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Devotion

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The dry groan and crunch of ice and snow under her boots is a familiar if not unwelcome sound carrying through the stillness around her. The air is a frigid burn in her lungs, the piercing cold bringing tears to her eyes unbidden and freezing them. The furrow cutting through the knee-high layer of white fortunately leads to her destination; she's made the trek often enough to pack the powder down beneath her feet. 

Arya and Brienne both would murder her if they knew Sansa was outside the walls of Winterfell without guard, much less after dark. Beasts, man and animal alike, roam the land, emboldened by the fading light and warmth: summer is long dead and buried under ice. Deep winter has claimed the land as its own, coating the wolfswood in white, but Sansa seeks a silence that could not be achieved within the castle walls; not in the godswood which has been ceded to Bran by default, or the halls where Arya cloaks herself in shadow. Winterfell itself, the home she spent years longing for and current seat of her temporary rule in Jon’s absence, holds too much noise, too much light, too much life, too much death —its discordant tones tinge the daily bustle of the castle with red of blood already spilled and that yet to come. 

It is quite foolish indeed, but Sansa’s need for peace, solace outweighs her caution. Besides, she knows she won’t be alone. She never is; not anymore. The cold nips at her flesh but doesn’t reach her bones; she’s a lady of winter, after all. Her destination lies ahead, glinting in the moonlight like fallen stars strewn down the rocks beneath the outermost of the castle walls, crumbling and long-abandoned. Presently, she stops at an outcropping of stone where the tributary to the White Knife running under Winterfell emerges, frozen into a thousand crystalline threads too delicate to be spun by human hands. For all the moonlight it catches at the surface, the black beneath is deeper than it looks. Here, at last, there is peace; even the endless burbling of the water itself is stilled, silenced in the unyielding grip of winter. She is finally alone--save, that is, for her dead, which are always present in the air around her. 

Some more than others

If death is still, quiet, and peaceful, dying is its inverse—laborious, shrill, and violent. Sansa has seen more of it than is just for her years. Most of her ghosts she can sort into two categories; loved ones she has lost and still mourns, enemies she has gladly shed and strives to forget. She watched her father’s head be struck from his shoulders, had the awful images of her mother and older brother being slaughtered by their allies burned into her mind by Joffrey’s cruel boasts, then witnessed his messy, pitiful, awful gasping as his throat locked closed, blood streaming from his eyes and mouth. She’d screamed as her false Florian receive a bolt to the neck rather than the gold he coveted but had been shocked into silence while her mad aunt flew to her death on the rocks fathoms below. She hadn’t been there to see her baby brother cut down in a field, her foul husband depriving her the chance to know the man he would've become, but she made sure she was present for Ramsey’s demise, darkly savoring his screeches as the hounds he loved so much chewed the flesh from his bones. 

So much blood, and the trails of it all lead back to one man with hands of red, hidden in shadow for the longest time. Teacher, uncle, lover, betrayer, friend--none of the labels ever really stuck, and he didn’t fit either end of the spectrum, instead stuck in the middle, the endless gray where he lived and plotted. She watched Petyr Baelish die on his knees, begging as he hadn’t done in Mole’s Town the first time he’d offered her his death. What was different about this was humiliation as she stripped him bare of his strength, his power, his cloak of lies to reveal just Petyr, naked and defenseless. She’d been granted glimpses of what he hid beneath the monster before in random moments, but in the eyes wet with tears imploring her she saw only the boy who had loved her mother and then her, more than anyone. In slaying Littlefinger she’d left him nothing, and yet, the last thing he saw--the last thing he’d wanted to see, down to the final beat of his heart, was her. 

She cried despite herself, and hoped no one had noticed; not the lords she had to impress nor her sister, who would only see it as more proof of her treachery. She did it for the family who were more strangers to her than the man who’d been the linchpin around which her life had turned for years. 

A branch snapping nearby startles her, but outwardly she remains calm, unconcerned. She turns her head slowly to meet the undead thing shuffling toward her, mindlessly hungering for flesh, staring her with one baleful eye, a brighter blue than her own. It creeps forward, and she hears another behind her approaching from the broken wall, hissing and snuffling. Sansa doesn’t move, her pulse stays steady, breathing even. She doesn’t even blink when it lunges toward her, instinctively aware of its counterpart behind doing the same without needing to turn around, for she knows something darker and more vicious will ensure they don’t so much as brush the snowflakes from her cloak. 

The one facing her gets close enough for her to taste the rot of its decaying body for a moment before a wall of silver flame alights between them. The tendrils of it lick over her harmlessly, but quickly begin to devour her attackers, who are alike to men enough to scream in agony.  The cries are horrible, pitiful, bewildered pain. 

He’s in a theatrical mood today , she thinks. The smell of burning, rotten flesh assaults her nostrils as ice becomes ember, the reanimated bodies glowing hot then disintegrating before her eyes. Within moments, they are gone, the silver flame taking even the ash itself. The fire winks out as abruptly as it came, the only evidence snow melting into mud; the conflagration was hot enough to thaw ground that would otherwise remain unyielding stone for ages hence.

She blinks, clearing the bright afterimages from her eyes, and feels him before she sees him; a warmth settling against her back in unwelcome comfort, arms wrapping around her tightly, the ghostly brush of his lips over the exposed skin of her neck accompanied by the gentle rasp of the bristles of his beard as he nuzzles her, the jarring scent of mint filling her lungs. 

She doesn’t miss Petyr Baelish at all; he would have to be gone for that. She doesn’t know whether the seven hells had spat him out or crowned him king, hadn’t yet dare ask. Perhaps it was some magic of the knife itself, or a curse she brought on herself for doing what was right--for honor, for family--but betraying her own heart at the same time. It is not the first time he has intervened this way, nor will it be the last. He’ll do the same, she knows, to any who would dare touch her, friend or foe. Though he now wields powers terrible and uncanny, his most potent weapon remains his words, much as Arya had tried to deprive him of it. It was as if the knife hadn’t sliced through his neck, as if she hadn’t been there to see it, hadn’t willed it even while hating every second. 

“You shouldn’t be out here alone, my love,” his husky voice reaches her ears, as rich and dark as it always was.

His corpse, like any other, was a liability, and so they burned him as they did all the dead. Before the pyre was lit, however, she took the pin from where it still lay over his chest, washed the blood from it, and kept it hidden. She kept vigil, alone, as the flames devoured his body. When his ashes had cooled she’d had them gathered and placed in a strongbox, which she kept in her chambers. Perhaps she should’ve gotten rid of them. Arya certainly would have disposed of them if she knew, probably throwing the lot in the latrines, but Sansa kept him near for reasons she didn’t want to examine and later lamented. Under other circumstances, his remains should be interred with the rites due him as a lord, but there weren’t men or horses to spare--and where would she have sent them? The Vale, where he would never be mourned, or the Fingers, the home of his forefathers which he’d always hated? She was the closest thing he had to family save the manchild who was already twisting on the strings of a new set of puppeteers.

For the first few days after his trial and execution, she thought she spied him at odd times--a hazy presence at the back of the hall where he habitually lurked, a dark head with silvered temples in a crowd that revealed a stranger’s face when she looked again. She dismissed it as her guilt manifesting itself, conflicted grief infecting her mind to replace the mourning she would not allow herself to do. Over time, however, the incidents grew until she was seeing him in every shadow, hearing his whisper on the wind, feeling a ghostly press of a hand to her back wherever she went. The first time she’d woken with his taste on her lips, the ache of him between her thighs, she’d thought she’d gone mad. It didn’t take long for her to realize the truth was much, much worse. 

The relentless onslaught of his attentions stretched from days to weeks. When it grew unbearable, she finally gave in, speaking aloud for the first time the name which had been pounding a relentless tattoo inside her mind. Instantly, he appeared in front of her, solid and smirking and unequivocally real. She’d stuttered out an apology for what honor had bidden her to do even as the foolish part of her that refused to hate him fought against it. She’d fully expected him to kill her, to take the vengeance she knew was owed even if he’d betrayed her first, but what he did was somehow worse--he’d forgiven her, professed his love undying, and promised to never let her go. Thus the mockingbird still perched on her shoulder, beak sharp and dripping ichor. 

“I was hardly alone,” she retorts bitterly, shrugging off his ephemeral touch. Almost immediately he reappears in front of her with a stillness that doesn’t even disturb the snow on the ground beneath his boots, as if he’d been there all the time. He probably was, everywhere, all around her, filling her world with his presence so that she may drown in it. She used to have nightmares of Ramsey where she could only breathe when she woke. When she emerges from sleep with dreams of Petyr, he is there in the bed beside her. He speaks to her almost constantly when she is alone. She knows things she shouldn’t, secrets gifted to her by Petyr; he was a master of stealing them in life, and dying has hardly inconvenienced him in that. “What do you want?” she spits, glaring at him. 

The bite of her words does nothing to dissuade him; if anything he is merely amused. “You never tire of asking the question to which you have always known the answer,” he replies with a chuckle.

“I don’t love you, Petyr. I never will.” Her voice doesn’t waver, but when he steps into the hands on his chest she doesn’t push him back, instead curling her fingers in the dark soft material of his cloak. 

“But you already do, sweetling.” His hands cup her face, cradling it as he did so many moons ago next to her castle of snow. “I have all eternity to wait for you to admit it to yourself.” 

She closes her eyes against him, but it matters not; she feels lips--solid, warm, alive --press against hers. There will come a time--very soon--when she will know her denial is a lie rather than merely fear it, the truth she has dreaded all along--that her heart was always his to take.