He is nothing like the men she imagined marrying when she was a girl in Winterfell. His words are coarse, he has no courtly graces, he does not even know his letters; there is no reason Sansa Stark of Winterfell should love Ser Gendry Waters, the bastard son of a drunken king.
But she is not Sansa Stark of Winterfell, has not been Sansa since a terrible night when her fate was decided with black amethysts hidden in her hair net. She was Alayne Stone once, the bastard daughter of Lord Petyr Baelish, but Alayne died in the Vale when she fled Petyr and his horrid plan to steal the Eyrie from a little boy.
She is Cat Rivers now, has been Cat Rivers from the moment she stumbled upon the Crossroads Inn and, by extension, Gendry.
He thinks she is a Tully bastard, the seed of her uncle Edmure or mayhaps even poor, dead Grandfather Hoster. Sansa does not disabuse him of this notion; she thinks he likes the idea of them both being the unwanted children of powerful men.
Sansa Stark was a wanted child, beloved and adored, but Sansa Stark is dead.
Gendry is unbearably handsome, even more handsome than Lord Renly was before his death. Sometimes Sansa catches herself watching him as he shapes steel, skin slick with sweat and soot, muscles dancing. He reminds her of etchings in a book Maester Luwin had, one Jeyne Poole once stole when they wanted to know what a man looked like beneath his clothes. The first time she saw him without his shirt, all defined muscle and black hair arrowing down his stomach to disappear into his pants, Sansa felt real, true desire flame hot in the pit of her stomach.
Such wantonness would not be tolerated in a lady of Winterfell, but she's just a bastard now, so it is alright.
She gave him her maidenhead on her fifteenth name day, on a lumpy mattress stuffed with straw when they were both a bit drunk on wine Tom procured. Septa Mordane once told Sansa Stark it was an insult to the gods to let a man take what belongs to your husband, but Cat Rivers doesn't let anyone take from her; she gave it freely, warmed by his touch, loving the safety she felt in his embrace.
Sansa Stark married Tyrion Lannister in the Great Sept of Baelor before the Seven; Cat Rivers weds Gendry Waters in a godswood which is not as fine as the one at Winterfell but whose gods she trusts more.
She forgets that Cat Rivers has never seen the weirwoods of Winterfell; it is the first in a series of slips, cracks in her veneer.
Sansa loves being pregnant. Long Jeyne Heddle tells her she's mad, but there is not a single complaint which finds its way free of her lips. She loves feeling her babies move beneath her skin, twisting and tumbling, active little cubs; she never feels as complete as she does when Gendry lays his large hand on her middle and smiles.
If she were still a Stark of Winterfell, her children would bear the names of those who have fallen: Eddard, Robb, Brandon, Rickon, Catelyn, Arya. But she's a bastard girl with no family, so instead her children are Cait, Kol, Alys, Nan, and Max.
Cait and Alys have her look, Tully red hair and blue eyes, while Kol and Max look so much like Gendry, like the Baratheons, there is no denying Gendry's parentage. It is Nan who raises the questions, Nan who slides from her body with black hair and Stark grey eyes. She is the anomaly, the constant reminder that she is not Cat Rivers no matter how many years she lives as such.
She spends her days keeping their small house, making meals and performing chores while Gendry works in the forge. One afternoon he comes home early to find the children gathered around her in the back of the house, all kneeling in the dirt as she draws letters, teaches them their names and histories. She blushes ferociously when Gendry just stares at her in confusion, a hint of betrayal in his eyes.
"Where does a bastard girl learn all of that?" he asks when they are abed that night.
Cat hates to lie, but Sansa knows it is necessary. "My mother was a lady; she taught me."
Low-born or not, Sansa does not want her children at a disadvantage. They are all smart, thoughtful, active children; she never wants them to be so wrapped up in the simply joys of life that they do not appreciate the true dangers in the world.
Sansa Stark and her siblings were raised that way; it is why House Stark does not exist any longer.
One evening she teases Gendry about favoring Nan too much; he is a wonderful father, but Sansa thinks he indulges Nan too much, lets her run roughshod over her brothers and sisters, encourages her troublesome behaviors. Gendry goes strangely quiet for awhile before admitting, "I think she just reminds me so much of someone I knew once."
They rarely talk about their pasts; Sansa is hungry to hear more until he actually shares the story.
"Do you remember Robb Stark, the King in the North?" She cannot breathe but still she nods, trying to act as if the mere mention of her brother's name does not tear at the open wound of her heart. "I knew his sister well. For years, she and I were together, first as servants at Harrenhal and then the Brotherhood caught her to ransom her. She was..."
She had thought Arya died soon after their father had; she doesn't know how to ask for more without arousing suspicion.
"She was your friend," is all Cat Rivers can manage.
Gendry nods, smiling sadly. "She's long dead now, but you'd have liked her. Sometimes you remind me of her."
Sansa Stark would have been horrified to be compared to her wild sister, but, then again, Sansa Stark had always been horrified by the wrong things.
Her children are happy and healthy, her husband is kind and gentle; the Old Gods have been infinitely sweeter to her than the Seven.
That is, until they aren't.
She has always enjoyed helping Jeyne at the inn, helping with the flow of orphans which has never abated. Her children play with the orphans while she, Jeyne, and Willow tend to the guests, whose arrivals have only increased with the start of spring. On the day the world tilts, she is singing with Tom, entertaining the guests even as she serves food; Gendry sits with Lem and a handful of men, his smile full of love and affection whenever she looks at him.
And the song is over and, in the moment's silence which follows, a voice says, loud and clear, "Sansa Stark?"
She had not seen Mace Tyrell and his men enter the inn; Cat Rivers did not know the Lord of Highgarden, would not have recognized the handsome man in gilded armor as Ser Loras, would not have known that the man who leaned heavily on a cane is Lord Willas, the once possible betrothed of Sansa Stark of Winterfell. Cat Rivers would not have known any of it, would have no reason to fear the men in green garb with golden flowers upon their breasts, would not have known what a wonderful bargaining chip the lost wolf girl would be for a family which has fallen out of favor with the Dragon Queen.
But it does not matter what Cat Rivers knows; all that matters is what these men know, and they know the truth.
Neither Sansa nor Cat can quite remember the truth anymore.
She tries not to focus on her friends in the inn, tries to block out the look of absolute betrayal on Gendry's face as she sinks into a deep curtsy and replies, "Lord Tyrell."
Sansa Stark is reborn at The Crossroads Inn; Cat Rivers dies for Sansa to live.
Gendry does not leave her side as Lord Mace proposes taking her to King's Landing, silent and intimidating. Loras keeps looking at her husband as if he is seeing a ghost, pain twisted up with something deeper, and Sansa vaguely remembers hearing whispers about Ser Loras and Lord Renly. Lord Willas does not say much; he simply listens.
"Your natural brother has been given Winterfell," Mace reports, his eyes focused on her. "He has offered a hearty reward for anyone who can bring him one of his siblings."
"I was always under the impression House Tyrell was well-off financially," she replies, and it is not Sansa's voice which comes out but a mixture of all the people who were so much better at the game of thrones than she: Cersei Lannister, Petyr Baelish, even Olenna Redwyne.
They are all dead now; she still lives.
"We don't want for money," Mace confirms. "Is it so hard to believe we may wish to undo a great injustice perpetrated against your house?"
"You'll have to specify which injustice you're referring to, Lord Tyrell, for there have been so many and I do not recall you ever desiring to champion me before." Anger begins to burn ferociously in the pit of her stomach, the wolf which has been hibernating deep within her rearing its head. "In fact, what I do recall is you pushing Margaery ahead of me, using me to deliver the poison which took Joffrey's life, never lifting voice nor finger to defend me or any member of my family. Don't wrap yourself in honor, Lord Tyrell. It does not suit you."
Mace's eyes flash with something - offense with a hint of fear - and it makes Sansa smile. How far have the Tyrells fallen that returning Sansa Stark to court will curry favor? How much has the world changed while she has been Cat Rivers?
"Then allow me to return you, Lady Sansa." Willas Tyrell smiles gently, and Sansa remembers how, in another life, he was meant to be her husband. "I doubt Eddard and Catelyn Stark would wish their daughter to remain separated from her birthright."
Gendry still says nothing; Sansa begins to fear he may never say a word to her again.
She tells the children they are going on an adventure, making sure to stress how they will need to be at their most courteous; she scrubs their skin until it glows pink, plaiting the girls' hair in the old fashions she once wore. Gendry watches with stormy eyes, only intervening when Nan begins to throw a tantrum, ripping the ribbons from her hair, shaking her dark locks out while stamping her foot. He doesn't yell; it's not his way. She does not hear what he says to their youngest daughter, but it settles her for the time being.
They leave for King's Landing in the morning. When the children are in bed, huddled together in the small room the five of them share, the girls in one bed, the boys in the other, Sansa goes to Gendry in the forge. He brings his hammer down so hard upon the steel, Sansa waits for it to break; he could kill a man with one blow, the way King Robert did to Rhaegar Targaryen so long ago.
Gendry has never struck her, never struck anyone except in defense; his gentleness has always been the trait Sansa appreciates the most.
"Do you hate me?" she asks above the ringing of hammer against metal.
"No," Gendry grunts, striking his work even harder.
"Are you coming with us tomorrow?"
"If m'lady commands it."
"Don't call me m'lady," she snaps, and finally Gendry stops pounding away, letting his hammer hang at his side as a mocking smile twists his beautiful mouth.
"Now you sound like your sister."
Sansa flinches; it was easier being Cat, who had no siblings. "I lied to keep you safe, to keep our children safe. You must understand that."
"I understand." Grabbing the tongs, thrusting the newly shaped sword into water to cool, he grits out, "But you didn't have to lie to me. That's not what people do."
That's all people do, she nearly retorts before remembering Gendry has never been to the Crownlands, has never known a Lannister or Tyrell, never had to lie well or risk being beaten, raped, or murdered. Gendry knows nothing about Sansa Stark's world because he does not know Sansa Stark.
No one has ever truly known Sansa Stark.
"Are you coming with us tomorrow?" she repeats, her voice frailer.
Gendry sighs, his deep blue eyes locking with hers. "My place is with you. It has always been with you." His scoff nearly guts her. "Whoever you may be."
Sansa is not sure who she is anymore.
She hopes Gendry will stay beside her as she figures it out.