her father's head tumble down into the mud, and the part that had borne bruises like penance for a brother who never came, and the part that remembers Baelish's kiss like a wounded animal remembers the lance – that part of her will always hold tight to her heart the memory of Joffrey choking on his own terror, face purple, eyes bulging, mouth gaping like a slaughtered boar.

And even still –

She had run into the hands of yet another terror. Another manipulator. Cersei, at least, had the decency not to hide her intentions.

No, Sansa reminds herself. Olenna had done her no favors.

"The people are tired, and so am I," Olenna sighs.

Sansa watches her, mouth pursed tight.

Olenna huffs, straightening in her seat. "I've lost my granddaughter. My son and my grandson. House Tyrell ends with me. But the Reach shall not – if I have anything to say about it. And I have much to say, as you well know."

Sansa can't help the slight smile that pulls at her lips, the chuckle that begs her tongue for release. She shifts in her seat, hands unfolding to grasp at her armrests. "I hoped as much."

A raised brow is her only response.

Sansa cocks her head. "If you truly desire peace for your kingdom, then your best interest rests in backing the North."

Olenna offers a rueful laugh. "I fail to see why."

"You killed Joffrey."

A silence pervades the room. But it lasts only a moment. Olenna smooths over her skirts, deliberately not looking at Baelish (but Sansa doesn't need such a cue, not when he already spilled his secrets like the blood he left on the snow floor of the godswood). "History," she states, calm and unmovable. "I don't see how that – "

"I'm sure Jaime and Tyrion Lannister would love to know the truth of his death."

Olenna only stares at her, bemused smirk securely planted across her face, eyes unblinking.

Sansa takes a deep breath, releases it just as slowly. "Jaime Lannister may not be the man he was, perhaps not even the man he pretends to be, but he is surely a Lannister, and Lannisters always pay their debts, didn't you know, Lady Olenna?"

At her silence, Sansa continues. "And Tyrion. I'm sure he'd like to know who's at fault for his trial, for the crime that nearly took his head and then took everything else from him."

"You think I care what those dolts think of me?"

"No," Sansa says, "But Tyrion is Hand of the Targaryen queen now, and even if she didn't care about her Hand's grievances, she surely couldn't be seen denying him retribution when the truth comes out. And the Lannisters are practically at your door, I hear. I highly doubt Jaime would call off his men at such news."

Olenna leans back in her seat, appraising Sansa with a quiet, tense deliberation. Her arms move back to the armrests of her chair, insultingly plush beneath her tapping nails. And then she huffs a laugh, short and deliberate. "I fashioned you a bird, Lady Sansa, a little caged bird," she laughs, biting it off with a resigned sigh. "But you were a wolf all along."

"You had to have known I wouldn't let such trespass lie."

Olenna shrugs as though it's another conversation over lemon cakes and cheese, as though King's Landing's gardens are once again at their backs, as though Margaery is lingering just at her peripheral, popping a bite of sweet into her mouth with a look of mischief.

Sansa's chest aches suddenly, and oh, how she misses Margaery. How she always will.

"Truthfully, I hadn't expected you to live long enough for this conversation," Olenna throws out casually.

Brynden doesn't disguise his grunt of disapproval at her back, but Sansa looks at him with a glance of forbearance, her hand raised in a motion of calm.

Olenna smiles at the display despite herself. "You've found yourself quite the circle of swords." She glances to Baelish, a steely glint to her eye now. "Some more sharp than others." There's something accusatory in her glare with the words, but Arya does not betray anything, keeping the perpetual smugness to Baelish's face, hands held securely behind her. "Be careful they do not find your back a more tempting target," Olenna warns.

Sansa doesn't let the smile linger long. "I shall keep that in mind, my lady. And you?"

Olenna offers her a dull gaze. "And me?" she prompts.

"Your allegiance – "

"Yes, yes, Highgarden shall fight with the North," she waves away, already impatient to end the conversation.

Lemon cakes and warm afternoons and a frail touch to her wrist.

Sansa swallows tightly. "I'm sorry," she says, before thinking better of it – not even knowing what it is she's sorry for. Perhaps everything. Perhaps nothing at all. Perhaps for thinking that 'sorry' could ever be enough.

Olenna eyes her quietly, shifting in her seat. She shakes her head, hands drawing back together. "You aren't."

Sansa almost refutes it, mouth open, but no words come.

"And you shouldn't be," the other woman finishes, head cocked in something Sansa might have called fondness if she had known her better. Olenna flexes her fingers, mouth curving into a smile she hasn't used in many years. "Were you my granddaughter, I'd have been proud of you."

Something swells in Sansa – unnamable and out of grasp. Margaery always had kind eyes, even when they were narrowed in calculation, even when they were fixed to the crown, even when they shed no tears.

She was always kind to her.

It's the sort of kindness Sansa has always made excuses for – the sort of kindness that never looked for its own gain.

Because what could the Rose of Highgarden have ever gained from a winter thorn?

"Cersei is dead." It's the only comfort Sansa can offer now, scant as it is. Her mouth goes dry with the words.

Olenna nods, looking out the window at their side, the faint lip of the sun barely discernable over the river's gleaming horizon. "And so is Margaery. So are the rest of House Tyrell. You can keep your paltry consolation, Lady Sansa, I'm much too old to care for it now."

They share a hard silence. Nothing moves. Nothing sounds.

Sansa thinks she knows the weight of such grief. She sees it in the direwolves she stitches along her handkerchiefs, and the dutiful, singularly focused way Arya sharpens Needle, and the dust-lined, unopened threshold of Robb's rooms.

Olenna blinks back at Sansa, a heavy breath pulled through her lungs, and her hand raises slightly, before lowering back to her armrest, as though she intended to pat Sansa's hand, as though she meant some meager comfort in the midst of all this ugliness.

Sansa watches the motion with steel-cut eyes, never betraying her sorrow. "Let them rest," Sansa whispers in what she hopes sounds like solace, soft and genuine.

Olenna tilts her head, lips pinched tight. A look of pitying disdain crosses her features. "Can you, my lady?"

"I must," she answers almost instantly, and she doesn't think she's ever said something so true, so needful.

Nodding silently, Olenna grips her hands before her, looking back out the window, watching the dying glint of sunlight cast its shadow across the still rivers.

The sun sets completely before either of them finds the will to part.

Daenerys Targaryen is the last to arrive at Riverrun, her army of Unsullied shadowing the plains like a plague, her dragon's beating wings blacking out the sun that crests the hills when she lands. Dawn has never seemed so dark before.

She's beautiful, Jon discovers. As beautiful as the rumors say, or maybe even more so. But it's the sort of beauty that feels vaguely untouchable – like the high branches of an old oak, the leaves glinting light off the winter sun in an iridescence that momentarily blinds. And there's a mournfulness to such unreachable beauty – for leaves come untethered from their branches all the same, after all, and winter will see them snow-laden and trodden beneath boots soon enough. There is nothing enviable about beauty when it's the lonely, distant sort.

"May I present Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen," Tyrion begins with a respectful gesture to the dragon queen now before them.

Another woman at Daenerys' side opens her mouth, as though to introduce her further, no doubt with the many titles Jon has grown weary of reading in their shared missives, but Euron Greyjoy interrupts her then, striding forward with a smug look and a hand hefting his belt up higher. "Your queen," he says with dramatic admonishment, before turning to Daenerys beside him with an exaggerated look of awe. "As she is mine."

Daenerys suffers him a tolerant smile and a quick nod, before her attention returns to Jon. "You must be Jon Snow." Her voice is clipped, her smile stiff.

"You've been misinformed, Your Grace," Sansa says beside him, before he can voice his own response.

Jon shoots a glance at her, his brows furrowing.

"This is King Jon of House Stark," she corrects, her eyes shifting to Euron for only the briefest of moments, a glance so cursory it could hardly be called acknowledgement. "As he always will be."

Tyrion gives Sansa a desperate look that she dutifully ignores. Behind her, Brynden muffles his chuckle with a forced cough, a fist shadowing his smirk. Daenerys flashes violet eyes at her, her smile so rigid, Jon wonders at how her face doesn't crack beneath the force of it.

"Lady Sansa, I presume," she says, ignoring the correction of her address. "I've heard much." She glances to her Hand, and Tyrion clears his throat in response.

"Yes, well – " he begins, before being cut off.

"To the best of my knowledge, the Riverlands do not answer to any king," Daenerys says, eyes flicking back toward Jon. "Unless I've been misinformed of that as well," she adds dryly, a challenge in her tone.

Jon sighs, jaw working. "No, they do not."

She lifts a single brow, lips drawn in a self-assured smile.

Something tugs at the space between his ribs – coarse and impertinent. "The North believes in independent autonomy. We recognize our allies as fellow sovereigns, not subjects."

Daenerys offers him a calculative gaze. "Yes, I suppose you would." She purses her lips in thought.

Stepping from behind her, a war-worn man inexplicably reminiscent of the North moves forward. "Khaleesi," he says, voice warm in its urging, "We've traveled far. You should rest before the summit." He glances up to lock gazes with Jon. "I'm sure our hosts are eager to have us settled. We all need clear minds to garner peace."

Daenerys inclines her head to her advisor, the harshness bleeding from her features, a flicker of quiet acquiescence passing through her eyes. "Of course, Ser Jorah. That is why we're here, after all."

A silence suffused with apprehension blankets the courtyard, until Daenerys plasters another stiff smile upon her regal face, hands coming to wind together before her expectantly.

Out of the corner of his eye, Jon can see the way Brynden nudges Edmure with an impatient elbow. Edmure steps haltingly forward, hands held stiffly at the edges of his jerkin, as though he doesn't know where to place them. "Your Grace," he greets, clearing his throat. He stills momentarily when her violet gaze shifts toward his. He licks his lips, standing straighter when he tells her, "Riverrun is the ancestral home of the Tullys, and as their ruling lord, I humbly offer you a welcomed stay. Your chambers have already been prepared."

"How gracious of you," Daenerys answers with perfect poise, an inclination of her head just low enough to be proper but never low enough to be servile. Her eyes flicker briefly to the Starks once more, before she follows Edmure Tully into the main hall off the courtyard, disappearing into shadow.

Jon looks to Sansa beside him. She looks resolutely back at him.

She is the beauty of roots, he realizes. And he knows now how to recognize the fleeting and the lasting.

(Winter never takes the roots.)

Come the next morning, the summit has officially commenced. By the time introductions are made and seats are taken and all of Westeros' lordships and sovereigns are gathered in the great hall, the sun is high in the sky and Jon's patience has waned into a taut edginess. He takes a long, slow look about the hall. It is a room full of enemies. It is a room full of allies.

Daenerys sits regally, glaring across the room at Jaime Lannister, who flicks imaginary lint from his tunic in his best show of nonchalance. Lady Olenna scrutinizes the dragon queen behind a veil of disinterest. Euron eyes the hall predatorily, fingers thrumming along his armrest when he catches sight of Theon at Sansa's side, a knowing smirk lining the edges of his cruel mouth. The Blackfish muffles his rumble of displeasure at the leer the Greyjoy sends his niece and Edmure Tully tugs on the ends of his jerkin, adjusting the fit as he straightens in his seat. Robin Arryn looks positively bored next to a stout and attentive Lord Royce, with False-Baelish filling the seat between him and Sansa, and the lesser lords of the Stormlands and the other kingdoms, as well as his own Northern bannermen, Mormont and Glover included, pepper the remaining seats about the hall.

Tyrion clears his throat beside his queen, and it begins.

'A room full of enemies' seems the more apt choice, Jon finds. He sighs, fingers pinching the bridge of his nose.

"You'll be fighting their battles forever."

Amidst the rising voices and the flaring tempers and the perfectly veiled threats, Jon begins to understand something he hadn't before.

He glances to the dragon queen – all fire-lit ire and impossible demands and a curl to her lip like tempered madness – the beauty of impermanence marring her features.

(He sees the bodies swaying in the wind, the dark crimson of his blood still caked beneath his betrayers' fingernails.)

Jon understands now that some nooses will always be self-made.

{She likes to think it's remorse that has him turning his head, but the reality is closer to indifference when he answers her, "Yes

Sansa stands swiftly, hands wringing together (if only not to wring him), her breath coming in short, shallow draws. "This isn't – Bran, you can't…you can't do this – you can't just –"

"It's already done, sister."

She stops then, something aching in her at the endearment. But it's not enough. It's not enough to beg her forgiveness. Her vision nearly goes white with the rage. "I should have stopped this."

"There was never any stopping it."

Her mouth parts, her feet taking a step toward him without her knowledge. "Bran – " She will never admit to begging, nor to the violent current thrumming through her palms, itching for his pale throat.

"Fire sows no seeds," he tells her.}

Chapter Text

Disclaimer: I own nothing, I make no money.

A Violence Done Most Kindly

Chapter Five: Herald of War

"It's a promise, Sansa realizes. If we fall, you fall. Because she figures, one way or another, dead or alive, the North will come for those who abandoned them to winter." - Jon and Sansa. Stark is a house of many winters.

* * *

"I was under the impression this was a summit for peace," Tyrion says.

"It is," Jon sighs.

"And yet you're asking us to go to war."

"A war against the dead is not the same as one against the living." Jon frowns with his explanation, harsh and deep.

Sansa can see the frustration in the lines around his mouth.

"You're asking for quite a lot on faith," Jaime points out, lounging quite comfortably in his chair.

"And do you think I'd be here, inviting some of my house's oldest enemies into my very home, welcoming their armies North, if I weren't speaking the truth about this?" Jon barks. His nostrils flare with his vexation. He spares a dark look Theon's way. "Soon you shall all see the evidence of our claims."

Somewhere in the crowd of lords, a scoff is heard, an accompanying snort, a rush of heated murmurs.

"Let's say what you claim is true," Tyrion starts, pacing away from his place beside Daenerys and toward the center of the room, glancing around the other gathered lords. "Have you even a plan to kill them? Do you even know how?"

Jon's eyes flick to the dragon queen, and Sansa's gut clenches when he tells them, "We know that fire kills them."

Daenerys adopts a smug expression, leaning back in her chair as she eyes Jon. "You need my dragons."

He clenches his jaw, nodding just the once. "Aye."

"You already know my demands," she answers easily, eyes shifting toward Jaime.

A cruel smile curls along Euron's face while he sits beside Daenerys. "Looks like you'll be bending the knee, after all."

Jon ignores Euron with great effort, his hands bunching into fists at his side, and then slowly unfurling.

Tyrion looks to Daenerys, something calculated in his gaze that Sansa can't quite identify. She straightens in her seat, voice echoing throughout the room. "Westeros will need more than just dragons to survive the Night King and his army."

Daenerys cocks her head at Sansa, an amused smile playing at her lips. "'Just' dragons, you say?" she asks in a tone that sounds nearly insulted.

Sansa swallows tightly, words measured as she looks at the dragon queen. "Your might is not to be disregarded, Your Grace, but this endeavor will take from all of us." She takes a breath, waits for Daenerys' rebuke, but continues steadily when there is none – none but a look of mild intrigue. She looks about the room. "We will need food from the Reach. And we'll need the numbers of the Lannister forces. We'll need the forces of the Riverlands to secure safe passage of Northern refugees through the Neck and past the Twins." Sansa shares a glance with Edmure Tully, who nods in answer, jaw set. She allows a grateful smile to touch her lips, before she turns her steel-cut gaze back to the other lords. "We'll need the Knights of the Vale," she goes on, looking to Lord Royce, and then tentatively to Robin Arryn, an inclination of her head both affectionate and demanding, "The greatest mounted cavalry in the known kingdoms," she says with a flattering flourish that has Robin beaming with pride.

"We'll need dragonglass for weapons," Davos says. "And we'll need every blacksmith you can spare working day and night to forge them."

Jon nods beside Sansa, a dark look to his face. He stands then, taking in the room. "And we'll need more than that. Carpenters and masons to help build the defenses around Winterfell. Healers and cooks and seamstresses, before, during, and especially after the battle, which means they'll need to stay in Winterfell while we send the other refugees south. And we'll need all our armies marching North if we expect to have any hope at defeating the dead."

"What do they look like?"

Jon turns at Robin's question, confusion drawing over his face. "My lord?"

Robin shifts excitedly in his seat, an inappropriate glee pulling at his features that sets Jon's jaw to clenching. "What do they look like, these wights you speak of?" he asks again.

Silence reigns in the room.

Sansa shifts in her seat toward him. "Dear cousin," she begins gently, "I don't think – "

Jaime's scoff interrupts her, his scornful chuckle swallowed up by the fist at his mouth.

Sansa sends him a glare.

Sighing, Jaime's hand lowers from his mouth, a sardonic glint to his eye. "Not like anything you've ever seen before, I'm sure, boy." His eyes flick to Jon's. "If they even exist."

Robin's face pinches at the insulting address but before he can wail his offense, Lord Royce stands from his seat, chest puffing out. "You will speak to my lord with the proper respect his station demands, Ser Jaime, or this summit will be at an end soon enough," he nearly bellows.

Jaime only leans back with an amused smirk, Tyrion sending him a desperate look that seems a plea for silence.

"They look like the dead," Jon sighs in aggravation, his temper flaring at the need for such an explanation, "In all the gruesome ways death can take a man."

Sansa can see how the frustration builds beneath his skin, rippling the cords of muscle at his neck when he swallows. "Now, can we continue?" he asks gruffly.

Robin scowls at the answer, disinterested immediately. "I only wished to know what they looked like," he mutters.

Sansa sends an urging look Arya's way, and with a twitch of Baelish's lips in her flesh mask, she leans over with a false face of appeasement to the young Lord of the Vale, a pat of her hand to his bunched fist. "And you will, my lord, when you ride North and take the field alongside His Grace. You'll look the dead in the eye, and – with the Knights of the Vale at your back, heralding your name – you'll vanquish them from our lands forever." A gratifying smile plants itself along Baelish's face, and Robin grins in response.

"Yes," he agrees, straightening in his seat. "Yes, I shall."

Lord Royce grumbles something under his breath when he takes his seat, eyes shifted toward Baelish in a mix of reluctant gratitude and poorly disguised mistrust.

"And why should I follow you North like a gullible child, Jon Snow?" Daenerys asks coolly, eyes nearly rolling (if such a motion could be queenly) at Royce's outrage with the pointed barb.

"My queen," Tyrion tries, stepping toward her and then instantly stopping at the subtle motion of her hand to stay him.

Behind Daenerys, and behind Jorah Mormont and the newly met advisor, Missandei, and the commander of the queen's armies, Grey Worm, somewhere in the slants of shadows, Sansa catches the flicker of tense deliberation along Varys's face at his queen's words. His hands stay linked through heavy, concealing sleeves, his lips pressed into a perpetual purse, eyes watching the hall pensively. She shifts her gaze away from him before he can meet hers across the hall.

She remembers all too well that he's seen the work of the Targaryens firsthand – some being her own blood.

Sansa pulls a steadying breath in, focus back on the quickly spiraling summit.

"Why should I commit my forces North on the word of a bastard king when the people are crying for their rightful ruler to save them right here in the South?" Daenerys asks coolly.

Sansa's eyes flutter shut, bracing for the inevitable.

Lord Glover pushes from his seat so violently that it scrapes against the stone and topples back with a loud clang. "I would follow any son of Ned Stark to the depths of all seven hells before I swear to some murdering Targaryen whore!" he bellows.

The room erupts into madness.

Grey Worm steps forward, a cold wrath lighting his features, and the line of Unsullied along the wall at Daenerys' back uniformly brace their spears to their shields in a motion of readiness, the heavy metallic clash setting the rest of the hall rising into an uproar.

Jaime barks a laugh. "Yes, the people are just clamoring for you, Your Grace," he throws out at Daenerys with raised brows.

"Ser Jaime," Brienne hollers from her place behind Sansa, "This is hardly the time."

Several of the lesser lords push from their seats, Lady Mormont shouting for them to sit down and stop squalling like children. Jon braces a hand back at Lord Glover, keeping him from stepping further into the circle. Davos and Tyrion call for order and are subsequently ignored. Northern and Riverland guards edge around the hall toward the swarm of incensed lords.

Jaime lets out another ragged laugh, arms stretching wide to encompass the chaos. "This seems exactly the time, Lady Brienne!"

Daenerys shoots a deadly glare at Jaime, Ser Jorah at her elbow instantly. "I should take your head right here, Kingslayer."

"Please, Your Grace," Edmure urges above the shouts from the arguing lords. "This is a summit for peace."

Daenerys stands swiftly. "Then you all should have remembered that before calling the dragon to your table."

Brynden swears at Sansa's back. "Oh for the love of – "

Lord Royce advances on a particularly vocal lord from the Stormlands when he throws a casual insult at the young Lord Arryn. False-Baelish slips back from the mob, staying at the edge of the ring of seats, Sansa always in sight.

Euron stands from his seat, a sneer along his lips. "I think a little respect would do these Northern bastards some good."

"Uncle," Theon says, firm and reproachful. He stands from his seat, but Sansa's hand on his arm stays him. He looks down at her with hesitance.

"Ah," Euron laughs, a predatory glint to his eye, "This the Northern cunt that bewitched you?"

Brynden's hand is on his sword instantly, Brienne moving similarly beside him. "Call my niece that again, you pissant, and I'll hang your entrails from your own ships' bow."

"You can always trust a Lannister to –"

" – damn Northern pride will be the death of –"

" – bloody Ironborn – "

"And where have you cowards been all this – "

" – her and her foreign band of rapists and murderers – "

"Enough!" Jon bellows, his voice echoing off the stone walls, a deep, resonant growl following the words. "That is enough!" There's something wild to his form then, a murderous glint to his eye that settles anyone who catches sight of it into an instant stillness. He whirls on the room, teeth bared.

At Daenerys' raised hand, Grey Worm orders his men down, Missandei calling out similar orders to the Dothraki bloodriders alongside the Unsullied. Lord Glover rights his chair, dropping back down to it with a huff. Lady Mormont glares the other Northern lords into silence. The lords of the Stormlands slowly retreat to their corner, Robin tugging on Lord Royce's sleeve to get him to sit back down. Jaime sits just a bit straighter, his smile falling. Daenerys remains standing, chest heaving. Beside her, Euron gives one last leer to Sansa and Theon before he slumps back into his seat, Brynden and Brienne finally unhanding their swords. Slowly, the hall comes back around to silence, tense and perturbed though it is now.

Jon heaves a labored sigh, rubbing at his chin, eyes flashing dark with his fury. "How can you all sit here and squabble over such pettiness when the dead are practically at our door? How can you call yourselves lords when you would trade your people's lives for a crown – a crown that will mean absolutely nothing when the dead wash through your lands?" he bites out, gaze landing on Daenerys. "Because make no mistake, if we fall, you fall. That isn't a threat. That's fact." he growls out, glancing at each of them in turn.

It's a promise, Sansa realizes.

If we fall, you fall.

Because she figures, one way or another, dead or alive, the North will come for those who abandoned them to winter.

"This is all very riveting, to be sure, but if you're all done beating your chests, I have a question for the King in the North." Lady Olenna interrupts for the first time that afternoon, elbows resting on her armrests, hands wound together in a familiar nonchalance, as she stares insistently at Jon in the center of the room.

All eyes turn to her in the tense quiet.

She clears her throat, settling more comfortably in her chair. "This summit isn't about trying to persuade us that peace is our best option, because we wouldn't be here in the first place if we believed otherwise. So you can save your thrilling little speeches, Your Grace. Anyone unwilling to fight for the kingdoms has no claim to them."

Mutterings begin among the lords once more, Daenerys slowly returning to her seat, hands curled like talons along her armrests, eyes landing on the Tyrell matriarch like flint to steel.

Jon nods stiffly to her, jaw clenched tight. "And your question, my lady?"

Olenna huffs impatiently, shifting to tap the nail of her forefinger along her armrest. "When your war is won, and the dead are defeated, will the King in the North acknowledge the independence of the other kingdoms, or is this alliance simply a ploy to seize power?"

The mutterings throughout the hall stop entirely, a taut silence blanketing the room.

Jon turns fully to Lady Olenna.

Sansa remembers suddenly, the way he looked that last night before the Battle of the Bastards – the heat in his eyes, the desperation lining his mouth (that mouth), the dangerous arch of his shoulders and unmistakable incline of his body, the way he shouted at her, pressed her, the way he instantly folded beneath her admission –

If Ramsay wins, I'm not going back there alive. Do you understand me?

The way he'd wound his hands through her hair and stumbled her back, a growl at his lips, bracing her back against the beam of his tent, his breath panted against her mouth, her hands winding around his wrists, the ragged exhale that left him when he told her, when he demanded of her –

"Shut your mouth." Like a wounded, cornered beast.

She'd blinked at him wildly, indignation splashing across her face, breath hitched in her throat as he bore his whole weight into her suddenly, forehead braced to hers, fingers flexing in her hair.

Her throat was parched, her chest heaving.

"Shut that mouth of yours, Sansa, because I can't – I can't – " And then he'd licked his lips, chocking back a sob, his mouth already so close to hers that she thinks she might have tasted his breath in that moment, shared the heat of him, felt the tremble of his mouth against her own just a moment before he kissed her, desperate and ragged and insistent.

Like trying to eat his own terror.

She'd known in that moment, and every moment after, that she'd never follow through on the promise – not so long as he lived.

His hand was hitching up her skirts, his groan filling her mouth, his own reckless promises painting her flesh, well before she'd finally recognized his demand as the plea it truly was.

Stay with me, his body had begged.

Yes, her own had granted.

Sansa looks to Jon now, eyes easily catching the sharp line of his shoulders, and the clench of his jaw, and the evenness of his gaze on Lady Olenna.

It must be so exhausting, she thinks, to live always on the precipice of death – to share an intimacy with it so violent that even to refuse it feels like a betrayal of the self.

I'm not going back there alive. She should have known not to say such words to him, after all.

But perhaps that was the start of it, the catalyst to this dangerous dance between them. He's become so vibrant in her hands, so thrumming of life, so very not dead.

She knows now, what it means to linger –

Stay with me –

She knows.

"I never sought this crown. And I've no intention to seek another," Jon tells Olenna, low and resolute, his shoulders sagging with the weight of it.

Never sought, no, but he's grown covetous of it all the same, Sansa thinks. And even still, Jon has made it clear where his interests lie.

With the North, and with her.

Nothing else can sway him.

It's the sort of truth that should trouble her, but she can't find it in herself to be anything but covetous in return.

"Well then," Lady Olenna says, fingers linking together, a barely discernible smile crinkling the edges of her mouth. "You might be the only one in this room who can claim as such." She chuckles, leaning back in her chair. "I like you. Even if you are rather cross and sullen."

Jon blinks at her, mouth parting, but no words follow.

Sansa ducks her head to hide her unexpected smile.

"Highgarden agrees to the alliance," she promises, eyes flitting to Sansa for the briefest of moments, "Granted this 'evidence' of yours makes itself known."

Sansa's smile steals from her mouth instantly, eyes narrowing at Olenna.

The older matriarch only shrugs, a hidden smile playing at her lips.

"You'd follow this whelp?" Euron scoffs, leaning with one hand braced to his knee. "Just because he can spin some pretty words?"

Lord Glover almost upends his seat again, but Sansa's instant narrowing of her eyes in his direction, chin lifted in a motion to heel, has him grumbling his acquiescence, settling back along his chair.

Olenna grants Euron an unimpressed look, an amused huff leaving her lips. "I owe you no justification, Lord – what was it?" She pauses, considering. "Are you even a lord?" And then she waves her hand dismissively. "Never mind, you've clearly already answered that. I suppose even a dog may be allowed to beg for scraps at its master's table."

Euron stands instantly, face screwed up in an ugly disdain.

The room tenses. Jon takes an even step forward. Olenna smirks triumphantly. Edmure frets uncomfortably. Daenerys opens her mouth. Sansa speaks.

"Perhaps we should leave it at that today, my lords, my ladies." Sansa rises smoothly, hands clasped before her. "I'm sure we each have much to discuss with our respective advisors. I look forward to renewed talks tomorrow."

Jon glances to her, brows furrowed, his impatience warring with his exhaustion, before he nods imperceptibly.

"I agree," Tyrion interjects, turning to his queen. "We have much to think on." His gaze is imploring, his mouth set into a thin line.

Daenerys takes a deep breath, a dissatisfied expression gracing her features as she meets her Hand's gaze. Ser Jorah at her elbow is soft but firm when he addresses her. "Khaleesi."

She looks to him out of the corner of her eye, softening somewhat.

The unexpected shift has Sansa blinking dumbly at them. Words pass between the two, quiet and short, and then the dragon queen is rising swiftly from her chair, barely giving even the courtesy of a nod in farewell before she's stalking from the room, her advisors in tow.

Jon closes his eyes and releases a breath, frown deepening.

In moments, the hall is all but cleared, and Sansa stays watching the silhouette of Jon in the afternoon sun breaking through the windows. Her lips purse tight, her words stalling in her throat.

His shadow stretches long, she finds. Its edge peters out just before the toe of her boots.

Jon finds his way to Sansa's rooms that night, greeting Brienne at the door with a weary face and a sigh of exhaustion. "Will you announce me, my lady?"

"Of course, Your Grace." Brienne tips her head in a motion of respect. "Ah," she says, straightening, voice dipping to a whisper, "My lady is in conference with your sister at the moment." Her eyes shift down the hall momentarily, watchful.

Jon nods, voice low. "I expected as much. Announce me, Lady Brienne."

Brienne raps on the door, short and expedient. "His Grace to see you, my lady," she calls through the door.

"Come in," sounds through the wood in Sansa's familiar lilt.

Brienne opens the door for him and Jon stills immediately upon stepping through.

Seated across from Sansa in a similar armchair by the fire, leaning closely toward her, is Baelish. For a moment, Jon's vision goes white, a sharp breath sucked through his lungs, rage rising in his throat, until he remembers.

(His slumped form along the snow beneath the wierwood, the wash of blood over his chin, the curl of his frozen, grasping fingers stiffened into claws.)

Baelish is dead.

The familiar face turns to him.

Arya, he has to remind himself, the breath raking from him slow and measured.

She cocks a brow in Baelish's face that has Jon's expression souring instantly, the unease branching through his chest.

"Jon," Sansa greets, grabbing his attention.

He looks to her, shaking his head, shutting the door behind him. "Sorry, I – I just – "

The eerie copy of Littlefinger stands with a sigh and a decidedly un-Baelish-like roll of the eyes. "Please, Jon, you can't have this reaction every time you see me like this." She plants her hands on her hips and Jon scrunches his nose up at the sight.

Arya sighs dramatically, hands thrown up in the air as she stalks toward him and the door. "Gods, what I would give to be back home and out of this skin."

The words sober Jon instantly.

Arya stops just before him, catching the look on his face. He doesn't know if he's any good at hiding it, but then, hiding never did him any good when it came to Arya.

It's hardly the first skin she's worn, he realizes. hardly the first life she's taken. His little sister. His Arya.

Something constricts inside his chest dangerously like regret.

Arya seems to see something in his face, because her expression schools back into a keen observation so naturally reminiscent of Baelish's own attentive eyes that Jon has a difficult time separating the two. It only makes his chest clench tighter.

A stilted silence passes between them, until Sansa is clearing her throat, standing from her seat with a soft grace that flutters her skirts about her legs. "Keep clear of Lord Varys," she warns Arya. "We cannot know if your act will fool him well enough."

Arya turns back to Sansa with a single piqued brow.

Sansa huffs. "You'll be careful?" she presses.

Lifting her chin, smoothing her hands down the silk front of her robe, Arya nods her acknowledgement, the incredulous expression leaving Littlefinger's face at the note of concern lining Sansa's voice. "As careful as a mockingbird."

It's not the kind of comfort Jon thinks Sansa is looking for, if he's going by the worried expression on her face, but it's the only kind of comfort he imagines Arya capable of. It's just another piece of truth to mourn.

Arya turns back to Jon, watching him for a quiet, tense moment.

The steady stare of Baelish this close is unnerving, to be sure, but perhaps even more unnerving is the subtle recognition of Arya's own stare through a dead man's eyes.

She looks to Sansa for a moment, and then turns back to Jon, frown deepening, brows furrowing. "Do not disgrace her in our mother's house," she tells him quietly but firmly, a slip of her own voice threading through the words.

Jon blinks at her, the image of Baelish throwing him even now.

Sansa scoffs indignantly, arms crossed behind Arya.

But Arya only has eyes for their brother.

Jon nods, unable to curb the pain that etches across his face, the resentment. "I wouldn't," he answers her.

Arya nods just the once, lips pursed, thoughtful. "Tomorrow's going to be another long day," she says.

Jon gives her a moment, expecting something further. When she only stares at him, he rubs at his chin, words coming haltingly and unsure. "Yes, it will be," he says finally, hesitant to say more.

Arya's mouth thins into a line as she clears her throat, a quiet affection coloring her words now. "You should get some rest." And then she's stalking from the room, shutting the door behind her without a further farewell.

Jon stares at the closed door for many long moments.

"She loves us," Sansa says softly. "She does."

Jon stays staring at the door, a sigh leaving him.

"Perhaps she isn't rather adept at showing it but – "

"Sansa," he interrupts, finally turning to her, a hand rubbing at his mouth as he tries to shake off the lingering unease.

She lifts her brows expectantly, arms uncrossing, the indignation having bled from her instantly.

(She doesn't stay mad at her sister for long these days, but Jon is too hesitant to name such a thing as hopeful.)

He softens his features, catching the thrum of disquiet in her stiff posture. "I know," he tells her, attempting a smile.

Sansa nods, lip pulled between her teeth. She glances out the window, hands smoothing over her skirts. "Well then," she starts, looking back to him far more put together than she had been only moments before. She motions a hand toward the now vacant seat across from her. "Your Grace," she offers.

Jon takes the chair easily, shrugging off his cloak – her cloak. He catches the way her eyes follow it when he sets it along the back of his chair and a flare of prideful possession streaks through him. His hand curls along the furs before releasing reluctantly, settling across from her.

Sansa takes her own seat gracefully.

Jon leans his elbows along his thighs, hands grasped between his knees. An exhaustive sigh leaves him. "Arya has word about Meereen then?"

Sansa nods, leaning back in her chair. "Baelish's sources say the city has fallen into disarray. Daenerys' appointed representative, Daario Naharis, and the small council she established before leaving, have been slaughtered. It's chaos in the streets, last we heard."

Jon nods, gaze dark and considering. "We can use that."

"It's a fine line to walk."

He raises a brow in question.

Sansa brushes at a wrinkle in her skirt. "It can sway the other kingdoms to our side if they see that their alternative is incompetent when it comes to governance, but calling out such incompetence could also wound her pride enough to make her withdraw." She levels a meaningful look Jon's way. "And Bran was adamant we sway her to our side, as well."

Jon groans, shaking his head. "She sees herself as a savior, he said."


He frowns. "And how do we use that?"

Sansa purses her lips, silence overtaking her for long moments while she turns the question over in her head. He can very nearly see the moment illumination lights her features. "Give her a target," she says in answer finally.

"I haven't exactly kept the Night's King a secret, Sansa," he says exasperatedly. "If ever there was a target for her, that would be it."

Sansa shakes her head, a huff leaving her. "You're thinking about this all wrong."

Jon's frown deepens, head cocking like a reminder for caution.

Sansa sits a touch straighter, her hands curling over her armrests in anticipation. "She hasn't gone to King's Landing yet. Why?"

His brows draw down. "Because her enemies are no longer there."

"Precisely. And yet she claims the people are clamoring for her deliverance. So why won't she go?"

Unclasping his hands, Jon leans back in his chair, huffing his frustration. "I don't fucking know, Sansa, I'm hardly privy to her council."

Sansa's nostrils flare with her momentary annoyance. "Think, Jon."

"Oh, like I'm not trying to?"

"Not very hard, it seems."

"Sansa," he warns, a hot expel of breath.

Sansa shakes her head, hand outstretched to stop his admonishment. "Listen to me, Jon, please. Just listen."

He gives her a spiteful look, but he does not argue further.

"Starvation and anarchy are hardly foes she can burn into subservience," she says.

Jon blinks at her, the realization slow and half-formed.

She continues. "Her crusade for freedom across Slaver's Bay only worked temporarily because, while crucifying the Masters and burning their ships makes for an intimidating show of power, it doesn't solve any of the problems still plaguing the cities. She's not a ruler. She's a conqueror. It's what she does best. So we give her someone to conquer. We give her a body, a living, tangible foe. We give her a target in the North and she will go North."

Jon stands swiftly, hand swiping over his mouth as he stalks to the hearth. "Sansa, what exactly are you suggesting?" He looks back at her with dark eyes, half-shrouded in firelight.

She swallows tightly, rising from her seat as well. "We need Jaime Lannister."

Jon's jaw tightens at the name, drawing in a deep breath. "We've no indication he even believes us, let alone has any inclination to fight for the living."

"Brienne vouches for him."

Scoffing, Jon gives her an incredulous look. "And that's enough to think he'd join us?"

Sansa steps closer, hands clasping nervously before her. Jon eyes the motion with a sense of foreboding. She makes it to the other side of the hearth, standing across from him, when she finally speaks. "He knew I didn't kill Cersei. More importantly, he knew I couldn't."

Jon stares at her, a tightness in his chest.

He remembers when Bran told them the news, the raven's scroll from King's Landing slipping unread from his still-gloved fingers as the three of them met in Winterfell's dawn-lit rookery.

He remembers the harsh laugh that broke from Sansa, streaking through the silence with a brand of delirium so striking he actually took a step back from her.

But she couldn't stop, a hand braced to her chest, the other moving to steady herself along the rail, her eyes glistening, laughing and laughing and gasping, chest heaving, face screwed up in sudden pain, fingers curled around the rail, her other hand clutching the hook-and-chain necklace at her throat, and then she's sobbing so instantly her body actually quakes with it, a laugh choked into a wail, and she's sinking down suddenly, knees giving way, dragging her form down the rail, gasping, keening, howling.

He'd been unable to do anything for long, immutable moments but stare – watching the wash of relief and grief and release rake through her like a storm.

He remembers leaning down behind her and gripping her shoulders, pulling her back to his chest and holding her through it.

When he'd looked up next, Bran was already gone.

"That doesn't mean anything, Sansa," he grits out. It's a lie, he knows. Because it has to mean something.

Sansa closes her eyes, breathes deep, and something shutters beneath her skin he hasn't a name for. It's gone the instant she opens her eyes again. "It means there's still something he wants."

Jon steps closer, a growl brewing in his throat, the realization inking into color a moment too late. "Sansa – "

"Tell him we can give him his sister's killer."

Jon expels a harsh breath with a muttered curse, dragging a hand through his hair. "Seven hells, Sansa, you can't just – "

She closes the distance between them instantly, eyes imploring on his, the heat of the fire licking across their forms. "I don't mean giving up Arya. I'd never – I couldn't – " She stops, swallows, eyes shifting anxiously between his.

Had she expected him to think that of her? Had she expected him to know her so little? Jon's shoulders slump at the thought. He reaches for her arms instinctively, a familiar measure of comfort between them, his rough palms curling around her elbows. "Sansa," he breathes lowly, evenly, "Tell me what you mean."

She relaxes somewhat, face softening. "He's a remnant of a man, Jon." The words come out sad beyond measure and Jon doesn't know what to do with them. In the wake of his silence, Sansa reaches up, curling her fingers along the leather of his jerkin, eyes fixed to the motion. "This grief has unmade him. It's plain for all to see. He has nothing left."

Jon's hands slip up her arms and then slowly back down, watching the curve of firelight dip across the bare edge of her collarbone.

He doesn't like to think about what that sort of grief would feel like – what that kind of loss does to a man.

(He doesn't like to think that he understands Jamie Lannister, if only a little, if only when his fingertips bare their mark on his own sister.)

"He has nothing left but vengeance."

Jon blinks back up at Sansa. "You mean to use it."

She nods, lips pursed tight.

"And Arya…?"

"We have Baelish's spies, his face, his influence. Let us use it. Let us offer Jaime Lannister a chance at the vengeance he craves. Arya will be safest when she's the one controlling the information he receives."

"And when he comes North with us, when he agrees to this alliance – "

"It will be the largest threat to Daenerys' sovereignty. She cannot take such an alliance lightly, especially when the other kingdoms inevitably fall in line. She'd never allow such an alliance unless she had a hand in it, and she'd want to keep a watchful eye, work to dissolve it from the inside, rain fire and blood if she had to. But she would go North. She would not leave her enemies to treat with each other behind her back. If we cannot tempt her empathy, then we must tempt her with this."

Jon heaves a labored sigh, thumbs brushing along the material of her sleeves, winding slow and unmeasured circles. His eyes fix to the motion. "Even if she helps us win against the dead, how can you be sure she won't turn on us the instant the war is won?"

Sansa sighs, hands uncurling from his jerkin, smoothing over his chest. "I have to trust that Bran would not urge us to bring her North if he didn't have the knowledge we'd need to protect against her."

The discontent brews in his chest, releasing itself in a gruff exhale. "Such a risk…"

"I trust our brother."

Jon clenches his jaw, his eyes roving her face, leaning toward her without realizing it. He stops breaths away from her. He lifts a hand to trace up her arm, along her shoulder, dipping down toward her collarbone.

Sansa sucks a breath between her teeth, swift and quiet. She does not pull from him.

Jon's eyes follow the trail his fingers make along the edge of her dress. "The lords will not like an alliance with the Lannisters. I'm not sure I like an alliance with the Lannisters."

Sansa huffs, and the sound almost makes him laugh, his smile a worn and weathered thing when it touches his lips.

"They will follow you if you lead them," she tells him, and it seems such a simple thing when she says it. It seems such a simple, indisputable thing.

His eyes flick down to her lips, his hand around her elbow dragging her to him, bracing her against his chest as his other hand slips back along the nape of her neck. He revels in the mute gasp that leaves her parted lips, the flex of her throat beneath her swallow. "You can be so sure?" he asks, not knowing why it should matter so much. Not knowing and yet –

Knowing exactly.

"King Jon of House Stark" she'd called him.

(How he wants to hear the words again – how he wants to watch them stain her lips when he takes her.)

Sansa lifts her chin, baring her pale throat in the low firelight. "They've followed you thus far," she says. "They will follow you further yet."

She's a slight thing, even for her height – all spine and teeth – but she fills his hands seamlessly, his palms fitting perfectly to the mold of her.

"Tell me again," he whispers at her mouth, suddenly ragged with the need, suddenly quaking in his own skin.

Sansa's brows dip down in confusion, her mouth parting.

Jon steps into her, walking her back, past the hearth, its flames spitting hot and unrelenting at their retreating forms through the shadows. Sansa stumbles when she hits the desk, one hand going out to steady herself along the ledge, the other still held at his chest. "Jon," she breathes, voice catching.

"Tell me again," he demands. "King Jon of House Stark…" It's a heavy pant at her lips.

Sansa's eyes flash with understanding.

He presses his hips to hers, pins her there against the desk. He braces his mouth just above hers, his hand winding into her hair to keep her to him. "My name," he tells hers – begs her, teeth clenching behind a desperate mouth.

Sansa slides her hand up his chest and then along his neck, sinking into his hair. "Your Grace," she breathes at his mouth, fingers clenching at the nape of his neck.

With a throaty moan, Jon's hand leaves her arm and winds around her waist, fisting in the folds of her dress, digging into her hip with an urgency that sets them both to trembling. "Sansa," he pants against her.

"My king," she whispers darkly, and he groans in response, hand clenching in her hair, tongue wetting his lips, breath raking from him in ragged, unrepentant bursts – so close, so devastatingly close – and damn Arya's warning, damn their disgrace – not now, not here – with her so warm and pliant in his hands and he leans in, eyes fluttering closed, a needy sigh already teasing his lips, the taste of her – just there – and –

A knock at the door.

Jon groans his frustration, lips half a whisper from hers, hands already fisted in her hair and her dress and the intoxicating, breathless whole of her.

"Your Grace," sounds Davos' voice through the door.

Jon pulls back from her, just slightly, just enough to meet her eyes. "What is it?" he barks.

Sansa hums quietly at his chest, nails dragging at the base of his skull.

Jon closes his eyes to the lure, smothering his own impulses.

A quiet shuffle sounds on the other side of the door, and then his Hand clears his throat. "A raven from Eastwatch, Your Grace."

Jon glances toward the door, mouth parting. He looks back to Sansa in his arms, watches the shift of heat in her eyes dim to a familiar cold calculation.

"Tormund," he says softly, eyes still fixed to hers.

She nods, seems to steady herself, head dipping low, breath easing into something slow and manageable, her fingers thrumming just the once along the nape of his neck to return his attention. "Go," she tells him, when they finally lock gazes again.

Jon swallows thickly, hesitating, his chest still heaving, his mouth still aching for hers.

Her hand slips from his neck and he feels the loss instantly. "Go," she says again, almost reproachfully this time.

He growls his frustration – with Davos' interruption, with Tormund's sudden letter, with her own sense of practicality. Jon curses beneath a sharp exhale – a heady, breathless thing – but he's already pulling from her, already disentangling from her enticing heat. He nods, lips turned into a harsh frown.

She releases him first, but her touch lingers long after he's left her side.

The summit recommences the next morning. Everyone resumes their places from the day before, and Sansa has to admit to her surprise at every seat still being filled. She half-expected to find certain lords (and queens) to have abandoned their efforts at peace. There is hope yet, she finds.

Or perhaps that is being generous. Perhaps it is better to say that there are still demands to be made. Perhaps it isn't peace that keeps them here at all.

It is of little matter, she tells herself. Jon will get them North, one way or another. This she knows, because to accept anything less makes them as good as dead already.

Sansa glances to Theon beside her, eyes searching. He shakes his head slowly, a grim expression on his face.

No word from Yara, then.

Sansa takes a deep breath in, turns back to the floor, to her brother making his way to the center once greetings have been properly addressed.

"My lords and ladies," he starts, and then to Daenerys, "Your Grace."

She nods appreciatively.

Jon continues briskly. "I'll not waste any more time." He raises a hand, an unfurled raven scroll resting between his fingers. "Last night I received a raven from Tormund Giantsbane at Eastwatch. The army of the dead is already at the Wall."

Murmurs break out amongst the crowd, unsettling them. Tyrion steps out from beside his queen to reach for the scroll.

Jon hands it to him for confirmation, not waiting to continue. "I don't think you all quite understand the level of this threat, the numbers we're facing." His voice is low, gravelly, a strum of anger already lighting it.

They've wasted enough time already, to have come to this.

"The dead are quite literally climbing the Wall," he stresses, pacing the room to look each occupant in the eye. "Thousands of them – hordes of them – climbing over each other, body upon body toward the top, cascading over the edge like a waterfall."

Sansa closes her eyes to the image, her throat tightening beneath the latent fear. She smothers it well.

"A fall like that may kill a man, but the dead feel no such effects. They topple over the wall in a flood, resuming their march on the other side – on our side. And they do not stop," he bellows, looking around the room. "The dead have no need for sleep, or food, or rest of any sort. We're losing precious time. And we need to be there now."

Daenerys bends her ear to Tyrion when he returns to her side, something whispered between them that never makes it to air. Jaime sits straighter in his seat, eyes focused in a way Sansa hasn't seen before. Euron stews impatiently in his own seat.

Jon gives the crowd a moment, but only a moment, and then he's plowing on. "The time has passed to argue the North's sincerity. You either believe me, or you don't. But that isn't the point anymore. So, let's cut all the horseshit and talk about why we're all really here, hmm?" His eyes grow hard. "Everyone in this room wants something. Now, some of those things are in my power to grant, but others," he says, gaze flickering toward Daenerys, "are not – and neither should they be."

"If I may – " Tyrion starts, never getting the chance to finish.

"Theon Greyjoy," Jon calls out, turning to the man swiftly.

Tyrion stares dumbly at Jon as he ignores him.

Theon blinks up at Jon, standing swiftly, a measure of uncertainty lighting his frame, even with his shoulders straight and chin raised. "Your Grace," he answers.

"You and your sister want the North's support for her claim as queen of the Iron Islands, and our acknowledgement of your kingdom's independence."

Theon's mouth opens, closes, opens again. Finally, he simply nods, hands folding behind his back.

Jon eyes him darkly, and for a moment, Sansa thinks he may take it all back. His word, his assurance, his trust. She sucks a quiet breath between her teeth, wanting to reach for Theon and yet knowing that she shouldn't. She stays deathly still – hanging on a precipice.

Jon's eyes find hers for the briefest of moments, something passing over his gaze she can't identify, but then he's looking back at Theon, and she has to remind herself to breathe.

"You shall have it," Jon says finally, jaw clenching after the words.

Euron scoffs across from them, moving to rise in objection when Daenerys' upheld hand halts him. She stays watching the exchange intently, lips dipped into a frown. Euron grumbles his reluctance as he retakes his seat.

"Your Grace," Theon says, half question, half disbelief, his brows dipping low, and Sansa wants to hold him suddenly. She resists the urge to the point of pain.

Jon doesn't forgive Theon, she knows, and he might not ever. But she has never asked him to, and never will. She has learned to lay her brothers down in the deep. She has learned to let them rest. Not because forgiveness comes easier to her, but because survival does.

Sansa learned long ago to bury her loves, or they will bury her. It started with Lady, and then never seemed to stop. There are holes in her heart dug in the shape of graves, and she knows now that some unearthings can never be.

She does not ask of Jon what he cannot give.

"Lady Olenna," he goes on, turning to the Tyrell matriarch. Theon sits back down, hands fluttering over his knees in a motion to calm.

Sansa blinks back the ache, focusing.

Olenna cocks her head at Jon in expectance, a familiar, challenging smirk tugging at her lips.

Jon nods to her. "You want my assurance that I'll not seek another crown – that the North keeps to the North and does not interfere with the sovereignty of the other kingdoms."

Her only answer is a purse of her lips, a lone nail tapping along her armrest.

"You shall have it."

"And your proof of the dead?" she eggs on, smirk still steadily put.

Jon releases a low chuckle, hand wiping down his mouth. "And my proof," he repeats, mumbling the sentiment as though to himself. He shakes his head, not even sparing Theon a glance. "That's seeming more and more unlikely as time persists."

Olenna steeples her hands together over her lap, considering, but Jon isn't one to linger.

"Ser Jaime," he says, turning to the Lannister knight.

A single, cocked brow is his only acknowledgement.

Jon licks his lips, fingers flexing at his sides. "You want your sister's killer."

A thick silence pervades the room. Tyrion dips his head, shoulders bunching with his unsteady exhale. Jaime stares unblinkingly at Jon, his one good hand curled stiffly over the armrest.

Jon takes a breath, jaw grinding. "You shall have it," he promises lowly.

Jaime stands swiftly, pushing from his seat with such a fervency Jon's Northern guard shifts into a ready stance, the clang of their arms resounding in the room.

Everything goes eerily still.

Jaime stands staring at Jon, his face screwed up into a visage of quiet wrath, a dangerously still vehemence. "What did you say?" he breathes out, the words slipping through bared teeth.

To her credit, Arya does not flinch a single muscle in Baelish's skin. Sansa can see her watching the exchange from her place two seats down from the Protector of the Vale. Somewhere behind Sansa, Brienne shifts, a barely-heard rustle of armor. But it's there all the same.

Jon turns fully to Jaime. "The North will pledge to search for Cersei's killer and bring her to justice."

Somewhere behind him, Lord Glover grumbles a curse but Lady Mormont's sharp gaze silences him. Sansa sends the girl a grateful look and Lyanna nods in return, chin tilted high.

Jaime takes a step closer, stiff and warring. "You know who killed her?"

"No," Jon lies easily enough, a trickle of pity lining his voice just enough to lend it some truth. "But we will." A short pause. "Lord Baelish," he calls, turning to the mock Littlefinger.

Arya offers a perfectly piqued brow.

"You are a man of the world. You must lend your efforts to Ser Jaime's quest. Commit your resources to discovering Cersei Lannister's murderer."

In Baelish's skin, Arya takes an expected moment of silence, seeming to consider the request (or command, rather). She doesn't spare a glance to either of her siblings, only nodding slowly to Jaime, a twist to her lips with just enough reluctance to seem credible.

Jaime exhales loudly, staggering back a step, eyes fixed to the false Littlefinger. There's a pleading to his gaze that strikes Sansa with its earnestness, its unhindered sincerity. She tightens her hands over her lap at the sight.

Jon glances to his Northern guard, motioning for them to stand down. Jaime drops back down to his seat, glancing over to Tyrion. They stare silently at each other, and Tyrion is the first to look away, a wet sheen to his eyes that Sansa does not miss. It is hard for her to fathom anyone mourning the loss of Cersei Lannister, but then she remembers that day long ago in the gilded cage that was King's Landing.

"Love no one but your children. On that front a mother has no choice."

It's perhaps the most honest, the most vulnerable, that Cersei has ever been with her. The moment wears at Sansa some nights, when she lays awake staring at the ceiling, an unspeakable sadness crashing through her.

Perhaps Cersei's greatest mistake was in loving all the wrong people in all the wrong ways.

Sansa blinks back the sudden wetness at her eyes.

It doesn't matter. It never did. Because dead is dead, and there is no way to love that into un-being.

She knows. She's tried.

(The muddy steps at Baelor's Sept will always be the start and end of every nightmare she ever has.)

Jon sighs heavily, shifting to face Daenerys, brows dipping down in consternation.

Sansa turns away from Jaime, ignoring the way he stares blandly at the floor, eyes grievous, jaw tight.

"Your Grace," Jon addresses, stepping closer.

Daenerys lifts an interested brow, a look of amused curiosity crossing her features.

He licks his lips, taking a steadying breath. "You want the North – and others – " he says, motioning toward the room, particularly to the silent, dwelling Jaime Lannister, "to declare you our queen, to welcome back a Targaryen reign – to bend the knee."

Daenerys looks on smugly, back straight, a regality to her posture that Sansa imagines took years to turn from practiced to intrinsic.

Silently, Sansa waits for the break.

"But I cannot give you that," Jon says firmly, eyes never leaving the dragon queen.

The room goes dead for many moments, and Sansa swears she can hear her pulse thrumming frantically in her own ears. She swallows back the trepidation, eyeing the room cautiously for any particular reactions.

Most telling is Daenerys herself, of course. It takes her a moment, a perfectly groomed eyebrow twitching in displeasure, but the shadow that crosses her face can be called nothing but Targaryen in its darkness.

Tyrion's eyes widen, and he glances swiftly to his queen, then back to Jon, stepping forward as though to speak. Daenerys beats him to it.

"Just as much as you want me for an ally, Jon Snow, you would not want me for an enemy," she guarantees evenly, a touch of calm to her voice that tells Sansa she is no stranger to voicing such threats.

It tightens the ball of anxiety in her stomach.

Euron smirks beside her.

Ser Davos tries for diplomacy. "Your Grace, please." He takes a deep breath. "You've come to Westeros at an ill time. We've barely survived the carnage that the War of the Five Kings rained across the continent, and our people are tired of war and subjugation. A man just wants to till his own soil, to put food on the table for his wife and children, to swear to a lord that honors the protection of his own. That is the kind of freedom the North – and Westeros – wants."

"And you think I cannot give them that?" she challenges, chest heaving with her indignant breath.

Jon steps forward, standing partially in front of his Hand. "What I think is that the last city you promised such freedom to has paid that price tenfold in blood. So, you'll forgive us our skepticism, Your Grace."

Her lips purse, nails digging into her armrests. "Come again?"

False-Baelish rises smoothly from his seat before Jon can speak further. "Your Grace, you must know by now the fate of Meereen? Your last conquest?"

"Know what?" she snaps.

Arya lets slip a barely held smirk across Baelish's thin lips. "Daario Naharis is dead, Your Grace, as is the council you put in place before you abandoned the city. The Masters have made war on their former slaves. The streets run red with the blood of your promised 'freedom'."

Sansa sometimes thinks Arya plays her part too well, or rather that she enjoys it too well. Either way, it gets them a reaction.

At first, Daenerys is stiff, hardly moving, her eyes widening only minutely with what seems to be a previously unknown revelation, her nostrils flaring in her outrage. But then something shifts, a crease to her brow, a quiver to her jaw, the quick blinking of her violet eyes. It's gone but a moment after it passes over her face.

Daario Naharis.

Sansa's eyes narrow at the dragon queen. There was affection there. Perhaps there still is. Her heart clenches at the realization, a sliver of empathy bleeding out into the light. She smothers it instantly.

Daenerys clears her throat, the momentary exposure shuttered up with cool authority. "Lord Varys," she calls, glancing toward him out of the corner of her eye.

He steps forward gracefully, head bowed.

"Is this true?" Her voice is low, a decibel away from being called a hiss.

Varys glances toward Baelish, eyes narrowed in consideration, a thoughtful breath leaving him. Eventually, he nods, his face shifting into one of remorse. "I apologize, Your Grace, for not informing you earlier. I thought the news would…detract you from your current goal."

Her spine snaps impossibly straighter. "You are not responsible for deciding what it is I should or should not know, Lord Varys. You will inform, and you will advise, but you will not omit. You will not presume to think for me, do you understand?"

"Of course, Your Grace." Another bow of his head, hands still hidden in his sleeves. He keeps his gaze from Baelish this time, flicking toward Sansa instead.

She sucks a mute breath through her lips, face a blank visage, giving nothing away.

He only looks just a moment, but it's enough to prickle her skin with unease.

"I suppose that's what you should expect when you leave the running of state to a sellsword," Lady Olenna throws out, shifting in her seat to a more comfortable position.

Daenerys gives her an unamused look.

Olenna rolls her eyes in the most ladylike fashion Sansa has yet to master.

"My queen, we must continue to look forward," Tyrion interrupts, stepping up to her seat, just at her side. He raises his hand as though to settle it over hers on the armrest, perhaps in comfort, but a swift glance from her stills his hand mid-air. He flexes his fist, dropping his arm back to his side.

Sansa watches the quiet exchange with interest.

Tyrion clears his throat. "Your vision takes time. It takes patience, and endurance, and fortitude. But Westeros can only benefit from such vision." He looks about the room, addressing the rest of the occupants now. "You say you want freedom? Well, sitting here before you is the Breaker of Chains. You want a strong leader? They call her Mhysa and the Unburnt. You want a way to win against this 'Night's King'? She is the Mother of Dragons!" He pauses, takes a breath, steadies his voice. "We've all had our failings – some of us more than most." He hardly dares to meet Jaime's eyes across the way. "There isn't a person in this room who can say otherwise," he says critically, voice hardening. "But Daenerys is the queen we need. Now – at the edge of this 'Long Night' – and always."

Sansa bristles at the words – even more so with the fervency with which he says them.

This is not the man she remembers. But then, none of them are who she remembers. Every person in this room is a stranger of sorts – even Jon.

None of these faces filled her childhood. It is not something she mourns. It is just a truth. Just the way of life.

(She does not think she could have Jon the way she does now if he still wore the face from her childhood.)

"You'll forgive my reluctance to follow a Targaryen, brother," Jaime says finally, "given my history with the last one I served. A pretty face is not enough to save you from madness."

Daenerys flashes unforgiving eyes his way. "Brave words from a murderer."

Jaime leans forward suddenly, face screwed into something ugly. "And I'd murder him again, given the chance."

Daenerys steals a heated breath through her lungs, eyes darkening dangerously, mouth curling into a sharp scowl. "Shall I just present my back to you now? Would that be sufficient invitation?"

"'Burn them all'," Sansa says with a dark inflection, the words staining her lips in their heat.

Daenerys snaps her violet gaze to her, sharp and focused, mouth tipped open as though to speak, but no words come.

Jaime turns stiffly to her as well, but his gaze shifts quickly to the sworn shield at her back, and she doesn't have to look at Brienne to know that she's staring resolutely away from Jaime. Sansa swallows tightly, meeting Daenerys' incredulous stare. "That's what your father told him."

Murmurs break out across the room once more, and Jon swings his startled gaze to Sansa.

(It'd been a moment of quiet confidence when Brienne admitted to her conversation with Jaime, his confession in the hot pools. She'd vouched for him, and not without reason.)

This is the man who almost killed their father in the open streets, bringing him to his knees, and back into the Lannister fold, where he eventually lost his head.

Sansa swallows down the bile.

This is also the man who killed the king who brutally murdered their grandfather and uncle, who would have brutally murdered more, had he not acted.

She is tired of trying to understand Lannisters. She doesn't want to anymore. She wants nothing to do with them, really. But she's played the game long enough to know that sometimes enemies make the best allies, when you know how to shift the board. She won't forget that lesson easily.

Baelish taught it to her well, after all.

(Some wounds linger, she remembers.)

"Just before Ser Jaime here stuck a blade in him, that's what your father said – with caches of wildfire buried beneath King's Landing. 'Burn them all'."

Daenerys swallows thickly, eyes riveted to hers. Her ire bleeds from her slowly, almost imperceptibly, if one wasn't watching closely enough.

But Sansa is watching.

The murmurs around the hall grow louder, shouts interspersing the rush of whispers, a wave of agitation and confusion sweeping over the room.

"Would you do the same?" Sansa asks her evenly, gaze a frost blue.

Daenerys opens her mouth, stops, huffs her frustration, clamps her mouth shut tightly. The words pry beneath her skin, Sansa knows.

"Would you do the same, Your Grace?" she urges, not letting up.

Chin raised, Daenerys blinks back the daze. "I am not my father," she seethes, voice a tremulous wind, something of pain seeping through.

Sansa only stares at her. Jon sighs, wiping a hand down his mouth, looking about the room.

"Your Grace," Ser Davos begins, an imploring look on his face, "You've given us no proof of that one way or the other. But perhaps, this is your chance."

Daenerys throws a withering look at Davos, but she makes no comment.

"The last Targaryen to sit the Iron Throne murdered our grandfather and uncle in open court, and then demanded that Lord Arryn of the Vale break guest right and kill our father, as well," Sansa continues, back straight in her seat. "King Aerys broke faith with his lordships first, and the Starks have more reason than most to refuse Targaryen rule, yet here we are, asking you for help, putting aside past grievances – justified grievances – because none of this will matter if we don't stop the dead. None of this will matter when we are the dead."

Daenerys takes a heavy breath, the ire now dimmed in her eyes.

Jon steps forward, dark eyes steady on Daenerys. "Make no mistake, Your Grace, that's exactly what'll happen if we don't stand together – all of us, every single person here." He turns to take in the room. "I can't promise that we'll win. I can only promise that the North will fight regardless. Now, I've come here to ask the same of you. You've all heard my arguments, and you've made your demands. But it's time to decide. I understand if you need your proof, but the North can't wait any longer. The dead are already at our door and we leave for Winterfell in the morning, with or without allies." He looks pointedly at Jaime, a barely discernible nod sent his way.

Euron looks as though he's ready to object when Daenerys' upraised hand silences him in his seat. He grumbles reluctantly, but she's looking at Jon with an expression of serious consideration. Sansa is too practical to call the feeling that brews in her chest hopeful, however.

Another silence pervades the room, this one so stilted and heavy that Sansa can feel it in her lungs. A shuffle of feet here, the creak of a chair there. A cough, a grumble, the rustle of fabric as someone shifts in their seat. It's suffocating suddenly – this stagnation, this utter and useless stillness.

Sansa wants to howl for it.

"You won't be leaving alone, Your Grace."

Sansa's gaze snaps to her uncle, watching wide-eyed as Edmure Tully is the one to rise from his seat, hands tugging his jerkin into place, chin raised even while his jaw quakes. He nods to Jon, swallowing tightly before speaking. "The Tullys broke bread with the Starks once, not so long ago." His gaze shifts to Sansa, infinitely tender and resolute all at once. "'Family, duty, honor'. I'll be damned if I'm the first Tully who disgraces those words."

Sansa's heart swells.

Just behind her, Brynden lets a gruff smile grace his features, eyes crinkling.

Jon's brows rise in surprise, but only for a moment, before his face softens into a weary gratitude, nodding stiffly. An appreciative smile tugs at his lips as he allows himself the smallest sigh of relief.

Sansa cannot hide her smile at the sight, glancing down to her lap.

"The Vale is with you, Your Grace," Lord Royce pledges as he stands, glancing down toward Robin, who looks up at him only mildly alarmed before he settles back in his seat at the nod of reassurance both Royce and Baelish give him. "Aye," the young lord croaks out, clearing his throat, trying again. "Aye, King Jon, you have the Vale as well." Robin puffs his chest out with the words, shoulders pulled back in a show of confidence Sansa is sure he doesn't entirely feel, but is grateful for, nonetheless.

Jon turns to address the rest of the lords but never gets the chance. The sound of boots thumping on the hard stone sounds just moments before a Northern guard bursts through the door to the hall, panting, eyes wide. "Your Grace! Your Grace!" he shouts, taking a large gulp of air after his apparent sprint.

Davos stands swiftly. "What is it, man?"

"At the gate," he says, bracing his hands to his knees as he tries to breathe. "It's – it's Yara Greyjoy!"

Theon jolts to a stand, eyes wide, and the room erupts behind him, Euron the loudest of them.

It's moments later that Yara breaks into the hall, blood dried at her temple, hair and coat still speckled with snow, kicking a shackled undead into the center of the room, its snarl chocked off by the leash around its neck.

Daenerys stares on in dawning horror. Jaime's jaw sets, his eyes hardening. Olenna blinks back the shock, glancing toward Sansa.

"Good thing these fuckers hate the water," Yara says, wiping a hand under her nose, a brilliant smile breaking across her mud-streaked face as she braces a boot to the back of the scrambling corpse's neck. "So, when do we leave?"

It doesn't take long for Jaime Lannister and Olenna Tyrell to pledge to the North after Yara's dramatic entrance, with the lords from the Stormlands following suit shortly after. Daenerys makes a grand enough speech about fighting for the people, about burning the evil away, and Jon suffers through it as stoically as he can, knowing it's a small price to pay to guarantee her forces come North.

Euron Greyjoy, however, has different plans than his queen. He takes one look at the wight and renounces his support, cursing all of them for fools, ignoring Daenerys' call to heel when he turns his back on her and makes for his ships at the coast.

They're already on their march North when they hear word that Euron hadn't even made it to Harrenhal, let alone Gulltown. Daenerys Targaryen doesn't take too kindly to desertion it seems, having burned him where he stood.

Jon's sure it's as much a punishment for Euron as it is a warning for the rest of them.

Do not betray the dragon, the warning says.

Jon feels the sinking dread like a stone in his gut when they pass through the gates of Winterfell and the shadow of dragon's wings blankets the courtyard, darkening the image of their brother's face as Bran sits waiting for them in reception.

He doesn't have time to think about it though, because they throw themselves into preparations quickly enough, shoring up the walls, building trenches, forging weapons with the dragonglass Daenerys promises from Dragonstone. Tormund and his people make it to Winterfell days later, and Jon's war council lasts long into the night that first eve of their return.

Sansa takes to the crypts more often of late, and this is where Jon finds her in the short hours before dawn once the council has let out. He's been hesitant to breach her solitude, her sanctuary. She stitches black direwolves to her handkerchiefs these days, and it's a likeness he wishes he could forget, but the severed head of Shaggydog is as haunting a memory as the arrow-riddled body of the young boy who loved him.

The brother who loved him.

Sansa stands before Rickon's statue with her hands folded before her. A ring of winter roses lays at the base, slowly wilting.

She heaves a sigh, and it seems to take all of her, but her voice is steady when she tells him, "We'll have to burn them."

Her admission jars him into movement, a hand coming up to brace at her elbow. "Sansa." There's a question laced through her name he doesn't know how to ask.

She turns to him then, just slightly, just enough to catch his gaze over her shoulder.

He has learned, after many moons, how to read Sansa Stark's grief – how to discern it by the lines of her face, the stiffness of her frame, the heady weight of her silence.

His fingers curl more surely around her elbow.

"If we want to survive the Long Night, then we will have to burn them."

Jon looks past her down the long tunnel of crypts. It's a shadow-drenched cavern of memory and stone and deep, still quiet that takes him – an ages-old memoriam of long dead Starks. It's a line that stretches far, and he remembers suddenly, that it's a line he is never to join.

King in the North he may be, but never a Stark.

Jon grinds his teeth, the ache in his jaw an easy distraction.

He'd hoped to be buried here one day. A child's dream, perhaps. A foolish wish.

Jon wants to laugh suddenly. To laugh and laugh and choke on it – because what a joke. The gods have ill humor, and he has little appreciation for it.

Sansa reaches a hand to his side, fingers clutching at his furs. He sends a baleful look her way.

"I'll light the fires myself," she says softly at his side, and he has to swallow back the tartness, eyes fluttering closed at the breath that stains his lungs. "With Bran and Arya," she finishes, voice softer than he's ever heard.

He reaches a hand to the small of her back, dragging her against him.

She settles a palm at his chest where his heart lies, beaten and floundering.

"I would not have you buried here," she mutters against his shoulder.

Jon grips at her dress, fingers bunching in the material at her back.

"Not yet," she finishes, mouth sliding against his throat. "Not for many years to come."

He should take it as the hope it is, as the single, rare confession it is – that she isn't ready for him to leave this world.

But something too long festered flares to life at the words. Something too darkly honed.

The hand bunched in her dress draws upwards, dragging the material with it. He presses into her, backing her up against the wall.

Sansa looks up at him with a flicker of concern, hands bracing at his shoulders.

He's silent as he unfastens his cloak, letting it fall to the cold ground at his feet. He pulls his jerkin free of his breeches, unlacing it with practiced ease.

Sansa stares at him, breath hitching. Her hands hover uncertainly in the air above his shoulders, her hips pinned to the wall by his. "Jon."

His jerkin hits the floor alongside his cloak, his eyes never leaving hers. He pulls his tunic free of his breeches, hands moving to the laces at his groin. Sansa's hands fumble to stop him.

"Jon, please, what are you – "

"I'm a Stark, aren't I?" It's a guttural rush of air that leaves him.

Sansa's hands still over his. She blinks furiously at him, mouth parting, cheeks heated at his stare.

"You said it yourself," he whispers, chest heaving.

Sansa's eyes shift between his, tongue darting out to lick her lips in her anticipation. "Jon."

"You said it yourself," he hisses now, accusingly, a bite behind his words he hasn't a name for. And then he's rucking up her skirts, a hand gliding to the back of her knee, tugging it up over his hip.

Sansa gasps, arching against the wall instinctively. She pushes her skirts down frantically, chest rising and falling so fast she's getting lightheaded. "Jon, wait, this isn't – this isn't – "

His mouth finds her throat, his tongue reckless and heated against her flesh. Sansa's head lolls back against the wall. "Jon," she pants, fingers stilling at his shoulders with a fierce grip. "Jon, what – "

He grabs at her wrists, tugging them up above her head, holding them there with a single, calloused palm. His other hand undoes the laces of his breeches completely. "I'm a Stark, aren't I?" he asks again, the heat of resentment and longing and regret flaring white-hot inside him. It comes out a growl. It comes out a desperation.

Sansa's chest heaves against his, tongue wetting her lips. "Jon."

And he's just so tired of hearing that name. Just so fucking tired of it.

He rucks her skirts up, tearing at her smallclothes, fumbling recklessly for the heat of her, that throbbing, sodden heat of her.

Jon groans when his fingers find home. He nips at her lips, catching her hitched breath between his teeth. "This is where I belong," he says without repentance, sliding into her on a hissed breath, his head dropping to her shoulder as he shudders against her, a deep-seated groan leaving him.

Sansa's sharp inhale sounds against his temple, her hips pushing up to meet him.

Jon releases her wrists, grabbing for her thighs instead, hoisting her up against the wall as he thrusts deeper, drawing her legs around his waist.

A sigh of contentment breaks against his ear, his name lost in the space between their pants, and he remembers suddenly.

He remembers where they are.

"Don't stop," Sansa moans breathlessly.

He grinds his hips into hers faster, deeper, with a mercilessness that almost scares him in its intensity. One of her hands reaches out to steady herself, bracing against the base of Rickon's statue. Jon looks decidedly away from the motion.

He only fucks his sister harder.

The crypts fill with their ragged pants, their dark curses, the fumble of their forms against the crude stone.

"This is where I belong," he groans against her mouth, biting down on her bottom lip.

Sansa cries out, nails digging into the naked flesh of his hips, drawing him deeper into her, and he feels himself breaking, crashing, barreling into her with a ferocity he's never felt for anything – anyone – no one but her. "Mine," he growls into her mouth, fingers bruising on her thighs, teeth etching their mark along her throat. He braces a single, trembling hand against the wall at her back, the rough stone cutting into his palm as his thrusts grow frantic and uneven. He curls his bloodied hand along the stone wall, nails catching on the rock, and he anchors himself amidst the tide.


It's a shadow-drenched cavern of memory that takes him. A place of no light. A hollow of stone so entrenched with the dead he finds a familiar home.

Sansa does not let him go.

Even when he spills inside her.

Even when he mars her thighs with the discoloration of his need.

Mine, he swears.

The declaration clatters around the stone crypts like a herald of war.

{"Fire sows no seeds," he tells her. "It molds no stones. It tills no earth. How could it ever fashion life from death?"

Sansa stops, looking down at her still brother, knuckles white where her hands grip at each other in their wringing. She slinks slowly back to her chair, the wind rushing from her in something not unlike defeat. She is just so lonely, suddenly – so desolate and worn and without him.

Without Jon.

"You knew all along?" she asks almost plaintively, exhaustion echoing along her words. "You knew the dragons weren't…" She stops, swallows, tries again. "You didn't bring them here to defeat the dead. You brought them here because only the dead could defeat them."

Bran gives her a look that could only pass for calculating – foreign and jarring though it is on her brother's tender features. "She was never the solution," he answers her.}

Chapter Text

Disclaimer: I own nothing, I make no money.

A Violence Done Most Kindly

Chapter Six: Rot-Riddled

"He can't help but stare down at their joined hands. He's selfish, he realizes – acutely and without warning. He wants and he wants and he cannot stop." - Jon and Sansa. Stark is a house of many winters.

* * *

Another council meeting. Another afternoon spent weighing tactics and strategy. Another reminder that the dead wait for no one. They march ever on, and Jon only wants to be done with it, to welcome the fight.

He rubs at the space between his eyes, sighing when the lords and their allies exit the chamber. Sansa lingers at the edge of the table. He offers her a gruff sigh in acknowledgment.

"A matter of days," Sansa says quietly, repeating their scout's report when asked about the army of the dead's advance.

Jon nods mutely, hand lowering back along his thigh, a hardened fist.

Sansa trails her fingers along the edge of the table as she glides toward him. "I think part of me still hoped…"

"What?" he snaps, unable to hide the frustration, the unease. "That I was wrong? That it was only shadows and tricks that I'd seen? That this was all a dark dream?"

Sansa dips her chin, not halting her advance. She settles back along the table just next to him, her fingers curling around the edge behind her. "I know some part of you wished for it as well."

Jon stares at her, jaw clenched. He turns away, unable to look at her any longer.

Because yes, he'd wished for it. And what a foolish hope. He'd seen the Night King himself. He'd witnessed the rising of the dead firsthand, with blood seeping from his temple and his lungs aching beneath the exhaustion and half his brothers split to pieces along the shore as he rode the icy waters back South.

No, Hardhome had not been a mirage.

(He wishes for it, even now, even still.)

It isn't nearly so real until it's here, like a hand at his throat – until it's Arya and Bran and Tormund and Edd and Sansa that may fall for it. It isn't until he sees their faces in his nightmares, blank and dead, flesh a pale blue, and eyes bluer still, that he recognizes the immediacy of loss.

It isn't until the fear flares hot and immutable in his chest that he understands.

Jon flicks his gaze reluctantly back to hers.

He does not want to live in a world she no longer occupies.

It's a truth he should have known long ago, a truth he hadn't really bothered to shelter against. It hits him all the more fiercely for it. Because few things in this life have ever lingered long enough to call his. And she is. She well and truly is – his beyond doubt.

He thinks maybe he should hate her for it.

Sansa watches him with steady eyes, catching the way his throat tightens beneath his swallow, the way his brow furrows harshly beneath her gaze, the way his hands curl along his thighs in keen disquiet. She slides just the slightest bit along the edge, until she's braced in the space between his knees and the table. She reaches for one of his hands, tentative and unsure.

Jon lets her take it. He's already let her take more. What weight can his hand in hers mean beyond comfort at this point? Beyond urgency?

Sansa stares at him silently, threading her fingers through his.

He can't help but stare down at their joined hands. He's selfish, he realizes – acutely and without warning. He wants and he wants and he cannot stop.

"It's okay to be scared," she says.

Jon snaps his gaze back up to hers.

She swallows tightly, thumb edging over the ruined skin of his knuckles, the scar of Ramsay's demise. Her breath seems to catch – just barely.

He might have missed it, if he weren't already attuned to every minute part of her, every subtle mannerism, every draw of her breath and blink of her eye.

"I'm scared, too," she whispers.

He might have missed it – if he weren't already completely and irrevocably in love with her.

She steps closer, wedging herself easily between his knees. There's something weightless about her assurance, something comforting in the confidence.

Jon sucks in a quiet breath at the sudden intimacy, eyes shifting to the closed, but unlocked door across from them. "Sansa," he breathes in warning.

She does not heed it. Instead, she takes his hand and places it at her waist. "But I have never doubted you."

His hand curls against the fabric of her dress, his chest tightening at the words. He drags her into him unconsciously.

Her hands settle along his shoulders, her chest rising and falling rapidly just at his proximity, just at the surety with which he grips at her hip. "I know you will not fail us."

"How?" The word is a desperate rasp, his free hand already rising to her other hip.

"Because you are Jon Snow," she answers easily, her touch gliding up along his shoulders, curling back along the nape of his neck, threading into his dark curls.

Jon's eyes shift closed, a hum of contentment leaving him without his notice.

She slides a knee up over his thigh, settling halfway in his lap, skirts dragging with the movement. "Because you are Ned Stark's son."

His eyes snap open at the words, and this – this is why he should hate her.

(Why he should, and yet, never does.)

His hand halts her thigh as she presses closer. "Sansa." It's a different kind of warning now – something darker, blunter.

She ignores the pressure of his censuring touch, dragging her other leg up over his until she's straddling his lap, skirts pulled up to allow the motion, knees digging into the armrests of his chair uncomfortably. "And you are. The North sees it, too. You're as much a Stark as the rest of us. As much our father's son."

"As much your brother, you mean," he growls at her mouth, the shame as sharp and pungent as it was in the beginning. The truth is, it never really goes away.

(Not a world without her –

And he is selfish and unrepentant for it.)

But punishing her makes the terror less, makes the frail cut of his heart settle just enough to let him breathe.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Let the wreckage begin.

Jon tangles a hand in her hair, pushing her skirts back with hasty fingers. He hisses at the way she rolls her hips against his, hands winding behind his neck.

"That's what you want, isn't it, Sansa? You want to fuck your own brother? Right here in the council chambers?" he groans, nipping at her chin, tongue flicking out to taste her. He digs a hand into her thigh hard enough to bruise.

Yes, it has always been easier to punish her than to lose her.

Sansa's breathing deepens but she makes no answer. She's already untying the laces of his breeches with practiced ease, already sinking down on him without preamble.

A deep-seated groan leaves him, and then Jon tugs at her hair, eliciting a sharp gasp from her parted lips. He snarls into her throat, his hips stilling at hers, just breathing.

Just breathing against her.

Jon shuts his eyes a moment and the darkness is familiar. This is how it ended once before– with a black, shrouding veil.

This is also how it begins.

Jon's eyes flutter open. He starts to move inside her, the hand at her hip quickly urging her into a feverish rhythm atop him. "You'd make me a mockery, wouldn't you, Sansa? The king who dishonored himself for his sister's pretty little cunt." He punctuates his jabs with sharp, shallow thrusts, his hand gliding down from the tangle of her hair to spread over her pale throat, a calloused thumb pressing against her pulse.

Sansa gasps at the words, gripping at his shoulders, trying to steady herself against his ruthless pace.

It's the kind of reckless heat that reminds him of the winter in his veins, the winter that took him and never truly let go – not even with the red woman's magic.

Because he's selfish, and he should hate her, and he's lost and lost and lost to her.

He doesn't even realize the tears have stained his cheeks until she brushes her fingertips against the tracks.

But he can't stop – could never stop – not when she's warm and wet and there, just there, just exactly where he needs, and he wants to snarl at the way she presses her lips tenderly to his cheek, but it comes out more like a sob, and so he grips her tighter, wears his need into her flesh like a mark, corrodes her skin with his desperation and it shouldn't be this hard – it shouldn't be this unbearably painful to want her – to need her.

"So wrong," he mumbles against her throat, teeth snagging on her skin. "So wrong and so vile and you…you, Sansa, you made me this way. You tore this from me, you…fuck, Sansa, is this what you want?" He ignores the hitch in her breath, the drag of her nails up the nape of his neck – he ignores everything but the building, unmanageable terror at his throat. Jon chokes back a sob, withering in it. "You want to shame our father? Huh? Is that it?" He quickens his pace, brutal and abrupt – very nearly painful. As painful as the pasts they still mourn, even without their knowing. "You want to be a Lannister? Tell me, Sansa, is this what you fucking want?"

"I don't want to be a Lannister," she makes out through ragged pants, eyes drawing down to his, meeting his heated glare with her own hazy one. "I just want to be yours."

Jon sucks a sundering breath through his teeth, drawing her mouth down to his by the tight grip in her hair, crashing his lips to hers in something feral and violent and needful.

"I'm here," she grunts against his mouth when he breaks from her, never slowing their rhythm. "I'm right here. I'm staying right here, Jon." Another bruising, open-mouthed kiss – the sob dragging from them both, and then he's spilling inside her, slamming his hips up into hers with frantic, achingly-slow thrusts, riding his release out with barely discernible grunts of her name – a plea, a desperation.

That terror – that blue-eyed, rot-riddled terror – it's a howl in his lungs now.

(The hand at his throat curls ever tighter.)

"I'm not going anywhere," she murmurs against his temple, fingers sinking into his hair, cradling his uneven pants in the hollow of her throat, keeping their chests braced not even a whisper apart, muting the choke of his tears against her sweat-slicked skin . Their breaths – intangible and weathered – in and out and in and out and –

His hand braces against the small of her back, incomparably tender.

She stays right there.

Sansa finds Daenerys already waiting in the council room, staring out the window with her hands along the sill. A dragon's thunderous screech streaks through the night air, and from her vantage point, she can see the soft smile that tugs at Daenerys' lips following the sound.

Sansa clears her throat, making her presence known as she steps through the threshold, Brienne at her back. "Your Grace," she greets, nodding to Grey Worm along the wall as he stands in readiness.

Daenerys does not take her eyes from the sky, only leaning closer toward the open window, as though she means to fall through it, to spread her own wings and join her children as they soar through the winter air.

Sansa wonders how it is possible to feel such awe and resentment and pity for a single person, how Daenerys Targaryen can inspire such conflicting emotions in her.

"They're beautiful, aren't they?" Daenerys says in lieu of a greeting, eyes trained skyward.

Sansa nods to Brienne and her sworn shield closes the door behind her. The rest of Jon's council should be here momentarily. Their scouts had warned them that peace would not last the night. The dead were finally here.

Stepping up beside her, Sansa takes a moment to appraise the beasts in the darkness. Cersei's image comes to mind suddenly – the crook of her needling smile, the gleam of her golden hair, the sensual bend of her wrist in its perpetual search for a wine glass.

Yes, Cersei had been beautiful. And Sansa knows all too well that beauty and danger have never been mutually exclusive.

"They are," she agrees softly, unable to hinder her honesty.

Daenerys finally glances to her, a minutely raised brow aimed her way, as though she hadn't expected Sansa to agree with her.

"I imagine all children are beautiful to their mothers," she says, and then it's Joffrey in her mind's eye, a cruel cut to his jaw, a horrific sneer, a bark of demands so casually cutting she still feels them in her bones, in her deep, scar-steeped marrow.

(Monsters come in many forms, it seems, even beautiful ones.)

Sansa pulls the furs tighter around her shoulders.

Daenerys slips her hands from the rail, turning fully to her. There's an appraising look to her face, a hesitant smile, a hidden elation. "And do you know the joy of motherhood, Lady Sansa?"

She swallows tightly. "I do not."

Daenerys nods, almost sympathetically. "There is no feeling like it in the world. No completion without them." She glances back out the window, but her hand strays to the edge of her stomach, fingers curling in the fabric like a forgotten instinct.

Sansa eyes the motion carefully. "Your Grace, I had heard…well," she pauses, licking her lips, eyes hesitant when Daenerys glances back to her. She looks down to the hand alighting her stomach pointedly. "I had heard they were not your first."

Daenerys' brow crinkles, mouth pulled tight, like the reflex of unexpected pain, braced too late for impact. Her hand tightens over her belly, now a conscious motion. "You heard correctly." Her voice is a croak.

"I'm sorry, Your Grace," Sansa whispers achingly, shaking her head, "I shouldn't have – "

"A witch took him from me."

Sansa stares at her, breath halted at the tip of her tongue, lips parted.

Daenerys' smile turns quickly from pained to vindictive. "But she paid her price in fire and blood."

Sansa wonders if the dragon queen is even aware how her speech molds itself so effortlessly into conversational threats, how every word is an unspoken reminder, a warning, how she coils the promise of fire behind her tongue on impulse – as though it were natural to speak thus.

As though she has never learned the tenderness or intimacy of speaking to an equal.

Sansa's brows furrow, her chest tightening.

How lonely, she thinks. How utterly and painfully lonely.

"Some say the witch's magic still lingers inside me," Daenerys continues, looking back out the window, hand falling from her stomach. "They say it's why the dragons heed my command. Dark magic, they call it." She releases a scoff, shaking her head. "Ignorant folk. They don't understand it is the blood of Old Valyria that calls to them." She turns gleaming, violet eyes Sansa's way. "It was no witch's filth that made me Mother of Dragons. I did that."

Sansa has no answer for her, so she simply nods, hands curled tightly in unease before her.

Daenerys gives her a soft, almost pitying look, mouth opening, when the door swings wide once more.

It's Bran in the threshold, eyes instantly finding Sansa, and she stiffens beneath the stare, a curl of apprehension lighting in her stomach. But he looks away quickly, gaze shifting to the dragon queen beside her. "Jon has called a final council."

Daenerys sweeps her shortened skirts back, boots treading toward the center table. "Yes, I heard." She does not hide the contempt, a bored sort of sigh leaving her as she stops at the edge of the table.

Sansa looks up to find Arya at the back of Bran's chair, wheeling him slowly into the room, followed by Tormund and Edd, and eventually Lord Royce and the young Lord Arryn, both her uncles, and the rest of their allies, Lannister and Tyrell included. Arya brings Bran's chair to settle beside their sister, and Sansa breathes a sigh of relief at the sight of Arya, finally free of her Baelish mask. Once back in Winterfell, she's been free to change between identities as she desires or sees fit, Arya Stark's presence in Winterfell hardly being a strange occurrence, now that her return is common enough knowledge.

Sansa knows there is some use left in Baelish, but for now, she just needs her sister.

Arya nods to her, hands shifting behind her back once she releases Bran's chair, and moments later Jon sweeps into the room, his Northern guard closing the door behind him.

They stand staring at each other for a long, tense moment, and then someone speaks, and on it goes, in a tedious, agonizing lull – plans drawn out, commands given, lines formed and reformed along the strategy map, until Sansa's chest is tight with breathless anxiety, another monstrous screech lighting the air as though in reminder.

It gnaws its way beneath her skin – the realization, the dawning horror.

The Long Night is upon them – this night, this eve.

Sansa has the sudden irrational fear of not recalling what dawn is supposed to look like.

"Your Grace, this is when you will take your dragons to – "


Jon looks up from where he points along the map, dark eyes fixed to Daenerys.

A stilted silence etches its way around the room.

Jon shifts, hand drawing back to his side. "Your Grace?"

"No," she says pertly, eyes never leaving his.

Several of the lords shift and shuffle in place, clearing their throats. Tyrion reaches a daring hand to her elbow, a quiet 'my queen' leaving his lips before she raises her chin and says in a loud, even tone, "I will not be taking my dragons anywhere, least of all to the front lines, until an accord can be made."

Sansa flicks apprehensive eyes to Jon, but he isn't looking at her. He's staring at Daenerys, lips pulled into a tight frown, a darkness sweeping over his face both unrecognizable and yet startlingly familiar.

"Your Grace, they are at our door. This is hardly the time to – "

"Let's be clear about one thing, Jon Snow," she begins, cutting him off, ignoring the searing breath he takes in at her interruption, the dangerous glint to his eye, "You need my dragons." She glances around to the other gathered lords. "You all need my dragons. And you shall have them, when the King in the North bends the knee." She returns her gaze to Jon, a sickly-sweet smile gracing her features, head cocked in expectance.

Jon takes a deep breath, wiping a hand down his mouth, visibly shaking with his slowly waning control when he braces his knuckles to the table's edge and leans slowly over it. "You would do this now? You would bank all our lives on your gods-damned crown?" he growls out.

Her smile slips easily from her face, eyes cold and hard with the seamless shift. "Would you?"

Arya narrows her eyes at Daenerys, and Sansa feels the instinctual, unexplainable urge to reach for her, to stay her hand. Her grip closes around Arya's wrist, the shift somewhat hidden by the heavy furs cloaking both of them. Arya gives no motion of acknowledging the hold, her grey gaze still pinned to the conqueror in their midst.

Jaime scoffs in disgust, arms crossing over his chest. "You know, somehow I expected you to pull something like this but seven hells, I didn't think you were this stupid."

Daenerys flashes him a pinched glare, her austere beauty marred with disdain. "You want to save your men? You kneel. That is the cost."

"You think it's that easy? That you can pull out now?" Jaime shouts, incredulous. "You can't march an army out of encampment – fortified encampment – on a moment's notice!"

"I've no intention of marching my army anywhere. We will defeat the dead – here, tonight. But how much you're willing to lose in that fight is decided now."

"You intended this all along," Theon says softly, throat tightening. "You waited until we had our backs to the wall."

Daenerys doesn't even deem him worth a glance, scowling at Jaime instead.

"It seems you had the right of it from the start, Lady Olenna," Jaime addresses the Tyrell matriarch, a golden brow arched sardonically, "'Anyone unwilling to fight for the kingdoms has no claim to them'."

Olenna waves him off, an irritated huff leaving her. "I hardly said it with such foreknowledge, Kingslayer. You give me too much credit." Her fingers rub at her temples, eyes closing on a vexed sigh.

Jaime manages to hide his amused smile just a moment before his own frustration takes over once more, exasperated eyes leading back to Daenerys.

Tyrion steps forward, wary eyes on Daenerys, even as Varys slips back into the shadows, gaze filtering through the room, alighting on every face in keen observation. "Your Grace, what is it you're proposing exactly?" Tyrion's voice is unsteady, eyes frantic on his queen.

Daenerys spares him a cursory glance, training her eyes back on Jaime when she speaks. "Bend the knee, and my dragons will make quick work of the dead. I will fly them out at the first horn. I will meet this 'Night's King' in the open field, and I will rain fire and blood upon his horde. But," her eyes slip to Jon, watching his quiet seething with sharp interest, "Should you refuse, I cannot guarantee my dragons will make it in time." A mockery of contrition graces her fine features. "I fear you will lose many men before I can make the field."

"Oh, I'm sure you're just absolutely broken up about it," Jaime sneers, moving to brace himself along the table edge in his frustration, golden hand accidently knocking over a Tully figurehead along the war map in his ire.

Daenerys purses her lips, head cocked. "I do not revel in death, no, but it has its uses."

Sansa closes her eyes, breathing deep, a rancid heat arcing through her lungs at Daenerys' words. She dares not look at Jon.

"This is a fine time to be shuffling the deck," Olenna mocks, disapproving eyes shifting toward Daenerys. "If you haven't the right hand for the game, then maybe it's best you just leave the damn table."

"You're mad if you think the Kingdoms of Westeros would swear to you willingly after such a threat," Edmure gets out through clenched teeth, and Sansa's eyes flutter open to look at him.

Daenerys' lip curls when the word 'mad' leaves his lips, chin jutting out when she addresses him. "And you are madder still for thinking you can last the night without my help."

"For fuck's sake," Yara says across the table, "We haven't the time for this."

"You will make time when your queen demands it," Daenerys bites out.

"I swore no oaths to you," Yara sneers, standing straighter. Theon glances to his sister beside him, a flicker of concern lighting his eyes, hands wringing themselves together.

Tormund lets out a grunt of disgust, shaking his head as he stalks away from the table, a hand raked through his tangled hair. "You Southern cunts and your bloody kneeling." His eyes find Jon, cautious and waiting. Beside him, Edd eyes the rest of the council warily.

Daenerys ignores the insult, chest rising with her heated breath. "I can end this war right now. And no one in the Seven Kingdoms will have to know the horror of the Night's King's army. You will not get a better offer." She stops, eyes narrowing. "You will not get another offer," she whispers dangerously.

"And what makes you think bending the knee now guarantees you any of our loyalties once the fight is done?" Edmure scoffs.

"Because the King in the North is not an oathbreaker," she says without doubt, her eyes shifting over Jon's tense form with a self-assured certainty. She swings a goading look Jaime's way. "At least this I can count on."

Sansa's nails are digging into Arya's wrist at this point, throat closing up around her words, eyes flashing between the haggard faces around the war table. She remembers the secret smile Daenerys had along her face when gazing through the window, when watching her children soar. She remembers the heat behind her words when speaking of the witch. She remembers that monsters come in many forms.

Even in beauty.

"If you refuse me now," Daenerys continues, "I promise that you will not have the forces to challenge me when this is over. And I can also promise that I won't be as forgiving." Her face screws into a sharp mask, torchlight flickering over the angles of it in a way not unlike the whip of dragon's wings. "Kneel now, and I will take you under my protection. Choose me – now. Acknowledge your rightful ruler – here, now – and I shall burn your enemies to ash. I shall – "

"He cannot kneel."

Daenerys snaps her jaw closed tight at the interruption, gaze swinging toward the source.

Sansa sucks a sharp breath in at the words, glancing down to Bran beside her, her hand releasing Arya with a jolt.

Daenerys grinds her jaw, slow and concealed behind a perfectly poised smile. "My dear Lord Stark, I understand you Northerners and your pride but – "

"He cannot kneel," Bran says more firmly, eyes a deceivingly passive grey, "Because you are neither the last Targaryen nor the rightful heir to the Iron Throne."

Daenerys clamps her mouth shut, eyes wide and piercing, a threatening howl of dragons echoing through the night air outside.

Everyone stills at Bran's words.

Sansa looks down at her brother, a hand coming up to brace along his shoulder. "Bran," she croaks out, voice sore from disuse. "What do you mean?"

He levels her with a docile look, face as blank as the withering snow. "He's not a bastard at all. He's not even our father's son," he tells her, and everything goes white in her head – static.

A shuddering breath leaves Arya beside her, her sister gripping at the arm of Bran's chair, leaning around it to look him in the eye. "Bran," she says, further words failing her.

A murmur starts amongst the lords, a rush of wind through the room, and Sansa is dizzy, winded, barely aware of her hand slipping from Bran's shoulder, or the brace of Brynden's hand at her back when she sways.

"He is the trueborn son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark," Bran says without preamble, gaze lifting toward Daenerys. "And you should kneel before your king."

The room erupts into chaos – Arya staring wide-eyed at Bran, Daenerys howling her incredulity, the Northern lords demanding Bran's evidence, Jaime Lannister laughing disbelievingly, and Sansa –

Sansa lets the realization blossom beneath her skin like the pooling of ink in water.

Her lips part, an aborted breath lighting her tongue.

Distantly, she recognizes the words being thrown about the room, but they come to her muffled and distorted, like trying to reach across a gale.

"Samwell Tarly has found the documents to prove the annulment of Rhaegar Targaryen's first marriage to Elia Martell," Bran continues on, his voice somehow lifting through the noise of arguing lords.

"Sam?" Edd asks, incredulous, brows pinched together. "Our Sam?"

Bran nods. "He will be sending a raven shortly."

"This doesn't… that doesn't mean – " Daenerys starts, cut off once more by Bran's even voice.

"Howland Reed can provide an account of witness of what happened at the Tower of Joy when Ned Stark promised his protection of Lyanna Stark's son on her deathbed."

Another uproar, a swirl of voices, the echoes ricocheting off the walls, and Sansa is drowning in it, wanting to brace her hands to her ears and shut it all out, shut everything out but –


Sansa looks to him, dazed, hardly moving, barely even breathing.

He's staring at the table, dark brows drawn down, fists still clenched at his sides. He gives no indication that he's heard any of the commotion around the table. She tries to follow his gaze, to calculate the path, gauging his line of sight as he takes in the pieces littering the map spread out before him.

He's staring at the dragonhead figure, she realizes with a pang. He's staring – and then he's shaking suddenly – his instant rage a visceral, biting thing, even from where she stands across the table.

Words crest and break and crest again in unspoken waves along her tongue. The room's eruption of sound distills in the back of her mind, and she watches, intent and unable to look away, as Jon raises a single, clenched fist.

"Enough!" he roars, slamming his fist to the table with a thunderous quake, the echo of his command resounding off the walls.

Stillness overtakes them all.

Jon lifts his gaze from the table, glaring in turn at each of the lords. He resolutely does not look at Sansa. "The plan is unchanged," he seethes, a dangerous lilt to his voice.

The sound sets her spine to tingling.

"You can hardly expect – " Daenerys begins.

"I said," he bellows, anger curling his lip, a harsh shadow overtaking his face, "The plan is unchanged." He finishes the command on a brittle hiss.

Jaime Lannister stares hard and steady at Jon. "This changes everything."

"It changes nothing," Jon growls back.

Sansa wants to scream – to scream and scream and scream – until her lungs give in. Until she is too hollowed out for words.

Tears prick her eyes without her knowing.

Jon braces his other fist to the table as well, leaning over it like a snarling beast, a cornered, wounded thing. "You will gather your men," he begins, voice low and irreproachable, eyes shifting to each lord and sovereign in turn. "You will give them my commands, and you will keep your positions. You will not break rank now, or gods help me, I will let the dead take you all," he snarls, a dark promise to the words, heat flashing through his eyes as he glares them each down.

Finally, as though on a wind, his eyes catch Sansa's.

The breath steals from her, and she thinks she may never get it back again. Her mouth tips open, that unspoken wave of words cresting once more along her tongue, lips parting to let the torrent forth, to drown in it, perhaps even to drown him, and she's ready for it, ready to let it take her, unknowing even of what rush might come forth but ready for it because –

Jon turns from her, stalking away from the table, throwing the door open wide and slamming it in his wake.

Sansa stands deadly still, watching the space he once occupied.

(The wave crashes and breaks and dies upon the shore of her mind – unheard and unfelt. It's a lonely, barren storm that swells within her.)

"Go," Arya says at her elbow, a thin whisper..

Sansa glances down at her, still winded, still unblinking in her daze.

Her sister tugs at the sleeve of her dress, fingers curling tight along the fabric with need. Arya swallows, throat bobbing with controlled emotion, even as her eyes shine with a telling wetness. "Go," she urges once more, grip falling from her sleeve.

Sansa does not need to hear the command again. She gathers her skirts in her trembling hands, ignoring the slowly building chaos in the council chambers, unaware of Arya's motion for Brienne and Brynden not to follow, hair billowing behind her in her rush, and she does as her sister bids.

She goes –

To him.

Jon stalks through the corridor, reeling, breathless, hands flexing at his sides – curling and uncurling into trembling, tightened fists.

The first thing he thinks of – unbidden and disbelievingly – is Catelyn Stark.

Jon wants to scoff at the idea.

She must be happy now, to know her husband never shamed her with his infidelity, to know her lying, treasonous husband loved her – and only her – to know he never tarnished his honor over some common whore.

(Only over his sister – and in this, it seems, a father's sins carry on.)

The snarl breaks from Jon unhindered.

Perhaps that resentment isn't so buried. Perhaps it rises up to the surface just as easily as it always had – only now it's not just Catelyn's face he sees. It's his father's, as well.

His father's.

And no, Ned Stark isn't suddenly not his father, and maybe that's the worst of it. Maybe that's what makes this burning, blinding rage so hot in his chest – this rich and rancid disgust.

Because how dare they make him want so badly what could never have been his from the start?

Jon stops abruptly, pivoting on his heel, roaring as he rears a fist back and slams it into the nearest wall, hearing the telltale crack of his knuckles even beneath the gloves. Panting, chest heaving, throat filled with the vile tang of his longing – he slumps against the wall, fist still braced against the stone, forehead falling forward to follow, and it's cold, so cold, this stone beneath his hand, this home he's stolen, this home he wants even still – even now.

Even less a Stark than he's ever felt before.

(And there was once a time he never thought that possible.)

Jon sneers, eyes slipping closed. Are you happy now, Catelyn? Are you happy now he can never call me 'son' again?

"Jon," Sansa breathes at the end of the hall, jarring his eyes back open.

He leans back from the wall, fist slipping from it slowly, blood seeping through the leather of his gloves already as he looks up at her.

The spite rises once more, frothing at his tongue like a sickness.

Perhaps Catelyn Stark was right to fear him – to hate him.

Jon stares at Sansa, at the precious daughter he's stolen from her grace.

Perhaps Catelyn knew all along the stain his touch would bring, the thief he'd grow to be.

Sansa clears her throat, taking a tentative step closer. "Jon."

Tears fill his eyes instantly, and the breath rakes from him, desperate and jolting. A laugh bubbles forth, a rueful chuckle that deepens and widens and then slowly overtakes him. He clutches at his chest, at his stomach, shaking with it – uncontrollable. It hurts his gut he's laughing so hard, voice ragged, throat sore beneath the quake, head thrown back, tears leaking freely now. He laughs and he laughs and he sobs, instant and anguished – the sound caught in his throat, halting the breath in his lungs. And then he's choking on it, the heel of one hand digging into his eyes, brushing at the tears, lips pulled back in a snarl, teeth bared, aching and tender and lost.

"Oh Jon," she says, breathless and shaken, stalking the length of the corridor to him, but just when he thinks she means to embrace him, she stops.

She stops just feet from him, hands dug into her skirts, clutching them with white knuckles.

Jon tries to rein his breathing in, hand dragging down from his eyes to scrub at the tears lining his cheeks.

"Jon, I'm so – I'm so sorry," she says, head shaking, face pained, but she won't step closer. She won't reach for him.

Jon bites down on his tongue, watching her, eyes dark and searching.

There's a chasm between them suddenly, where none had been before. Unbreachable air. A line drawn and imposed. They stand staring at each other across it, through eyes that may be strangers.

But he remembers the feel of her hands on his skin. She is seared into him like no stranger could ever be – already muscle memory, already worn into his flesh like a stain that cannot wash out.

It makes this chasm all the more wide, all the more unbearable.

He blinks at her, her words echoing through him belatedly, now that he's found some semblance of control once more. "What for?" he asks her, a slight tremor to his voice.

Sansa's lips part, eyes shifting between his in question. No words leave her.

Jon takes a step closer, watching as her hands tighten over her skirts. "What are you sorry for?"

Again, she has no answer, only a sorrowful stare, only white knuckles and a halted breath.

"This is good, isn't it?" he sneers, suddenly angry. The spite rises in him, vile and familiar, a childhood companion. "You should be relieved, shouldn't you? After all, now I can fuck you without reproach." The words are sour on his tongue.

Sansa takes an unconscious step back. "Don't do that," she hisses, the admonishment tinged with tears.

Yes, he thinks, spit it sharper, cut it quicker. Let me feel that heated loathing.

(Always easier to punish than to lose – even himself.)

His teeth clench behind curled lips. "Do what? Speak the truth?" He scoffs, face screwing into something dark and unrecognizable. "This makes it all so much easier, doesn't it? I imagine a king who fucks his cousin is far more palatable to the lords than one who fucks his sister, isn't that right?"

"Don't do that," she whispers again, the censure absent suddenly, breath rattling from her like a winter wind through barren branches.

Jon only stares at her, hard and immovable, throat tight beneath his tremulous swallow.

Sansa blinks back the tears. "Don't pretend this isn't – that you're not – " She stops, unable to continue. She swallows thickly, hand unclenching around her skirts to instead brace against her chest, palm pressing an imprint over her heart. "This is bigger than you and I," she tells him.

Jon looks at her, quiet and dark. He licks his lips, taking another step toward her, until they stand but a foot apart. "And I'm sure you'll find a way to make such information work in our favor, dear cousin," he says mockingly, the sneer impossible to hold back.

He doesn't want this. He's never wanted this. He's only ever wanted – he only still wants –

Jon feels the weight settle in his chest at the realization.

He just wants to be Ned Stark's bastard again.

Sansa recoils at his cold comment, but she collects herself quickly, eyes flitting to the floor for a moment, steadying herself with a deep breath.

Always the considerate one, he reminds himself.

(He wants to drag the rebuke from her lips with his own teeth., snarling and unapologetic.)

"You're hurt, I know," she says, swallowing back the trepidation, glancing back up at him. "You need – you need time, Jon, time to – "

"There is no time."

She purses her lips, brows drawn together over a delicate scowl.

"So what does it matter?" he sighs, voice tight with resentment.

And why now? What had they to gain from this? What reasoning had motivated Bran to throw them into turmoil the night before the end? Would it be enough to sway Daenerys? Would it not incense her further? And how long has Bran known, exactly? How long has he let them think – and let them… let them –

Jon closes his eyes, breathes deep. "What does it fucking matter, Sansa?" His eyes snap open once more, trained on hers in a flash of grey.

Stark grey.

(And he wants to sob again – suddenly and without restraint.)

"What does it matter when I could die this very night?"

She steps into him, breath splashing against his cheeks in her vehemence. "Don't say that!" she hisses at him, lips pulled into a grimace.

"Oh please, Sansa," he scoffs. "Don't pretend you haven't thought it. Don't pretend you aren't as shit-stained scared as I am – that you aren't thinking it even now."

She grabs for his sleeve on instinct, and it still isn't enough. He needs her skin on his. He needs her hands in his hair and her chest pressed to his and her mouth at his own. He needs to feel the weight of her in his calloused palms. He needs to taste her and touch her and breathe her in. He just – he just needs –

He reaches a hand up, going for her arm, and she releases him instantly, bracing back a step, blinking as though she hadn't even realized she'd moved.

Jon stares at her, hand held mid-air – empty of her.

The chasm stretches ever wider, and she is small in the distance. A vague figure on the horizon – a mirage.

He doesn't know how they got here.

Even worse, he doesn't know how to get them back.

She stares up at him, horrified at her own retreat, mouth parting as though to speak, but he doesn't think he's ready for such words.

He's long known how to bear the silence. He can do it a while longer.

Jon pulls his hand back to his side, nodding mutely.

He's slung enough venom at her this night – undeservedly. He thinks he should be sorry for it. He knows he should be sorry for it. But he doesn't know how to weather this ache.

It festers like a wound – raw and uncleansed.

(His father's hand on his shoulder, and the first blade he ever gave him, and the morning he taught him how to shave, and all the times in between when he'd looked upon him with irrepressible adoration and only ever felt the lesser child.)

Jon releases an unsteady breath. He takes a bold step further, closing the distance between them, hand hesitant when it reaches for her waist, tongue darting out to wet his lips.

She doesn't back away this time, eyes locked on his in a gleam of iridescent blue, tears flooding her vision.

His hand braces along the line of her hip, cautious in a way he's never been with her before.

She sucks a breath in at the tentative touch, leaning into it, into him.

Jon doesn't want her ire anymore, suddenly. He doesn't want her censure or her outrage or her violent disapproval.

He doesn't want a sister – now, when he's at his most lonesome, when he wonders if it wasn't perhaps easier to stay dead.

Jon sighs, fingers bunching in the material of her dress, head drawn down to hers.

He only wants a lover, he finds.

He only wants home and heart and her.

"Sansa, I – "


Brynden Tully's voice cuts through the quiet hall, and Jon stills with his mouth braced above hers, a flick of his eyes over her shoulder catching the Blackfish's steady gaze.

There's a question in Brynden's gaze that he will never voice, his mouth set to a heavy frown.

Jon swallows thickly, stiff and unmoving, even as Sansa braces her hands to his chest in a motion for distance.

"Jon," she breathes, a quiet scold when he doesn't release her.

"I'll find you, before the end," he tells her, hand still clutching at her waist, desperate and ragged.

She blinks salt-tinged eyes at him, brows furrowed. "Jon – "

"I'll find you," he says again, no room for argument.

And then something overtakes him, swells within him without warning. He leans forward, pressing his lips to her forehead, and he doesn't let himself linger on the keening sound that breaks across her lips, the painful exhale that leaves her. Instead, he kisses her with a tenderness that leaves them both breathless when he finally pulls away.

They stand staring at each other, chests heaving.

Anything he means to say seems hollow and inadequate in the wake of his sudden affection. So he simply stares at her, he simply holds her.

Until her uncle walks up to them, stopping a few feet behind Sansa.

Jon shifts his dark gaze back to the Blackfish somewhat reluctantly.

"Your Grace, there are still preparations to be made," he says as delicately and unobtrusively as he can, even as he sighs gruffly.

Jon's grip falls from Sansa's hip, and he steps back, nodding to his Tully ally.

Sansa's hands slip from his chest without further word, and he is worse for the loss of it.

"There is work to be done," he says, jaw clenching, eyes shifting back to Sansa's.

He doesn't let her say more, because to say more would drown him. So he leaves her. He leaves her standing in the middle of the corridor, her uncle's gentle hand at her elbow. He leaves her trembling and desolate and with lungs splintering to pieces.

He leaves her.

(He looks back just the once.)

Jon has awaited her arrival since Bran's reveal during the war council, and so it isn't surprising when he hears the guards announce her at his door. He answers them reluctantly. Daenerys slips into his chambers with an ease and comfort at taking up space she has no claim to take, and it's a visceral reminder to Jon.

He's sitting in the chair at his desk, facing the door when she shuts it behind her, chin high. He makes no move to greet her, but he thinks she must have expected this. Daenerys takes a turn about the room, glancing at the comfortable furnishings, the tokens, the touch of Stark to his home.

He very nearly recoils when she glides a gloved hand over the edge of the furs lining his bed.

(The bed he'd only ever shared with Sansa – and only ever would.)

Daenerys heaves a labored sigh, lips pursed. She folds her hands before her and finally looks at him. "I suppose there is a conversation to be had between us now."

"Not really, Your Grace."

A flicker of annoyance furrows her brows, but it's gone instantly. "Of course there is. The issue of legitimacy must be considered. The throne is at stake."

Jon rubs a hand down his face, a gruff sigh leaving him. He stands finally. "Your Grace, I don't care about a throne – "

"None but the Northern one," she corrects, a false smile gracing her features.

Jon holds his tongue, the words smarting behind his teeth. He stalks away toward the window, stalks back, a brusqueness to his motions that betrays his frustration. "It's irrelevant. Proving my legitimacy means getting those records from Sam at the Citadel and Howland Reed answering a summons to pledge his account of witness. We haven't the time for that. The dead are practically here."

"After the war," Daenerys pushes, taking a step closer. "Because this is hardly the end of it. I did not cross an ocean and lose all that I have to end it at the Night King's feet. No," she swears, voice vehement suddenly. "The matter of legitimacy will be addressed, Jon Snow, whether you like it or not, and I will not stand by while a Northern usurper takes what is rightfully mine."

Jon bites his tongue to keep the words at bay, a losing battle he realizes. His chest heaves, his hands curling into fists at his side. "I don't want the Iron Throne," he spits at her. "I don't want the damned thing."

Daenerys takes another daring step closer, hands slipping back to her sides as she straightens her shoulders in their ensuing proximity. "No, perhaps not. But you'll take it if the alternative is bending the knee."

He has no answer for her. No answer that she wants to hear, at least, because in this – in this, she is right. And damn her for it.

Jon shakes his head, the darkness swimming, familiar, edging along the back of his mind like a comfort. And hadn't he always blamed death? Hadn't it been betrayal that brought this out of him, this need, this greed, this fervency? He's beginning to think not.

Jon looks at his kin – his dragon kin – and thinks maybe…maybe not.

Maybe it was the Targaryen in him all along.

The bile is sour at the back of his throat. Because no – no, that's wrong.

"You are to me."

He thinks of his father – his father – and he wants to shake the man, grab him by the collar and sling him to the floor, bellow his rage into a face that still looks so mockingly like his and he wants to hate him for this, he does – he wants to hate him for making him his when he never should have been, for making him want things that should never be his, for making him exactly who he should never be.

A Stark.

"– but you have my blood."

Jon shuts his eyes to the memory.

Some things have always meant more than blood. And others have always meant less.

Perhaps this is where Jon decides exactly where that line falls.

"I'm tired of war," he breathes out slowly, eyes sliding back open, and the exhaustion bleeds from him without restraint.

The war inside, and the one outside. He's just so tired of it all.

Daenerys screws her mouth into a tight line. "That doesn't mean you won't fight."

Perhaps she does know him, in some small measure. Perhaps blood does recognize blood.

Jon swallows back the frustration, eyes boring into hers. "If the kingdoms seek independence when this is done – "

"Impossible. Not while I'm standing here."

"You will have another war on your hands," he growls.

"Wars are easily won when you're in the right."

Jon scoffs at her, at her arrogance, her self-righteousness.

She scowls at the insult. "You dare to – "

"Aye, I dare, Your Grace," he bites out, advancing until she is forced to take a step back, her eyes flashing. "Have you ever fought in a war, truly fought? Have you ever soiled your own hand with another man's blood? Have you ever seen the whites of their eyes when you sunk the blade deep yourself?"

Daenerys swallows thickly, looking up at him with contempt. "I know violence, Jon Snow, I've –"

"But you have not felt it, you understand? Not like I mean," he bellows. "You've sent men burning to their deaths from your perch high in the sky where they are nothing more than ants in your wake, where you cannot hear their screams or feel their thrashing or smell their reek, no! You do not know violence, Your Grace, not in the way you spout, regardless of what violence has been done to you, because if you could claim as such you would not sit there and tell me that it's about what is right!" He bites off his roar with a choke, remembering, and not wanting to, but remembering – "War has never been about what's right." It's a tremulous exhale that leaves him, a quake of words, and he wants them to reach her, he does, but he thinks he might be out of hope this far in.

He thinks he's used it all up just getting them here.

"Then help me put an end to it."

Her words silence him, and he takes a step back, looking at her in the candlelight, the sharp angles of her face catching shadows in a way that should be alluring but only seems haunting to Jon.

She works her jaw, seeming to test the words along her tongue before she lets them to air. "Become my consort and help me unite the seven kingdoms once more under a unified Targaryen rule."

He tries, he truly does. He tries to smother the laugh, but it breaks from him unbidden – a stilted, disbelieving thing.

Daenerys sneers at his response, her regality marred in disdain. "I fail to see the humor in my proposal."

"Aye, and what a proposal it was," he finds himself saying, hand wiping over his mouth as he walks toward the window, visibly shaken. He rests a gloved hand on the windowsill, steadies himself.

Daenerys does not relent. "You know as well as I do that the Northern lords will follow you. And if they follow you in rebellion, they will die. They will burn for their treason. But if they follow you in this…"

Jon looks back at her, hand sliding from his mouth. He narrows his eyes at her. "We have the right to self-determination."

"You lost that right when Torrhen Stark knelt to my ancestors."

"It is not a right you lose, not ever. Not even under the threat of dragon fire."

Daenerys considers him a moment, stepping closer. "And you would stake their lives on that?"

Jon turns fully to her now. "They would stake their own."

She narrows her eyes at him, brow furrowed in confusion.

Jon shakes his head, licking his lips. He makes his way back to her with a certainty inherent to kings. "The North has always chosen their own. And they've already chosen. I cannot change that, Your Grace." The words are firm, but they are not abrasive. He tries to soften his features with their admission.

Daenerys cocks her head at him, eyes perusing his face. It's an inscrutable look, one he's never seen before. The room is suddenly stifling. "And are you sure that is your only reason for refusal?"

Jon shakes his head, uncomprehending.

Daenerys shifts toward him, an intimacy in her sudden closeness that jars Jon to words. "Your Grace – "

"Do you not desire me?"

Jon stiffens, taking in the way her eyes rake over his form, appraising him without shame. He swallows tightly, hands curled into fists at his sides. "You are my aunt."

Daenerys scoffs, eyes rolled in a decidedly unqueenly fashion. "Please, you needn't bother with such displays. We're both Targaryens here, aren't we?"

"I will not lie with you," he breathes out in no uncertain terms. "I could not."

A quiet wrath sweeps over her face, barely discernible but for the quake of her pursed lips. "And I suppose refusing such an arrangement keeps your pretty little sister right where you have her?"

Jon's brow furrows in question, but the ire is already lighting his bones.

Daenerys releases a low chuckle, stalking away from him with a heated grace. "Sansa Stark wants to keep her seat at Winterfell. And you want to give that to her." She glances over her shoulder at him, eyes flickering a dark violet. "Tell me, were you two always so close?"

Jon's nostrils flare with his anger, his lip curling. "She is not at issue here."

"Isn't she? When she's the one you're fucking?"

A heavy silence pervades the room. Jon goes still – so still his shadow doesn't even flicker in the candlelight. "What did you say?" It's barely above a hiss.

She turns to face him, unrepentant. "Oh come now, nephew, I'm not a fool. You've the same glint in your eye when you're looking at her as Viserys always had when he looked at me."

The disgust is instant, so blindingly pungent that he has to take a step back.

Daenerys crosses her arms over her chest in a protective sort of motion Jon wonders if she even knows she's doing. Her voice goes small suddenly, her throat flexing beneath the words. "Brothers only ever want a sister for what they can get out of her."

He stops, just watching her, just… seeing someone else entirely for the brief moment that the words leave her. And he can't help but wonder how it all might have happened differently, if he'd been allowed to know her sooner, allowed to grow into the man he was meant to be.

But then he sees his father's face once more, and even still, he wants to hate him. He wants to, even though he knows he never will – even though he knows he will take his yearning to the grave, and maybe this is what regret is supposed to taste like.

Years upon years of not knowing and not having and not being – and still wanting.

He's been wearing a lie someone else has dressed him in, and it doesn't fit in any of the right places anymore.

(None of the places but at Sansa's lips and in Sansa's hands and between Sansa's legs.)

Maybe this is the kind of lie he dressed himself in.

It makes the words come easy now. Jon licks his lips, meets Daenerys' gaze evenly when he tells her, "Do not compare your family's sin with mine. Do not make vile that which I hold sacred."

"Sacred?" she scoffs. "My, but Viserys never cared enough to call my cunt such a thing. Should I be jealous?"

Jon laughs, short and abrupt. It jerks Daenerys with the loudness of it. "Gods, but you're still just a small, angry child, aren't you?" He cannot help the pity that stains the words.

"I am a queen!" she shouts suddenly, arms snapped back to her sides, visibly shaking with her wrath.

But the anger has already left Jon. "You come into my home, threaten my people, and think you can demand my subservience because we need your dragons? You give a good fight, Your Grace, I'll give you that. But how dare you be surprised when I fight back? You insult me at every opportunity and yet you dare to stand there and negotiate with me – to plead – and behind poorly veiled threats, at that."

"A queen does not plead," she snarls.

"Please, Your Grace, I know a last-ditch effort when I see one, and you are drowning in it."

Daenerys adjusts the collar of her dress, a muscle in her throat twitching as she sweeps toward the door. She whips back, paused at the handle, seething. "Know this, bastard – when my armies have laid waste to the dead and my dragons have burnt away their filth, your precious North will be next. The white winds cannot save you, not from fire, and I will have that which I came to take, with or without you at my side." Something lights along her face then, an eeriness that pulls a sneer from her lips.

Jon shudders at the sight, unbidden.

"Go to your whore tonight, Your Grace," she mocks, contempt staining her features. "I dare say that, one way or the other, it may be the last chance you have." She slams the door behind her when she leaves, and Jon sinks back along the window ledge, face in his hands.

He goes to her. He goes, because how could he not?

Jon barely waits for Brienne's announcement of his presence at Sansa's door and her answering 'Come in' before he's bursting into her chambers, stalking toward her.

Sansa stands from her seat, her needlework dropped to the floor in her surprise at his abrupt entrance, and she doesn't even have a moment to breathe his name before he's reaching for her, hands grasping her face, barreling into her with a needful, desperate kiss, stumbling her roughly back into the table behind her, and Brienne clears her throat pointedly, grabbing for the still open door, slamming it closed on them with a huff of disapproval.

"Jon," she gasps when he finally releases her, mouth trembling.

He doesn't give her long, because he's crashing his mouth back to hers, bruising and wet, hands winding back into her hair, hips pinned to hers.

She gives a muffled protest against his lips, hands pushing at his chest, and he breaks from her, breathless.

"Jon, you're not – "

"I couldn't," he pants at her mouth, forehead falling against hers, hands still in her hair. "I couldn't do it, Sansa, I couldn't give you up like that and I… I think I might have damned us all but I couldn't – I couldn't do it."

"Jon." The name comes out steady, even as she's reining her breath in, still pushing at his chest. "What happened?"

He closes his eyes, breathes her in, and he thinks he can taste the cinders even now. His burning North. He grips her tighter, eyes screwed shut. "Daenerys, she – she wouldn't back down, not even after Bran said… what he said. About me, about – " He stops, swallows, starts again. "She's threatened, Sansa, by my 'claim', but she gave me an out. She offered me a place as her consort, a peaceful union, and I couldn't take it." He takes a harrowing breath, opens his eyes, pulls his head back just enough to look at her.

Her hands have stilled at his chest, her arms going limp. She blinks furiously, mouth parted. "What?"

He moves into her again, hands unwinding from her hair to slide around her back, gripping her to him. "Even knowing it meant avoiding war, even knowing that – I couldn't do it."

"Jon, let go of me," Sansa whispers at his ear, still as the grave.

The calmness of it has him jolting from her, separating him from her with all the force her own feeble efforts had failed to accomplish. He stares at her, brow furrowed.

He used to know how to read her face. He used to know every arch of her lips and quiver of her brow and flash of her eyes. He used to know this face that stares back at him.

Perhaps his Targaryen blood has ruined that, too.

Sansa swallows tightly, gaze never leaving his. "You should take her offer."

The room goes quiet, and Jon's hands slip from her, hanging uselessly at his sides.

He has this memory. Sansa's voice filters through the grey halls, an unfamiliar song, as he makes his way to the courtyard to train, just a boy still, just a boy swinging wooden sticks and playing at being a man. He doesn't see her, doesn't pass her room where she sits sewing like the little lady she'd always been rather good at playing, but in the end he doesn't need to see her, really. He knows her voice – knows the willows and bends as it sifts through the cold halls, and for a moment, for this fractured instant when the blaring light of dawn is streaking over the grey stone through the open windows and his curls are still damp from his wash and the wooden sword in his hand is heavier than any sword will ever be again – he thinks this must be what happiness feels like.

A song in his home.

Small and intangible and only his.

He hadn't needed her then, not like he does now, hadn't even really known her, but even still – he'd known what it meant to belong – or to need to, at least.

Maybe that was enough. Maybe that was supposed to be enough.

(He wants more.)


"We can't keep doing this." It's a broken sob that leaves her, and his chest aches at the sound. "You and I – we should have known it wasn't ever going to end the way we wished."

Jon stares at her, silent, his jaw working.

"Jon, please, you have to know the lords would never agree."

It's a fine time to have reservations, he thinks. "We aren't siblings." Jon watches as her face falls, and it shouldn't hurt so much. It shouldn't hurt so much to say it. Maybe because it isn't about her anymore. Maybe because it's about Arya and Bran and Robb and Rickon and Ned. Maybe it's about not having them anymore, the way he always needed them.

"No," Sansa agrees, much too easily for Jon's liking. "No, we're not. But we were intimate long before we knew that. And the Northern lords would never allow it, if they ever discovered that."

It's not a truth he can deny. And he doesn't want to. He's made peace with that a long time ago. "That doesn't mean I can give myself to any other woman." He steps closer, chest heaving with his frustration. "I don't even have anything left to give, Sansa. You've taken it all."

Her brow quivers, tears threatening at the corners of her eyes, but they don't fall. She takes a deep, soldering breath. "Daenerys makes a good offer. It will keep the North safe."

"It will keep them chained," he counters, the heat rising again, the anger familiar in all the wrong ways. This is not the conversation he means to have with her.

Sansa nods, head dipping down. She wipes at her eyes, unseen. "Then you will find a way to free them, to protect them. You always do."

He can still hear it now, that lilting voice in the grey halls of home. That fleeting bit of happiness.

Jon clenches his jaw, glaring at her. "That's not what this is about."

Sansa blinks back up at his growl, a hand going out to steady herself against the table at her back. "What do you mean?"

He takes another step, and he's close enough to smell her, close enough to breathe in that tang of leather and ink and rosemary that always suffuses her, close enough to taste the shock of air between them in its heady familiarity, in the way that always lends itself to touch. His hand rises to her laced-in side and he can practically feel her intake of breath against his hand. "Why does it have to change?"

She stares at him, mouth parted, tongue darting out to wet her lips.

"All because I'm not your brother anymore?"

Her hands are back at his chest, pushing, but it's a half-hearted attempt at best. "Jon."

His other hand finds its way to her waist, both hands bracketing her hips now. "Why?" he whispers, the question lodging in his throat. And he remembers what her scars feel like beneath the pads of his fingertips. "Do you think you only deserve to be touched if it's wrong?"

Sansa stiffens in his hold, a sharp breath sucked between her teeth.

He braces his forehead back against hers, his fingers tightening over her hips. "Is that it? You don't want it anymore because it's not a punishment?"

"Get off me," she mutters, pushing more fervently now.

He doesn't let her go. "Is that why you were always so reckless? All those unlocked doors? All those times you never bothered to smother your moans? In the council chambers and the Hall of Lords and the fucking godswood, Sansa, the fucking godswood?" He presses into her, hands greedy and bruising, mouth panting at her own.

"Stop," she seethes, voice cracking at the end. She glares back at him.

He ignores her weak attempt at pushing him off, his hands gliding up her waist, his face burrowing in her neck. He sucks a sharp breath in – so close, so fucking close he can taste her, feel the heat rising from her sweat-dampened skin. "Did you want to be caught? Did you need it? Is that it?" he growls into the skin of her throat, pinning her in her thrashing. "You needed someone else to tell you how wrong you were, didn't you? How sinful and base and depraved. You needed someone else to stop you, because you couldn't do it yourself." The words are a grated hiss against her flesh.

"Please, stop." Her hands curl into fists at his chest.

He doesn't admit to the sob he hears in her voice now. "Well, neither could I, Sansa. Neither could I, and I don't fucking want to." He rears back, dark eyes searching hers, hands tangling in her hair as he keeps her braced to him, gaze locked to hers. "I told her no because I'm selfish, Sansa. Because we've fought and bled for the North and because it's ours and because you're mine and because I won't give that up but if I must – if they make me choose, Sansa, listen to me, Sansa, if they make me choose – "

She's sobbing, he realizes, sobbing and begging and a wreckage of need. She blinks startlingly blue eyes up at him, iridescent behind the sheen of tears.

He hears it even now – that voice in the halls, that song in the grey.

"I'd choose you," he tells her.

She closes her eyes, a shudder lancing through her, something like a laugh breaking across her parted lips but he can't be sure, because her laughs sound too much like crying these days and he can't tell the difference anymore, and he thinks maybe that's the worst thing he's ever known.

"You shouldn't," she murmurs in the space between their lips.

And it's crying, he realizes, not laughing. It's crying, because who could laugh at that?

Something steels inside him. His hand loosens in her hair. He braces himself back just a breath. "You're a coward, Sansa."

It takes only a moment for the words to register, and then she's pushing at him with all her might, the anger flaring and white-hot and ripping from her. "Get off me, Jon!" she bellows, and he staggers back from the force of it, suddenly weak, suddenly hollow.

"How dare you," she seethes, the tears blinked back furiously, her hands curling into fists at her sides.

She's still crying, and he knows this because he realizes suddenly that he's crying, too. Maybe he has been this whole time. Maybe he's been crying from the start.

Jon wipes at his cheeks, face hardening, breath a long, ragged draw in his lungs. "I'd choose you, Sansa," he tells her, already surrendering, already slumping beneath the weight of it. "But I need you to choose me, too."

The fury blanks from her face instantly, and they're left staring at each other, a needful, aching mirror, a thunderously blaring reflection neither has the heart to reach for.

So he goes for the door instead.

"Jon, please," she says, voice infinitely small, and how he hates the sound.

How he hates that he has done this to them.

(He's always been just a boy using wooden swords to play at being a man.)

"I can't stay here," he tells her, stilling with his grip on the door handle. "Not unless you ask me to." He looks up at her, but he already knows the answer.

In the end, it is no answer at all. It's merely silence.

Sansa stares at him, breath hitching, hand out-reaching. But that's all she offers.

Jon nods to her, hand wiping down his mouth, eyes blinking back the wetness. He'd say a farewell, but nothing seems to fit, and so he leaves her in silence.

He's selfish, after all, and he's never admitted to being otherwise.

The dead aren't the only ones riddled with rot.

{"She was never the solution," he answers her.

Sansa nearly goes numb – a deep-rooted quiet rippling through her, burrowing its way between her ribs. She thinks some part of her might have fractured away already, never to return. "Fire could never defeat the dead," she mumbles, almost without thought. The words stain her tongue with their futility.

"No," he answers her simply, and yet, there is nothing simple about it. Bran shifts in his furs, a measure of securing comfort, and Sansa is suddenly sick without nothing why.

"Only resurrection can."

Sansa sucks a sharp breath through her lips.

"He's had the magic in him all along."}

Chapter Text

Disclaimer: I own nothing, I make no money.

A Violence Done Most Kindly

Chapter Seven: Fulfilled

"Freedom means no collar. It's what Jon gave the North. It's what he gave her. And she will not squander it anymore. She deserves this, she realizes finally. She thinks maybe she always had." - Jon and Sansa. Stark is a house of many winters.

* * *

"I don't like it," Jon says gruffly, arms crossed as he looks down at Bran.

Bran offers a humoring smile. "There's something I must do, Jon."

Sansa shakes her head, leaning down to place a hand at his armrest. "You don't have to do it alone."

The smile wilts easily, his somber face turning to Sansa. "But I do." There is no room for argument. Sansa pulls her hand from him with a quiet hurt.

Bran tells them that any room will suffice, so long as he is alone, but as he looks about Sansa's chambers – their parents' chambers – she swears she sees a flicker of something etch across his face, his throat tightening when he swallows, lips pursed. It is gone instantly. He clears his throat. "This will do."

Arya scoffs. "You were always so stubborn."

He blinks up at her, and that shadow passes over his face again. Instant and irretrievable.

Sansa narrows her eyes at him, a slow-pooling dread lighting in her stomach.

"Then indulge my stubbornness a while longer," he says, glancing between the three of them.

"Bran, you can't just – "

"Do you want to defeat the dead?"

None of them answer. But their silence is enough.

Bran sighs, nodding. "Then you must leave me." He looks to Jon then, eyes intent. "And when it is time, you will come for me."

Jon blinks at him, brows furrowed. His arms slip from over his chest. "Bran…"

"I'll be waiting."

Sansa sighs, wringing her hands together. Arya scowls beside her.

After many moments of silence, the air stilted and heavy between them, Sansa hears Jon sigh on the other side of Arya. "You haven't been wrong thus far." Another sigh, a hand raked through his curls. "I don't like it, Bran, I don't, but – but I'm going to trust you one more time." His eyes soften, mouth thinning into a tight line. "I'm going to trust you," he tells him, voice catching.

Sansa watches Bran's mouth open, and then slowly – so slowly – he closes it without words. Something about the hesitancy throws her, jars something in her, that pool of dread rippling out. "Bran," she begins.

She cuts herself off when Jon leans forward suddenly, hand braced to the back of Bran's head, lips pressed fervently to his forehead. He releases him with a heavy exhale, blinking back the sudden wetness, nodding just the once, and then turning and stalking from the room, never granting her a glance. She watches him go, eyes lingering along the familiar furs lining his shoulders. Her chest tightens without warning,

"You always had the stupidest ideas when we were younger," Arya says dryly. "I guess some things don't change."

Her sister's voice draws her attention back to them.

"I'll be safe here. It's the heart of the castle. And you won't let a single wight past you."

Arya lifts her chin, but Sansa can see the minute tightening of her jaw, the quiver she clamps down on. "Bloody right," she says on a dark laugh, even as her voice cracks.

"I don't want to leave you," Sansa says softly, her nails digging half-moons over the knuckles of her other hand.

Bran shifts his impassive gaze back to hers. "But you will," he says evenly, a gentleness to the words she doesn't expect – has grown used to missing in his voice.

Arya slips her hand into his, fingers clenching tightly. "I'll keep one eye on the sky. Send your blasted ravens if you must. I'll come for you." She squeezes his hand, reluctantly letting go.

Bran nods, but Sansa takes it more like a pacifying gesture than any real acknowledgement of Arya's promise.

Sansa leans down, wrapping her arms around his shoulders, sighing at his ear. "Be safe."

"Go," he says in answer, voice tight like she's never heard before. Her touch stills along his back, retreating stiffly.

He does not meet her eyes when she finally pulls away.

Arya's hand is at her elbow then, stealing her attention, and she pushes down the trepidation, swallows it back behind a poised tongue.

"I'm going to trust you."

Sansa lets the words ground her – here in her home, here in the wolf's den –

Here where the pack survives.

She nods – just the once, shoulders straightening. And then she lets Arya's tug on her elbow lead her to the door. She looks back as the door closes on their little brother, and he's so pale, suddenly, she realizes. Fine-boned and frail and worn beyond his years.

Her little brother.

She does not hear the hitch in his breath when the door finally shuts behind her.

Sansa sows. It's the only thing that keeps her hands from shaking, the only thing she feels useful at in this moment. She's hardly a battle-trained knight, hardly a war strategist, but she knows how to mend tunics and embroider banners and hem cloaks. She can do little, but she will not do nothing.

It may be hours until the dead finally arrive. It may be minutes. She waits for the horn with a stone in her gut, her skin prickling from something far more insidious than just cold. When the call sounds, she will descend into the crypts with the rest of the remaining refugees and untrained lords and ladies. Until then, she sows. And she waits.

Arya sits beside her, sharpening Needle into a point so fine she could split the thread at Sansa's fingertips.

It is not how she imagined the night before the end, but she is thankful, nonetheless. Arya's presence beside her is the only thing keeping her from crawling out of her skin.

Sansa glances out the window. It is still the dead of night, still the dark hour. She imagines dawn will break across the battle red this day, if dawn comes at all.

"What's it feel like to be in love?"

Arya's question is so sudden and jarring that Sansa's hand slips and she stabs her thumb with the needle in her grip. She curses beneath her breath, bringing the blood-tipped thumb to her mouth instantly, eyes alighting along her sister.

Arya is decidedly looking away from her, eyes fixed to the slow, purposeful swipe of her whetstone along her blade, brows drawn down, half her face hidden in shadow. She doesn't repeat herself.

Sansa hears her all the same.

Blinking abruptly, Sansa pulls her thumb from her mouth. "I'm not…I mean, we aren't…" Her words teeter off, dying as soon as they hit air.

Because she is, she realizes suddenly – blindingly.

She is, she is, she is –

Her breath rakes from her in a single, long draw.

She's so far in love she's learned to wear it like a second skin – like a Northern cloak, a winter fur – draping her as close as a wolf's pelt.

She's slipped into it so effortlessly, or perhaps it slipped into her. Sansa can't be sure. She only knows that somewhere along the way, somehow, someway, she's slipped into him.

A collision she stumbled toward headlong – willfully and unrepentantly.

To have a word for it now – to name it – Sansa wonders how she ever missed it in the first place.

She laughs suddenly, disbelievingly, her hands dropping to her lap with a low thud. Something catches along her throat, sharp and impossible to swallow. It staggers the laugh at her lips, her eyes wet without her realizing, her lips trembling.

Arya stills her swipe of the whetstone in her hands, eyes shifting up to watch her sister, face still a dark shadow, uncertain, anxious. She draws her bottom lip between her teeth.

"Is that what we were?" Sansa chokes out, laugh faltering somewhat with the unexpected tears. "In love?" She clears her throat, a shaky, incredulous smile tugging at her lips, her hand coming up to press at her brow, head dipped low. She digs the heel of her palm into her eyes, her face crumbling beneath the cover, shaking her head fervently.

Arya sets the whetstone aside completely, staring silently at her. She doesn't move to comfort her. She doesn't reprimand her or console her or scold her. She does nothing but let her cry her piece, let her swallow back her delirious, tear-stained laugh, let her rub the wetness from her eyes as though it had never been, throat sore and disused and full of ruination.

Arya just lets her be. And then she smirks, something tender to her gaze, leaning back in her chair as she watches Sansa. "And here I thought you were the smart one," she teases softly, almost hesitantly.

Sansa sighs, head tilted back to watch the ceiling. Her eyes have been wiped dry, her bruised laughter smothered at the tip of her tongue.

"I need you to choose me, too."

Sansa frowns, the memory splashing harsh and vibrant in its immediacy. "Not when it comes to Jon, it seems," she says.

Arya doesn't rebuke her, and Sansa isn't sure whether that's a blessing or a curse. But she appreciates the silence, nonetheless. She isn't sure she could handle more than that just yet.

Silence pervades her solar then, the snow falling thick and unending at her windowsill, the night waning on.

Sansa glances back to her hands, stares at the bead of blood along her thumb, unblinking. She tucks it back beneath her knuckles.

"I think…" Arya starts, and then doesn't finish.

Sansa looks back up at her.

(She'd been there, she learned, when Arya finally told her – she'd been there when their father died. She'd seen the birds as they'd flown on the upward swing of the blade, and then the absence of their wings on the downward fall. But she'd not seen the tumble of his head along the steps or through the mud, and for this Sansa is grateful.

Some things should never be shared, even amongst sisters.

So she promises to keep this. She promises to keep her secret horrors. And she promises to keep her sister.)

"I think we've been unkind to ourselves for too long," Arya sighs out, fingers tightening over the hilt of Needle, eyes drifting down toward the floor.

Sansa stares at her, something building in her chest she's too wary to call need. She licks her lips and looks away, focusing on the grey stone across from them, watching the shadow of flickering candlelight as it dances across the wall. This is comfort, at least. This is safe.

Arya looks up finally, brows angled sharply down. Her eyes are wet.

Sansa looks back at her reluctantly. Silence used to be easy between them, but it's stifling now. Her mouth parts. Her hands clench in her lap. She aches for her, she realizes – she aches and aches and aches. She's bereft – cleanly and absolutely.

Arya's face pinches tight, a pain etching across her features too imbedded to be temporary. "I'm tired of being unkind," she says, voice breaking.

Sansa draws a sharp breath in, eyes riveted to her sister. "So am I." The words find their way to her lips before she can recognize them.

She wouldn't draw them back for the world.

Arya nods, throat tightening, mouth a thin line. Her gaze drops back down to Needle.

Sansa swallows thickly, straightening in her seat, eyes blinking back the wetness. Her hands grip at the forgotten needlework atop her lap. "Have you been in love?" she asks. Something about the words feels foreign when directed at her sister, but there's a warmth clawing at her chest, burrowing its way between her ribs. There's an affection there begging for use.

Arya opens her mouth, closes it, opens it again. She slumps back along her chair, brows furrowing.

Just a girl, Sansa thinks. Just a girl, and just a dream, and just a wish.

(Let her sister remember the flutter of wings, she tells herself. She will remember the rest – for the both of them.)

"I'm not sure," Ayra says, licking her lips, hand tightening over Needle's hilt. "But I think I'd like to find out," she says, and something like a smile teases the corner of her lips.

It's quite possibly the most beautiful thing Sansa's ever witnessed.

Arya looks off to the far wall then, a fond remembrance coloring her features that Sansa doesn't think she may ever be privy to. Even still, she smiles warmly.

Arya blinks at her, a sudden realization sharpening her features. "Once all of this is over, of course. Once our family is safe."

Sansa smiles at her, slow and beaten and fond beyond words. She reaches for her hand, curls her needle-worn fingers atop Arya's own rough hand. "Will you leave for a time?" There is nothing accusatory in the question, nothing demanding.

Arya nods, throat tightening. "For a time," she says. "But I'll be back."

Sansa retracts her hand with a lingering, affectionate pat. She nods, words stalling in her throat.

She's only just now learned how to need her sister. She doesn't want to learn how to lose her.

Arya's hand shoots out, catching Sansa's retreating touch in calloused, hesitant fingers.

They sit staring at each other for long moments.

"I'll come back," Arya presses, voice hitching, a fierceness to her features that stills Sansa across from her. "I'll always come back for you, Sansa."

She swallows the sob threatening air, lips trembling as they pull upward into a tender smile. She squeezes the hand holding her own. "And I shall always wait," she tells her, and means it, and needs it.

Arya nods quietly, hand retreating reluctantly, eyes shifting back to her blade, to the familiar.

Sansa stays watching her little sister.

Unkind no longer, she promises herself.

The horn sounds minutes later.

Her sworn shields leave her for the battle, as she commands. They have no place in the barricaded crypts, with the rest of the common folk still left in Winterfell. From her place at the edge of the courtyard, before she must head below ground, she watches Arya's retreat as she cuts her way through the lines of men. Brienne steps up beside her.

"My lady," she says, and it's a calm bit of stillness in the chaos before war.

Sansa frowns at the greeting, her eyes still trailing the back of her sister as she slowly disappears from sight. An unmanageable terror grips at her then. "Protect her," she breathes out, suddenly trembling. She turns to Brienne, eyes wide and fixed on the other woman's. "She is the other half of your oath – the other half of my mother's heart." The words come out high-pitched and strung taut, her throat dry.

Brienne's face twists beneath the painful remembrance, her eyes drifting down. Slowly, with a tender hesitance, she reaches for Sansa's hands in the cold, her own gloved fingers winding surely around her lady's.

Sansa keeps her breath tight in her chest, fingers clawing at Brienne's steady hands, an anchor in the wind, a holdfast. She blinks pleading eyes up at her. "Protect her," she hisses out desperately.

The anguish on Brienne's face lessens somewhat, a thumb running affectionately along Sansa's knuckles as she looks up. She meets Sansa's dread-filled gaze with her own hard one. "I keep my oaths, Lady Sansa," she tells her softly, though the words do not break.

Sansa stares at her, remembering.

Remembering the shape of her in wind and shadow, when her sword had come down through the hail of snow on Ramsay's men, splitting her pursuers into bloody, rending pieces. Remembering the ardent plea in her eye as she begged to be of service, the way her mouth formed her mother's name in fondness and adoration. Remembering the warmth of her hands as she wrapped a fresh cloak about her shoulders, and brushed the soil from her cheek, and helped her to her saddle.

Remembering the way she had felt safe – completely and without doubt – for the first time since her father's head rolled down those muddy steps at the Sept of Baelor.

"Yes," Sansa says, the terror leaking from her with her slow exhale, lungs alight with a new fervency. "Yes, you do, Lady Brienne," she agrees, a shaky smile tugging at her lips. And then she releases Brienne's hands to throw her arms around her, surprising her sworn shield for several long moments, until she feels Brienne wrap her own arms around her, sure and promising, before they release each other in unison.

No further words are shared. Just a look. Just a last, lingering look. A respectful nod. A shimmer of unshed tears – quiet with admiration and affection. And then Brienne's back as she turns from her, disappears into the crowd as Arya had.

Somehow, the image is comforting rather than worrying.

"This damn cold," Brynden says suddenly at her side, startlingly her slightly as she turns to him. He's looking at her with a fond smile, eyes crinkling at the edges. "Makes a man wish for the warmth of hearth and home, wouldn't you say?"

Sansa smiles up at him. "I am home, Uncle." She's never said truer words, she finds.

Brynden nods, sniffling in the cold, pulling a long, deep breath in as he looks out along the courtyard. "That you are, sweetwater, that you are."

She looks at him, brows dipping down, a hand going to his elbow. "Uncle."

He looks back to her, a dismissive shake to his head. "Not to worry, my lady. Only just that this cold has made an old man of me." He stretches his arms at the words, cracking his head left and then right. "Never felt such a creak in my bones 'til I came this far North."

Sansa's lips purse, a worrying shadow passing over her face, hand more insistent at his elbow now as she tugs him to face her fully. "Uncle Brynden, I – "

He shushes her gently, hand braced on her shoulder. "Forgive an old man the informality but listen here, Sansa." He steadies his gaze on hers, the crinkle at the edges of his eyes fading out, his mouth settled into a terse, thin line. "I had not expected to outlive your mother – our dear Catelyn." A heavy sigh leaves him, the name tinged in regret, his voice tight. He raises his chin, clearing his throat. "I will not outlive you."

Her mouth opens, a faint protest at her tongue, her hand curling in the material of his sleeve when he shushes her once more, his hand moving from her shoulder to brace against the back of her head, holding her there to him. The softness lines his mouth once more, that familiar crinkle etching back along the corners of his eyes, his heavy, anxious swallow discernible from where she stands so close.

She swallows back her words, just staring at him.

He offers her a comforting smile, and then he braces his lips to her temple, his cheek pressed to her head, and she digs her hands into his tunic, holds him there against her, smelling wet stone and rivergrass and deep, still water. The kind of water she would willingly drown in.

It's a quiet peace – the lull of the river as it holds her to its bends.

"You know, sweetwater," he says into her hair, "Your parents would be so, so proud of you."

She chokes back the sob.

Her parents.

Because no, not just her mother, not just the string that ties her and the Blackfish together. But her father.

Everyone always saw little Catelyn in her, but oh, to be her father's daughter –

She hadn't thought to need something so much as she does now.

They stand there in each other's embrace for only a moment longer, until Brynden is clearing his throat, pulling from her, resting his hands back on her shoulders when he cocks his head toward the north wall. "Edmure needs me now."

Sansa nods, swallowing tightly, drawing herself straight. "You do House Tully proud, as does Uncle Edmure."

"Don't let it get to his head now," he jests, chucking her chin affectionately.

Sansa laughs. She laughs. And it hurts far worse than she ever imagined it could.

She lets her hands slip from him and watches him leave, just like the rest of them.

She takes a long, lingering breath in, the cold piercing her lungs, winter sinking its roots. She makes her way resolutely through the corridors and toward Winterfell's main gate.

Jon is gathering his men in the square when Sansa finds him. She stands watching him from the edge of the path along the courtyard, the only still thing amidst the frenzied bustle of preparation. He's majestic, she finds, even in his fervor. But perhaps, he's always been thus. His shouted commands carry through the light snow to her and she watches as men move instantly, forming lines, grabbing weapons, setting mail and plate, archers running along the high walls into position.

It's a deceptively warm night for it to be the height of winter. Perhaps it's the many torches lighting the darkness, or the thousands of troops stationed in and around Winterfell, or the bellyful of dragon fire waiting just outside the gate.

Sansa glances to Daenerys at the other end of the courtyard where she stands grasping Jorah Mormont's arms. There's something in her face that reminds Sansa of painful girlhood, and even from this distance, she can see the gleam of wetness over the dragon queen's eyes. But she keeps her head high, her reassuring smile set, her hands steady along the Mormont's sleeve. Sansa cannot hear what words pass between them, but when he dips his head tenderly in farewell, a quivering smile tugging at his lips, a gentle hand over her own along his arm, Sansa sees the way Daenerys' face falters, quaking, lips drawn tight into a thin line as she nods fervently, like she's trying to convince him of something, or perhaps herself. And then Jorah Mormont leaves her, making his way to his own garrison, and Daenerys' hands linger in the air after him, as though she only meant to hold him just a while longer. She stares long and desolately at his back, seemingly oblivious of anything else around her, until her hands lower slowly back to her sides. She takes a deep breath, chin lifting, face easing back into a hardness Sansa recognizes now as a queen's shield.

She looks away before Daenerys finds her watching. She thinks maybe such an affectionate display was not meant for her to see. And Sansa can understand that.

She has her own goodbye to share, after all.

Sansa makes her way across the courtyard, men parting for her easily, and she finds herself in front of him long before she's figured out the words she needs to say. And so, she has only this:


He looks up at her, face worn and wary. He's dressed in his battle finest, a twin-direwolf-emblazoned gorget braced over the jerkin she hand-sewed for him moons ago. His cloak billows in the wind, the evidence of her touch still crowning his shoulders.

Sansa swallows back the sob, throat tightening.

"My lady," he greets her, but there's an intimacy to the title, a brand of affection that lessens the formality of it, even when the apprehension lines his voice.

And she is, Sansa finds suddenly. She is his lady.

If she looks too closely, she'll find that it's exactly the kind of peace she always assumed to be impossible – exactly the kind of happiness she used to think girls like her never got to keep. But she's tired of living with this fear. She's tired of being a shackled wolf.

Freedom means no collar. It's what Jon gave the North. It's what he gave her. And she will not squander it anymore.

She deserves this, she realizes finally. She thinks maybe she always had.

Sansa reaches a hand up to his jaw, cupping his cheek.

Jon blinks wide eyes at her, glancing about the open courtyard and the gazes settled their way, but he does not remove her touch. He does not pull her hand away.

She swallows tightly, gathers her courage, and steps far too closely into him to ever be considered proper.

"Sansa," Jon breathes warningly, hands coming up to cup her elbows.

"I need you to come back to me, Jon," she says on a broken whisper. Her eyes flicker between his, the tears already hot on her lids. "I need you to come back to me, do you hear me?"

Jon stares at her, mouth parting.

She remembers suddenly the feel of him in her arms that first day at Castle Black – the hesitant, disbelieving breath he shuddered into her neck, the bruising, desperate grip of his hands around her back, how he held her, suspended, feet off the ground, up and up and away from there, temple nuzzled against hers, his chest – so warm and broad, so warm – and how he rocked her, back and forth, from foot to foot, unconsciously, swaying like a lullaby.

Sansa reaches her other hand up to mirror the first, his face cradled in her palms. "I need you to – " She chokes with it, flounders a moment, eyes blinking back the tears. "I need… I just need you, Jon, please. Just you." Her voice breaks with it, his name a hallowed prayer, her fingers splaying over his cheeks, trembling and stiff. She swallows back the trepidation.

(Once just a stupid, little girl – and how youth is a shackle all its own, how unkindness is a self-clasped chain.)

She promises never to be collared again.

Jon reaches up and grasps for one of her wrists, his hold tender and insistent when he pulls her hand from his cheek. She drags a disheartened breath in at the motion, but then stops breathing entirely when he draws her hand to his mouth instead of away, lips placing a slow, firm kiss at the arch where wrist meets palm, his eyes never leaving hers, his breath raking from him like a painful exhale.

Sansa blinks wet eyes at him, never moving from him. "Jon," she pleads, not knowing what she pleads for.

He offers her a sorrowful smile, lips still braced at her skin, and he swipes his thumb over her maddening pulse in some small measure of comfort. "I know," he says, and she has to wonder if he does.

She has to wonder if he will ever truly know –

This brutal, beating heart of hers.

Could he ever even fathom it?

"I know," he repeats, hot breath washing over her flesh. "Sansa, I – " But he cannot finish, the words coming out on a choke, her name on his lips blooming like a stain at her wrist.

She'd been marked by him long ago, it's true, but not quite so exquisitely as this – not quite so ardently.

(She just needs him.)

She leans forward, mouth parting, maybe to kiss him, maybe just to speak his name.

His name.


Maybe just to breathe his air.

Her forehead braces against his, her hand slinking back into his hair, anchoring at the nape of his neck, her other hand still held in his calloused fingers, her wrist at his mouth.

She breathes. In and out. In and out.

Another swipe of his thumb along her pulse, another pant of her breath against his lips, another sigh braced between them where neither knows who reached for who first or whose mouth filled whose with honey-laced delirium.

Sansa's eyes flutter closed.

A grey-haired Jon. Face wrinkled and scar-marked and old. She wants it suddenly. She wants it more than she's ever wanted anything in her entire life. To grow old with him. To face the years weathered and deep-rooted and well-worn. To have loved long and loved well – to hold him to her bones. She wants it. She wants it more than she has words to express.

Jon breathes a sigh of resignation against her lips, leaning back from her, hand lowering her wrist from his mouth, and her eyes slip back open at the loss.

If there are words he means to say, they don't make it to air. But Sansa does not need him to speak, not past this. Not past his hand over hers and his breath at her mouth and his eyes never – never – straying from hers.

She has always known how to listen when his body speaks, after all.

Jon nods, just the once, mouth pursed tight, jaw locked. And then he slips from her – smooth and swift as the shadow of winter moonlight stretching over the banks of snow between them.

Sansa stands there without him, watching him leave, quietly bereft.

If she could only look around her, she would see the faces of her Northmen. She would see the way they keep their gazes averted, their eyes clear of judgement, their faces only hardened and loyal and ready for the end.

She would see that men marching off to war understand best what it means to cling to the heart. She would see that they choose Jon still, that they choose her still.

And she would see that love is not always a punishment.

"You know, one of these days, I'll take you North – true North – and show you a bit of peace," Tormund tells him, a hand clamped over his shoulder.

Jon looks at him with an appreciative smirk, a single dark brow raised. He clasps hands with Edd as he steps up beside them, nodding. Jon stands atop the ramparts with his brothers, perhaps for the last time. Shaking his head, Jon laughs at Tormund, though it's pained with regret. "I don't think men like us do very well with peace, Tormund."

His response is a snort. "Maybe not this 'peace' you Southerners keep crying for."

Edd shifts his furs closer around his shoulders. "You have a different sort, do you?"

Tormund crosses his arms, a gruff exhale leaving him as he looks out over the dark snow. "Peace to the Free Folk means lots of food, lots of drink. It means making your own home and waking when you like and fucking your wife beneath the bare moon. Aye, peace suits me just fine, Little Crow. And it'd suit you too, if you'd let it." He eyes Jon pointedly.

Jon scowls, but it's only half-hearted, and Tormund lets out a guffaw that breaks against the cold with its instant warmth.

"It'd suit your little wolf as well."

Jon swings narrowed eyes at Tormund.

He doesn't back down though, at the look of warning. Instead, he shrugs, scratching at his beard. "You could always take her with you."

Jon can see the way Edd tries to hide his interest in the answer, and he can't help the sigh that leaves him. It seems pointless to keep it hidden any longer – if they were ever any good at hiding it in the first place. And he doesn't want to worry about pretenses or propriety or damn southern politics anymore. Not here. Not now. Not when he's staring out into the snow-filtered night, beside the only brothers he has left, wondering if he'll ever see dawn again.

(Specifically, if he'll ever see the way it lights her copper hair along his pillow and pools in the dip of her collarbone and warms her intoxicating flesh as she stretches and mewls atop his furs, spent and sated and completely his – greeting the morning light with her fingers dug into his hair and his body draped over hers and a sleepless sigh braking between their hungry mouths.)

No. Here, at the end – it seems a pointless burden to bear.

So, he will wear his affections openly.

"I don't know what Sansa wants anymore," he says on a sigh, the self-doubt painting his voice even as he tries to collar it.

Edd scoffs, a disbelieving laugh falling from his lips. "Then you're an idiot, Snow."

Jon throws him an annoyed look.

Edd only shakes his head, the mirth tugging a smile to his lips. "Everyone from the ass-crack of this bloody frozen North to the pompous, boot-licking courts of the South saw exactly what she wants when she held you down in that courtyard," he says, throwing a thumb back to indicate the main square behind them. He gives Jon a scrutinizing look. "Maybe you don't deserve her if you can't say the same."

Jon wipes a hand down his face, heaving a labored sigh. "We've been… we were raised as siblings. Even if we – "

"But you're not siblings," Edd interrupts.

"If your strange, riddle-speaking brother – cousin – blast it, whatever he is – speaks the truth," Tormund adds on.

"Even still, I – " Jon stops, swallows the words back, burning now that they're at the tip of his tongue, now that they're ripe for air.

Tormund eyes him seriously. "You been fucking her?"

Jon stays silent, his jaw working beneath his twitching cheek.

Tormund grunts his acknowledgement, arms uncrossing, staring out over the ramparts.

"We've seen far more dishonorable men than 'sister-fuckers' make their oaths at the wall, haven't we?" Edd asks quietly.

Jon opens his mouth, but the words simmer and break along his tongue. He swallows them back.

Edd shrugs, taking in a long, solid breath. "I'd swear to you, still. King in the North and all that. Or king of more now, I don't know. All's I can see is a good man, either way. Guess I haven't the head for more than that."

Jon stares at him, throat tight.

"Let your gods judge you, Little Crow," Tormund tells him, his hand back at his shoulder, warm and heavy, "But let no man."

Jon nods, because he can do little else. His chest aches, and he braces a gloved hand to the forgotten wounds of betrayal marking his flesh. He remembers, suddenly, that Sansa has never been his betrayal.

So he will not be hers.

"Only," Tormund continues, a sharp-toothed smile glinting in the night, "Let's not meet those gods of yours just yet, hmm? Make them wait a little longer, aye?"

Jon offers a grateful smile, eyes crinkling with it. "Aye." And then he's staring back out across the ramparts, Tormund's hand slipping from his shoulder, the heavy silence of the wait hanging over them like a smothering hand.

He remembers the swing of nooses, the silver light of dawn over the stones that fateful morning, the wooden deck stained with the traitors' shit and piss, the wary parting of the crowd when he'd stalked from the hanging post.

The way Alliser Thorne's face had purpled with panic – instinctual and irrepressible.

"My watch has ended."

Jon clenches his jaw, brows furrowing sharply down.

He remembers a life that's no longer his. And everything he'd lost to it.

Grenn's broken body at the gate, Lord Commander Mormont's silent nod of farewell, Ygritte's burning corpse atop a pyre.

His voice is a croak when it leaves him, his words pained. "Do you wish Sam were here?" If it is to be the end, he wants all his brothers.

"Oh gods, no," Edd barks on a laugh, staring at him with an incredulous look. "He'd be dead before the first wave, if he didn't piss himself first."

Jon can't help it – he laughs. So bright and blinding and unexpected. Tormund laughs loudly beside him, slapping Edd along the back.

Edd grumbles beneath the assault, shuffling in his furs, sniffing in the cold. He glances back out across the snowy fields. "Better safe down south," he says.

Jon warms at the words, his chuckling dying down as he ribs him, "I promise not to tell him you care."

Edd rolls his eyes, but even Jon can see the hint of a smile tugging at his lips.

And so they wait.

And so they hold tight.

The horde is spotted, and Jon stalks down the stairs as the archers mount the walls, Davos' commands echoing through the night. He means to man the first wave, to meet the dead with his men at the gate, should their trenches and barricades fail, fields of oil lying in wait between their forces and the dead.

He meets Arya on his way to the front, startling to a stop. "Arya."

She stands stock still, hand braced to Needle's hilt, eyes dark grey and focused as they take him in.

He doesn't remember what her laugh sounds like, and it's the most painful realization he's felt in a long, long while.

He takes a step closer. "Arya."

"Where do you need me?"

He stops, breath hitching in his chest. He should have known.

"And don't say 'in the crypts'," she finishes harshly, a sneer lighting her lips.

Jon glances to the sight of Brienne behind her, lingering in her shadow, a silent pillar. It eases the dread, somewhat – but only minutely.

He'd never wanted Arya to see the horrors of war. But then, he'd never wanted her to see the horrors she had seen, either. And in the end, here they stand, perhaps a little worse for wear, but here – alive, together, in the home they knew once – and he hates that he wasn't there to hold her hand and lead the way back.

He hates that he lost his little sister to the cruelties of the world.

But then –

Jon swallows back the sourness along his tongue, teeth clenching.

'His little sister'.

His eyes drop to his boots, memory a heavy, clawing thing at his chest.

He has no sisters now, he reminds himself.

"Where do you need me?" she asks again, this time with voice trembling, and Jon realizes that she's far more frightened than she'll ever admit to, but he doesn't think he could hear the words either way, so he only looks up at her, only stands a little straighter, only nods at her in the passing torchlight of running soldiers through the courtyard.

"You still good with a bow?"

She lets a nostalgic smile curve along her lips. "Better," she says.

Jon nods, clearing his throat. "To the ramparts, then." He moves to walk past her, cloak billowing in his wake, and he catches the way her eyes drift to the stone at their feet, the way her hand tightens over Needle's hilt, the way her throat flexes with unsaid words. He stops just past her, turning around on a sharp pivot. "Any last words?" he throws out on a desperate plea, voice cracking, and he clamps down on the tremor, skin quivering beneath his armor. He watches as she turns slowly to him, face a shadowed mask, closed off and tight-lipped and stitched up beneath an altogether different sort of armor.

Another horn sounds, dragging his attention up toward the battlements. He barely registers the shift when Arya steps up to him soundlessly and braces a hand at his heart, palm firm at his chest. He sucks a sharp breath in, glancing back down to her, eyes wide and unblinking.

She's staring at her hand along his chest, thumb sliding almost imperceptibly across his padded tunic, not unlike longing. She looks up at him through the haze of snow drifting around them. "Don't leave her, not like this," she says softly.

Jon closes his eyes at the words, quaking in his own skin, racked with a terror and a yearning and a neediness so stark he's surprised it doesn't split him open right there, right there in the stone and cold, right there in the midst of the home he found and lost and found again.

"You are to me."

(Her copper hair – caught between his calloused fingers, the soft pressure of her lips at his scarred knuckles.)

Found and lost and found again –

Perhaps Stark is more than a name.

Perhaps belonging is more than a feeling.

Perhaps family is more than blood.

Arya's hand curls into a fist, knuckles braced at his chest, pressing into him with a fervency she has never impressed upon him so surely before.

Jon stares down at her, lips parted, watching the way she blinks back the wetness, throat bobbing with barely held emotion.

Her lip trembles, and she pulls it back behind stubborn teeth, chin raised. "Don't leave me," she tells him.

He wants to reach for her, to tug her to him and never let go, to brace her against his chest and curl his hand at the back of her head and rock her to him. To hold her. To hold her and hold her. To clutch her to his bones.

Her fist at his chest keeps him steady and still. And then she chuckles, face softening, a visage of younger years. "And don't put so much stock in 'last words'," she chides him.

Jon feels his own chuckle warm him throughout, just before it breaks across his chapped lips.

Arya's hand slips from him, her smile stained with something he cannot recognize.

"I'll hold the line," she tells him, and then she turns on her heel and stalks away, Brienne following quietly in her wake.

Jon watches her go, the chaos of the square fading around him, the snow settling soft and barely-there at his shoulders.

He watches her go.

(Perhaps home is more than a place.)

The army of the undead breaks upon Winterfell like a long-kept winter.

It happens in far less time and with far more blood than he'd ever imagined. Their forces are decimated near instantly.

Viserion is the first dragon to fall, his ream of fire burning through the fields of men as he tumbles to the earth, crashing into their barricades and letting through a flood of undead. Jon can hear Daenerys' howl through the wind even from where he fights.

He isn't there to see the ice spear that pierces Rhaegal, but he's there when Drogon lands unsteadily across the field, Daenerys sliding from his back. Her last dragon.

It's a haze of blood and shadow that overtakes him then, a furious swing of his sword, heaving his whole weight against a wight, another swing, crack of his elbow against one's jaw, a spray of black bile across his cheeks, feet braced in the mud, slick with snow and blood, Longclaw slicing through the air, another and another and another. Dead upon dead upon dead. Until he's panting with it, delirious, chest rattling, blood boiling.

Until he looks up and sees the Night King across the field, a flood of corpses between them. A flood of –

Jon stills, hands curling around Longclaw, the terror bright and beating in his chest.

The Night King spreads his arms, eyes trained on Jon, bringing his palms up slowly through the air.

An unearthly screech lights the air, a stream of blue fire piercing the night sky.

He doesn't stay long enough to watch the newly-risen undead forms of Viserion and Rhaegal tearing their brother Drogon to shreds. Instead, he runs.

He runs – legs aching, lungs heaving, muscles singing.

"When it is time, you will come for me."

He runs.

Jon bursts through the door, slamming it open in his rush. "Bran!"

His brother lifts unbothered eyes up at him. Outside, the battle still wages, sharply against their favor.

Jon is panting and battle-spent, marred with blood and grime when he kneels before his brother, hand bracing against the arm of his wheeled chair to steady himself. He wipes a bloodied hand down his face, tries to rein in his breathing. "Bran, you have to leave."

"The dragons are dead." It is not a question.

Jon nods, a knot tightening in his throat so that he cannot speak.

Bran sighs softly, hands curling in his lap. "Then, it is time."

Jon nods again, moves to rise, but Bran's hand on his arm stays him, and he lowers back into the kneel, eyes shifting between his with question, face soft and hard all at once. "Bran, we don't have time. We have to go."

"This is why you came back, Jon," he says almost like an apology, almost like release.

Jon leans back on his haunches, eyes narrowing. "Bran, what are you – "

"You are the sword in the darkness, the watcher on the wall, the shield that guards the realms of men. It's you. It's always been you."

Jon blinks at the words, mouth opening as though to speak, but the faint sorrow lining Bran's smile stops him.

Something's wrong. Something's horribly, unexplainably wrong. More wrong than the dead at their door.

A cold rush stills Jon where he kneels.

Bran lifts a palm to his cheek, the motion jarringly tender – and equally terrifying. "It's time," he tells him, just before his eyes go white.

Everything goes dark – dark as the flutter of raven's wings. Jon is floundering, flailing, shouting silently in the night. A ring of hazy light catches his eyes and he's reaching, grasping, tumbling over and over in the dark, that ring of light dizzying, until his vision blurs white and he's blinking up into the sun-lit visage of a weirwood.

Jon looks around him, still on his knees, but it's a place he's never been before. It's a forest grove, a spiral of stones jutting from the verdant green around him, and huddled before the tree is a group of seemingly children, a group of –

Jon sucks a sharp breath through his teeth.

"The Children of the Forest," Bran's voice echoes in his mind, but he's nowhere to be found.

Jon glances back to the tree. There's a man. A man tied to the weirwood, struggling against his binds.

Something sinks inside Jon – something unknowable – some measure of sorrowful understanding.

He watches, horrified, as one of the Children walk to the terrified man, dragonglass dagger in their grip.

"No," he wants to shout, but it comes out a silent rasp, his voice stolen from him. He can't even move, can't do anything but watch as the dagger is pushed slowly and deeply into the man's chest, the gag in his mouth doing little to smother his screams.

Jon blinks back the tears, knowing – knowing, suddenly.

And then the pain nearly cripples him.

Jon cries out, hunching over the ground, his chest racked with a searing pain, his lungs nearly collapsing beneath the shock of it. He presses a hand to his chest, gasping, blinking back the sudden, hot tears when his hand meets bare flesh. His palm comes away slick with blood. He pushes back up to his knees slowly, lungs heaving beneath the pain, glancing down, brows furrowing at his now bare chest. The wounds that once killed him are bleeding freshly now, a faint trail of red circling, circling, edging along his flesh in a haunting pattern that he recognizes distantly, connecting the gashes of betrayal along his chest in a slow, searing spiral.

Jon snaps his gaze to the circle of rocks around him, a flutter of realization beating around his chest, the pattern of the Others marring his skin inch by inch, until he wears their mark in blood. His frantic eyes meet the newly born Night King's, caught in their hold, a blistering blue that stills him, panting, trembling, racked with a horror stained by wrath. A film of ice crackles over the Night King's form, but his eyes never leave Jon's. His mouth opens. He speaks.

The words are swallowed up by the darkness once more, and Jon is tumbling again, a flutter of black wings at the tips of his fingers, flailing in the dark, running, crawling, barreling into the shadows, howling with a broken, spent voice, and then the world opens wide once more, and he's back to kneeling before Bran, his hand still gripping the arm of his chair.

Jon blinks wild, frenzied eyes up at him, finding the milk-white of his gaze gone.

"Bran," he croaks out, and then his eyes see the dagger, the dragonglass dagger coated in blood – so drenched in it that the dark red wraps all the way up to Bran's wrist where he holds the dagger.

A pain settles sore and insistent in his chest then.

Jon looks down to find his tunic soaked through with blood, Bran's dagger held inches from his chest – a mirror of the Night King's own devastating wound.

He flits slowly hazing eyes back up to his brother's, mouth parting, a gurgle of blood splashing over his lips. He tries for his name once more, fails, tries again.

The blood flows freely now, and something not unlike ice filters slowly through his veins. He drops back along the floor, head bouncing painfully along the stone, arching upwards with a spasm, hands jerking, the blood seeping out his mouth. Through the slow inking black of his vision he sees Bran hovering somewhere above him.

"I hold your vows fulfilled, brother."

The words are lost to him, and he groans his rejection of them, clawing at the carpet beneath him.

When the darkness finally takes him, he does not see the way Bran hides his face behind a blood-drenched hand. He does not see the shudder that overtakes him.

He sees nothing but betrayal.

But then, this isn't the first he's died by a brother's hand.

{"He's had the magic in him all along."

Sansa bares her teeth, that white-hot wrath echoing through her bones, and a keen sort of desperation sets her to trembles there in her seat. "Bran, he's done enough," she seethes, the tears already hot on her lids. "Why does he have to – he shouldn't have to die for it – for us! He's done enough, Bran!"

"Then it is up to you."

Sansa stiffens at his words, her hands gripping the armrests at her sides so tightly her knuckles are white with the effort.

"There is a price. Only death pays for life."}

Chapter Text

Disclaimer: I own nothing, I make no money.

A Violence Done Most Kindly

Chapter Eight: Sowing Seeds

"The road is too long. It winds too sharp. And Sansa cannot see the end from her vantage point, cannot calculate the curve. She discerns it through faith. She travels blind, but for her hand in Jon's." - Jon and Sansa. Stark is a house of many winters.

* * *

It's a tomb, Sansa discovers. One long, torchlit, communal tomb.

She glances down the length of the crypt corridor where she sits and waits with the rest of the fear-rattled refugees, echoes of the battle raging above them, around them, resounding through the walls in an endless, harrowing nightmare. The ground shakes at their feet, the dirt rattling loose from the walls and ceiling with the thunder of thousands of undead feet barreling through the army above them.

At some point, Tyrion makes to reach for her hand, a measure of comfort – but for her or himself, she cannot tell. In the end, he never lights his touch. His hand stills mid-reach for her, fingers curling back into a loose fist that returns slowly to his side as he opens his mouth, voice a strangled hope. "We must take heart, Lady Sansa. Our loved ones will prevail. Have faith."

"Your queen just tried to ransom all our lives – yours included – for a paltry, hollow crown," she hisses, the terror making her voice tremble even as she glares. "Do not speak to me of faith when yours has been so misguided." It's a searing rebuke, her hands bundled tightly in her lap, the fabric of her dress clutched between white knuckles.

Tyrion blinks pained eyes at her, glancing down to his feet. He does not deny her – does not challenge her accusation. He simply hangs his head, a tremulous sigh leaving him.

She watches him quietly, a faint memory teasing the back of her mind – Jaime's return to King's Landing after his stay as Robb's captive up North. She'd watched them from behind the door of her and Tyrion's newly shared chambers, watched their embrace in his solar, Jaime kneeling down to one knee, Tyrion's face buried in his shoulder, each of their hands (the ones left, at least) bunched in each other's tunics, before they pulled back reluctantly, hesitant, shaking sighs racking both of them, Jaime's good hand reaching up to trail the scar over Tyrion's face, a question in his furrowed brow, an apology in his salt-tinged eyes.

But Tyrion had smiled at him, ruined face a mask of ill-kept pain. "Welcome home, brother," he'd said, voice breaking.

Sansa had retreated before she could witness more, before the stain of Robb's name could light her tongue in abject resentment.

Looking at him now, this wreckage of past mistakes made flesh, she remembers suddenly the pain of losing a brother.

The pain of losing many brothers.

Sansa swallows tightly, the anger bleeding out of her face, brow smoothing out, lips softening in their frown. She clears her throat gently, looking down to the bunched fists at his sides when she tells him, "Ser Jaime is like to survive the night. He's a good fighter, after all." She doesn't know what compels her to say it.

"Was," he corrects, a sad sort of humor coloring the words. He releases a wounded chuckle, eyes finally rising to meet hers.

They stare at each other for long moments.

He'd been kind to her, she knows, at a time when the world offered little kindness at all. But he's been mistaken in his affections before, and now they host a dragon in their den, owing in no small part to his own imprudent devotion.

He was never meant to play the knight in her tale, like her favored songs had promised. She sees this now, in a way she hadn't when she was still a child, looking for the best in people, holding their small mercies to her heart like precious gems, mistaking lions and hounds for men.

"But you're very gracious, my lady," he says finally, the gratitude choked off at the end, breath hitching with his dread. He offers her a tentative smile.

She finds it in herself to return it, in what small measure she can.

And then a crashing weight falls upon the ground above them, rattling the stone statues. The crypts go dead with silence.

Sansa glances up at the suddenly tranquil walls, her heart swallowed down instantly. Nothing breathes for what feels like an eon, the telltale sounds of battle ceased, the shaking of the corridors stilled. She does not chance a breath, a word, even a hope. She flits her gaze toward the heavy stone door they built to barricade the crypts, eyes unblinking in the shadowed hall, torchlight flickering about her like a threat.

Long minutes pass, almost an hour of suffocating, uninterrupted silence, and then something bangs at the door. A single, resounding clang.

Sansa jolts to her feet, chest heaving with her terror, hand already fumbling for the dragonglass dagger fixed to her belt.

Another clang. Heavy, terrible scratching. The slight push of the door in the sodden dirt.

Sansa's breath comes quick and shallow, the uneven hilt of her dagger digging into her palm even through her glove, her fingers flexing in their hold, feet planted in readiness.

The door pushes further in on them, slow and grating, something grunting on the other side.

Several somethings.

More thuds against the door, more scratching, the sudden stream of light through a crack in the threshold, and then the muffled sound of a word.

A word.

A name.

"Sansa!" it calls, stifled by the cold stone between them.

She drops her dagger instantly at the recognition and it clatters to the floor, sharp and resounding in the still corridor. A small crowd gathers a few feet behind her, too frightened to follow further. She rushes to the door, gripping at the jarred open edge, sunlight striking her knuckles, a sob already raking through her, the tears sudden and hot on her lids, and she heaves.

The door breaks open to a blaring dawn, several men – living, breathing men – tumbling through the threshold when the door finally gives from their combined strength.

Sansa stumbles back, eyes wide, blinking back the blindness, adjusting to the light as she braces an arm over her eyes, searching, needing, frantic, and then –


That voice again.

She blinks against the harsh light, his silhouette coming into focus.

Edmure Tully hobbles through the threshold, one hand holding his side, his other arm lame and bloodied and likely lost, one eye swollen shut beneath a stream of blood.

She stares at him, mouth parting, lungs clenching.

A sigh of relief rushes from him, the pain of it clear when he winces.

It breaks from her like a flood. She launches herself at him, arms thrown about his shoulders, the sob dragging from her without restraint, and Edmure grunts from the assault, stumbling back from the weight of her, a cry of pain blunted at his lips just before the first wail breaks from her.

He stills in her embrace, blinking beneath the gush of blood from his temple, until he tentatively folds his good arm around her waist, holding her to him, a cough sounding at her ear, wavering beneath the force of her, weak and trembling and barely standing.

But alive.

Sansa whimpers against him, clutching at his soiled tunic, tears smearing into the blood along his neck, the shadow of the crypts at her back, the blinding breach of sunlight at his.

At the threshold between life and death, light and dark, day and night – they stand.

Dawn creeps slowly past their forms, illuminating the stifled corridor behind her.

Not a tomb, she realizes, but a sunlit garden, a place where the dead may offer new growth.

A place of promised life.

Winter has always been the herald of spring, after all.

They say the dead all dropped at once – an instant, resounding wave, the weight of so many corpses tumbling to the earth at once quite literally shaking Winterfell to its foundation.

The men keep fighting, swinging at air, even crossing blades themselves, feverish and feral and frenzied, their blood rioting in their veins, hardly noticing the fall of the dead, so lost in their own desperate will to survive, fighting, and panting, and fighting still, the smell of blood and shit all around them, shapes in the shadows, the frantic, blade-gripping, adrenaline-rushing fear still coursing through them, until gradually, man by man, breath by breath, a slow-dawning stillness overtakes them.

For every man standing, there is a litter of corpses at his feet.

An unearthly calm washes over Winterfell, the living barely that. And then –

And then.

A hesitant, slow rise of voices. A growing eddy of shouts. Triumphant. Glorious.

Crying, and laughing, and shouting. Hands over blood-drenched faces. Knees in the dirt. Heads thrown back. A quaking, resounding exhale. Blades falling from grimy palms. Boots squelching through the putrid mess. And still, a roar of exultation.

"The King in the North! The King in the North! The King in the North!"

Jon slips into a coma so deep, they'd thought him dead upon first entering the room.

Davos tells her that he and Jon's personal guard were the ones to find him – laid out on the floor of her chambers, barely breathing, a pool of blood beneath him, her brother sitting calmly in his chair, blood-drenched dagger still held in his grip.

"Help him," Bran had said, so quiet it was almost a whisper, almost never there at all.

It takes five men to hold Tormund back from lunging at Bran, shouting his vehemence so vile and hateful the spit flies from his mouth, even as he kicks out, foot catching the wheel of Bran's chair, jostling him so hard he nearly tips over and crashes to the blood-soaked rug himself. Bran stares dumbly at the space Jon's body once occupied, red-steeped palm now empty of the blade that pierced his flesh, hanging limp in his lap, hardly even acknowledging Tormund's wrestling form inches from him, the wildling's heated shouts filling the dawn-touched chamber.

Davos tells her that his guard has been sworn to secrecy after taking Jon from the room, only the most trusted of men – those of them left after the battle.

Bran retreats from her solar and into her bedchamber, closing the door behind him in silence once Tormund is dragged from the room.

She stands staring at the closed door, eyes blinking owlishly. Davos seems of a similar state beside her, perhaps still reeling from his own unexpected survival. Perhaps still trying to process the scene before them. Her eyes travel back down to the blood-stained rug that was once her parents'.

She's going to be sick.

Sansa reaches a trembling hand for the table edge beside her when the vomit rises suddenly, without warning. She retches violently, bent double with the force of it, hand slipping against the table edge, trying to find purchase as she heaves and heaves, emptying herself out from the very pit of her. Her face bursts red with the effort of it, tears springing to her eyes, sickly bile streaming from her lips when she stumbles to her knees, legs finally giving out.

"My lady," Davos cries, urgent at her side, his blood-slicked gloves slipping over her elbow when he tries to steady her.

She takes a breath, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, eyes flitting to his red-darkened gloves. She stares at them, eyes focusing and refocusing, throat raw and burning. "I have to find my sister," she says blearily, a ragged whisper breaking across her chapped lips as she struggles to get to her feet.

It's many hours before she finds Arya. Sansa walks through the halls in a faint stupor, having left the chamber without another word after Davos's recounting, unable to look at the dark blossom of blood staining the rug, the bile still fresh in her throat, and she stumbles from the room, a hand steadying herself along the threshold, ignoring Davos' concerned calls at her back, wondering from the room in a haze. She sifts through the corpse littered halls, the ends of her skirts dark with mud and blood and worse, tripping over cadavers, her low heels catching in cartilage, trembling hands gripping at the walls for balance, lungs heaving beneath the foul air.

Arya stands dazedly at the end of the corridor Sansa has made her way through. She blinks unsteadily up at Sansa, a dark bruise swelling up her right cheek, her eye nearly closed from the enflamed skin. Her tunic is torn at the shoulder, a garish wound stretching over the exposed flesh. She hardly seems to notice the bleeding. The fingers of her left hand are bent at an unhealthy angle, broken surely, and Needle shakes in the grip of her other palm.

Sansa stands staring at her, one hand gathered in her trailing skirts, mouth parted on a sharp inhale.

Arya swallows, eyes focusing in the filtering daylight through the hall's sparse windows. She blinks. Blinks again. Seems to recognize her surroundings a moment before Sansa breathes her name.


And then she's sprinting, Needle dropped to the floor with a sharp clang, bounding over corpses, slipping along the blood-slick stone, steadying herself, never slowing, breathless, gasping – "Sansa!" – a whirl of soiled leather and crimson-stained skin slamming into her, bundling her in her fierce grip, arms tight around her waist, sob buried in her chest, broken fingers digging painfully into the back of Sansa's dress, stumbling them back along the ruin-washed floor, breath ragged and worn and desolate when it leaves her small, battered form.

It takes hours to find her.

It takes hours still to let her go.

Sansa makes her way through the ruined halls of her home, passing straggling soldiers, weaving through the wreckage to the main square. She breaks into the harsh daylight, but it's greyed since dawn, a haze of ash and snow blanketing Winterfell. Arya follows the trail of her soiled skirts as they pick their way around corpses, walking over limbs and debris.

The words she needs to tell Arya about Jon are still lost to her, a vacant, empty wandering having overtaken her instead. Arya keeps her always in sight, a silent shadow at her back.

A blood-curdling wail streaks through the air and Sansa stills, whipping her head to the sound, catching sight of Daenerys staggering across the courtyard toward something, arms outstretched, mouth tipped open in a harrowing, anguished scream. Missandei is steady at her side, an arm around her waist, holding her frail body up lest the winter wind take her and fling her about like this choking ash.

Distantly, she recalls Davos' brief mention of the dragons' fates.

She follows Daenerys' tear-filled gaze across the courtyard, eyes landing on the form of a mortally wounded Grey Worm, dragging the dead body of Jorah Mormont over the stone and guts and toward his queen. His boot catches on a piece of debris, and he lurches forward, dropping to one knee, half sprawled over Jorah's body. Daenerys makes it to them then, falling to the ground gracelessly, ignoring the putrid slush of human filth beneath her knees, eyes only for her bear, a desperate, bone-rattling cry ripping from her as she bundles his cold form in her hands, dragging him into her lap, rocking with him, sobbing, tear tracks etched across her ash-grey cheeks. Misssandei takes Grey Worm into her arms similarly and from where Sansa stands, she can see a handful of words tearfully exchanged between the two before Grey Worm convulses - once, twice, a last, jerky spasm – and then finally going still in Missandei's arms. She bends her head low to touch her forehead to his and Sansa never hears what parting words she grants him, what farewell or peace.

Daenerys' cries echo around the courtyard, and even still, exhausted, bloodied soldiers mill about as though she were just another corpse beneath their feet. They pass her like shadows, unbent to her anguish.

It is just another death, after all.

Sansa turns from the sight, the bile returning sharp and pungent along her tongue, but she swallows it back this time, braces a hand to her ribcage, as though to keep the sickness in, as though to anchor it there with her wrath and regret and remorse.

It festers quietly and unobtrusively, settling low in her stomach.

She turns from the sight of the grieving dragon queen, her pity too marred and eroded by a sharp resentment to taste like anything but ash on her tongue. Eyes narrowed, jaw tight, she continues on – aimless.

Somewhere between the eastern corridor and the ruined door to the Hall of Lords, Daenerys' faraway wails finally peter out into silence. Sansa takes a deep breath in, pushing the broken door open with all her might, Arya pushing beside her, and the wood creaks open, splintered beneath the crush of a giant's maul. More bodies flood the hall before them, but there are more living here than dead, and somewhere along the far wall, Sansa catches sight of Brienne seated along a step, elbows braced along her knees, her head in her hands, sword tarnished and copper-streaked on the floor beside her.

Sansa makes her way toward her sworn shield quietly, stopping before her and squatting down, braced on her haunches, hands anchored to her knees.

Brienne looks up then, face a ruin, hair matted and dark – no longer that brilliant, sun-lit blonde that had fascinated Sansa once upon a time.

Sansa offers an exhausted smile – half-formed and fleeting as it is – her hands going to Brienne's cheeks, cradling her face in her palms.

"Jaime's dead," Brienne says evenly, without prompt.

Sansa blinks at her, nodding slowly, throat tight suddenly. She wants to say she's sorry. She wants to say how she knows she cared for him, even against all reasoning. She wants to say at least he died with honor. She wants to say so many things, but she isn't sure yet how much she means any of them. And so, she only has this:

"He kept his oath." It's a small comfort, she knows, but perhaps it's the only kind of comfort they may have. The only kind Brienne would accept.

Brienne nods, sharp blue eyes blinking back the wetness. And then her eyes trail to Arya's form, half hid in shadow at her sister's back.

Sansa brushes her thumbs over Brienne's cheeks, the weight a lighter load, instantly – the words easy on her tongue. "Thank you for keeping her safe," she chokes out.

Brienne swings her gaze back to Sansa, the edges of a hesitant smile spreading beneath the pads of Sansa's fingertips. "She is half your mother's heart, after all," she says in answer.

Sansa nods, mouth trembling when she whispers out, "And half mine."

Brienne reaches up a hand to curl tenderly along Sansa's wrist, the breath raking from her – exhausted and battered.

Sansa leans forward, bracing her forehead against her sworn shield's, eyes fluttering closed at the contact.

It's only once Sansa parts from Brienne, glancing about the hall, that Arya finally speaks.

"Where's Jon?"

The answer lodges in her throat like a knife, splitting her from ear to ear, choking her beneath a rush of blood. Her heart hammers out a staccato of sour notes.

Arya stares up at her, just a girl. Just a lost, wounded girl. "Where's Jon?" she asks again, voice infinitely small and hesitant.

Later, when Arya flees from the hall after Sansa tells her, she finds she cannot follow. She cannot go to him. She cannot look upon him.

Not yet.

"Stay with her," Sansa commands Brienne, voice hollow. "Make sure she doesn't kill Bran."

Brienne looks up at her, horrified, standing swiftly. "She wouldn't. My lady, she…"

Sansa swings a deadened gaze her way, lips pursed tight. "She would." She swallows thickly, eyes drifting back toward the broken door of the hall. "That boy isn't our brother anymore."

Brienne only stares at her a moment longer, nodding without another word, picking her sword up off the stone and following her charge out the hall.

Sansa's legs finally give out and she drops down to the step Brienne had previously occupied. She stays there for well on an hour, perhaps two, eyes unseeing. No one comes looking for the Lady of Winterfell. No one comes looking for the living.

She wonders if it will ever end, or if this is the disillusionment Jon spoke of once before – how war makes a home in your heart and never truly leaves. She wonders if her father hadn't also known this.

She wonders if he would have taught her such, of if he'd have let her continue on in the sort of ignorance he never spared his sons.

Sansa sighs.

And so it goes.

So it goes for many hours that first night, soldiers falling where their exhaustion takes them, sleeping in thresholds and corridors and neighbor to corpses. At some point, Sansa passes the open door to the kitchens, three famished, too-young soldiers tearing into one of the store's preserved hams. She hasn't the heart to scold them. The moans of the survivors have turned into a low hum at the back of her mind, never truly reaching her.

In the end, she simply doesn't know what to do.

It's Missandei that jars her into movement, coming upon her with Grey Worm's blood still warming her dress, dark circles already settling below her eyes. "I need bandages, cloth, clean water," she says, voice even in a way that seems a disconnection to the tear-filled gaze she sets upon her or the trembling of her hands bunched together over her skirts.

Sansa stares at her, blinking when she recognizes Lord Varys standing just behind the other woman, face a haunt. "Lord Varys," she says in surprise, not knowing what else to say.

"My lady, the wounded are many – too many," he says, sorrow lining his words. "We need your help."

Sansa opens her mouth, closes it just as slowly.

Missandei's mouth trembles, tears brimming along her eyes, though they do not fall. "Please," she croaks out.

Sansa blinks at the word, something filling her she hasn't a name for, and it all comes barreling into her – Edmure's bleak smile, Davos' gaze on his boots, Arya's stony silence –

Bran's eerie calm – the way his hands hadn't even shook when he wheeled himself into her bedchamber and closed the door.

She heaves a breath, a hand over her eyes, lungs quaking in her chest as she smothers the sob. "Yes," she chokes out, shaking her head. "Yes, of course." She sniffs back the tears, doesn't let them fall. Her hand drops from her face and she squares her shoulders, nodding fervently at Missandei. "Of course, come with me."

It was wrong of them to call it the Long Night, she finds, arms covered in blood up to her elbows by the time dawn breaks once more across Winterfell.

(Wrong, because it isn't long – it's endless.)

And so it goes and so it goes.

Jon is right – it never truly leaves them.

They never find the Blackfish's body.

Sansa asks Edmure at some point, when she finds voice enough to ask the question. Edmure stares at her with heavy eyes, sitting still for her as she wraps the bandages around his waist. She stops at his silence, blinking up at him.

He cannot hold her gaze, turning to stare at the far wall instead. "Saved my life, the old bastard," he gets out on a gruff exhale, eyes wetting instantly.

Sansa swallows, returning to her wrapping with a renewed focus.

Pack it away, bury it deep. Take a breath and hold it tight.

She does not cry, mutely winding the roll of bandage round and round his waist, staring at the fresh patch of blood already peeking through the white linen. Her brows furrow in frustration, the air scraping along her throat with her huff.

Later, she tells herself. She will grieve for him later.

There is work yet to be done, and Sansa means to do it.

"Your parents would be proud."

She ties the bandage off with a tight knot.

They never find his body, but then, there are many bodies they never find – Alys Karstark, Lord Royce, Randyll Tarly, Podrick Payne, Edd Tollett. Sansa remembers each of them anyway.

Building the pyres is slow, agonizingly long work, and there are too many bodies mangled beyond recognition. The fires burn day and night, needing to be relit several times before the many bones are finally turned to ash. Smoke clogs her lungs, stains the grey walls with a permanent dark haze, the scent sinking into her flesh until she is rife with it – the dredges of their dead, come to live again in her skin.

Days pass in this manner, and Sansa forgets to sleep, too occupied with the running of a kingdom she never intended to inherit.

Jon remains unconscious, his body like ice to the touch, breath barely discernible. Ghost is found perpetually curled at the foot of his bed, whining long and low into the night. Sansa braces her hands to her ears and tries to drown it out.

Bran stays locked in her bedchamber, refusing food, and she has taken to sleeping with Arya when exhaustion finally takes her. Her sister spends that first day after the battle pacing the length of her solar, glaring at the closed door, never even bothering to bandage her wounded shoulder.

"Bran, get out here," she seethes.


She kicks at the door, howls her rage, sobs and sobs and sobs for her brother to just open the gods-damned door, Bran, how could you, how could you and Sansa flees the solar, braces herself back against the wall in the hallway and tries to breathe.

Arya keeps a steady vigil at Jon's side while Sansa attends to the wounds of the North, finding much needed support in Lady Olenna and Lord Varys and, surprisingly, the young Lord Arryn. Daenerys keeps to her chamber, only ever retreating from its sanctuary to retrieve a flagon or two of wine from the kitchens, her salt-white, fire-dimmed silhouette casting lingering shadows in the corner of Sansa's eye.

Davos is true to his word, the harrowing truth behind Jon's condition never leaving that bloodied chamber. But word spreads of Jon's true parentage. The wounded soldiers, in their beds of straw lining the corridors, whisper it through the halls.

A Targaryen. A trueborn one at that.

An imposter.

Sansa comes upon one such whispering horde of Northmen just when Lord Glover, with his one missing eye and half-burnt face, grabs a loose-lipped soldier by the collar and drags him up, snarling in his face. "And what Targaryen ever died for the North?" he bellows in the man's sheet-pale face, shaking him. "What Targaryen ever bled for us the way Jon Snow has?"

The man splutters in his grasp, hands clawing at the fist at his throat.

"I know no king but King Jon of House Stark," he roars, spit flying in his rage. "And I swear, on the old gods and the new, that I will gut the man who besmirches his name, do you understand me?"

The man in his grasp nods sharply, gulping his fear down, sighing in relief when Lord Glover drops him back to the floor.

Sansa stands at the end of the hall, watching with a lung-tingling fascination.

Lord Glover seems to notice her then, dipping into a slight bow at her presence, a hand at his chest. "My queen," he says, and Sansa's breath catches in her throat at the address.

She stares at him, eyes unblinking, hands bunching in her skirts.

He does not move until she nods her dismissal, and then he's sweeping from the hall, his cloak billowing in his wake. She does not notice the curious stares of the soldiers. She watches the space he once occupied, heart thrumming in her chest, throat parched.

"My queen."

Sansa retreats from the hall without further word.

A new whisper begins, this one voiced in reverence.

The White Wolf and the Red Queen.

It spills over the castle, past the walls, echoing from ear to ear – until they are lore, as entrenched in the Northern spirit as snow is to winter.

"I'm sorry he could not be laid to rest at sea," Sansa tells Yara one morning, the faint pink of the sunrise casting slants of ghostly light across the pyres, now barely embers in the snow.

She holds tight to her chest the memory of Theon's last embrace, that night before the end.

She holds tight.

Beside her, Yara digs her booted toe into the cinder-lined snow, watching it crest and break before her. "Still," she says, voice hoarse, "he did not die away from home. For that, I am grateful." She glances up at Sansa with the words.

She dares not speak, throat tight with unspoken yearning.

Yara nods at her, a hard smile breaking across her lips. "The Drowned God takes even his wayward sons, after all. Theon is at peace, perhaps for the first time in his miserable life."

Sansa winces at the words, though not from offense. It's a willowing regret, memory washing over her.

(His trembling hand in hers as they leapt from the height of Winterfell's walls.)



Give him peace, gods, please, if you've any mercy left in you – give him peace.

Sansa's eyes flutter shut, heart carving a hollow between her ribs.

"My brother respected you, cared for you in a way I may never understand, but – "

Sansa opens her eyes to watch Yara in the slow-brimming light of dawn.

Yara swallows tightly, turning to her fully. "I wish to honor his faith," she promises staunchly. "I swear to you now – queen to queen – the North will have the Iron Islands' friendship, from now until the waves take us."

Sansa stares at her, a visage of her lost Theon, in the lines of her nose and the clench of her jaw and the curl of hair sweeping across her brow. Something aches in Sansa that feels jarringly like the beginning of a long, quiet grief. She releases a shaky breath with her words. "I would gladly trade it to have him back – even for a day."

Yara offers a tender smile, something like gratitude passing through her eyes. "I know. That's why you shall always have it."

Sansa nods, feeling the lingering heat of the spent pyres at her side. Like a promise.

"I would have died to get you there."

Yara extends her hand, salt-grimed glove open and waiting.

Sansa does not let it stay empty for long. She reaches forward, clasping arms with her fellow queen. "Sail well," she tells her, a gentle hope lining the words.

Yara smiles at her, fingers gripping at her forearm, head bowed in respect. "What is dead may never die."

Perhaps such words might have been a haunt in moons past, the threat of the Night King still a visceral, immediate thing. But now, the words are heartening.

Now, they sound like a plea that's been begging her lips for freedom.

Now, they are a promise.

(She doesn't want to be a Red Queen if it's only to a dead king.)

She visits Jon on the third day.

She finds Arya sitting outside his door, sharpening Needle. It seems a pointless task, but she does not tell her so, because then –

(Sansa ignores the quiet reminder at the back of her mind that whispers 'Daenerys' over and over, like a chant, a mantra. A dragon without wings is not without teeth, after all.)

She stares down at Arya, watching as her sister stills the whetstone over her blade, eyes a blank mask when she blinks up at her.

"Will you let me through?" she whispers with an exhaustion she has not let herself feel until now – until she is at his door, merely paces from him.

Arya cocks a brow her way, leaning back in her chair. "Took you long enough." There's a sharpness to the words – an accusation.

Sansa swallows tightly. She just wants to breathe.

(She's been trying to catch her breath since she first saw the stain of his blood along her furs.)

She just wants to breathe.

"Will you let me through?" she asks again, the words a strangled whisper.

Arya narrows her eyes at her, jaw clenched tight. She nods finally, gaze drawn down. Sansa slips into the room beneath the whisper of her wool skirts.

The door slips shut behind her and she's left staring at him as he lies there, tucked beneath furs, so peaceful she might have mistaken him for asleep any other time.

She takes a step closer, trembling. A short, stunted breath leaves her. Another step. She feels the horror branching through her lungs – slow and indelicate. She makes it all the way to the edge of his bed before she manages to breathe his name.


He doesn't answer.

"Jon," she tries again, this time louder, this time with the irrational belief that were she only louder, he would hear her and wake.

He stays still atop the bed.

That slow-branching horror, it sinks its hooks, brittles her bones. It roots her there before him. She sinks to her knees mindlessly.

He's so pale. So sickly pale his skin tints blue.

Sansa blinks, brows furrowing.

That blue…

It's frost, she realizes, a trembling hand reaching out to brush against his temple, feeling the sheen of thin ice beneath her fingertips. She pulls her hand back instantly, a small gasp breaking over her parted lips.

There's a winter in his veins, freezing him in this moment, keeping him suspended in this hopeless halfway point between life and death. She fumbles for his pulse, two fingers pressing into the cold flesh at his throat. His heartbeat wanes, sluggish and faint – barely even there at all.

She licks her lips, hand retracting. She takes a moment to look at him, eyes traveling over his scar-lined face, the unruly thatch of beard at his chin, the broad expanse of his chest when she pulls the furs down, riddled with the evidence of his betrayal – twice borne now. Beads of blood dot the edges of his never-closing wounds. Sansa frowns at the sight.

There's a cloth and clean water at the bedside, and after several moments of staring at the gashes, of trying to discern the motion of his breath, she reaches for it and sets about cleaning him.

The blood will run again, she knows. It is a perpetual stain, a constant reminder. But there is something soothing about dragging the wet cloth across his flesh, wiping the filth from him. Her eyes catch along the tangle of his dark curls lining the pillow now, brows furrowing. She finds a brush and sets to work, moving on to his beard next, taking a delicate blade to the overgrown hair, cleaning him up as best she can. She tucks him beneath the furs once more, changes his woolen socks, calls for lukewarm broth from the attending servant girl that Arya sends in. When the woman returns, Sansa sends her out with an appreciative smile and gentle nod, setting the first spoonful to Jon's mouth and dabbing up the lost broth that trickles over his chin with a fresh cloth beneath her steady, fine-boned fingers.

Arya does not come to collect her that evening, and Sansa wakes to find she has fallen asleep against the bed, knees still folded painfully stiff beneath her, Ghost nudging her to consciousness with a wet snout. She clenches a hand in his fur and buries her face in his neck, breathing him in.

He smells like Jon, she finds. Like soiled snow and leather and figs. She holds him to her for many long moments. And then she finds the will to face another day.

She returns after the work of tending the wounded and rebuilding Winterfell is done, after meeting with the remaining Northern lords as they try to contain the aftermath. They've taken to following her rule in Jon's absence, an unspoken act, perhaps bolstered by such vocal allegiance as Lord Glover's and Lady Lyanna's. Jon's lineage becomes the insignificance of yesterday, when there are too many walls to rebuild and too many mouths to feed and too many wounds to stich closed. After all, there is truth to Lord Glover's words.

"What Targaryen ever died for the North?"

They still call him King Jon in their whispered tales, in their fervent pleas to the old gods to heal his ailing body, to halt his perishing. The stories are vague, blurred at the edges, no one truly knowing the way in which Jon Snow defeated the Night King, only knowing that he had.

And perhaps that is enough.

Sansa leaves a tray of food outside Bran's door each morning and returns to it untouched each night.

She will not do more. She cannot do more.

Not when Jon's hand sits like ice against her small palm and the bandaged linens round his chest stain with fresh blood each morning.

Sansa curls her vehemence back behind a still tongue, tasting its tartness with the kind of steely resignation that comes from having buried so many dead already.

The pyres never seem to stop burning, the sky a permanent grey haze. Sometimes she finds herself staring over the ramparts at the ash-covered hills, the tainted snow of her home. But yearning is not building, and she has grown used to busy hands. She does not stare long.

There is a kingdom to restore.

She says goodbye to Lady Olenna at the gate, after her half-moon stay in Winterfell following the battle. The older woman takes her hands in hers, a jarringly public and informal gesture of affection that makes Sansa's chest grow warm with fondness, with the aching wonder of what might have been.

"Take care, dear girl. I fear this winter has only just begun."

Sansa nods, eyes falling to their joined hands. "I think you might be right." She doesn't let the weary sigh leave her, but she thinks Olenna might have heard it anyway. She blinks back up at her, gaze sure. "But we are not alone anymore. Keep sending that grain up North, Lady Olenna, and we stand a far better chance."

Olenna pats her hand, a wrinkled smile tugging at her lips. "Then I shall, Your Grace."

Sansa opens her mouth to object to the address, unable to keep her features from showing her startle, but Olenna only shushes her, patting her hand one last time before withdrawing. She eyes the shadow that Daenerys casts from her perch atop the ramparts, watching the farewell in stiff, darkened silence. "Take heed, Your Grace," Olenna whispers. "This world has not seen the last of dragons, it seems." A glint passes through her eyes as they resettle on Sansa's. "I wish you good fortune in the wars to come," she says pointedly, head inclined toward her.

Sansa does not glance upward at the indication, already feeling the dragon queen's presence like a hand at her throat, cinching ever tighter. But she nods her understanding, a faint smile pulling at the corners of her lips. "Thank you, my lady."

Edmure Tully leaves but a few days later himself, his lame arm bandaged to his side, his Tully armor both a comfort and a haunt. His bow is reserved, the quirk of his smile an affectionate thing when he rises back to his full height, head high. "You know, you're quite unlike her, in many ways, and yet, exactly like her in all the rest," he says suddenly, a thoughtful expression gracing his features.

Sansa cocks a curious brow up at him, a startled laugh lining her lips with earnestness. "Oh?"

"Like Catelyn," he says, as though it ever needed clarifying.

Sansa beams up at him, a hand braced to her chest as though to stem the warmth.

His face takes on a somberness, his eyes a soft-hued blue that makes her ache with memory. "I miss her, still. I miss her always."

Her mother's brother, she reminds herself. Her brother.

She thinks she knows a little something about brothers – the needing of them.

And the losing of them.

She reaches out to grasp his gloved hand in hers, a tender thumb running over his knuckles.

Edmure releases a soft laugh, a flicker of pain crossing his brow when he looks down at the motion, but then he's smiling again, that Tully blue a familiar comfort now. "I'm glad I shall not have to miss you, niece," he tells her.

Sansa reaches for him, and he goes to her. They hug in the snow-veiled courtyard, gently and ardently. She says goodbye to both her uncles, in the hollow of her heart, in the silence of prayers she has learned to always keep inward, in the kind of faith that has only ever been born of blood.

Her gods wear familiar faces now. She keeps them close to her heart.

(Family is the only faith that's ever seen her through, after all.)

"I can't say I'll miss this dreadful cold, cousin," Robin tells her upon his own farewell, shrugging his cloak tighter about his shoulders in a motion of discomfort.

Sansa takes pity on him, moving to adjust his furs with sure, practiced hands, tightening the cross-straps over his chest and smoothing her hands over his startlingly broad shoulders.

Not a child anymore, she finds. But then, none of them have had that luxury for quite some years now.

The recollection makes her softer, makes her worn heart clench just a touch tighter. "Then I shall have to make you a fine, new cloak when next you visit, my lord," she says, her voice bright in a way it hasn't been for far too long.

The excitement that lights his face could not be masked even if he'd tried.

It's a small, endearing bit of honesty that brings a smile to her lips.

"Will you?"

Sansa nods fervently.

Robin beams at her, chin lifting, standing just a bit straighter than he had before. And then a touch of sadness wilts his smile. "I'm sorry Lord Baelish won't be able to join me. I know how much he must have meant to you." He worries his lip. "Arya told me he died in the battle."

Sansa returns her hands to his shoulders, smoothing over the edges of his cloak with a motherly touch. "He died in service to the North. I could not ask for more," she tells him, voice steady, not a quiver to be found.

Robin nods, brows furrowed, face caught somewhere between pride and regret. And then he offers a comforting smile, dipping into a slight bow in farewell, turning almost fully before –

He stops, glances back at her, opens his mouth with a line of hesitation worrying his brow. "Your Jon," he begins, and Sansa blinks at him, breath tightening in her chest. "He's a brave one, isn't he?"

Sansa resists the urge to fold the young lord into her embrace, settling instead for a grateful smile and a soft sigh.

"I should like to get to know him better, when he wakes."

Sansa lets the breath flutter from her, a catch to her voice. "I'll see to it, my lord." She watches the billowing of his cloak when he leaves then, the familiar banners of the Eyrie disappearing behind the main gate with the afternoon sun.

She returns to the council chambers that same day to find Tyrion waiting for her, standing swiftly from his chair at her presence.

Brienne eyes him disdainfully at her back, but Sansa only gives him a blank stare.

He worries a hand at the edge of the chair for a moment, seeming to contemplate his words. A stilted silence breathes between them, and then he takes a step toward her. "Your Grace," he begins, and never gets to finish.

"'Your Grace'? Not 'my lady'? Not 'Sansa'?" She keeps the bite tame in her words, the snap of her jaw cushioned by restraint.

It is still strange and new, this quiet acceptance the Northerners have granted her, this title born of war and its necessities. Davos is as insightful and stalwart a Hand to her as he was to Jon, and none of the great houses seem eager to dispute her choice, or her rule. She wonders still, in the back of her mind, if they'd have chosen her in any other circumstance. Or if she is simply the default now, the only Stark left worth following, with Bran sequestered in her chambers as though in self-imprisonment, and Arya slinking through Winterfell's shadows in a grief so furious she seems more wolf than human these days.

(Even still, she remembers the way Lord Glover had looked at her that first night in the hall, and the way Ser Davos inclines his head in deference, and the way silence blisters in the room upon her arrival, fierce and humble in equal measure.)

Tyrion clears his throat, gaze shifted toward the table so that he does not look at her when he says, "I think by now it's rather clear you were never my lady. Especially now that you are…" He clears his throat again, eyes flicking back toward hers. "Now that you are his."

She does not offer a rebuke, but neither does she offer confirmation. She simply stares at him. The room seems smaller suddenly, the air tight in her lungs.

Tyrion's hand falls from the chair and he takes another step toward her, looking up at her with a plead in his eyes she cannot discern. "But that's not why I'm here."

"And why are you here, Lord Tyrion?" she manages through pursed lips, tongue sharp behind her teeth.

(She was there when they presented Jaime's gold hand to him after the battle, in the filtering light of a red-hazed dawn. He'd stared at it with salt-tinged eyes, lips trembling as he bit his tongue to hold the curse, or perhaps the wail. Eyes fluttering closed, breath raking from him like a gale, he'd finally spoken.

"Melt it down," he'd choked out, and then turned instantly, stalking away with a shake to his shoulders that had Sansa bracing a hand over her mouth, the sigh tumbling from her in its wounded release.)

"I've come to offer my services," he says, fists bunching at his sides.

Sansa cocks her head at him, eyeing him carefully. "Has your queen finally decided to rejoin the council? To venture outside her self-imposed isolation? Tell me, is she tired of living like a mere guest in a castle that should be hers?"

Tyrion swallows tightly, his voice hoarse when he replies, "Daenerys is in mourning, but – "

"And we are not?" she scoffs.

"But I am not here for her," he finishes gruffly.

Another silence pricks at them, the air bristling with unease, and Sansa tries not to notice the trembling of his fists or the downward tilt of his mouth or the anguished, lonesome look in his eye.

The last of his name.

And yet he's here –

(not for 'her').

Sansa will not turn away council for spite. She will not let her people suffer to keep her burning resentment alive. She will not place pride above peace.

"Please," he tries again, blinking up at her with barely concealed tears, a face so instantly aged and worn she's surprised she hadn't seen it before. There's a weariness to him that wasn't there before. "May I – may I be of any help?"

"I won't ever hurt you."

Sansa has taken to distrusting such promises in her experience, but there's the same earnestness in his words now, and she understands what it means to want to believe in simple sincerity – to need it even, especially in an insincere world.

Sansa finds herself nodding stiffly, just as the door behind her swings open. Lyanna Mormont stops in the threshold, eyeing the two of them in stilted concern. "Your Grace?" she asks cautiously, hand clenching on the door handle.

Sansa takes a deep breath, motioning toward a seat at the table. "Lord Tyrion will be joining us for a time," she tells her.

Gratitude lights along the scar-addled lines of his face, a shaky smile pulling at his mouth.

She does not ask after his queen. She does not invite the dragon back to the table.

And he does not urge her to such.

Sansa consults with every healer and maester and wildling witch left in Winterfell. Nothing seems to affect Jon. No collection of herbs seems to make the right salve, no pressure of practiced hands seems to ease the bruising or the wounds, no incantation seems to invoke the gods' mercy enough to wake him.

Sansa visits him daily, sleeping either at his side, or with Arya. She begins her day with him. She ends it with him, as well.

She enters the familiar chamber now to find Tormund standing in the middle of the room, staring down at Jon, still as the morning light.

"Tormund," she greets, hesitant, making her way around the large man to stand at his side.

He grunts his acknowledgement of her, never taking his eyes from Jon.

She bundles her hands before her, fingers clenching and unclenching. She eyes the clean bowl of water at the bedside table. "Did you come to help me wash him?" she asks tentatively, needing to broach the silence and yet not knowing how.

He slides his intense gaze her way and she swallows back the words, unable to look away. He heaves a heavy sigh, a hand wiping down his mouth and along his rough beard. The motion is so reminiscent of Jon that she nearly takes a step back at the way it knocks the breath from her.

"Let him rest, little wolf," he tells her.

She blinks at him, confusion marring her features. She glances back to Jon's unmoving form, before returning her attention to Tormund. "I…"

"He deserves the mercy of a clean blade."

The panic is instant – sharp at her throat. Her hand comes up to grab at the hook-and-needle chain lining her collar. "No," she croaks out, breathless, staggering beneath the suggestion.

Tormund turns fully to her, eyes the darkest blue she's ever seen from him. "He's done his part. He's won the fight. Now let him rest."

"And were you not there when he rose from death the first time?"

Tormund grumbles, but doesn't answer.

She takes a daring step closer to him. "Were you not there?" she asks harshly.

"Aye," he grinds out. "I was there."

Sansa stares at him balefully, her hand unclenching from her chain and sliding back to her side. "You didn't let him rest then either." It's nearly an accusation.

"Things were different."

"Yes, he wasn't still alive."

Tormund levels her with a frustrated glare.

"I can't let him go. I can't." Her breath catches, her hands gripping at her skirts. "Not like this."

Heaving a sigh, Tormund glances back to Jon's still form along the bed. "You know he never was the same – after that death business."

Sansa softens at the admission. She feels the unexplainable urge to rest her hand upon his wide arm. She resists it – just barely.

"He was never the same," he breathes out.

"I know."

"No," he says, near on a growl. "You don't."

Sansa blinks at him, mouth pursed into a tight line. Something rattles in her chest she cannot recognize.

He turns back to her. "You can't know that. No one can. He won't talk about it – about wherever the fuck he went when those bastards closed his eyes for good. So, no – you can't know that. You can't know how he's changed because you don't know where he's been. None of us do."

She remembers Jon's heavy breath pooling in the dip of her collar bone as he braces himself above her. She remembers the quiver that racks through him when she settles her touch at his chest. She remembers the mournful way he mouths her name as her fingertips graze his scars.

And she remembers how he takes her mouth with his before she can ever ask, his hand stilling her at the wrist.

The thing is, she's done quite the same when he's tried exploring her own scars.

Ramsay was a form of death himself, after all.

She's never told Jon the depraved things Ramsay used to whisper in her ear when he took her like an animal, or how he brought her to begging by knife-point each night, or even how she miscarried during her escape to Castle Black – staining her saddle with blood, Brienne's firm, mindful hands pulling her from the horse, cradling her in the snow as she cried out from the pain, a rending, terrible wail that shook the frost from the trees while Theon watched on with quiet, horror-filled eyes.

(No, never that.)

Something in her died on her way to him.

Something in her has been dying ever since.

Sansa gulps back the memory, frigid in her own skin, a winter's gale passing through her like a howl.

She told him to come back – demanded it even – because she has had enough of dying.

Because a collar is just another kind of violence.

Because she has finally learned to bare her teeth.

(Because wolves were never meant to be tamed – even by death.)

"Maybe it's selfish," she says, chapped lips parting on the words. "But I won't let him go," she repeats. "Because I think he deserves to be fought for. I think he deserves it more than anyone."

Tormund stares at her for a long time, just watching her, and she has to wonder what he sees. He'd been there, after all, the day she'd arrived at Castle Black. He'd been there – watched how she'd flown herself at Jon, arms going wide, sob raking from her instantly, trembling in his hold, face buried in his neck, rocking with him, back and forth and back and forth and –

He'd been there when she'd poured herself into him, never to return.

"Don't take too long, little wolf," he tells her finally, a gruff sigh leaving him as he turns for the door. "The dragon queen won't sit still forever."

Sansa watches him go, catching sight of Arya in the threshold as Tormund drifts past. They share a nod of familiarity, and Sansa is a sudden stranger, the show of acknowledgement a window into lives she's closed herself off to – either willfully or not.

Have they shared a pint as easily as they've shared this nod? Have they shared stories or laughs or hands?

She wonders, suddenly, at all the moments she's missed in her single-minded rule, at this life her sister has built for herself, this life that Jon has built for himself, all the people and all the trials and all the joys that they've known.

She's never shared her darkest parts, no, but she wants to now, suddenly. She wants to know what it means to be seen – wholly and cleanly.

Arya stands before her. Jon lays behind her.

And she wants them to know. She wants them to know everything – all the horrid, rancid details, all the gruesome little workings of her insides – peeled back and emptied out.

(Perhaps this is what living means – perhaps this is what she demands of herself, as much as she demands it of Jon.)

She stares at Arya and her perpetual hold on Needle at her hip. She stares at Tormund's back as he stalks from the room. She stares and stares and stares – vacant and longing.

(Tired of unkindness.)

Sansa makes her way from the room, silent and stiff. She finds herself at Bran's door.

Before she can knock, the door swings wide – open for the first time since he'd retreated that bloody, unforgettable night, as though he'd been waiting for just this moment.

"Sansa," he says, and he's her little brother again – though his cheeks are gaunt and his eyes are hollow and there is nothing fond in his voice at all.

Her chest clenches from the harrowing sight of him. "Bran," she exhales softly.

He sits staring up at her, hand still held at the door. And then he wheels back, inviting her into the darkness of the room, shadows playing on them like taunts.

She thinks of their trek south. She thinks of the summit. She thinks of the beat of dragon's wings shadowing their journey home. She thinks of the dragon queen, her white-sheened brilliance like a threat, even now, her mourning a fire-brewed thing.

She thinks of the start of it all.

Sansa takes a seat before Bran, the fire crackling at her side. She licks her lips. She finds her words.

(At the beginning.)

She will start at the beginning.

Sansa clears her throat, eyes a dark demand, breath rising like wind-swept embers in her chest.

{"Why did you bring her here?" –

Daenerys becomes a haunt – a silver, shadowy thing Sansa hardly ever sees outside the dim veil of sundown. Sometimes, when she takes to the halls at night, she finds the dragon-less queen just lingering in a threshold, as though she has suddenly lurched to a stop, caught halfway between one place and the other, forgetting where it is she means to go.

The war has left widows of most of the North – wives who have outlasted their husbands.

But there is no such word for mothers who have outlasted their children.

Sansa knocks on Daenerys' door just the once – short and solid.

"Come in," Daenerys beckons with a voice like ash.

Sansa enters her chamber smoothly, offering a polite curtsy and closing the door behind her. She finds Daenerys lounging in a cushioned chair near the window, holding a near-empty wine glass loosely in her hand. She sneers at Sansa's entrance, a jarring expression for a face otherwise perfectly poised, a model of regal disinterest when she turns back to the window. "And how is my nephew?" she asks coolly, fingers curling around her glass. At Sansa's silence she turns a single, raised brow her way, looking at her out of the corner of her eye. "Come now, I know you've just come from his chambers. You practically live there now, don't you?"

Sansa smooths her hands over her skirts. "He is much the same, Your Grace. Nothing we've attempted has yet to wake him."

Daenerys scoffs, taking a swig of wine. "Such a doting sister." She seems to catch herself, lip curling as she turns fully to her. "Or should I say cousin now?"

"Jon is…dear to me, Your Grace, no matter the relation you attach to it."

"Yes," she says, emptying her wine glass. "Dear enough to fuck, it seems."

"Your Grace – "

"Let's not pretend, shall we? It's a rather tedious affair at this point." Daenerys arches a challenging brow at Sansa, tipping her empty glass back and forth.

"She burnt the Temple of the Dosh Khaleen when the khals refused her rule. She burnt the slaver ships when they denied her their fleet. She burnt Euron Greyjoy when he rescinded his allegiance."

Sansa blinks, remembering Bran's words.

"She destroys what she cannot have. House words have never rung so true. She will take what is hers, with fire and blood. Or fire and blood will take it instead."

Sansa draws in a deep, steadying breath, lowering herself to the seat across from Daenerys. Her hands fold together over her lap with certainty.

Meereen will be the last city she lays ruin to.

Sansa catches sight of the flagon of wine on the side table.

(The last, she vows.)

Sansa grabs the flagon, offering it to Daenerys.

After a moment of contemplation, Daenerys extends her hand with the wine glass expectantly. Sansa begins to pour as she speaks, "If we're not pretending anymore then I gather it's safe to say you're not particularly interested in Jon waking."

Daenerys throws her head back with a stunted laugh and Sansa stops pouring, replacing the flagon, her hands shifting seamlessly back to her lap. Daenerys bites off an indignant scoff when she looks back to Sansa, eyes flashing. "You're much too smart to think I'd ever cross an ocean with an army such as mine only to sit second seat at the table."

Sansa doesn't answer her, but she doesn't need to.

Daenerys' eyes harden on her, taking a sip of wine like a threat, never blinking from her when she swallows. "I did offer him an alternative. He refused."

"It's only an alternative when it's a choice, not a threat."

Daenerys purses her lips, the fingers of her free hand thrumming along the armrest. "I didn't relish the idea of harming my own blood, no, but I'd have done it if it meant stability for the throne."

"I believe that."

Daenerys eyes her critically, shifting in her seat. "And you understand why I must." A long sip of wine. A thrum of silence between them.

It is said like a statement, but even Sansa hears the question in it. She offers a perfunctory smile. "I understand why you believe you must."

Daenerys' cheeks tinge a harsh pink, her nostrils flaring. "It is not belief. It is fact." She takes a large gulp of wine.

"You'll pardon me, Your Grace, if I hold such a fact up to speculation. You did, after all, base your entire campaign for the throne on the misguided 'fact' that you were the last – and rightful – Targaryen." Sansa cocks her head thoughtfully, reclining in her chair. "We've since seen the truth of that," she finishes calmly, no hint of smugness to the words, though the boldness of such a sentiment is inherently unspoken.

Daenerys narrows her eyes, her jaw locking, a cold, even calm blanketing over her. And this is it. This is the dragon queen in all her bereaved splendor. This is grief made sharp – made fire-licked. "You would do well to hold that tongue, my lady, before I have it cut out." It's such a soft-spoken threat, her voice lilting as though it is a secret shared, a hidden joy. Daenerys' lips curl with her dark smile, stained with wine.

Sansa glances to the slowly emptying glass in her hand.

"So eager to defy me," Daenerys muses, all hint of grief gone. "Treason is an easy crime for you, isn't it?" She is fire again – the small, blue flame at its origin. A quiet destruction. She looks off into the corner of the room, taking a drawn-out sip of wine, a needful distraction. A sigh leaves her when she finally lowers her glass – a sound not unlike the exhaustion of bruised hearts.

Sansa thinks of Jorah Mormont then. The quiet bear at Daenerys' back, and the way she always inclined her head at his words, the way her smile seemed a tender, girlish thing in his presence, the way her hand reached for him in the end, with desperation and yearning and loneliness.

So much loneliness it was painful for Sansa to watch.

"You love him so? That you would risk such treason to speak to me thus? That you would give your life for his claim?" Her eyes slip back to Sansa like a demand.

"For his claim? No." Sansa shakes her head softly, a sad sort of smile tugging at her lips, and she knows now that there is no keeping it any longer. There is no way to stop it spilling from her, in waves and waves and earnest, fierce waves. "But for him?"

There is no keeping this.

She imagines Daenerys sees the truth of it in her face, because she is nodding slightly, jaw quivering, a heavy breath drawn through her lungs. "And you think I haven't loved like that myself?" Her eyes are wet suddenly – jarringly.

If Daenerys is trying to hide the regret, she's doing a poor job of it. And for a moment, Sansa wonders what they might have been in another life. In another time.

(When they'd not crawled over leagues and leagues of heartache too ripe to ever call it finished –

Leagues and leagues of it and –

The road is too long. It winds too sharp. And Sansa cannot see the end from her vantage point, cannot calculate the curve. She discerns it through faith. She travels blind, but for her hand in Jon's.)

What they might have been – Sansa wonders – in another life.

But they have only this life.

And she will not waste it.

"I think you've loved," she answers her in a whisper, and it's not a truth that's hard to see.

Daenerys does not take her eyes from her, hand tightening over her forgotten wine glass. She is a haunt, yes – still a visage of mourning – but fire does not die so easy.

(Sansa reminds herself that fire sows no seeds.)

The words lodge in Sansa's throat, scraping their way out – a wreckage of sorrow lighting her tongue. "I just don't think you've ever loved anything so well as your throne – so well as yourself."

Daenerys looks upon her with barely held contempt, her chin tilting high, eyes blinking back the wetness. "You're treading on thin ice, Lady Sansa," she warns.

"But it is my ice, and I will tread it how I will."

Her North. Her home. Her Jon.

(Even if she burns for it – this she will not surrender.)

Daenerys takes a last, violent swig of wine, emptying her glass and nearly slamming it on the side table as she stands. "You would be dead without me," she hisses, a harrowing glint of shadow lighting her pale features. It is almost a plea.

Sansa only shakes her head, her eyes sharp under the firelight, hands still held primly in her lap. "I would be dead without a great number of people – mainly Jon. And Arya, and Bran, and Theon. But not you."

Daenerys blinks wildly at her, mouth parting with no words to follow.

Sansa stands as well, her height lending an air of assurance to the words. "We would be dead without your dragons, Your Grace, but hardly without you," she corrects, something of compassion seeping into her tone, remembering –

There is no word for mothers who outlast their children.

Yes, she has loved. But so have they all.

"I'm sorry," Sansa says.

(Daenerys will never know what for.)

A scoff leaves the queen's lips. "Sorry?" She's practically shaking with the indignation. "Sorry?" Her face twists into a mask of disdain. "You will be," she promises, voice a tight whisper. "You will all be sorry."

Sansa does not wilt in the face of her wrath. She simple waits. She simply watches.

"Father will know if you do."

"My armies will sweep through this land and lay waste to all who defy me. I will retake that which is mine by right, and you will learn to properly cower before your queen," she sneers, a shadow-crept wrath etching over her face. "You think you have won, because my dragons are dead. Because my children are dead. But I was a queen before I was ever a mother, and a queen I will stay. They heralded my name like prophecy, they knelt in reverence, they bled for me, because I demanded it, and because they knew it was right. Westeros will tremble before me, dragons or not, because I am the last true Targaryen. I am the fire, and I am the blood. And you will know my wrath. You will know that I carry the greatness of Old Valyria in my veins. You will know – "

Daenerys chokes on her own vehemence, a cloud of blood spraying suddenly from her lips as she jolts to stillness, eyes wide.

(Words were not the only poison Baelish taught her.)

Sansa tucks her hand back into the folds of her dress, the powdered drug between her fingertips a weight she has learned years ago.

Daenerys snaps wild eyes to her emptied wine glass in recognition, lips flecked with blood. She stumbles, blinking furiously, hands grasping for air she hasn't the lungs for.

Sansa does not turn away, even when the dragon queen collapses to the ground, gripping Sansa's skirts between white knuckles, choking on her own blood.

"I would give my life for his, yes," Sansa offers demurely, lowering herself to the floor, a tender hand on the dragon queen's elbow just before she starts seizing. "But first, I would give yours."

It's an ugly, inglorious death that takes her – the blood seeping from her mouth like a wound, fingers gnarled into trembling, grasping claws, eyes red-rimmed and hateful when she finally gasps her last – small and infirm and less than a queen.

It is not a dragon's death.

Daenerys' eyes slip shut, and instantly – like a dark, thieving mirror – with Ghost's distant howl breaking against the night, somewhere across the castle –

Jon finally wakes.

{"There is a price. Only death pays for life."

It is an echo of years past. An echo that rings unfamiliar to Sansa's ears, but in the dark hour, in the hollow of night, it comes to her –

"Some say the witch's magic still lingers inside me."

Sansa's eyes go wide, her mouth parting. Bran offers what might have passed for a smile once on her lost brother's face.

"Because she is needed."

There is an old sort of magic to sacrifice, after all – a violence done most kindly.

And fire sows no seeds.

So Sansa will sow her own.}

Chapter Text

Disclaimer: I own nothing, I make no money.

A Violence Done Most Kindly

Chapter Nine: Rest

"It is not so much a dance they begin, as it is a swaying, a rocking of sorts. A gentle lull of bodies, tilting from one foot to the other – much as they had that first time at Castle Black, when they'd held the wounded parts of each other for the first time and swore, unknowingly, to never let go." - Jon and Sansa. Stark is a house of many winters.

* * *

The thing about dying – and Jon knows this intimately now – is that it's not accompanied by some meaningful stream of memories, or followed by a great white light, or tempered by a last, comforting epiphany.

It's just dying.

(If Jon remembers anything it's the shadowed arch of the ceiling and the furs sticky with blood beneath his cheek and the ache of grinding teeth in his skull as he gurgled out his last on the floor of Sansa's chambers.)

They say he was half animal when he woke.

Tormund is the one to find him, barreling into the room after a resounding crash echoes from behind the door, only to find Jon curled in the corner of the room, panting, clawing at the wall, eyes wide and frantic, fresh blood staining the bandages along his heaving chest. Littered along the floor are the scattered scrolls and ink wells that had lined the now overturned table, the blankets and furs torn from the bed in a trail toward Jon's huddled form, the basin of water at his bedside now spilled and shattered across the stones.

Ghost treks into the room cautiously, ears down, a noise brewing low in his throat.

Jon lets out a whimper, still clawing at the wall, knees drawn up to his chest, and Ghost pads across the room to curl around his trembling form, huffing softly when Jon startles at the contact, before digging his hands into the direwolf's thick pelt and burying himself in the sea of white fur.

Tormund lets out a gruff sigh, shoulders sagging at the sight. "Get the Stark girls," he grinds out to the wide-eyed guards at his back.

Arya is the first through the door, and something in Jon recognizes her – but the remembrance is faded at the edges, blurred – like looking through a frosted windowpane. Jon opens his mouth but only a croak comes out, his voice strangled in his chest, burning through his lungs.

Arya's chest rises and falls quickly, tears already lining her lids as she stares fixedly at her brother crouched in shadow like a cornered beast. "Jon," she says, her relief expelled on a heavy exhale.

The name is familiar somehow, but it claws at the space in his head that's still pounding, and he can't reach for the memory without further pain, and there's a howl somewhere in the room, splintering beneath his skin, and it's all too dark and too cold and his breaths come too quick and –

"Jon," she says again, taking a step closer, her brows angled sharply down in concern.

He whimpers again, clutching at Ghost. The direwolf swings red, unblinking eyes toward Arya.

She swallows tightly, blinking the tears back, face stoic once more. "Help Sansa," she tells Tormund without looking at him.

Tormund grumbles his reluctance. "What's the little wolf done now?"

"She's killed Daenerys." Arya doesn't take her eyes off Jon.

Tormund lets out a low curse, a hand wiping down his mouth. He takes another glance at Jon, and then back at the serving girls huddled in the threshold, peeking into the room.

"Davos and Glover are with her, but they expect retaliation from the Unsullied."

"You fuckin' kneelers," he grumbles in response, but he's heading out the door already. He pauses at the threshold, looking back at his friend cowered in the corner. Pain pinches at his features, his teeth grinding. "Careful, girl. He won't know you – not at first." His voice lowers, a heaviness to it that bespeaks his anguish. "He's been a dead thing too long."

Arya watches him leave out of the corner of her eye, still facing her brother. She takes a moment, breathes deep, closes her eyes. Jon watches with a dark, cautious gaze, his whimpers rolling into low, defensive snarls.

Arya opens her eyes to the sound. Something shifts into place inside her – Jon can very nearly see the change.

"Leave us," she tells the handmaids.

She only gives the command once before the door is swinging closed behind her.

She takes a bold step toward him. "You're safe, Jon."

He scoffs at the words, baring his teeth, and Arya blinks at the reaction.

He doesn't know why the idea should be so ridiculous. Maybe it's the thrum of panic still beating around his ribcage, or the slowly bleeding wound at his heart, or the image of milk white eyes playing like haunts at the back of his mind – a flutter of dark wings in the night.


Something tells him nowhere is safe.

"No one can protect anyone."

The words whisper up his spine, a bleak familiarity to them.

Jon closes his eyes, tries to rein in his breath, fingers curling and uncurling along Ghost's coat.

He's been dead – or nearly so. This much he knows. The familiar darkness still lingers along the edges of his mind, playing shadow tricks on his eyes, so that every time he blinks, he imagines it swallowing him back up. The panic lodges in his throat, the bile rising just beneath it.

He's been here before. Maybe not here 'here', not this very room, not huddled in the corner with his slowly approaching sister. No, not 'here', but very near 'here'.

Here – in the 'after' – in the wake of death.

It comes back to Jon in flashes – in strange, disconnected glimpses – this life of his.

This 'before'.

He remembers Jory Cassel's hand on his shoulder as he passes him a mug of ale, and he remembers hauling tiny Rickon up onto his shoulders as he laughed, and he remembers how smooth it felt to brush his thumb over the fletching of one of Ygritte's arrows.

He remembers many things, and yet nothing – all at once. All in a fine wave, like a sheet of rain freezing mid-air atop the Wall.

"It's me," Arya tries this time, pressing closer.

Jon licks his lips, watching her, brows furrowed in concentration.

He remembers Theon's laugh when he nicked himself shaving that first time as a boy, and he remembers the prayer wheel that hung over his bed when Catelyn Stark brushed a palm over his fevered forehead, and he remembers watching Gilly pull the innards from a chicken for that night's meal while she coos at the bundle that is Little Sam at her side.

It comes to him in shards – in pieces. But there's a disconnect.

He just doesn't know if any of it should mean something.

Arya has made it across the room to him before he's of a mind to notice, and he recoils at her sudden proximity, a snarl curling his lip back, his chest constricting at the sight of her – without knowing why.

She drops down to her knees before him, bottom lip caught between her teeth, and she looks so young. Cheeks still full, brow still unlined, hair pulled back with a severity that betrays her youth. It's a face he knew once, a lifetime ago.

Jon's shoulders ease at the recognition, halting and unreachable though it is.

"It's me," she says again, voice breaking, hands outreaching.

The attempted touch sparks something of terror in him, and he's howling suddenly, a broken scream, scrambling back against the stone, back fitted to the corner behind him.

(A hand at his chest, dagger sheathed in blood.)

Arya retracts her touch immediately, a sharp breath drawn through her parted lips, eyes wetting instantly.

Red, his mind tells him, and he doesn't know why.

Red, maybe, for the stain of blood seeping through his bandages. Red, maybe, for the comforting steadiness of Ghost's calm stare. Red, maybe, for –

(a flash of copper hair)

Jon stills, mouth tilting open with no sound to follow.

There's something there, just at the edges, just out of reach.

(Red, maybe, for the heart he lost.)

Arya spreads her hands over her thighs, kneeling there before him, blinking back the tears. "Oh Jon," she breathes, and then she hangs her head, eyes on her knees, a trembling hand brought up to brace back along her mouth, smothering the sob.

Ghost disentangles from him then, and Jon startles at the sudden loss, hands grasping at air. Nudging his snout along Arya's elbow, Ghost lets out a low whine, stilling when she looks up at him, her hand falling from her face. They sit staring at each other for long moments – direwolf and girl. Arya sniffs, cheeks wet, eyes impossibly grey.

Jon watches with keen trepidation.

And then Ghost nuzzles his great maw against her cheek, stepping into her, huffing at her shoulder when she raises a tentative hand to his neck.

Jon watches the exchange, the frost weaning from his bones, the darkness slinking back like a long-kept night.

Nymeria, he thinks suddenly, watching his sister (his sister) cradling the direwolf's head against her own. And then Greywind. And then Summer and Shaggydog and Lady and –

Red – like Sansa.

Jon's throat goes dry, the sob catching along his tongue as he slumps back against the wall.

Memory like flares. The signal fire of his heart – calling, calling in the night.


Her name breaks from him in a broken voice – a hitch of air splitting the syllables like it's the first word he's ever said, ever learned.

And maybe it is.

Maybe 'before' wasn't really living.

Maybe he never died in the first place.

Maybe this is where it begins.

"Sansa," he says again, more sure this time, more steady.

(It fills him like the cold used to – but he has no use for winter anymore.)

Arya blinks open disbelieving eyes at him, her hand stilling in Ghost's fur, and then she laughs -short and abrupt. It bubbles forth, scraping along her throat, shaking her there as she kneels before him. She hiccups the sob back, staring at him, face crumbling.

Jon gives her a look of such undiluted distress that she finally breaks. She begins to cry in earnest.

Jon reaches for her, hesitant, but his hands stop mid-air, hovering in uncertainty.

Arya, he wants to say. He even mouths the word, tests the sound along his tongue, but nothing comes.

And still, it anchors there, at the back of his throat –


Like the first word he ever learned.

Like the first breath he ever took.

Her name lingers long on his tongue, staining it with her presence, her red – until she becomes more than 'before', more than 'after'.

Until she is 'always'.

'Skirmish' is too kind a word for the bloodshed that follows Daenerys' murder, though 'battle' implies something of order, something that was certainly not felt in the following hours. Sansa has prepared for this, however. The threat is quelled quickly enough by the Northern army, the remaining Dothraki and Unsullied forces already severely outnumbered after their decimation during the Long Night.

Some of the Unsullied fight to the death. Others, no longer disillusioned beneath the iron grip of a dragon queen, simply yearn for stillness – perhaps not peace, particularly (because there is no frame of reference for what that should feel like), but the absence of war, at least.

A kind of stillness one can find in the North, if you take the time to look for it.

Sansa is not without her mercies.

The Unsullied, those that throw down their arms when the fight is lost, are offered a stay in the North, or safe passage back to Essos aboard the ships of the North's newest allies, the Ironborn. It would be untrue to say that the Unsullied longed for home, for 'home' is a disingenuous sort of memory, a trick on the mind that tells them there is something worth returning to, in a long life of inherent unbelonging. Many of them are willing to discover this 'home' now, here, in the North, where their hands may try to unlearn the permanent mold of their spears and they may have the chance to build something more lasting than pyres.

The Dothraki are another matter entirely. They rove and pillage, supplanting themselves from one place to the next, never settling, never sated. There's a restlessness to them, a stifling sort of madness amidst the barren white plains of the North.

Sansa understands what it means to be far from home – to never be fixed, steady. To recoil from the unfamiliar, to be wary of the strange. But she will not abide the ransacking of Northern homes and villages. The Dothraki are expelled from the North in a bitter, bloody rush toward the coast. They take to whatever ships will have them. And they leave Westeros behind like a forgotten dream.

Daenerys' touch is slowly weaned from the land.

This is how Sansa finds herself seated at the head table, Ser Davos settled beside her, staring resolutely at Tyrion, Varys, and Missandei as they stand before the hall of lords. Northmen and wildling alike fill the seats surrounding the hall.

Tormund has already informed her of Jon's waking, and though she half-expected it, had hoped for it, desperately, it still halts the breath in her lungs at the realization. It still nearly brings her to her knees in stark, blinding relief. She'd gone to him, after those first chaotic hours following Daenerys' death, only to find him asleep atop the bed, curled along his side, the furs clutched in his hands. Arya was busy picking up the shattered pieces of the water basin along the floor. Standing slowly, cheeks sporting dried tear tracks, Arya had offered her a hesitant smile, a quick nod of assurance.

Sansa had braced herself back against the threshold, near collapsing, bracing a hand to her trembling mouth to smother the sob, chest heaving, breath raking from her. Later, when she'd managed to collect herself, kneeling on the floor beside his bed, a tender hand brushing the curls back from his sweat-lined forehead, she'd been content to simply watch him sleep. She'd left before he could wake, needing to contain the situation she'd left them in when she slipped her poison into Daenerys' cup.

Sansa blinks back the memory, throat flexing as she watches the dragon queen's former advisors step forward in the center of their informal court.

It takes all of her not to run to Jon, not to break from the table, skirts gathered in her hands, and rush from the hall that moment. It takes all of her to bear the crown she upholds in his absence – so that he may wake to a free kingdom, a warless reign, a stable throne.

Sansa closes her eyes, breathes deep.

This she does for him.

"Missandei of Naath," she calls, voice firm.

Missandei steps forward, eyes narrowed with resentment, jaw clenched tight. She gives a perfunctory nod of acknowledgement.

Sansa remembers, suddenly, the way she rocked Grey Worm in her lap that dreadful, first morning, tears breaking against his cold brow, fingers dug into his bloodied leathers. She softens at the memory, lashes fluttering in sorrow. She clears her throat, settles her arms along her armrests. "Have you anything to say in your defense?"

Missandei takes a seething breath, voice clogged with tears. "You broke your precious 'guest right'," she spits.

Sansa purses her lips, chin lifting. "An invader cannot be a guest. The two are in direct opposition. That's exactly what your queen was. And that's exactly what I defended my home against."

Murmurs of ascent sound throughout the hall.

She can see the way Tyrion grips his hands before him, but he does not challenge her. He does not even lift his head. The sight should be gratifying, but it is only mournful to Sansa.

Missandei does not bother to wipe her tears as they gather in the corners of her eyes. "She was not just my queen," she chokes out, hands clenching into fists at her sides. "She was my friend. And you murdered her."

Sansa takes a moment, hands curling around her armrests. She remembers the pyres. She remembers the choking haze of smoke. She remembers Missandei's silhouette along the ramparts as she watched in silence, clutching the helm of her beloved to her chest, before she cast it off into the fire, steely and without hesitance. She remembers the way she had braced her elbows along her thighs, fingers clasped, brow pressed to her tightly linked hands as she sat amid the crypts with the rest of them, praying. She remembers the genuine look of wonder and appreciation that crossed her face as she disembarked from her horse upon arrival at Riverrun, her eyes roving the green, verdant hills across the glistening water.

"She was my friend."

Sansa's frown harshens, her throat bobbing beneath the stifling emotion. "For that, I am truly sorry," she tells her, voice hoarse in its sincerity.

Missandei blinks at her, the sharp furrow of her brow never abating. She glances to the stones at her feet, breathing deep, hands never unclenching.

Sansa thinks it is a wound that may never close, a chasm that may never be crossed. This war has taken even the survivors. A new, unexpected grief takes root in her heart now. She clears her throat. "I would offer you a new home here in the North, as I have the Unsullied, but I do not think that you would take it."

Missandei looks up at her again, face still set in a grimace. A confirmation of her belief. She could never linger in the place where Daenerys fell, especially by the grace of her murderer. And Sansa does not begrudge her that resentment.

She sighs, knowing that Missandei never had any such malicious designs on the North, knowing that she had only loyalty for her queen. But these are the consequences of fealty to tyrants. "Regardless, I would not be able to trust you not to act in vengeance," she says sadly, for it is a sad truth.

"You would be smart not to trust that," she says lowly, and the sharp outcry around the hall at the words, the subtle threat to their queen, is silenced swiftly by Sansa's upraised hand.

She looks on at Misssandei, their eyes never leaving each other. And then Missandei dips her head again, a choked sob making its way past her lips, before she manages to stifle it. Sansa swings her gaze to her former husband.

"Lord Tyrion."

He takes a breath, lifts his head, steps forward. Grumbles of distrust sift through the crowd around them.

"Have you anything to say in your defense?"

"In my defense? No, Your Grace, not in my defense." He shakes his head, a resigned sort of sigh leaving him. "I suppose it is not a proper defense to say I've never learned to love rightly." A rueful chuckle leaves him, and he is all at once every iteration she has ever known of him – stranger, enemy, husband, friend.

A pain starts in her chest that never truly leaves her, not even well into her years, not ever.

Remorse, she thinks it's called. Perhaps not for him, not entirely. But perhaps, for the girl she used to be.

"No, I suppose it is not," she agrees softly.

Tyrion offers a watery smile, his voice thready when he speaks. "Then I am at your mercy, my queen."

Sansa nods, her lips pursed into a tight line, blinking then to the Spider at his side.

"And Lord Varys?"

He takes a deep breath, shoulders pushing back with it, cocking his head at her when she looks at him. There's something unapologetic about his face, even in its resignation. "Sometimes the realm needs a harsh hand to guide it," he tells her, and for a moment she thinks he means to defend Daenerys.

Her nostrils flare, her throat flexing beneath the heat of her rebuke.

But then he dips into a reverent bow, a woeful smile tugging at his lips. "Your father didn't understand that. But I'm glad to see that you do, Your Grace."

The anger sweeps from her in a rush of air, her exhale leaving her shaken. The mention of her father has her throat closing up, a faint, girlish longing tugging at the space between her ribs.

Varys rises from his bow, hands linking beneath his wide sleeves. Missandei glares at him from her place beside Tyrion.

Sansa considers the prisoners before her silently, nails thrumming slowly and softly along her armrest.

"He cut my father's head off and he said that was mercy."

Sansa has known the cost of honor.

"I'll protect you, I promise."

But she has also known the grace of it.

"You stand before the Northern court accused of conspiring with Daenerys Targaryen to usurp Northern sovereignty and overthrow our liege lord, King Jon of House Stark, during a time of crisis for our people, for the entire Seven Kingdoms. You stand accused of treason in the court of King Jon." She takes a breath, fingers curling along her armrest. Her voice lowers, resolution staining her tongue. "And so long as he is our king, treason shall never go unpunished."

Varys looks up at her with startled recognition in his eyes, the words a long forgotten haunt.

She makes sure to keep his gaze when she finishes. "You are forthwith banished from our lands, exiled to Essos."

An uproar explodes across the room, calls for heads resounding off the walls, scrapes of chairs echoing along the stone as the lords bellow their disapproval, Davos rising from his seat beside Sansa as he tries to contain the turmoil.

Sansa only ignores them, her gaze still rooted to the three before her, her voice rising above the din. "In light of your service during the war, and in the rebuilding following it, you will be spared execution. But you are hereby stripped of your holdings, your title, and your lands." She says this with eyes fixed to Tyrion. "You are not to collect any profit from former fiefs, nor are you allowed any further governance of the Lannister estate, or possession of its retainers. Casterly Rock will go to House Westerling, as has been agreed upon in talks with your former bannermen, Lord Tyrion."

Tyrion and Varys can do little more than stare at her, mouths slightly agape.

"Your Grace, I must object," Lord Glover says as he stands. "The sentence for treason is death. Traitors to the crown must be held to Northern law."

Sansa swings her frost blue gaze his way, unrelenting. "And if King Jon had not pardoned such 'traitors' as Houses Umber and Karstark? If he had not the wisdom to welcome you back into the fold, Lord Glover, when you turned your back on us?"

He has the grace to looked ashamed, face red in his bluster.

Sansa folds her hands atop her lap calmly and delicately. "This war could not have been won without those mercies His Grace has granted you and others. How dare you deride that mercy now."

Lord Glover sits back reluctantly, a faint nod Sansa's way, his words silenced behind clenched teeth.

"Your Grace," Lady Lyanna ventures. "Can we trust that exile is enough to protect the North from further threats? From those who would see weakness in such clemency?"

"And risk the staunchest of Lannister supporters rallying their forces against us when we take their lord's head? No. We haven't the strength for further war. You know that. We all know that," she says as she looks about the hall. Reluctant murmurs of agreement blanket the room, Lyanna nodding quietly in understanding. Sansa takes a moment to look at them, all the gathered lords, all the war-worn soldiers and wildlings, all the stitched-together survivors. "Are you not tired of war?" she asks softly, pleadingly, an exhaustion to her words that has nothing to do with her body.

Several of the men present flick their eyes to the floor, grim frowns pulling at their features, a shuffle of weary feet along the stone. She sees it in the lines of their faces and the barely-healed wounds and the somber air that seems to permanently suffuse Winterfell now. "No," she croaks out, swallowing tightly, steadying her voice. "There has been enough death. Let the killing end here – today." She stands swiftly.

The room rises with her.

"Goodbye my lords, my lady," she says to the prisoners still standing before her. "I pray you never find yourselves in the North again. Our winters tend to outlast our mercy," she says pointedly. Giving a curt nod, her eyes lock with Tyrion's for one last moment, his face a harkening glimpse of the past, all the loss and the rage and the suffocating helplessness suddenly brimming in her throat – immediate and stifling.

But he smiles. A grateful, cheerless sort of smile.

Remorse, she thinks it's called. For all that used to be – and now, can never be again.

(She does not wish to return to it.)

Sansa stalks from the room without another look, her dismissal clear.

This she does for him.

He returns to himself – slowly, with the painstaking effort of a man who hadn't expected to come back from such loss. He keeps to his chamber as he heals, takes the broth and medicine Maester Wolkan prescribes.

Bran doesn't visit.

Jon is grateful for this. Mostly because he doesn't think he can look at him without betraying every brotherly affection he's ever held for him. Arya decidedly does not speak of him when she comes to visit, instead, updating him on the running of Winterfell in his absence, and the progress of restoration in the North. She drops comments about Sansa here and there, but she doesn't dwell long on her.

Tormund is his second most common visitor, aside from Davos, and sometimes, they come together. Jon still hasn't spoken past those first utterances of Sansa's name the night he woke, and their attempts at overcoming his muteness are met with a grim smile and a heavy sigh.

It's not that he can't speak. It's that there seems nothing worth saying.

Sometimes he wonders why he came back – the first time, and the last.

But then she walks through his door, finally, after nearly three days of absence, and he remembers.

He remembers 'always'.

Jon straightens in his seat along the bed, braced back against the headboard.

Sansa offers a trembling smile, nodding as in afterthought to the handmaid at the threshold of his chambers, sighing when she closes the door to them in consideration.

Jon sits staring at her, hands clenching in the furs at his lap. He wants to fall into her, to lose himself in her, but she stands stiffly away.

She keeps her eyes from the bandages along his chest, pulling out the chair alongside his bed and settling into it.

It's a strange patchwork of hesitance and longing steeped between them. It keeps them like prisoners in their own skin.

"Hello, Jon," she says, and he remembers the weight of her in his arms that first time at Castle Black. He remembers the way her staggered breaths had puffed against his ear and how her hand curled at the nape of his neck and how she had very nearly melted into him – bone to bone.

He has no answer for her, his words still lost to him.

She nods, as though to herself, hands winding together over her lap. She takes a breath, looks to her bunched hands, seems to settle on something when she finally opens her mouth. "I killed Daenerys."

He stares at her steadily.

It's not the first he's heard it. Davos had been the one to tell him, going on to explain about Tyrion's exile and the expulsion of the Dothraki. She must know he's heard this already, and so he waits, simply watching her, an anxious tremor burrowing beneath his skin.

She keeps her head bowed, her eyes on her white knuckles. A beat passes in silence, and he thinks she means to say no more until, "I did it myself. Poison."

In the back of his mind, the flicker of Baelish lights in his memory. It's smothered easily enough. He's tired of wasting memory outside of what he loves.

Sansa takes a deep breath, looking back at him. "I can't say I understand everything Bran has tried to tell me. I can't say I understand why he did what he did."

Jon flinches at the name, his chest aching with the recollection. He stifles a quiet sob before it can rattle him further.

"And I've no excuses for him," she continues. "But he brought her here for you. He made sure she came north…for you."

Jon looks away from her, staring off toward the far, grey wall. It is too easy to let the wrath in – to carve a familiar home in his rage.

Sansa looks as though she means to reach for him, a quaking breath leaving her. But she settles back into stillness, her hands bunching once more in her lap.

He should have known not to trust in brothers anymore.

"So I killed her," she says evenly, licking her lips. "I killed her because she threatened the North, our home, everything we held dear. And I killed her because I had a choice to make." She blinks up at him, eyes wet. "I chose you."

"I need you to choose me, too."

Something comes unstitched between them.

Jon's chest constricts, his eyes falling to her clenched hands, her white knuckles. He moves quietly, shuffling beneath the furs with a slight wince of pain until he is closer to the edge, until he can reach over and take her hands in his.

She sucks a sharp breath between her teeth, letting him fold his calloused fingers around hers. She stares down at their joined hands for many moments, silent, the tears welling. He brushes a thumb over the arch of her knuckles.

A weathered exhale leaves her then. "I've never killed before, at least not… not by my own hand." Her voice cracks, her shoulders quaking.

Jon watches the light from the partially open window glint off the scarred skin over his knuckles, the evidence of Ramsay's demise still painting his flesh.

(Still painting hers, he imagines.)

It's instant then – the image of Ramsay's bloody jaw, the crack of bone, the guttural roar that left him, the heavy swing of his fist, again and again and again and –

Jon swallows tightly.

It spills from him in waves – in drowning, deafening waves.

By my own hand.

He clenches his jaw, eyes wet instantly – angry and anguished. So immensely, inarticulately angry.

For the loss of it. The loss of her.

(The straight-spined, song-voiced lady of a sister he used to have – the image of her wind-swept hair when he looked back at the crossroads those many years ago, her eyes fixed South, away from him.)

"Is it supposed to feel this way?" she hiccups, voice drowned in tears.

Jon looks up at her question, watching the way her lashes dot with wetness, the way her face crumbles into shadow, drawn tight and terribly, terribly sad. She meets his eyes with her own salt-tinged ones. "Tell me, Jon, is it supposed to feel like this?"

He thinks of how easily Longclaw had pushed through Karl's eye when he killed the Night's Watch traitors at Craster's Keep. He thinks of the crunch that resounded when he buried the hammer in Styr's skull as the Thenns attacked Castle Black with the rest of the Wildlings. He thinks of Janos Slynt's desperate pleads just before his head rolled off the block and through the soiled snow.

He thinks that maybe killing isn't supposed to feel like anything. And if it does, it's been buried so long and so deep that it might never have mattered in the first place. But then –

But then he thinks of Mance Rayder's panic-stricken eyes glazing over when his arrow sunk deep. He thinks of Olly's twitching legs as the rope pulled taut. He thinks of Qhorin Halfhand's last puff of breath hot against his cheeks as he'd smiled at him, Longclaw punctured up through his ribcage.

And then he thinks of each blade that pierced his flesh with a brother's hand at the other end.

Jon's eyes slip shut.

(If killing comes with a feeling, he thinks it's rather much like dying.

And how fitting.)

Sansa's ragged inhale brings him back, his eyes fluttering open, his hands still gripping at hers over the edge of the bed.

She will never be rid of it, he knows. This grief can never be unlearned. This blood can never wash. It causes an ache in him he has never felt before. A sinking kind of regret he doesn't know the way back from.

"I'd do it again," she says abruptly, clearing her throat, eyes blinking back the wetness.

Jon looks up at her, eyes sharp, breath winded from him. He releases her hands to reach for her face suddenly. He watches, helpless, as a steely sort of recognition passes over her, and he cradles her cheeks in his weathered palms.

A weary sigh leaves her. "I'd do it again if it brought you back to me," she tells him, voice like gravel, eyes the kind of blue that used to haunt him.

(The only kind of blue left to haunt him now.)

"Sansa, no," he croaks, voice hoarse from disuse, more a rough expel of breath than any utterance of her name. He leans toward her, braces his forehead to hers, breathes her in as the first sob ushers from her heaving chest.

(She hasn't cried once, Arya told him, fists clenched, brow furrowed, frown trembling. Not once since we found you.)

"Do you think less of me for it?" she asks tremulously, shaking in his hold.

He squeezes his eyes shut, sliding his cheek against hers, a ragged sigh at her ear. "Gods, Sansa, I couldn't – I could never – " The words die somewhere in his throat, burning with the ice still lingering there. A wound he doesn't think will ever heal.

Lost. So lost and desolate.

"Where will we go?"

He used to know the answer.

"So much death," Sansa says on a sigh, reaching for his wrists, clutching at him as he holds her, breath unsteady in her chest. "I'm tired, Jon." It's a faint exhale, a soft confession, but he feels the echo of it in his bones, the weariness of her words bleeding through him, staining from her cheek to his, until his mouth is full of it – choking on the exhaustion of it.

"Please, can we – can we rest?" she begs. "Can we rest now?" Her voice is impossibly small, her shoulders sagging beneath the tremendous weight of it. "Can we rest now, Jon?"

He's fought. And he's lost.

Now he rests.

(Something in him breaks at the realization – that swinging noose an intimate, loathsome shadow now.)

Perhaps men like him will never know rest – not truly.

Jon tugs her into him. "Come," he says, voice scraping along his throat, sliding back on the bed to pull her onto it after him.

She lets him tug her atop the furs, no reason to resist, the fight gone from her the moment she tipped her poison into Daenerys' glass.

"Come," he says, and she follows.

She crawls into the bed beside him, dragging her skirts up to accommodate the motion, settling into the space he opens for her.

They are not a seamless fit. His arm is caught awkwardly between her head and her shoulder when she lays against the pillow, and her knee digs uncomfortably into his hip, and the arms she keeps bundled at his chest press somewhat against his bandaged wound. They are a mess of limbs and restless grunts as they settle.

They are not a seamless fit.

But then, that's been their way since the beginning. All jagged edges and sharp mouths and unyielding hands.

Jon realizes, suddenly, that it's the imperfection of such embrace that makes him hold all the more tightly. He winds a hand into her hair and braces his lips to her brow.

Her breaths come quick and short, her words tangled up in sobs, the desperation crashing through her. "I can't – Jon, I can't – " A wild tremble racks her frame, fingers clenched at his tunic, hiccupping, gasping, pleading.

His hand tightens in her hair. "Don't bury it," he whispers achingly.

It rushes from her like a great wind, swallowing him up like thunder takes the air. A wail. A sharp, branding wail. It cuts into him, braced at his throat, stealing the breath from him.

Sansa cries like something rooted and ancient has untethered from inside her, loosing itself about her ribcage, carving her out with its teeth.

"Don't bury it," he croaks into her hair, clutching her desperately, feeling the same teeth snag against his own heart. A lurch in his chest. A rending inside him.

She stays there long into the night, braced to his chest, sobbing and moaning and cursing her own grief, tears smeared against his flexing throat when she muffles her wails into his skin.

Somewhere outside, Ghost is howling.

Somewhere in his mind, Jon is howling much the same.

And somewhere between them, after the long hours of night have passed, silence finally creeps upon their weary forms – peace stealing into their chests, nestling in their worn and beaten hearts like a specter.

Their hands never unclasp in their sleep.

Flesh and bone – this is what the world wears them down to.

It's a cruel undressing, Sansa finds, but an inevitable one.

Bran is small, suddenly, in his chair, his hands tucked beneath the cover of furs in his lap, his face so young and yet somehow, so exhaustibly old.

"I can't stay here," he tells them, and it's not a truth Sansa can find it in herself to argue. She knows it as well as the rest of them. As well as Jon and Arya, silent at her side. They stand amidst the ruined courtyard, a grey haze of snow and ash sweeping through the space between their war-worn bodies.

"Where will you go?" she asks finally, after a long enough silence has raked through them, after she discovers neither Jon nor Arya have it in them to ask the question themselves. Whether because they already know or because they don't care to know at all, she can't say.

The question turns round and round in her head, familiar and heavy.

"Where will we go?"

It seems such an age ago. Such a long, long age ago. She's tired of asking it of loved ones.

Bran blinks up at her, the edges of his mouth titled as though on the edge of a smile he hasn't entirely decided upon yet. "North," he says.

Sansa wonders when 'North' stops being a journey and finally becomes a home. They've labored long enough for it, she thinks. Long enough for a lifetime's worth of home – fixed and unmoving, a solid thing beneath her weary feet.

She nods at him, lips thinning into a frown. She wrings her hands together before her.

"Don't come back," Arya whispers on a harsh exhale, voice tight.

Sansa snaps her gaze to her rigid sister.

With one hand settled over Needle's hilt, the other bunched into a fist at her side, Arya stares at Bran with hardened eyes, a tremble to her tight swallow. "If you do, I…" She stops, catching the choke before it overtakes her words entirely, licking her lips before she continues in a whisper that seems to take a great deal of effort, "I don't know what I'll do." Her hand tightens reflexively on Needle's hilt.

Bran blinks up at her, head cocked in a way that seems less thoughtful and more amused. "You know exactly what you'll do," he tells her without doubt.

Arya sucks in a quiet, stilted breath, glancing away as her face quivers, fighting tears she won't admit to. "Then do not make me," she answers harshly, wiping a hand over her eyes, never looking back at him.

It is done, Sansa realizes. Bran will get no further farewell from their sister.

Her chest constricts at the thought, a warring mess of spite and sorrow.

Jon says nothing, staring down at Bran. His fingers flex at his side, and Sansa imagines he aches to press them against the fresh wound over his heart, Bran's touch still searing at his chest. Or perhaps they itch to strangle their little brother as he sits stoically before them. She can't be sure, either way, and she doesn't think she wants to be. She cannot fault Jon his resentment, his quiet rage, but even still, this is her brother – her last brother, and maybe she's foolish for wanting him to stay as such. Maybe she's too sentimental, yearning for a family that will never return, clutching at them like sand sifting through her fingers – or perhaps like snow, crushed to a mere wetness in the smothering warmth of her palm, not unlike blood.

She doesn't forgive Bran. She can't. But even still, it does not stop the missing of him.

(How the mischievous upturn of his lips was contagious, and how he used to bury his hand in the scruff of Summer's fur, and how he looked laid out upon the bed when she left for King's Landing – still and pale and broken.)

She remembers a brother who used to turn from her kisses with a scrunch of his nose, indignant and embarrassed.

She wonders if he would turn from her kisses now.

Bran looks up at her, sensing her unease in the quiet, and he gulps down a tight swallow, a crinkle to his brow. "I haven't been Bran since I left the true North," he says, eyes lingering on her as though he knows.

As though he knows.

Finally, he looks to Jon. "Your brother never came home," he tells him. It is the closest to an apology Sansa imagines they will ever get from him, and without warning, the rage is white-hot and instant in her chest, seeping into her lungs, staining her breath just as she means to scold him or scream at him or plead with him, but then –

He looks to his feet.

Sansa stills, her mother's voice ringing in her ears.

"He always looks to his feet when he's lying."

She staggers beneath the sudden quieting of her rage, an anguish so keen, so mournful, that the tears are instant, a hiccup of a sob breaking across her lips when she whispers his name.

"Bran," she croaks.

He does not look up at her, but she catches the shift of movement just beneath his furs, the tightening of his hands unseen.

Perhaps knowing their brother is still in there somewhere makes this worse. Perhaps he knows that as well.

Sansa realizes suddenly, without doubt, and without knowing how, that this is the last time she will ever see him again.

She moves before she realizes the need is in her. She moves before she can think better of it.

"Sansa," Arya scolds softly beside her, but she ignores it, leaning down to wrap her arms around him, burying her face against his shoulder, almost falling into him with the fervency of her embrace, fingers clenching at the nape of his neck, curled into his fine hair, her exhale a worn and desolate thing at his shoulder.

Jon stays motionless behind her.

She hugs her brother for the last time, choking back the tears, angry and wretched and helpless.

(Not because forgiveness comes easier to her, but because survival does.)

He does not move beneath her, does not wrap his own arms around her frame, but she feels the shudder of his breath against her ear, the sudden stiffness of his shoulders, and she wants to weep for him, for the loss of him.

He is her last brother, after all, her last – even fractured and less than whole as he is.

"Sansa," Arya says again, though this time with a touch of gentleness to the tone.

Sansa retreats from the embrace, eyes wet with tears she doesn't let fall, fingers skimming over the fur at Bran's shoulders before pulling from him entirely.

He keeps his gaze low, his jaw tight.

Sansa nods, mostly to herself, hands curling back into a demure hold before her, gloves crinkling in the cold. She takes a steadying breath.

"Whatever your destination, these Northmen will get you safely there," Jon finally says, more a gruff exhale than anything, more a reluctant rake of air along his throat than any tender farewell. He motions to the line of Stark guards behind Bran's chair, waiting obediently. Jon works his jaw, teeth clenched tight, eyes hard.

Sansa resists the urge to reach for him.

"Goodbye," Jon says lowly, finality snapping his mouth shut.

"Goodbye, Jon," Bran answers, so matter-of-fact that a sound brews in Jon's chest – not quite a sob, not quite a growl, a gruff sort of shudder that threatens to rip him open and lay him bare right there in the snow, bleeding and wounded and bitter beyond measure.

At Jon's stiff nod, a Northman takes the handles of Bran's chair between his gloved palms and turns him away toward the gate.

Bran blinks up at Jon one last time before he's wheeled away, another blank, impassive look gracing his features, and Sansa wants to shake him suddenly, wants to shake Jon, to shake both of them, to crumple to the ground with a resounding wail because why, why, why –

She doesn't want this flesh and bone – if this is what it takes from them. She doesn't want to live in a world where it all gets stripped away, where holding on means letting go, where these are the choices they're left with.

She doesn't want to live in this world alone.

A choke sounds beside her.

"Jon," Arya says, a lance of concern coloring her voice.

Sansa swings her tear-blurred gaze to Jon, having watched the slowly disappearing figure of Bran through the gate for too long. She blinks at the image before her now.

Jon stands staring at the gate, watching the wide doors slowly creaking closed, eyes wet, mouth trembling.

"Jon," she whispers, a hand going to his shoulder.

His face crumples then, the tears falling hot and unabashed down his snow-flecked cheeks, his hands coming up to cradle his face. A heavy exhale rushes from him, weathered and thunderous and leaving him weak. The first sob hits air and he buries his face in his palms, shaking his head, falling to his knees in the snow.

"Jon!" She follows him down, hands braced at his chest and shoulder, frantically pushing him to look at her, her knees aching where they land hard along the frost-lined stone, but she ignores it. Ignores everything but the ragged wail that leaves him, the heave of his shaking shoulders, the curl of his fingers dragging down his face, sobbing and sobbing and sobbing.

"Jon, Jon please, just – gods, please Jon. Jon." Her voice breaks, smothered in his shoulder as she wraps her arms around him, holds him there in the cold courtyard, feeling him quake beneath her, so tired and lost and hurt – the sort of hurt she doesn't know how to heal.

Doesn't know can be healed.

Arya's eyes slip closed as she stands in stillness beside them, face a ruin.

She needs her, Sansa realizes, and she thinks Jon needs her, too.

She reaches out a hand. "Arya."

Her sister blinks open devastated, grey eyes, tears lingering along her lashes. She glances at Sansa's outstretched hand.

Help me, it says.

Arya only stares for a moment longer, and then she's grasping at Sansa's hand, lowering herself to the ground beside them, wrapping her other arm around Jon, her cheek braced along his back, releasing a tremulous exhale against his furs, her fist bunched around Sansa's own hand where they lay anchored at his shoulder.

He does not reach for them, does not remove his hands from his face as he wails and wails and shakes with it – as he lets the grief take him. But he does not need to reach for them.

(She will hold him well enough for the both of them.)

Sansa glances at Arya across the trembling line of Jon's shoulders, catching her own tear-filled gaze. Words seem futile in the wake of such heartache.

The gate has long since closed, the courtyard long since emptied, and there is no one now to witness the breaking of a king – barren and brittle and exposed.

No one, but his own flesh and bone.

It's a cruel undressing, yes, so Sansa will drape him with herself.

She will not let this world wear him away.

Jon stares out across the debris-strewn courtyard in the thin light of daybreak from his place atop the ramparts, a cold, silver film glancing across the ruined stones with a dawn so soft Jon forgets the world beyond the moment. It reminds him, suddenly, of standing atop the Wall after a long and arduous climb. He remembers the world stretching out before him beneath the blanket of a winter dawn then, too.

But then Arya is at his side, watching the glint of twilight ween from the barren courtyard. A soft sigh sounds at his elbow. "Gods, how I missed my big brother," she says on a shaky exhale.

Jon thinks of Robb, his hair flecked with snow – a handsome grin brimming with winter-steel and confidence born of wolves. A sure grin. A grin of princes – of eventual kings.

Some crowns will always feel heavy.

Jon's brows dip into a sharp furrow, his throat tight beneath his swallow. He doesn't know how long it will take to stop thinking of them this way – as siblings. Because Robb was always the brother he meant to keep, to honor, the brother he meant to serve, the one truly meant for this crown – this crown he's stolen and can't find it in himself to regret.

Maybe Bran isn't the only traitor in their family, he thinks darkly, and then admonishes the thought instantly, a sour tang lighting his tongue, remembering the vacant look in Bran's eye as he was wheeled through the gates, devoid of the youth and vulnerability he used to recognize in his face.

He thinks of the little boy he said goodbye to all those years ago, pale and unconscious atop his furs, his mother weeping furiously at his bedside. He thinks of Robb's tight embrace when they'd parted.

"I wish Robb were here, too" he finds himself saying, and he thinks Arya understands. She must.

Her hand bunches in his sleeve, and he glances down at the motion, catching the wet sheen over her eyes as he blinks at her.


"Idiot," she mumbles, fingers curling in the material at his arm.

He stands there staring at her for long moments. She sucks a tremulous breath through her lips, eyes blinking up at his.

Such a long stretch of time – between what was and what is. Such a harrowing rift. She is his little sister still, even when he is not her brother, and there's a woman at his side now that he wants to know, yearns to know, and yet misses all at once – so keenly and violently that he thinks he might shatter beneath the weight of such longing.

The lines of her face tell a story he doesn't think he has the heart to hear – if only because it makes his absence from it all the more glaring, all the more reprehensible.

The loss of her all these years is so acutely painful that he's learned to fracture that part of him off, to collapse it under duty and need and vows only broken by death.

"Idiot," she says again at his silence, and his tears are sudden then, inevitable. Her image blurs before him, the hot expel of her name on his lips so jarringly desolate she crumples into him, burying her face in his side, her hand still bunched in his tunic.

"I missed you," she sobs into his sleeve, a disbelieving laugh tainting the end of her exhale.

Jon's chest blooms with warmth.

In his mind's eye, Robb's hair will always be snow-flecked, his grin king-made, and Bran wears easily a smile he's spent too many years trying to recall. But Arya –

Arya is his, still. Just as she was those many years ago, when she'd flung herself into his arms with gratitude and affection, fist clenched around Needle's hilt, eyes squeezed shut as she sighed into his shoulder.

"I missed you, too," he whispers hoarsely into the crown of her head. Jon bundles her in his arms.

The day breaks over their huddled forms in a soundless dawn, a new genesis upon them.

Arya stands just a bit to the right and behind Sansa whenever she sits the head table at the Hall of Lords with Jon. They've come to address the court in unison, a shared duty. The last of the Starks.

Sansa can feel the way Arya bristles behind her when Lord Manderly suggests a more 'permanent' union, Jon glancing to her with a heavy look as their bannermen rouse in their seats, some in agreement, others in dissention.

It is not an easy rule, and there are dissidents among the Northern court who liken them to Lannisters in the heated revulsion of their whispers. But such whispers gain less and less air in the following days, when Sansa and Jon keep a respectful distance from each other, instead, blistering their palms with the work of rebuilding, tarrying long into the night alongside the very lords who watch them in slowly waning suspicion.

In the end, he is just enough Ned Stark's son to call honorable, and not enough to call deceiving. Just enough Targaryen to call king, but not enough to call mad. And all it took was another knife to the heart.

True Northerners know the weight of blood – in the abstract, and in the tangible. True Northerners know there is no greater sacrifice.

After such marriage talks, when the hall has finally emptied out but for the three of them, Sansa watches Arya as her gaze sets to the far door, her hands held at her back with a faint regality that does not escape Sansa.

A lady, her sister is not. But she has her graces still, her poise as elegant as their mother's had been, in the quiet corners of her shadow.

"Jon," Sansa says suddenly, rising from her seat.

He answers with an acknowledging grunt, rising as well.

"May I find you later? Perhaps in the godswood?" She turns her gaze to him, a tender smile touching her lips.

Jon looks between the two women, mouth parting. He seems to decide against whatever words are brewing in his chest, nodding mutely instead.

Sansa reaches for him and gives his arm an affectionate squeeze, never missing the way Arya's shoulders bunch and her gaze stays decidedly away from them.

Jon leaves them with a tense farewell.

Sansa threads her hands together before her, taking a deep breath. The stones are grey and cold around them, even with the blazing fires around the hall's many hearths. She can't seem to ever escape this frost. "You disapprove," she says simply. Not an accusation. Just a fact.

Arya scoffs, finally glancing toward her sister. "And when have you ever cared for my approval?" The words are clipped. She seems to catch herself, lip caught between her teeth. She looks away again.

"I care," Sansa says softly, hands tightening in their hold.

Arya sighs, shaking her head. "I'm not getting into this with you." She gives her a hard look.

Sansa does not flinch from her gaze. "This isn't going to go away."

"I know that," Arya snaps, face pinched tight, a furrow to her brow that reminds Sansa so much of their father. That dark stare, that shaken look.

And would his disapproval hurt the same, she wonders.

Sansa swallows it back, does not linger on the possibility.

Arya stares at her, hands still held at her back. She takes a deep, steadying breath, mouth a tight line. "And you would have him? For lord and husband? Your brother?" she asks warily, a plead to her gaze.

"He is not my brother," Sansa answers simply, because it is the only answer she can give. She's told it to herself enough these past nights.

"He's – " Arya bites off the reply, chest heaving. She looks away again.

Sansa takes a step forward, wanting to reach for her, wanting to wind her fingers around the dark hair settled at her shoulders, pulled partly back in that severe Northern style their father always wore – that Jon now wears. She resists the urge only barely.

Something settles in her gut as she watches her little sister stiffen at her proximity. It simmers like regret – heavy and immovable. "I'm sorry we weren't the family you wanted to come back to," she whispers, crestfallen, a soreness in her chest.

Arya glances up at her. "Sansa, no, you never – " She catches the words along her tongue, moves them around her mouth, stares long and intently at her sister, finally breaking her gaze away with a saddened sigh. "You two are all I have left," she says on a spent exhale.

No, Sansa thinks.

Bran, she thinks, a moment later. But the thought dies almost immediately, an instant, desperate flare that can never fully ignite – for truly, they were the last of them. She'd known this as she watched Bran being wheeled through the main gate, Arya's eyes hard and wounded along his retreating form. She's set that burden aside already, knowing that to carry it would only crush her.

The words find their way to her lips before she recognizes the sting of them in her lungs. "I will never leave you."

Arya snaps her gaze back up at her, hands slipping from behind her back, mouth clenching at the jaw. Her eyes are girlishly wide, a pretty sort of surprise casting a sheen of wetness over her grey gaze. Her mouth parts. Only air passes through her lips.

"We will never leave you," she says now, more firmly this time, the words steeped in a confidence born of wolves.

Because the pack survives. And 'pack' means more than two.

(She could never give up one love in exchange for another. She could never divide the pieces of her heart so. But then, she does not think Arya would ask it of her – not now, after everything.)

Something brews in Arya's throat that's not quite sound and not quite vibration. A taut, needy thing. She clears it immediately, eyes blinking back the wetness, unable to keep Sansa's gaze any longer. She clears her throat again, shoulders pulling back. "Many of the lords think this affection between you two is something new, something honestly come by between 'cousins'. Something agreeable enough to stomach."

Sansa thinks the words should hurt, but it's only a faint uneasiness that passes over her now.

Arya finally meets her eye again, her frown a steady presence along her features. She takes a beat, watches her. And then the breath leaves her in a single, reluctant wave. "They will not hear the truth of it from me."

Sansa blinks at her mutely, mouth parting.

Arya huffs, arms crossing over her chest suddenly. "Not that this means I agree with it, that I'm okay with any of this but I –" She stops, bites her lip, tries again. "I would rather have you together, than not at all." She gulps, fingers tightening over her arms. "So, I will try. I will try, and you will be patient with me," she demands, even as she pleads.

Sansa cannot stop the urge now. She reaches out both hands for Arya's, pulling her arms uncrossed, fingers tight over her sister's. "Will you let me hold you?"

Arya is so taken aback by the question that she laughs, the sound catching along her throat as she looks up into Sansa's earnest face. "What?"

Sansa does not relent, the warmth blooming in her chest nearly uncontrollable. "Will you let me hold you? Please?" The words are rough on her tongue, heavy with a dire affection. Her hands curl around Arya's, fervent.

Arya blinks at her, looks down to her hands eclipsed by Sansa's own, looks back up with a face full of guarded fondness. A slow, steady nod.

Sansa does not give her the chance to take it back. She winds her arms around her sister, brings her to her chest, sighs into her hair, a world of loss and resentment and bright, burning need clawing its way out from under her skin.

Arya's breath shudders against her shoulder. Slowly – so hesitantly it strikes an ache in Sansa – Arya brings a hand to her back, fist bunching in the material of her dress. Arya's voice cracks when it finally finds air. "Thank you," she chokes out.

Sansa barely allows herself to breathe when Arya winds a second hand around her back, gripping at her with a fierceness she hasn't known in her since they were children, and Arya would climb into her bed at night to stave off the nightmares or the cold, or maybe just to hold her – her sister.

"Thank you for protecting our family," Arya breathes out on a shaky sigh, face pressed to her shoulder.

Sansa clutches her ever tighter – a fragile, desperate thing. She makes her an imprint against her bones. She wears her heart into her skin. She takes a piece of her into herself.

And she will take it with her when she goes.

Arya leaves for a time– just as she said she would. She offers a smile at the gate, glancing over her shoulder atop her horse, a gloved hand rising in farewell through the thin snowfall. Sansa stands beside Jon in the courtyard as they watch their sister leave and it takes all of him not to reach for her, not to take his comfort where he can.

He busies himself with the rebuilding of Winterfell, with establishing trade routes between the North and the other now-independent kingdoms, with securing Free Folk settlements in the Gift. Sansa toils always at his side, providing council where she can, and censure when she must. He grates beneath the cut of her tongue sometimes, but at night, in the privacy of his chambers, that same tongue brings him to breathlessness, tart with desire, and something more – something smoother, longer lasting.

Something he thinks he may have the chance to grow old with, gods willing.

He wonders, sometimes, at this gentle unfurling between them – who they could have been had they been allowed to love each other rightly, from the beginning. He learns now, with a steadiness born of time and effort, how to love her softly and patiently and faithfully – learns to love her with an openness that's been too long denied him.

"I've called the lords back from their keeps," he tells her one day, hand braced along her neck, thumb etching a delicate trail just under her jaw.

Her brows furrow, hands clutching at his waist where she holds him. "You mean to gather the bannermen?" she asks, concern lacing her tone.

His gaze falls to her mouth, a swift quirk of his lips deepening the furrow between her brows. The hand at her neck slides into her hair with a possessiveness he doesn't think he may ever lose. "I mean to marry you," he whispers at her mouth.

Sansa blinks up at him, eyes widening.

He tips his forehead to hers. "And I mean the entire North to witness it."

She expels a hot breath against his mouth, staggering with it, a shaken, whispered "Jon" passing through her lips.

Her slow, blinding smile tells him he's always known her answer.

Tormund sends a raven from the new trading post at Castle Black, assuring the near entirety of Free Folk will be present at the wedding. Sansa laughs when he reads her the scroll the week following their formal announcement. 'King Beyond the Wall' they've named his old friend, even when the Wall means less and less these days, even when they chip away at its rigid presence each passing moon with a flood of settlements and exchange between the Northmen and the Free Folk. Tormund promises a saddlebag's worth of fermented goat's milk when he arrives, and Jon grows queasy at the mention, even as he fights the smile.

Arya shows up half a moon before the wedding, an unfamiliar blacksmith at her side, and a portly baker in tow, eyeing the walls of Winterfell in unrestrained awe.

"This is Gendry," she tells them unceremoniously, hooking a thumb in the young man's direction. "And that's Hot Pie," she adds, almost in afterthought, motioning to the man behind her. "They'll be staying with us from now on."

Jon cannot help the look of misgiving he sends Gendry's way, a rush of protectiveness passing through him.

Arya notices, rolling her eyes as she leans back on one foot, hand at her hip. "Oh, please, Jon, you are the absolute last person to be eye-balling anyone here."

"What?" Jon nearly chokes on his surprise, Sansa chuckling beside him. He throws her a pleading look, but she only shrugs at him.

"And you two are…siblings?" Gendry asks warily, a pointed finger passing between Jon and Sansa.

Jon groans his frustration, but before he can say anything, Arya smacks Gendry in the shoulder, hissing at him, "What did I tell you?"

Gendry jerks from her swat. "Sorry!" Turning to Jon, "I'm sorry, Your Grace." He offers a comically deep bow, first to Jon and then to Sansa. His cheeks grow red as he lifts his gaze, still bowed, to Sansa. "Apologies, Your Grace."

Jon manages to smother the chuckle at his lips.

"Arry, you never told me Winterhell was so huge," Hot Pie says behind her, still looking about in wonder, neck craned. "I bet the kitchens are massive."

Arya pinches the bridge of her nose, eyes fluttering shut. "I swear, I'm regretting this more and more each second."

"I suppose you've found the answer to your question," Sansa says teasingly, eyes alighting Gendry, and Jon looks at her in question. She offers him a secret smirk, something that tells him he'll get to hear the story later.

Arya blinks up at her, hand falling from her face, and a light pink dusts her cheeks as she clears her throat, feet shuffling. "I said I'd come back," she mumbles. "I meant it."

Sansa smiles warmly at her.

Arya huffs, arms crossing over her chest. "Besides, who were you expecting to give you away?" she says hotly.

Jon goes to ruffle her hair but she darts away easily, with the swiftness and agility of someone clearly battle-honed, and again, he's reminded how very little his sister is not. But it isn't the sort of ache that used to tug at him. It's not a nostalgia for the little sister he lost, but rather, a gratefulness for the one he has gained – the one who spars with him when he gets restless from paperwork, and the one who tugs at his beard with a teasing frown when he's let it grow too long , and the one who reminds him to eat when he spends all day hearing petitions from the lords and smallfolk.

He would not give her up for anything.

Edmure steps down gracefully from the position of giving Sansa away, and Jon shakes his hand with a quiet appreciation, thanking him for coming so far.

"Never too far for family," Edmure says in answer, grasping at Jon's elbow, hand tightening over his, and the pack grows ever larger, Jon finds.

It is a small, quiet affair in the godswood, with Sansa draped in Stark grey, direwolves adorning the edges of her sleeves and the bottom of her skirts, stitched by her own hand. The snow never stops falling, and it's the height of winter, Jon knows, because he feels it in his lungs – tight and airless – when he presses their lips together and names himself hers, taking her name like she takes his cloak.

That night, the ale flows freely, music and laughter filling the main hall, and guests dance beneath the flicker of torchlight. Arya lets Gendry drag her into the crowd of dancers reluctantly, flushing when Jon raises a cup at her from across the room, before she buries her face in Gendry's shoulder and he guffaws in answer, taking her in his arms.

Jon takes Sansa to the floor himself moments later, his hands winding around her waist with familiarity, her own linking together at the nape of his neck. It is not so much a dance they begin, as it is a swaying, a rocking of sorts. A gentle lull of bodies, tilting from one foot to the other – much as they had that first time at Castle Black, when they'd held the wounded parts of each other for the first time and swore, unknowingly, to never let go.

Sansa is officially crowned the next day, a line of Northmen taking to their knees before the two of them. They count many of the other kingdoms' sovereigns among the guests at the ceremony, but it's to the crypts that they retreat that night, after another boisterous feast fills Winterfell's halls with merriment.

Jon lays a ring of winter roses at the feet of his mother's stone statue. Sansa lays a braid of rivergrass at her own. Thus, they honor their origins. Thus, they begin to learn how to bury their ghosts.

It's years later, when Sansa tells him she wants a statue for Bran.

Jon watches her in the low torchlight of the crypts during their yearly tribute to their stone mothers. She stays with eyes fixed to Catelyn's grey visage, copper hair flowing nearly to the small of her back, the slightest curve to her shoulders telling of time and weariness. "I think Mother would like the company," she says.

"Because I miss him," she doesn't say.

Jon hears her all the same, a responding grunt his only answer, the words sticking along his throat, made heavy by remembrance – still sharp and branding at the edges of his mind.

They build him one not in the image he left them with, but as the boy they knew once.

Arya finds Jon staring at the statue one day, stepping up quietly beside him. Neither of them tries to break the silence, and it's a tender, shared weight between them, an anchor in the dark. Arya sighs softly, the sound stealing Jon's attention so acutely he can hear his own heartbeat hammering in his ears.

"Do you think he was lonely?" she asks him suddenly, voice small and trembling. She grips at her arms then.

Jon blinks at her, a wave of longing rushing through him. "I don't know," he says, honest – but perhaps, not honest enough.

"Goodbye, Jon."

(The way he offered nothing more. The way he never looked back.)

Yes, Jon thinks. Yes, Bran was lonely.

"So stupid," she exhales tremulously, a bitter scoff behind her words, one hand going out to grip at the base of his statue. One palm settles over his stone foot while the other wipes at her cheeks. "So stupid and stubborn," she grits out, the tears staining her voice now.

Jon stands stiffly beside her, eyes never leaving the face of his brother. The breath rakes from him in one, long exhale. "I miss him, too," he chokes out, finally honest enough.

Arya braces a hand over her eyes, shuddering with a silent sob.

This world takes and takes, and Jon holds ever tighter to what is his.

Sansa commands all the wine from their cellars be disposed of. She takes to ale instead, scowling with barely veiled distaste the first time she tries from Jon's mug. The second time is a little less grimace-inducing. But by the end of winter, Jon finds Sansa sharing mugs with Tormund during his visit, laughing as she wipes the froth from her upper lip. She never touches a drop of wine again.

He still wakes some nights with a terror, skin sweat-slicked, eyes frantic, a shout and a curse at his lips, chest heaving, scars aching. Sansa soothes him back to sleep with steady fingers through his hair, her breath at his ear, her chest braced to his. He grasps for her in the wake of his nightmares, in the sleep-touch of memory.

"I need you," she whispers to him, mouth planted at his temple, hands wrapped around him with the ferocity of wolves. "Come back to me," she urges him. "Come back to me."

(He always does.)

It follows them, still. It's in every drop of wine Sansa ever recoils from, and every time Jon catches sight of himself in the mirror, chest bare and wound-riddled.

Sometimes their ghosts still come calling. Sometimes the past nips at their heels like a vengeful winter. Yet, Starks have learned to bear the winds. They've learned to weather the gales.

When the snows fall and the white winds blow –

But wait.

Because Jon understands now.

(He grips at Sansa. She grips him back. It follows them, yes, but not all shadows linger in the wake of sun.)

It's not enough to simply bear the cold, he finds.

You have to learn to make your own summer, too.