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if you try to break me, you will bleed

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It all started the night she burst into their rooms.

The door banged against the wall, not loud enough to mask her high, piercing wail; Catelyn startled and bolted upright as Ned grunted and rolled out of bed, unsheathing his greatsword in a single, graceless motion.

Sansa, illuminated in moonlight, dropped to her knees, staring at them with eyes that looked simultaneously terrified and hopeful; disbelieving and stunned and, for a heartbeat, incandescently happy.

“Ned,” Catelyn hissed, “you’re scaring her.”

Ned blinked and lurched to the side for a moment, before registering Sansa’s hiccups. Then he tossed his sword aside- Catelyn winced at the clatter of steel on stone- and crossed the last few feet in a large stride, wrapping Sansa in a warm embrace.

At his touch, Sansa flinched, recoiled, and threw herself into his arms, all in one motion. Her sobs became louder, spurring Catelyn out of their bed as well.

“Sweetling,” Ned murmured, once she’d stopped shuddering so violently, “what happened? What’s the matter?”

Sansa only buried her face in his chest as if she were a babe once more, and mumbled, “A dream.”

But when questioned further, she wouldn’t respond. Catelyn tried as well, only to be met with louder sobs and a daughter more distraught than she’d ever seen her.

Catelyn and Ned exchanged worried looks. Sansa had never been their quietest child, but she had been the one they didn’t worry about. None of the responsibilities Robb would have, none of Arya’s wildness or Bran’s penchant for climbing dangerous heights- she’d been the calm, steady one of the children.

Perhaps they’d been too complacent.

In time, Sansa had consented to slipping into their bed, and slept curled between the two of them. The next morning, while she still slumbered, Ned went to speak to Robb.

He returned looking grim.

“Robb says that she came to his chambers last night too,” he told Catelyn quietly. “She was crying, and choking, and said something about a crown- nothing completely coherent. Then she hugged him, gasped, and ran. He doesn’t know anything else.”

“A crown?” Catelyn asked.

“A crown of iron and steel,” Ned said. “A crown of swords, were her actual words. There is only one such crown, Catelyn, and it hasn’t been in use for centuries. I don’t know where she might have gotten such an accurate description.”

Catelyn drew a hand across her face. “You mean- the crown of Northern Kings.”

It wasn’t a question, but Ned treated it as one. “Yes.”

She turned to their daughter, who slept curled around herself, tight as skiened yarn. Sansa looked young and pale, her dark red hair shining like burnished copper in the early light. Her tears had faded, and she didn’t look anything like the broken-down version that she had appeared scarce hours before; simply young and beautiful.

“Let’s hope it was just a dream, yes?” Ned asked, wrapping his arms around hers.

Catelyn sighed, relaxing into his embrace, and nodded.

Over the next few days, Catelyn watched her eldest daughter carefully.

Sansa had always been soft, a candle-lit flame in the night. No glorious sunset as Robb, no fierce forge-fire as Arya, no ever-burning lamp as Bran; flickering and constant and lovely, in a manner that the others couldn’t hope to become.

But now Sansa looked wearier than she ever had before. She’d apologized when she awoke, color high in her cheeks and eyes averted, but never looked truly repentant. Her hands never twitched with glee or excitement as they used to. Her hair, which she had once spent hours braiding in the southron fashion, was suddenly pulled back in a single utilitarian braid.

Ned had accepted her apology with grace, and though Robb still stared at her slightly worriedly, they were all moving past it.

All save Catelyn, who saw something sharp in Sansa’s eyes; something old and stern and fierce, as even Arya at her angriest wasn’t. Sansa laughed with Jeyne and Beth easily enough, but her eyes watched over the rest of her family almost endlessly, almost restlessly.

Catelyn worried for her soft-hearted, flame-haired daughter, because she didn’t know what was going on and didn’t like what she saw- up until she didn’t.

Sansa dragged Robb to her rooms a week later, and they’d spoken of something; the following days she’d looked more contented than any time after her dream. On Bran’s nameday they held a feast, and in the bright light of the feasting hall Sansa laughed and danced and sang as if back to normal.

You’ll be alright, thought Catelyn. You are a Stark of the North, you are a Tully of the Riverlands, you will be cold as ice and deadly as the storm. There is nothing in all the realms that can temper you, my dear, dear daughter.

It was truth, though Catelyn Stark did not know it.

When Sansa awoke these days, she did so silently.

Of her old life, she remembered enough to make her dizzy, to make her tremble and shake and want to crack open. Robb dead, her parents dead, Rickon dead, the fates of Bran and Arya unknown; Jon had been all that was left to her, and even that had been taken from her by the Dragon Queen.

Sansa had survived. But the price had been her heart, her soul; a great measure of her sanity.

It had been a slash across her chest from a White Walker’s sword that finally ended her life. Sansa’d landed in a puddle of her own blood, and she’d died quickly, quietly.

And then she’d awoken with a gasp, trembling, in a bed that had burned under Theon’s betrayal.

It had been a luxury that Sansa had almost forgotten, to feel the strength of her father’s arms; the cool warmth of her mother’s hands running through her hair; the steady, unshaking growth of Robb into a king the North could love and obey. She’d almost forgotten it until she had it thrown back in her face. And now, young and beautiful and with a whole life spinning out in front of her, Sansa was determined to wrest some control back to herself.

She appeared nine years of age. There were yet three more years for Sansa to find a path, to change the course of fate enough that her family didn’t die.

Winter is coming, thought Sansa, wrapping cold fingers around the woolen hem of her cloak. Winter is coming, and the lions will falter, the stags will freeze, the flowers will shrivel. But we wolves will thrive, and they will sing a thousand songs of the blood staining our teeth.

“You call this stitching?”

Jeyne Poole’s voice echoed in the room and further, into the hallway Robb and Jon were walking down. The gentle murmur of voices ground to a halt- likely in favor of seeing the verbal sparring match between the Lady Horseface and the Lady Sansa once more.

Or rather, the Lady Sansa’s companions.

Arya didn’t respond, though Jon could easily imagine her flashing eyes; for whatever reason, she appeared loathe to actually engage.

Jeyne couldn’t let it by. She continued: “It’s horrible. I could do better when I was five! What kind of a lady doesn’t know how to wield a needle?”

“Say that when I’ve a sword in my hand,” Arya snapped, sounding at the end of her patience.

Robb winced, wrapping an arm around his elbow where Arya had struck him the night before. Jon grinned; there was one person Robb didn’t mind beating him in the training yard, and she had dark hair and grey eyes like the direwolf she loved. The Starks’ love for each other rarely extended to outsiders, and so appeared chilly to most, but the strength of their bonds within the family was matched by little.

“Jeyne,” came another voice that took Jon a moment to place- it was only after Robb mouthed Sansa that he got it. “That’s enough.” A pause, and then, “Arya, I’d prefer if you didn’t threaten my friends.”

“She started it-” Jeyne began.

Simultaneously, Arya bit out, “ Friends-”

“Jeyne, you couldn’t do a single bit of embroidery before you turned seven, and Arya’s better at it now than you ever were,” Sansa said suddenly. Into the slightly shocked silence that followed, Jon heard something clatter as if placed roughly on a table. “And no true lady would have answered Arya’s baits. Which, yes, I recognized, Arya, you couldn’t be more obvious if you ran after Jeyne with a little Jon Snow and Theon Greyjoy on your shoulders. Get over yourself, both of you.”

“Little Jon Snow,” Arya said flatly.

Sansa’s voice suddenly became sharper, adopting a tone that made one sit up and pay attention. Not angry or sad or even loud- just a sort of honed command that seemed to make the very wind bend to her whims.

“I know you don’t care for sewing. But it isn’t just important for embroidery and pretty things, Arya- I know Septa Mordane’s told you about the first Blackfyre rebellion. You know that when her husband, the Lord Tyrell, fought against his men in the Reach, there weren’t enough maesters. And so the Lady Tyrell gathered all the best dressmakers in Highgarden, and all the ladies who were best at embroidering, all onto the battlefield, and told them to sew the injured men up. It saved the battle, twice over.” She sighed. “You won’t get anywhere near good enough to do that if you don’t practice, though.”

“I can’t do this all day like you,” Arya said, but her voice came slower, as if she were listening, and she at least didn’t sound so prickly as only moments before Sansa’s speech.

“Eight hours a week and you go off for the rest to play at swords with Robb,” Sansa said.

Four. I can’t do any more!”

“Not if you don’t try. Seven.”

“Four,” said Arya. “Sansa-”

“We spend two hours a day sewing, and right now you can’t sneak away for even half of them. This is a good deal.”

“Five.”

“Six,” said Sansa. “And that’s the lowest it’s going to go if you want me to cover your absence from Mother.”

Arya paused. “Cover my absence?”

“If you decide to play at swords, and Mother comes looking, did you expect me to keep quiet?” Sansa asked impatiently.

Robb looked somewhere between flabbergasted and highly amused- a moment later he heard Arya’s quiet cough. Jon rolled his eyes.

“Well-”

“Six hours a week,” Sansa said. “You get eight hours to go poke at Robb and get wooden splinters in your hands, Arya. But these six hours you spend here, you try. You listen. You don’t start swearing under your breath like a hoodlum, or making fun of my friends as if you’re in the pigpen with bastards and smallfolk. Is it a deal?”

There was a long, stretching silence, and then the gentle rasp of skin against skin: Arya must have taken Sansa’s hand.

“Yes,” she said. “Deal.”

There was a small, protesting noise from someone else, and Jon heard Arya muffle a snicker with the same graceless choke she usually did. A moment later, he realized why.

“And you,” Sansa began ominously, a stinging note creeping into her voice that even Lady Catelyn at her worst didn’t have.

Jeyne swallowed, loud enough to hear outside the room, and Robb doubled over in laughter: his little sister, soft, sweet Sansa, was terrifying her companions into submission. Sansa, the girl who loved songs and pretty things, had bargained with her sister to spend time wielding a needle, into actually paying attention for it.

Had someone told Jon that he’d hear this conversation even a week ago, he’d have laughed.

But now he remembered, with a sudden chill, the look on her face when she’d burst into Robb’s rooms- the rooms that they shared. She’d thrown herself at Robb with a gasp and a cry, and the angle had been such that Jon could see, clearly, the emotions playing across her face. Sansa had never been good at hiding them, but he hadn’t known what that depth of grief and love and relief meant; what had she seen, that had terrified her so?

Arya had asked a few mornings later, over breakfast. Sansa’s face had paled to a degree that he’d rarely seen on a human being, and she’d excused herself almost immediately- Arya didn’t actually apologize, Jon was sure, but she also hadn’t pestered Sansa for more information. It was as good as one, from Arya.

They turned and left, slipping into the shadowed rooms a few doors down, and Robb said, scarcely holding onto his composure, “She took that from Uncle Benjen. The voice, the anger, I bet you she did the eyebrow thing, too. And you,” he mimicked, letting his voice fall into a lower register, “don’t be stupid, I know so much better than you, just keep your head down and tongue in your mouth, idiot boy!”

“Oh, if only you had,” Jon murmured.

Robb turned pink. “I didn’t know he actually meant it! I’m the Heir-”

“I’m sure your Uncle Benjen knows what being a leader means.”

“Nobody talks to me like that-”

“The gods know they should, your head’s getting too big-”

“Jon!”

Jon flashed him an unrepentant grin, and Robb lunged towards him, teeth bared just as sharp as Grey Wind’s.

And that was all he remembered of Sansa for quite some time.

First, she spoke to Robb.

Sansa had never been a good liar. Her face held her emotions clearly, and she’d learned over the years to see it as an asset instead of a liability. But if she were to achieve anything, she’d need a friend; a confidante. And Robb was the best liar of all her siblings.

She locked the door and lifted her chin. She’d need mental fortitude to do this. “I want you to give me your word that you’ll tell no one of what I say to you next.”

“Why’d you lock the door?” He asked suspiciously.

“Becuase I wanted a private conversation,” she replied. “I want to talk to you. About things that- happened. Or, maybe not things that happened, but things that can happen, and- well. Please, Robb?”

“I,” Robb said, petulant and irritable and majestically thirteen years old, “am not giving you anything until you unlock that door.”

“So you don’t want to know what I know?” Sansa arched an eyebrow. “Pity. I’m sure that Father wants to hear all about your recent trip to Wintertown, you know. I mean, it isn’t like he’d be very disappointed in the actions of his eldest son.”

“What are you talking about?”

Sansa widened her eyes. “Didn’t Theon take you to a brothel last week?”

He flushed bright red. “You aren’t supposed-”

“I saw you leave in the night,” she interrupted. “I saw you, Robb, how many other people do you think must have done if I could? And Theon never keeps his mouth shut on anything, so, you know, it wasn’t that big of a jump to make.”

Robb’s jaw worked furiously. “Fine. What do you want?”

“For you to listen.”

Sansa reached forwards, lacing her fingers through his.

For a moment, she thought he might not acquiesce. But then his shoulders slumped, and he nodded, once, to himself. “All right. I swear on- on- on Uncle Brandon’s statue down in the crypts.” Sansa waited, and he sighed impatiently. “Never to tell anyone what you tell me. Good enough?”

“Yes.” She paused, trying to think of a way to phrase it. “I’ve seen this before,” she said, finally.

“You’ve seen what before?”

“Everything. All of this.” Sansa felt her shoulders twitch upwards, defensive, and she forced them down; forced them level and calm and steady as the flat turrets of Winterfell. “I- I remember things that haven’t happened yet, Robb. Horrible things. Do you remember when I came to your room, crying? I had a dream that night. A dream where everyone dies.”

“Dreams aren’t real,” Robb retorted.

Sansa swallowed, hard. “Perhaps not. But there were names of people that I’ve never met in this world in the dream, names that I’ve checked in the library- and they’re all correct. Do you know who Sandor Clegane is? He’s the Hound. Do you know what Oberyn Martell’s - the younger brother of the ruler of Dorne- paramour’s name is? Ellaria Sand. I know these things, Robb, and they’re real, and they’re true, and I’m terrified right now.”

“Does- something happen?” Robb asked.

What doesn’t happen to us?

“In three year’s time, the King will come to Winterfell to ask Father to be his Hand. And Father will go with him; and he’ll take me and Arya with him as well.”

“Wil he marry you off to the crown prince?” He drawled.

Sansa felt tears- irrational, infuriating- sting the corners of her eyes. “I’ll be betrothed to Joffrey,” she said flatly. “But I’ll never be Queen. Father finds something that has Joffrey’s mother arrest him, and then Joffrey calls for Father’s head, and I watch as Ilyn Payne beheads our own father with his own greatsword.”

“And does Father’s great friend, Robert Baratheon, just sit there as this happens?”

“He’s dead,” Sansa snapped. “He dies, and it turns out that his trueborn heirs are actually products of incest, and when Father finds out about this Cersei Lannister kills him. Arya runs away. The Lannisters marry me off to Tyrion Lannister. You declare yourself King of the North, and Joffrey beats me for being your sister, and then you die, and Mother dies as well, and Theon burns Winterfell, and Rickon dies, and then-”

She was crying, she realized distantly. Hot tears running down her cheeks, shortening the breath that remained in her lungs. She knew how that sentence ended, too: and then Jon leaves, and I die inside the castle I was born in.

Robb shuffled closer, wrapping an arm around her awkwardly. “That hasn’t happened yet,” he said.

“It did,” she whispered. “And if I do nothing, it’ll happen again. I love you, Robb, and I can’t- I can’t- survive if they kill you again.”

A moment later, she heard what he’d said: yet. It hasn’t happened yet.

“You believe me?”

“I think- that you believe what you’re saying.” He sighed. “But it’s something I’ve never heard of before, you know, things from the future- it’s just really- really-”

“I don’t know why I came back,” Sansa told him. “I don’t. But I’m here, and I can, and I will help you. Please, Robb, tell me that you’ll help.”

“What do you want me to do?”

Sansa closed her eyes. She remembered cold steel ripping into her lungs, the blood that spilled across the ground, the darkness that stole across her vision. She had died, and she had come back, and she would never again be that defenseless girl.

“I- I need you to teach me.” Breath in, breath out. She hated this, hated having to do this, but there was a dead thing in her chest and a need for blood that she had never fed and a fear that never dimmed-

“I need you to teach me how to wield a sword.”

Robb choked. “A sword?”

“More Arya’s thing, I know. But I refuse, I refuse, Robb, to be helpless once more. I know what happens when I’ve no man to protect me. And I will die if that must happen once more, do you hear me?”

“I will protect you-”

“It isn’t enough,” Sansa said, feeling the cold chill of vulnerability seep into her bones. “It is not enough.”

She turned away. A moment later, she felt Robb’s hand weight her shoulder.

“Fine. But I want something in return.”

“What?” She asked wearily.

Robb looked grim and angry, but his hand was warm on her shoulder, even through her gown, and his Tully blue eyes- their mother’s eyes- were soft.

“Tell me what happened to you,” he said. “I’ll teach you how to wield a sword, how to use one and clean one and everything else that I know. And you’ll tell me about this world that you’ve come from, where all of us are dead and you, you, are alone.”

Sansa paused. It ached, even to think on that life. But perhaps it would become easier if she spoke of it, as lancing a wound might be.

“Very well,” she told him, reaching forwards and gripping his palm in hers tightly. “I promise to do so. When do you want to get started?”

Robb drew back, hands slipping out of hers. For a moment he just looked at her, and then he lifted his chin proudly, eyes lightening with amusement.

“Tonight. Do you think you can make it to the godswood?”

Sansa bit her lip, amused. Robb didn’t know half of what she’d sneaked into, from leaving King’s Landing to fleeing Winterfell under the Boltons. Going to the godswood would be almost ridiculously easy now.

“Bring a sword,” she told him. Even smiled, a little. “And I’ll tell you all about a little boy who grew up to be a king.”

Robb frowned.

Sansa wasn’t, in all honesty, truly terrible at swords- she’d always been a good dancer, and the smooth grace of that translated to this venture as well. But she had little in way of muscles, and he suspected that little Rickon had more idea of blocking and stabbing than Sansa did.

He might have given up an hour in had Sansa not looked so fiercely determined to continue. She was sweaty and aching; Robb ached just to think about holding the sword on his first day of practice for so long- but she wasn’t willing to stop. With her cloak shed and her swirling movements, at once graceful and jarringly wrong, he would have laughed- but every time it bubbled in his throat he remembered her pale skin and large, tired eyes and it faded as if it had never existed.

After, gown dripping sweat and dark hair plastered to her forehead, she slumped against the weirwood tree and plucked the waterskin from his hand.

“So. What do you want to know?”

Robb hesitated. She’d looked even more frightened when he’d proposed the trade, eyes flicking away before coming back to meet his with cold resolve. He didn’t want to hurt her, but this might have been easier-

“You said I’d be a king, when you came to my rooms last week.” He cocked his head to the side. “Were you honest?”

“The first King in the North for almost three centuries,” she replied easily. “They said you never lost a battle, too: you were an amazing battle commander.”

“But you were with the Lannisters then.”

“Yes,” Sansa said quietly.

“Then- how did you know that I’d win battles? It just- makes more sense to keep you ignorant if you’re a hostage, doesn’t it?”

Sansa looked away, and then her eyes met his once more, frozen and glittering and lovely as the pools in the godswood. “Joffrey didn’t- Joffrey was a cruel boy, but he was never smart. Every time you won a battle, he’d call me to the throne room and- and have the Kingsguard beat me.”

Beat you?” Robb asked, aghast. Then, snarling, “ Beat you!”

“Yes. He had me name you a traitor, name Father a traitor, name Bran and Rickon and Arya and Mother all traitors- even after you died, I had to-” she breathed in, suddenly, and the rage brewing in his gut knotted in on itself in the face of her clear misery.

“You’re going to get amazing with that sword,” he said, low and intense. “And if anyone, anyone, tries to touch you again you will gut them, and then you will give me their names, and I will slit their throats, do you hear me?”

“I begged the gods to protect you, when I prayed,” she said softly. “Everyday. But you still died. And then I refused to do it any longer. If-”

Robb cut her off- clapped his hands over her mouth and swallowed, hard; felt bile rise in his throat along with the regret, along with the anger.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I never wanted you to be hurt. Sansa-”

“I know. I know, Robb. I don’t hold it against you. I never did.”

He frowned heavily and sat back. “I always said you were the stupid one.”

She threw her head back in silent laughter, and when she turned to catch his hands, Robb felt warmth flood over his chest. It’d been so long since she had looked as young as she was.

“There is too little kindness in this world for me to grudge it,” she said, thumbs rubbing over his knuckles. “If we don’t stick together, who will?”

I didn’t. I died, and you bore the price.

“Here,” he whispered, “in this world, Sansa: I will never hurt you like that.”

Sansa rested her head on his collarbone, and Robb closed his eyes, and he thought, I swear to all the gods, new and old and unheard- I will protect you.

Months passed.

Sansa grew muscles and calluses. She was used to long nights, and after a certain point Robb had stopped following her to the godswood regularly- instead, she’d go with Lady, and practice the movements that he’d already taught her.

Her belief in slowly purging herself of the past had held true, as well: it got easier to tell Robb everything, from Cersei Lannister’s deviancies to Petyr Littlefinger’s desires to Ramsay Bolton’s cruelties. She still avoided everything about her death, though Robb had asked her multiple times; were Sansa to remember the cut of the sword across her chest she’d not be able to sleep for a full fortnight.

When she thought about Daenerys Targaryen somewhere across the ocean, sleeping and surviving and raising an army to take back the Iron Throne- Sansa wanted to weep. She wanted to scream. She wanted to take a sharp-bladed sword and draw it across the last Targaryen’s throat.

Had she not demanded Jon come to her side- had she not uncovered the truth of his lineage- Sansa would have had him beside her. Sansa would not have watched as White Walkers invaded Winterfell, and Sansa would not have been helpless.

No one can protect anyone, Sansa had said, had believed; but she had come to rely on a dark-haired man far more than she had imagined. It had ached to see him ride away. It had burned far worse to die.

“Arya was alive, last I heard,” she said one morning, a whisper to Robb’s ear on the way to breakfast.

A week later: “Jon took the black. He was elected Lord Commander.”

When Robb was resting in the godswood, sparring with her as they did once a week, she bared her teeth, angled her sword, and said, “Jon’s men mutinied and killed him.”

Robb faltered, and Sansa took advantage: starting forwards with a steady, unfaltering barrage and forcing him back, until his back slammed against the weirwood tree. Her sword pressed against the line of his throat, wood against thin skin.

“I thought you said Jon wasn’t dead,” he said lowly, hoarse through the scrape of the sword.

She stepped back, sword dipping down. “A witch brought him back. He died, and was brought back, and they called him the Prince that was Promised, Azor Ahai reborn- whatever that means. It’s something to do with a religion in Essos called Lord of Night or something. But when I died, Jon hadn’t.”

“And where was he while you breathed your last?”

Sansa breathed in sharply. “He was in King’s Landing.”

She turned away, kneeling to gather her cloak and waterskin. Robb’s eyes were accusing, angry; but she couldn’t find it in herself to answer him fully just yet.

“He should have protected you,” he said.

She whirled back to meet his gaze.

“He should have,” she agreed sharply. “But there were other things happening. It wasn’t his fault. He tried to protect me, to shield me from the worst of it. There’s only so much a single person can do when the gods hate you.”

Sansa-” he looked gutted.

“I died because of a lot of reasons,” she said. “I died because Father killed Lady, and Joffrey killed Father, and the Freys killed you and Mother, and Theon burned Winterfell. None of that had to do with Jon. He kept me alive and helped me take back Winterfell. And when the person sitting on the Iron Throne commands you to come south, when that person has three dragons- you don’t say no.”

She held his eyes for a long minute. When Robb didn’t say anything, she grabbed her cloak and walked away.

The next day, at breakfast, Robb looked irritable. He snapped once each at Arya and Bran and thrice at Jon- Sansa bit her tongue twice before biting out, “ Robb!”

Sansa,” he mimicked.

“You’re being ridiculous,” she warned. “Calm down, before you make an even bigger fool of yourself.”

I’m not the stupid one,” he said flatly.

Their mother inhaled sharply, and their father frowned. Arya smirked.

“You’re certainly not living up to that reputation,” Sansa retorted.

“You told me-”

“-it was what happened to me-”

“-idiotic womanly forgiveness-”

“-where do you get off saying that-”

“-they hurt you-”

Really?” Sansa all but shouted. Robb drew back, looking startled, and she glared at him, not giving him an inch to defend himself. “They hurt me, I got over it, and I have not told you all that has happened so that you can decide that you will ruin the only friend you have with someone in the family, do you hear me?” He opened his mouth, and she sent him a look that was equal parts contempt and disappointment. Robb’s back straightened, but he fell silent. “Don’t talk, every time you open your mouth you manage to say something idiotic. I’m sick of it. Just-”

She paused, and realized that her entire family was staring at her as if they’d never seen her before. For a moment, she wanted to shout. For a long, terrifying moment, she felt her hands itch for a sword. She saw Robb falter, and then start forwards suddenly, looking stricken; she took a deep breath, turned, and ran.

It was Jon who found her.

Sansa’s heart twisted when she saw him: so young, so unscarred. The man who had abandoned her wasn’t here. Neither was the man who had given her a kingdom to care for and love.

“Robb said you’d likely be here,” he told her quietly.

“I’m glad he didn’t come himself,” she replied.

“Everyone’s worried about you.” Jon tucked himself against the heavy stone wall, head pillowed in his arms, resting on his knees, dark hair curling over his pale forearms. “Lady Catelyn just about started to yell at Robb after you left. I think you’ve managed to pretty much terrify Bran.”

Sansa didn’t turn to look at him. “I’m- sorry. I didn’t mean to worry everyone- just. I got angry.”

“Sansa,” Jon said, quiet and careful as a kitten’s first wondering steps into the wider world, “did I ever do something to hurt you?”

You left me.

“No,” she said. “No, you’ve never done anything. I’ve been awful to you, Jon, and you’ve only ever been kind in return. You’re a better person than anyone I could name.”

He sounded startled, when he spoke.

“Then… you said that people hurt you.” His voice turned slightly rueful. “I think Lord Stark’s going to tear apart Winterfell by sundown, trying to find out who. He tried to ask Robb, but he refused to say.”

“Robb’s always wanted to solve every problem that comes his way,” Sansa said acidly. “He’s acting ridiculous. I told him- there’s nothing that he can do. Nothing anyone can do. It doesn’t even affect so many people, it was just a dream- but if Robb actually paid attention to what I said instead of running off on his own assumptions, we’d all be much happier.”

“Just a dream?”

Sansa turned to face him. She saw him wince- her back was to the open window, and it would be so easy for her to fall- but he didn’t mention it, nor attempt to pull her back. For that, she was grateful.

“Yes. Just a dream.” She didn’t smile, but her face did soften. “The kind that seems to go on forever.”

“Why was Robb angry at me?”

“Because he wants to be angry at someone, and you’re the easiest target,” she said tiredly. “He’s going to be insufferable tomorrow too, watch and see.”

Jon sighed, and reached forwards to capture her hands. “I’m sorry.”

“For what?” She asked, honestly puzzled.

“That you’re feeling this bad.” His thumb rubbed over her knuckles and he grinned. “Come on. I think Lady Catelyn’s even asked the kitchens to make lemon cakes.”

Sansa let him escort her down. When he hesitated at the mouth of the turret, pulling away, she felt ashamed- Jon was willing to make her feel better, coax her down from the towers, and he didn’t do it for any sort of acknowledgement. Sansa’d taken advantage of that.

She turned to face him, head high and eyes sharp.

“Stay beside me,” she ordered. “If Robb tries to talk to me, you’ve full freedom to stab him.”

The solemn expression on his face faded in favor of boyish glee. Sansa laughed, laced her arm in his, and let him lead her to the keep.

At dinner, she dragged to Robb out of the room and hissed, in his ear, “The godswood tonight.”

He looked at her, and then he nodded, and left.

Sansa took the wooden sword, a waterskin, and two cloaks, because Robb always forgot his own. In the godswood, she waited for as long as she could and then took the sword out and began to practice one of the forms Robb had taught her.

A moment later, she heard the crunch of a leaf under someone’s foot and froze. Robb was never good at sneaking. If people had wanted to find him, it would’ve been easy. If this was him, she should have heard him coming ages ago.

“Who’s there?” She asked, feeling her back straighten.

There was no answer. The red leaves fluttered in a stray breeze, and Sansa felt her heart begin to race. A moment later Lady had bounded to her side from her quiet position at one of the pools, back bunched tight.

Sansa lifted her sword where Lady snarled, and called, grimly, “Come out, before you regret it.”

Another long pause, and then Jon stepped out of the shadows, eyes wide and lips pressed into a thin line.

“Jon?” Sansa asked slowly. “What are you doing here?”

“What am I- what are you doing?” He walked closer, only to freeze when Lady pulled her lips back and growled, low and deep and barely loud enough to be heard. “Why are you holding a sword?”

“It’s a long story.” She paused, and patted Lady’s head lightly, carefully. She knew that she looked distrustful, looked wary; head shadowed and sword outstretched-

He was still gaping at her. Slowly, eyes flicking from sword to direwolf to her practiced stance, his mouth shut.

“You tell Arya that playing with swords is unladylike,” Jon said suddenly, eyes dark and furious, “you let your friends call her Horseface because she doesn’t follow your expectations of what a proper lady should be like, you tattle to your mother if she spends more than an hour a day practicing what she loves, and you’re here doing the same thing?”

He started forwards, and Lady snarled, once, unabashedly loud, and then leapt at him, tumbling both of them so that he landed on his back.

“Lady!” Sansa hissed, “Lady, back off, right now!”

Jon choked under Lady’s paws, hands scrabbling for purchase in the slick grass. Sansa stepped forwards after a long hesitation: she didn’t know what had gotten into her direwolf, and she didn’t want to admit to her fear- but it was there nonetheless.

Lady whined into her touch when Sansa brushed her back and slowly backed away, leaving Jon motionless and prone on the ground, blue-black bruises lining his throat.

...

Jon awoke slowly, the world muzzy with pain and exhaustion.

He tried to stretch- his arm was twisted beneath him at an honestly painful angle, cutting off all the blood flow to his fingers- but couldn’t.

Because he was tied up.

Legs bound to each other; hands tied to opposing elbows; a gag in his mouth. He tried to hiss something out, work his jaw to spit out the offending cloth invading his mouth, but the only result was a dull pain flaring through his throat, deep enough to leave him gasping.

A moment later, he heard voices.

“You tied up Jon,” a boy whispered, sounding somewhere between amused and angry. Through the ache in his temples, he recognized Robb. “Sansa, what were you thinking?”

It came back to him with a sudden rush, and he fought off unmanly whimpers in favor of trying to eavesdrop on them once more. He rolled slightly, to get slightly more comfortable, and a low growl made him stop: Lady, who was almost unnoticeable in the shadows, was staring at him with a coldly dismissive expression.

“I wasn’t,” Sansa replied. “Lady just leapt at him.”

“And then you tied him up.”

“I thought he was dead,” she bit out. “I thought Lady killed him. When it turned out she didn’t, I was afraid that you wouldn’t come, and I needed a way to keep him here so that I could bring him back to the keep, so I tied him up, yes.”

Robb snickered. “Where did you even get things to tie him up with?”

“My spare cloak.”

Robb exploded into laughter. Sansa hit him- Jon heard that clearly enough- and then he was tipping over, precarious balance lost and face flattened against the snow. He heard footsteps and then Robb fell into laughter once more; it was Sansa who dragged him upright and winced at the angry glare he shot her.

“Take out the gag, Sansa,” Robb said, once he’d regained some of his breath. “Jon won’t shout.”

I won’t, will I?

She pulled the strip of cloth out of his mouth, just in time for Jon to inhale sharply, ready to shout; he choked as pain flared through his bruised throat. She squeaked when he flinched, full-bodied, and fell against her skirts.

Robb snickered, and Jon felt his cheeks flush angrily, but then it seemed that Robb managed to find some mercy inside him- he helped Jon up, cut his bonds, and handed him a waterskin full of cold, fresh water that managed to lessen the ache in his throat.

“Why did your direwolf attack me?” He demanded, once he’d gotten under control.

Sansa avoided his eyes. “You- were angry. Lady gets- protective.”

“She choked me.”

She bowed her head. “It wasn’t because I told her to, Jon. I’m sorry about it. Lady reacted to my fear, and she attacked you, and it was my fault. It is my fault.” She knelt, her braid slipping over her shoulder. “I’m sorry. If you wish to go to either Mother or Father-”

“She’ll stop you,” Robb interjected.

“-I will stand by your decision,” she said, throwing an irritable look at him over her shoulder before turning back to him. “But- I hope you can forgive me.”

Jon stared into her blue eyes and felt his anger slip away, as it always did when faced with Sansa’s full attention.

“Tell me what’s going on,” he said, instead of apologizing- apologizing!- for some unknown transgression.

There was a long silence when he said that. Robb shifted uneasily; Sansa looked startled and then a series of expressions flickered across her face, too quick for him to identify when she bowed her head, shadows almost swallowed her features.

“It’s- a long story,” she said, and when her face lifted to the moonlight he saw only wariness in it; wariness, and a sort of determination that transformed her mother’s features into something like the old, free queens of the North. “But if you will hear it, I will not stop.”

Robb suddenly cut in, before Jon could reply, sounding old beyond his years: “This isn’t something you take back, Jon. Some things can’t be unheard. Just- be careful.”

Jon licked his lips. “What would you suggest?” He asked quietly.

“That you sit, and listen,” Robb replied, voice soft; just louder than the wind that ran through the godswood. “And then you sit, and think on it once more. This’ll change your life.” Sansa shifted, and Robb nodded to her. “We’re Starks, all of us. We endure, and we don’t turn our faces from evils done, and when our claws are sharp and the night is dark, we tear their throats out.” He clasped Sansa’s shoulder, and for a moment both their faces looked fierce and alien as a wolf’s. “You are one of us. I think you should hear what Sansa will tell you. But if you can’t find it in you, I will not blame you.”

“I- this is-” Jon shook his head, trying to form the words. “Is it that important?”

“Yes,” he said immediately.

Jon nodded. His eyes flicked from Sansa to Robb, from Lady to the weeping face of the weirwood tree. We don’t turn our faces, he thought, and straightened his back firmly, ignoring the bruises.

“Tell me,” he said.

Robb saw disbelief flash across Jon’s face at Sansa’s words, and then a cool blankness that masked all emotion.

The only time it cracked was when she leaned forward and whispered something in his ear, something that made Jon swallow and pale and suddenly look like he’d been struck in the face.

Sansa pulled away. “If you wish me to say it, I shall. It is your decision.”

Her eyes swept over them both, cool and calm, and then she turned to the sky, the darkness slowly giving way to a soft grey shade that seemed to make everything quieter, as if the godswood was as distant from Winterfell as the moon.

“Dawn will soon be upon us,” she said. “I shall be missed if I don’t head back. Take care, both of you, and make sure you wash your face before you come to breakfast. It won’t do to have all three of us with black circles under our eyes.”

Robb nodded, and she didn’t- quite- smile; Sansa rarely did, these days. She had a way of flashing her teeth in front of those she wished to fool, but it was an inch too wide to be called a true smile. For him, and for Jon, it seemed, her face relaxed and softened into something that approximated a smile, though it was nowhere near the bright ones from before.

...

When this began, when she came to him and whispered of a dream where everyone died and she was left, scarcely alive and scarcer wishing to be so- Robb had stared into eyes that spoke nothing but truth, eyes that anyone else would have named mad.

You will live, he’d sworn, and gathered her in his arms. You will live, Sansa, and you will laugh, and everyone who tried to turn your soul to darkness will die. I’ll protect you, I promise.

He’d said it once, when the air was cold and Sansa looked chapped and weary and more bitter than any nine-year old had the right to. She had not laughed, nor sneered as he might have expected; only placed cold fingers on his arm and whispered, “I hope so.”

“So the North declares independence, I’m declared King, we win the war, and then what? Wait until the Targaryen exile comes back on her dragons?”

“You’re not going to like it.”

“Sansa-”

“We abolish the Iron Throne. That much power makes anyone go mad. No: we split Westeros into seven kingdoms, as it was before the Targaryens came.”

“Abolish the- are you mad? What’re we going to do when we need food in the middle of winter? When we need steel or gold or men?”

“We already have treaties with the Reach and the Westerlands. We… renegotiate.”

“Do you know if we can? The North’s grown in population. If we become our own kingdom we’ll need to assert more control, need more holdfasts, establish more houses- and why would the Reach want to, in the first place?”

“Because we’ll pay them.”

“With what gold?”

“Not with gold, dear brother, with things that we actually have. Furs. Wood. We’ve better carvers and wood-hardeners than anyone south of the Riverlands.”

“Southerners won’t want furs, Sansa.”

“They will in winter, and I promise you that the winter will be colder than ever before.”

“Do we have enough population of trees or animals to turn such a profit?”

“...I’ll read up on it.”

...

Cara had come to Winterfell a ways back, when her mother got tired of having her pretty cheekbones bruised by the man her father’d wed her to. She was a serving girl in the kitchens, where it was safe and warm, and she’d learned to keep her head down and mouth shut- everyone knew both Lord and Lady Stark didn’t take kindly to gossips, and showed them the gates quickly and firmly.

Old Nan was an exception, but she was too old for anyone, including Lord Stark, to silence.

But during the nights, the girls whispered- as nobody could stop- and Cara had learned far more in the years inside the castle than she ever had in all her time with her mother in Wintertown.

Everyone knew that the Stark children- well. All of them were- unique- in their own way.

Lina was the oldest of the girls, and she liked Robb best of all, so the rest of the girls did as well. She said that Robb was good with a sword- good enough to make you tingle inside, Lina’d said, once, when she was drunk off her arse; a notorious flirt but never taking it beyond kisses.

The others laughed, and swooned, and preened whenever he was near, and Cara could see what they saw in him- handsome to a fault, honorable, an heir, there was nothing to dislike- but she rather thought that if there was a person she admired from afar it’d be Lady Sansa.

She was quieter than her siblings, always embroidering cloth for the poor of Wintertown- Cara knew that well, her newest brother wouldn’t have had clothes on his back if not for her generosity- and walking in the godswood. She was beautiful, too, like a weirwood tree: all witch-red hair and bark-pale skin.

But Cara knew that sometimes it was selfishness hiding behind piety, and cruelty behind beauty. Her father had driven that home easily enough. She’d have been content to watch the lady from afar and admire her, keep away as a baseborn girl ought to do, until, well- until. That day.

She’d carried white linens, freshly washed and cleaned, from the cupboards out to the beds. It’d been a mistake, piling the crisp cloth so high that she couldn’t see in front of her, but she’d checked and there was no one in the rooms- no one in the hallways.

From where he’d come, Cara did not know, but the moment was firmly entrenched in her mind: she’d walked, and bumped into the Greyjoy ward, and red, red wine had spilled over all the clean cloths in her arms, and she’d stared in sheer horror at the sight.

He’d gone just as still and silent, and she saw the moment his face changed from shock to fury, the exact moment when his hand raised as if to strike her.

The blow never fell.

“Theon!” A voice exclaimed, sharp enough to startle him, and Cara flinched into the wall as the Lady Sansa appeared out of nowhere, hair unbound and hanging like fire down her back- she sighed and waved him away, and reached a hand out to Cara, calm as if nothing had happened. “Come on,” she said kindly, “I’m sure it isn’t as bad as it looks.”

“They’re fresh washed,” Cara wailed, trying not to let her tears fall. “Mags’ll fire me, I know it, oh, I’m so sorry, Lady Sansa-”

But the lady only took the top layer of linen with an easy look, and then she nodded firmly, said, “Follow me,” and walked away.

They bleached the cloth together, and when it didn’t take fully, the lady only told Cara not to worry. A day later, Cara was in the great hall, serving wine to the Stark family, when she heard the Lady Catelyn ask, “What happened to the white linens, Sansa? Mags said you mentioned something, but she wasn’t entirely sure what you meant.”

“I stained the cloth,” she said, and the lie wasn’t even identified by any of her family.

Cara gaped, and Lady Sansa’s eyes met hers across the hall, and she winked.

A year later, on Lady Sansa’s nameday, Cara entered Lord Stark’s solar with a tray of lemon cakes- the whole family was there, and she was gathering the already-present trays with careful, non-obstructive moments when Lord Stark asked, “What do you want for your nameday?”

There was a bare hesitation, and then Lady Sansa said, “A sworn shield, Father,” and the whole world seemed to stop.

Turning ten was a milestone. The Starks rarely did big celebrations for their children, and even if they did, their gifts were simple, all save for the tenth nameday. The Lord Robb had asked for a sand steed from Dorne, and they’d given it, after much attempts at cajoling otherwise. But a sworn sword was a lifetime’s service. There was no going back.

“A sworn shield?” Lady Catelyn asked. “Sansa, don’t be ridiculous!”

“A sworn shield,” repeated Sansa. “Someone to bear my favors, and protect me. I am to leave home, Mother. I want someone to stand beside me.”

“Sansa,” Lady Catelyn said, helplessly.

Cara understood her dilemma very well. Who would pledge the rest of their life for a ten year old girl, no matter her beauty or status? What knight would do such a thing?

There was silence. Nobody would answer, Cara knew, and then the lady would break and weep. Pity stirred in Cara’s heart.

“I’ll do it,” said a voice, and everyone turned to see Jon Snow- Lord Stark’s bastard- step forward. Cara would have gaped, if she wasn’t busy trying to become one with the tapestry at her back.

“Jon, take a-” Lord Stark began, only to be interrupted by Lady Sansa.

“Oh, Father, could he?” She turned, eyes large and pleading, and Lord Stark visibly wavered.

“Ned,” said Lady Catelyn. “This is entirely-”

“Mother, I just want-”

“I’ll do it,” said Snow, looking somewhere near-desperate. Lord Robb, behind him, sported a grin that continued to grow wider and wider.

At that, lady Sansa grabbed his sleeve. She glared at her parents, head held high and furious, and then stalked out, dragging Jon Snow with her.

Cara grabbed the closest thing she could and fled, right on their heels.

It took her a moment to find a safe spot, but hidden behind a tapestry on the second floor she found enough privacy to muffle her laughter into her sleeve.

Lady Sansa was a good actress, but when Jon Snow said he’d be her sworn shield, she’d looked exactly like she had when she’d lied to her mother for Cara. If she hadn’t planned it with him before, Cara would eat the copper pot in front of her.

Good for you, she thought. Everyone knew that highborn ladies weren’t safe from their husbands if they turned out violent. Bruises were the lot of every woman, from the smallfolk to the queen. If Lady Sansa wished for a shield against that, a man to protect her from those fists, she deserved one, and Cara would never tell a single person that this whole thing had been contrived.

“Son,” Ned said, “you don’t have to do this.”

“I know,” Jon replied.

“You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into. Being a sworn shield’s a lifetime of responsibility. It’s far too long for you to swear yourself thus.”

Jon remembered Sansa’s long, pale fingers and the way she let her shoulders slump when Jon or Robb entered a room. He remembered the way she held a sword, her expression: almost savage, the untempered fury almost frightening. He remembered what she had told him, once- the Kingsguard beat me.

“I know exactly what I’m getting into,” he told his father, firmly. Firmly enough to startle both of them. “I was thinking of taking the black. What’s the difference? There I swear my vows to a heart tree, here I swear to my sister. I know which one I’d rather do, Father.”

“Jon,” he said. “Jon. It’s not so simple as that. She had no right to ask it of you, and-”

“And we’ve already had this conversation!” Jon tried to stop talking. All that happened was that he got angrier. “After breakfast, yesterday, she told me that if I wanted to walk away she wouldn’t hold it against me. She told me that she didn’t want to be responsible for any unhappiness on my part. I’ve spoken to her, Father, and we’ve decided that I’ll swear my vows within the moon’s turn.”

Sansa had said it. She’d said it before, and she’d said it after. This whole thing’d begun because she’d not wanted him to become part of the Night’s Watch. When he’d asked what else he ought to do, she’d recommended becoming her sworn shield. Robb had supported it. And then it had become a question of how, rather than should, and- well- the gist was that Sansa hadn’t pushed him into anything. It was his decision, and all three of them knew it.

“If you’re fixed on this, I won’t turn you from it,” Ned said quietly, after a long pause. “But it will be a long and lonely life, Jon. One that I wouldn’t wish on you.”

“I will be beside my sister,” Jon replied. “I will be beside my family. There is no one else I’d rather be with.”

Silence stretched between them, uncomfortable and awkward. Jon’s father was unhappy, and Lady Catelyn was likely even more unhappy, and he guessed that Arya might be the angriest of all. But hopefully they’d get over it soon, because Jon knew he’d not be backing down, not from this.

“Is that all, Father?” He asked, as courteous as he could without appearing disrespectful.

He nodded, sighing, and Jon took his leave.

There were things he needed to plan. Things they needed to plan. All three of them. Sansa had told them of things that they’d tested, quietly. It was true. How else could she have known the name of the Targaryen surviving across the Narrow Sea? How else could she have described the look of Castle Black, or the inheritance cultures of the Dornish, or the gold sheen of Tyrell-roses?

Jon hadn’t believed in the beginning, but now he was sure that Sansa was telling the truth, and he was even more frightened for what would come: she predicted death, for all of them.

He left the solar with quick, sharp movements. Sansa caught up to him soon enough, smile curling over her lips like a sunrise.

“What did he say?”

“That I didn’t have to do this,” he replied.

Sansa stopped, hand catching his elbow and forcing him to stop as well. “You don’t, you know that?” She asked lowly. “You don’t. I don’t want you to feel badly about it later- swear yourself because you want to, nothing else.”

“I-” Jon closed his eyes for a heartbeat, and remembered that Sansa had, once, confessed to nightmares- where she watched her father’s head drip blood, or Robb’s neck cut open, or Rickon’s pale, bloodied lips as he was interred. Sometimes I can’t sleep, she’d told Jon, and Jon could hear what she didn’t say: I’m too weak.

Fear does not mean that we are not brave.

“I am afraid,” he said plainly. “I am afraid of what this means. I am afraid of what is yet to come. I am afraid, because you are the strongest person I know, and you feel yourself not strong enough. But I am not afraid of swearing my sword and being shield to you, Sansa.”

She had gone pale at his words, eyes shining and face as still as stone. When he finished, she flushed a bright red, looking startled and achingly vulnerable across the smooth planes of her face.

“Thank you,” she whispered. “Thank you, Jon, you don’t know how much it means to hear that. I- I- am trying. But I’m not that strong, you know; just lucky. The only reason I survived was because nobody thought I was worth anything.”

“And now you’re here,” he told her. “You’re here, and you’re alive, and you’ve me and Robb and the entire family behind you. They didn’t break you, Sansa, and that’s something I don’t think anyone else could’ve survived.”

She sighed, but her lips were still curved upwards. Sansa didn’t believe him; but they had time. He would show her.

Jon knelt against the earth, head held high and proud.

“I will shield your back and wield my sword in your defense,” he said. “I swear to act in such a manner that brings only honor to you and yours. I pledge my life to you, for you. My sword is yours, Lady Sansa of the House Stark, from this day until my last day. I swear it by the old gods and the new.”

Sansa breathed deep. Her hands were trembling, slightly, and she could feel something hovering just out of reach, something heavy and weighted and warm-

“I vow that you shall always have a place at my table and in my home,” she said, and her eyes did not move from Jon’s pale grey ones, not an inch. “And that I shall ask no service of you that may bring you dishonor. I accept your oath, Ser Jon of House Stark. I swear it by the old gods and the new.”

Jon bowed his head, and she allowed herself to smile, faint and flickering, and knelt to place her hands beneath his elbows, lifting him to his feet.

“As my sworn shield, there is little protection you can offer with a wooden sword,” she said, and Jon’s head snapped to hers. The sudden hope written across his face made her smile again, sharp and true. A wolf’s smile. Sansa took the wrapped package that lay hidden behind the tree and handed it to Jon, carefully.

He opened it, and she could see the awe in his face as he lifted the sword that she had commissioned a few days before. The blade was blue-white, the steel sharp and honed, the pommel a wolf with jaws open and snarling.

“Thank you,” he said, eyes flicking up to meet hers.

Sansa nodded and stepped away, guiding him forwards- it was Robb who stepped forwards first to congratulate them, and the others followed slowly. When her father wrapped her in his arms, all warm cloth and heavy muscle, she pressed her face to his shoulder and stifled a little shudder.

Later that night, Jon snuck into her chambers with lemon cakes and Robb followed with wine. Sansa ate and drank and laughed and laughed and laughed, until her stomach felt swollen and her head light from lack of air. Everything spun hazily.

This was what she’d sought, she realized suddenly: this was what had fluttered in the godswood as Jon swore to her, this camaraderie, this safety she had almost forgotten.

(In her old life, she had loved Robb best, but he hadn’t done the same. Arya and Bran and Rickon were either too young or too different, and Sansa had never been good friends with Jon. The only people she’d had were inconstant, not bloodless brothers as her siblings boasted-

Sansa had never been loved less, she knew; but she had been lonely. And she wasn’t, in this life, and she never would be.

It was a heady feeling.)

This is war, Sansa thought, and held a sword and stood tall in the sunset leaves of the weirwood tree. This is a war, and this is a game, and I will gamble and I will steal all your lives from the jaws of death.

There is no room for weakness in me.