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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.

Chapter Text

 Jon sighed. “Is this really necessary, Sansa?”

Sansa shot him a quelling look over her shoulder. “Yes,” she said. “If you find it so painful, you can leave, Jon; I’ve Lady to keep me safe. And the godswood isn’t terribly dangerous either.”

“That’s not what I meant-”

“All I’m doing is dying my hair.” Sansa rolled her eyes. “Nothing painful, nothing terrifyingly difficult.”

“I still don’t get why.”

“People will remember this color,” she said impatiently- which, Jon thought, was justified. He had been whining, and she might very well have explained this before, while he didn’t pay attention. “And the Lannisters mustn’t find anything about me to remember. It isn’t so bad.”

“What does Robb think?” Jon asked.

The cold anger on Sansa’s face when she heard that almost made him flinch.

Robb isn’t my keeper,” she told him, icily formal. “And I’ll thank you not to act like I’m simply a puppet. Now stay if you can be quiet, or go back to Winterfell.”

Jon sighed again and slumped against the weirwood trunk, feeling the rough bark scrape against his back.

“I like your hair as it is,” he told her.

“That’s the point.” Sansa rolled her eyes, plucking the skinful of walnut shell filtrate from its position beside her. “I cannot be beautiful when they come, and I cannot dye my hair the night before if anyone is to believe me, so I will do it now.” After a moment, her eyes softened. “I don’t mean it other than that, Jon. This isn’t anywhere near as painful as things we’ll have to do soon.”

“You won’t be doing anything painful!” Jon sat up straight, back stiff and angry. “Not a single thing, Sansa. This isn’t your dream-world, I’m here, and you will be safe beside me, do you hear me?”

She didn’t look so dubious as she had years ago, but Sansa’s eyes did narrow, slightly, irritably.

“Again, not the point.”

“And what is the bloody point?”

“That I’m doing this and you can’t stop me. So either be quiet, Jon, or go back to Winterfell. I’m sure Arya will want to spar with you if you’ve the time.”

It was Jon’s turn to roll his eyes- over the years, Arya’s resentment of Sansa’s claim on Jon’s time had grown, and she had grown more and more impatient of Jon so much as looking at Sansa. Thankfully enough, Sansa hadn’t done much more than laugh when she heard; though she refrained from teasing Arya about jealousy, she hadn’t offered any of that courtesy to Jon.

Robb, as usual, found the whole thing hilarious.

The afternoon sun warmed Jon’s chest as he napped. Sansa woke him when she was finished and they headed back to Winterfell.

When she saw his suspicious looks at her hair- which was still bright red, if only a little darker than before- Sansa sighed.

“It’ll take time to darken.”

Jon looked at her, and then reached out and tugged a curl that had escaped her single braid. “I can wait,” he told her, and knew affection suffused his voice.

“You’ll have to,” Sansa replied tartly, but her face softened.

“We’ve time,” he said instead of the thousand other things crowding his tongue. “Don’t silence yourself before you must, Sansa, I couldn’t bear it if you-” Jon paused, feeling heat rush to his face along with the old, old urge to protect.

She sighed, then, looking simultaneously impatient and fond.

“I don’t want to,” she said. “I like my hair, and I like to talk, and I don’t want to let it go. But there are things that, if we don’t do, can kill us. And seeing any of you die will kill me, so I will do what has to be done, I will cut my hair off if necessary, I will learn how to kill a man, I will do a hundred other things I don’t want to do because the alternative is a nightmare.”

Her words had started off calm enough, but by the end she was flushed and, while not shouting, her words were emphatic and as beesting-sharp as with Arya, all those years back before he knew what she knew and admired her for it. Under the too-bright afternoon haze Jon thought he could see the woman she would become, all fierce and kind and beautiful; determinedly, heartbreakingly strong.

“And,” he said, willing her to look at him, willing her to see the promise in his eyes, the truth, “I swear to you that I will be there beside you.”

The King’s retinue came in a long, winding line, just as Sansa remembered.

Her heart pounded in her chest, and she felt a strange mixture of fear and anger. Her hands were unclenched, though, and when King Robert Baratheon stepped forwards, reeking of wine and horsesweat, Sansa did not let a single one of her muscles tighten, did not allow a single ounce of her rage and grief and defiance show.

“Your Majesty,” she said, dipping into a low curtsy.

When she rose, the king smiled at her, said, “You’re a pretty one,” and moved on; a moment later Cersei Lannister stepped out of a carriage, and what had seemed manageable with the king appeared an insurmountable task against her, the queen, the woman who watched as Ned Stark died, the woman who made Sansa’s life a living hell-

Sansa curtsied once more, but couldn’t find words to speak. Her eyes were trained on the ground, and she saw the queen’s skirts come closer- her fingers tightened on her skirts almost involuntarily- but Sansa held her position, and Cersei moved on without pause. She unfolded out of her curtsy, just in time to see Joffrey step forwards.

The world went white for a moment, for a heartbeat.

It reassembled almost instantly, and she managed to pull up a tremulous smile for him- when Joffrey smiled- smiled!- at her with a sorry twitch of his wormy lips, she felt a sudden, abrupt movement from Robb; instinctively, she wrapped her hand around his upper arm.

Just in time, too- had she been a half-second later, Robb might have actually leapt at him, and that would have been a- well, disaster wasn’t the right word; something far worse than a disaster.

“Robb,” she bit out. His muscles flexed under her hand, but she didn’t let go; only tightened her grip until he hissed in pain. They had moments before they’d be noticed, moments before everyone started wondering what was wrong with the Heir-

“Calm down, please, please just calm down-”

It wasn’t Sansa who stopped him in the end. Jon shifted, just enough for both of them to be aware of the rasp of his scabbard against his leg, and that seemed to jolt Robb back to reality. The idea that, if he attacked the crown prince of Westeros, Jon would follow without hesitation- though it be death for them both.

The rest of the greetings passed quickly enough, though it was through a milky haze of both rage and hurt. Sansa felt alternately numb and raw, her cheeks flushed against her furs and her fingers twitching for the uncomfortable weight of a sword.

They dispersed once the last of the people had passed through with strict instructions to be ready for the feast during supper. Sansa waited just long enough for the majority of people to leave, just long enough to find a modicum of privacy for the three of them, before unleashing her wrath.

Robb had fucked up.

He knew this. Jon knew this, too, but he was too aware of his bastardy to upbraid Robb as he deserved.

Sansa, who had a tongue sharper than any sword when needed and no reason to temper it, was the one who actually snapped at him- in the eaves between the stables, face just a few shades lighter than her hair.

“What was that?”

“A mistake,” Robb replied, bowing his head. “I’m sorry, Sansa-”

“No,” she snapped. “No, no, no. You don’t get to make mistakes like that, Robb, gods damn you! If Jon hadn’t been there, what do you think might have happened? You’re even luckier that Grey Wind wasn’t there, because he would have taken Joffrey’s throat, damn all the consequences. We have to be more patient than them, we have to do better than them, we have to survive, and you cannot kill all of us because you fall into some protective rage!”

“Why don’t we all just-” Jon actually stumbled back a half-step when Sansa turned on him, eyes flashing.

“And you,” she said cuttingly. “What did you think you were doing? What, did you think that if Robb actually went into battle you’d follow him? That if he died, you’d die too?”

Both of them had seen Sansa angry, sometimes painfully so- but never to this extent.

This isn’t anger, Robb thought, piecing the truth together slowly. This is betrayal.

“That’s not what I-”

“No, because you didn’t think. Neither of you used a single part of your brain, and the only reason nothing happened was luck.” She drew herself up, eyes cold and empty as Robb had seen only once before, when she first ran into his rooms in the night, weeping and choking on six deaths she couldn’t forget. It hurt his heart to see. “I have to go. Jon, keep Arya away from me tonight- I cannot handle her, not now. Robb, keep Bran beside you, and don’t let him leave your sight.”

Her eyes swept over them both, again, and then she left just as quickly, just as quietly as she’d dragged them there.

“She’s angry,” Robb said.

Jon didn’t answer, but his expression spoke volumes.

“You think that’s obvious?”

“A bit, yeah,” Jon retorted. “I mean, I couldn’t tell from her shouting at both of us or looking as red as her hair or from the fact that she’s basically ensured we don’t spend any time with her for the entire feast, but, yes, tell me your insights, Robb, please.”

Robb exhaled sharply and rested his weight against the wooden eave. “Don’t get short. It doesn’t suit you.”

Robb-”

“We’ll do what she says, because we messed up,” Robb interrupted. “And we’ll apologize until we’re blue in the face. But you need to know why she’s so angry, and it’s because-”

“-she thinks I chose you over her,” Jon finished, looking suddenly weary.

“Because she’s terrified of being alone,” he corrected. “Though that’s a part of it, too.”

After a pause, Jon levered himself to his feet, mouth pursed in distaste. “Gods, this’s tiring. How much longer do we have to do this?”

Robb gave a short, humorless laugh. “The rest of our lives, according to Sansa. Personally, I’m hoping to calm things down in ten years.”

“If the gods smile down on us ten different ways and we get lucky a hundred other,” Jon replied wryly. “And even then it’s a maybe.”

“We’re too young for this,” said Robb.

“Maybe,” Jon murmured, “but we’re the only ones for this, too.”

Gods save us.

Jon nodded, looking lost in his own thoughts, and left; Robb followed him out after some time.

Robb had messed up, and now he’d pay the price for it gladly, to Sansa, to Jon, to anyone they deemed necessary- they were family, they worked together, and no damned Lannister would ever be able to come between them.

In the cool wind of the courtyard, more horses and men ran about than any in recent history. Robb breathed in, breathed out, lifted his chin high, and let the full weight of being heir fall on his shoulders once more.

“I’ve a son,” said Robert, “and you’ve a daughter, Ned- a beautiful one, at that. Pity her hair’s so North-dark, it’d have been better if she had Catelyn’s hair, but any man will want her once she’s flowered.”

“Robert,” Ned said, and meant it as a protest- the friend he’d once had might not have balked at saying such things about girls, but young-Robert would never have dreamt of speaking of Ned’s daughter in such blunt terms. But this Robert Baratheon was king for over a decade, and fat with indulgence and whores- Ned’s protests would go unheard if he wasn’t just as blunt as Robert.

“I mean it,” Robert said. “Think on it. Joffrey’s young, yet, and you can stay in King’s Landing while they’re married. It’s a good idea, Ned, joining our two houses.”

Ned sighed. “I’ll- talk to her, Robert. I’ll need some time, though, you can’t just tell me this the night before.”

“You want to keep her in Winterfell?” Robert boomed. “This castle will freeze her to her bones. Gods, Ned, I’m still shivering! I knew there was a reason I didn’t come north.”

There would have been a time earlier in the day when Ned might have taken offence. Now, he was moving past that and straight into a tired irritation that seemed to be the only response he could have for his oldest friend.

“We’ll see,” he offered, and that was that.

When her father asked her if she wished to marry Joffrey, Sansa didn’t hesitate to say that, whomever he wished to betroth her to, she refused to marry until she turned eighteen.

“Mother was that age when she married you,” she told him firmly. “I wish to be no younger when I do the same.”

“...very well,” he said, and though Sansa could see that he was surprised, he did accept it.

For the rest of her life, they never spoke of it.

Sansa avoided Jon and Robb for a week by keeping her head down and disappearing into the shadowed corridors that were yet to be furnished. Her head ached, when she remembered that all-encompassing rage, but her heart ached even worse- all she wanted was to move on, but not at the cost of making the same mistake again.

If Robb decided that he hated Joffrey and was going to kill him, he would die. If he sunk into the same old rage, Sansa would be forced to watch him die under a Kingsguard’s sword; and then Sansa would die just as surely as Robb would.

So she kept her distance. She wasn’t ready to confront them, either of them. Neither was she ready to confront her emotions. If she allowed herself to indulge in the fear swirling beneath her breastbone, she would drown, and she was only just treading water.

I am a Tully and a Stark, she wanted to say; the river is in me. The North runs in my veins. I will freeze before I drown, and I will live before the water swallows me, and you cannot stop me.

It was a week later that Robb finally caught her in the godswood. His eyes looked older than ever before; there was repentance along the slump of his shoulders and an apology written across the clench of his hands. Sansa closed her eyes, thought, we do not turn our heads, and stepped forwards to tell him why she was angry- Sansa stepped forwards and raised her chin and decided, as steady as a storm-ridden weirwood tree, to forgive him.

Bran did not fall, this time.

Sansa had told Robb what happened: Jaime Lannister lay with his sister in the Tower, and Bran climbed it and saw them, and then the Kingslayer pushed Bran out of the window.

Bran was crippled, ever after. Sansa didn’t know anything beyond that, because she left before Bran awoke- only that there was an assassin that spouted Lannister names and a bitter, cold thing in her brother’s heart for being a cripple ever after.

Robb kept Bran beside him. Sansa’d never seen either of them so exasperated with each other; usually Robb lived and let live- he didn’t interfere so much in small, regular affairs. That he was being so strict with Bran was something difficult for him to do, as well as for Bran to accept.

Sansa laughed when she saw their faces- despite being so different in coloring, both Robb and Bran managed to wear identical expressions of grumpiness.

“You’re finding this hilarious,” Robb accused as he escorted her back to her chambers from yet another feast. Bran was asleep, as was Rickon; there was no one in the hallways and both took advantage of it the privacy.

“Of course,” Sansa replied. “I’ve to take my amusement from somewhere, right? We’ll have little enough to laugh about soon.”

“Must you bring that up?” He asked sharply, all levity gone from his face.

Sansa would have sighed if she wanted a fight. Robb was old beyond his years, and she sometimes felt she took advantage of that- who else could have borne the news of his own impending death, of his family’s impending demise, with something approaching equanimity? Adults would have found it difficult, and Robb had been only twelve.

But she needed help, and Robb was the best one for it. It didn’t surprise her that he didn’t like to be reminded of her departure from Winterfell; soon enough he’d have little ability to comfort her and even less to protect her. And if there was one thing Robb hated, it was feeling helpless.

“It’s the truth,” she said, and then pressed a light hand to his jaw. “But no; ‘twas a twist of my tongue. Let’s not fight, Robb, not tonight.” Sansa stepped back and grinned, suddenly, wickedly. “I’d much rather talk about the Lannister handmaid you were talking to yesterday- discovered a new love of lions?”

“It was just talking -” Robb protested.

Sansa arched an eyebrow, and he shoved her shoulder- she let herself move with the rough motion and laughed, when he caught her before her shoulder was bruised by the wall.

“I’m sure it was, brother.”

“It was! Gods, you’re even worse than Bran, at least he knows when to keep his mouth shut-!”

Sansa ducked her head and laughed, again, a warmth pooling in her chest as if she’d drunk sweetened wine. She would miss this, when she left; she would feel each mile’s distance like a punch to the gut.

If I miss this, she thought hand wrapped around Robb’s arm, head cushioned against his chest, knowing Jon to be there in another hour or so, sword sheathed and grimly watchful- No. I will miss this, but it will not be weakness.

This love, oh gods above: this love shall be my strength.

They headed out on a cloudless day, and Jon felt like he might get sick from the pit in his belly.

Sansa flashed smiles to Lady Catelyn and Bran and Rickon, bright and half-wild, as if she wanted to slice the world apart with its edge. When she turned to Robb, though, her face softened; the look in her eyes was unspeakably fond, and she pressed a hand to his cheek, before rising to her toes and whispering something in his ear.

The night before, Robb had slipped into Jon’s rooms. He’d stared at him, and then sank to his knees in front of Jon’s bed.

Be safe, he’d ordered. Promise me, Jon. I couldn’t bear it if you died, if Sansa died. You are coming back, and you are coming back whole, and I will never forgive you if you don’t. Swear it, on all the gods we know. Swear it!

Jon had gripped Robb’s shoulders, had dragged Robb closer and then hung on with all the strength he had.

I promise on my honor, he’d whispered. I swear to come back, on everything I love, everything I have and want. I promise, I swear it. To all the gods, all the demons, every damned Stark that came before us and all that will come after. We’ll come back, Robb.

Cersei had never before met a girl so blatantly cowardly.

Sansa Stark squeaked in the presence of every last member of the royal family- she went white no matter how gentle any of them were. The only times Cersei had bothered to speak to her, she’d looked like she might faint.

Joffrey found her disinteresting. Robert had wanted to betroth the two, apparently- but Ned Stark had served some use in his life and decided to decline the offer. Cersei had watched their interactions carefully, and it seemed that the Stark girl was just as quiet and retiring when asked to speak to any Lannister- be it Myrcella who was a gentle girl herself, or Tommen, who was the softest of them all.

The other Stark girl was an idiot. Playing at swords with her brother might have been acceptable in the North- backwards hovel that it was- but it would have to change in King’s Landing. She spent far too much time with her bastard brother.

Let Sansa Stark try to marry into our family, Cersei thought. We will eat her alive, and send the bones back to Winterfell for her brothers to weep over.

Lady did not die.

Sansa made sure of it- with Jon tempering the worst of Arya’s behavior, and Ghost there to soothe the harshest edges of Nymeria’s temper, there was little occasion for Joffrey to go after them, and even less for Nymeria to attack him.

And so, Lady survived; the Starks brought direwolves to King’s Landing, and Sansa took solace in Lady’s heavy, breathing warmth when she thought she might go mad from fear.

...

One night, Sansa awoke from a nightmare, trembling like a newborn colt.

She drew her robe over her nightrail and moved into her outer chambers, knocking on one of the doors to admit Jon, who stood guard outside.

Curled in front of the fire, hours later, she confessed, “I- cannot stop dreaming. Whenever I close my eyes I see them kill Father. Whenever I open them I’m in a nightmare. I want to go home, to Winterfell, you know what we stand to lose? Oh, I should never have-”

“Sansa,” Jon murmured, cutting her increasingly hysterical wonderings off, “ Sansa. You’ve done the best you can, sweetling. You think if you’d just thrown a big enough tantrum Father would’ve stayed back? We couldn’t stay home, none of us; but we’re going to do the best we can now. And you’ll see Winterfell again, I swear to you.”

Sansa dreamt that she walked the shadowed, moonlit corridor of the Red Keep. Her ears were sharper than ever before; what might have only looked like black shadows if she were to walk there herself had a thousand different, glittering shades in it.

She heard a voice, low and rasping: “Ned Stark came to King’s Landing because Jon Arryn died. He’s looking into the death of his mentor, and if you aren’t careful he’ll find out what Arryn knew. Distract him, or find something to distract him with- we can little afford civil war right now.”

“The lions will destroy the wolves, and then the dragons will come,” replied another voice, strangely familiar. “We’ve nothing to worry over.”

“Nothing to worry over? Varys-”

“If it worries you so, bring the Targaryens across the Narrow Sea sooner. You are responsible for them, not I.”

And Varys, bald pate gleaming in the dim light, left.

Sansa awoke, panting. There had been something there, in the curve of her vision: a flash of white hair, a flicker of pale-bone claws. She had not been dreaming; it had been too real for a dream. Too different.

But she knew what that white hair belonged to. Sansa had brushed it, had washed it, had wept into it. Lady’s fur was as familiar to her as her own hair.

I wasn’t with her. I was in her.

Old Nan’s tales flicked through her head, all coming down to one word: warg.

Monster, they might have named her, the men of the North, if they’d known. Monster, death-dealer; luckless daughter of the unholy union of south and north-

The North remembers. We are the children of the First Men. We are a part of the land, and the land is a part of us. How many have said that Father has ice in his veins? How many of our ancestors named themselves wolves?

Sansa’s hands were trembling, faintly. In another time, in another world, she had watched Lady die and something had died within her as well- something that she had never recovered, even as the rest of her family crumbled away.

There is a reason our house sigil is a direwolf.

“Gods above,” she swore under her breath, and then yanked herself out of bed, still shaking.

This… changed everything. Lady was her, and she was Lady, and- oh, gods, had Rickon screamed when Ramsay killed Shaggydog? He must have loved that black direwolf so much, spent so much time with him; how he must have wept when he was killed-

Sansa sank to her knees in front of the fire, chilled to the bone, and she wept, for poor, dead Rickon that she’d buried with barely shaking hands, so used to the loss; for her parents, who never even got a burial; for Lady, who had died for no reason than innocence; but above all for herself, who watched all this happen and remained, alive no matter how she wished she weren’t.

It had been so long since she remembered the old scars. So long since she last mourned. It had felt ridiculous to do so in Winterfell, where her family lived and loved and burned, so brightly- but in King’s Landing, in the place where she’d been prisoner for so long, it felt right and good.

I’m sorry, she thought, and allowed the tears to fall as they might. I am so, so sorry. I was foolish, I was weak, I know; I watched you die, and I’ll never forget it.

I am sorry-!

Ned Stark is looking into the death of Jon Arryn. Make sure he finds nothing.

The letter was not signed.

Jaime held the parchment to the candle by his bed, and knew only one person in King’s Landing who curled her letters in that fashion. There was no hesitation when he strapped the sword to his side and followed Ned Stark out of the Red Keep.

News came, that morning, of a battle between their father and Jaime Lannister- Jon heard little of it, only that Lord Stark’d been visiting a section of the city that needed repair; Jaime Lannister attacked him with a number of his guards; Jory Cassel and his men were dead.

Nobody seemed ready to say how.

But then came the news that his father had been injured, and Jon raced through the castle to find him- when he arrived at his bedside, he saw a pale Arya sitting beside him, clutching onto his hand tightly.

“Arya,” he said, stepping forwards.

She turned to meet his gaze. “Jon,” she greeted, and sounded so empty, so young- Jon nearly cried. “You heard?”

“Did the maesters see to him?”

“Yes,” she whispered. “They say he’ll live.” Arya’s hands tightened into fists, knuckles stark white against her skin. “But nobody’s saying why he’s here! Jory’s dead! It was Lannister guards who brought Father back, and nobody’s saying a single damn word why he’s like this!”

“I don’t-” Jon felt his fingers flex, helplessly, against the hilt of his sword. “Where’s Sansa?”

“She saw Father here, and ran away,” Arya spat. “I can’t stand to see her. How does someone like her belong to the North? Father’s here, Father’s hurt, what does she have to do that’s so important?”

“Don’t talk about her like that,” Jon said quietly. “She might not have your bravery, Arya, or your strength. But-”

“-she’s nice?” Arya asked mockingly. “She’s pretty?” She spat the word as if it was a curse. “I don’t care. I don’t care. At least I don’t walk away from my father when he might never walk again.”

Jon sighed, and turned away. There was no use talking to Arya when she got in these moods- instead, he left the sickroom and walked to Sansa’s rooms down the hall. When he opened the door, he heard the quiet, stifled sound of sobs.

Chills prickled down his spine.

He rushed forwards, and found Sansa in her bedchamber, curled on the far side against the floor, shaking enough for his belly to swoop uneasily. She didn’t even look up to see him.

“Sansa?” He asked slowly, unease tightening his chest.

She looked up. Her blue eyes were filled with tears, and there was such aching heartbreak written across the planes of her face that Jon found himself wrapping his arms around her, tight and close, so that he no longer had to see it.

“I did this,” she said, voice small and thin. Jon felt himself stiffen reflexively before forcing himself to relax, a little. “I did this, Jon. I-”

“Did you swing the sword?” He asked. Sansa didn’t answer, and he went on: “Did you tell the Lannisters to go after Father?”

“I should have told him not to-” Sansa’s voice broke, and Jon felt like his heart might fracture with it. “I know what he’s looking for. I could’ve saved Jory. I could’ve saved the guards. This is my fault. Their blood is on my hands-”

Jon tightened his hands, until he thought he might be able to sink inside Sansa, slip under her skin and become one with her heart, her blood, her lungs.

“Their blood,” he whispered fiercely, “is on the hands of Jaime Lannister. You didn’t kill him, you didn’t hurt Father. Chin up, Sansa. We are the wolves of the North, and we will survive.”

“Survive?” She asked, sounding on the verge of hysterics. “Survive? Jon, I- they killed Jory! Jory, who gave me sweets that time on the road, do you even remember that? He was a good man, he was a kind man, and Jaime Lannister killed him because he got in the way. He did this last time, too, you know? And I just- I just didn’t remember.” Her voice dried up, and then she said, softly, “I just didn’t remember.”

Jon could do a lot. But this was a grief Sansa had to work through on her own. This was something he could not forgive, because it wasn’t his to forgive- these were Sansa’s demons, the things she had never known to fear, the things that were etched into the lining of her muscles and the insides of her bones.

And so he held her, allowed her that small comfort- Sansa might fall apart, might crack open, but he would be there beside her to pick up the pieces. He’d be there, wherever she wanted him.

...

Sansa wept when her father woke. She wept, and she wept, and she laughed, too: relief curled under her breastbone. I resigned from the position of Hand, he told them, and she felt almost light-headed with giddiness- they were going home, to Winterfell, to freedom.

But then the King came.

And then, they were staying; and then, they were dying.

It was a warm day when Jon’s world ended.

He stood watch in front of Sansa’s chambers as usual. Everything was calm, and the corridors were empty as he’d expected. Sansa had gone for her normal morning walk with her Septa around the courtyard.

A moment later, he heard footsteps- rushed but light; quick, and fleet.

Sansa turned the corner and almost rammed into him. Her face was flushed a deep red, her hair sticking to her temples and scalp with sweat. But underneath the flush her skin was pale, and her eyes were over-wide and fearful.

“Sansa-” he began.

She interrupted him, speaking rapidly through her heaving breaths. “Oh, Jon- it’s- everything- take-” A pause, and she breathed deep through her nose before spitting out words as fast as she could: “Listen to me, Jon. Go. There’s- everything’s changed. Everything has- everything has- oh, damn it!” She turned away, and then back, and he saw that the pallor across her skin was as much fear as it was a caged, terrifying need to do something.

“You have to go,” she said, and stepped forwards, so close that he could smell the faint lavender scent she used. His heart started to pound hard, as well. “You have to leave. Find Arya, take Nymeria and Ghost and- and- Lady- take them, find a horse, go. Go to Winterfell, and don’t you dare turn back.”

“I- what?” Jon asked sharply. “What the fuck- Sansa-”

“You’re going. I can’t. Father- someone has to stay. There’s no time. Find Arya, Jon, keep her safe, and go home. Tell-” Sansa’s hands tightened on his, nails digging scarlet half-moons into the backs of his palms. “Tell Robb I love him, and that I trust him to do what’s best. Tell Bran I want him to have adventures. Tell Rickon that I’m sorry I didn’t see him grow- tell Mother I miss her, okay? I love her, and I miss her. Please, Jon, just remember that I will always, always love you. If I don’t make it-”

He choked. “I’m not going anywhere, I’m your sworn shield, what’s going on-”

“You’re not dying for me!” She shrilled. “I couldn’t bear it! You’re leaving, right now, with Arya and the direwolves.” Slowly, Sansa inhaled and exhaled, regaining some composure. “You’re going. Please, I beg you: go home.”

Jon looked at her, long and steady, and slowly nodded. Something seemed to crack away in her expression when he did- relief? Worry? Grief?- and then she suddenly leapt forwards, arms wrapping tight around him and clutching him.

“Stay alive,” she ordered, and Jon remembered Robb’s demand the night before they left Winterfell, could see the things that made Robb and Sansa siblings, all the warmth and love and vicious, unflagging desire to protect, that made them who they were. That he loved and hated of them, in equal measure.

“I swear it,” he said, and pressed a firm kiss to her hair. “Now, you promise me: you survive, too. Don’t let them break you.”

Sansa pulled back. For a moment, steel flashed across her eyes, and he could almost see the wolf inside her, the blue-eyed killer, the ice-veined princess who survived what nobody else could have.

“They won’t.”

It was a promise, it was a vow. It was as close as she could get to one. Jon pressed his forehead to the juncture of her neck and shoulder, and then pulled away.

“Chin up,” he ordered, and saw the way her tears and grief passed behind a mask as coldly beautiful as any sword.

Survive, he thought, and knew it not to be an order or a wish but a prayer- to everyone and everything and anyone and anything listening. Let her survive, I beg of you, let Sansa survive.

They threw Sansa’s father into the black cells.

Sansa swallowed her bile and her grief, her fear and her rage. She draped herself in southron silks, doing the laces up without a maid- she’d gotten used to it, in the Eyrie and then in the North; there had been many days when she hadn’t had anyone to serve her in King’s Landing as well, so it seemed like a strange sort of remembrance to do it over again, this small, quiet form of independence.

Cersei told her to write a letter to Robb.

“I- I cannot-” she began, only to see the cold, snake-like disdain in Cersei’s eyes.

Last time, there had been jealousy there. There had been rage and hate, and Sansa had managed to weather it through chance and luck. Now, she’d hidden behind shields of fear and useless frippery. She hadn’t expressed opinions or desires for months, had curled away and let old revulsion and fear well up in the place of stiff masks- in this world, Cersei Lannister did not fear Sansa Stark. In this world, all Cersei saw when she saw Sansa was the meek, retiring daughter of Ned Stark.

There was no hatred there, now- only contempt, and harsh dismissal.

You will regret that, Sansa promised, and reached for a quill.

A day later, or a week later- time seemed to have lost meaning here- she wrapped herself up in the brightest silks she had. Sansa powdered her face heavily enough that they wouldn’t be able to see the dark shadows under her eyes; she hadn’t slept in ages, and it showed in the pale arcs of her cheekbones, the hollows around her collarbone.

They mustn’t suspect that she knew anything. The Lannisters must not ever even think of her as anything more than a shy, retiring girl. She could not afford for them to see the steel underneath her silks, and so she powdered her face and her arms and let that be another in a long line of masks.

In the months she’d spent in King’s Landing, Sansa had avoided the Iron Throne almost entirely- she had no desire to be in the same room where she’d been beaten, where Joffrey had shamed her and terrified her. But now she had no choice.

And she was smarter now; she was harder and colder. Sansa knew not to ask for things that wouldn’t give concrete results. She knew not to ask for things that were open-ended: mercy, leniency, kindness. No, she knew what to say, and perhaps more importantly, she knew how to say it.

Her heart pounded in her chest, but she felt something dig deep inside of her, firm against her fears. Slowly, she entered the throne room. Joffrey reclined on his throne, and Cersei stood beside him, pale-haired, twisted mirrors of each other. Sansa felt her hands twitch, her cheeks pale- but she did not allow herself to falter.

In front of the entire court, she swept into a curtsy that, she knew, was flawless.

“My King,” she began, voice high and tremulous. “I come here to beg of you for mercy.”

“For who? Your father?” Cersei asked contemptuously, before anyone else could speak. “For the man who proclaimed my son unfit for the throne? There is no room for mercy in our hearts for traitors, Lady Sansa.”

“I- do not know what he did, Your Grace.” Sansa bowed her head, let the court see her trembling shoulders and curved posture, let them all see that she was just a girl, nothing to fear- “I know not his crimes. But he is my father. And I- I do not know what he said to you, only that he was ill, that he is- that his leg still pains him.” She swallowed, hard, and lifted her head to meet Joffrey’s sickly blue eyes. “I beg for mercy, Your Grace: please, allow a maester to see to his leg. Allow him to rest in the rooms- under guard, if that is your desire. But I only wish that he does not die while being held prisoner.”

“Your father is a traitor!” Cersei snapped.

It was Varys who stepped forwards, and though she’d never thought to see kindness in his features, she thought there was pity in his eyes.

“But still the head of house Stark,” he commented. “He is still a head of a Great House. We treat such lords with lenience we do not offer smallfolk.”

“Please,” Sansa said. “Please, Your Grace, I beg of you-”

“Oh, very well.” Joffrey waved his hand dismissively. “Take him from the cells. But-” and here, his face grew hard and cruel; Sansa’s heart skipped a beat. “-we do not offer the services of maesters to traitors. If you wish someone to attend him, it will be yourself.” When Cersei turned on him angrily, he didn’t even spare her a look. “Of course, you’ll be under guard.”

“...thank you,” Sansa managed. She let tears pool in her eyes, and then she stepped back; let the people step forwards and shield her from Joffrey’s view.

Back in her rooms, she let herself weep into her hands: relief, and another, sharper fear was flooding her veins, and she didn’t know what to do next- all she wanted was to sleep, was to run with Jon and Arya; but that was impossible. They were gone, and were halfway to Winterfell, probably. She had nobody here to protect her, only someone to protect. Her father was injured. It had been her only reason for staying, to shield him and save him.

But what could a single girl do against a king? Against a woman vicious as a snake and twice as cruel?

We will endure, Sansa thought, and it was desperate. It was desolate. We will endure, as we always have.

When Sansa saw her father, she cried out in both pain and shock.

His leg had, indeed, been injured badly, and she could now see the swelling that she’d never noticed before- the Lannister guards had made him walk on his own two feet from the cells, and it must have pained him greatly, for he wasn’t even limping any longer, only shuffling, agonizingly slowly.

Sansa ran forwards through the guards, ignoring them, and drew his arm over her shoulder, letting him lean some of his weight on her. He gasped in relief, and she felt her chest ache with a sharp, sudden pain at it.

“Sansa,” he said, lowly, “Sansa, what have you done? What did you do?”

And she knew that she was crying, oh, gods: soundless, steady rivulets down her face. She opened her mouth to answer, but caught Cersei’s eyes- across the hallway, staring at them both with revulsion and disdain. If she said something, if she spilled anything, who knew what the consequences would be?

Sansa would not let her father be taken from her.

Not again.

“Let’s get to your rooms,” she told him through the tears. “Come on, Father; only another couple steps. There’s not even any stairs, you know?”

She kept up a steady litany of encouragements the whole rest of the way, instead of any assurances, instead of any information. The Lannisters had found some measure of kindness in them to offer a room that was, while not next to Sansa’s own, somewhat near- she had spent a full afternoon fixing it up with curtains and airing it out to make it more amenable as a sickroom. The Lannister guards, however, were unwilling to allow them to stay inside together; one of them stood inside while the others left.

Sansa refused to show how uncomfortable it made her to have someone watching while she tended to her father. An hour later, after she’d washed his knee and calf as well as she could, she found that it could, indeed, become worse: no normal Lannister guard watched over them, but the dead-eyed Ilyn Payne. She shivered, and then decided that she wouldn’t let herself be afraid of the dumb brute- her father needed her reassurance more than she needed to be completely silent in the presence of Lannisters.

“You ought to have taken better care,” she reproached him gently, wrapping bandages over his calf. “It’s going to take a long time to get better. Especially if you put more weight on it.”

Her father looked at her, and then dipped away. There was something so sad in his eyes, something she could not address while the guard was there- Sansa tied off the bandages and rose to her feet.

“I’m-” sorry, she was going to say, but thought better of it. Instead, she injected bright warmth into her voice and said, “You’ll be better soon, Father.”

Another week passed. Sansa fixed his bandages, applied special oils; she kept her head down and voice quiet. Some days, she sang, or read aloud. The guards were always attentive, at first, but when she only sang of Jonquil and Florian and old, dead heroes, they appeared to get bored and irritable.

Her father didn’t speak. For hours on end, it seemed; for days. He responded to her questions with short answers, and always looked so grief-stricken that she found herself impatient, irritable, and compassionate, by turns.

Finally, one day, he caught her hands when she went to smear rosemary oil over his leg- it didn’t achieve anything, really, but it was cheap to get and gave her an excuse to enter the sickroom once more- and he asked, hoarsely, “Arya? Jon?”

The guard stirred. Sansa didn’t give any indication of having heard him, turning away to wash the rag-cloth in the oil once more. Her father dropped her hands and slumped back against his pillows, and how it ached to see him retreating behind masks and walls once more-

Sansa settled back against the chair when everything was finished, and she began to sing an old Northern lullaby, a scrap of melody that Old Nan enjoyed and hummed whenever she was in the mood.

We cannot be found, it began, in the place of darkness. Let the skies come crumbling, we are safe-

Ned Stark turned to look at her, and she saw the hope flare in his eyes. Sansa could not say it more clearly, could not answer without cutting herself off from him, but she could give him what hope she had.

Slowly, Sansa inclined her head, answering his unspoken question.

He gave a great shudder and slumped against his pillows. Tension and mourning seeped out of his posture, until he looked almost boneless.

Oh, Father, thought Sansa, and brushed a hand to his elbow, before standing.

“I’ll see you after dinner,” she told him. “Mayhaps we can start walking soon!”

Jon was many things.

He was a brother, a son, a bastard; he was a dutiful man, and a kind one at that. These were things that he had been born- things that he had no choice in.

Of all the things he was, of all the choices he had ever made, of all the ways he had created himself- the biggest was becoming a sworn shield.

I will stay beside you, he’d said, and now he was in the Riverlands, and Sansa was in King’s Landing still.

Arya and he were making good time. In another week they’d cross the border between the Riverlands and the North. Jon was glad that she was safe, was so glad that Arya was under his protection, but he could only remember the flame-haired girl he’d left behind in a viper’s nest.

When they crossed the Twins, Jon made his decision. That night, he knelt in front of Arya and gripped her thin, bony wrist in his own.

“We’ll reach the Northern border soon,” he told her quietly. They’d camped closer than usual to the castle, and if they weren’t quiet would be found out soon. “You’re going to take Nymeria and Lady, Arya, and you’re going to go home. You remember how to get back to Winterfell, right?”

Arya’s silences had grown longer and longer on the road. The first night, when he’d dragged her out of the Red Keep and they’d raced away, she had wept and screamed. Now, almost a month later, she had become as quiet and shadowed as a ghost.

“And where will you be?”

“I- have to go back.” Jon paused. “Father’s still there, and so’s Sansa.”

“Go with Robb,” Arya said. She didn’t look up to meet his eyes, instead twirling Needle around her wrist gently. “Come back to Winterfell. We can return with an army, we can avenge Jory and all the others they’ve killed.”

“First we get them safe. First we get Father and Sansa out, and then- then- we make them bleed. But only after all of us are safe, do you understand? I have to save them. I’m the only one who will, you know that. I’m the only one who can.”

“Jon-” Arya said, and there was anger in her eyes, there was betrayal; but more than anything, there was fear.

“You’ll make it home,” said Jon. “You’ll be safe. Lady and Nymeria will protect you-”

“What can Lady do?” Arya asked derisively. “Choke someone with her ribbons? Blind someone with her shiny fur?”

He remembered bruises ringing his throat for a full fortnight, and how hard it’d been to hide the evidence of Lady viciousness from everyone, even with Robb and Sansa helping him. Jon’s lips twitched.

“You’d be surprised. Now. Keep your chin up, Arya, and Needle beside you. There should be enough food for the rest of the journey, so no need to go into towns. And- be safe. I’ll see you soon, I promise.”

She was young. It was so easy to forget that, but it was there in the way her shoulders slumped and she struggled to maintain a blank facade. It was so easy to forget that, but Arya had never liked coddling, so all Jon did was ruffle her hair and keep his eyes steady on hers.

“You can’t promise that,” she whispered, after they’d beaten down the fire and curled up to sleep.

Jon thought he might laugh, or that he might cry; he’d sworn so many promises, the question was no longer how to keep them all.

No; now it was which ones to keep.

“I’ll try my best,” he said, and Arya’s nails dug into the flesh of his wrist for a heartbeat before she turned away.

It wasn’t enough, his word; it never had been, and never would be.

But it was what he had. If it wasn’t enough, Jon would make it enough.

(It was what he’d done all his life, right?)

“If you can manage your leg like that tomorrow, we can try actually walking,” Sansa told her father.

It was late evening, almost night.

Sansa’s chest felt like it was full of sharp, splintered ice- Cersei had been telling her to send sharper and sharper letters to Robb, urging him to come to King’s Landing and swear allegiance. They would wait, Cersei told her, for the North-men to come down and then have the trial for Ned Stark.

But with ten letters sent and no proper response from Robb, Cersei was getting impatient. Joffrey had all but forgotten about them, to all appearances, but Cersei knew and feared Ned for good reason.

Another week, she’d told Sansa, just before she could go to change her father’s bandages. Another week with no response, and we’ll have the trial with or without your fur-laden brother to view.

She couldn’t communicate this to her father. Sansa had to keep up appearances, had to keep a firm mask and unflagging faith. She would survive this. Her father would survive this. They had to.

“Sleep well, Father,” she said, and stepped away, pulling her shoulders tight instead of shivering at the bloody gleam of Ilyn Payne’s armor.

In the hallways, back to her rooms, she moved quietly, quickly.

Inside her chambers, she’d just lit a candle to light the darkened room when she felt a hand steal over her mouth, another clamp over her wrist- Sansa panicked, and let her elbow bend with the attacker’s move, accelerating enough to slam against his breastbone. When he bent over, choking, she twisted out of his reach and drew the dagger hidden in her shoes. She held it lightly and waited for him to reveal his position.

But instead of a blind swipe or growl, the attacker lit a match.

The flame revealed a face that was painfully familiar.

“Jon?” She breathed. He offered her a faint smile, and she dropped the dagger; stepped forwards and hugged him, tight enough to make him grunt.

“What are you doing here?”

“Saving you.” He grinned, once, silverquick and just as soft. “Come on. If we hurry we can-”

“How did you even come here? What- I told you to- oh, gods, Arya!” Sansa felt horror flood her veins. “Where is she? How is she? Why aren’t you with her? Jon-”

“She’s fine.” Jon nodded to the dagger in the carpet. “You aren’t. I came back.”

“I told you to save her!”

“And I’m sworn to protect you.”

Sansa reeled back and slumped over the couch. After a moment, she gathered her wits enough to say, “If it were just me we might be able to do it. But Father- his leg’s still injured. We can’t go fast enough.”

Jon lit a candle on the table nearby, and then seated himself next to her; he shifted, so she had no choice but to look him in the eye.

“Don’t worry about that,” Jon replied. “But if you can figure out a way to get him out of the room he’s in I’d be interested.”

“I-” She flinched, inwards, and then hated herself for that bit of weakness.

It has to be me.

“I have to do it,” she said softly. Jon frowned, and Sansa pressed a cold hand to his. “You can’t, they’ll be wary of a strange man entering Father’s chambers. But I’ve been going in and out at all times. They won’t think anything of it.”

His frown deepened. “I don’t like it.”

Sansa breathed deep and let go of the acrid taste of helplessness.

“You don’t have to,” she said, archly; it felt good to have someone with whom she need not temper her tongue, someone who took her sharp words with both humor and seriousness as needed.

“I’m not just sitting here while you go and get Father,” Jon said lowly.

Sansa tilted her head slowly, thoughts whirling- and then, it came to her. The perfect answer.

“Ilyn Payne’s guarding Father’s sickroom. And he has Ice, did you know that? The Lannisters have Ice, that’s what I knew, but the sword’s actually in his chambers.” She leaned forward to capture his eyes. “And he’s not in them.”

“You want me to get Ice while you save Father.”

“Yes.” She hesitated. “I- I’ll need to take your sword, the one that you have right now. And there’ll be three of us on the road. It’s best if we have at least two swords, right? And Ice is Valyrian steel- light enough that it won’t-”

“I don’t like this,” Jon repeated, cutting off her babble. “Can you do it? Take Father out of his rooms, lead him to the dungeons? It isn’t a short walk.”

“We’ll disguise ourselves. And yes, I- I can do this. They won’t ever expect it. Father can do it, don’t worry about that.”

“They won’t ever expect you to punch them?” He grinned again and rubbed his breastbone. “I’m going to have a bruise, Sansa. You don’t pull your punches.”

“I don’t when people accost me in empty bedchambers,” Sansa retorted, and then blushed bright red at the humor in Jon’s eyes.

“Not that way,” she told him. Jon only grinned wider, and she rolled her eyes. “Don’t be ridiculous, you idiot.”

“Tell me more about all these people accosting you in your bedchambers,” he teased. “How many men do I have to strangle before we leave?”

“Thankfully, none. We have to leave quietly, remember?”

After a moment, the laughter faded from his eyes. Jon nodded and rose, abruptly. “Alright. Here’s where you go- you know where the kitchens are? And the second courtyard, yeah? There’s this gate, kind of shadowed; just keep walking and you can leave the castle entirely.”

“How did you find out about this?”

“Arya.” It was all the explanation needed. “She was exploring and found this. When I said I was coming back, she told me to take you out this way.”

Sansa turned her hands over and over in her lap. The dim light made her skin look gold, look dead. The nails glittered like cold steel. When she looked up, Jon’s face was soft and warm; sadness in the shadowy curve of his lip and, somehow, through some miracle, faith in the unbroken line of his brows.

“Chin up,” she murmured, and Jon grinned, wolfish and deadly.

Ned felt exhausted.

He could barely sleep; in point of fact, he hadn’t slept for a full night in weeks.

Sansa had been taking care of him- better than expected, in all honesty- but she was only a girl in a nest of snakes. He could see the fear, well-worn behind a mask of courtesy. Ned was many things, but he had always loved his children more than anything in the world. To see his lovely, beautiful daughter so afraid, and so afraid of showing that fear, made guilt bubble in his belly like a potful of boiling water.

Perhaps worse than that was his behavior those first few days.

Ned had Sansa right in front of him. But Arya never came to visit, and he was sure that no Lannister guard would have been enough to keep her from him if she was there- which meant she was either not in King’s Landing, or dead.

He was sure that she was dead.

That Jon was dead as well, because there was no other reason for Sansa to have such fear in her eyes; no reason for her to cringe at Ilyn Payne’s red armor, no other reason for her to be so quiet on the subject of her own family.

When he finally got the courage to ask, however, Sansa sang a song that was titled Safe. She dipped her head away and then he saw the stark, naked hope in her Catelyn-blue eyes. Suddenly, Ned realized why she was so frightened. She knew they were fled- and for both to have left without anyone realizing, someone had to have warned them.

Oh, my poor, brave, darling daughter- oh, I’m so, so sorry. I should have looked to your protection. I should have saved you.

The only other question now was why Sansa had stayed. Ned thought he knew the answer, but couldn’t allow himself to think it. If the only reason why she had stayed was for him, Ned thought he might die from the shame.

It was past midnight when Sansa entered his room again; she looked paler, he thought, but that could have just been the lighting. Ilyn Payne straightened stiffly when she closed the door.

“I’m sorry, Father,” she said, looking apologetic. “I didn’t mean to disturb you. I forgot to put the thicker bandages on your leg. It’s better if I finish it tonight so tomorrow we can go over walking, yes?”

He nodded wordlessly.

Sansa moved closer and began to unravel the bandages quickly. Her hands, Ned saw, were trembling very faintly, and she didn’t sit as she usually did. But she didn’t look up at him or give him any other indication that there was anything abnormal happening.

The thicker bandages she’d spoken of were wrapped tightly around his knee and calf- tight enough to make him gasp slightly. It was stiffer than necessary, he thought.

Slowly, Sansa rose to her feet. Ned saw her hands tighten, knuckles white against her already-pale skin, and then she sent him a faint smile.

“I love you,” she mouthed, and turned away.

Sansa felt her heart thrumming, too fast for her to calm, too fast for her to hide the red blush in her cheeks.

In Winterfell, what felt like decades previous, Jon had taught her to keep her head calm. He had taught her where to stab a man, how to defend herself, when to attack and when to defend.

But it was Robb, after, who had lifted her chin to meet his gaze and said, lowly, If it ever happens that you must kill someone, Sansa, there is one thing to know: don’t hesitate.

Hesitate to plan. Hesitate to think on it. But once you’ve made the decision, move with all the speed and all the strength you have, and do not pause until it is over. Until they are dead, or close enough.

Sansa breathed deep, reached for the hilt of her borrowed sword, and struck.

...

What happened next, Ned did not see.

He heard Sansa stumble, slightly- a common enough occurrence, particularly when it was this late. He closed his eyes and leaned against the headboard, trying to find a comfortable position. A heartbeat later, someone gasped, and there was a bitten-off cry; Ned stiffened reflexively and flinched upright, and gaped at the sight of his eldest daughter sticking a sword into Ilyn Payne’s jugular.

He must have struck her- there was already a red handprint across Sansa’s cheekbone. But she kept her head facing the dying man, and stepped closer instead of cringing away, to ensure that when he fell she could catch him; likely so that his body didn’t make that much noise and draw attention to them. It must have been painful to support the full weight of a man almost a half-foot taller and wearing steel-plate armor, but Sansa didn’t give much indication of the pain.

“Sansa,” Ned hissed. “What have you done?”

She grunted, and slowly lowered him to the ground. Blood had spattered over her face and the neckline of her gown. When she straightened, she looked both afraid and wary- wary of him, Ned realized, with another pang of guilt.

“I- I didn’t- I didn’t want to, Father,” she said. “I’m sorry. But- I went to my rooms, and Jon was there.”

“Jon?”

“Yes. He- gave me his sword.” Sansa wrung her hands, looking young and vulnerable. “There’s a very long story, and I know you’ll want to hear all of it- but. We have to leave first.”

“I can’t walk,” Ned pointed out.

A smile stole across her lips, making her look like Catelyn at her most happy; something bright and fierce and sly. Something sharper than Catelyn, actually- something that was delighted and triumphant and glorious in its beauty.

“Try,” she told him.

Ned frowned, and then- slowly- swung his legs over the side of the bed. Hands catching at the bedposts, he levered himself up, leaning most of his weight on his uninjured leg.

“Take a step, Father,” Sansa said, stepping closer, close enough that she could catch him if he fell.

When he did, cringing at the memory of pain, there was nothing.

Nothing beyond a twinge of discomfort, easily ignored. Ned’s head snapped up to see her, and she smiled, full and happy and bright.

“You lied?” He asked.

“No. I was- worried. That was true.” She hesitated. “But it wasn’t so bad as I pretended. If Jon had come after another week, you might even have been fully healed.”

Ned gaped again. When had Sansa learned such methods of manipulation? His sweet, beautiful girl, who-

Well.

Sansa was the girl who hadn’t left her rooms in King’s Landing in ages. She avoided Lannisters with grace, but avoided them nevertheless. She had changed after that one horrible night in Winterfell, but both he and Catelyn had assumed it to be natural effects of growing.

Ned had focused on Arya’s louder rebellions. He’d trusted Jon to keep Sansa safe.

Maybe that had been a mistake.

“Now, come on,” she told him. “We have to hurry.”

She bent over Ilyn Payne’s corpse and stripped him of his red cloak. Ned balked when she approached him- Sansa wanted him to wear a dead man’s cloak?- but all she did was sigh impatiently and thrust it at him.

“We have to hurry. If we’re caught… the consequences will be terrible. And I’d much rather have freedom, Father, won’t you?”

Faced with bright eyes and a sharp tongue, all Ned could do was take the damn cloak and, awkwardly, pin it around his neck. Payne was a big man; taller than Ned by a fair margin. His cloak was embarrassingly long on Ned.

Sansa tutted when she saw it, but didn’t say anything else- she was busy packing some bottles into a cloth bag, and then drawing a dark cloak over her own dark hair.

“Come on,” she said, and led him outside the room for the first time in months.

Chapter Text

They met Jon in the dungeons.

He inhaled sharply at the bruise on her face. Taking her chin into his hand, he inspected it closely, angling her face for the light. Sansa bore it as patiently as she could.

“I’m sorry,” he said, quiet enough that she could barely hear.

“What for?” Sansa asked tartly. She couldn’t stop to think of Ilyn Payne and the way his neck had given under the pressure of her sword. If she did, she would scream; if she did, she would not have the strength to leave. So she shoved it down and aside, and kept her tone flippant. “A bruise is little enough to pay for freedom. And you have Ice, don’t you?”

“Aye. Took some searching, but I found it.”

“Good. Then we just have to leave, don’t we?”

Jon still looked hesitant, but at the mulish turn to her jaw and steely eyes he let it go and started leading them into the dungeons.

They snuck out, and emerged into a small, moonlit clearing, a horse tied to a low-lying branch grazing contentedly on the grass.

One horse.

“Where’s the other?” She asked, and though she knew it to be a stupid question, couldn’t help but hope that there was another hidden in the brush, wandered away by accident.

Jon looked sheepish. “There isn’t another.”

“No horse can carry three people at once,” she said slowly.

“Well…”

“What were you thinking, Jon? We have to move fast. We can’t do that with a horse loaded down with three bodies.” Her hands began to shake slightly. “Oh, gods, I killed Ilyn Payne- we’re going to be caught, I’m going to die-”

“Nobody’s dying,” Jon said sharply, before Father could speak. “The horse can carry two people.”

“And the third?”

He hesitated. After a moment, he gestured to Ghost, who had crept out of the underbrush and now stood beside him; reaching Jon’s shoulder, and easily as broad as the horse, it was clear what he wanted.

Sansa blanched. “Jon-”

“You can ride Ghost,” he said, eyes pitifully wide. “Please, Sansa? His stride’s a bit too rough for Father to take on his leg, and I’m a better horse rider than either of you.”

No one, Sansa thought spitefully, should be able to pull eyes so large. It’s unnatural, is what it is.

“Fine,” she snapped, and let exasperation paper over her fear. “But you owe me, Jon Snow. You don’t even have a saddle!”

“That difficult, is it?”

Sansa tossed her head. “I can handle it, I’m sure. But the only reason for me to do so is because of your lack of planning, which is-” she sneered, “-unconscionable.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” he grumbled back, tightening the saddle on the horse and readying to ride. “Should I have just broken into the stables and stolen a Lannister horse? That would definitely have been quiet.”

“It would’ve made life much easier,” Sansa replied, and then, after a moment’s contemplation, managed to drag herself atop Ghost.

Jon rolled his eyes. He laced his fingers together to form a step for their father, and after both of them were mounted, he said, “I’m here to protect you, Sansa. Not serve you.”

She exhaled irritably, but before she could answer, Jon dug his heels into the horse’s sides and they were off.

They didn’t stop for another full day. It was past midnight by the time Sansa saw Father swaying in his seat behind Jon; after a few minutes she hissed Jon’s name and signalled a halt.

Jon had been leading them through backroads- people would remember a lone girl and two men, not to mention the white direwolf accompanying them. The Kingsroad might have been quicker, but safety was of more importance.

That night, Sansa fixed up Ned’s leg again.

“Rosemary oil again?” He asked wearily, leg stretched out in front of him, back leaning against a tree-trunk.

Sansa snorted. “I didn’t pack the rosemary oil. It doesn’t actually do anything.”

“You slathered my leg in it,” he said flatly.

“It smells good,” she replied quietly, feeling her lips twitch. “And- I didn’t want to be in the Red Keep much, and the only person who I trusted was you, and it gave me an excuse to come sit with you.”

He frowned heavily. “You didn’t trust the Lannisters.”

“No.”

“Why?”

It was an honest question, Sansa thought. Her father was curious. And it made sense- he thought she liked the dances and gaiety of the southron court; for her to be so wary of Joffrey and the other Lannisters didn’t make sense.

“I… I’ll tell you all about it,” she said finally. “I told you it was a long story, and it is. But Jon should be here for it. He plays a big part in it, too.”

“Of course,” said Father, and Sansa managed to tack up her lips into a smile; she finished unwrapping the bandages and then stepped away, wrapping an arm around herself and staring into the small, crackling fire in the middle of the clearing.

By the time Jon returned, Ned felt a familiar bone-deep exhaustion.

Familiar because he remembered Robert’s Rebellion, and then the Greyjoy one after; the cold earth, the damp cloth, the stink of horses and humans. The tiredness that crept into one’s bones and stayed there until one could scarce remember living without it.

“Ghost managed to hunt some rabbits,” Jon said, returning to their makeshift camp. “Took his own sweet time doing it, too.”

Sansa rolled her eyes. “I’m sure you were a paragon of focus as well.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” Jon asked, sounding injured.

She took the rabbits from him along with a knife, and began to skin them with remarkable skill.

“There’s a red stain along your chin, your sword is still in its scabbard, and you’ve either gotten a very lumpy chest or you hid something there.” She looked up and arched an unimpressed eyebrow. “Did you find some berries, or are you planning on keeping them as a surprise?”

“I wanted to give them later,” he said, taking out a bag from under his jerkin and tossing it to her.

When he stomped across the fire to sit at the opposite end, Sansa seemed to soften.

“Don’t sulk,” she told him. “I was just teasing. And they’ll make a nice breakfast tomorrow, as well.”

Jon sighed, but after a moment he took out another knife and started skinning another rabbit.

Both of them looked startlingly used to this banter. Ned wanted to ask when this had happened, this easy camaraderie, this give-and-take of information. He’d thought their relationship fraught with Ned’s secrets and lies; he’d thought that she’d accepted him as a sworn shield for lack of other options. He hadn’t expected this long-familiar warmth.

“Sansa?” He asked, instead of commenting on it.

His daughter’s shoulders drew tight for a heartbeat. When she turned to fully face him, however, there was nothing of discomfort in her features.

“Yes,” she said. “I- I suppose I should tell you now.”

“I suppose you should,” Ned replied, trying not to show impatience. She already looked spooked as it was.

“Well,” Sansa began, shooting an unreadable look through the fire at Jon, “do you remember that night, Father? When I- burst into your rooms?”

“The night you told Robb-” Ned frowned, reaching for the words. After a moment, he found them. “-that he’d be King?”

“Yes.”

“Aye. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. You gave me and your mother quite a fright, and then didn’t tell us why you were- so distraught.”

She looked slightly guilty over that, but when she spoke her voice held none of it. “Well, I had a dream that night. It was very- realistic.”

“A dream of what?”

“The future,” she said, softly.

Ned blinked. The future? What in the hells-

“If you don’t wish to tell me,” he said sharply, “there’s no need to make up fantastic stories.”

Jon suddenly shifted, purposely drawing attention to himself. Sansa remained still, poised and frozen, but Ned turned to him.

“She’s not lying,” Jon said. “Do you remember us asking who the brother of the Prince of Dorne was? His name? Sansa’s the one who told us.”

“Oberyn,” Sansa murmured, blue eyes focused uncannily on Ned’s. “That’s his name.”

Ned didn’t respond to that- he glanced at Jon, and asked, flatly, “Us?”

Jon, whose hands hadn’t stopped skinning the rabbit, froze. The look he shot at Sansa was apologetic, Ned thought; apologetic, and the same expression he got when he had done some mischief and had to take his lumps- a mixture of resignation, unhappiness, and resolve.

“Robb and I,” he offered as an explanation.

It was all that was needed.

“The three of you-” Ned began disbelievingly, only to cut himself off and start over again. “The three of you lied to me, to Catelyn, to your brothers and sisters- for years.”

“Would you have believed me?” Sansa asked, and there was iron underneath her sadness. “You’d have had Maester Luwin drug me with milk of poppy and when I woke up attempt to convince me I saw nothing! That the future-”

“Dreams don’t tell the future!”

“That wasn’t a dream,” she hissed, and Ned recoiled. They fell silent, all of them; the only sound was the crackle of the fire and rustle of leaves around them.

“That wasn’t a dream,” Sansa repeated, this time weary. “It’s never been a dream, Father. It’s the truth, it’s a hard and terrible truth; it’s what will happen if we don’t act. We are the Starks of Winterfell. You know what they say of us.” Her lips twitched into a wan smile. “Blood doesn’t run in our veins- ‘tis honor, and duty, and love. I did what I had to do so we could survive. I’m not sorry for it.”

“Then tell me what happens that is so terrifying to you,” Ned challenged.

Jon suddenly moved- hands catching on Sansa’s shoulders as he knelt beside her and whispered something into her hair. Had they not been in such a quiet area, Ned might have not heard; but forests tended to swallow ambient noise. He heard everything.

“Don’t say anything too painful. You’ve already said more than you have to me or Robb in years. Take it easy, don’t push yourself too much.”

What horrible things had Sansa faced that she didn’t speak of it? That she had to control herself so much? That she didn’t tell her brothers for years?

Through the slowly dawning horror, he saw Sansa lift her chin proudly and turn to him.

“They killed you,” she told him, and though her voice remained calm, her eyes were averted. “I was betrothed to Joffrey before we left Winterfell. When they arrested you, I begged Joffrey to pardon you. He promised to do so. And then he had Ilyn Payne take your head, just to see me scream.”

Gods above. Ned’s fingers dug into the meat of his thigh, likely bruising it. He could see what she’d said so easily: the sun hanging low in the sky, the painful hope of escape by confessing, the grief and loss that came when it was all ripped away.

What was a single bruise compared to seeing your own father dead in front of you? Of seeing his beheading? Ned had imagined the death of his father for years- the stink of burning flesh, the way Brandon’s face must have twisted- but he’d never had reality to augment it.

He was so, so glad he did not.

“Sansa,” he said, and opened his arms; she hadn’t wept when she told him, but when she flung herself at him he could feel the aborted sobs running through her chest. “Sansa, sweetling, don’t you worry, I’m here, I’m here, you brought us out-”

“I know, I know,” she was saying through her own tears. “I was so afraid, Cersei wanted to have the trial with Robb and when he didn’t respond she looked so angry-”

“Shh. Hush. It hasn’t come to pass. It won’t come to pass. I’m right here. I’m sorry, Sansa, darling, I didn’t see you and didn’t think-”

Sansa buried her head against his chest, curling against him like slowly unfurling petals- Ned felt a fullness in his chest along with the disbelief, along with the grief.

But they were alive, and they were free. Ned could scarce believe his daughter’s stories, but he could also scarce disbelieve her either. Sansa had never been prone to thinking impossible things, for all that he might have believed that of her when she was a child. She had changed, after that terrible night. His Sansa had grown, and he couldn’t see any lies in her story now.

They were alive, and they were free.

Oh, he’d have questions later- definitely- but he’d take his blessings here, right now, where he found them, and wouldn’t look too closely at it.

Sansa began to cut layers off her skirts.

It was still summer, and the south was warm enough that she didn’t need the cloth to keep from feeling chilled. She took a needle and thread from the medicine kit she’d packed for her father, and began to stitch a pair of breeches for herself. If she was to ride Ghost all the way back to Winterfell, it’d make far more sense for her to be able to actually grip his sides, rather than hold on and pray that she didn’t fall off.

Father arched an eyebrow when she emerged one morning with her skirts cut and breeches clearly visible underneath. Jon only laughed at her and told her that if she wasn’t careful she’d become Arya.

“Fat chance,” she retorted. “I’m burning everything from King’s Landing the night we get to Winterfell.”

Get to Winterfell- a month ago she wouldn’t have been so careless. But the air was growing colder, slowly but surely; the earth was becoming mulchy under their feet; the trees were growing taller and wider. Winterfell didn’t seem so far now. Lannister men were on their heels, but they were falling further and further behind now that they were in the Riverlands proper. Some nights, Winterfell felt close enough to taste.

Jon grinned now, less self-conscious and more relief. Proximity to Winterfell was having a good influence on all of them.

“You light the bonfire, but I’m going to burn that red cloak,” he said, gesturing to the dirt-stained travesty their father kept wrapped up in a bundle underneath the saddle.

Father shook his head. “If anyone’s got a claim to that thing, it’s me. You burn that damned awful jerkin, Jon, it looks horrible on you.”

“This one?” He asked, looking down at it. “It’s fine!”

It had started out as a shade of deep gold slashed with black. Weeks of riding and roughing it had managed to turn it the shade of vomit, with liberal blood and dirt interspersed throughout.

“That,” Sansa told him, “is such a lie you ought to be ashamed of yourself.”

It felt nice, to see Father actually laughing and speaking. There had been a few days when she’d worried, because his face had been so grey and he’d looked so exhausted; his leg must have been bothering him more than she’d expected. But now he looked healthier, and a week ago, when she’d fallen asleep holding onto Ghost and promptly been dumped into a stream, he’d laughed and laughed, hard enough that Jon had looked torn between which one to help: the water-soaked girl who still looked bleary, or the madman who’d gone purple.

It was- nice. A buoyancy that sank into her gut, getting lighter with every passing day.

There are no words for this, thought Sansa. There are no words for this kind of love or for this kind of happiness. This is my strength. This is my weakness, these are my flaws; but, oh, oh: this, this, is what my spine is made of.

Sansa awoke from a dream, eyes catching and holding Jon’s.

“Arya’s home,” she breathed, and he wanted to ask her how she knew; but there was such fevered joy in her eyes that all he could do was reach out and grip her hand, tightly.

“So will we,” he said. “Soon, Sansa: soon.”

...

When they crested the Neck, Sansa gathered the moss of bluevein trees and began the tedious process of washing the dye from her hair.

Father looked startled to think that she had purposely hidden herself in such a manner, but Jon only looked relieved that it would be back to normal.

The morning she awoke with hair a familiar shade of sunset-red, her father told her that he’d never before thought anyone else could have hair that color.

“When I first met your mother, her hair was unbound,” he told Sansa quietly. It was early morning, and Jon was still asleep- he was the one who worked the hardest, the longest. Neither of them begrudged him his rest. “I’d never before seen hair that color. It was like someone had taken the weirwood leaves and woven them into hair.” He sighed. “Over the years it’s darkened. And Robb, Bran, and Rickon might have her coloring, but their hair’s always been darker than Catelyn’s ever was. I thought you’d go the same route for many years, too.”

“Rather noticeable,” she commented, fingering the still-damp strands. “I mean- I didn’t want to be, you know, in King’s Landing. But I’ve had red hair far longer than I’ve ever had brown. It’s nice to feel normal again.”

He nodded slowly, and they sank into a comfortable silence once more.

Jon had a number of reasons for walking into the cave.

There was a storm coming- they could feel the electric heaviness in the air even now- and so they had decided to hunker down in a nearby cave instead of trying to outrun it. Their horse had started limping, and so Father had been looking over him; Sansa had murmured something about her hair and readying the cave and gone there, while Jon had gone to fetch firewood.

Usually he took his time gathering the wood. Usually, he let the pressures and tensions of the day fade, a little, when he was alone for the firewood; as a result, he tended to take a little longer than necessary to do the job, even if it wasn’t entirely noticeable to anyone else.

But today there was a storm, and Jon was exhausted enough that all he wanted was to sleep- so he’d looked for dry wood quickly, and headed back just as fast, looking forwards to a quiet night.

What he didn’t expect was for Sansa to be stripped down to her shift, hair spilling over her shoulders as she washed up.

Jon jumped, and the firewood in his hands clattered to the floor, making Sansa whirl around and shriek loudly.

He immediately averted his eyes and looked to the entrance.

“I- I-” he stammered, and then managed to sidle out before things got any worse.

He wasn’t sure how it could get worse, but his cheeks were hot enough to light braziers, already; he didn’t want to imagine what could happen if it was even more embarrassing. By the time their father returned from tending to the horse- thankfully it hadn’t thrown a shoe, only had a thorn in its hoof- he was standing outside the cave, feeling more like a sentry than any sworn shield.

“Something happen?” He asked.

Jon immediately flushed. “No,” he said, and wished it didn’t sound so strained. “But it might be better if we wait outside for a couple minutes.”

Father sent him a quizzical look, but it seemed that he’d adopted a policy of not asking after the numerous changes to his children so long as he could pretend he wasn’t seeing it. It was a relief for both of them.

A few minutes later Sansa called them to enter. She’d already lit a fire, and her face looked suspiciously pink in the firelight when she looked at him. In the dim light, Jon couldn’t help but remember the way water damped her shift, making it cling to her hips-

She is your sister, he thought, and closed his eyes firmly.

“Do you remember Old Nan’s stories of wargs?” Sansa asked, one night, when she couldn’t sleep and Jon remained awake.

“Aye,” he said, stirring the fire. “Men who can see through the eyes of animals. She sung some long story of Bael the Bard being one, didn’t she?”

Sansa swallowed hard. “Skinchanger,” she whispered. “It’s said to be in the blood of the First Men, and that is who we are.”

“Sansa-”

“I dream of Lady,” she said clearly, calmly, showing nothing of her racing heart. “Not of Lady, not exactly. That I am Lady. I am her, and she is me, and there is nothing that can separate us.”

But death.

The whisper seemed to coil up the base of her skull, like a fanged snake. Sansa wanted to shiver and ache, but all she did was stare into the glowing depths of the fire.

“You think you’re a warg?”

“That I am. That- that we all are.”

Jon looked startled. His dark eyes swallowed the light, and the dear planes of his face seemed hard and foreign in the darkness. “I thought they were just dreams,” he said finally, after a long pause.

“Oh, thank the gods,” Sansa replied, feeling tears sting at the corners of her eyes: relief, at not being alone any longer. “So I’m not alone.”

He looked up, and there was a promise in his eyes that made heat uncurl in the hollows of her chest.

“Never,” he murmured, and if it made Sansa a fool to believe him, she thought she’d take the insult gladly.

They were just past Moat Cailin when Ned heard the distinctive sound of hoofbeats.

Jon immediately pulled their horse to the side, and Sansa crouched low on Ghost’s back; the direwolf snuck into the shadows and in a matter of moments it was as if there nobody had been there to begin with.

They were all getting practiced at this.

But this time, they were past the Neck- they were supposed to be safe. How could Lannister forces invade the North without starting a war?

Ned looked upwards, peering through the darkness, only to identify the riders as markless.

Mercenaries.

Not Lannister men, not any Lord’s men; just men with steel in their fists and a desire for blood, willing to kill and fight for gold.

He frowned and looked closer. There was something there, like a drum just slightly out of beat with ten others- a dissonance only visible if one knew to look for it. There was something there, and Ned knew there was something there, he just didn’t know what.

The riders left after a few moments’ milling about, presumably to take the Kingsroad.

That night, Ned didn’t dream of Winterfell or Catelyn or his children. He didn’t dream about King’s Landing or Lyanna or Harrenhal. He didn’t dream about Brandon or his father or even the two rebellions he had served in.

No. Ned dreamt that he was back in the Vale, an awkward, stern, friendless boy sent to live under a man to whom honor was of paramount importance.

In the dream, Robert was young and beardless, and his blue eyes gleamed like silver-rust. Ned was in his room, sulking and terrified of stepping outside; he’d seen Robert enter the gates of the Eyrie that morning but hadn’t gone down to see him.

And then his door had burst open under the immense strain of Robert Baratheon, all his magnificent aura spent trying to make friends of Ned, and there had been no going back to his quiet, airy little life.

Robert dragged him to a joust that Ned was definitely not interested in, and forced him to sit through hours of explanations and monologues on the inanities of horseflesh, and Ned finally started to ignore Robert in favor of the blue and grey armor-shod Vale men.

There’re some men who aren’t knights but wish to compete, Robert said in Ned’s dream, voice suddenly calm and contemplative. Those wear no armor, but you can see their reins, can’t you, Ned? That’s gonna be blue. Or grey. If we were back at Storm’s End, they’d be black and yellow. They say the Targaryens used to dip their reins in blood to make it red!

Blue reins, thought Ned, and awoke with a gasp.

Those riders from that morning had reins a pale blue, as if frosted roses had fallen on the leather accidentally and stained it.

What do Vale mercenaries wish to do in the North?

There was a low-lying hill that extended straight out of the Wolfswood. From it, one could see the tips of Winterfell’s turrets, and if it was a clear day the fluttering banners as well.

Jon felt his heart clench when he saw the pale flags pulling taut against the wind.

“Winterfell,” Sansa whispered. “Oh, Jon, look! We’re- it’s almost-”

“Here,” said their father.

“Yes,” replied Jon. “Yes. Come on, we can reach by tonight if we hurry.”

None of them were in shape to stop riding after that.

The sun was still high in the sky when they rode in, hooves thundering- Jon tried to pull up to declare who they were to the guards on the turrets, but Sansa wasn’t having any of it.

She ducked her head, murmured something into Ghost’s ear, and then they were off like a shot, a blur of white fur and red hair. Jon cursed under his breath- echoed by their father’s amused chuckle- and dug his heels into the horse’s sides.

They entered the courtyard a heartbeat after Sansa, only to find it frozen.

Sansa stood in the middle, and among the cold grey stones, her hair- loose around her shoulders- stood out like a banner. One hand was pressed to her mouth and the other was knotted in Ghost’s fur, as if it was the only thing holding her up.

Robb stood in the middle of the courtyard, just as still and stunned as everyone else. He looked broader, Jon thought distantly. Broader, stronger; steel in his jaw and a strength that hadn’t been there when they’d left. He held a wooden sword in his hand that drooped as if he’d forgotten of it.

To move was to break a tableau, a dream, a hope.

And then Sansa- brave, brave, Sansa- let go of Ghost, straightened, and began to move forwards.

It was all that was needed for Robb to lunge forwards, hands dropping the sword and coming up to cradle her. The choked cry that came from his lips hurt Jon’s chest; Sansa dug her hands into his shoulders and stretched to whisper something in his ear; Robb gave a shuddering sigh and some cold stiffness faded from his tense shoulders. A moment later, the men were shouting for Bran and Arya and Lady Catelyn.

Everything dissolved, then. Jon wasn’t entirely sure when the others became aware of their presence, but he did remember some things, clearly: Arya’s arms tightening against his chest, Robb choking on words as they embraced, the staggering, lanky weight of Bran wrapping around him.

When Lady Catelyn appeared at the door, she looked pale with shock. Upon seeing Sansa, she almost collapsed, barely catching herself against the stone wall. Sansa must have seen her mother, through some unknown mechanism; she slipped past both Bran and Robb and hugged her on the front steps of the keep. That close, she looked almost as tall as her mother- no; taller.

Then Lady Catelyn looked past Sansa’s shoulder, and saw her husband. Her face twisted, flicking through the emotions almost quicker than Jon could follow: shock, then hope; finally settling on something almost too intimate for everyone's eyes.

Before Jon could decide how to react, they were in each other's arms, kissing more tenderly than Jon could've imagined.

It was all terribly embarrassing. Robb looked as if he agreed- his cheeks were a tad too red to be accounted with excitement or exercise. While his parents looked lost in each other, he took charge with an ease that hadn't been there before; he ushered them inside and told the servants to leave their Lord and Lady alone for as long as necessary.

Once that was over, Robb led them not to the great hall as Jon had half-thought he might.

Instead, he took them to his chambers, and all those who could fit piled onto the bed; Sansa and Robb took the chairs. When the food arrived, not five minutes later, Jon felt he was almost back in his childhood- all of them awaiting one of Sansa's and Robb's reenactments of the old songs, eating their way through food despite knowing they'd be scolded for it in the morning, and above all, warm.

Robb sighed. He spoke haltingly, and the way he picked at his food told Jon that he was more relieved than anything Robb could have said. He'd always had a habit of it, no matter how much his mother tried to stop him.

“The Lannisters- got angry,” he said. “Almost four months ago. The letters that you'd been writing stopped. And then two of them came, but they were from a maester's hands. I was worried, so worried; and then Arya came home and told us Jon’d returned to save Sansa- but nobody said a word. There-”

“The Lannisters didn’t send anything official,” Arya interrupted. For a heartbeat, she looked furious- for all her Stark features, for just a heartbeat, she looked like her mother reborn. “But there were rumors. And last week a woman came out of nowhere and tried to pretend to be Sansa.”

Sansa went cold and quiet, and very carefully placed her hands flat on her lap. She swallowed, and then looked up, straight into Robb’s eyes.

“Tell me you chased her out of Winterfell,” she said.

“Didn’t let her stay the night,” Robb replied, a nasty light in his eyes. Jon waited, and was rewarded with Robb’s smirking finish: “Arya chased the Lannister wench out of Winterfell with Lady and Nymeria beside her. I don’t think she’ll stop running until she’s well short of the Neck.”

“Thank you,” Sansa told Arya.

Arya looked startled. It had probably been ages since Sansa had said something so meaningful to her sister. In order to stop their fights, Sansa had stopped talking to her as extensively as she once used to. To be faced with something so meant from Sansa must have been an entirely new experience for Arya.

Hopefully Arya’s grown up a little since I left her, Jon thought.

But when Sansa turned to talk to Robb, Arya only frowned thoughtfully into her plate.

A thinking Arya is a dangerous Arya.

Robb sighed and gestured a little wildly. “There were other rumors, too, you know. About a noble-born girl being taken by Vale soldiers, about another being caught in Westerlands. You took your own sweet time getting here.”

“We had to keep it quiet,” Sansa replied. Color was still high in her cheeks, and she looked startlingly beautiful with it; the candlelight shone off her unbound hair. She resembled the oldest statues in the crypts, Jon thought; all lovely skin and steady, unshaking features. “We couldn’t take the Kingsroad. And the Lannisters probably don’t want it to be known that a fourteen year old girl and her injured father can escape from King’s Landing without anyone stopping them.”

“How is Father’s leg?”

“Not so bad as expected.” She shrugged. “It looked worse than it was when I got Father out of the cells, and I spent more than a month making sure he got better. And nobody thought I could lie, either, so they believed me when I cried about the pus.”

“Oh, yes,” drawled Arya. “Prissy little Sansa, crying about the yellow stuff in Father’s leg. However did you live?”

Sansa faltered, for the first time that night. We can’t handle this tonight, Jon thought, and spoke before she could make Arya even more suspicious.

“By being smart and keeping her head down,” he said mildly, and then Robb rolled his eyes and Bran started chattering about a gargoyle on the third floor, and the strange tension between Sansa and Arya snapped.

All Jon could think was that he was warm, was that the cold lump in his belly was gone, was that his chest was tight and hot with something he didn’t dare name. Sansa was happy. They were home. They were safe, and Jon had brought them here, and he had done his job.

When he fell asleep at the table, nobody even looked surprised.

Robb was in the godswood the next morning, far before anyone had awoken. He was in the middle of praying when the quiet, padding snuffles reached his ears; he turned around to see Sansa picking her way through the leaves, with Lady and Grey Wind beside her.

She sat on a flat stone next to him. She didn’t say anything, though, and Robb turned back to the tree and continued his praying.

When he was done, he turned to her and gripped her hands tightly.

“I was afraid,” he confessed, hoarsely.

There were no words for his guilt, for the way he’d felt when he read that first letter from Sansa that told him to come to King’s Landing- a terrible mixture of anger, of guilt, of fear. Then whispers had come from the south that they’d escaped, and the rumors that came after had nearly made him weep.

But she was here, now. The Starks were home, and they were behind Winterfell’s walls, and they were safe.

And if there were no words for his feeling when she left, there were even fewer for how he’d felt to see a flame-haired queen ride into Winterfell on a white direwolf.

“I know,” Sansa replied, her pale hand covering his own. “I was, too. There were nights when I was sure they’d catch us and drag us back to King’s Landing.”

They sank back, retreating into quiet contemplation, until Robb asked, “You couldn’t sleep? Tonight, I mean?”

“I-” she hesitated, and then seemed to collapse on herself, all thin bones and skinny, coltish elegance. “I wanted to see Lady. And then I couldn’t sleep, and I didn’t want to disturb Jon- he’s slept for a full night for the first time in months- so… I decided to come to the godswood.”

Robb breathed in, breathed out, and looked away. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there, in King’s Landing.”

Sansa’s breath hitched, and then her hand came under his chin and lifted it roughly, forcing him to meet her eyes.

“I’m not,” she said sharply. “I’m not sorry at all. They tried to kill Father, they did kill Jory. And- I need to talk to you about that, so remind me later. But the point is that the only reason Jon survived was because I sent him away, and they didn’t expect me to be anything. It was the only way it’d work. I knew that. I just didn’t- think. Maybe if I’d done something I could have saved Jory. I could have saved Septa Mordane. But- I didn’t. I couldn’t. And if you’d been there, and you’d died, I wouldn’t have been able to bear it. So you’ll be glad you stayed, Robb, or- or-”

“Or you’ll stab me with your needles?”

“I’ll take Arya’s,” she snapped, and the rush of relief that came with having someone who treated him like he was an idiot almost bowled him over.

“We have to tell the others,” Robb told her, leaning back against the stone, closing his eyes and basking in the sun. “Arya’s thinking, and we all know how dangerous that is. And Mother isn’t stupid, either.”

She snorted, undignified. “I told Father on the way here. He- didn’t take it well at first.”

“And then?”

“He believed me. I think.” Sansa paused, sounding testy. “We were all quite tired, you know, and nobody’s in the best of moods to be having long conversations while on the run.”

He didn’t open his eyes or turn to meet hers. “But now you have to tell both Mother and everyone else. So: how do we do it?”

“I don’t know. Does it matter?”

The words themselves weren’t alarming- her tone was. It started out sharp, and ended on a thin, bitten-off sob. The ruthless way she controlled her body so it was still only worried him further.

When he looked up at her, she had a hand pressed to her mouth as if to keep her secrets inside, and there was such pain and slow-building horror that Robb’s chest ached as if she’d struck him with a sword.

“Sansa,” he whispered.

“I,” she said, so softly he could scarce hear her. “I. I thought-”

But she didn’t finish. Only buried her head in her pale hands, her red hair spilling out like blood, and began to shake like a sapling in a seastorm.

They beat me, she’d said once. They took Father’s head to hear my screams.

How afraid were you, Sansa? Back in a city of liars and thieves, with no shield between you and the Lannisters but their contempt. Oh, sweet, darling sister: how afraid were you?

How brave were you?

“Come here,” he told her, and then he was holding her, feeling tears soak his collar.

That was how they spent the morning: through the cold wind and steadily brightening sky, Robb keeping her grounded in the world and as warm as he could manage. Sansa, though she stopped crying, shook and trembled like a leaf; after some time, she whispered, “I thought I’d be- normal. Now that I’m back. But it’s only- I just- everytime I close my eyes I see it. I just want it over.”

“And you will,” Robb swore. “I’ll march south, and every last person who dared to frighten you will beg for mercy, Sansa, I’ll tear their necks open if they don’t.”

She pressed her wrist to her eyes, rubbing away the tears. Robb waited for her to finish.

Slowly, she looked back at him. “If I sleep,” she said, voice small like he’d never heard before, “I see Father’s head. And I can’t. I’ll wake up screaming, if I do.”

“Then you wake up screaming,” Robb replied. “And I’ll be there. Jon’ll be there. Mother, Arya, Bran, Father- someone will be there, and we’ll hold you, and we’ll remind you that you are a Stark of Winterfell, inside Winterfell, and while you’ve seen horrors and you’ve survived them, you’re not there anymore.”

The look in Sansa’s eyes couldn’t be captured into words. Something of hope, and another part of love, and another of relief; but mostly, under it all, a steely, quiet sort of strength that was unique to Sansa.

“Yes, please,” she said, and closed her eyes, as if too tired to keep them open any longer. “Thank you, Robb.”

It was the day after the feast that Jon managed to sit and speak with Arya.

Before talking, however, they sparred: Jon against Arya, wooden swords clacking and scraping against each other, her twists against his strength. It put her in a good mood, and Jon wasn’t above using that for the conversation.

“So,” he said, half-panting and sweaty, “you’ve gotten better.”

“Mother’s not making me embroider anymore,” Arya replied, “and Robb’s been training me. Said something about me being safe, or some such rot.” She smirked. “He’s slower than you.”

“Stronger, too.”

“Makes him easier to beat.”

Jon sighed. “You do need to keep your guard up, though. You’ve a tendency to get lost in attacking if you think you can get away with it.”

“Usually I can,” she pointed out.

“And the one time you can’t, you’ll get a sword to your throat.”

She sent him a flat, unamused look, and he offered her a grin, all sharp edges and teeth.

“I know I didn’t seem happy last night,” she said suddenly.

“You seemed plenty happy,” Jon replied, after a beat, making sure she could see him rubbing his ribs ostentatiously. “I’ve got a bunch of bruises, you know, from all you Starks and your happiness. You hug too tight.”

Arya bit her lip, ignoring him. “I mean- I didn’t mean to hurt Sansa’s feelings last night. I was just- it was just- habit, you know?” Her lips twisted dryly. “Teasing her. But she just looked really… sad.”

Jon knelt, one hand resting on Arya’s shoulder and the other still clutching the hilt of the practice sword. “Sansa’s done things that you haven’t. She’s faced things you can’t imagine.” Arya looked away, as if ashamed at his words, and he continued quickly: “She’s been hurt, and afraid, for a very long time. It was better on the road, but- well, if you were being chased by Lannisters and all you had was your bastard brother and injured father beside you against the full might of the Westerlands, how would you have felt?”

Her cheeks lifted slightly. “You’re saying she’s… adjusting.”

“I’m saying that your sister isn’t normal,” Jon replied. “Maybe she won’t be for a long time. Maybe not forever. But she loves you, Arya. She understands what you wanted to do. Sansa was shaken when she arrived, but she understands that you weren’t being purposely mean.”

Or I hope she does.

“So because I didn’t mean to hurt her,” Arya challenged, “it doesn’t matter?”

“It does matter,” he said firmly. “It matters a lot. But she’s forgiven you for it. I think if either of you had thought this kind of thing were unforgivable, you’d’ve killed each other before you turned five, no matter how much Father tried to separate you.”

Arya glared at the floor. “I didn’t mean to hurt her. And she’s been really nice after that. This morning- at breakfast she didn’t mention anything from last night to Mother or Father. She actually told me to come here, that she’d cover for me. It just seems. You know. Unfair.”

“Sansa’s grown up,” he murmured, abruptly amused. “She’s acting mature, and this irritates you.”

“Exactly!” She burst out. “I just want her to yell at me. I want her to act like I killed her direwolf. I want her to be the Sansa I knew-” her voice broke slightly, and Jon wanted to hug his sister, hold onto this slight, aching sign of her childhood. “But she’s just- not.”

I know what this is. I lived this for so long.

What happens when you’ve lived your entire life in someone’s shadow, when you’ve fought to escape it for so long- and then you come back, and when you try to measure up against it, the shadow itself has changed?

He sighed and pressed his hand heavier against her shoulder.

“Sansa’s done things that you haven’t, but that doesn’t mean that you haven’t done and seen things, either, Arya. You came home alone, all the way from the Neck. It’s a long journey, it’s a dangerous journey. And you made it home safely. You two are different. There’re things she is and has, things you are and have, and they’re not the same, but that doesn’t make one of you lesser. Do you understand?”

“Yes.” Arya swallowed, and then looked away, and mumbled something so low he couldn’t hear.

“What was that?”

“I killed someone,” Arya whispered, face still averted. “I- he tried to kidnap me. When I was asleep. Nymeria and Lady were hunting, by the time they knew what was going on, I’d just stuck him. With Needle. I was so frightened, and I had blood all over my hands, and I couldn’t even wash it off for a full day- but. I killed someone.” She lifted her chin, then, and met his gaze steadily. “Nobody knows but you.”

Not even Robb? Not Lady Catelyn?

“You should tell Sansa,” he said.

Arya jerked.

Jon went on: “It isn’t my story to tell. But she’ll- she’ll talk to you, I swear. And there’s more that you ought to know; but this is the first.” Quickly, sharply, he took her chin into his hand and looked straight into her eyes. “Nobody will ever hold defending yourself against you. It’s hard, killing someone. I’d never wish that knowledge, that burden, on anyone. But this is a hard world, Arya, and to survive we have to do things we don’t like. Just don’t bear it alone.”

She nodded, and then they went back to sparring, and that was that.

“Renly and Stannis called their banners,” Ned told Robb grimly.

Sending the letter had been the first thing he did when he came to Winterfell- after kissing his wife thoroughly, having Maester Luwin check on his leg, and eating dinner. It declared the illegitimacy of Joffrey Baratheon and his siblings, along with the information of where and how he’d confirmed his suspicions.

“When?”

“Only a few weeks previous, I believe.” Ned sighed. “I know we decided to keep Sansa and my arrival quiet, but I had to send the raven to Stannis. He’s not the kind to let anyone know, though; he’s kept the news quiet enough.”

Robb shrugged. “I trust you know Stannis better than I ever will. Are they marching on King’s Landing?”

Ned felt his lips pull into a deep frown. “No. They called their banners, aye, but perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Renly called his banners to his name, and Stannis to his. Renly besieged Dragonstone yesterday.”

“What?” Robb asked, looking flabbergasted “Why?”

“Renly wants to be King- truth be told, he’d make a better one than Stannis. But Stannis is ahead of him in the line of succession.”

“It still doesn’t make sense,” Robb said. Shook his head and pulled himself together. “I mean, why? Not just the siege, but the timing. Why wait so long?”

Ned scrubbed a hand through his hair. “When Robert lay dying, Renly told me to take control of Joffrey. I refused, and he fled with a Tyrell knight to Highgarden. I’d written a letter to Stannis but didn’t send it off with a raven; I went to get the City’s Guard and arrest the Lannisters, and they appeared- amenable- until Cersei Lannister told them that to raise swords against their queen was treason. They believed her and turned on me, and I was the one arrested. So Renly’s been trying to get Stannis to believe him that Joffrey Baratheon is actually Joffrey Lannister, all the way from Highgarden, with nobody to corroborate his story.”

“Stannis doesn’t trust his own brother?”

“Stannis wouldn’t trust the sun to rise in the east if Renly told him so,” Ned said flatly.

“Sansa said something similar happened last time,” Robb said slowly. “She said… it was called the War of Four Kings. Or something like that.”

Last time. It jarred, still, unpleasantly, to be faced with the idea of traveling through time. But Ned had accepted it, hadn’t he? Ned had accepted the idea. It was his turn to hold to it.

“I need to tell you exactly what she thinks we should do. Along with what happened last time.” Robb grimaced.

“Why isn’t Sansa telling me herself?”

“She doesn’t like to think on it,” he replied. “It’s a long story, and a lot of it is- bloody. So… sit down, I guess?”

Ned arched an eyebrow suspiciously. In his experience, all three of them had a horrible propensity to understate the difficulties of the past. Perhaps none worse than Robb, who had spent a long time hearing the effects of certain people’s actions, but never actually experiencing any of it. If Robb was actually admitting to the story being bloody, then it was going to be nightmare-inducing.

He sat down and braced himself.

“In a few weeks’ time,” Robb said, eyes gleaming and back straight as a ruler, “we shall call our banners and ride south. We will raze the Westerlands to the ground, take King’s Landing, and then we will melt down the Iron Throne.

“Here is how.”

Gods above, thought Ned, and of all things, it was pride that swelled in his chest as he listened.

“I killed someone,” Arya whispered, and Sansa felt her heart lurch like a matchstick boat on a stormy sea.

She could have said a thousand things. But Sansa saw the way her little sister’s ribs curved inwards, as if hollow and empty, and let all those things die on the tip of her tongue.

“I did too,” she replied, and then they were in each other’s arms, and if it wasn’t perfect- Arya was too short, too skinny, too hard and too different from Sansa- it was happy, and Sansa had learned enough to know that this was precious.

“She’s tired,” Robb said quietly.

Jon frowned. “Tired?”

“And angry, and sad, and I’m pretty sure she hasn’t had a full night’s sleep since you left King’s Landing. Probably not since she left Winterfell, either.” Robb sighed and rested his head on his hand, elbow pressed against the desk. “She said as much in the godswood this morning.”

Jon looked at the window. A muscle flexed, slowly, in his jaw.

“She hasn’t said anything to me,” he said finally.

“Not anything?” Robb asked, startled. “She could’ve just-”

“Not. Anything.”

Sore topic? Robb almost asked, but thought better of it.

“Then you can now consider yourself informed,” he said instead, crisply.

Jon’s face looked hard and unyielding. Robb rolled his eyes and rubbed a hand over his eyes. Jon was never more melodramatic than when he felt people didn’t pay attention to him- it looked scary, perhaps, but Robb knew better than to offer him a helping hand while he sulked. More than that, he’d just returned from talking to their father, and had only a few hours to rest before he had to start training some of the younger boys in the yard.

By rest, he thought mournfully, I mean paperwork. Fucking paperwork.

A moment later, he felt a yawn start to rise in his throat- Robb tried to suppress it; he failed and instead managed to puff out his cheeks like a beaver.

Jon let out a slightly stiff laugh, and Robb glared at him.

“Shut up, you idiot. You went south and became a goddamn glorified guard, and left me here to deal with the paperwork. You know how many nights I’ve slept less than five hours?”

“You know how many nights I’ve slept less than that?” Jon retorted. “I barely slept more than three on the way to King’s Landing after leaving Arya at the Neck, and on the way back with Sansa and Father, it was only slightly better. You’ve nothing to complain about!”

Robb rolled his eyes again.

Jon braced himself against the desk, and reached for some papers- after Robb nodded- there was nothing confidential there- he began to read them aloud.

“Marriage offer,” he said, flipping through the papers quickly. “Tax clarification. Death notice. Marriage offer. Marriage offer. Oath of fealty. Marriage offer. Grain allocation. Marria- how many marriage offers did you get while I was gone?”

Robb took one look at the incredulous look in his eyes and felt a laugh bubble up.

“This is all from the last month alone. Turns out people want to marry the Heir to Winterfell. Who knew?”

“Who knew?” Jon mimicked. “Who knew? Oh, it’s so difficult for me, I’m the Heir to the North, all the girls in seven kingdoms want to fall at my feet-”

“-get in my bed-”

“-bear my children.” Jon shook his head and tossed the papers back onto the desk. His levity faded as he looked straight at him. “Robb, why am I here?”

“Because I thought you’d know how Sansa was doing,” Robb told him bluntly.

Robb knew how he thought she was doing, and it was quite clear to him that Sansa was holding onto composure by threads that were snapping by the day, if not the hour. Already she’d lost herself in the godswood to exhaustion, but Jon had said something of a red cloak and blood and death the previous night, right before the feast, and Robb was fairly certain that had Sansa actually killed someone, it would spell a bigger, louder, and ultimately more damaging reaction than any she had had so far.

“She seemed- fine,” he said at last, almost unwillingly. “Sansa didn’t say anything about being worried to me. On the road- she wasn’t normal, aye, but who would be after going through what she did?”

Robb frowned. “I’m worried about her. She was so brave, you know, in King’s Landing. The Lannisters made her write letters to me, and I’m pretty sure they were telling her what to write, so she used that code we made up a couple years ago, do you remember?”

“...I think so. Left leaning is truth, right leaning false. Or something like that.”

“Close enough, just the opposite.” Robb dug through the paperwork and plucked a letter from Sansa, spreading it on the table to make it easier to see. “When her letters lean to the right, they’re truth. When they lean to the left, they’re a lie. So you can see that when she says her hair’s getting darker, it’s a lie; but here she says Father is okay, and she isn’t.”

“Robb- I know that Sansa’s brave. I was there, in King’s Landing.” Jon’s eyes narrowed on his. “Why are you acting like this?”

“What do you mean?”

“Don’t play coy,” Jon said sharply. “Why are you showing me all this?”

Tell him the truth, said a voice that sounded remarkably like Sansa. Lies will only hurt him worse.

“Because Sansa didn’t tell you that she was terrified,” Robb said slowly. “She tells you things she doesn’t tell me. She trusts you in ways that she doesn’t trust me. And she doesn’t in this, and I want to make sure that you don’t go charging after her, demanding why.”

Jon reached forwards and traced her looping signature with a single finger. His head was bowed. Robb could see the way the muscles in his shoulders bunched and twisted angrily.

“I’m not a fool,” he said lowly.

Robb shook his head. “Right now, you’re angry at her. Anger only ever makes Sansa defensive. If you confront her, she’s not going to answer you. I want you to know that before you tell her- anything.”

Jon’s eyes flicked upwards, meeting Robb’s. His face was flushed a deep red. It was so strange, Robb thought. When he was angry, he looked nothing like their father- there was something sharp and alien and hungry in those familiar features instead; a fierce rage that burned too hot for his cold face.

“I don’t need you to interfere,” he snapped. “I don’t want you to interfere. I’ll talk to Sansa whenever I damn well please. Our relationship isn’t something you have control over. I know that you find it difficult when there’s nothing for you to do, but here’s a bit of advice that I strongly suggest you take before I punch your nose in: deal with it.

“Good advice,” Robb said. Jon’s eyes became even angrier, and he raised his hands defensively. “Fine, fine. I’m shutting up now.”

Jon continued to glare at him angrily, and that uncomfortable position might have gone on for even longer had a serving maid not knocked on the door and stuck her head in.

“Pardon, milord,” she said, “but you said to tell you if we heard noise in front of Lady Sansa’s rooms. She’s- well- I just- that is to say…”

“Spit it out,” Jon advised.

She breathed in, sharply. “She’s screaming, milord.”

She’s screaming. Sansa’s screaming.

Robb had stood up almost before he knew it, but then Jon pressed a heavy hand to his shoulder and moved to follow the girl. “I’m going,” he said defiantly, and then disappeared behind the door, going to Sansa’s rooms quickly.

Robb swallowed, hard. He sank back onto the chair, and scrubbed a hand over his face, wearily.

This is the burden of being Heir, his father had said, once, when Robb complained about being so strictly controlled while Bran and Jon got to run around so freely. I’m sorry, Robb, but this is something given to you, and it is a painful responsibility- but it is one that must be borne.

This is the burden of power, Robb thought, now. He sighed, sent up a curse to the gods, and bent over his paperwork.

Sansa woke up, throat raw.

The room was empty, but Sansa heard rough movements outside her door, and then the low murmur of voices; she closed her eyes and tried, desperately, to will herself back to slumber when the door opened and Jon strode in.

“Robb explained,” he said shortly, and threw himself into the seat beside her bed. Sansa eyed him warily, and the irritation bled out of him slowly. “Why didn’t you say anything to me?”

“I was- tired,” she murmured, leaning against her pillows once more. “And you were sleeping. I didn’t want to disturb you.”

“I’m your sworn shield-”

“-not my servant. Yes, I know, and there are duties that are yours and duties that aren’t. This isn’t one of them.”

Jon just looked at her, grimly. When she didn’t respond, he huffed exasperatedly.

“Fine. If you don’t want to talk about it I won’t make you. But we will, later.”

Sansa resisted the urge to roll her eyes. “And what do you want to talk about now?”

“You need to sleep right now,” he told her. “We will talk, though. Later.”

She reached out and gripped his hand, feeling the warmth and calluses along his fingers. It sent a low jolt through her, as if lightning had struck the space between the two of them. But then her eyes were slipping closed, and the world felt very distant, and before she could speak or even consider what that meant, she was asleep.

They told their family in the godswood.

Jon and Robb flanked Sansa as she spoke her part. When she finished, Robb took over- he told them, partially, of their plans for the future. Of what they intended to achieve. It was a tall tale, a long one, to weave- things of the past, things of the present, all coming together in a gamble Sansa had thrown for the future.

It was the after that surprised everyone, though.

Father came and stood beside Sansa, hand warm on her shoulder, and said, “It’s true,” and not a single soul in all the realms would have doubted a man who spoke with that tone of surety and confidence.

Certainly no Stark did that night.

A week later, Sansa was walking in the courtyard, trying to work up the courage to tell Jon why she hadn’t told him- everything- when the vibration of horse-hooves sounded. People turned to see, and Sansa felt her heart quicken at the sight of pale blue banners and falcons. A heartbeat later, when Petyr Baelish landed in the courtyard of Winterfell, done up in grey-blue finery, her blood turned to ice.

She clutched Jon’s arm, and turned him so she was hidden from view.

“He can’t see me,” she hissed up at him and flipped up the hood on her cloak . “Don’t let him see me, whatever else happens.”

Her mother stepped forwards, out of the crowd. Her hair was in a neat braid down her back, and Sansa was sure she’d never before seen a lady so unsuited for the North being so comfortable in its confines. Though she looked confused, her tone remained courteous.

“What purpose do knights from the Vale of Arryn have in Winterfell?”

“We come to pledge to you,” Petyr responded, with a grand bow.

Her mother squinted, frowning, and then recognition flooded across her face. When she stepped forwards to embrace him, quickly, Sansa felt her hands tighten convulsively- one of them gripping Jon’s bicep tight enough to bruise.

“Where’s Robb?” She whispered.

Jon shot her a slightly wary look. “Inside. Why?”

“Go get him.”

“I thought you said-”

“It doesn’t matter what I said - get Robb. Fast. Tell him to be a distraction.” When he only frowned, she snapped, “ Now, Jon!”

“Alright, alright. Just don’t do anything stupid-”

Sansa shot him a freezing look, and Jon paled slightly.

“-I’m going!”

She turned back just in time to see her mother step back from embracing Petyr. A younger, more innocent Sansa might have only seen the laughter and love in her mother’s eyes, the warmth that she offered to Petyr; but the older one saw not only Lady Catelyn’s regard, but also Petyr’s response: grasping, all-consuming, violent greed.

“I married your sister a few weeks ago,” Petyr was saying. “Lysa wished you to be there, I know, but it was so fast- there was barely anyone.”

He wanted to see jealousy in her mother’s eyes. But Sansa could only see laughter and relief in them, could only see sweet love.

“Oh, at least she’s moving past Jon Arryn’s death,” she said. “I worried for her, you know. So far from home; the sky keeps are no place for a fish!”

“Neither is the ice,” Petyr said slyly.

Sansa inhaled sharply. She wanted to growl, or snarl, or shout. Something- because she knew Petyr. She knew the way he used words as knives and crafted rivalry where there was once love, hatred where once there was respect. She knew the way he looked when he was plotting.

But her mother didn’t respond to anything like that with either defensive words or anger. Instead of taking offence, she only threw her head back and laughed.

“Don’t you know, Petyr?” She asked. “I am no southron fish any longer. I am the mother of wolves, and the Lady of Winterfell. When Ned left for King’s Landing, I even went to pray in the godswood! If the girl from Riverrun had known what I would become, I’d have been horrified!”

Petyr’s amusement faded into something ugly and dark, before disappearing behind a mask of- sadness.

Sansa frowned.

“Of course,” he murmured. “I- I meant to speak to you, Cat: I’m afraid I bring terrible news with me.”

She cocked her head to the side. “Terrible news?”

“A few weeks ago, we came across the body of a girl and a man in the Vale. Their throats were slit by men from the high clans-” he shuddered, slightly, “-the girl’s body… I’m sorry to say this, Cat. I’m so, so sorry.”

“Petyr,” her mother began, sounding horrified.

Petyr continued, as if lost in numb shock. Sansa thought, uncharitably, that he had never before resembled a pickled frog as when trying to convey compassion.

“She looked so much like you. I- as soon as I saw her I knew I had to come. Gods, Cat, I know you never wished it to be like this.”

“What-”

“Your daughter, Sansa of the house Stark, and your husband, Lord Eddard Stark, are dead,” he said quickly, spitting out the syllables.

It was a masterful act. It was a beautiful deception.

The lie was so carefully, wondrously crafted that her mother faltered in shock, mouth opening uselessly- just long enough for Robb to stride out of the keep and into their conversation.

“Mother,” he said cheerfully, though it was obvious to anyone with eyes that he wasn’t anywhere near so happy as he sounded, “what’s going on? Who are these men?”

“Knights of the Vale,” she replied, still looking shell-shocked. In a startling breach of courtesy, she didn’t introduce either of them to the other, nor look away from Petyr. “What did you mean?” She asked, instead. “Petyr, you said you saw their bodies-”

“Mother,” Robb said again, this time cutting her off- and lifted his chin to meet Petyr’s cold gaze. “A pleasure to meet you,” he said, sounding anything but.

Jon slid beside Sansa, then, and his hand on her shoulder slowed the racing of her heart slightly. “I told Robb that Petyr wasn’t to be trusted,” he whispered into her ear.

“Good,” Sansa whispered back. “Gods above, Jon! He thinks that Father and I are dead. He thinks he can control Mother through that. I don’t-”

She cut herself off when Petyr started to speak.

“My apologies,” Petyr said, sinking into a bow once more, this time noticeably shallower. “Lord Robb, I regret to inform you of the deaths of your sister and father.”

Robb faltered for a half-beat. The courtyard watched him closely, to see what he would choose to do- to follow his lead.

He drew in his breath, shallowly, and then straightened to his full height.

“That news could have been sent by raven, and much faster,” Robb replied flatly. “Now, tell me what you’re doing in my lands and in my castle, Petyr, before I toss you out.”

“Robb!” Their mother snapped, but Robb didn’t react to her censure.

Petyr took offense at that. “Catelyn, is this the respect your sons have for you?”

“This is the respect I have for men that enter my keep and refuse to tell me why,” Robb shot back stiffly. “Why are you here, and what do you want?”

“You do not even feel anything for the deaths of your kin? The rumors are, indeed, true: there is no warmth in the blood of Starks.”

“Enough,” their mother said, trying to step between them. “Robb, this is an old friend of mine from Riverrun, Petyr Baelish. He married your Aunt Lysa-”

Robb was barely paying attention to her, it seemed, for he didn’t spare her a glance nor allow her to finish.

“I will weep for their deaths when I wish,” he bit out. “I will mourn, but this is not that time. And for all that, it is not your right to advise me or take me to task. I ask you for the third and last time, Lord Baelish of the Vale: why are you here, and what do you want?”

Mother. He wants Mother. It is all he wanted, all his life.

“I come to offer condolences of the deaths of your sister and father,” Petyr said slowly. He looked slightly shaken, Sansa thought. Shaken and startled, against the unshaken confidence of Robb, who was just a boy. Good. “I come to pledge the strength of the Vale against King’s Landing and the Lannisters. We have bonds of blood tied to Catelyn, and will honor it.”

“Do you? With only fifteen men beside you?”

“Robb,” their mother hissed once more.

He must have gathered some wits about him, because he didn’t look half as angry as before.

“Just a minute, Mother,” he said, quietly. Louder: “And what do you ask for in return, Lord Baelish?”

Petyr pulled himself together quickly, snapping up walls and deflections with ease that Sansa might not have recognized if she hadn’t known him so well.

“To win the hearts of my men, I shall need your mother to come with me to the Vale for some time.” He shot her a slightly wary look, and then turned on Robb angrily. “I wouldn’t wish to have said such things so plainly. Your mother is already distraught, Lord Robb- she does not need to know all these details immediately.”

Gods save us.

“You shall address me as Lord Stark,” Robb said coldly. “And she is my mother, Lord Baelish. You have not seen her in decades. I know precisely what she wants and needs to know.” He inhaled sharply, shortly, holding up a hand to still Petyr’s response. “As to your request to bring my mother to the Vale, it is dismissed. So long as they keep their neutrality, there shall be no need for their assistance.” A perfunctory bow, and he finished with grim politeness: “I thank you for your condolences and bid you good day on your journey back to the Vale.”

This isn’t going to end well.

Petyr choked on his rage. Sansa could see the fury in his eyes, the way his hand clenched and his knuckles whitened.

“You are a fool, boy,” he spat. “I offer you the best warriors in the Seven Kingdoms. And you turn us away because, what? You-”

I have to act.

Sansa exhaled sharply, reached for her hood, threw it back, and stepped forwards.

Jon caught her arm, but she threw him off easily.

“If there is a fool in Winterfell, Lord Baelish, it is yourself,” she said, cold and level and cutting as a winter wind. Petyr startled, and Robb stiffened, and Sansa lifted her chin firmly, not trembling even a bit. “You tell my mother and brother that Sansa and Eddard Stark are dead, and yet here we stand, hale and healthy. You bring knights of the Vale, you say, but their banners are painted on and the paint is cracking.

“Do you recognize me, Lord Baelish? You ought to have taken my brother’s advice and left when he ordered you.” Sansa glided forwards, and she felt unconquerable, she felt triumphant, she felt as frozen and unyielding as the Wall itself. “I know that when I begged Joffrey Lannister to give my father a maester’s care, you said nothing. I know that when Cersei Lannister threatened me and then my father, you told her that we were to be feared. I know that you pushed the Kingsguard to question me as to the whereabouts of Jon and Arya when they disappeared.”

She had moved close enough that she could see the beat of his pulse against his neck.

“Joffrey Lannister is the product of incest,” Sansa said softly. “King Robert left no trueborn heirs to Westeros. The North remembers, Lord Baelish. We remember those who wronged us and those who hurt us in our hour of greatest need. You were my mother’s friend, and all you wanted was both of us dead.”

And here came the biggest, most ambitious move she had ever made. If she carried it off, it meant freedom. If Sansa let her fears carry her, she consigned them all to a slow, laborious death.

“In the name of House Stark and the North,” she said, raising her voice so all could hear, “I, Sansa, eldest daughter of the Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North, accuse you of treason against House Stark.” Heart in her throat, she waved at the northern men standing warily in the courtyard, their hands on their swords, waiting for her to give them an excuse. “Arrest him.”

Her mother and brother were gaping at her. Sansa gave Robb a long look, and then turned and walked back into the keep.

“Are you mad?” Robb demanded as he entered the room.

Jon, behind him, shut the door quietly and leaned against it.

Robb was angry.

No; Robb was so past angry that he had no words for it.

“There is a difference between not trusting Baelish, and arresting him!” He shouted. Sansa didn’t turn to look at him, and he felt his rage flare higher. “You want war with the Vale? We’re strong, aye, that’s true enough, but how many kingdoms do you want us to defeat before we can call ourselves at peace? How much blood, Sansa? How many lives?”

“None!” She shouted back suddenly, whirling around. “I don’t want us to go to war! I’d be perfectly happy to stay in Winterfell and maintain the North for the rest of our lives, but we can’t, you know that!”

Robb threw his hands up. “You say that, and then go and arrest the husband of the Lady of the Vale. You say that, and then you go and arrest him for treason in the name of house Stark! We haven’t declared anything, nothing is clear, everyone’s confused, and you’ve managed to stir a hornet’s nest! Your actions don’t quite match up with what you want, do they?”

“Petyr was the man who killed Jon Arryn,” Sansa said coldly. “He convinced Lysa to kill Jon with Tears of Lys, and then he killed her, too. He controls brothels and knows the secrets of a thousand lords. He is the most dangerous man in the entirety of Westeros.” She breathed in slowly, and then seemed to relax a little. “Give me a week, and I’ll have proof of his murder. If you’re smart, you can use him as a stepping stone to seceding and declaring independence.”

Robb inhaled, ready to continue shouting, but then he looked at her- actually looked.

For all that Sansa stood tall and proud, her hands were shaking. Her eyes were purpling with bruises as if she’d knuckled away tears, and her cheeks looked raw as if scrubbed violently.

He inhaled, and then exhaled, and let his anger drip away slowly.

“And what should I tell Mother in the meantime?”

Sansa appeared to sag, a little, at the sudden change in tone- she covered for it by sinking into a chair carefully, and sitting with a stiff back, but there was a tired resignation that he could still identify.

“I don’t know,” she replied, half-miserably. “She won’t believe the truth, will she?”

“She loves him,” Robb said gently.

Sansa tipped her head back. Robb could see, through the shadows, the pale gleam of tears in her eyes.

“I trusted him, too,” she said, quietly, the weariness in her voice tugging at his heart. “I trusted him, and he sold me to- to murderers and thieves. After I took back Winterfell, with Jon-” she nodded to Jon, who’d been standing so quietly for the whole conversation, “-he asked for my hand. I was going to accept, but then I remembered some things, and I looked it up, and I realized that he’d not only killed Aunt Lysa but also Jon Arryn, and then he was trying to kill Sweetrobin, and- and-” she deflated, suddenly.

Robb sagged, too, and the tension faded from the room easily enough; what was left was sadness, and an old sort of grief.

“I didn’t kill him last time,” Sansa said finally. “But he’s done it in this world as well. In King’s Landing, he was the man pushing for Father to be beheaded. And he’s going to pay for it.”

“And what should I tell Mother?” Robb repeated.

“Tell her the truth,” Sansa told him. “It’s all that we have, anyways. And she knows that I know some things from the past.” She paused. “No, wait- I’ll tell her myself. I owe Mother this, at the least.”

Robb stepped forwards and pressed a hand to her shoulder. “She missed you. When the Lannister pretender came, Mother wept for days, sure that you were dead. Don’t think we aren’t angry, Sansa, that he’s playing on Mother’s worst fears.”

“I’ll tell her,” she repeated, a hand over her eyes and face down. “Give me some time, Robb. I’m sorry- I didn’t expect Littlefinger to come from nowhere. Things have… changed.”

“Things changed because you and Father are safe,” Robb said evenly. “I’m not angry about that. I’m not even too angry that you didn’t tell me who and what Littlefinger is, because I know you haven’t told me everything; but I do wish we had better planning. We have to be the ones acting, not reacting.”

“Letting him leave would have sent the wrong message,” Sansa retorted.

He sighed. “Aye. But- this- it still rubs me the wrong way.”

Sansa relaxed, slightly. Her eyes flicked from him to Jon, and then back again. After a moment, she lifted her chin and looked at him. It was a shadow of her normal proud gaze, but it had Sansa’s signature strength nonetheless.

“I’ll speak to Mother,” she said. “You go and start interrogating those knights that Petyr brought.”

Robb nodded and turned to leave. “Are you coming, Jon?”

“...no,” Jon said after a beat. “You go on ahead. I think I need to talk to Sansa.”

The hard look in his eyes told Robb that, for all that the three of them held no secrets, he did not want to be in the room for the following conversation. Robb remembered the desolate look in Jon’s eyes when he told him of Sansa’s fears; he remembered the way Sansa turned almost unconsciously to face Jon, no matter where or when he entered a room; he remembered, above all, the love that the two of them held, and knew that they needed to talk to mend the fraying edges of their relationship.

“I want to see you in the practice yard at dawn tomorrow,” Robb told him, and meant, everything better be back to normal when I beat you up.

By Jon’s grimace, Robb thought he understood.

Sansa wasn’t sure how she got here.

Intellectually, she was: she’d kept her griefs and tears from Jon for the months they spent on the road, and when she’d spoken to Robb and not him, that had hurt Jon quite badly. It had been festering for weeks, and she’d been trying to avoid speaking to him about it for just that long, and all that had ended with Robb leaving the room with a last, wary look back at the two of them and Jon starting to demand explanations in a- loud- voice.

It hadn’t helped that Sansa hadn’t been very receptive to him.

They’d started shouting at each other only a couple minutes back. It had started with Jon accusing her of being deliberately quiet on important issues. Then Sansa had retorted with a jape about his inability to obey her orders that Jon hadn’t found very funny, and-

Well.

Here they were.

Here they were: five minutes, a hundred shouted indictments, and so far from the original source of the argument that Sansa did not know how they came here. Maybe it’d been because she called him a bastard, or because Jon told her that she was a spoiled idiot of a noble, or that their name-calling had dragged them away from the issue of Sansa not telling Jon that she had nightmares and instead taken them to Sansa not telling Jon anything.

And so. Here they were.

“Who was my mother?” Jon barked. “Tell me true, Sansa, tell me who the woman who managed to seduce our father from his vows to your mother was! Tell me-”

“I would,” Sansa shot back, knowing her face was an unattractive shade of red and that she was screeching, “but you’re not exactly letting me, are you?”

“You were the one who said I don’t want to know!”

“Because it isn’t something you can unhear!”

“That shameful, is it?” Jon asked coldly.

Sansa breathed in sharply and kept calm by the skin of her teeth. “No. But it is painful.”

“When you first told me that you’d come back, you said you could tell me who my mother was.” Jon took a small, threatening step forwards, before he remembered and controlled himself. “It was why I believed you. Now, it’s been nine years, and Father still hasn’t said he’d tell me, and I have a right to know, goddamn you! Tell me!”

“Fine,” Sansa snapped, and stepped towards him.

Jon stilled when she got close enough to touch.  He didn’t seem to breathe when Sansa pressed close enough to whisper in his ear. She hoped, viciously, that he asphyxiated himself before hearing this.

Once, in the godswood, all those years ago, Sansa had told him that she could tell him his mother’s name. It had tipped the disbelief in Jon’s eyes over to stark wanting, and then to unsteady hope. Almost a decade later, Jon demanded that she follow up on that promise.

But Sansa knew, very well, what secrets like this could do in the hands of the unscrupulous. If someone wanted to hurt her family, this secret could very easily bring the wrath of seven kingdoms down on their heads.

Sansa would speak Jon’s deepest desire. But she would not do so loudly, or lightly.

“Your mother’s name,” she breathed into his ear, “is Lyanna Stark.” And in the heartbeat before Jon stopped hearing what she said, she finished: “And your father is Rhaegar Targaryen.”

Jon shoved her away almost before she finished speaking. It was the first time he’d ever treated her with anything less than utmost decorum, and it made her want to weep as much as she wanted to clench her fists and rage.

“Jon,” she said, as he strode to the door, yanking it open roughly.

He looked back at her. His eyes were furious, and the aching shock-pain in them almost made her flinch.

“Don’t talk to me,” he bit out. “Don’t look at me, cousin.”

And with that last word, spat as if it were a curse, Jon turned and left.

“Gods above,” Robb whispered, stepping out of the dungeons.

He’d just finished questioning the fourth in a series of fifteen. Their stories all said the same thing: they’d been squires for knights of the Vale. A few months previous, there was a sickness that killed off a large number of the knights- suspiciously, killing only those who had opposed Littlefinger’s marriage to Lady Arryn. In order to fill the gaps, the squires had been trained and knighted quickly.

All that was suspect enough. But then came the news of how Littlefinger had met a girl on the way to Winterfell, a girl with North-dark hair and striking blue eyes, and how he had killed her.

Not in so many words, of course. But one of the men had seen blood streaking a tree trunk, and another had spoken of how Littlefinger had treated the girl with great familiarity, and a last had said that the guards escorting her had been disbanded the night that the two camps parted.

When he sketched a portrait of the girl who had impersonated Sansa and showed it to them, all three confirmed: it was her.

Robb had been sure it was Lannisters that sent the imposter, but he hadn’t been sure why. Now, it seemed that Littlefinger had been the one to do it, all to test the waters. If Sansa and Father hadn’t returned when they had… they might have trusted Littlefinger. Mother might have left Winterfell and gone to the Vale, under his control.

“He was responsible for everything,” Robb managed to say, and only just held back from retching at the thought. “He was responsible for everything.”

...

Sansa washed her face- dried it and cleaned it as if it were tear-stained, though she hadn’t cried even once in the night following Jon’s departure.

She had a number of things to do, and whatever else had happened or changed, she owed it to Robb to act is if nothing had occurred. Sansa breathed deep and left her quarters, heading across the keep to her mother’s.

There were so many reasons to be nervous of this conversation.

In another time, in another world, she wouldn’t have been.

But in this one, Sansa was nowhere near as close to her mother as she had been, once.

She was prim and proper and a perfect lady still- but the desire for children and a husband and a love straight out of the songs didn’t cling to her as it once had. Even more, she was a woman grown in mind if not body. Sansa had survived things her mother couldn’t dream of even imagining. What comfort could her mother offer her when her dreams were full of white cloaks and red blood and betrayal?

Yes, in another life, Sansa had been closest to her mother. She had adored her mother’s beautiful hair, her mother’s genteel, lovely gowns, her mother’s southron dances and gods and beliefs. But when she accepted Jon as her sworn shield, and when she began spending more time plotting with Robb to have a better life, she had lost the innocent, sun-soaked laughing memories of her mother that had once given her such strength.

Lady Catelyn couldn’t understand why her daughter had chosen to accept the boy who represented her disgrace. And even if she could understand, she couldn’t accept it.

In an old life, Sansa had loved her mother. She had been a girl raised by a mother to whom family and duty and honor was of utmost importance. And then Sansa’s family had died, and her duty had been to obey and love the man who killed that family, and her honor- in the eyes of the world if not herself- had been stripped alongside the lashes she bore on her back.

I am not the girl you once raised and loved, Sansa thought sadly. I am not the girl who wanted to be a queen. I am not the girl who saw golden princes and didn’t see the corruption underneath.

I am sorry for it.

But I would not do anything different.

She knocked, lightly, on the closed door in front of her, and hoped her mother would be able to forgive her for what she was going to do.

“Mother?” Came the soft voice from the doorway.

Catelyn turned to see her daughter, framed in dawnlight and beautiful for it.

Sansa had grown so much. There were times, especially after she’d told them of her life in another world- in another time- when Catelyn had wondered whether her daughter had died that night, that terrible night that still gave Catelyn nightmares sometimes. Guiltily, quietly, she had wondered if there was a stranger wearing Sansa’s skin, left behind to mock all that she had lost.

But then there were times like this, where she looked wary and quiet and broken up, and all Catelyn could feel was a fierce, fierce love. In the hallway, illuminated by the brilliant light and dressed in a white gown, Sansa looked less like a real person and more like a goddess reborn- all pale skin and sunrise hair and sharp, ethereal features.

Seeing her, Catelyn could almost forget that she was furious.

“Sansa,” she said, waving her in. “Did you need something?”

“I- wanted to talk to you.” She hesitated, and then seated herself on the chair. “Is Father going to be in soon?”

“Do you want him to be?”

Sansa shook her head. “I want to talk to you, first. Robb told him about Petyr yesterday. But I think- well. He was your friend, before anything else.”

“He is my friend,” Catelyn said levelly.

“I know.” Sansa hesitated. “But he is not just that, not any longer. I would not accuse him of crimes committed in another world, in another time. Only those done here. And those are… numerous.”

And I’m supposed to be grateful that you don’t accuse him of crimes that live only in your head?

“Like what?” She demanded.

“He convinced Aunt Lysa to poison her husband,” Sansa said quietly. “Robb said that he’s pretty sure that he killed a large number of Vale knights who didn’t like his marriage to Aunt Lysa. And that he killed the Lannister pretender who came to Winterfell. One of those alone would have been enough to convict him; we have all three.”

Catelyn rose to her feet and started pacing. “Do you have evidence of any of this?”

“I have confidence in it,” she replied. “And I’ll get the evidence. Don’t doubt it.”

“You’re asking me to trust you,” Catelyn said sharply. “A fifteen year old girl, against the strength of my years with Petyr. And you don’t even have a reason for imprisoning him! Sansa-”

Her daughter swallowed, hard, and then straightened until she was as cold and stiff as a blade. There was no emotion in her eyes, only an emptiness that reminded Catelyn of the ice fields of the Gift: empty and desolate and freezing; and yet, hard. Unbroken. A fierce sort of beauty, if it didn’t kill you first.

“I love you. I’ve always loved you. You and I, Mother: we were the ones who weren’t of the North. Once, I loved you dearest of all those here. I wished to become you.” Her eyes remained level on Catelyn’s, and not a single muscle shifted in her beautiful face. “You raised me to be dutiful, to be honorable, to love my family. I learned that there is no higher duty, no higher honor, than caring for that family. I know you trust Petyr. But he is a monster, and a death-dealer, and I will see him dead for it.”

“Will he have a trial, then?” Catelyn asked coldly. “Or will you murder him for unknown sins in the backyard gullies of Wintertown?”

Sansa rose to her feet as well. “I will send a raven tonight to Lady Arryn,” she said. “I will pretend to be Petyr, and ask for some clarification on the poison she used. Once we get her confession, we shall call our banners. I will have Littlefinger convicted in front of all the North, and when Robb takes his head not a single soul shall call it vengeance.”

“And what will happen to Lysa? If she is complicit in this murder?”

“On my word as a Stark,” Sansa said, soft as a raven’s feathers, “she will survive this. I wished to assure you of that, and-” she breathed in, and all her softness disappeared behind another, taller mask of ice. “And I wish to apologize, for you once loved Petyr- love him still, perhaps- and this is going to hurt you. I am sorry for that.”

“But only for that. Nothing more.” Catelyn knew she was trembling, knew her rage was potent and freezing, knew that she had never been so angry at one of her children in all her life. “For my love of him, you offer condolences. Not for the dignity he is due as a man, as a Lord.”

Sansa’s face suddenly cracked open, all her calm reserve gone in favor of her own fury. “He stood beside Cersei Lannister while she questioned me as to where Jon and Arya had disappeared. He told her that Father and I were traitors, and that traitors deserved traitors’ deaths. He wanted me and Father dead, and you stand there and defend him?”

What? But he said-

“He sent a raven,” Catelyn heard herself say, numbly. “After you told Robb that your father had been captured. Petyr said he would try to protect you.”

“He did his level best to kill us,” Sansa said flatly.

She flinched at the words, and then retreated to the desk, seating herself, searching for some sort of composure. When she felt she might not weep or scream or curse herself, she looked up at Sansa.

You are my eldest daughter, and are as the Stranger to me. Who are you? I do not know. I feel like weeping, Sansa, when I see your eyes: they are mine, in color and shape. But they are so much colder than mine has ever been, and you were so young- now, yes, but when you died in another world as well.

Oh, my poor, sweet, darling one: what did they do to you?

“What happened to you?” She asked quietly. “What did Petyr do to you, Sansa? Not in this world- no. In your other one. What did he do, that you hate him so?”

Sansa shook her head. “There are things you don’t want to know. Things that will only hurt you. I told you that I came back in time, and if I tell you all the ways in which I was hurt, you will not be able to sleep through the night.” She smiled, gently, patronizingly. “Just know-”

Catelyn arched an eyebrow, and sent her a look that she had perfected for Arya when she was being particularly irritating, or Bran when he was doing terrifying maneuvers, or even Rickon when he would not listen to any of the maesters. You will listen, it said, or you will face consequences.

Sansa’s mouth snapped shut. Catelyn hid a smile and kept her eyes narrowed on her daughter.

“I am your mother,” she said, and it was not sharp or angry or loud; just imperious. Just demanding. “I deserve to know what happened. You faced it, Sansa. I can bear listening to what you endured.”

“It is not a happy story,” Sansa said, almost desperately. “Mother-”

“Tell me,” she said, and it was iron, it was steel; it was a Tully’s honor and a Stark’s ice and a mother’s worry.

Sansa bowed her head, red-silk strands sliding over her pale face, and she began to speak.

Do you know what it does to girls, doing to them what you did to me?

You tried to break me. You thought me an ivory chess piece, a fainting doll, a deadened specter. You thought that I would be as easily defeated as those who came before me.

But I am a wolf. I know what it is to be a queen uncrowned, and a brotherless sister, and a deathful wife. My pack died, and in their lifeblood I was baptized. I am a wolf, and I will tear your throat out before you ever see my claws.

Sansa faced the shadow of Littlefinger and thought, you. You will learn to fear me.

“He tried to break me to become you,” she told her mother. “He tried, and he failed.”

I am no ghost.

I am a vengeful woman, and he will fear my wrath.

It was hours later, or perhaps it only felt so long- but a knock came on the door, and Sansa realized her throat was dry; when she looked outside, the sun had risen- it was likely almost noon.

“Come in,” she called.

Robb stuck his head in. He wore simple armor, and his red hair was mussed and sweaty. His eyes narrowed on their mother’s tear-stained face, and then Sansa’s own exhausted mien, and he opened his mouth- likely to ask what had happened.

Sansa shook her head once, sharply, almost violently.

Don’t you dare, you arse. Not now. Not here.

He frowned, but controlled himself. “D’you know where Jon is?”

“No,” Sansa said. “We… fought yesterday. He was quite angry when he left.” She felt her lips twist, gracelessly. “If I had to guess a place, though, probably Wintertown.”

“Wintertown?” Robb asked. “But he never-” he paused, taking in her slightly-shaking hands and red-scrubbed eyes, and shook his head. “What did you tell him that was so irritating?”

Their mother sighed. “I believe I am needed in the kitchens,” she said. “Sansa, I know that there are things you haven’t told me. I don’t need- nor want- to hear it all. But if you wish to speak to me, I shall always be here. Do you understand?”

“Of course. I- I should have told you earlier, I think.”

She’d been afraid that her mother would see what had happened to her as a mark of weakness. Of uncleanliness, perhaps. Sansa could defend herself against such accusations easily, and on an intellectual level she understood that she was blameless; but had her mother so much as looked at her with the slightest hint of disgust, she knew that a small, secret part of her would have been shattered.

But there hadn’t been disgust.

Horror and anger, yes- twined together; but underneath it all, love. Only love.

It’d healed things inside Sansa she hadn’t known needed healing.

“I’ll come to you if there’s anything else,” Sansa told her softly.

Her mother nodded and left the room quickly; Robb looked between them, and then shook the questions off visibly. She turned to face him fully and reached forwards, catching one hand in both of hers.

“If Rodrick finds Jon, tell me.” He deserves to hear an apology. “And don’t tease him about this. It’s- not kind. What he asked, how I answered- we are both in the wrong. And I need to talk to him about this. So-”

“-don’t interfere?” Robb nodded. “I can do that easily enough.” He smirked. “Jon told me about the same thing.”

“Our problems are our own. Don’t you worry about it.” Sansa offered him a faint smile. “I know how much you enjoy going after things with a sword. I also know how much you don’t like sitting still. Don’t worry- everything’ll be back to normal soon enough. Between Jon and I, of course; but then, you’ll be a king soon, too.” She arched an eyebrow. “The southron armies will learn to fear us.”

His smile grew. “Winter is coming, Sansa, haven’t you heard?”

“Winter is coming,” Sansa agreed, and her grin was full of teeth. “But we are the Starks, and we will survive.”

A few years ago, Theon Greyjoy had started visiting Wintertown.

It had been the beginning of a nightly adventure, for both Rodrick and Jory. Usually Theon only drank and wallowed in the brothel if he had enough money, but then there were the nights when he tried to start fights or when he insulted some high-flying peasant; those Rodrick dragged him out of without any thought to his dignity.

And then Robb had followed him; after that, it had been Jon.

At some time, Rodrick had started to bribe the guard at the gates so he could know when he had to head down to Wintertown and bring the idiotic boys back before they could get gutted by some back-alley orphan with large eyes and an empty belly.

But for all that, the times he’d had to bring Jon Snow back from Wintertown could be counted on one hand. He’d made mistakes, just the same as Robb, but had always been more reserved; he tended less towards the blind haze that Theon favored and more towards the fine balance between happiness and shakiness that meant it wasn’t obvious that he was drunk.

Which was why this was- startling. To say the least.

Robb had sent him to find and bring Jon back to Winterfell. Rodrick had laughed, then, to think that he’d find him trying to drink away his sorrows, but find him he did: sequestered at a corner table, head down on the table and a teetering pile of tankards around him.

“Glared at anyone coming close,” the innkeeper said, shrugging. “Didn’t start any fights last night, though, so we didn’t stop him.”

Rodrick nodded, and shouldered his way forwards, leaning down and hoisting him up- an arm over Rodrick’s shoulder, the other scrabbling weakly at the wooden grain.

On the way back to Winterfell, he only threw up once.

For how much he had drunk, Rodrick decided he was impressed. For a boy of less than twenty years to hold his ale so well was nothing less than admirable. By the time they’d entered the keep, he had started drooping; almost his entire weight was leaning on Rodrick’s shoulders. Rodrick sighed and took him to the boy’s chambers in the keep. A number of servants brought lemon water and wool cloth to clean him up. Rodrick had just finished getting his jerkin off- it was caked with vomit and dried wine- when Lady Sansa entered the room.

She swept in haughtily, red hair glittering like a beacon, and all movement in the room halted when they noticed her. She didn’t look at Rodrick or any of the servants- focused almost entirely on Jon.

“Is he alright?” She asked, inflectionless, still not looking up.

“Aye,” Rodrick responded. “He’ll sleep for some time yet, but-”

“Then he doesn’t need any of you.”

It wasn’t a question, but he treated it as one.

“...aye.”

Her eyes lifted to meet his. “Then,” she said, imperious as her lady mother, “get out.”

Rodrick gaped at her. Lady Sansa was always a lady- unfailingly polite, sweet-tempered to even the worst behaved squires, never even touching at impropriety. But this was the height of misconduct. And-

She levelled a look at him that would have frozen ice. In that moment, she looked twice as scary as her father at his angriest, twice as terrifying as her mother in a temper. All cool, honed contempt.

“Did you not hear me, Ser Rodrick?”

“‘Tis highly improper,” he protested.

Sansa waved a hand. “Tell my mother if it so pleases you. Until then,” her face shifted into a mask that made her look like a direwolf, “ get. Out.”

Rodrick swallowed, and left.

Jon awoke to a fall of red hair and a pounding head.

His groan resounded in the empty room as he shut his eyes again.

Sansa- for who else could have hair that long, that red?- bent over him when he did so, close enough that he could feel her breath against his lips. Before he could startle, however, she retreated; he relaxed, minutely, against the bed.

And then she threw water on him.

Jon lurched upright, sputtering, just in time to see her set aside the basin.

“What the fuck?” He asked, teeth chattering.

“You called me an idiotic noble girl,” she said evenly. “I was angry. You and Robb have been telling me to express my emotions, haven’t you?”

Jon searched for something to wrap around himself. When he couldn't find it, he straightened his spine and glared at her, through an aching head.

“Aye, you shouted enough right then and there, didn’t you?” His teeth clacked together against his will. Vainly, Jon reached for some tattered shreds of dignity. “No need to become vindictive.”

Her lips twitched.

“You’re finding this funny!” He accused.

“A little, yes,” she murmured.

“Oh, so it isn’t enough to pity the poor bastard who didn’t even know his own parents’ names- parents being multiple- you have to throw water on him?”

Sansa checked herself at that, hands stilling from picking at the frayed edges of his blanket and instead looking straight at him, blue eyes flecked with some emotion he couldn’t name.

“I’ve never pitied you,” she told him, and her tone was not as sharp as he expected. “Not in all my life. I didn’t love you, once, but pity? Oh, you were too proud for that by half.”

Jon looked at her, stunned. “ I’m too proud?”

“Yes.” Her hands folded neatly together in her lap. “Too proud, and too idiotic.”

Suddenly, he was furious.

“Tell me what I’ve got to be proud of,” Jon bit out. “Turns out my father was a rapist son of a man who liked to burn people alive. Turns out I’m a Targaryen! It’s madness that runs in my blood, Sansa, not honor! Tell me, tell me, what I’ve got to be proud of!”

Sansa’s eyes shuttered. When he paused for breath, she asked, coldly, “Are you finished?”

“Aye,” he grunted.

For now.

“Then hear this,” she announced. “Hear this, Jon: you are a Stark. When Rhaegar Targaryen laid with Lyanna Stark, the babe was born with grey eyes and black hair and not a hint of silver and purple. Two houses’ blood warred inside of you, and ‘twas Stark blood that won. ‘Twas Lyanna Stark’s blood that ran true, and gave you a face and a nature more Stark than any of Eddard Stark’s trueborn children.”

Jon felt his rage fade. The way Sansa looked at him- all faith, all belief, all sheer, beautiful trust; it sank into his ribs and warmed him as the best ale couldn’t have. When Sansa whispered those names into his ear, he had felt like there was a pit in his stomach, yawing and baying for something to fill it- and he’d tried to fill it with drink and numbness, but- it hadn't worked. Clearly, it hadn't, for here they were: him in a damp shirt, the faint smell of lemons all around them, and Sansa offering him the first thing that managed to fill the hole.

“Thank you,” he managed.

Sansa nodded, once, decisively, and rose- to leave, he thought. His breath rattled in his lungs, and he wanted, abruptly, desperately, for her to remain.

A week ago he might not have thought overmuch on asking it of her. But there had been something in the dim light of the Red Keep, and something more in the cave where he’d stumbled upon her, and then they were in Winterfell and all Jon could remember was the aching, ballooning hurt when Robb- Robb!- told him that Sansa couldn’t sleep, and- well. He didn’t know if they were able to go back to what they had been, before they left Winterfell.

More to the point, he didn’t know if he even wanted that.

And she was at the door, almost opening it-

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

The words burst out of him, like punches. He flinched, waiting for her to start yelling as before- or worse, sneering- but instead she only stilled. When she turned around, there was only sadness in her face.

“About the nightmares?”

“About everything.”

Sansa seated herself again, staring intently at her lap. After a long pause, she began.

“I killed Ilyn Payne,” she said, almost soundlessly. “I was so frightened- I’d killed a man before, yes, but never with my own hands. And if I stopped, to think on it or consider, I started shaking. We couldn’t afford that those first few nights- we had to move so fast, so quietly- so I just tried to stop thinking on it. I was so tired by the time we slept, anyways, that I didn’t even dream.”

Slowly, as if in a dream, as if his hand belonged to another, Jon reached out and caught her fingers in his.

“And then Father was ill,” she continued. “I was worried about him, I was terrified for Arya, the Lannisters were still on our heels, and I couldn’t, Jon- I could hardly think straight, much less consider telling you, because if I sat down and tried to handle everything, I’d break. And we didn’t have time for it.”

Jon shook his head. “We’ll always have time for things like that, Sansa. First blood is- difficult. It’s hard to handle even in trained men. You-”

“I’m not so much a shrinking violet as Robb thinks,” Sansa interrupted, and there, that was Sansa at her sharpest, at her loveliest: all smooth-edged sapphire, but the edge honed enough to cut if you weren’t wary. “I’ve been responsible for death before. It’s never been easy, no; but this isn’t my first, I promise you.”

“But you’re still hurting.”

“Over everything. The Lannisters. Being back in the Red Keep. Being forced to beg for Father’s life again. Everything. Not just Ilyn Payne, I assure you.”

He felt the corners of his lips twitch upwards. “So it was lack of time at first, that you didn’t tell me. Then?”

“Then, I didn’t want to handle it.” She shrugged. “I couldn’t sleep, but there was so much else to think on, and… it just didn’t happen. I thought I was dealing.”

“But you weren’t,” he murmured.

Sansa- amazingly- managed to look amused. “I didn’t know that until we were in Winterfell, and even here I couldn’t sleep. The first person I saw after that was Robb.” She sighed, and flipped their palms so she could trace a hand over the veins on the back of his palm. It sent a shiver down his spine. “I didn’t mean to hurt you,” she said, soft and honest.

Jon swallowed. “...thank you.”

“I mean it, you know.” Her eyes darted up to meet his, and then back to their joined hands once more. “You- you’re not a Targaryen. You’re of the North. You always will be. Father always loved you. Father loves you. Robb and Arya and Bran- they’ve always loved you. They always will. No matter who your father was. Because they know you, and that’s what matters.”

Mayhaps he was still drunk. Mayhaps he was a Targaryen yet, in truth; and all that was needed to make that heritage of his rise to the surface was his knowledge of it. Jon wasn’t sure what madness had overtaken him, only that something had.

“And you?” He asked, quiet and daring and pointed as he could manage.

Sansa stilled. Her hair spilled over her shoulder, like a fall of flame; it hid her face from him easily. Jon wanted to take the words back immediately, feeling like a fool and worse. He wanted to go back in time and sew his lips shut with Sansa’s thickest needle.

But then she shifted, and he could see her face once more.

Her cheeks were red. Her eyes, blue and beautiful, were averted. But then she looked up at him, and the fire in them could have melted all the frozen fields beyond the Wall. Heat bloomed in his gut like ink spreading through water.

“Sansa?” He whispered.

She was trembling. Her hands twitched on his damp coverlet and began to move upwards, barely brushing his arm and then skimming past his neck, fingers trailing over the thin skin over his pulse point- he could feel the way they shook, minutely, against it. She cupped his jaw, then, and her eyes hadn’t shifted away from his, not once; they were full of something Jon had never before seen in them.

It took less than the gentlest press of her hand to make Jon shift forwards.

Their lips met, and everything seemed to fade into the background- his damp skin, the bitter taste at the back of his throat, the sharp scent of lemons.

Sansa tasted of summer apples and something colder, cleaner. Jon arched his neck, freeing his other hand to tangle in her hair and bring her closer. She gasped into his mouth at the new angle, leaning closer and deepening it.

And then her knee slipped off the coverlet, and she tumbled straight to the floor.

Jon scrambled to get the sheets off him quickly, half-panicking. Before he could, though, Sansa had started laughing, head thrown back; a low, rolling sound that he hadn’t ever heard before.

Looking up at him through her lashes, she said, still snorting, “Gods, I’d thought I was unpracticed.”

“Don’t be mean,” Jon replied grumpily. He couldn’t help the way his lips twitched, though.

“No?” And suddenly, she was standing, and gods Jon knew he might regret it in the morning, but at the moment he knew he’d never been so breathlessly, hopelessly addled as when she looked at him so steadily, so heatedly. “I suppose I have to make it up to you, don’t I?”

Jon reached out and tried to kick his feet free of the coverlet. The only thing that happened was that he got more hopelessly twisted in them.

She smiled at him then, eyes glittering with amusement, so sweetly he was sure he’d combust on the spot.

Leaning down, winding arms around his neck and pressing close, she whispered in his ear, “I love you. I’ll always love you, Jon. Bastard and Targaryen and all.”

“Don’t ruin it,” Jon managed to say.

“No?” She asked, and he felt a laugh bubble through his chest as well.

His eyes fell on the basin beside him. It was still half-full of water, and Sansa was stepping closer, and-

Oh, damn it all to hell.

Jon moved as quickly as he could, under her arm and bracing himself on the table. He took the basin, and, in one smooth motion, threw it straight into her face.

“What the-” She began. Her hair was plastered to her face, and she’d never before looked so gloriously angry than in that precise moment.

“Payback,” he said, barely able to speak through his breathless laughter.

“I’ll show you payback!” She snapped, wringing her braid angrily.

Jon only laughed harder. “'Twas you that called me a proud idiot,” he gasped out.

Sansa tried to clout him and tug on her braid simultaneously. Jon grinned up at her, shamelessly holding onto her hand, and it took scarce a few seconds for his glee to break her stern mask; soon enough, they were both laughing, Sansa bent over him and shaking.

Gods above, Jon thought, awed and deliriously, incredibly, happy; reaching forwards and winding his finger through a stray red curl,   Gods above, I love her.

I love her.

 

Chapter Text

“You stand here, Lord Baelish, accused of the following crimes-”

Sansa felt her hands tighten on each other in her lap. She wore gloves, however, and amidst the heavy northern furs around her shoulders, nobody would be able to see the tension thrumming inside her. Jon stood behind her, and his presence steadied her as much as it made something low in her belly twist with heat.

Focus.

“-the murder of Jon, Lord of the house Arryn; of the murder of seven knights paramount of the Vale; and the murder of a girl in your employ who visited Winterfell. You are further accused of hiring Vale mercenaries and sending them outside your own territory, which is a crime as stated by the laws laid down by Robert Baratheon.” Her father straightened. “How do you plead?”

Petyr looked over them. He was slightly disheveled from his imprisonment, but only very superficially. Sansa looked closer, and thought that he was trembling.

“Not guilty,” he said.

Sansa let her spine straighten minutely, and then checked herself: it wouldn’t do to look too eager. But Father only nodded to the scribe- likely ensuring that this bit was being written down- and then called up a number of the hastily-knighted men that Petyr had brought with him from the Vale.

“We shall start with the charge of murder of the girl,” he said. “Ser Godric, please stand and tell us what you saw when you were in the Neck.”

The knight was very pale, Sansa thought, and very young. His hair was dark and fashionably cut, and likely he hadn’t ever thought about anything other than being a knight with as much acclaim and fame as Loras Tyrell. Had she been younger, she might have swooned over him. Now, she only felt pity.

His story was stumbling, unrehearsed. Sansa heard about quiet knives and the color of blood on snow and the choking, quiet cries of a woman whose only crime was looking somewhat like a Stark- her hands trembled, and even she didn’t know whether it was out of outrage or fear.

Then she felt Jon’s hand creep from his grip on the back of her chair, upwards until his fingers curled over the very tips of her shoulders- Sansa fancied that she could feel the warmth through even her furs. It forced the chill sinking into her bones to retreat, at least.

When his story was finished, the other Northern Lords had the opportunity to ask questions.

That was how things worked in the North, when they were convicting Lords- Sansa remembered, faintly, from the time the Northern Lords had converged on Bear Island for Jorah Mormont’s trial: each lord asked one question to each witness, and declared their allegiance to the person on trial with either a simple or a difficult question.

Littlefinger could speak at the last- not question any of the witnesses, but give his own view of the events. Sansa kept herself still through a force of will as the questioning of each Vale knight continued; it was a tedious process, taking almost the entire afternoon.

“That serves the evidence for the murders of the Vale knights paramount and an unnamed girl,” her father said. “Now, we shall present the evidence for the death of Jon Arryn, Lord of the Vale and Lord of house Arryn.”

At that, Sansa rose to her feet. Jon’s hands fell away at it, and she felt the loss of pressure closely. But then she was passing her father, and he nodded to her with such steady confidence that she felt a smile curl over the edges of her lips.

Chin up.

“My lords,” she said, in greeting. Some of them nodded in response; others looked irritated to have Sansa speaking- too young, some thought, or too female. Sansa raised her chin as proudly as she could. If they underestimated her, it could only help.

“When Lord Baelish entered Winterfell, it was I who told Stark men to arrest him,” she started, and then paused, letting her eyes meet each of theirs; only then did she continue: “When I was in the south- when I was a prisoner of the Lannisters- I heard many things, many secrets. Most I ignored; but even the most ridiculous lies have some source of truth in them. One of these had to with Lord Baelish.”

“What happened to your hair?” Petyr asked, suddenly, sharply. “North-dark or Tully red-”

One of the guards shifted, and the scrape of his spear against the ground was enough to make Petyr’s jaw close automatically. “You don’t ask questions right now,” he said sharply.

Sansa kept her back to him, ignoring him as expertly as she could. “I heard that he killed Jon Arryn,” she said softly. “I thought it rumors at first, but then he married Lady Lysa, and when he came here, claiming what he did- I had to verify it. And so, I sent a letter to Lady Lysa, pretending to be her husband, and asked her which poison she used under his behest. An innocent woman would have asked which poison, of course.” She tilted her head. “The raven she sent back not only gave the name of the poison, but also the bottle itself.”

She held up a small, red-rimmed glass bottle, and placed it on the table, just far enough from Petyr that he couldn’t reach it; just close enough that he could identify it clearly.

“Tears of Lys,” she said clearly.

The lords straightened in their seats, frowning. Sansa felt a flare of deep warm relief inside of her chest as she swept a curtsy. Then she nodded, and turned to head back to her seat, passing her father on the way there. He didn’t smile, but he did incline his head almost respectfully, and that was enough to keep her head held high.

“That is the evidence for the murder of Jon Arryn,” her father said. “Last, we have the evidence for the mercenaries.”

Robb stood as soon as he was finished.

Sansa had been steady and formal; she presented evidence coldly, calmly. But she didn’t know these lords. She hadn’t spent a year speaking or yelling at them. Robb had.

I am different from you, she had told him. Stand tall, Robb, and use the tools that they’ve given you.

“I understand that there have been a number of complaints of mercenaries south of White Harbor,” he began. “They were numerous enough for Lord Manderly to ask for an extra contingent of troops.”

Shocking, Sansa thought dryly- the Manderlys were known for being proud and staunch lords, rarely asking even the Starks for help. For Lord Manderly to have actually asked for more troops, the problem must have been truly troubling.

Which every last Lord here knew.

“These riders were captured and questioned a few weeks previous, by Lord Manderly,” Robb continued. “Though they personally did not know who had hired them, they gave the name of a low lord in the Vale who handled the vast majority of their finances. After some- cajoling- the Vale lord gave the name of the man who had given him the gold to pay for the mercenaries.”

He turned, arms spread wide like a bird’s outstretched wings. The paper in his hands, one of so many that would damn Petyr to the deepest hell, fluttered like so many feathers.

You have learned to be dramatic, Sansa thought, and it was two parts proud, three parts sad, and another part that was altogether too sharp-edged for her to name anything but shame.

“He named Petyr Baelish, recently married into the house Arryn,” Robb said, and there was nothing of triumph in his voice. “He sent paper correspondence between himself and Lord Baelish, some of them dated before even his marriage. The letters contain instructions to take money from the Iron Throne and hire sellswords riding through the Vale. The letters contain instructions to send these sellswords to the North. The letters, my Lords: the letters contain instructions to find a lean man with dark hair and grey eyes, whose leg is injured, and a girl with the same North-dark hair.”

He paused. Even Sansa, who knew the truth, who had pledged everything to unseating Petyr already, felt breathless, felt caught up in the web of rage and lies that Robb was spinning so effectively.

Robb turned, and his eyes caught Sansa’s for half a heartbeat before he lifted his chin and faced the lords coldly.

“The letters said to kill them,” he finished.

There was silence for scarce a moment before Lord Umber began shouting. And then the others were standing, raging, reaching for swords to strike the traitor’s head from his shoulders-

Sansa glanced at Petyr and saw that he looked paler than ever before, the line of his throat taut and stiff.

You tried to kill me, she thought, and it was bitter, it was vindictive, it was hateful. How does it feel to be on the other end of the sword?

Jon bent his head over her chair when the roars reached a fever pitch, and whispered in her ear, “You were wonderful.”

“Not over yet,” she murmured back, and knocked her head forwards just slightly, so the side of her scalp slid over his cheek as he pulled away.

Jon felt the cool silk of Sansa’s hair slip across his cheekbone, and he would have shivered had he not been in front of so many people.

He had never seen someone so lovely as when she had stood in front of all these powerful men, this girl who hated the feeling of steel but learned to swing a sword, this girl who had fear living in her bones and a courage that ran even deeper, this girl who was born to be ruler, born to be queen.

“‘Tis time for Lord Baelish to defend himself,” a guard called out, voice rough and just loud enough to be heard over the rage of the lords.

Baelish rose to his feet, unsteadily. Jon might have believed it had he not immediately regained his balance; if he was trying to gain the sympathy of the lords, however, it was to be a futile attempt. There was nothing of kindness in any of their eyes as they watched him, eagle-eyed.

“I pledged myself not guilty,” he said. “I stand by it. My lords, I know not what these knights claim. Perhaps they think that if the position of Lord Arryn is open once again, they can lay claim to it. They are young, my lords, and they are foolish. Who trusts a child’s eyes on their first hunt? Who trusts the motivations and greed of sellswords?” His shoulder lifted, half-gracefully. “And, of course, wherever I came from, I am now Lord Arryn. My lady wife would be most… displeased to see my head. And how many kingdoms can the North make enemies of?”

The Westerlands. The Crownlands. If the Vale joins them-

Lady Catelyn stood, then, and she stood tall; she stood proud.

“None,” she announced. “Upon hearing Lady Arryn’s confession, we sent ravens to those lords who hadn’t agreed to bend the knee to Lord Baelish. Lord Bronze Yohn Royce agreed, after further negotiations, to keep the Vale’s neutrality if and when Lord Baelish’s head was sent to the Eyrie.”

Baelish went white. He stared up at Lady Catelyn, and the betrayal stark on his face ached as much as it made something animal in Jon’s chest crow. Then, moods abruptly switching from shock to rage, he snarled, “She is your sister!”

“She is,” Lady Catelyn acknowledged. “And as we speak, she yet keeps her head. She is my family, Petyr, and so I will protect her. But she killed her husband. What honor, what duty, is in that?” She shook her head sadly. “She is to be stripped of her title of Lady Arryn. Lord Royce’s men are escorting her to Riverrun, and her son- Robert Arryn- shall be fostered at Runestone until he comes of age. And so: the Vale shall be glad to take Lord Baelish’s head.”

Baelish’s fists clenched. “Does our childhood mean nothing to you?”

“It meant everything to me,” she said sadly. “But then you sent a raven telling me that you would protect my husband, my daughter, and you instead tried to kill them. Did you think I would have any love for you after that?”

She was shaking, Jon realized suddenly. She was shaking, and though no tears ran down her cheeks, there was a grief as vast as the Wall on her face.

You loved him, he thought. You loved him, and he betrayed you, and- and you cannot even weep, now.

It was sad, but if the story ended right there, Jon would never mourn it. Not when he knew what Baelish went on to do, not when he knew that this man was capable of throwing entire kingdoms into chaos simply for vengeance, for greed. But that did not mean he did not pity Lady Stark: it ached to have to choose, he thought- no matter how easy that choice was.

After a moment, she turned and left the room. Arya followed her out, sending a sharp glare over her shoulder, and the anger in the room ratcheted higher.

“Lord Baelish,” his father- no, not his father, not according to Sansa, and that ached every time he thought it- asked, “do you have anything more to say before we determine your fate?”

“Yes,” he hissed, looking crazed beyond all control, looking so angry and wild that Jon almost placed his hand on his sword. And then Baelish turned to Sansa, and when the rage shifted into an ill-fitting mask of sly contempt, Jon actually did straighten, resting a hand on the pommel of his sword. “So the lords of the North take their cues from a southron girl as changeable as the color of her hair,” he snarled. “A girl who could hardly speak in front of the Lannisters. A girl-”

“-who bargained for her father’s life and won it,” Sansa interrupted, steely. She rose to her feet and Jon felt the force of her fury, quiet and as surprising as an autumn storm. “I am the eldest daughter of Lord Eddard Stark,” she said, and it rang in the room as only truth could. “I am the daughter of Lady Catelyn Stark. I am the daughter of the North, and whatever accusations you have against me, Lord Baelish, shall have to be spoken to be addressed. We Northerners do not jump at shadows.”

“No? You arrested me in the name of house Stark.” He grinned, triumphant, teeth a cut of bone across his sharp face. “Answer this, then, Lady Sansa: what man can commit treason to a house not of royal blood? How can I commit treason against house Stark, when house Stark holds no crown?”

“Which king ought we await?” Sansa shot back. “Joffrey Lannister, the product of an incestuous union between Cersei Lannister and her brother? Stannis Baratheon, who is besieged at his own home by his younger brother? There is no royal family, Lord Baelish. There is no longer an heir to the Iron Throne.”

There was a long silence when Sansa had finished speaking. Jon could see the way her hands clenched in her skirts, the leather of her gloves crinkling angrily. She was tensed, every muscle in her back tensed.

Treason. The lords were angry, they wanted blood- but treason was another crime altogether. Where was the honor in it?

And then Robb rose to his feet. He stepped behind Sansa, hands resting on her shoulders before he moved to bracket her side.

Jon saw a vision he’d seen only once before in all his years- the very first time in the godswood, throat still aching with bruises, and Robb’s words: we are Starks, and we do not turn our faces. It turned Sansa’s face harder, wolflike and sharp; it made all Robb’s laughter fade into a look as flat and cold as a snowstorm.

We are Starks, and we are wolves.

“We bent the knee to the Targaryens only when Aegon the Conqueror brought three dragons with him,” Robb said fiercely. “But where are the dragons now? Where are the Targaryens, now?”

Dead, the room hissed. It seethed with it, the black-rage twist of treason, a storm of lightning and swords rising with each breath exhaled, with each understanding, sympathetic brow lightening.

Lord Glover suddenly pounded the table with a mailed fist. “The Targaryens are gone!” He shouted. “And we yet remain!”

“Aye,” Lord Umber said, and unsheathed his sword. Jon almost started forwards, almost unsheathed his own, but neither Sansa nor Robb so much as flinched, so he waited. “What knowledge do those southron lords have of us in the North? There is only one house who knows the chill of winter, my lords. There is only one man who knows each of us. There sits the only king I mean to bend my knee to!” The point of his sword swung past Robb, and aimed directly at Ned Stark.

Ned looked stunned, and then shook his head.

“No,” he replied firmly. “I am honored, my lords. But if the North is to keep a king, it shall need one that can ride, one that can fight- and I cannot.” His eyes fell on Robb. “But there is one that you can call King,” he said softly. “A man who is strong, and proud, and intelligent. A man who is brave and gentle, who will see to both the smallfolk and the lords. I cannot be your King, Lord Umber, but Robb can.”

“An untested boy?” Lord Glover demanded. “A green boy-”

“A Stark,” Sansa snapped. “A Stark who has ruled the North for a full year on his own. A Stark who wields a sword better than most any of you despite being half your ages.” Her chin was raised, her jaw clenched, her braided hair hanging down to the small of her back like a blooded sword. “Tell me when you took the mantle of your lordship, Lord Glover? Was it fifteen? Younger? What place have you in protesting this placement?”

Baelish’s eyes glittered, startled.

You saw her dark hair and pale skin and fear, and not the wolf within. Jon didn’t grin, but his teeth felt sharp against his tongue. The true tragedy here is that you will not be able to tell the Lannisters who Sansa truly is.

Robb breathed in, and then stepped forwards, pressing Sansa backwards.

“Winterfell needs a Lord, and the North needs a warden,” said Robb, “but we are also in need of vengeance. Jory Cassel and twenty guardsmen, twenty good, honorable guardsmen, were killed for the Lannisters’ fears. Their families sit in this hall, baying for blood, for vengeance, and I know only one thing to say: those who have hurt us will bleed. For every Stark man killed, we shall take ten of theirs.” He nodded to Lord Umber’s still-unsheathed sword. “Call your banners, my lords, and we shall ride south. We shall raze the Westerlands to the ground and give the Lannisters a taste of Northern justice.”

Lord Umber’s face twisted. Slowly, he knelt.

“By your blood, by your father’s blood, I swear my sword and my men’s swords,” he announced. “The King in the North!”

Then the others were raising their swords and shouting, and Jon felt as if the skies themselves had bled open, sending down these roars, these men. The old gods, perhaps. All he knew was that there was a storm that night in the great hall of Winterfell, and it tasted like lightning and ice.

That night, Sansa slipped into the dungeons.

Petyr had been escorted from his relatively comfortable room in the keep to the dungeons after the lords declared Robb king. Sansa had watched, and she had felt a fear thrum against the back of her throat like a harp’s strings; how could she protect him when he pledged himself to the North’s vengeance?

But she would. Sansa would do what she had to do, as she always had.

In the night, when the shadows curled like black fingers over Winterfell’s stone walls, Sansa would allow herself to be selfish, as well.

Jon was with Arya, sparring in an attempt to relax. Robb and their father were going over the details of his kingship. Their mother, Bran, and Rickon were in her chambers, trying to comfort her- she was still infuriated over Petyr’s duplicity, still mourning over his betrayal. Sansa had refused supper in favor of spending time with her, but after Bran and Rickon tumbled into the room she left.

And headed down, to the dungeons.

There were two guards at Petyr’s door. Sansa threw back her hood and stepped into the lamplight.

“I wish to speak to him,” she said.

They exchanged wary looks. It made her heart tighten, made blood rush in her ears.

“Open the doors,” she told them flatly. “If you’ve something to take up, ask my brother. Or my father, if it bothers you that much. But before then, you shall open these doors.”

One- slightly taller, a little older- finally sighed and reached for the handle.

“If you wish us to enter,” he said seriously, dark eyes sharp in his face, “then all you must do is scream. We shall hear you, my lady.”

Sansa thought of the knife in her shoe, the way Petyr’s hands were thin and chapped from the wind, the cold promise she would give him. Tonight, I am no lady. I am a wolf. Petyr would see what he hadn’t, and she knew that this room would be where she killed him, at the last. There would be no need to take his head if she stripped him of everything he prided himself on first.

“Of course,” she said serenely, and entered the cell.

It was damp, and cold, and dark. There was a single grate set high in the wall, but it let in only a faint sliver of moonlight. The only way she could see anything of Petyr was through the candle she herself brought with her.

“So the little dove decides to visit at the last,” Petyr croaked. When he shifted to better see her, chains clanked. “Tell me, how does it feel to be surrounded by Northern savages once more?”

“Tell me how it feels to be in chains,” Sansa replied calmly. “Tell me how it feels to know that your plots have been uncovered, and that over fifteen years of planning and conniving have been rendered useless by a girl younger than that. Tell me how it felt to be under all those judgmental eyes in a hostile court, Lord Baelish, and then- then- I shall answer your question.”

“Where were these teeth in King’s Landing?”

“Cersei Lannister would have killed me if she thought I was any kind of a threat.” She shrugged. “I am a survivor, first. I simply- didn’t show my weapons.”

Petyr watched her carefully. Suddenly, slowly, he said, “Everyone wondered who told your sister and bastard brother to flee. I told the Queen that it was you, but nobody believed it- not even myself. Not even the Queen, when she accused you.” Sansa waited, and he went on: “But who else? No servant would have dared, and what nobleman would have wanted to?”

She tilted her head to the side. “I did what I had to do to save those I love.”

He shook his head as if to let those thoughts fall away. Sansa realized that his hands were trembling very, very finely.

“Why are you here?” He asked hoarsely.

“Because I wanted you to know that I’m the reason you’re going to die tomorrow,” she murmured. “I, the girl Cersei Lannister did not believe could kill someone.”

“Ilyn Payne,” he whispered, horrified. “It was you who killed him.”

“I will not swing the sword,” Sansa told him, ignoring his words with ease. “But I shall ensure that none remember you.”

All memory of you will disappear. Who shall remember a petty lord with ambition enough to rise high? What will they ever say of you, but that you were found and silenced by Northern honor, Northern steel? You shall be as dust.

“They will sing of me and mine for centuries,” Sansa told him, and there was something in her voice that made it sound less a promise and more a truth. “The Starks will endure, and all that you are will be forgotten. I want you to know that, Petyr Baelish. There shall be no escaping my brother’s sword on the morrow.”

“Look me in the eye,” he hissed. “Tell me why I die.”

Sansa stepped forwards, skirts sweeping over dirty stone and dried blood. She knelt, candle throwing deep shadows over them both, and looked at him steadily.

“You die because you told my mother that you would protect me,” she told him quietly. “You die because you tried to have me killed instead. You die because I cannot see you without wanting to scratch out your eyes. You die because I am a Stark, and I will have my pound of flesh at the end of the day.”

“I die for your vengeance,” Petyr said. “Let’s not mince words, here.”

Sansa threw her head back and laughed. “You are going to die because you were a fool,” she disagreed. “Had you stayed in the Vale, had you stayed in King’s Landing even, you’d never have been prosecuted. But you were greedy. You wanted my mother. And for that, you paid your price. Or, you will.”

And with that, she stood. She did not feel lighter, Sansa thought, or even happier. But the chill in her chest and the tips of her fingers didn’t ache, and her arms felt loose and light against the rough wool of her gown.

“You’ll never see my mother again,” she said. “You will die, and not a single person will think it anything but justice. Not a single soul shall weep over your body.” Sansa shook her head. “Was it worth it?”

“Was what worth it?”

She arched an eyebrow. “Your obsession with my mother.”

“She was all I ever wanted,” he bit out.

“And for that, you nearly died seventeen years ago.” She sighed and stepped away, hand brushing the door handle. “For that, you will die tomorrow. I hope, for your sake, that it was worth something, Lord Baelish- for you’ve nothing else of worth.

“Goodbye,” Sansa murmured, and stepped outside.

The guards let her go without any fuss, and when she went up the stairs she didn’t turn to enter her own room but rather slipped away into the narrow, rickety flights meant for servants that hadn’t been cleaned or looked at in ages. These went higher than the official stairs ever did. Once, Sansa had enjoyed exploring these with Robb, before her mother told her it was unladylike.

Now, she let her feet carry her where instinct guided: past rotted wood and moth-worn tapestries, through a small hole in the wall to a smaller, hidden ledge braced between two towers. The wind cut at her face and hands, and she curled into the warmth of her furs, huddling against the cold stone wall.

If she stayed there, nobody would be able to find her. It had been ages since Sansa had ever come here, and now she wondered why that was- had being a lady been so terribly important for her?

But from here, Sansa could see the way moonlight hung over Winterfell- the rough stone walls turned to silver, the hard edges of the earth softened to dark rolls. This is mine, she thought. This harsh, frozen land was hers. Robb may have been the King, and her father might have been Warden, but Sansa was the only one to know what it felt like to be alone. Sansa was the only one who had not been born to the North but had chosen it, had embraced it, had let ice flood her veins until the commonfolk called her the Queen of Winter, though she had no crown but her red hair.

I will never leave this.

Petyr would have wanted her to. Any husband she took would want her to accompany them to their keeps.

Sansa did not know if she could survive that.

Jon.

She loved him. Her heart fluttered in her chest at the thought, and she wanted to hold him tight enough to bruise, tight enough to know that she would never have to worry about being left alone again. It had taken all the courage in her to tell him she loved him, and the last few weeks- busy as they had been- had been filled with warmth that she could hardly remember from her previous life.

I love him. I love him. I love him.

He would never ask her to leave Winterfell. Sansa breathed in, deep and cutting, the cold air like glass in her lungs, and felt alive. She trusted Jon as she couldn’t trust anyone else, and she’d grown around that trust, she knew now; it had become the center of her world.

Sansa slept on that ledge that night. When the sky lightened and turned grey, she made her way back to her rooms and washed her face; slipped into a soft woolen gown in Stark blue and white; braided the sides of her hair back and let the rest fall free, a banner bright as blood down her back. Then she went to Robb’s rooms, and though neither broke the silence, the space between them felt raw and sparking. Once he was ready, they left together, arm in arm, and stopped in the courtyard.

“Chin up,” Sansa told him quietly, and stepped back, watching.

She owed that much to Petyr, at least, even if he’d never have given Sansa that respect.

In the end, she thought, this whole thing- Petyr’s greed, her mother’s ignorance, Lysa’s jealousy- it was just sad. It was painful, and scraped at people’s judgment until everything seemed raw and aching, but under it all it was just plain sad.

Petyr was brought from the dungeon. As he was walked over to the block, Jon slipped beside her. She felt the warmth of his side, though he barely brushed her; and then she couldn’t stand it any longer and slid a hand between them, lacing her fingers through his tightly.

Robb moved closer to Petyr.

“For crimes against the North you are sentenced to die,” he announced. “In the name of the North, by the judgment of the lords of the North, you are sentenced to die. Do you have any last words, Petyr Baelish?”

“Yes,” he said, and turned to meet Sansa’s eyes, so cold that Sansa thought she could see his death in them, already. “Yes, it was worth it. All of it.”

The watchers looked confused, but Sansa didn’t give them the satisfaction of a reaction. And then Robb raised his sword, and said, “In the name of house Stark, as the King in the North, I sentence you to death.”

The sword flashed down, quick and brutal, the shine like a blur of light. Sansa inhaled, sharply, but didn’t look away. Her hand tightened around Jon’s.

The blood that stained Winterfell’s cobblestones was a red just a shade brighter than Sansa’s hair. For a moment, everything seemed to stand still, but then the wind blew and Robb sagged and other men started cleaning up the body and head and-

Lady, Sansa thought desperately, and in less than a heartbeat her direwolf was there, tall enough for Sansa to lean into, warm enough to lighten some cold, freezing thing in her bones.

It was a long moment spent pressing her face into Lady’s soft fur, ignoring the rest of the people in the courtyard. Then she straightened, brushed a hand down Lady’s back, and turned, catching Jon’s arm with her fingertips.

“We are Starks,” she whispered. “We survive. We endure. Oh, gods, tell me I did right, Jon, in killing him.”

“We are Starks,” he whispered back. “We are wolves, Sansa, and we defend our own. You did what you had to do to survive, and if anyone says anything against it I’ll make them regret it.”

“And how will you do that?” Sansa asked, feeling warmth burst in the back of her throat like a sunburst.

“They tell me I’m good with a sword,” he drawled, and the arrogance was so uncharacteristic of him that Sansa actually grinned.

I love you, she thought, and then, I trust you, and Sansa didn’t know which one was the dearer to her heart.

“The Lannisters pillaged the Riverlands,” Catelyn said. In one hand she held a scroll from her brother, begging for aid. The other was braced against the table that represented her son’s battle plans. “When do you ride south, Robb?”

Her brave, beautiful son looked at her steadily. On his brow was a crown of iron, and all Catelyn could hear was Sansa’s prophecy all those years ago: a crown of swords.

“We will ride out in a week’s time,” he replied. “I want you to accompany us, Mother.”

“My place is in Winterfell.” Catelyn frowned. “Take your father, Robb. What knowledge do I have of war?”

“I have ten advisors who can tell me battle plans,” said Robb. “But not a single one of them knows the people of the south. Not a one can offer me information of houses, alliances, or the people. I would have taken Sansa, you know, but- well. She refused.”

Catelyn smiled, amused despite herself. “Your sister is very smart.”

“Aye, she tricked me into this crown, didn’t she?” He grinned at her. “But you’re the only choice I have, Mother. Someone has to, you know.”

She looked down at the parchment in her hand and traced the loops of Edmure’s signature again. Help, he’d written, I need you. We need you. What kind of a person could ignore that?

“I’ll go,” she said, and let relief play across Robb’s face for a moment before saying, “But you shall tell your father.”

The sudden wrinkling of his brow made her laugh.

Robb rode south with twenty thousand men.

He won his first battle and captured Seagard; he won his second at Oldstones; and at his third, he met Tully forces and, jointly,  managed to crush the Lannisters at Raventree Hall.

The North celebrated their King from White Harbor to Bear Island. In Winterfell, Lord Eddard Stark led cheers for his son that could be heard all the way to Wintertown. Princess Sansa wove banners of pale blue wolves gamboling over icy backgrounds, and Princess Arya wielded a sword with as much grace as the Young Wolf was said to have had when he struck the sword from Tygett Lannister’s hands and put him in chains.

To the wolves, the smallfolk whispered. May their reign be prosperous.

And then news came from Seagard of a force of Lannisters landing at the Cape of Eagles only a few miles from the keep- and immediately marching to the Twins.

They spent less than a week there, according to the flurry of ravens Robb sent out immediately; letters from Genna Frey- née Lannister- assured the Lannister forces a smooth passage. It was particularly infuriating because they had stopped Robb’s passage south by more than a fortnight. And though he managed to coordinate with Howland Reed so that the crannogmen slowed the Lannisters down further, there was still a week between his army and theirs by the time the Lannisters passed the Neck.

“Stay in the Riverlands,” he told Theon. “Seven thousand men to take Harrenhal, and three thousand to hold what we’ve taken.”

Theon nodded, and the Greatjon behind him straightened ferociously, and Robb marched back North with his mother and ten thousand soldiers at his back.

(On the way there, he burned the Twins down to the ground. The Frey branch was all but ended- the only ones left to them were distant cousins married to other Riverlords who scarce bore the name.)

They met them at the White Knife. Manderly river runners and Robb’s own forces caught them in a pincer grip, and those that didn’t surrender either met Stark blades to their throats or drowned.

Robb took the prisoners and all his battle-weary, exhausted men the sixty miles further north to Winterfell. At the cold steel walls, he felt his throat tighten.

When the gates opened and Bran leapt forward, his hands fierce and tight as he embraced Robb, the tightness swelled and burst; before he knew it, he was weeping into his brother’s neck. And then Arya was there, and then Rickon and Jon and Sansa and their father; and Mother, who had been a few hours behind the army, came that night, and it made him wonder how strong Sansa had been, to survive losing this and then having it all again- how this kind of love could drive you mad from sheer emotion.

“Announce it,” Sansa said.

Ned looked at her. “How long have you known it?”

“Since I was nine.” Her back was very straight, and her eyes very level. She looked entirely like her mother. “Tell people.”

“Why now?”

“Because Jon insisted that I tell him,” she said sharply. “Because he is not your son and it is a lie, and I thought you could not abide that. Because Mother has spent eighteen years thinking you loved someone more than you loved her, and this is not fair to her. I don’t precisely care what you think my reason is, Father.”

He inhaled slowly. Nine. You’ve kept this secret for six years. And now-

Sansa worried over Robb incessantly. The only person who could ever make her laugh was Jon. They took such long walks in the godswood; they moved around each other with perfect ease, always knowing where the other was and where they would move; when they offered advice, it was as if they’d spoken to each other first and only then even bothered to think of speaking it to others.

“You love him,” Ned realized. “And not as a brother.”

Sansa blinked, but her surprise disappeared behind defiance quick enough. “And if I do?”

“You love him,” he said slowly. “And Jon? Does he love you?”

Her face said the answer she couldn’t speak.

“You love each other,” Ned continued. “When did this happen, Sansa?”

Before King’s Landing? Before-

“I don’t know,” she replied, and though the coloring was all wrong, Ned couldn’t help but remember Lyanna in the hours after Rhaegar had crowned her with winter roses; something in the miserable arch of her brow, and another thing in her chin- something soft, and bright, and sad, all at once. “I don’t know when it happened, Father, but I do love him. And he’ll never hurt me, I’ll never hurt him, we’re- we’re happy together.”

You are a princess. He is the bastard son of my sister. Oh, Sansa, could you not have loved someone else?

“Please,” Sansa said. “Tell everyone. Not just for myself, but for- for everyone, as well.”

Ned almost flinched. “I-” I can’t. “I’ll try.”

“You will,” she said, and it was iron in a way Ned had never heard from his daughter before. “You’ll do it, and you’ll do it soon. Please, Father. I’d much rather we tell everyone how we feel before someone finds out and accuses us of being Lannisters.”

To that, he winced. “Aye. I can understand wanting to avoid that.”

“Good.” Sansa turned to the door. “I shall see you tonight, then.”

“Aye,” Ned said, and that was that.

Ned told Catelyn in the sept.

Catelyn heard, and she did not hear, at the same time. For so long she had hated the woman that broke Ned’s vows, only to find out that he hadn’t- and though the truth was sweeter, the time taken to tell it soured it.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” She asked.

“Because at first I didn’t trust you,” Ned replied, and Catelyn thought she might cry: her husband, her lovely, kind, honorable fool of a husband- could he not temper his words for once? Could he not offer her a pretty lie for once in his gods-forsaken life?

“-and then I didn’t wish to even speak of it, to think on it, and-”

“You were selfish,” she cut him off. Ned looked startled, but she went on without letting him speak. “You didn’t want to see my disappointment. You could live without my love, but not without my respect. And so you didn’t risk it.”

He looked at her, so grieved she wanted to claw his face apart.

“There is a boy there,” Catelyn hissed, “whom I hated. Who I thought represented every last bit of my disgrace. I will lay claim to that bitterness, my lord. I always have. But it is not entirely my own. You are at fault here, too, for his unhappiness. For so long I blamed myself- what of your guilt? What of the truth owed him?”

She didn’t wait for him to answer- as soon as she finished, she walked away.

Another woman might have demanded, what of myself? The lies of almost two decades, unraveled only now, for reasons I still don’t know. What of the betrayal done to me?

But Catelyn Tully was a creature of unselfish duty, and that was hewn down to her bones. She could demand justice for the bastard boy she couldn’t bring herself to love, she could accuse her husband of tarnishing her honor, but she couldn’t bring herself to ask him when he’d decided that she wasn’t worth the truth.

People said Eddard Stark was an honorable lord.

You may try, Catelyn thought, and didn’t let the words pass her lips. You may try to be honorable, but you are not. You are only honorable when it suits you, and- and that is not honor.

“Catelyn-” he began, resting a hand on her shoulder.

She ripped away from him. “Leave,” she ordered, eyes flashing. She had spent years in the North. Let Ned see how it felt to be looked at with icy eyes. Catelyn could be a Stark at the last, here in this sept that represented her southron roots.

“Please,” Ned said softly.

“Leave,” she repeated, again, and Ned’s shoulders slumped.

He walked away, slowly, and Catelyn only let herself cry when she was sure he’d left.

Ned told his children that night.

Robb and Arya went white. Bran was the one to turn to Jon and say, quietly, steadily, “You’re still our brother.”

Sansa hadn’t left Catelyn’s side since she heard her mother crying in the sept.

But slowly, things came back to an equilibrium.

Her mother forgave her father, and though they were still irritable at meals and in private, in public they were perfectly fine. Jon’s own forgiveness of their father allowed Arya and Bran and Robb to move past it, as well. Sansa spent most of her time hiding in the godswood or with Jon, trying not to let on everything that she knew.

And then.

See: Sansa had known that Robb had been planning something since he arrived at Winterfell. It was there in the ravens sent- not to the south, those made sense- but rather to other Northern houses. It was there in the stress in his eyes, and the contemplative, frustrated edge when he looked at either her or Arya. Nothing was obvious, but together it formed a picture Sansa wasn’t sure she liked.

But she was busy, helping her father run Winterfell as she had since her mother and Robb rode south; more than that, she was trying to keep Jon’s spirits up, as well as keeping the peace between her parents; not to mention offering some advice to Robb to send to Theon who was still besieging Harrenhal-

Well. The gist was that Sansa was busy.

So it took her some time to piece together what was happening.

In point of fact, it took her a raven sent from Last Hearth to understand.

“You want to send us away?” Sansa snapped, entering Robb’s solar in a flurry of skirts and tossed hair.

Robb immediately, gratifyingly, paled. “Sansa,” he started.

She was having none of it. She shook the letter in his face.

“Why is Mors Umber assuring you that he has space in his home for a retinue from Winterfell?” She demanded. “From where, exactly, do you think he got the idea that Arya and I would be going there?”

There was a pause, and Sansa became aware of three of Robb’s battle commanders- not lords themselves; younger brothers and sons of the lords- looking torn between amusement and discomfort. She straightened, letting a cold mask fall over her features, and turned away to look out the window- an opportunity for Robb to send them away, if he wanted to avoid being yelled at in front of others.

The men left quickly. As soon as the door snicked close, Sansa turned and glared at Robb.

“Explain.”

“It’s just for a short time,” Robb said. “I- thought that it would keep you safe. And-”

“Sending me away as if I were an unwanted box?” Sansa asked incredulously. “Sending your sisters away to a castle that has nothing around it-”

“The wildlings’ve been driven back. They haven’t been seen for years, I spoke to the Greatjon about it.”

“Oh, lovely,” she said mockingly. “I don’t have to worry about wildlings at Last Hearth. Yes, Robb, that’s why I didn’t want to go there.”

He arched an eyebrow. “And why is it that you don’t want to go?”

Sansa spread her arms wide. “Winterfell is my home. Why should I go to a keep that holds no love for me?”

“It’s in the North-”

“-if I won’t go south what makes you think I’ll go north?”

“So you won’t leave Winterfell for the rest of your life?” Robb asked disbelievingly.

“I don’t understand why I have to go now. I don’t understand why there, why now, why you’ve suddenly decided that-”

“The Lannisters came within sixty miles!” Robb shouted abruptly. “Sixty miles, Sansa! Another hard day’s ride, and they’d be at Winterfell. They’d be here, at these walls, and there’d not be a single thing I could do to protect you from them.”

“No force has ever come this far north,” Sansa said flatly. “This was a fluke-”

“You underestimate Tywin Lannister-”

“I don’t underestimate him-”

Robb’s fist slammed down on the table, and Sansa felt her jaw click shut with a sudden snap. “Listen to me,” he barked. “They came this far. They got this close. I cannot fight a war while I worry about you and Arya. So you will go north, to Last Hearth.”

“Are you sending Bran?” Sansa asked. “Are you sending Rickon? What of Father? Is anyone else supposed to bow their heads to an idiotic decision made simply because you have a savior complex that only applies to me and Arya?”

Robb flinched, and looked away.

“Well?”

“You’ll take Rickon,” he said finally, unwillingly. “But Bran will remain here.”

Will he?

“Without telling me,” Sansa said lowly. “Without telling anyone. You expect me to be one of your soldiers, a pretty porcelain pawn to be moved as you wish?”

“Sansa-”

“No,” she bit out. “Enough. When have I ever tempered my tongue? Tell me, Robb, do you think that if I wanted to ride amongst your men while they fought a battle, you’d be able to stop me?”

Anger flared in Robb’s eyes. “I am the King.”

Because I wanted you to be. Because I pushed you.

Pure rage flooded Sansa’s chest. “When did I bend the knee?” She asked coldly.

He recoiled. Sansa only tossed the parchment from Last Hearth onto the table and turned to the door.

“I’m telling Arya,” she announced, and left.

...

The next days were a nightmare for Robb.

Both Sansa and Arya were furious, and their direwolves had little compunction of making this known to Grey Wind, who in turn made Robb’s life miserable with constant whimpers and pawing. His food was burned and the edible parts were tasteless; his sheets were still damp on the bed; there was a miraculous shortage of firewood in only his room.

The pranks mostly had Arya’s vindictive edge to them, but Robb suspected that Sansa was assisting her- there was no way Arya managed to get the sheets that perfect place between wet and dry that they didn’t drip without someone’s help.

“I’m not quite sure who has the crown,” he grumbled to Jon on the way to another bloody council from another breakfast filled with freezing looks and contemptuous flicks of hair. “I should just put one on their heads, gods know they’d manage to harangue Tywin Lannister to surrender easily enough.”

“I think Sansa would kill you then,” Jon replied, lips twitching, and Robb choked on laughter and burnt bread.

And then Sansa told him that she would need use of the ravens for a full week- all of them, she had said, and the look in her eyes told him not to ask.

After that, though Arya was still angry, Sansa didn’t appear half as much. Ravens arrived from the Karhold, from Torrhen Square, from White Harbor; each one left her smiling and brighter faced than before.

“She’s inviting half the bloody North to Last Hearth,” Robb said, looking such a strange mixture of defeated and bewilderedly intrigued that Jon couldn’t help but laugh.

“Surely not that many,” he said.

Robb shook his head and stabbed a finger at the paper. “The Karstarks are sending their only daughter. Two others from the Manderlys, and three from the Mormonts, and another from the Tallharts. More women from the lesser houses than I can count. I’m not japing when I say half the bloody North.”

Jon shrugged helplessly. “Is it supposed to be some sort of revenge? For sending her to the Umbers?”

Robb snorted. “I’ve no clue. And you know what? I- I do not have space in my head to look at this. To care about this. Tell Sansa that she can invite the rest of the North if she wants, try to fit all of them into that keep’s tiny rooms for as long as needed, and that I. Don’t. Care.”

So dramatic, thought Jon. It was what the Starks were, all of them, but Sansa and Robb more than anyone. Red-haired, blue-eyed fools who wept and wailed loud as a hundred widows. Silence did not slumber in their bones, and Jon loved every inch of them.

“Aye,” was all he said, though. “I’ll tell her.”

The night before Robb and Sansa left Winterfell, they announced Jon’s true parentage.

Whispers filled the halls. Jon focused on not flinching.

When he looked up, Arya had snuck close enough to brush his left side; Bran and Rickon bracketed his other. Robb leaned forwards and passed him a flagon of ale. Sansa didn’t smile, but her eyes were soft and bright.

Jon felt a smile lighten his brow, and then he dug into the meal with gusto.

“Why are you here?” Robb asked, confused.

Jon grimaced. “I told Sansa what you said. She told me that if I wanted to communicate orders through you so badly, I should go with you to the south.”

“She needs you!” Robb exclaimed.

“You’re the one fighting battles,” he replied archly.

Robb wanted to scream. The only thing stopping him from actually doing so were the two guards stationed at the tent’s entrance who’d likely recognize their young King’s frustrated, shrill rage.

Instead, he breathed deep and clawed some measure of rationality into his tone.

“Jon,” he said as reasonably as he could, “go back to Sansa.”

“Robb,” Jon said, in the exact same tone, “I’m staying here.”

“Dammit, I’m the-”

“If you say you’re the King, I’ll take that bloody crown and punch you in the face,” Jon said, and there was still no anger in his tone, damn the man.

Robb sighed and turned back, hands gripping the back of the chair until his knuckles were white.

“Fine,” he snapped, finally, petulantly, and wished his entire family didn’t know precisely how to make him feel a green boy again.

Sansa rode north with Arya beside her.

The smallfolk whispered of the red-haired princess who rode a direwolf silver as weirwood bark and with eyes as gold as Lannister hair. They whispered of the black-haired princess who belted a sword narrow and gleaming at her waist. They whispered of the red-curled prince who was as wild as he was cheerful.

Women from all the different noble houses descended on Last Hearth. Half arrived before Sansa did, and so when the snow crunched under her feet, there were a hundred eyes watching her carefully, curiously.

(In another lifetime, Sansa had barely known the women of the North. She’d had no friends to remember, no people who cared or even spared her a thought when she disappeared.

I am a princess, she thought now. You will know me. All of you will know who I am, who the Starks are. And you will tell your fathers and brothers and husbands that we are stronger than you can imagine.)

“Thank you for coming,” she said graciously.

“There’s almost fifty storage rooms under the castle, Princess,” said Mors Umber. “We’ve the largest amount of steel in all the North.”

“That sounds lovely,” Alys Karstark said acidly. “And what do you do when it snows?”

“Aye,” murmured Wylla Manderly. “Steel cannot feed women and children.”

Eddara Tallhart lifted one eyebrow elegantly. “Do you say it can feed men, my lady?”

“Of course,” Meera Reed said. “Haven’t you heard of the troubles the kitchens have, trying to make sure steel doesn’t cut their throats from the inside?”

Sansa would have laughed, if Mors wasn’t starting to turn puce. There was something to be said, she decided, right then and there, for the rage girls could induce in men. It was a mean, low thought- but a vicious sort of gladness, nonetheless.

“My lord,” she said, in lieu of a smile, “perhaps you could show us to our rooms?”

Sansa sent ravens. Her letters weren’t sharp any longer, and they were more than a few curt sentences, too; perhaps, Jon thought, she’d forgiven both of them.

He could remember the way her cheeks had flushed, the outrage and then cold disdain when she heard his jape. Jon had wanted her to laugh, but Sansa had only turned away, spots of red high in her pale face, and told him-

If you like giving messages so much, you’d be better served in an actual war camp.

For a full day, he’d agonized over it. And then she’d come to his rooms that night, a shadow with a wolf dogging her footsteps, and pressed so close to him that one couldn’t pass a single finger between them.

Keep Robb safe, she’d begged him, and Jon had wanted to tell her, I am sworn to you, Sansa-

But Sansa never begged. She never lowered herself to it. And here she was, so worried for her brother that she was begging, and it made something deep and cold in Jon’s belly curdle.

Of course, he said instead, carding rough fingers through her hair. Of course, darling, sweetling. I’ll stand beside him. Don’t you worry.

And so Jon wasn’t beside Sansa, and he had to be content with ravens winging forth from the North.

She told them of Alys Karstark’s pride; of Wylla Manderly’s pale green hair; of Lyra and Jorelle Mormonts’ ease with swords; of Meera Reed’s cheerful disposition and black humor; of Eddara Tallhart’s grace; of Arya’s budding friendship with Lyanna Mormont. Rickon enjoyed the cold air, she said, and Shaggydog had taken to the Wolfswood with enthusiasm.

Of herself, she wrote little, but that which she did spoke of a wry contentment that Jon had never heard before- perhaps it was doing Sansa well, to spend time with women of similar standing and age. When she spoke of her other life, it seemed that she’d never truly had something like it.

The men teased him for his hoarding of her letters mercilessly.

(Jon snapped and snarled and set Ghost on the worst of them, but he did not stop reading over her words before he fell asleep, every night like clockwork.)

They ran short on meat, and so Mors Umber and his brother decided to ride into the Wolfswood to hunt.

The men seemed so excited to follow them, and every time Sansa passed by the great hall, the trip seemed to grow in length. Sansa had known that the men found it chafing, being locked up in a place with only eight girls of noble status and their households- but she hadn’t known their boredom was this bad. By the time they’d fully decided, their trip was to be a fortnight long and offer meat enough to last them a year.

Alys rolled her eyes. Eddara didn’t look up from her sewing, but her lips quirked. Wylla and Wynafryd didn’t appear the slightest bit interested in the whole venture.

“Of course,” Sansa said serenely. “We shall miss you, my lord, and shall pray for your safety.”

They left, the next morning, with banners pulling taut against the wind..

Stannis died.

So did Renly, and the singers were given many songs that day: the beautiful third son, clad in armor a gleaming silver; the sour second one, given over to madness and prophecy. Their battle over right and might and inheritance and blood; the fall of steel.

The truth of that day was something less romantic.

Renly lay siege to Dragonstone months previous. On the edge of starvation for the second time in his life, Stannis asked for a parley. The terms he offered were to spare Renly death, were he to bend the knee, and Renly refused; Stannis returned to Dragonstone, and the siege continued.

The next morning, Stannis led a last charge to break the back of Renly’s army, and during the battle a shadow- black and creeping and ugly- struck Renly from the back.

Stannis must have thought to use the confusion as his ally.

But the Knight of Flowers rallied the men with a loud cry, and drove back Stannis’ men- his tired, half-starved men- with ease. Lady Brienne of Tarth struck Stannis’ head from his shoulders.

The Tyrells fled back to Highgarden with Margaery and Loras, but not before rebuilding the sept, exiling all the followers of the Lord of Light that would not convert back to the Faith of the Seven, and killing the Priestess Melisandre, who claimed responsibility for the shadow that killed Renly. Princess Shireen- the last of the trueborn Baratheons- was placed under the strict supervision of certain Stormlords and taken to Storm’s End.

Songs told of a Knight’s valor, of a brother’s rage, of a woman’s seduction.

But here is the truth, plain and ugly: that terrible day, there was only death.

Sansa took a long, leisurely walk through the courtyard, Lady beside her.

Lyra and Jorelle Mormont were sparring only a few yards away, and a number of other women were walking as well- with the keep empty of men, more women than ever seemed to enjoy the sunlight on their face.

A place of peace, she thought. A place where we need not fear. ‘Tis a blessing, for however long it lasts.

And as soon as she thought it, Rickon burst out from a shadow, riding Shaggydog and whooping. Women scattered before him, shrieking, and Sansa felt a laugh bubble through her chest.

It took her a full hour to get him off Shaggydog- it took Lady snarling him into submission, in point of fact- and though he pouted when she made him wash his hands, he was soon giggling madly as Sansa- in an attempt to get him to eat his dinner- soon had more food on her skirts than in his mouth. Finally, taking pity on Sansa’s increasingly despairing expression, Eddara and Alys descended on him and sent her to clean up.

Sansa had just changed into a new gown and was walking through the courtyard again, this time in an attempt to clear some of her head, when a rhythmic sound came from the gates, and Sansa turned to look- Arya burst into the courtyard, clinging to Nymeria’s back, and slipped off before the direwolf had stopped. Lyra and Jorelle- still sparring- stopped and drifted over, curiously.

“Lannisters,” gasped Arya. Her cheeks were red and chapped with wind.

Sansa frowned. Arya had gone for rides into the plains surrounding the keep every morning, and Sansa had never said a word against it. Arya could keep herself safe, after all.

But now- “Lannisters?”

Arya nodded frantically. “More than a hundred, marching from the river.”

“More than a hundred-”

“Not by much.” She dug her hands into her breeches and doubled over, panting, before getting up slowly. “They’re wearing North-wear. I’d not have thought them out of place if I hadn’t seen the Kingslayer.”

“You’re sure, Arya?” Sansa asked sharply.

“Yes,” she snapped. “I know what I saw. I’m sure of it. There’s a Lannister force of about a hundred men riding to this bloody keep, and if we don’t do anything we’ll die where we stand!”

Jorelle started forwards. “How far are they, Princess?”

“A few hours. They’ll be here before sundown, at the latest.”

“Drop the titles,” Sansa said flatly. Arya and Jorelle looked at her, startled; she only looked up, judging the position of the sun. “We’ve more important things to do than identify which title we have. And time is of the essence.”

An afternoon, at the most, if they were lucky.

Gods, what a time to have only women and children here.

“Get me Alys, Wylla, Wynafryd, Eddara, Meera- have them assemble in the solar. And you, Jorelle, and Lyra.” Sansa turned to Arya. “Have some women go and gather herbs and berries and all the things they can from the forest nearby,” she told her. “Take Lady and Nymeria with you, and bring them back before sundown, do you hear?”

“Yes,” Arya replied, and turned to walk away- there, she hesitated for a brief moment. “Sansa…”

“I know,” Sansa said, and she did.

Neither of them would ever dream of telling Robb or Jon, but they’d been terrified when the Lannisters rode North. There was no news, not for almost a full week, and Father had locked the gates and told them that if the bone-horn set outside the keep was to blow, they had to run and hide. Every night, Sansa had dragged Arya into her rooms and they’d lain together, just as angry as they were frightened.

But there, they’d had Father beside them. They’d had Rodrick Cassel and his trained guards. They’d had Robb.

Now, they had themselves, and not a single other person that could save them.

We will have to be enough, Sansa thought, and stepped forwards to press a cold palm to Arya’s, for just a heartbeat.

“Be safe,” she whispered, and then walked back into the keep.

In Lord Umber’s solar, Sansa entered to a storm of shouting.

Eddara had lost all her reserve, it seemed, for she was gesturing so wildly that everyone was giving her a meter-berth. Wylla shouted back, shoving at her sister when Wynafryd snapped something; Alys whirled on Wylla and might very well have gone after her with her bare hands had Sansa not brought the flat of her palms down on the table.

The crack reverberated through the room, silencing it.

“A force of hundred Lannisters ride to Last Hearth,” Sansa said into the silence. “We have no men and over five hundred women and children to protect. If we fight amongst ourselves, how can we hope to survive?”

Slowly, awkwardly, the women gathered around the table. Sansa ignored their hesitance- there was no time for patience, not now.

“We must first send word,” Wylla said, finally. “To our fathers. Or- to Winterfell, at the least.”

“I’ll send a raven within the hour,” Sansa agreed.

“The Lannisters will shoot it down.” Lyra shifted uneasily. “It’s what any battle commander would do- you don’t want your enemy sending out calls for aid. We’ll try, of course, but we can’t trust that it’ll reach.”

Eddara nodded. “And what of the men? We have to tell them what’s going on, as well.”

“Aye, they can try to break the Lannisters against these walls.”

“It’s not going to work. They’re unarmed, and have you seen the geography? The Lannisters can hold the entire valley with only fifty men. Surprise can’t answer for the rest of the disadvantages-”

“So, what, we sit here and starve while the Lannisters parade outside?”

“We aren’t even sure they are Lannisters-”

“We do both at the same time,” Sansa announced, and the others fell silent. She was a princess, and everyone there knew it. Sansa had to lead. “Lyra, Jorelle- amongst the two of you, who’s the better rider?”

They looked at each other, measuring.

“I am,” Lyra said finally.

“And who’s the better at wielding a sword?”

“I am,” Lyra repeated.

Sansa’s head jerked in a decisive nod. “Then you’ll ride out within the hour, to the Wolfswood. Find the men, and lead them south to Winterfell.” When they all protested, a rising tide of sound against leaving themselves helpless, Sansa held up a hand. “Alys is correct: surprise cannot answer for everything else our men will face. If they attack the Lannisters, at best they will be taken as hostages. At worst, they will die.”

No one answered that. Finally, Wylla looked up, meeting Sansa’s eyes steadily.

“It’s a good idea,” she said. “But don’t lead those men only to Winterfell, Lyra. Tell them to go to each of the major houses and spread the word.”

Slowly, Alys nodded. “If the Lannisters take the castle, they’ll hold the entire North by the throat. All the women of the high houses- they’ll control us. They’ll control the North.”

Another way for the North to fall.

Gods, I did this.

“They won’t,” Sansa heard herself say, as if from a great distance. The others looked at her, startled, and she pushed her chair back; rose to her feet. “We will hold Last Hearth. Until we breathe our last. This is the North, not any gold-veined Lannister keep. We are the daughters of each of the noble houses of the North, and we will not kneel to an honorless kingslayer quietly.” She breathed in sharply and averted her face, searching for some measure of control. Finally, she nodded to Lyra. “Go,” she ordered. “Get ready. We’ll meet you at the gates.”

Lyra left, and then Meera asked, dryly, “And what should we do, Princess Sansa?”

“Drop the title,” Sansa said. “We have to work together, or we won’t be able to do anything. Right now, it is the six of you- and Arya- who are my council of war. So: what do you think you should do?”

“Well. We could… put some people in charge of- different things,” Alys said. “Like food, water, clothes. Different women for different things.”

“Like who?”

“Elaena Glenmore has a good head on her shoulders,” Jorelle commented.

Eddara folded her hands neatly on the table. “The Forrester girls should be good at managing the clothes. And Bethany Blackwood’s young, but her father’s taught her to maintain horses fairly well.”

“Gwyn Whitehill?” Alys asked. “She could help Elaena.”

Sansa felt a smile twitch her lips. “Eddara and Alys, you’ll set it up, then? Everything but food, I think. You’ll be the go-betweens for the rest of the women and us, if that’s alright with you.”

“We shall do our best,” Eddara murmured.

“And the rest of you,” Sansa said, sweeping a hand between them, “just- just keep the peace. Keep the women calm, tell them we’ll survive. Make sure they don’t panic.”

“Good advice,” Jorelle said sardonically.

We are children fighting a war. But we’ve five hundred women here, dependent on our bravery. We cannot afford mistakes.

“Come,” she said calmly. “We must gather in the courtyard.”

“Stay alive,” Sansa told Lyra quietly. “Stay safe, and stay alive. Keep your head down and your chin up, and whisper the truth as loudly as you dare. But live, Lyra, please, before everything else. I would not wish the pain of a sister’s death on anyone.”

“You’re a good leader,” Lyra replied, and swung onto the horse. “You’ll keep them safe. I’m glad Jory and Lyanna have you here to protect them. Now, you keep them safe, you hear? Mother’ll kill me if she finds out anything happened to them.”

“One elder sister to another,” Sansa said, and clasped Lyra’s hands in her own: a promise, as steady as she could make it. “I’ll do my best.”

“Aye, you will. And I don’t think anyone can stop you when you do your best, can they?” She winked, and with that last, confusing comment, Lyra left.

Jaime Lannister’s men came into view almost before Arya had finished leading the women back. It was Lyanna Mormont who chivvied the last of them, and despite the bleakness of the situation Sansa felt amused at the cowed looks of women likely thrice the girl’s age.

“Close the gates,” she ordered, and it was done quickly.

Sansa waited grimly as they rode closer. The bulk of the men stopped and circled around a point perhaps a half-mile from the walls. A pale-haired youth rode forwards after some uncertain milling, and paused at the gates.

“We’ve come to ask for shelter,” he called up to her.

“Have you?” Sansa asked back. “Tell me, since when did Jaime Lannister become a Northerner?”

The boy paused, taken aback, and Sansa pressed onwards. “Tell the Kingslayer that I wish to speak to him.” Meera made an abortive sound, but she ignored her. “And tell him that I will only leave these walls when he has the guts to fly Lannister banners. I refuse to walk into an enemy camp painted with Stark direwolves.”

The boy turned and left.

An hour later, the white banners were taken down and red ones flew- Sansa took it as a sign of acceptance of her terms, and readied herself to leave.

“I’m coming,” Arya said.

Sansa shook her head. “If they don’t honor the peace terms, you’ll have to hold the castle. I’m not delivering both Stark princesses to the Kingslayer on a silver platter.”

“Just yourself,” said Meera.

“And Alys,” agreed Sansa. “We’ll go. And we’ll come back. But you’ll hold this castle no matter what happens, do you understand? No matter what happens to me. Or to Alys.”

“You’ll come back,” Arya snapped. “Or I’ll take your head myself.”

Sansa smiled thinly and embraced her. “Stay safe,” she whispered, and then pulled herself onto the horse. An afterthought, she added, “And keep Rickon safe, too, Arya.”

“Of course,” Arya said. “And you, too. Keep safe.”

“Of course,” Sansa echoed, and she and Alys left.

Jaime watched two specks steadily get bigger.

Upon closer inspection, the specks were two women, and one had that damned Tully-hair. That had to be Sansa Stark, then- purportedly a princess, and a gracious one at that, according to the smallfolk; according to Cersei, she was a fool and a pawn that had as much air in her brain as color in her hair. Beside her- he frowned, and then looked to his left, a silent question hanging in the air.

“Alys Karstark,” said Ramsay Snow, who had provided uniforms that gave them some measure of protection and guided them to the keep that would give them unfettered control of the North.

“You know her well?”

“Well enough,” Ramsay said nonchalantly.

The two rode up smoothly. Alys Karstark looked at him, and then her eyes fell on Ramsay, and she went white.

“Traitor,” she snarled, and might very well have leapt forwards had Sansa not brought her horse between them.  “I offered you ale,” she continued, speaking over Sansa’s slowly-panicking horse. “I welcomed you into my home, you bastard-”

Jaime felt his hands tighten on the pommel of his sword.

And then Sansa said something, low and hard, and the Karstark girl cut herself off.

Jaime relaxed a fraction, letting go of his white-knuckled hold on his sword, but he still felt uneasy. There was something frightening in the girl’s rage; something that was as wild and savage as any lion.

But if he’d thought that Sansa Stark was calm, he realized quickly enough that she wasn’t- her hands were tight on the reins, and the look on her face was just as cold as her bannerwoman’s.

“So this is what Boltons are,” she said. “Not just uncivilized bastards. Not just bloodthirsty savages. Traitors.”

Jaime blinked, momentarily disconcerted. Where was this venom coming from? Cersei tended to exaggerate, no doubt, but he’d also seen Sansa in King’s Landing. The girl who’d almost fainted at speaking to Tommen was decidedly more vicious when faced with true danger in the form of an army.

“I thought you came to parley,” he interjected before Ramsay could speak and make things worse.

At that, both girls turned to look at him. For a moment, he worried that it would descend into violence; had they been men, he’d surely have unsheathed his sword by now. But then Sansa seemed to regain some measure of control over herself, and though her face remained cold, her tone was slightly warmer when she said, “Our apologies.”

“Accepted,” Jaime said. With anyone else he’d make a quick jape, but there was something sharp and dangerous in the air, and he didn’t like the feeling- why feel uneasy when he held all the cards? He only nodded. “Name your terms of surrender.”

Sansa straightened and tossed her red hair back. “Leave,” she said. “Leave, now, and you will survive.”

Jaime choked. Whatever else he’d expected, he hadn’t thought she’d try to bluff her way through. He felt grudging respect for her guts- if nothing else, she had bravery to attempt it, even if she didn’t have any sort of brains to match.

“We’ve a hundred and twelve men,” he told her incredulously. “What, you think I’ll just- leave- for no reason, when you’ve ten men in that keep? Ten, if you’re lucky.”

“How could you have any way of knowing that?” Alys asked.

“We’ve passed through five towns,” Jaime replied slowly, now truly worried for their intelligence. “The people talked about the cheerful men from Last Hearth- almost two hundred, leaving on a hunting trip. Lord Bolton told us how many men to expect. The rest was… simple arithmetic.”

Sansa inhaled sharply and turned to Ramsay.

“What did they offer you?” She asked abruptly. “Gold? Titles? Tell me, what did the Lannisters offer that we couldn’t give?”

“Winterfell,” Ramsay replied. “We hold you and your siblings, my lady, and we hold the North. It wasn’t like your brother’s foolish attempt to bring vengeance will achieve anything, anyways; ‘tis death and blood that will fall on him, nothing more. But, yes, when he brought you here my father took it as a sign from the gods: why else make it so easy to take control? Why else would the keep be emptied of men when we arrived?”

“Do not think the gods favor you,” Sansa said icily. “Their opinion on treason is well-documented. You are forsworn bastard soldiers, all of you here, and you will go to the deepest of the seven hells, if the gods are just.” She breathed deep and then nodded, as if making up her mind. “Our terms still hold. If you leave now, no Northern lord will stop you from marching down past the Neck.”

“Aye,” said Alys. And then, to Ramsay: “We won’t even fight for your head.”

They’re still girls. What do they know of negotiation?

“I don’t know what parleys you’ve been to,” Jaime sad flatly, “but this isn’t how they work. You don’t- you don’t start with unconditional surrender. See, I’ll even offer you a counter: open the gates, let us in, and we won’t touch a single hair on any of your pretty heads. Take it. It’s a better offer than any you’d get from anyone else.”

“I know what a parley is,” Sansa said, and didn’t even look insulted. Joffrey would have, Jaime thought suddenly, out of nowhere. “This isn’t a parley, Kingslayer. I said that I wished to speak to you, and I have said what I wished to: if you leave, we won’t hunt you down. You should ask some other treasonous bannermen what happened to the last man who doubted a Stark’s word- I’m sorry to say Ramsay Snow wasn’t there. If you think I should heed you, I’d strongly suggest you listen to me.”

What in the seven hells-

I can’t save them from their own stupidity.

“My terms will stand until sunrise,” Jaime replied, finally. “If anyone else in that keep has more brains than you, Lady Sansa.”

“Princess,” she corrected, and smiled, so cold he was surprised her face didn’t crack from it. “My purpose is served, then. Good day, Kingslayer. The morning shall bring our answer, won’t it?”

She and Alys started to wheel their horses around when Ramsay said, “Capture them.”

Jaime didn’t answer. But then Sansa turned around, and he recoiled at the disdain in her eyes- at the disdain, yes, but also that there was no fear in them.

“Do it,” she said, and it sounded like a dare. “Do it, Kingslayer. Take me, and take my bannerwoman, and do with us what you will. The North will remember what you did, and every last house will rise up against you in response. My sister will bar the gates and starve to death before she so much as allows a single one of you through. My brother will raze everything you’ve ever known and loved, and all you’ll have is a frozen army outside a frozen keep in the middle of nowhere, with not a single hostage to your name. Do it.”

Jaime swallowed through a dry throat, and wondered if this was what Cersei would have looked like had she been allowed on a battlefield.

“Let them leave,” he ordered.

Sansa realized that her hands were shaking when she landed in the courtyard. There were half-a-thousand faces looking back at her, pale ovals sketched with fear and shaded with grief, and all Sansa could feel at that moment was sheer fury.

“There is no peace,” she announced, and there was a near-silent murmur of confusion laced with panic at it. “The council shall meet in ten minutes,” Sansa added, and then stalked into the keep.

“We knew we had nothing to negotiate with,” Sansa began tiredly, once everyone had settled into their seats. “It was just a stalling technique, in all truth, the parley. But the Kingslayer did offer us some terms that- aren’t as horrendous as expected.”

“He says that he won’t touch us,” Alys said tonelessly. “If we open the gates tonight, that is.”

Eddara stared at the grain of the table. “Are those terms so bad?”

“They’re the best we’ll get,” said Wylla.

“If we stall-” Wynafryd began.

“For what purpose?” Arya asked derisively. “To make them angrier? To have them take back the terms that they’ve already given?”

“For an army,” Wynafryd countered heatedly.

Sansa shook her head minutely, and held up a hand before Arya could retort.

We cannot stand still and let them enter.

So we won’t.

“No,” she said. “There’s no army coming. The Karhold’s closest, and even then it’ll take a fortnight for a single rider; an army will take even longer. The Dreadfort’s closer, I know, but they’ve turned their allegiance- we can’t depend on them. And the food stores are enough for only three weeks.

“We’ve two things we can do right now: we can open the gates and allow them in- whether we do it now- or in three weeks time- it matters little.” She straightened, and looked each woman in the eye. “Or, we can fight.”

“Fight?” Wylla asked. “With what men?”

“We have five hundred women,” Sansa said, and it was level, it was as straight-edged-cutting as a sword’s blade. “We have horses. We have the largest amount of steel in the North, according to Mors Umber. I know that it is easy to bow our heads and bend the knee and look away, but I tell you this: we Starks don’t turn our faces. The men of the North are honorable, and we are their daughters, their sisters, their soon-to-be wives. Tell me, tell me, why we can’t lift steel in our own defense.”

“None of us know how,” said Wynafryd.

“It’s not that difficult,” Arya replied. “Think of it as a pointy stick, you know, and you’ve got more experience than most women, already.”

Sansa struggled not to roll her eyes. Then she breathed deep, and said, quietly, “I’m not going to ask you to fight if you don’t want to. If enough of you want to- more than half- we’ll open the gates and let them in. I’ll do it. But I think we can, I think it’s possible, I think there’s something that we can achieve, something great, right here. But it’s only possible if we’re brave enough to reach out and take it.”

Arya frowned, looking over her with glittering eyes. Abruptly, she jerked her chair back and rose to her feet. “I say we fight,” she said.

Eddara got up slowly. “We can’t,” she said. “A hundred trained men against us? We’re girls, all of us. We can’t. Open the gates.”

“I say we fight,” said Wylla, fiercely, as she stood. “We Manderlys have flown Stark banners for a thousand years. We won’t falter here.”

Jorelle nodded. “If we open the gates, we’re nothing more than glorified prisoners, no matter how safe the Lannisters claim we’ll be. No; I say we fight.”

“To what end?” Wynafryd asked softly. “We risk everything that we have in the hopes that we can train women to bear steel? Open the gates.”

Wylla looked stunned at Wynafryd’s words; she turned a dark pink that clashed horrendously with her green hair. Before she could shout, though, Meera rose to her feet.

“I can teach them to defend themselves,” she said. “And we’re strong, each of us, in our own ways. Aye, we’ll fight, I say, and we’ll fight well.”

They waited for Alys to speak- she was the last- but she didn’t; only stared at the table for a long time before slowly looking up at Sansa.

“Had you not spoken, the bastard would have taken us prisoner,” she said. “And who knows what would have happened then? The Kingslayer didn’t expect you-” Alys looked around her, and her lips twitched. “You should have seen it,” she told the others. “She was wonderful. She was as courteous as a blade, and nearly made the Kingslayer bleed with it.”

Her eyes swung back to Sansa. “He thought you a shrinking southron violet. He still thinks all of us as foolish and meek as his sister and her ladies. But we’re Northerners, born and bred, and that blood runs true. For sixteen years everyone’s told me to stay silent, to watch and wait, to be nothing more than a warm body for some strange man once I’ve flowered. Not a one’s told me to stand up for myself.” Alys nodded, once, decisively. “Put a sword in my hands, Princess, and I’ll help lead the army myself.”

Seven women ranged in front of her, each as different from the other as possible. But they stood, and they stood tall, and Sansa could do nothing more than match that courage.

She rose to her feet.

“Then we fight,” she said. “We shall fight, and we shall do our inheritance justice.”

She pressed against the table, both palms flat against the rough wooden grain. “Get some rest. We begin training on the morrow.”

Lyra’s horse dropped when she was just out of the Wolfswood.

She belted her sword to her waist, patted it on the neck, tugged her hood tighter, and began to run.

Two days later, she stepped into Winterfell’s courtyard.

It took her a few moments to enter the keep, and then she was in the great hall- a man was at the head table, and she could see Arya in the lines of his face.

Lord Stark.

I’ve arrived.

Swiftly, she moved forward, approaching the table. When she was only a few feet away, she stepped out of the shadows and threw back her hood; she unsheathed her sword, ignoring the sudden hush at bared steel in the great hall, and knelt.

When she looked up, Lord Stark was frowning heavily. There was no recognition in his face.

“My name is Lyra Mormont,” she said hoarsely. “I am the daughter of Lady Maege, sister to Dacey, and your daughters have sent me here, my lord.”

He got up. “My daughters? They are at Last Hearth, Lady Lyra. They are-”

“There is news,” she said. “News I would tell you first, my lord, before telling others. I beg of you- do you have a council that you must call? I’d rather tell it to all who I must once.”

“Aye,” he said, and Lyra let herself be led to a small room a few corridors away. When all the lords were assembled, he said, “Tell us, Lady Lyra. What news from Last Hearth?”

“A force of Lannisters,” she said. “A hundred men, led by the Kingslayer, marches on the keep. Princess Arya was out riding when she saw them, and so returned and told us what she saw.”

“Impossible!” A lord said. “You think villagers wouldn’t have spread rumors of their march?”

“And even if that wasn’t true, the keep will hold. Two hundred men stayed there as protection,” said another.

Lyra firmed her jaw. Her princesses, her sisters, her friends- they depended on her surety. They depended on her to save them.

“They wore Northern armor,” she explained stiffly. “And the men were out hunting. The keep held only women and children when the Lannisters came.”

“How are Sansa and Arya?” Lord Stark asked, eyes cold enough to make Lyra shiver.

“Alive,” she replied. “As far as I know. As soon as Princess Arya rode in with the news, I left. I apologize, my lord- I know nothing more.”

“You rode south immediately?”

“I found the men,” Lyra said. “Those from the keep. Princess Sansa gave me letters pressed with her official seal, ordering them not to return. She recognized that the men were too few to retake the valley, and so told them not to lose their lives needlessly. Instead, she had them head to separate keeps and ask for assistance. But after that, yes, I rode south, to Winterfell.”

One of them glared at her. “Where’s your horse?”

“I drove it too hard,” she answered. “It’s- well, I hope it isn’t dead- but we parted ways right before I left the Wolfswood.”

“And ran the rest of the way here?”

“Yes,” she snapped. “I ran for two days and three nights, and right now I’m on my feet only because I’ve two sisters in that bloody castle that need to me to save them. So listen to me, and hear what I’m saying: there’s a force of Lannisters at Last Hearth, and if your daughters aren’t dead already, they are prisoners, and I’m not sure which fate is worse!”

Listen to me, you bloody overgrown fools. I’ll get down on my knees if I have to. But do something, because I don’t think I can bear to look at my mother and tell her where Jory and Lyanna are.

“We are the women of the North,” Sansa said, in a hall packed with shaking, terrified people. “We are stars, and bears, and lizards, and wolves. We are steel. We will not open the gates to the faithless Lannisters quietly, we will not bend the knee bloodlessly, we will not surrender! Our men carry steel at their waists and on their backs. Tell me, why can we not do the same?”

“D’you think Bran’s driven Father crazy yet?” Robb asked.

Jon smiled lazily. They were drunk, the both of them; or, not quite- tipsy, perhaps. On the verge of becoming drunk, but not there yet.

“If he hasn’t, then Summer would’ve,” he said.

Robb laughed. “Imagine, Father telling that big white thing to heel like a hound!”

“Summer’ll as easily listen to your father as he would to Bran,” Jon told him. “But if Shaggydog were there-”

“We’d return to a half-mad lord of Winterfell,” Robb finished.

“Exactly.”

They settled into a nice silence, the ale blurring the lines of the tent into faint gold. It was broken by the Lady Catelyn, who looked between them disapprovingly but didn’t say anything when she entered; she only handed Robb a letter, and said, “It’s from Winterfell.”

“Did you read it yet?” Robb asked. His tone was much different from before- an attempt to sound older than he actually was, Jon thought, but it didn’t actually succeed; he looked slightly ridiculous when he puffed his chest out like that.

“No,” she said. “It just arrived. What does it say?”

Robb rolled his eyes and took the letter, unrolling it.

A moment later, all levity faded from his face. By the time he was halfway through, his hands were trembling; when he finished, he was as white as a sheet.

“Robb?” Jon asked slowly, a pit building in his gut. “What happened?”

“Read,” he said, tossing the letter to him. “Gods above, I- I did this. I-”

Jon bent over the letter.

When he finished, he knew he wasn’t much better than Robb.

“They hold them,” he whispered.

“Aye,” said Robb. Tears, bright and blinding, stood out in his eyes.

“I’m leaving tonight,” Jon said.

“And doing what?” Robb asked. “You’ll need an army to take Last Hearth. And you won’t be able to, anyways; they have Arya. They have Rickon. They have Sansa. What are you going to do, Jon?”

“I’m going to start negotiating,” Jon snapped back. “It’s what we’ll have to do, eventually, right?”

Robb inhaled, exhaled, set his shoulders, and said, “No.”

Jon surged to his feet. It was a chair that saved Robb a broken nose- a chair between them, hampering his movements enough to allow some measure of calm into his head.

And then Lady Catelyn stepped between them, eyes hard.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Robb,” she said. “He has to go. If you want any sort of control over your army, you have to stay here. And Jon-” she turned to him, “-you’ll go, but you won’t go alone. Take twenty men with you. Use them as negotiation pieces, if you must. I’m sure there are enough young men here, enough men whose sisters and daughters are there in that keep- they’ll want to accompany you.”

“I don’t want twenty men-”

“You’ll take them,” Robb said suddenly. “And you’ll go North, and you’ll do your best, do you understand?”

Jon felt cold, bitter bile rinse down his throat. “I’ll save them,” he said roughly. “I’ll try, gods above, I love them too, Robb!”

“I know that.” He sighed, and looked grief-stricken; looked exhausted; looked young. “I know that, Jon. But I’m the one who removed them from Winterfell’s safety. I caused this, and- and- I don’t know if I could bear their deaths. My sisters. My youngest brother. In the gods-bedamned Kingslayer’s hands.”

“You didn’t cause this,” Lady Catelyn said, at the same time as Jon’s, “This isn’t your fault.”

“I’ll find those who betrayed us, and I’ll kill them myself,” Robb whispered, stepping around his mother and embracing Jon. “And you: find those Lannisters and kill them all. That’s an order from your King, alright?”

“Aye,” said Jon, and pressed his forehead to Robb’s shoulder; let himself dissolve into entire, body-shaking shudders.

They didn’t sleep.

Three weeks- they had food enough for three weeks.

Sansa was determined to make good use of it.

The women- five hundred of them- were divided into groups. All were given basic field-dressing guidance. All trained for at least a week on wielding swords, taught by Arya or Meera. The children were given simple chores, and the older ones- led by Lyanna- helped in distributing the food and water and clothes.

Sansa and her council didn’t sleep.

Arya and Meera were almost continuously training the women, and when they weren’t, they were going over battle strategy with Sansa, Jorelle, Alys, and Wylla. Eddara and Wynafryd had taken over the healing sessions, and they all assisted each other where they could.

Sansa read old historical records of wildling attacks on the castle, and the strategies used to repel them. She dusted off tomes on geography to see if there were secret places that could be used. She yawned and stretched and snapped, and every step of the way there were seven other women beside her.

As the days passed, they saw a battle plan emerge. It was pockmarked, scarred, shaky- but it was something, and it was built out of nothing but their own hard work.

There was something to be proud of, in it.

“To the men I take,” Jon announced, “I will not pause for you. Your horse throws a shoe, we leave you behind. You sleep late, we leave you behind. You whine at all, we tie you up and leave you behind. Do I make myself clear?”

The men nodded.

“Good,” he said flatly. “We leave at dawn.”

Arya dragged Sansa out of the solar when two weeks had passed and Sansa had still not gone for a single training session.

“I know you don’t like swords,” she told her, “but you’ll be leading at least some women when we attack, and you’ll need some knowledge. Plus, it’s your own fault for convincing us to fight.”

“It isn’t that-” Sansa said, but Arya spoke over her.

“Now, we’ll begin with how to hold a sword-”

“Give me one,” Sansa interrupted.

Arya sent her a look. “It might look easy, Sansa, but it really isn’t. You need to know how to hold one properly.”

“I know,” Sansa said. “Now. Give me a sword, Arya.”

She rolled her eyes and then picked up one from the pile at her feet, stepping forwards and slapping it into Sansa’s hand. Sansa hefted it easily- wooden swords were weighted similarly to steel ones, but there was something inherently easier on the wrist with them. She raised an eyebrow at her sister.

“I might have told you that I know how to hold a sword if you’d asked.” she said archly. “I asked Robb to teach me- a long time ago. No, I don’t have your skill-” because gods, it’d been a long time since she last actually sparred or bore steel, “-but I am better than most anyone who doesn’t have practice- likely the only people who’ll best me here are you, Jorelle, and Meera.”

Arya looked at her, evaluating, and then grinned. “Come at me.”

“What, now?”

“Yes,” she said, raising her own practice sword. “Now.”

It was a blur of grey stone and wood. Sansa met Arya’s first two strikes, and let her greater height bear down on Arya for a brief moment before seeing the flicker across the corner of her eye- she spun away, her sword coming up instinctively; but Arya rapped her sword across Sansa’s knuckles instead of the blade, and Sansa dropped her sword, nursing the stinging bruises.

The clatter of the sword on the ground opened up her field of view, and Sansa became aware of the small crowd gathered around to watch their fight.

“You’re not bad,” said Arya, and while it wasn’t admiring or anywhere near soft, it was warm, and it made Sansa grin back at her, suddenly unabashed, suddenly proud.

“We’ve five more days of food,” Jorelle said quietly.

The Lannisters had spent two weeks drinking, carousing, and having the feasts they knew those inside the keep couldn’t afford. They could hear the music and rough laughter through the night.

“There should be rain soon, according to all the predictions.” Sansa swallowed, hard. “And we’re as ready as we’ll get. As soon as the weather turns, we’ll attack.”

Their plans were simple, as they needed to be. But first and foremost, it depended on Arya’s bravery and her ability to sneak, and for that she needed to look unremarkable.

She needed to look like a boy.

Sansa had hated to ask it of her, but Arya was fair-vibrating with excitement for this part. When Jorelle had offered to cut her hair, Sansa had insisted on doing it herself.

Those who pass the judgment swing the sword.

...in this case, a knife.

Arya’s dark hair decorated the floor of her room. Sansa styled it to look as boyish as possible- all long, lanky strands that framed her pale, long face. When Arya slipped into a set of breeches and a jerkin, she looked remarkably unlike herself.

“Head down and chin up,” Sansa told her firmly. “Shaggydog and Nymeria are going to accompany you- we’ll start riding out in an hour’s time. Once you’ve taken care of the horses, you know what to do, don’t you?”

“Send Shaggydog back, and hide,” Arya recited. “And then- I know what I have to do after that. I’ll take care of myself, don’t worry, Sansa.”

“You’re the most important person here,” Sansa said. “We need you to do this. I wish I didn’t have to ask my younger sister to kill people, but-”

“When I told Jon that I’d killed a man, he told me that this- this isn’t an easy world to live in.” Arya scuffed a toe against the stone. “But it’s what we have. And nobody’s going to be angry for defending ourselves.” She breathed deep. “I know you don’t want me to do it. But I’m the best, in this entire keep, so I’m going.”

Sansa hugged Arya tightly. “I know,” she whispered. “I’m so afraid, Arya, and I’m so tired of being afraid, but- but. I know you can do it. I never doubted it.”

“You be safe, too,” Arya ordered, voice muffled into the weave of Sansa’s gown. “You have to do battle, Sansa, and you have to live. Alright? You be safe.”

“I’ll try just as hard as you,” Sansa said, leaning back and pressing a finger under Arya’s chin, lifting it to meet her gaze.

It was a promise, and a hope, and a fear, all melting together like dye in a tanner’s workshop. Sansa, a month ago, might have wept at the tension. But now she had spent three weeks leading a castle of five hundred people, inspiring and talking and fighting- Sansa was grimmer, now, and older, and wiser. She only pressed her lips to Arya’s forehead, as gently as she could.

After a few moments- once Arya was putting the finishing touches of her costume on- she spoke.

“Did you talk to Rickon?”

Sansa sighed. “Yes. He’s- not happy. To say the least.”

The night before, he’d pitched a fit loud enough to be heard halfway across the keep, all because Sansa’d finally told him that she and Arya would be attacking the Lannisters soon. It had only gotten worse when Sansa asked if he’d let Shaggydog go with them- he’d wanted to come with them. He’d refused to let them risk their lives and keep him safe.

Arya had been the one to calm him down.

Sansa wasn’t sure what exactly Arya had told him, but he’d been subdued throughout the night. Even if he was sullen and moody when Sansa approached him, it was at least better than screaming and wearing at the nerves of the already-jumpy population.

“He’ll be fine,” Arya said, and finished belting Needle at her waist.

“He’d better be,” Sansa said with a wan smile. “I can’t handle him on top of everything else. Now, come on, we have to meet everyone else in the solar.”

On the way, Arya grumbled, “I don’t see the point of this meeting.”

“Think of it as a pep talk,” Sansa replied. At Arya’s scoff, she added, “You might not need one, but I’m sure there are some others that do.”

“I’m sure,” Arya said dryly, and then they entered the solar.

The rest of the council was there when they arrived- all six other women.

Girls, Sansa thought, and felt prickling fear run down her spine. We are just girls. Not a one of us has seen her twentieth nameday.

“All of you know what we’re going to do soon,” Sansa said, taking her place at the head of the table. Arya flanked her. “Once we step out of this room, we are the leaders of this castle, the battle commanders. But we are not just that, and- well. I just want you to know, all of you, that if the Lannisters were to come like this, I’m glad that I’m fighting them beside you. There are none other that I would ask for.”

“Aye. We couldn’t have done this without each other.” Jorelle smiled. “And I’ll tell you this, Princess Sansa, none of us would be here without you.”

“We’d’ve opened the gates and bent the knee to a Lannister bastard,” said Wylla. “Or we’d’ve watched two hundred of our own men get slaughtered for no reason. We’d’ve died, perhaps, or been raped. And we still might do all those things, I won’t say it’s impossible. But at least we didn’t do it quietly. I can say I’ve pride in my choices, and that’s not something I ever expected.”

Alys looked at Sansa intently. “If I am to die today, I’m glad it’s beside all of you.” She swallowed. “I am glad to do so in the name of the North, yes- but also in the name of Sansa Stark.”

“I’d wish all of you to live,” Sansa said softly. “I’d want all of you beside me, not dead.”

“So would we,” said Meera, a lopsided smirk affixed to her face. “But you asked us to fight, Princess, and we answered you. We’ll fight to live, too, but we’ll fight for you, first.”

You chose to fight. Accept it, and let all those who underestimate you learn to regret it.

“Thank you,” Sansa said. “Thank you, all of you. I know this isn’t what you wanted. We aren’t fighting for anything other than life, and you know this- we aren’t fighting for honor, not like our men. But it’s what we have, and-”

Arya’s hand dug into Sansa’s shoulder, squeezing hard enough to make her pause.

“You’re wrong,” she said very seriously, under her brown-black fringe. “We do fight for honor, Sansa. Maybe not with honor, but for it- for our own. And there’s nothing lesser in that.”

Sansa looked at her little sister, younger by two years and so much older than her years suggested. We are growing, she thought, and it was just as sad as when Robb accepted his crown. It was just as proud.

“So we fight,” Sansa said, looking at each of them in turn, memorizing them as they were, all lamplit-lovely: any man might have only seen their beauty and named them empty-headed. But Sansa knew the way Alys narrowed her eyes when she concentrated; the way Wylla dyed her hair green and honed her tongue like it was a sword; the way Wynafryd hid in her sister’s shadow and used the darkness to take note of secrets; the way Jorelle bore steel with ease and hated using it every moment; the way Meera laughed at things others flinched at, and was still as kind as Wynafryd at her gentlest; the way Eddara’s hands tightened on each other when she disagreed with a statement, even if she’d never say anything; the way Arya bared her teeth and burned twice as bright as anyone else.

If this is to be my only battle, she thought, I am proud to say I’ve fought it beside all of you.

“Thank you,” she repeated, and smiled, as softly as she knew how, because Sansa was the courteous, genteel daughter of Lady Catelyn. And then, because that was not all she was, she added: “Now. Let’s go out there, and break an army, alright?”

When the valley turned misty with impending rain- Arya snuck out with Nymeria and Shaggydog. There were three sentries in the camp, and in the hours before dawn, she slit their throats, quietly. The direwolves dragged their bodies away before they could be discovered.

Nymeria returned, quickly, but Shaggydog was gone to find the rest of the army.

Then she went to the paddock- a temporary wooden enclosure the Lannisters had built to keep the horses together.

A few well-placed torches, a nicely-cut down fence, and some judicious application of whistles ensured the horses stampeded towards the camp instead of away. The men were drunk, or sleeping off the drink; they had no chance.

Arya ran a slightly-shaking hand down Nymeria’s back and lowered her head; drew Needle and moved towards the big red tent emblazoned with lions rampant.

Your turn, Sansa, she thought.

The geography surrounding the keep was, at first glance, highly undesirable.

Particularly in their situation.

But they’d built a strategy that was as dependent upon that terrain as possible.

The valley sloped upwards, ending in Last Hearth itself. The reason why the Lannister men only covered one part of the valley was because there was nowhere to go in the opposite direction- it all emptied out into the same basin in the end, anyways.

But that meant there were separate entrances- not the main gates, which were closely watched- but smaller ones, set into the sides. And these weren’t watched half as closely, because they all ended up in the same place; it was a waste of resources.

These entrances were what they used.

A major force- led by Sansa, Wylla, and Meera- came through one. They were to await Shaggydog and then start marching. By the time they arrived at the camp, the released horses would have hopefully calmed enough; their women could finish off those who hadn’t been killed already.

And a smaller force led by Jorelle and Alys circled further around the valley, serving essentially as a sponge to absorb those who attempted to flee in that direction.

When Shaggydog came loping out of the fog, all big and black, muzzle sticky with blood, Sansa thought she might be sick from the fear, from the anticipation. She breathed deep, drew her sword, and nodded to the two flanking her.

We are Northerners, she thought, and started to move forwards.

Stay safe, thought Jon. Stay alive. I’m coming.

For all their planning and preparation, though, Sansa had known one thing: it wouldn’t be enough.

If forty men were injured in the horse stampede, they’d be lucky. If Jorelle and Alys’ force got another twenty, they’d be lucky. And that still left more than fifty men to fight.

And- a force of three hundred women was six times that of the men, but the men were trained. They’d done their best; attacked when they’d be drunk, sown confusion within their ranks, stoppered their escape- but it wasn’t enough.

They could only fight in pitched battle for so long before it became a death sentence.

Sansa thought fifteen minutes would be too much. Arya said twenty; Jorelle said thirty. Whatever the number, the death toll was too high, and everyone accepted it. They’d needed something that could make fifty men drop their weapons quickly, unhesitatingly.

Which was the second part of Arya’s mission.

The most important part of the entire battle, in all honesty.

Sansa cut open a man’s throat, feeling the warm splatter of blood across her face, and shoved another that was wounded in his leg, right on the jagged cut. She looked around her, and when there was still no movement from the Lannister tents, she whistled for Shaggydog and sent him bounding towards the camp.

She turned and met a blade with the flat of her own, just in time to avoid her neck being cut open. In the corner of her eye, she saw Wylla scream and land on one knee; saw a Lannister soldier start forwards, ready to behead her; say Lady pounce and take his throat between her jaws. Sansa bared her teeth, angled her sword, and moved forwards.

A moment later, Wylla met her back with a flick of her green braid.

“Alright?” She asked when the rush slowed a little.

“Yes,” Wylla replied. “Just- a little mistake.”

She spun the sword in a wide arc, and Sansa fell back one step; gave her room, and slashed at a man who tried to take advantage of Wylla’s open side.

“Be safe,” Sansa said reprovingly, and then they separated.

She wasn’t sure how long it took, but slowly the rage of battle lessened, and she gasped in relief.

The tide parted in front of her, and Sansa could see Arya standing before the men, a knife gleaming in her hand and Shaggydog beside her; Nymeria behind, limping slightly, front leg a vivid scarlet mess.

Shaggydog beside her- jaws easily resting on Jaime Lannister’s shoulder, ready to tear his throat out in an instant. Sansa felt relief spread, bone-deep, in her chest, and she let herself step forwards, take charge of the battlefield where they stood.

“If you wish your leader to see sunrise,” she said, “you’ll drop your weapons.”

“Tell your men to surrender,” Arya ordered the Kingslayer.

He swallowed visibly. “I don’t-”

“Surrender, and we shall be merciful.” Sansa spoke over him. If he ordered his men to fight- the consequences would be catastrophic. “Tell me, all of you: would one of you wish to go back to Tywin Lannister and tell him that your pride was responsible for his son’s death? Drop your weapons, right here, right now, and the Kingslayer will live.”

“Do it,” Wylla snapped out- but despite her commanding tone, her eyes were full of tension when she met Sansa’s across the silent battlefield.

Meera echoed her a moment later: “Kneel, now.”

And slowly, achingly slowly, the men knelt. It spread outwards, like a wave of rippling grass, and Sansa did not let her shoulders bow a single bit, did not let herself relax one muscle while it happened.

To her luck, too; hidden by all the bodies still standing, Ramsay Snow darted towards her.

Perhaps it was because she was closest. Perhaps it was because, of the four women standing on the field, she was the only one he’d spoken to. Or perhaps it was because in all the universes, Ramsay deserved to die by Sansa’s hand, and Sansa’s alone.

His sword cut into her shoulder before she knew he was there, and Sansa rolled away from the pain instinctively. A moment later, she had her sword up and pointed at him, and she was shaking from something approaching terror, another approaching pain.

She heard Arya snap something, Meera shout- but they were too far. And Ramsay wouldn’t stop for the Kingslayer as the other Lannister soldiers would, and if Sansa died there, the fragile peace constructed would be broken.

They met and retreated twice more, and Sansa realized dimly that he was toying with her. He could have cut her down where she stood, if he’d wanted to. She was alive only because he was sadistic and vicious and wanted to make her death as drawn out and bloody as he could. Another moment, and his mailed fist slammed into her chest, and she could hardly breathe; she could hardly see through the purple dots hazing her vision.

If she gave up right there, nobody would know.

Hair plastered to her head, rain falling all around them, Sansa felt her knees land in the mud. She closed her eyes, and the grip on her sword slacked a fraction, and just as she was about to let it fall, she heard, clear as if they stood right next to her:

You do not end here, said Jon.

You will not die in mud and guts, kneeling, said Robb.

And, in a voice that was as cold as the North and as loving as a mother’s, Catelyn Stark said, Get up, Sansa.

Sansa got up, and though she felt scraped hollow, felt all she could do was fall down- she kept to her feet.

Lady, she thought, and spun away from another attack. Lady, I need you!

The ground was getting slippery. The mist had risen, and the rain was heavier; Sansa gritted her teeth and gave way before Ramsay.

And then Lady leapt forwards, a white blur, and tore Ramsay’s sword hand off with one decisive bite. His scream echoed in the air for a brief moment before she bent over, wheezing, and then the only thing she heard was her own pants. Her chest ached, and she knew she had multiple wounds, now, that hadn’t been there only moments before. The armor had taken Ramsay’s fist to her chest, but the blow had distorted the steel and she could not take a full breath without coughing.

You’re alive.

Sansa was alive, and she hadn’t expected to be. She breathed deep and let that knowledge wash away the worst of the pain.

She did not turn away when Lady began fully mauling Ramsay, and did not stop her, either. Let the Lannisters see what awaited them if they didn’t surrender. Let her people see what happened to bastard scum that dared to betray the North. Sansa didn’t need anyone’s help to get this little vengeance, and she was deeply, savagely proud of it.

She straightened her back, and stood as tall as her ladies in the solar, as Robb accepting a crown, as Jon swearing to be her shield.

“You will surrender,” she said. Her voice was deeper, rasping against her bruises and aches. “You will surrender, or we will rip your throats out.”

The Lannisters gaped at her, and she didn’t spare a single glance to the bloody corpse not ten feet from her. Sansa didn’t know what she looked like, but she did know that she was blood-drenched, aching, and draped in steel armor that glittered like a sword. She hoped she looked as wrathful as she felt.

“Kneel,” she snarled, and they obeyed.

Jaime was in a state of numb shock.

When his father told him to take a hundred trustworthy men and ride North, Jaime’d thought him foolish. But then he heard of the letters exchanged between Roose Bolton and Tywin, forming an affirmation between the two- and it all became clear.

So many noblewomen in one place, so far from any other garrison, with only two hundred men to protect them. If they took the castle, the Northern resistance would fail. The girls would either be wedded to Lannister soldiers that Jaime took with him, or used as hostages. The only difficult part, Jaime had thought, would be actually arriving there; the men could just as easily be starved inside the keep as not.

But Roose Bolton sent his own son to guide them, and Ramsay Snow gave them uniforms to protect them from casual questions. He led them to the Dreadfort, and then they marched along the river to Last Hearth.

They got there with only a few minor mishaps. And when they heard that the men were gone, too, it seemed like a stroke of great luck.

Jaime had been utterly confident in success.

In another few weeks- depending on the state of the food reserves- the women would yield, and he’d be able to send out ravens telling the Northern lords so. That first week he’d been sure they were awaiting an army to save them, and he’d had the men on high alert, watching and wary; but nothing had happened. And slowly he’d come to accept that, no, there was no one coming; the gates remained closed simply because of the girls’ pride.

The girls- for they were girls, the lot of them- hadn’t relented, and he’d become more and more impatient by the day.

And then they attacked.

Not at first, no; they released horses and stampeded them through the camp, killing and disorienting many of his men. Then they attacked with a force that was six times the number of his men, and before Jaime could properly identify what was going on, there was a thin scrap of a boy attacking him with a sword almost too thin to see- a boy with a great bloody wolf next to him.

And when he thought he might finally be able to kill them both, another wolf jumped at him, quite literally choking him with his paws before the boy prised the sword from his hand and then dragged him upright.

“My name is Arya Stark,” the boy said, and Jaime was air-deprived; he could hardly see straight, much less recognize that this skinny urchin was Lord Stark’s second daughter. “You will get up, Kingslayer, and if you so much as twitch in the wrong direction, I will have Shaggydog bite your head off. Now. Move.”

At the battlefield, it was four girls who directed them to kneel, and after Princess Sansa killed Ramsay- gods, was that the fate that had awaited him had he not listened to the second Stark girl?- he was dragged away, chained to a post and guarded closely by the black direwolf.

Another girl- with dark curls- drew a horn from her belt and blew it, and the sound that echoed was surprisingly loud for its size. She repeated it twice more.

Slowly, gratingly, the gates opened.

More women surged out of the keep, but these didn’t seem to have the metallic armor of those that had come before. They knelt at each body they came across. Jaime felt his gorge rise at their steady, cold-blooded march.

“You’re monsters,” he said through the dull ringing in his ear.

The girl with the horn looked over at him. “You’re the invaders,” she pointed out, and it wasn’t half as indignant as he’d expected.

“We’re not the ones killing all those who can’t fight back!” He exclaimed and yanked at his chains, fruitlessly. The direwolf growled, and he subsided slowly; resentfully.

“You think we’re killing them?” The girl asked, amused. “Kingslayer, we’re not evil- only desperate. And we’re not killing those men. The women are trying to save those they can, and to those who have only a slow death before them, they’re noting down their names and then offering them the chance of a painless death. We’ll take as many of you as prisoner as we can.”

“Turning the tables on us,” Jaime commented. And then, because she looked amenable to conversation, he added: “Tell me, who made the battle plans?”

Who won this battle? I’ll cut his head off myself, like you Northern savages seem to prefer. It takes some measure of courage to do something like this.

“Princess Sansa. And all of us, I’d say.” She grinned outright at the confusion on his face. “By all of us, I mean all seven of us: the Princess’ war council. You’ve met Alys, I think, and of course you know Arya; but then there’s Wylla, Wynafryd, Eddara, Jorelle, and me. Don’t you worry your pretty little head, Kingslayer, on the how. You didn’t expect it, and that’s the real reason you lost.”

“You got victory by killing us while we slept. Where’s the honor in that?”

“Where’s the honor in holding a castle of women and children hostage? Where’s the honor in taking the aid of bastards and traitors?” She shrugged. “We aren’t fools, Kingslayer. Just because we’re young- well. Your father made that same mistake, didn’t he? King Robb’s razing half your kingdom to the ground, and there’s not a thing Tywin Lannister can do to stop him.”

Jaime stared at her, and then she turned and nodded to the urchin-Stark, who’d emerged out of the shadows as if a ghost.

“Jorelle’s saying she needs you, Meera,” she said.

Meera- the girl with a horn- immediately nodded and headed away.

Then Arya turned to look at him, and it was as dangerous as it was contemptuous.

“You’re a monster,” she told him, and Jaime saw the red lines spanning her hands, the bandages wrapped around her neck, the blood still dripping from her pet direwolf’s leg wound. He remembered the low, guttural cry she’d emitted when Ramsay Snow punched her sister in the chest, and Sansa didn’t get up. He remembered the give of Jory Cassel’s skull under his sword, and her father’s cry when he saw it- almost the same as her own.

Yes, he thought. This love makes us all monsters.

Sansa flinched only when Arya clapped her on the shoulder, and then shouted loud enough to bring the attention of half the army.

After the battle, Sansa’d dug her hands into work beside the other women who didn’t need medical aid- she’d helped bandage the worst of the wounds, helped sew the larger cuts closed, helped hold down those whose limbs couldn’t be saved and needed to be cut off. After she took her armor off, she found that she could breathe easily; and bruises were not something that were in their repertoire of healing, so she just gritted her teeth and bore through it.

And then Arya tapped her shoulder to get her attention, and her hand came away a dark red, and Arya started to shout for help that simultaneously annoyed Sansa and frightened her half out of her wits.

“I’m fine,” she snapped, yanking her arm away.

Arya just waved her hand under Sansa’s nose. “Your shoulder’s bleeding. I’m not sure which definition of fine you’re using, but I’m pretty sure that it needs to fucking change. You’re coming with me-”

“I’m in the middle of an operation-”

“-you’re bleeding,” Arya told her. “I don’t care if you’re treating with the Kingslayer, which, hah, you’re not, I had to do it, by the way- but you’re not, right now, and I’m sure there’s someone else around here that has stitches as straight as yours, so I don’t care if you think I’m being annoying, you’re coming with me!”

Sansa glared at her mutely and held her ground.

Arya reached out and pressed, ungentle, against Sansa’s shoulder.

The world dissolved into blinding white noise.

“See?” Arya asked, satisfied. “You’re coming.”

Still nursing her shoulder, Sansa stumbled into a tent- only recently emptied, belonging to a Lannister soldier that was now either dead or in chains- and waited; Arya came back a few moments later with Wynafryd in tow.

“Stitch her shut,” she ordered, and then strode out.

Sansa sent Wynafryd a wan smile and winced at her reproving look.

But Wynafryd said nothing as she approached. It was only when she poured the spirits over Sansa’s cut that Sansa decided she could be just as heartless as Wylla at her worst.

A day later, Arya approached Sansa for the first time since she shoved her into a tent.

“We need to send ravens,” Arya said quietly.

Sansa had washed the worst of the blood and grime from her face and hands, but her clothes were the same. The others had taken turns sleeping and recovering from the battle, but Sansa had only commented on everything that yet needed to be done, had only said she was the leader of the castle, had only said she was yet needed- and they’d accepted it.

But here, in the dawn following a bloody battle, Sansa looked exhausted and miserable under her masks.

“We can’t,” she said.

“Why?”

“Because if we send it anyone and they tell the Boltons, we’ll be damned.” Sansa tipped a look over at Arya, all blue-eyed steady. “Because there might be other bands roaming the countryside, and if they find out we have only an army of scarce three hundred women to defend ourselves, we’ll be verily damned.”

Arya arched an eyebrow, but before she could speak, Sansa continued: “No, I don’t think it’s terribly likely. But I do think it’ll be another fortnight, minimum, before anyone comes close to us, and I don’t think we can face another army, and I’d much rather wait and have a force of men beside us and full food stores before taking that chance.”

“...so no ravens,” Arya said glumly.

“No,” said Sansa. “No ravens. No communication at all. They left us to our fate, didn’t they? They can wait for a fortnight.”

Arya looked at her sister, and wondered when she’d changed so completely.

“I like this new you,” she told Sansa, and when her sister’s expression didn’t change a bit, Arya added, “and you need sleep. I’ll hold the castle, Sansa, don’t worry, and I won’t send any ravens, either. You go, get some rest, and change out of that damn dress. It’s stinking like the seventh hell.”

“I hope Ramsay chokes on it,” Sansa replied, and then, with a grin and a wink, left Arya on the battlements, gaping at her disrespect.

His men had sat on him.

Jon, had he not had anyone beside him, would likely be at Last Hearth by now. But the nineteen other men had decided that they didn’t want to kill their horses by riding too hard, and that it made more sense to spend a night in an inn, take fresh horses, and then ride north once more.

Jon hadn’t expected them to lock him in his room.

Not that the lock had stopped him, per se; but it had slowed him down enough that the men had been able to take his horse and sell it. Before he could yell at them, they told him they’d give him another horse back in the morning.

We need rest, they said. We’ll be of more use if we have sleep and good food. We’ll leave before sunrise tomorrow, we’ll give you a fresh horse tomorrow, now sleep.

But how could he sleep when Sansa was imprisoned in a keep of Lannisters? When Arya was with her, when Rickon was with her?

So Jon toured the small town- more a hamlet, really- and as he paused at a tailor’s little stall, the man next to him started talking to the tailor of a strange tale.

“They’re calling it the Battle of the Valkyries,” the man began excitedly. “Them Umber-folk, I mean. Say an army came through, all pretendin’ to be North-men, and tried to burn a castle down, and were going to win. And then another army came sweeping outta the mist and took ‘em down.”

“Fucking bastard pretenders,” the tailor said.

The man grinned. “They say the army was led by a Valkyrie, you know, all red-haired and scary as those wildling raiders. Only banner they carried was her hair. She killed one o’ them traitors, and then her black-haired sister took their leader and right near slit his throat.”

“Is it true?” Jon asked.

For some reason his heart was pounding. For some reason his chest ached, and there was a ringing sound in his ears, and-

“Who knows?” The tailor asked. Then he nodded to the cloth. “Are you buying, boy? If not, I’m packin’ up and going home.”

“No,” said Jon, and moved away.

He doubled over as soon as he found an alley, and curled his forearms over his knees as he pressed his back against the rough stones of a wall. Deep breaths shuddered out of him, and the cool air was no balm against the heat in his cheeks.

I love you, he thought desperately. I love you, and I would die for you, and it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough to save you. It wasn’t enough to protect you. I love you, and I am not enough, and I do not know how I can be.

It felt like glass shards digging into his ribs, sinking into the fleshy part of his chest, breaking the bones and scraping his lungs.

I love you, he thought, and bit his tongue, and felt guilt rise in his throat along with the pain.

Lyarra was a sharp girl.

From her dark hair, as straight and sharp as any blade, to her mind, which was as cutting as any of her brothers- brothers who rode south for King Robb. They hadn’t died yet, and the silence from the south for these past weeks had left Lyarra’s belly aching at night.

But she had two sisters to take care of in the keep, and if her belly ached at the night, her chest burned something fierce when she bore that sword the Princess put into her palms.

And though the battle was over, Lyarra’s wasn’t; they’d been caught unawares when the Lannisters came and Princess Sansa didn’t want to face that again, so a number of volunteers were picked and now served as outriders for any kind of band.

Lyarra didn’t search for tracks in the woods. She rode into towns and markets and paid attention. It was hard, dangerous work; it was something she’d never seen herself doing.

(Lyarra’s mother had wanted her to be a part of the Manderly household, and she’d gotten that for Lyarra. She’d wanted Lyarra to be a lady, and Lyarra had been flawless at it for fourteen years.

And now, she was a spy and a scout and a lady all rolled in one, and she’d never been prouder of herself.)

“You saw those men, though,” murmured one girl as she exchanged coin for bread, to the girl behind the counter. “Wasn’t that leader handsome?”

“He didn’t even look around,” the shop girl exclaimed. “But, oh, his eyes- so handsome! I thought I could melt in them.”

“Didn’t pay attention to that,” said the first, waving a hand easily. “But his mouth looked right pretty. And those shoulders. I think I died seeing them.”

“Aye, the gods threw you straight into the deepest hell,” the shop girl said. “Brought you a man who’s ruined you for all others, and you don’t even know his name.”

“And Blue-eyed Rez thinks I’m the dramatic one,” the first said dryly, and finished bundling up her bread.

When she was gone, Lyarra insinuated herself, as inconspicuously as she could, into the shop girl’s field of view.

“Listen,” she said, once the rest of the customers had gone. Lyarra leaned against the counter, produced a silver stag between her fingers, and watched the girl’s eyes gleam with greed. “I just want to talk to you about that man.”

Sansa’s eyes felt as if full of grit.

And then a lady rode into the keep, bent low over her horse and still hooded.

Sansa drew back, and her hand went, instinctively, to the pommel of her sword. But the lady only dropped her horse off to the stablehands that came forwards, and then retreated into the keep. In the beginning, when a scout returned there was a surge in tension; now, most of the women only barely registered it.

Sansa, too, forgot it easily enough.

At least until Eddara knocked on the door to her solar, face stiff and controlled. “Am I disturbing?” She asked, nodding to the open ledgers.

“Not at all.” Sansa grimaced, scrubbing a hand down her face. “Just- trying to maintain the food supplies. And we’re running low on firewood, so… we’re going to need to go into the Wolfswood soon. I’d welcome a distraction, in all honesty.”

“Well. This isn’t even bad news.” Eddara grinned, and it was startling on her usually-reserved face. “Turns out there’s a band of North-men coming here. Soon.”

“What?” Sansa sat straight up, ledgers forgotten. “Who told you?”

“The scout who came back this morning. She was down south, and heard news of a group of men. After some asking around, she found out they weren’t Lannisters or Boltons.”

“She’s sure?”

“You can talk to her,” Eddara offered. “But she sounded fair certain.”

Sansa’s ran a hand across the back of her neck, and felt shivers run down her spine: fear, and excitement, a potent amalgamation, dripping like water down her back.

“I will,” she said.

They rose, and were halfway down the corridor when the warning bells rang.

Sansa exchanged an alarmed look with Eddara, picked up her skirts, and ran.

The gates opened, grating against the stone, and Sansa felt impatience itch at her fingertips.

Through it, slowly, she could see flashes of men- but not with the blond hair of Lannisters, not with the bloody ‘x’ of Boltons. There was only a single banner flying, she realized abruptly- and it had a pale direwolf sown into it.

And below, with an expression of such sheer, devastating hope written across his face, Jon awaited her.

The gates were barely open when Jon darted forwards.

Later, Sansa thought that his intentions were mostly proper. She thought that he wanted solely to embrace her, and then press a kiss to her cheek. She thought he wanted to keep them a secret for some more time.

But that wasn’t what happened.

No:  Jon raced towards her, and then Sansa was in his arms, and though she might have been able to control herself right there, when he turned his face to kiss her, she turned, too, instinctively, and their lips met.

And then there was nothing in Sansa of control, or propriety- just aching, all-consuming need.

 

Chapter Text

“I- what. What is going on-”

They broke apart to a squawking Arya and a silent courtyard. Sansa felt her lips twitch in what was sure to be hysterical laughter; Jon, beside her, ducked his head and remained silent. Sansa tipped her head to the side and saw Wylla open her mouth, glee suffusing her features.

Sansa spoke, then; not because she wanted to- rather because she was sure that if she heard whatever Wylla was thinking, she’d turn an entirely undignified scarlet.

“Arya, I’m sure I don’t need to explain what a relationship is.” Sansa paused for a beat, to let Arya say something. When she only gaped at her soundlessly, Sansa continued, feeling caught between desperation and a rising bout of giggles. “I can explain it to you if-”

“What I meant,” Arya bit out, finally finding her voice, “is why Jon. Why are you kissing our brother?”

“Cousin,” Jon cut in. “Robb’s legitimized me, too, if you were… you know… wondering.” He trailed off at Arya’s withering look. “You know what, I think my horse needs to be taken care of. I’ll just be over there-” he jerked a finger back over to his men, “-if you want to talk to me.”

And the man who was known for being one of the best war commanders in Robb’s army, the man who’d single-handedly broken three sieges and thrown Kevan Lannister in chains- he turned and ran, without so much as a look backwards.

“Arya,” Sansa said, stepping forwards and speaking lowly.

“How long?”

“Arya-”

“How. long.”

“I don’t know.”

Arya cut her a disbelieving look.

She saw Alys step forwards, grinning at Jon; Sansa pursed her lips and motioned for Arya to follow her, which Arya did, irritably. They ended up in a small storeroom off the entrance hall. Sansa barred the door and turned to Arya resignedly.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I just-”

“Before we went to King’s Landing?” Arya demanded. “Before- before that? When, Sansa?”

“On the way back,” Sansa said finally. “That’s when it started for me, at least. When I started to feel it. But we didn’t do anything until after- after Petyr was captured.”

“And you love him?”

Yes, thought Sansa. More than you can know. He knows the darkest parts of me and still loves me. He sees me at my worst and doesn’t turn from it. Sometimes I don’t think I know how to live without loving him.

“Yes,” she said quietly.

Arya looked up at her, eyes dark and hard.

Sansa felt a pit form in her stomach at the sight: if Arya hated this idea so much, if Arya were to denounce them entirely- in the end, it might not change much, but it would hurt. Arya was her sister and Jon’s sister, too; her opinion held weight.

But if Sansa had spent these past few weeks growing older, growing wiser,  her sister had done no less. Arya sighed, abruptly, and scrubbed a hand down her face in the exact same manner that their father did when faced with something distressing.

“For you,” said Arya. “I’m doing this for you. For you and for Jon. I’m not getting you a wedding present or anything for your anniversaries from here on out. And he’s my brother, do you understand? Nothing is going to change that.”

Sansa reached forwards to catch Arya’s hand. Arya stepped away.

“Nothing,” she said. “Do you promise, Sansa?”

Sansa nodded. “He’ll always be your brother, Arya. I’ve no doubt of it. I don’t think he’s ever not loved you. I don’t think he can not love you. Nothing I or anyone does can change that.”

“Then you’ve my blessing.” Arya raised her chin, and then grinned wryly, all boyish strands of hair and sliding, shifty eyes. “For what it’s worth.”

“A great deal, I assure you.”

There was a pause, and then:

“Just… don’t kiss Jon in front of me, please.”

“Now that I cannot promise.”

“Sansa.”

Sansa didn’t giggle, but it was a close thing. A moment later, she dodged Arya’s punch, and then twisted, because she wouldn’t be herself if she didn’t give as good as she got-

It was nice, in the end, to have someone’s acceptance.

“You have the Kingslayer,” Jon said incredulously.

A smile played across Sansa’s face. “And thirty-four other hostages.”

He gaped at her. “What- how- how did that happen? How did you- Lyra said it was a hundred Lannisters-”

“A hundred and twelve.”

“A hundred and twelve Lannisters at your gates.” Jon threw up his hands. “How did you defeat them?”

Sansa looked at him, bright-eyed and beautiful. “I spent three weeks crafting battle plans,” she said. “And when our food stores ran low, I led three hundred women out of this castle and into battle.”

“And you won,” Jon said flatly.

Her smile grew into a grin. “And we won,” she agreed.

Later, she’d tell him the precise battle plans. Later, Sansa would tell him how they broke the Lannisters. Later, Sansa would take him to the dungeons and present each captive and they’d decide their fates.

But right then all she did was step forwards, arms wrapping around his neck, and kissed him hard enough that Jon was hard-pressed to remember his own name, much less some foolish Lannister’s fate.

...

To the King in the North:

Robb, I address this to you as my brother, and not the King. I’m sure you’ve heard that there was a force of hundred Lannisters come north to Last Hearth, besieging us for weeks on end. They were aided by Boltons. Ramsay Snow, bastard of Roose Bolton, led them through the Dreadfort and brought them here.

The army was defeated a week ago- we have the Kingslayer and various other highborn Lannisters as hostages. Jon arrived yesterday. We are under no attack; Last Hearth is held by your men.

Stay safe, and we shall hopefully see each other soon.

From the hand of your beloved sister,

Sansa Stark

Princess of the North

To Ser Jon Targaryen:

There’s a rider coming to Last Hearth with more information. Good job.

Please tell Sansa that next time she sends me a letter telling me an army that was just besieging the castle she was inside is defeated, some detail would be appreciated.

Again, good job.

Stay safe, and we shall hopefully see each other soon.

Robb Stark,

King in the North

“I never liked fighting,” Jorelle said quietly.

Alys looked at her and arched an eyebrow. “There are rumors that your mother put a sword in your hand the day you were born.”

“Foolish.” Jorelle snorted. “Didn’t let Lyra hold one until she turned six, and she was just chomping at the bit to have one. But- I always feel real uneasy holding one, you know? Too much power. Too much- something. I’d be happy to never have to hold one again.”

“But you’re good at it,” said Arya.

Eddara arched an eyebrow. “What does that have to do with anything? Different people take to different things. I couldn’t bear to so much as look at that mutton stew Alys loves, but she eat it on a daily basis.”

“Still.”

They were all sitting- or sprawling, as the case may be- in Sansa’s solar. Wylla and Wynafryd had fought, again, and so were sulking in their separate bedchambers, and Meera was writing a letter to her brother, but the rest were mostly just relaxing as had been customary when they had the time. There was something nice in spending time with people who were in similar positions, with people who had fought in battle beside you and risked their lives for you.

“Some like swords,” Eddara said with a delicate shrug. “Some, like you, Arya, love it and can’t live without it. Others, like Alys, love it and can live without it. Others, like Jorelle, don’t love it but can bear it. And then there are people like me, who cannot bear it at all. We are our own people, first and foremost. I’d think you of all people could understand it.”

“Another would call it cowardice,” Arya said.

Jorelle shoved her with her knee reproachfully. “Eddara hated what we were going to do, but she did what she could. Not everyone can be the hero on the battlefield, Arya.”

Arya smirked at her. “Not everyone can be me, you mean.”

Eddara peered at the small stitches in the cloth she was embroidering, lips twitching at just the corners.

“I think,” she commented, “Jorelle meant that not everyone wants to be you.”

“Oooh,” hissed Alys. “That’s cruel, Eddara. Let the girl have some confidence left, yes? ‘Tis cruel to take it all away.”

“Hey!” Arya snapped.

She heard Jorelle stifle a snicker into her sleeve, and then Alys threw her head back and laughed, wild and free; Eddara smiled at Arya apologetically, and after that there was nothing Arya could do but laugh, too.

“A rider is coming,” Sansa said flatly, staring at Jon. He and the rider- Eddara’s brother- wilted slightly. “That’s all Robb said in his letter. I’d expect you to expand upon that sentence, Jon, because I, for one, didn’t know what to expect with the rider. I certainly didn’t expect this.”

“Neither did I,” he protested. “Robb could’ve been referring to anything. I didn’t think-”

“-he’d do this?”

Jon winced. “He’d tell you like this.”

“So you knew that he was planning this,” Sansa said. “And for the past two weeks, for all the conversations we have had, you didn’t think this was important to tell me.”

“It slipped my mind.”

Her council, seated around the table, looked amused.

“What were you doing so diligently?” Wylla asked, tone full of enough insinuation to make both Jon and Sansa flush an ugly red. She leaned forwards, eyes bright and teasing. “We’re fascinated, Lord Targaryen, truly. Tell us everything.”

“I don’t want to be here,” muttered Arya.

Sansa took a deep, fortifying breath, and threw the package in her arms onto the table. It rattled, and she felt her ribs rattle with it.

How was one supposed to react when your brother decided that he didn’t want the responsibility of ruling?

Or, at least, didn’t want to rule alone?

Robb had sent Eddara’s brother to Last Hearth with three crowns, one each for Sansa, Arya and Bran. And he’d only told Jon to crown Sansa- presumably, Arya’s and Bran’s coronation was optional.

“Tell me again, slowly, where he got this idea.”

Jon, again, winced.

“Well, it all began when you were- angry. You know, when Robb didn’t tell you he was sending you to Last Hearth, and you and Arya were so bloody furious.”

“We made his life miserable,” Arya told Meera quietly, though not quiet enough that nobody could hear. “Gods, it was so difficult burning his toast- I couldn’t even sleep that night, had to lie in wait in the kitchens for the cook to come. And it was worth it, I swear, every part.”

“I understand,” Meera murmured. “Jojen is- not that bad. But sometimes he gets very irritating.”

Eddara only tilted a look at her brother, who was shrinking into the tapestries behind him, looking as if he wished desperately to be anywhere but where he was presently.

“If the interruptions continue,” Sansa said sharply, “I’m sending everyone outside.”

“So you can spend more time with your lover?” Wylla asked gleefully. “I didn’t think you so adventurous, Princess, nor so bold!” Sansa frowned, and Wylla went on through Wynafryd’s desperate attempts at silencing her. “In broad daylight, taking a man to bed, why, one might think it salacious. Though I suppose you aren’t taking him to bed, are you?”

Arya half-retched, and Sansa pointed at the door.

“Out,” she snapped. “Get out! And the next time I hear you being so disrespectful, Wylla, I will have Wynafryd cut off every last bit of your hair, don’t think I won’t.” At Wylla’s snort, Sansa arched an eyebrow. “She’s still angry that you didn’t tell her about your knee, you know.”

Wylla’s knee had been injured in the battle, and it had been worse than Sansa’s shoulder ever had the chance to get. Wynafryd had scarcely managed to salvage her sister’s leg, and it seemed that Wylla might have a limp for the rest of her life.

Wynafryd was still bitter about it. And Sansa wasn’t above using that for her gain.

Shooting a dirty look over her shoulder, Wylla left; the others followed slowly, reluctantly. Sansa waited them out impatiently.

As soon as the door closed, she slumped into her chair and rubbed her temples, breathing deeply. After a long, irritable pause, she turned to Jon.

“You didn’t mention that when you told me everything else,” she said.

Jon grimaced. “I… wanted you to laugh. I thought you’d find it funny, that Robb was being so dramatic. And I might have added this, too, but- well. You got angry.”

It was her turn to wince. Sansa had, and it was really because everything had been a confluence of Robb’s secrecy, and then her parents’ support of Robb’s decisions, and then her own hurt pride- she’d snapped at Jon, and while it wasn’t completely undeserving, neither had it been kind of her.

“So it was a jape, at first,” Sansa prompted, when Jon looked hesitant.

“Right. Then it became something like, you know, why not.”

“Then?”

Jon breathed deep. “Then, it was repeated enough times, and we were- maybe- a little drunk, and I remembered Old Nan’s tales, and- well. Do you remember what she said of Garth Greenhand’s children?”

Sansa blinked. “No,” she said frankly. “He was a conqueror, wasn’t he? I- didn’t pay attention to the songs that weren’t romantic. The bloody ones weren’t that interesting.”

“Those were the only ones that were interesting,” said Jon, and then shook away her protests. “Anyways. Garth’s children were each given crowns, and he broke apart his kingdom into pieces for each of them. And they each were called kings, or queens- as it were.”

“Garth Greenhand-” Sansa exhaled sharply, and slumped into her seat. “He’s a legend, Jon. We can’t use that as a basis for our government.”

“The basis of our government is Robb’s decisions,” Jon said simply. “And the gods know that he needs someone to tell him when he’s being stupid.”

“It isn’t sustainable!”

“If you all survive everything that’s happening in the future, and all of you marry, and all of you have children, then you can decide what’s going to happen.” He shrugged. “Until then, it makes sense if- if we have enough rulers to hold the North through the worst of the Long Night. All of you have different strengths, and you’ll have to work together to survive. And what makes Robb so much better a leader than the rest of you?”

She sighed, tracing the whorls of the table. “And what of Rickon?”

“When he’s grown to fifteen, we’ll make that decision.”

Sansa yet hesitated, and Jon leaned forwards, catching her hand in his. For just a heartbeat, she wondered how it might be had the two of them not been who they were. A better world, Sansa decided.

But they weren’t just two people in love with each other. They were princesses and knights, Targaryens and Starks; they were children shaping the world they wanted to inherit. For all that Sansa might have been happy in another world, this love wouldn’t have been forged in blood and fear. For all that she might have been content, she’d not have been half as strong, and this love wasn’t the measure of her life.

So when Jon said, firmly, “Accept the crown,” Sansa reached one trembling hand and drew the largest crown from the sack.

Chin up. You are a Stark, and you can be brave. You will be brave.

“Tell me Jon,” she whispered, and now she was the one holding onto him. In one hand she held a crown, and in another she held Jon, and if anyone dared to tell her that she couldn’t have both, Sansa would remake the world until she could. “Tell me, would you be willing to take a queen as your wife?”

“So, this is the Kingslayer.”

Jaime lolled his head upwards to meet the man’s voice- it was strange, in all honesty, after spending so long with only women entering and exiting these rooms. Recognition was slow in coming, but when it did he wanted to turn and hide. Weren’t Ned Stark’s daughters enough of a torment? Why did he have to face his bastard son, too?

“Are your accommodations survivable?” The bastard asked.

“I’m here, aren’t I?” He asked sourly.

“Aye. How did it feel to be bested by a group of women who haven’t yet seen their twentieth nameday?”

“Miserable.” Jaime folded himself inwards and glared at the floor. “If you’ve only come to gloat, congratulations, you’ve done it. Now leave.”

The bastard had sounded amused before, but now his voice was only hard.

“I came to ask you who put you in touch with Ramsay,” he said. “I came to ask one question, Kingslayer, and if you answer it properly you won’t have to worry about anyone else coming and asking more things so long as you’re in these walls.”

“Why should I answer you?” Jaime asked. When the bastard chose to focus on settling against his chair instead of answering, Jaime smirked. “Because you’ll leave me alone? I’m more irritating than you could ever hope to be, Stark bastard or no.”

“Oh, you haven’t heard?” The bastard arched an eyebrow. “I’m no Stark bastard, not any longer. Turns out Lord Stark kept some secrets, and- well. My father was never a Stark, Kingslayer, though my mother was.” His lips quirked. “My father was Rhaegar Targaryen. To keep me safe from Robert Baratheon, Lord Stark claimed me as his own. When he found out, Robb had me legitimized, so it’s now Jon Targaryen who stands before you.”

“Such love,” Jaime spat.

Jon Targaryen sighed. “Anyhow. What matters is that you speak to me, Kingslayer, because there will be- consequences- if you don’t.”

Because Jaime couldn’t believe these women and children could devise such horrific things, and also because they were raised by the honorable Ned Stark, he asked, “Like what?”

“Like asking your bannermen the same question,” Jon answered levelly. “And getting impatient when they, too, refuse to answer.”

“Impatience is supposed to frighten me?”

“My direwolf is supposed to frighten you,” he said. “Did you know, they respond to our emotions? Oh, don’t worry, Kingslayer: we won’t touch you, not a bit. We need you as a hostage. But your men? They’re rather fair game.”

“You’re threatening-”

“I’m promising,” Jon said flatly. “I’m promising that if you don’t answer me truthfully, that if I’m not satisfied, I’m going to send you back to your father’s arms with your bannermen in a box that will fit in your arms, and you’ll have to tell each of their family’s why they don’t even have the bones to bury.”

Ramsay’s scream, cut short by a direwolf’s jaws to his throat. The red-raw pieces that had littered the ground afterwards. The meaty, panting breaths of a shadow-black direwolf waiting for Jaime to breathe wrong.

Jaime breathed deep and tried to slow his pounding heart. “What do you want to know?”

Jon leaned forwards, arms braced against his thighs. “Did Roose Bolton speak to your father?”

“Yes,” Jaime said immediately. “I’ve seen the letters.”

“Who sent the first one?”

“I don’t know.” At Jon’s abrupt movement towards the door, Jaime snapped, “I don’t. I only saw them in passing, enough to see their flayed man in the seal. Nothing more.”

Slowly, he seated himself. “Fine. How did you come this far North?”

“Ramsay Snow met us at the Neck and gave Northern uniforms. Then he took us through the Dreadfort and up the river, and led us here.”

“Why did the Boltons side with you?”

Jaime shrugged. “They thought your- cousin- would fail, and wanted insurance. If they made him fail by taking the entire North hostage- well. We promised them Winterfell, and that made them very happy. I don’t know, do I? I don’t claim to have deep knowledge of your Northern politics, as primitive as all of you are.”

“You don’t seem to have deep knowledge of anything,” muttered Jon, and then shook his head. “Very well. Last question: what would you have done if you had taken the castle?”

“I’d’ve taken your sisters and brother hostage,” Jaime said slowly. “I would have married some of their ladies to some of my bannermen, and then sent ravens to the major houses telling them what they would do if they wanted to ever see their daughters again.”

“Just as I thought,” he said, and rose to his feet. “Very well. I thank you for your cooperation, Kingslayer.”

“Roose Bolton,” Robb said, “By the laws of the North, you are to be killed for treason. Do you have any last words?”

“You will fail,” said Roose, pale eyes gleaming with hatred. “You will fail, boy. What are you trying to achieve? How much vengeance is enough? You’re a child, and all the men fighting beside you are fools and worse to think you’ll lead them to victory when you don’t even know what that is.”

“I’m your King,” Robb said lowly. “You knelt and gave me this crown. If you’d spoken to me of this in private, I might have listened. But you went to the Lannisters instead, and you sent your bastard son to lead them to where my sisters were, and I cannot forgive that.” His hands were tight on the hilt of his sword and there was a roar in his ears like a rising tide. Robb inhaled, set his shoulders, and said, “Kneel.”

The sword descended, and when Roose’s head landed in the earth, Robb turned and met his bannermen’s gazes.

“If there are Bolton bannermen who wish to hold to their lord’s treason, they can choose either exile or death.” Robb let all his grief, his betrayal, his rage show. “Leave tonight, and I will not send a single man after your heads.”

(The next morning, he asked the Greatjon how many men left under cover of darkness.

The Greatjon smiled, sharp and fierce, his teeth shining like fangs.

He said, “Not a one, milord.”)

A week later, as the sun rose, the entire keep arranged itself in the great hall for Sansa’s coronation.

Sansa drew the gown’s heavy fur neckline tighter around her shoulders. It was a fine blue, so pale it looked almost white, and it’d taken Eddara and three other women four days to make it.

Everyone was waiting for her, but Sansa couldn’t help but stall for a few more minutes.

In another time she had wanted so desperately to be queen, and it had led to such disaster. Here, she’d be content to have the ability to control her life- Sansa had her family beside her, and that was all she’d ever wanted. The chance to have both had never been so much as dreamt of.

You are Sansa Stark- you are a Stark. You will bend before you break, and you will break before you die, and you will survive the darkest things that can be thrown at you.

You will fight. You will defend what you must and conquer what you can.

Chin up, darling.

Slowly, steadily, she left the safety of the shadows and moved down the corridor. A half-beat later, she turned the corner and saw the crowd. Sansa did not falter an inch, did not let herself pause for even a heartbeat.

She seated herself on the wooden chair which would serve as her throne, and looked out into the over-crowded hall. In the front row was her council, each dressed in gowns of their own choosing. Rickon was seated beside Arya, whom she’d insisted on sitting closer to her throne than any other.

Jon stood beside her, already holding the crown.

“By the edict written by King Robb Stark’s own hand,” he announced, “I present this woman here before you as Queen. Princess Sansa of the house Stark is to become Queen in the North, of equal rank to her brother in all. Do you, the representatives of the Northern houses, assent?”

As one, her council rose- but it was Alys, alone, who stepped forwards and said, “King Robb offered our fathers vengeance, and they proclaimed him the King in the North. When the Lannisters came, however, it was Princess Sansa who put steel in our hands and told us to stand strong.” She knelt. “The North has known no Queen for three centuries. ‘Tis fitting that the first to bear the crown is the kindest, bravest woman in all the North. Aye, I say; I’ll bend the knee to Queen Sansa, and I’ll defend her to my grave.”

“Lady Alys speaks truly,” said Eddara. “We are the women of the North, we are the Valkyries of the North, and there is not one person here who can say that she has not led us well.” She, too, knelt, and threw her head back- cried, “The Queen in the North!”

When Robb was crowned, his men drew swords.

For Sansa’s coronation, they threw flowers into the air: blue roses, thorns and all. The petals caught in her hair, and when she ran a hand through it they fell to the ground like so many pieces of the sky.

“Thank you,” said Sansa. “I will never forget this. I will never forget all of you. You fought beside me, you fought for me, and if I am here to be crowned it is because of your valor.” She swallowed hard, and then stretched a hand out to Arya. “Come here,” Sansa ordered.

Arya shot her a strange look, but obeyed; when she stood next to her, Sansa nodded to Eddara’s brother and waited for him to walk up the aisle.

As he walked down it, whispers rose around him- confusion, and in its wake, surprised realization.

“But for all that we fought together, for all that each of us held and held strong that day, the battle would not have been won if not for Arya’s courage.” Sansa felt a small smile turn the corners of her lips up. “And I believe it a proper act, for the first act of the first Queen of Winter in three hundred years to be to crown another.”

“Aye, I’ll agree to this,” said Wylla, suddenly smiling wide and hard enough to rend open a man’s stomach. “You put steel in our hands and offered us vengeance when any other would have bowed their heads. You led us into battle with no crown save for that red hair, and we flocked to you as if it were one. And your sister took down the Kingslayer himself! She led women out of those gates and drew enough food from the woods that we could last for another week. She was the one to give us even a hint of warning. What other woman can compare? What other woman can stand where the two of you do?”

“They’ve named your brother the Young Wolf,” Meera said, stepping forwards to flank Wylla. “They call him King Robb the Valiant, and the smallfolk from the Twins to Riverrun know and adore him. Why should we not do the same?”

Wylla went down on her knees, gracefully. She plucked a blue rose from one of the vases flanking the tables, the stem long enough to treat as a sword, and held it aloft.

“All hail Queen Sansa the Merciful!” She cried. The council knelt, as well, and then the other women followed them. “All hail Queen Arya the Vengeful!”

And in that moment, the rising sun cut through the paned glass windows, spilling over the whole hall, gilding the hall in a halo of brilliant gold. Sansa felt her breath catch at the beauty; at the power these women offered her so unthinkingly, so easily; at the trust being forged in the room, right before her eyes.

Breathing deep, she picked up the crown and turned to Arya. Easily, calmly, Arya went down to her knees, and Sansa placed the steel ring on her brow.

Wylla tipped her head back, and she grinned brilliantly at Sansa, and then called, loud and clear, “All hail the Queens of Winter!”

Others took up the cry, and it echoed loud enough that Sansa couldn’t hear herself speak.

But she did turn slightly, and saw Jon watching her from right behind. His eyes were soft, and he was smiling just as brightly as Arya, and there was such love in his expression that Sansa felt her breath catch and tears rise in her eyes. She beckoned him forwards and took his hand, lacing their fingers together tight enough to whiten her knuckles.

You will stand beside me, she thought. You will stand beside me for the rest of my days, I swear it. You will stand beside me, not behind me, not in front. You will stand beside me, and we will rule the North together.

And so, that night Sansa went to the godswood.

This was smaller; more private. Only the men Jon was closest to amongst the twenty ridden north; and then Sansa’s council, Arya, and Rickon. There were small lights that Meera had strung up with Jorelle- a type of moss, Meera had told her, that shone like the stars under moonlight- and ,they glittered around the heart tree like so many lanterns. Jon wore a doublet of lightest gray, and in the dim light she was sure she’d never seen someone so handsome.

Later, they’d have a larger wedding in Winterfell; but before that, they’d have this, between them and them alone.

Before the heart tree, she reached out and took his hands.

“Sansa of the house Stark comes before the old gods,” she said. “She is a woman grown, and she comes to be wedded.”

“Jon of the house Targaryen comes before the old gods,” Jon echoed, eyes warm enough to make Sansa’s cheeks flare with heat. “He is a man grown, and he comes to be wedded.” His voice softened, lowered, became more private. “Will you take me, Queen Sansa?”

“With all my heart,” Sansa murmured, eyes unflinching, eyes unwavering, eyes unrelenting. “And you, Lord Jon? Will you take me?”

“Aye,” he said. Breathed in, and went on: “From this day until the end of my days, I swear it. I swear to stand beside you. I swear to protect you, and love you, and give you all that I am and have. I swear it by every god who is listening, and all those who don’t care to.”

It felt as inevitable as the tides, as the sunrise, as the turn of the stars. It felt as hot as wildfire and as welcoming as a hearthfire. Sansa looked up at Jon and felt as if he’d cut open her ribcage, as if he’d crawled inside her lungs and rested right beside her heart. It felt as if she did the same.

“And I swear to stand beside you,” she whispered. “To love you until I breathe my last, and to offer you everything I am, everything I own. I swear it by the old gods and the new.”

I love you, Sansa thought, and traced an unshaking hand up his jaw before kissing him soundly.

Their father sent a raven telling of a company of two hundred men riding to Last Hearth. They were to escort Sansa, Arya, and the thirty-odd Lannister captives back south to Winterfell.

Sansa had expected them to side-eye her, and they did; she had expected them to avoid her, and they did; she had expected them to treat her half as a precious glass statue and half as a fire-burnt corpse, and they did.

What she hadn’t expected was the smallfolk’s awe.

When they stopped in a village, they clustered around Sansa and Arya, whispering and reaching for them. They asked them to bless their children, bless their marriages, bless their dead family. The whispers of Sansa’s beauty and kindness left her uncomfortable, but it was Arya who stammered and almost ran when they began praising her valor.

Queen Sansa the Merciful, they called her, and Sansa would have cheerfully strangled Wylla with her bare hands had they been within a day’s ride of her.

When they cheered for Arya, naming her the Vengeful, Sansa’d placed Jon and Ghost as a rotating guard around her for almost two days before she was sure Arya wouldn’t run back to Last Hearth and slit Wylla’s throat in her sleep.

“You married?”

Sansa waited a beat, and then two, and then turned to smile pleasantly at Bran.

“Yes.”

“To Jon.”

“Yes.”

“But-” Bran looked adorably confused, the poor boy. “-he’s, you know, he… how?”

“I’m going to be putting a crown on your head tomorrow,” Arya said repressively, eyes bright with humor. “I don’t suppose you need one of your sisters to explain the details, do you?”

At Bran’s suddenly horrified expression, Sansa took pity on him.

“It’s been happening for a while.” She shrugged. “And when Robb decided to crown me- the idiot!- I decided that being Queen should come with a few perks. Up to and including deciding my own husband.”

“Did you court at least?”

Arya choked on her drink. “I don’t want to know,” she half-wailed, setting the cup down- slamming it down. “I don’t care! Just let me spar with Jon and sew some wounds shut, Sansa, I don’t want to know what and how and why you fell in- in- whatever this is!”

“Love?” Sansa asked dryly.

“No!” Arya glared at her. “I want to act like nothing’s different, and my own brother has betrayed me. He’s betrayed his Queen!”

“I can see your broken heart,” Sansa said.

Arya stamped a foot. It achieved practically nothing- all of them were seated, and the only thing that happened was that the table vibrated slightly. Sansa knew solely because she was sitting opposite Arya, and saw her leg move.

Sansa sent her an unimpressed look. Arya huffed, cheeks a blotchy red, and flounced out of the room.

“She’ll be fine by tomorrow morning, right?” Bran asked.

“She’ll be fine in five minutes,” Sansa told him. “The trip down from Last Hearth was- cold. And we didn’t stop for breakfast or dinner. And Arya hasn’t touched her food tonight either. She’ll be back soon, mark my words.”

Once they’d arrived, it had taken less than ten minutes for Rickon to tell their father of the marriage. The shade Jon turned was impressive, Sansa had decided; she’d never before seen him so pale, and that was including when he’d drunk half a tavern’s ale. And then he and her father had disappeared into the solar, and Sansa hadn’t heard anything from that wing of Winterfell ever since.

She shook her worry off decidedly and turned to Bran. “What have you been doing? I mean, while Arya and I were off fighting in mud and all.”

Bran brightened slightly. “I fought with Ser Rodrick last week, and usually he wins, you know, but this time I climbed the tower wall and jumped on him. It’s the first time I won a match.”

“Oh,” Sansa said, and then leaned in conspiratorially. “Don’t tell Robb I told you, but he didn’t manage to do it until he turned fourteen.”

“I’m eleven.”

“I know.” She grinned. “Guess you got the brains in the family.”

“Like you,” he said. “You won against the Kingslayer because you were smart.”

“Well.” She quirked her lips. “It wasn’t just my head that allowed us to win- I had lots of friends beside me. And, really, we won because the Kingslayer and his men were stupid. Which is something you should know, Bran: don’t ever think that just because you have all the cards, the others don’t have any.”

“I wish I’d been there,” he muttered.

“So you could fight?” Sansa asked. At his nod, she sighed. “You’ve time, Bran. No need to go looking for a fight- it’ll come to you quick enough.”

“Then why am I being crowned?” Bran demanded, blue eyes wide: Sansa’s eyes, Robb’s eyes, their mother’s eyes. “Why are you giving me a crown, Sansa, if I haven’t done anything?”

“Because the North needs a King,” she said. “Robb’s gone south, hasn’t he? We need a King right here. We’re Starks, Bran. Don’t you worry about becoming something great or famous- it’ll happen when it happens. And if it doesn’t, then that doesn’t make you any less worthy of that crown.”

“I’ll just have it because I’m your brother!”

“You’ll have it, because we think you deserve it,” Sansa corrected. “Because you’re our brother, and because you know more of Winterfell than almost anyone else alive, and because you know how to make everyone smile. We want you to stand beside us, Bran, not just because you’re our brother but also because we need you.”

“Will you crown Rickon, too?” He asked.

“When Rickon’s old enough, yes.”

Bran paused, and Sansa seized the chance to reach out and grip his hand.

“Winter is coming,” she said softly. “The North needs rulers that are strong, that it can trust, when winter arrives.” She arched an eyebrow. “But you don’t have to worry over all of that right now.”

“What do I have to do?” He asked, sulking.

Sansa got out of her chair and prodded him until he, too, got up. “You’ve got to come with me,” she said. “If we go to the kitchens now, there might be some cake still left over.”

Later that night, her father walked into the library, lost in thought. Sansa had been stitching; after Bran fell asleep in the kitchen, she had taken him to his rooms and then retreated to the library with her embroidery.

“I hope you didn’t kill Jon, Father,” she said, as casually as she could manage.

He jumped, slightly, before focusing on her. “No, Jon is fine. We just had a very- long- talk. On certain important things.”

“Like?”

“Respect,” he replied. “And trust, and honor. I’d wished you would have told me, Sansa. I wouldn’t have disapproved.”

“But Mother would have,” Sansa said. “And Robb, and Arya- well. I was angry, Father, and a little afraid, too, and- just- I love him.” She shrugged, helplessly. “If Robb decides that he needs to marry one of us off to seal an alliance, I couldn’t bear it to be me. And there are other Targaryens in the world. Jon is a Stark. First, and foremost. You know he’s taken my last name, don’t you?”

“Aye, I heard.” Her father smiled. “Jon Stark- something he’s wanted all his life. And you’ve saved each other from other, unwanted marriages with this. But did you fall into something you wanted?”

“I love him,” she said simply, and that was the end of it.

They marched south to Rosby and took it, but it was a costly victory.

The Mountain escaped, and in doing so rampaged through a company of near-hundred soldiers. The Glovers wanted to chase after him, but Robb looked at his maps, looked at his mother, looked at Theon- and he said, heavily, “We have too much else to do. Leave him for the Riverrun soldiers.”

Robb smoothed down the edges of the map. “If we are to win this war, we’ll need more allies. If I am to take King’s Landing, or even Duskendale- I’ll need a navy.”

“My father,” Theon offered.

Robb remembered what Sansa had told him, years ago: Theon- was afraid. He tried to be something he wasn’t, and it resulted in so much heartbreak. Don’t judge him for what he hasn’t done. But don’t allow him to go to his father, either. You can’t trust him to be loyal to you if you do.

“No.” He turned away and nodded to the green, lush fields in the south-west of the continent. “The Redwyne Fleet. It’s time we brought this war to the Reach, don’t you think?”

“Rise, King Brandon,” said Arya, and stepped back so she was in line with Sansa and Jon.

“All hail King Brandon!” Jon called, and Winterfell cheered.

To my lovely sister:

Any advice on how to treat with the Tyrells?

Beware Lady Olenna, the mother of Mace Tyrell. And do not promise yours or anyone else’s hand in marriage.

Stay strong, Robb. This will be over soon.

Love,

Sansa

“Why should we join you?” Mace Tyrell asked.

Robb very, very carefully did not smile.

“Because I’m going to win this war,” he said. “I can do it with or without your fleet, Lord Tyrell, but I’d like to do it beside you. I’m going to win this war, and I’m offering you the chance to join me. Will you hold to it?”

There was a pause, where Lord Mace went a blistering red and looked as confused as he did irritated, and still did not answer Robb.

“Robb,” his mother murmured, putting a hand on his arm. Then she looked at the others and laughed, lightly. “You’ll have to forgive my son. He’s a Northerner, and they speak bluntly. I understand your hesitance, my lord, I do. Tywin Lannister is a frightening man indeed to rebel against, but we’re not asking for anything that will cripple you.”

“You’re asking for the Redwyne Fleet!” He snapped. “That isn’t nothing, my lady!”

“No,” she said. “But I’m sure you’ve some method of cloaking your banners. And my son has met the Lannisters in over twenty battles, my lord, and he has won each of them. My daughter has the Kingslayer in chains in the North, and the Westerlands are all but destroyed. All that is left is King’s Landing and Duskendale.”

“We can take both,” Robb said.

“Then why do you need us?” Lord Mace asked.

“Because I can take both cities, but thousands will die in the doing.” Robb nodded to the Lady Olenna, who sat behind her son, eyes as watchful as Sansa had warned. “I have no wish to bury them if I do not need to.”

“No?” Lady Olenna asked. “A King that dares to care for his men- this is something we haven’t seen in overlong.” She smiled. “Some might say that we shall not continue to see it for overlong.”

“Is that a threat?” He asked sharply.

“Just an observation,” Lady Olenna said airily.

His mother leaned forwards. “Paint your fleet blue and white,” she said, “and we will remember your aid for a hundred years. Turn your faces, and we shall remember Highgarden’s cowardice for just as long. The North remembers, Lady Olenna, Lord Tyrell. We always have, and always will.” She dipped into a slight curtsy, and then addressed Lady Olenna alone. “You’ve three days to give us your answer. Our thanks for your hospitality.”

Robb offered her his arm, and together, they walked out.

They took Duskendale, and right outside the walls, Tywin Lannister met a sword to his throat.

Robb had his body embalmed and sent to King’s Landing.

“They have Jaime,” Tyrion said. “They’ve killed our father, and they’ve cut off our food trains, and according to the news from runners at Sharp Point there’s a fleet of ships coming at us from the bay, painted with Tyrell roses. The smallfolk hate us, less than a fourth of the nobility remains inside this city, and your son insists on holding a five-course meal every bloody day.”

“You are the Hand,” Cersei hissed. “There’s still a host of guards in the city. Do your job for once in your life, and defend us!”

“Defend who?” He asked. “You? Your bastard son?”

“How dare you-”

“You’ve hated me since I was born,” Tyrion told her. “I hold no great hope of defending the city, not when the bulk of our army has already been defeated.”

Cersei looked angry enough to breathe fire. Her hair fluttered in disarray, and Tyrion wondered when he’d last seen her so unhinged. Perhaps it’d been upon hearing of Jaime’s capture: she’d locked herself in her rooms for almost two days, refusing everyone along with food and water. But even then she’d emerged from the confinement looking as magnificent as ever.

No; the only time he’d ever seen her so mad had been when their father’s body was brought to King’s Landing by Westerland prisoners- it’d taken three men to drag her away, and Cersei had gone screaming the whole way, demanding those men be burned alive.

As the hours passed, in fact, she looked more and more crazed.

“You’ll be confined to your rooms,” Tyrion said, when she didn’t look to have regained the ability to speak yet. “And on the morrow, I will surrender to Robb Stark.”

“If you do this,” Cersei snarled, “I will wait, and I will watch, and the moment they so much as blink, I will tear your tiny little head off of your misshapen body. Do I make myself clear?”

Tyrion took one step towards her. “You see, those threats ought to frighten me. But all I can think is that even if your vengeance would happen, in the end it’d be a better world than the one in which I fought.” He bowed. “Good day, sister.”

King’s Landing cedes to the King in the North.

Name your terms, King Robb, and we shall meet them.

Fly white banners from the turrets. Have all knights and lords arranged outside the walls in three days’ time without weapons along with King Joffrey and his mother. Surrender your crowns and your swords to me, and we shall treat you as highborn hostages.

Refuse, and we shall paint the land with your blood.

Catelyn rode out with Robb, a guard of just under five hundred men surrounding them.

The knights were, indeed, arranged outside the keep as Robb had asked- that much was clear from all the glittering armor. And there were swords piled at one end, stacked neatly. At the front, Lord Tyrion awaited them.

Robb dismounted Grey Wing when he was close enough.

“You have the crown?” He asked brusquely.

“Yes,” said Tyrion, and knelt. “As Hand of the King, I surrender King’s Landing to you.” He motioned for Joffrey to step out of the crowd. “Joffrey insisted on giving the crown himself,” he explained, voice almost too faint for Catelyn to hear.

Joffrey Lannister- Sansa had told her what this boy had done in another world. The beatings, the torture; even the idea would have been enough to make Catelyn’s blood boil. But this boy, for all that had happened, hadn’t yet proven to be the same heartless monster. Robb had told her the night before that he wouldn’t ask for his or his mother’s heads.

As she watched, Joffrey stepped forwards. He held the golden crown in his hands as he approached Robb.

But there was something in his stride, something in the way one hand cradled the crown and the other supported it, something in his posture- Catelyn felt chills go up her spine. And then she realized what it was, and went white.

“Robb!” She screamed, and her horse bucked at the sudden noise; Catelyn only barely held on. “Robb, watch out!”

Robb turned to look at her. The sudden, jerking motion pulled him away from Joffrey, enough that the dagger meant for his ribs only grazed his arm. His cry of pain was drowned by Grey Wind’s howl, and Catelyn lost sight of him once more as the horses surrounding her panicked.

By the time they calmed down, Joffrey lay on the ground with half his neck cut open. The other knights were shrinking away from Grey Wind. Tyrion Lannister’s face was spattered with his nephew’s blood. Even from this distance, Catelyn could see his agitation.

Robb’s sword was unsheathed, and it shone in the early afternoon sun. Red blood dripped, staining the grass.

“Is there anyone else who wants a try?” He demanded. “Any other honorless knight who wants to die today? Come on, I’ve no desire to rule over a kingdom of traitors!”

“‘Twas Joffrey’s own decision to do this,” Tyrion said quickly. “None other knew of it. Not me, not any of the men. I beg of you, Lord Robb-”

“King,” Robb snarled.

“King Robb, then- you have no others who would raise steel against you. Not here.”

Robb stared at him for a long moment, and Catelyn could see the temper burning through his spine. They tried to kill you, she thought, and wished, for just a single moment, that he would hold to the terms he’d laid out to King’s Landing three days previous, that he would give the order, and they could spill enough Lannister blood on these fields that the Westerlands never recovered.

But her son, her honorable, merciful, valiant son- he only sheathed his sword.

He only sheathed his sword, and raised his chin, and acted as if he hadn’t given these men another chance at life.

“I razed the Westerlands to the ground,” he said. “I burnt Lannisport and starved Casterly Rock, and I’ve the outright support of half the kingdoms even without the Iron Throne. The next man to raise a sword to me and mine will be fed to my direwolf, do you understand?”

Catelyn let her breath gust out of her abruptly.

Oh, my boy, she thought. Oh, I’ve never been so proud of you.

They marched into King’s Landing.

As they entered the throne room, a maid came from another part of the keep.

“My Lord,” she gasped, “the Queen- the- the- Lady Cersei- when she heard of her son’s death- she just- she threw herself out of a window.”

“What?” Robb asked, reeling. “When?”

“Not a few minutes previous.” She hesitated. “We tried to stop her, but- she right near ripped off Charisse’s ear, and we couldn’t stop her.”

His mother wrapped a hand over his shoulder. “Put a guard over the others,” she ordered. “Ensure nothing like this happens again.” Once the maid left, she turned to Robb. “So Joffrey and Cersei Lannister are dead,” she said. “We hold King’s Landing. What now?”

“Now?” Robb asked.

Now, the hard part begins.

“Now,” he said, swallowing, “we melt down the Iron Throne.”

She startled.

“Robb-”

He frowned. “Sansa didn’t tell you our plans?”

“No,” his mother said quietly. “She didn’t.”

“Ah. Well, it starts here. We are Northerners, Mother. My army is loyal to me because they think me worthy of this crown, not because they fear what I can do to them.” Robb grinned at her. “And, of course, I don’t want to sit on something so pointy. You know how bloody my back’s going to be if I’m not careful?”

Suddenly, she reached out and embraced him, tight as Sansa before she left Winterfell the first time, tight as Sansa when she came back.

“I am so proud of you,” she told him, fiercely. “You’ve done so well, Robb. Your father would be proud, if he were here to see you.”

“Well,” he said, pulling away after a moment, “this isn’t over yet.”

“No, it isn’t.” Her lips twisted wryly. “You need someone with both intelligence and loyalty to navigate this court, Robb. I- can help. But not when I don’t know precisely what is needed for you.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying that you need Sansa.”

Gods save us.

Jon looked out into the fields. “Well?”

“I don’t want to,” Sansa replied.

They were huddled together on the ledge Sansa had slept on the night before Petyr’s death. The wind wasn’t as cold during the day, and with someone else beside her it wasn’t even uncomfortable.

They’d received Robb’s raven just that morning.

“But you will,” he said.

“Will I?”

“Sansa,” said Jon, half-impatiently. “We’ve planned this for seven years. And, anyhow, you’re not one to let fear stop you from acting, or you’d have surrendered at Last Hearth. So: when are we leaving?”

She sighed. “I want some of the women from Last Hearth to come with me. At least Alys, Meera, Wylla, and Eddara- they’d be of great help. The more that can come the better, in all honesty, and what I’m aiming to do is controversial enough that I want some allies beside me.”

“Robb isn’t enough?”

“Robb,” she said, “is miserable at politics.”

Jon laughed.

Sansa continued, earnestly: “He is. He’d think the ones who hate him the most his allies, the ones who’re actually loyal the traitors, and manage to alienate them all in the space of a week. If anything, I should lock him up in his bedchamber- it’d save me a lot of trouble.”

“I’d like to see that,” Jon murmured, wrapping his arms around her and dragging her close.

Sansa shifted so that she lay half on him, and threaded her fingers through his curls. “So. We’ll leave in a little over a fortnight’s time.”

“I look forward to it,” he said, and pressed a kiss to the top of her head.

“Liar,” Sansa replied without heat, and let her eyes drift closed lazily.

Seven ravens left King’s Landing one morning, each carrying an utterly important summons; each heading to a different keep.

When Sansa finally arrived at King’s Landing, Robb threw himself at her.

“I was so worried,” he mumbled into her neck. “Gods, I hadn’t so much as considered- well. I thought for sure we were damned to the high heavens, and then you sent that bloody raven, and I didn’t stop smiling for just about a week.”

Sansa hugged him back just as tightly. “I know, I know- I missed you so much, it’s been an entire year-”

“-the crown looks good on you-”

“-you’ve grown so thin-”

“-gods,” he said, again, and his hug tightened, impossibly.

Sansa breathed deep and let herself dangle in his arms for a moment longer before pulling away. She was close to many people, and she loved them all. But Robb was different- he was the first one she’d ever trusted, and he was her closest brother, and they’d spent just as much time arguing and fighting as they did laughing, for so many years. When she’d first left him, it’d felt like a lost limb to not have him there for sharp comments and easy laughter. When next he’d left her, it’d felt even worse.

“Where’s Mother?” Sansa asked, once the initial introductions were over- Robb had pounded Jon on his back, and her council had looked both flattered and impressed at Robb’s manners when he greeted them. Sansa had already resolved to tease Wynafryd on her flushed cheeks mercilessly.

“Inside the keep.” Robb’s lips tilted downwards. “The Tyrells arrives yesterday, and they’re already making life hell. Hells above, there’s so much to tell you- I can’t wait to talk to you about everything.”

Sansa glanced at Jon, and felt a sinking sensation in her stomach.

“You’ve no idea,” she replied, and let herself be shuffled into the keep.

Robb was exhausted before they’d so much as finished half the things that needed to be covered.

Sansa had brought the Kingslayer with her, and preparing a cell for him- along with all the other Lannister hostages- had been tiring. Then their mother, Sansa’s council, and Sansa herself had spent hours deciding which rooms would be given to whom after they arrived. After that she’d started talking to Robb about the rise in wildling invasions in the North, and what they had to do about it.

He was impressed with her stamina.

“Anything else?” He asked, when they’d finally managed to go over everything.

Sansa hesitated, glancing at her council and then back to him.

“Yes,” she said. “Though it might be better to do it in private.”

Robb shrugged. “Me and you, or-”

“It might be better to have Mother here as well.” Her lips quirked in a mirthless smile. “But maybe not Jon.”

Robb frowned, confused, but only said, “You heard her,” to the council.

Some of them left quickly- but others looked amused as they did so. Jon cast a worried look back at Sansa as he followed them out. He avoided Robb’s gaze with as much unsubtle awkwardness as he’d been doing since they arrived.

I’ll talk it over tomorrow at the practice grounds. Best thing for it- I can hit him over the head if he gets as brooding as before.

When the door clicked shut, he nodded to Sansa.

“Something important?”

“Yes.” She breathed deep, looking down into her lap. Slowly, she lifted her head and met Robb’s gaze. “I- I married.”

I didn’t hear that correctly. Robb felt his brows pull together. “You what?”

She shifted uneasily, and her eyes dipped away quickly before coming back to meet Robb’s decisively. Suddenly, he realized that she was avoiding their mother’s gaze more than she was trying to meet his own.

“I got married,” Sansa repeated.

“When?” Their mother asked crisply.

Her shoulders pulled tight, defensive. “A- a few months ago.”

“To whom?”

“I- think it might be a better idea if I ensured that you didn’t kill him first,” she said, voice high and nervous. “I rather-”

“Months ago,” Robb said slowly. “Why didn’t you tell us, Sansa?”

She inhaled and lifted her chin. “Because you wouldn’t approve.”

“And, knowing that, you still went ahead with it?”

Sansa looked between them. “I wanted to tell you in person, at first, and by the time I realized how foolish that was, it seemed more prudent to wait than to send you a raven. That’s why I asked Father and the others not to tell you.” She shook her head. “I know it was terribly foolish of me, not to mention selfish, but I do love him, he’s always been kind to me, and-”

Their mother leaned forward, eyes glittering like the palest stars. “Who,” she asked, cold and frozen as the oldest tides, “is he?”

“Promise me you won’t hurt him,” Sansa replied, turning to look at Robb. When he shook his head, she straightened and said, firmly, “If you won’t give your word I won’t tell you. Promise, and I’ll speak.”

“You’re sixteen!” Robb exclaimed.

“A woman grown,” she flared back.

“A woman grown would not act as impetuously as you did,” their mother said, and Sansa deflated slightly; just enough for him to see the tears behind her defiance.

Robb muttered a curse under his breath and glared at her.

“Fine. Fine, have your bloody promise: I won’t hurt the man you’ve chosen to spend a life with. I hope he’s worth it, Sansa, because I don’t know if I can admire a man who hides behind your skirts.”

“He’s just doing what I asked,” she said acidly, and then visibly bit her tongue. “I’m- sorry. Thank you, Robb.”

“Answer the question,” he ordered.

He could see her impulse- she wanted to toss her head and shout back- but also her restraint- she swallowed it all down and sent him a weak smile instead.

“I married Jon,” she said quietly.

“Jon?” Robb asked dumbly, at the same time as his mother forced her chair back so it screeched against the flagstones. “Jon who?”

“Jon our cousin,” Sansa said. “Jon- the man you legitimized as a Targaryen. I mean, now he’s a Stark, but before that he was-”

“You married our brother?” Robb asked, horrified.

“I married our cousin,” she corrected, voice stinging. “I love him, Robb. As I didn’t think myself capable.”

He swallowed, hard, and their mother turned towards them.

“This was extremely stupid of you,” she told Sansa. “I’m surprised your father supported you at all- you had such great chances, Sansa, and you squandered them on a man who is already promised to our-”

“What great chances, Mother?” She asked. “I am already Queen. I already have power, and all the wealth I can ever want. All I wish for is a man who loves me and treats me with kindness and respect, and Jon does that in droves.”

Their mother sighed. “I want you to be happy, of course I do. But what does Jon know of ruling? Of the dangers and tribulations that come from that?”

“He will rule beside me,” Sansa replied. “It isn’t as if I have much knowledge myself. We shall learn together, if necessary.”

“And your- past life? The one in which you feared yourself broken?” She shook her head. “Men have hurt you. Why not wait and see?”

“Because we all might die,” said Sansa. “Because there’s not enough days in this life to waste. I was hurt, Mother, and I’m not saying I wasn’t. But there is a difference between Jon and those men, and he will never treat me as they did, and that is half the reason why I trust him!”

Robb arched an eyebrow. “The other half being?”

.“The other half being that he’s as honorable as Father, and twice as kind,” she snapped back. “Oh, and also let’s not forget that he’s much better in bed than the others, why don’t we?”

Well. That is… enlightening. To say the least.

“Sansa,” their mother reproved, and Robb watched in amusement as she flushed a red bright enough to be painful.

“I’m not asking for permission or forgiveness,” Sansa ground out. “I am telling you, because you deserve to know. I hope you can find it in yourself to accept my decision but this is final, whether or not you do.”

Damn it all.

“Sansa-”

“Good day, Mother, Robb.”

She curtsied slightly, and strode out of the room.

“Your mother is scary,” Jon murmured.

Sansa, in the middle of undoing her braid, closed her eyes in what looked to be absolute mortification.

“I got Robb to promise,” she said. “Not Mother. Gods, Jon, I’m sorry. They’re being rather unhelpful about this whole thing, you know, and- well. What did she say to you?”

He rolled fully onto the bed so he was staring up at the canopy. “That if I ever raised so much as a finger to you, she’d ensure that I’d beg for mercy before I died.”

The actual words had been, hurt worse than the lords Royce Bolton flayed alive, but Jon rather thought that Sansa didn’t need to know the entirety of her mother’s imagination.

“Well,” Sansa said. “I’ve no words, Jon. Mother’s always been protective of me, and- it doesn’t look like she’ll stop anytime soon.” He propped himself on his elbow, watching her, and her eyes met his in the looking glass. “I am sorry, for what it’s worth.”

“If I do hurt you,” said Jon, “I’m sure I’ll deserve everything your mother does to me.”

Sansa sighed playfully. “If you hurt me, I’ll be handling it myself. We Starks don’t turn our faces, Jon, don’t you remember?”

“I remember,” he replied. “I just think your mother isn’t half as scary as you, and so would prefer to be handled by her.”

“How wonderful,” she said, and got up from the vanity, coming closer to him. “I’m glad I frighten you.”

“You frighten me,” he agreed, “because you’re so beautiful, and I can’t seem to stop myself from doing everything to you - despite being married for almost a half-year already.”

“So sweet,” she exclaimed, high enough to make him wince; but then she kissed him, and Jon fell back onto the cushions, and there was little enough talk for the rest of the day.

Robb received a raven the next morning from their father.

“He asks me to return,” he told Sansa and their mother over breakfast. Jon had, apparently, declined to attend. “The wildling attacks have gotten too serious. He wants the army back in the North.”

“And the urgency has nothing to do with the fact that you hate the south,” said Sansa.

“It’s too hot,” Robb declared. “I’ve no idea how you lived here for so long, Sansa. I can scarce sleep at night- I swear there’s no air to breathe!”

“Perhaps you ought to stop dressing in such heavy furs,” their mother murmured, and Robb exhaled loudly, impatiently.

Sansa laughed. “Fine. But even if you go back, I have to stay here.”

“Aye,” he said slowly.

“I’ll need an army,” Sansa reminded him. “We’re inviting too many soldiers- if there’s a chance, they’ll take advantage. We need to have the upper hand as long as they remain here.”

“Edmure ought to be riding here,” their mother commented. “Have him bring his army.”

“Is it big enough?”

“More than,” Robb reassured her. Then, lips quirking, “Mother, what about you?”

She turned to Sansa. “Will you need me here?”

“Yes,” Sansa said plainly, then hesitated. “Though I’d understand if you want to go home with Robb. Rickon misses you like you wouldn’t believe.”

“You have need of me,” their mother said calmly. Her eyes crinkled in a smile. “My Queen has need of me. What mother could deny that?”

Sansa swallowed, staring into her cup as if it held the secrets of the universe. Slowly, she looked up at them both, and flashed her teeth in a genuine smile.

“I’ll be finishing this as quickly as possible,” she told him. “We should all be back in Winterfell soon.”

“Definitely,” said Robb, and whatever anger was between the two of them faded as if it never existed.

Robb left the morning after their uncle came from Riverrun.

Sansa hugged him tightly, told him to keep safe, and then shoved him towards Jon, whom he hadn’t spoken to since his arrival at King’s Landing.

“Go on,” she said, and turned away.

Robb breathed deep and approached Jon, careful and wary as he’d never before even considered. There was something fragile between them, now; a mistrust that sank into every look, every breath, every thought. Sansa was Robb’s sister, and she pushed and prodded until he gave in exasperatedly; Robb had forgiven her for her silence quicker than he’d expected. But Jon had only accepted Robb’s silent anger, and he’d done so with an ease that made something hot and hard curl up in Robb’s belly.

At any other time, Robb might have continued to hold onto it- but there was another war brewing up north, another kingdom that he had to defend. He knew better than to let this fester for any longer than necessary.

“Stay alive,” he said, finally, after a long pause.

Jon nodded. “You too.”

After a moment, Robb could stand the tense silence no longer; he turned and grabbed Jon’s shoulder.

“If you ever do something like that again,” he said, lowly, “I’ll- I don’t know what. But you’ll regret it. It doesn’t matter to me who your parents were, you’re my brother. And you don’t get to keep quiet on things this important, Jon. Gods, just imagine- imagine Bran going and finding a wife without whispering a single word of it to anyone! You don’t get to act less, do you understand? You’re my brother, you’re my brother, and anyone who says otherwise will get a sword blade to their throat. Next time you take this important of a decision, you tell me.”

Jon blinked, and looked away, and then looked back, just as steady as Sansa at her sharpest, just as steady as Arya at her fiercest.

“Alright,” he said, and if the edges cracked, if it was hoarse- Robb ignored it. Into Robb’s ears, as they embraced, he whispered, “It was me who wanted to keep quiet about it. Not Sansa. She was ready to send ravens, but I asked her not to. I was… afraid.”

Robb stepped back and chewed over that for a moment, before sighing. “Why were you afraid?”

“I- what?”

“Why were you afraid?” Robb repeated. “Because you were afraid of our reactions? Because you didn’t think we’d approve? Why didn’t you want to tell us?”

Jon ducked his head, and for all that he was taller than Robb, for all that he was older by however many months, Robb felt like he was looking at the brother who clenched his teeth against a world’s judgment and glared at everyone who spat the word bastard and still set his sword to the grindstone, not hesitating for a moment- Robb felt like he was looking at the brother who had always been twice as stubborn as a mule and as foolishly, steadily believing in the kindness of people as Sansa at her most Sansa.

“I didn’t want to make it real,” he said finally. “Sansa- I love her. But I’ve never been enough. I couldn’t save her, not when we went south the first time, not when she was in the North the second. Sansa saved herself, and I’ll always be glad for that, but I wasn’t there.” He inhaled, shallowly. “I am just as honorless as the Kingslayer.”

“Back up,” Robb said firmly. “There’s a difference between not having the chance to fulfill your vows and actively breaking them. And you did save Sansa, that last time- you did the best you could in a situation where you couldn’t win.” He wrinkled his nose. “Also, you know, tell Sansa how you feel. She’s much better at the whole inspirational thing.”

Jon smothered a laugh in his sleeve. “And what are you good at, then?”

“Compared to Sansa?” Robb rolled his eyes. “Nothing. She was always the perfect one. Everyone else just looks foolish next to her, you know?” He felt his lips twitch as a sudden thought occurred to him. “...in point of fact, I feel rather bad for you. Stuck beside a woman who makes you look as sophisticated as a horse’s ass for the rest of your life- gods, I can hardly think of a worse fate.”

“Aye,” Jon retorted, “but at least I’ve got some sophistication, don’t I? Meanwhile, you’re so afraid of comparison you’re running away before anyone actually gets their head on straight and realizes how much better Sansa is at everything! And-” he dodged Robb’s punch, speaking through the laughter that was threatening to swallow his words, “-and, and, you’re taking your bloody army with you, because they’ll turn around and bend the knee to her-”

“I’ll rip your head off,” Robb snarled, and lunged forwards.

“Boys,” murmured Wynafryd, but a smile curled over her lips.

Alys grinned. “Ten copper stars that the King wins.”

“Are you joking?” Wylla tossed her hair. “Sansa’s husband’s has muscles. Or am I the only one who’s been peeking during the bathing sessions on the road?”

“Wylla,” Wynafryd hissed.

Wylla rolled her eyes. “You were almost worse than me. Going after that Tallhart boy like he makes the sun rise every morning- good Mother, you can do better, Wyn.”

“Wylla,” Wynafryd hissed, again.

“Fine,” said Wylla, and then turned, ignoring her sister entirely; she nodded to Alys. “I’ll take you up on that bet. Ten stars on Jon Stark to win this.”

“Agreed,” said Alys. Once Wynafryd huffed and left them to go and talk to Eddara- who was at the least not so blatantly scandalous- she leaned in towards Wylla and said, “You weren’t alone in the looking, if you were wondering.” Wylla arched a gleeful eyebrow, and Alys shook her head. “Not me, I’ve got more class than that- but you should’ve seen Eddara.”

“No,” Wylla said, aghast. “She wouldn’t.”

“She did.” Alys grinned again, smugly. “And I’m fairly certain something might happen soon, if you it hasn’t already. It isn’t like he’s ugly, and it is rather understandable- I’ll give you a full bag if you can guess who.”

“Ladies don’t gamble,” Wylla replied haughtily, flicking a loose strand of hair away from her eyes.

After Jon had wrestled Robb down into the earth and the army had left and Alys had paid Wylla her coins, she looped an arm around Alys’ and dragged her away from the crowd.

“Make it a bag of stags,” Wylla said, “and you’ve got yourself a deal.”

Sansa sat on a hastily-made throne with Jon beside her. They’d been doing this since morning, and it was just as irritating as it was boring- Jon had begun the day sitting beside her, and as time went on he’d gone from sitting to standing in a vain attempt to alleviate the utter dullness of it all.

“Lord Tyrion wishes to address Her Majesty,” said the crier, and Sansa felt a slow prickle of interest.

Tyrion had been confined to his rooms since surrendering King’s Landing to Robb- this audience likely represented the first time he’d left them in near a month.

Tyrion entered the rooms and knelt. “Your Grace.”

“Rise,” said Sansa. “Speak, Lord Tyrion. What do you wish to know?”

“When I knelt to your brother,” Tyrion said quietly, “I was told he would be merciful.” He hesitated. “They call you the Merciful Queen, don’t they?”

“They do.”

“Then why-” he broke off, and then continued. “I haven’t seen my brother yet, your Grace. But there are rumors, and some say that- that-”

Jon sent Sansa a meaningful look, and she leaned back and let him take over.

“That he no longer has both hands,” finished Jon.

Tyrion rocked back on his feet. “It’s true, then?”

“Aye,” Jon said evenly. “It is.”

“They say you don’t torture your prisoners-”

“We don’t. But when a man attempts to escape- when a man of the Kingslayer’s skill attempts to escape- there are consequences.” Jon sighed. “When he heard of his twin’s death, he went berserk. That night, he tried to escape, and failed in killing one of the Karstarks only by sheer happenstance. The next night, he procured a glass shard- from where we do not know- and succeeded in killing one of his own bannermen before one of our direwolves stopped him.”

“We attempted to reason with him,” Sansa explained. “But he refused to let go of that glass piece, and started trying to claw at his own neck. One of our direwolves bit off his hand when he wouldn’t let go.”

Tyrion looked weary, Sansa thought. Weary and too tired to even profess shock over his brother’s apparent madness.

“Once the negotiations are done,” she said gently, “you can meet with him. I’m sorry that we’ve had to confine you from both the Kingslayer and your nieces and nephews, but it was necessary.”

“Negotiations for what?” He asked, confused.

Jon arched an eyebrow. “They’ve not told you?”

“I have little enough information in my cell,” Tyrion said, and it was half-defiant, half-exhausted. “A pretty, comfortable cell, your Grace, but a cell all the same.”

“I am not your sister,” Sansa replied soberly. “The truth does not frighten me. No, my lord, the truth is this: none of my siblings have any desire to sit on the Iron Throne. This kind of power is too much for any man to bear; it makes them go mad. Westeros was bound together by fear of dragons and fire; but the dragons are gone, now. And so we shall split the continent back into its constituent kingdoms.”

Jon sent her a quick smile. “Eight kingdoms, my lord. And of these eight, the Westerlands are one, and there is only one man I see who has the blood right to it.”

Tyrion blinked, quickly, before giving a short bark of laughter. “You intend to put me as- as ruler? Those lords would dethrone me within a moon’s turn.”

Sansa’s lips twitched. “I could place a goat as head of the Westerlands and there wouldn’t be a revolt for at least a half-decade,” she told him. “The land has been burned, Lord Tyrion; my brother has razed it to the ground. And if you’re smart, as I know you to be, you’ll consolidate your own power in those five years of leeway that you have. Though I rather hope you’ll be better than a goat when you sit on a throne.”

“And what of Myrcella and Tommen?”

“Their fate remains undecided.” Sansa held up a hand at his protests. “They won’t be mistreated, my lord. That much I can and will assure you. But sometimes marriages must be made, and if they are willing to the match- only then- will their fate not lie in your hands. If there are to be no marriages, then we shall leave their guardianship to you. And, of course, once the negotiations are finished you shall take your brother home with you.”

Jon nodded. “‘Tis a good deal, my lord. I’d strongly suggest you take it- it’s kinder than any other would have offered.”

The same words the Kingslayer said to me at Last Hearth. My, how the tables have turned.

“I will think on it,” said Tyrion, and bowed, and left.

Sansa sighed, once the throne room was empty, spine bowing a little. Jon sent her a commiserating expression, and she rolled her eyes before calling, “Send the next in!”

Robb left the morning that Uncle Edmure came.

And after that, the others arrived: the Lannisters were already there, and so were the Tullys; but Bronze Yohn Royce came, escorting Sweetrobin; Asha Greyjoy arrived with fifty longships and a stack of letters for her brother; the last of the Tyrells finally arrived from Highgarden; Davos Seaworth, accompanied Shireen Baratheon, as dour and kind as ever; and finally, Oberyn Martell landed with a coterie of other Martells surrounding him like so many twittering birds.

Or snakes, Sansa thought, and rose to greet them.

Asha watched the Queen carefully.

Sansa Stark had proven to have more teeth than anyone could have predicted. The old courtiers had heard King Robb’s decision to place the full responsibility of breaking Westeros apart on her shoulders, and they’d laughed. The retiring girl who’d scarce stepped out of her rooms in the keep would have to rule the entire continent?

She’ll either let someone rule in her name, one of them had told Asha, or she’ll start crying on her first day.

But she hadn’t.

Sansa had welcomed Asha’s fifty longships with a smile that showed nothing but rehearsed, placid warmth. A show of strength that would have made any warm-blooded Baratheon loyalist quail- for certainly, the Ironborn rebellion had been at the forefront of everyone’s mind when Asha sailed her fleet up the river- only made the girl smile. The courtier who’d assured Asha of Sansa’s docility looked rather cowed, in fact, when Asha finally saw him in the Red Keep.

A wolf, thought Asha, amused. So you’ve decided to show your teeth, have you?

Little matter; everyone knows krakens are rather more dangerous than pale-toothed wolves, no matter how much you sharpen your claws.

Two days later, she stretched out her legs in the council-room and watched Sansa carefully, all the while looking as disinterested as she could.

“I am glad you came,” Sansa said, that same practiced smile on her face.

“When the ruler of Westeros calls for you,” said Asha, “one doesn’t dally. I don’t precisely see the choice I had, Your Grace.”

“What I meant was that I’m glad you came,” Sansa corrected. “You are your father’s heir, aren’t you? Or close enough to make little difference. You do us great honor with your presence.”

“Do I?” Asha drawled. “Well. For all that I was raised to be my father’s heir, I’ve little enough support for the crown. I’m no heir.”

“Then who is?”

“My uncles. It’s happened before: when a man has no male-born heirs, his brothers take control.” She shrugged. “And, of course, we determine our leaders in our kingsmoot. You’ve no power even if you wished it.”

“I don’t want power,” Sansa replied, voice still as even as it had been in the beginning of the conversation. Asha wondered what would break her composure. “No. Tell me, Lady Asha, would you be amenable to taking the crown? Leave behind the fact that you think it unlikely. Would you wish to?”

“I know of no Greyjoy who wouldn’t,” Asha said flatly. “Though I see little point in this conversation-”

“The coffers are empty,” she said suddenly. “The treasury kept under King Robert has been depleted almost entirely. But there are still things in it that were worthless to gold-diggers. Things that were overlooked, if you understand what I mean.”

Asha’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t.”

“No?” Sansa arched an eyebrow. “Have you forgotten so quickly of the Nagga crown?”

“They were only another of the things lost in my father’s ill-fated rebellion,” Asha said slowly. “It was used before the Driftwood Crown, to signify the ruler of the Ironborn. Are you offering them back, Your Grace?”

Sansa looked at her steadily- albeit a bit confusedly- and then sighed.

“There has been news from Pyke, my lady,” she said carefully. “I thought you were aware of it- you’ve certainly not been isolated from ravens since your arrival. Though looking at you now, I’m fairly certain you’ve no idea of what has happened.”

If you did something, I’ll gut you like a fish and damn the consequences.

“What are you talking about?” Asha asked warily.

“Your father suffers from a draining disease,” Sansa said quietly. “I’m not sure what it is, only that it is there; it is why I called you here. To talk over it.”

“My father is ill,” Asha said, bowing her head.

There was a faint ringing in her ears.

Asha breathed in, shallow and open-mouthed. She breathed out, and then raised her chin and met Sansa’s gaze as steadily as Sansa had ever done.

“I will have to leave for Pyke,” she announced.

“And you shall.” Sansa leaned forward. “You shall go to your home with the Nagga crown, and you shall reign as ruler.”

“You’re offering me the crown freely?” Asha asked incredulously.

“I am offering you the crown on one condition,” Sansa replied.

Of-fucking-course.

“That you become Queen of the Iron Islands.”

“What.”

“You heard me.” Sansa stepped forwards, eyes shining like twin stars. In that moment, Asha could see the bone-deep strength running inside this girl- the self-same strength that had inspired a castle of women to take up arms; the strength that had guided her brother to name her a queen in her own right; the strength that had led her to break apart a kingdom that was three centuries hewn together. “You heard me. I do not want your uncles to become driftwood kings. Who will stand against a woman who holds the strength of the Harlaws, who is the rightful heir of Balon Greyjoy, who calls a kingsmoot and claims the Seastone Chair wearing the Nagga crown?”

“And what do you want in return?” Asha demanded, eyes hard. “In return for the crown, what do you want me to do? I warn you, I will not sacrifice my people’s pride for yours.”

“You wouldn’t be a good ruler if you did. No; what I want is something smaller. In a few years, after you’ve settled your kingdom, all I want is for you to provide me with an audience.” She raised an eyebrow. “The contract’s been written if you wish to read it.”

Asha pursed her lips. “Let me see it.”

Sansa nodded and reached for a paper amongst the stack on the table. Asha took it and read it, every line.

(There’d been a good-looking sailor in Fair Isle who’d been a shark with a contract, and Asha’d nearly signed her ship and herself away with her carelessness. She’d stuck him with a dirk and sailed away quickly, but she’d learned her lesson: contracts were important.)

“You just want an audience,” Asha stated, when she’d finished reading. “You’re giving back the Nagga crown, you’re handing me a throne, and all you want is an audience.” She tossed the contract onto the table and folded her arms over her chest. “Tell me, Queen Sansa, are you as much of a fool as people call you?”

Sansa blinked. Her lips twitched, slightly, but in the end she settled for looking politely confused.

“Are there people calling me a fool?”

“Not the point.” Asha felt her nails bite into the flesh of her upper arm. “Why give me so much? And speak plainly; I’ve no patience for avoidance.”

“If I told you, you wouldn’t believe me.” Sansa smiled tiredly. “The major reason, at the least, is something I won’t tell you. But there are others: you won’t bring raiders to the shores of the other kingdoms as your uncle Euron would. The Tyrells are rather taken with you, so there’s little opposition from them to naming you as queen. And Theon thinks you’d be good at it.”

“Does he?” Asha asked, truly curious.

Sansa nodded. “He didn’t say as much, of course. But when Robb asked, Theon said that your uncles weren’t… the most level-headed persons.”

“Being the least evil of three potential rulers is no compliment,” Asha said wryly. “Less so when the ones being compared are Victarion and Euron Greyjoy.”

“Perhaps.” Sansa sighed. “So, to answer your question: yes. I wish for you to welcome me- or a representative coming in my name- to your court. I want a private conference with you, one that will be granted without delay. And that is the only condition I am placing before I give you the Nagga crown.”

Asha rocked backwards, reached for the contract, skimmed it again, swallowed through a dry throat, and then nodded.

“Alright,” she said. “I’ll sign it.”

On the way from their second meeting with the Stormlords and towards their fourth with the Tyrells, Wylla caught Alys’ attention and gestured for her to step away from the crowd. When Alys slipped into a small alcove, Wylla followed.

“Is it Cerwyn?” She asked.

Alys’ arched an eyebrow. “Give Eddara some credit, Wylla. She has taste, at the least.”

Wylla rolled her eyes. A moment later, black and gold colors flashed away from the door, and she grinned. “You’ve heard the news, I take it?”

“That the Queen’s got her first challenge under her belt?” Alys nodded. “She was rather worried that the other potential rulers- meaning, of course, the Tyrells- wouldn’t agree to Asha Greyjoy. But the Tyrells were rather happy about it in when I spoke to them today morning.”

“Well, that’s fine too- but I was talking about why the Tyrells are so agreeable to her.” Wylla grinned and jogged Alys’ elbow.

“Besides the fact that Asha’s foreign policy is entirely at odds with her uncles’, meaning no raiding on Tyrell grounds?” She asked dryly. “I couldn’t think of any reason for them to support her, Wylla. Absolutely none, I tell you.”

“Don’t be mean.” Wylla pouted, but quickly shook it off. “No, well- that might’ve been important too, but turns out her biggest supporter amidst the Tyrells is Margaery.”

Alys blinked. “Margaery, the daughter of Mace Tyrell?”

“That’s the one.”

“Margaery, the widow of Renly Baratheon? That Margaery?”

“Yes.”

“And is she just a supporter? Or is it- more?”

Wylla grinned at her. “Take a guess.”

“Good gods,” Alys breathed. “Well. This changes things, doesn’t it?”

“Does it?”

“Margaery Tyrell and Asha Greyjoy.” Alys gestured pointedly, heatedly. “Do you really not see what can come of an Ironborn-Reach alliance?”

Wylla drew up short, jaw snapping shut with a decisive click. “I… didn’t.”

“You’re a fool,” Alys told her, and Wylla didn’t bother saying anything. “Does Sans- does the Queen know?”

“I’ll tell her.” Wylla turned and started towards the door, before glancing back at her. “D’you know where she is?”

“Still with the Stormlords, I think,” said Alys. She paused again, a bare hesitation, before adding, “Tell her what Lord Errol told us after the meeting, alright?”

Wylla remembered the Lord Errol and suppressed a wince. He had eyes the same color as the blue of the White Knife in the hours before the river froze over, and his skin was as colorless as the ice that collected on its banks. Her leg always ached when she had to speak to him, as if in warning.

He’d approached them after their last meeting with the Stormlords, in which Sansa had finally announced that she wished to support Shireen Baratheon’s claim to the Storm Throne.

If you give that cursed girl a crown, he’d said, she’ll not make it to another nameday.

“Sansa can’t do anything about that,” Wylla pointed out.

Alys rolled her shoulders and sighed. “Not just Errol’s threat. I forgot- it was Eddara who was with me when I spoke to her. Well, I spoke to Lady Shireen last night, and she’s saying she doesn’t want the throne. Which is slightly more difficult to answer than any singular threat.”

“Fucking hell,” Wylla muttered, and spun towards the door, before turning back again. “Don’t take Eddara next time you want to talk to anyone below the age of fifteen- she tends to scare most of them silly because-”

“-she has no expression?” Alys sighed again. “I saw it yesterday. She made things so much more uncomfortable than necessary- I think Lady Shireen cried, after we left. Though I think Eddara does that to everyone, not just people below fifteen.”

“I’m only willing to protect people that young,” Wylla retorted. “Anyone older can fend for themselves.” She scrubbed a hand down her face, allowing herself a moment of indulgence before straightening. “Alright. Good luck with the Tyrells; I’ll meet you there.”

“Of course,” said Alys, and they parted ways easily.

“Can we talk, my lady?”

Shireen Baratheon blinked up at Sansa for a moment, before she nodded slowly.

Her dark hair was braided tightly along the unscarred part of her face, but the other half was shadowed with strands of hair that must have been purposely teased out in a vain attempt to cover the scars. Sansa’s heart went out to her: Shireen was younger than Sansa had been when the Lannisters came to Winterfell, and she was having a crown placed on her head forcibly.

But Shireen was the last trueborn Baratheon, and that meant something.

“I thought we could go for a walk,” Sansa told her. “It’s a beautiful day, and I’d very much like to speak to you in private, my lady.”

After they’d left their companions behind, along with Shireen’s glaring mother- Sansa looped her arm around Shireen’s and steered her to a small stone bench set in a corner of the garden.

“I think I owe you an apology,” Sansa told her solemnly, once they’d both sat down. “I’m placing a crown on your head, my lady. And a crown takes away freedom as much as it gives you power- and I’m not giving you a choice in taking it. I am truly sorry for that.”

“Are you?” Shireen asked quietly. She looked away, but then her eyes flashed back to Sansa’s, and for all her quiet demureness, there was a hard light in them. “Did you hear of what Lord Errol said? He told Ser Trant that he’d kill me. And the lords you’re naming my bannermen- they all hate me. If you put that crown on my head, I won’t survive a year in Storm’s End.”

“I am not placing a golden circlet on your head and walking away,” said Sansa, gentle as she knew how. “And you’re not without friends, Lady Shireen: Lord Penrose rather likes you, and Lords Selmy, Tarth, and Dondarrion have all expressed their support of your reign. I won’t let you die. Have no fear of that, at the least.”

“Should I not?” She leaned back, brushing away the strands of hair curling against her stone-cracked cheek impatiently. “Let’s say I’m not killed, Your Grace. Then what? Do you think that my bannermen will serve a woman? Even if they might have done that- do you think they’ll serve a young one? And even if they’d do that- do you think they’ll serve me? The greyscale-ridden daughter of a religious fanatic?”

“That wasn’t your father,” Sansa said softly. “Or perhaps not all your father was.” Her lips twisted dryly. “And I’m not running away as soon as I crown you; no- you’re young, Lady Shireen, I agree. But it’s past time the lords of Westeros learn that their wives and daughters are no fainting dolls to be controlled- we’ve the strength to lead, to envision, to spend a lifetime in the shadows and not be broken. And who better to rule the Stormlands for the first time in three centuries than another Storm Queen?”

“They stripped the last one of her clothes and her dignity,” Shireen pointed out.

“And Argella Durrandon retained her life and honor,” Sansa said. “She bore a son, whom you are a direct descendant of. Shireen- trust me. Your bannermen will not speak or rise against you, not for another five years. I’ll give you that time to become a queen they respect, a queen they will follow. Think of it as a gift, from one queen to another.”

Shireen breathed in, slowly, and then suddenly took the hair hanging over her cheek and pulled it back.

“Look at me,” she said. When Sansa focused on her eyes, she impatiently waved at her cheek. “No, Your Grace, look at me.”

“I am.”

“Are you? Are you seeing what I am? My mother sees me and thinks me a failure. Davos sees me and pities me. What do you see, that you think I can bear to become a Storm Queen?”

Sansa kept her eyes wide open, her face honest. She knew what it did to girls when the world saw only one part of them and called it the sum of their worth. She knew how brave Shireen had to be, to so much as hint at her scars in front of Sansa. She knew how it felt to be on the other side of this encounter, and she knew how to answer this.

“I see a Baratheon,” Sansa said lowly. “The last trueborn Baratheon in the world. A girl who is scarred, and wounded.” She reached out and gently, carefully, brushed the strands away from Shireen’s face; cupped her cheek. “A girl who dares the world to be unkind despite knowing its darkness. A girl who has convinced four proud, defiant Stormlords to bend the knee without even trying.” Quietly, delicately, she leaned forwards until she was close enough that Shireen had no choice but to see the truth in her eyes. “A worthy heir to Argella Durrandon and your own father. I see your scars, Lady Shireen, and I tell you this: they are no measure of your ability to bear a crown.”

Shireen swallowed. “I don’t want it,” she whispered finally.

Sansa sighed. “Neither do I,” she said. “Neither does my brother. By the end of it, I’m quite sure your Uncle Robert didn’t either. Nobody with any sense wants a crown, my lady, though there are always people who will kill to get it. But for good or ill, you are the last Baratheon and so the last heir to the Stormlands. And I know that you will be a good queen.”

“How?”

“Because,” Sansa said levelly, “you’ve your father’s sense of justice and King Robert’s strength and King Renly’s kindness. Because you are the best of them.”

Shireen was pale and small, a dark-haired little shadow watching Sansa with big, blue eyes. The shape was wrong, the shade was wrong; but for a heartbeat, Bran stared up at Sansa in Shireen’s thin-boned face, asking quietly, worriedly, about how to prove himself worthy. Sansa swallowed, and watched Shireen’s shoulders curl inwards before she remembered herself, and then the way she simply, proudly, straightened her back and looked up at Sansa.

For just a moment, Sansa could see her uncle in her: the bright-eyed, brilliant heir to the proudest realm of Westeros. The daughter of the just, the niece of the kind and the fierce, the true-blooded descendant of the wind and sea and storm.

You’ve no need of a crown, thought Sansa. I am not giving you anything. I am only uncovering what will happen in the end.

They rose, and walked out of the garden, back to Shireen’s mother and her lords; back to Sansa’s ladies. They didn’t speak anything more- there was nothing more to be said, Sansa thought. In the end, they were the daughters of stern, noble fathers. They would spend their lives living up to their inheritances. They would be kind and proud and good, as good as they knew how to be, and they would remake the world to be a better place.

(Years later, decades later, Sansa received a raven from Storm’s End. Shireen had wed, by then, and her Stormlords had bent the knee. Sansa hadn’t seen her since speaking to her in King’s Landing.

Thank you, the letter said. Thank you for believing in me.

That was it, no more; not a signature, nothing to suggest who’d written it save for the seal.

But Sansa knew- and it was more than enough.)

Everything was interlocked.

Sansa’d spent hours throwing out ideas with her ladies, on the way to King’s Landing. They’d settled on likely bribes, easy offers, absolute deal breakers. But none of them had been ready for the sheer complexity of the whole thing.

Asha Greyjoy could be bribed into becoming queen easily enough- all she needed was the Nagga crown, which served no purpose by languishing in the treasury anyhow- and Theon rather thought she wanted it, in the first place, which made things easier. Her relationship with Margaery had come as a surprise to Sansa, though not a bad one; with her tacit support of it, she ensured that relations between the Reach and the Iron Islands remained- neutral, at least, even if they weren’t positive yet.

But the Reach-Ironborn alliance discomforted her Uncle Edmure- it was too easy for them to sweep in and make the Riverlands another battleground, after all. He’d started speaking to the Vale soldiers, and by the end of two days Bronze Yohn had announced that they would establish the same tariffs as Dorne, and not a single penny less. It’d taken Sansa hours of negotiation to ensure that the Stormlords didn’t follow them in announcing the same.

She’d had to give the Riverlands something. They were her kin, and she couldn’t let them- who’d faced the brunt of the war- go away empty-handed. In the end, Sansa simply handed control of a vast majority of the Crownlands, which she’d been worrying over the governance anyways, and named it an honor.

And despite all this careful maneuvering, despite all the work she’d already accomplished, there was still the matter of Dorne to attend to. The Stormlords were threatened into submission, at least for the moment; the Westermen were happy to maintain what they had and simply disappear back into their burned fields; the Riverlands were happy with the land they were gaining- but the Dornish had remained ominously quiet through the rest of the negotiations, and Sansa was avoiding speaking to them for as long as she could.

Now, she sighed and flopped onto the bed.

Jon made a slightly disgruntled sound as she jostled him out of his reading, but when he spoke his tone was only fond.

“Long day?”

“Long day,” she said, voice muffled as she rolled to face him. “Long week. Long year.”

“I know,” he said, bending forwards to press a kiss against her head. “It’s been slightly stressful, hasn’t it?”

“I just want to go back to Winterfell and rest in the pools,” she half-wailed. “I’m so sick of the constant talking! People don’t even know what they want! They walk into a meeting with me and spend an entire hour telling me why I absolutely have to give them this parcel of land, only to come back a day later and say no, thanks, I’d like this one more!”

“That’s… specific.”

“Shut up.” She shoved at his arm before getting up, turning so he could undo the laces at the back. “I swear to the Stranger, Jon, I am going to sic Lady on Lord Mallister the next time he calls me just a girl. And the Martells are irritating me already, and I haven’t even met with them properly. I’m going to start a war, I just know it.”

“Just be like Arya,” Jon murmured, pressing an open-mouthed kiss to her bare shoulder. “Everything will work out for the better, I know it.”

“By me insulting half our allies?” Sansa asked, half-breathlessly. “I don’t quite see the plus point there, Jon.”

“Alright. Insult everyone but the Tullys. You’ll still have an army to keep everyone controlled, then.”

“You’re ridiculous,” Sansa told him, and then tugged off the gown. The heat in the south was unbearable, as Robb had said. She wondered how she’d survived all those years the previous time- though then she’d had enough bruises that the heat barely registered.

“I sparred with some Vale soldiers today,” Jon murmured into her hair as she snuggled against his chest.

“Sounds interesting.”

“I think one of them’s impressed enough that he might lend some soldiers to our cause.”

“What?” She sat straight up, elbowing him in the gut in the process. “Sorry, sorry- are you well?”

“Yeah.” He winced, shifting slightly, but then grinned at her. “But, yes. He might. I think. It’s still up in the air, though.”

“Of course.” Sansa waved it away. “But you think it might be a possibility.”

“Aye.”

“I love you so much,” she breathed, leaning forwards and pressing a kiss to the corner of his lips. “Oh, gods, keep doing that. It’ll solve so many issues, you’ve no idea.”

He ducked his head, a pleased flush to his cheeks.

Sansa’d spent her days separated from him, talking with people who hated each other and wanted nothing more than to gut some of them. Jon had been at the practice yards, and doing the day-to-day ruling; half the time, they scarce saw each other in bed, much less during the day. And only two days prior, Wynafryd had turned a very pointed look to Sansa and spent a full half hour talking about the necessities of admiring a spouse’s care and love and easy, unthinking sacrifices- Sansa’d been rather confused, then, but she thought that she had a better idea of what Wynafryd had been thinking now.

“I’ll talk to Robert Arryn tomorrow, I think,” Jon told her, leaning back against the pillows again. “You spoke to Shireen, didn’t you?”

“I didn’t want to.” She grimaced. “But… it wasn’t easy. You’re not going to enjoy it.”

“Well, it has to be done. Someone has to tell the boy that they think he can make a good king, and the gods know Bronze Yohn’s a little too busy for it.”

Sansa nodded, and curled against his chest once more. A moment later, Jon shifted, hand moving and pinching out the candlelight by his bedside. Sansa curled lower instead of rolling for her own, and he grumbled wordlessly before reaching over her shoulder to pinch out the candle on her side. In the darkness, she pressed a kiss to his collarbone and shifted to get comfortable.

A moment later, Sansa was asleep.

Oberyn leaned back against the cold, hard wooden chairs and glared.

He was uncomfortable. He had been uncomfortable for the weeks since he’d arrived to King’s Landing. He had been uncomfortable for the decade before that. How Elia had managed to live here for so long-

But that was a thought that took him nowhere. It was a thought that only made him angrier.

And anger had no place in a conversation with Queen Sansa, as everyone south of the Wall seemed to know: the last noble to shout had been not only dragged out of the Keep by her pet direwolf, but also unceremoniously banished from Westeros. At any other time it might have been great gossip; as it was, she announced that Asha Greyjoy would take the Nagga crown back to her home the next morning, and everyone forgot the poor nobleman.

As it was, Oberyn had spent the past month working his way through the whores of King’s Landing, drinking his way through the best wine in the city, and getting a feel for the lay of the land under this new Queen.

She had a new husband, a stern-eyed young man who was, according to rumor, a Targaryen- a bastard one that had been legitimized by her brother. But the man was so entirely Stark in looks there was no one who could say one way or another the truth. And he rarely got involved in the whole political scheme. Sansa Stark ran the show with her own hand-picked women, and Lord Jon Stark- he’d taken her name, too- spent his hours in the practice yard, or helping fix up the buildings, or- rarely- mingling with nobles.

What man wants none of the power?

And yet their marriage didn’t seem to be unhappy. They slept in the same rooms, and there were no fights heard despite Oberyn installing a separate spy into both their households. It was entirely, sickeningly, idyllic.

He sighed, and then regretted doing it. The wooden chair made his upper body contract unpleasantly, and Obara hadn’t been kind to him when they sparred the previous day. And he wasn’t getting any younger. Next time, he’d make sure to get his own cushions from their apartments- clearly, the new queen had little care for the comfort of her nobility.

Thankfully, he had Ellaria and Obara beside him. And of course, then there was Trystane, though Oberyn rather thought he was too quiet these days. Perhaps he’d fought with Arianne recently.

Nevertheless- he’d been waiting in these rooms with Ellaria for over an hour, and there was still no sign of the Queen’s arrival. Oberyn exchanged an impatient look with her before huffing and knocking his head against the back of the chair.

A moment later, one of Sansa’s ladies entered the room.

“The Queen wishes to express her apologies about her delay, Your Grace.” She bowed her head. “Her Grace suggests that you request more refreshments until her arrival, if you wish it.”

“Thank you,” Ellaria said, before he could speak.

He ignored her warning glance as he drawled, “One wonders what can hold a Queen back for such an extended period of time. Something substantial, hopefully?”

Ellaria huffed, but he focused on the girl- she didn’t flush under his scrutiny, nor did she get flustered. In fact, she only looked slightly amused, though it was well-hidden under her dark fringe.

“Her Majesty has to attend to various kingdoms, Your Grace,” was all she said. “Kingdoms that are traditional rivals; some that are even enemies. Trying to ensure diplomacy and fairness- it is no easy task.”

“And the Dornish are forgotten,” Oberyn said belligerently. “As always.”

“Or perhaps she wishes to save the best for last,” the girl offered, a smile brightening her face momentarily before she bowed again and slipped out.

Ellaria arched an eyebrow appreciatively. “Smart girl.”

“Yes,” Oberyn murmured. “Smart girl indeed.” His lips twisted. “All those girls were smart, Ellaria, in the North- they knew exactly how important they were to the Northern resistance. Had they been captured, Robb Stark would have had two options: let them remain hostages and continue on his way, condemning them to death, or surrender arms.”

“His men would never have supported any option but surrendering,” she replied, sounding bored. She’d heard this same thread numerous times, as Oberyn tried to piece the Northern women together. “It would have been too barbaric, even for them.”

“Just so. The girls saw the same, and they chose not to let their men’s war fall apart. It was still a gamble, a horrific one; but good gods! It was a brilliant one.”

Ellaria tipped her head to the side. “And yet,” she said, hardly paying attention, “there are so many here who underestimate Queen Sansa.”

Those who’d been here under Lannister rule named her a fearful girl, cringing at shadows. The Stormlords who Oberyn had managed to get drunk enough to speak couldn’t see past her beauty or her soft, gentle demeanor. Her Uncle’s men thought her a young lady, one too impetuous and impatient to truly succeed. Her own Northerners believed her to be her brother’s heir in name as well as truth, and named her the Merciful.

Oberyn wasn’t sure any longer which was the truth.

Perhaps it was all of them. Perhaps it was none of them. But Sansa Stark had saved not only herself but also her father when she fled the Lannisters. She had, in fact, gone from being their toy to a queen in her own right in less than five years.

She was young, but she wasn’t foolish or naive. Everything that she’d done pointed towards that- but her actions upon coming to King’s Landing weren’t the same ones she’d done before. Oberyn had read the treaties she offered the Greyjoys, and he’d gaped; who gave away a priceless artifact in return for a single audience? It was the height of idiocy.

But she wasn’t foolish. Sansa wasn’t naive.

Then what is she?

“She has another game at play,” he said, tossing the wineglass onto the table. Ellaria shifted, arching an eyebrow at him again, and Oberyn continued: “She has another goal, not just keeping each kingdom happy, not just helping the North gain- whatever.”

“Does she?”

“Nothing else makes sense.”

Ellaria pursed her lips but only nodded. Oberyn sighed and leaned forward, pillowing his head on his arms.

So I know exactly one thing before speaking to her, he thought. Whatever else, do not underestimate the Queen.

Sansa was on her way to speak to the Martells- finally- when she received a page brought her a note bearing her mother’s seal.

It’s absolutely urgent, the note said. Come quickly to my solar, Sansa.

She sighed, folded it together, and strode in the opposite direction to which she’d been heading.

“You called, Mother?”

Lady Catelyn turned and nodded to Sansa when she entered the room.

Jon folded his arms over his chest, unmoving from his position in the corner. It’d taken Lady Catelyn longer than anyone might have expected to accept his new position in her family- and, even though she now didn’t snap at his every action, she did ignore him with every inch of a lady’s superiority and grace. Thus, the fact that she’d invited him to her private solar was… surprising.

To say the least.

But when he’d entered, Lady Catelyn had looked so pale and small behind the desk that he’d bit his tongue and held his peace. Something was wrong, that much was clear; something had happened, and it made his chest feel as hollow as a thrice-broken clay pot.

“Yes,” said Lady Catelyn. Her eyes flicked to Jon, and then back to Sansa before she handed her a neatly folded letter. “From Robb just this morning,” she told them. “I read it only minutes ago.”

Sansa frowned, reaching for it.

Jon leveraged himself up and moved to stand behind her, reading over her shoulder.

-Arya and Bran are missing, along with the Reed children-

-there was a battle. As near as we can tell, they were taken during it-

-we spoke to the wildlings who claimed they had them, but they said they escaped. We’ve no idea where they are now-

-mentioned the Wall. I’m going there now.

“Arya and Bran are missing?” Sansa asked, and Jon recognized the tone: it was the cold, dangerous one she used before she delivered an ultimatum. It was the voice of a warrior; of a queen.

“Yes,” whispered Lady Catelyn.

Sansa tossed her hair, shoved herself away from him, and said, evenly, “I’ll leave for the North tomorrow. Send a raven to Winterfell tonight, Mother.”

“You can’t leave,” Jon protested. “What about the treaties?”

“What about them?”

“A half-year of work is just going to be- be lost!”

“You think I care?” Sansa snarled. “Bran, Jon! Arya! Who gives a damn about treaties and Martells and idiotic marriage alliances when our family is- is-”

“Missing.”

“They could be dead for all you know,” she bit out.

Jon flinched. He wanted, desperately, to saddle his horse and ride out immediately, there was no doubt about it. But Lady Catelyn was worrying, and Sansa would instinctively respond to that, and at least one of them had to keep their heads through this mess. Just because, under any other condition, he would’ve ridden out without hesitation didn’t mean he had to make the same decision now.

“I know,” he said quietly, keeping a firm hold on his temper. “But we have to believe they aren’t. And if they’re not, then Robb’s going to be the only hope they have. There’s nothing we can do.”

“Nothing-”

“Nothing but make Westeros a safer place for them to walk in,” Jon continued, pitilessly. “Which means finishing this job and only then going home. Which means doing this job well, and properly. Which means getting as many allies as we can before we face the major enemy, Sansa, or have you forgotten that?”

Sansa bowed her head and turned away. After a long, breathless moment, her shoulder slumped.

“Fine,” she said. Raised her head. “Mother-” abruptly, looking at her, she sighed, the breath gusting out of her like a sail faltering when turning away from the wind. “-you wish to go back.”

“I go where I must,” Lady Catelyn replied simply. “You needed me, before, but you’ve better knowledge of this now than I ever will. And now, I’ve two children missing and another who is too young to be forgotten in all this. Rickon needs me, and if Arya and Bran are recovered they will need me as well. I will leave as soon as I can.”

Sansa swallowed, hard, and then nodded. A faint, watery smile crinkled the corners of her lips.

“Of course.” She pushed the letter away gently, and nodded again. “I will miss you,” she told her mother, formally.

Then she turned and walked out of the room stiffly.

Jon hesitated for barely a moment before jumping out of his pose and following her- Sansa had good masks, had immense strength; but she’d always told him that she couldn’t bear it if anything happened to any of them. She’d lost them, in another life. She couldn’t bear such a loss again.

And now, her deepest fears had been realized.

Sansa moved gracefully, elegantly, showing nothing of desperation in her sweeping movements until she’d arrived at their bedchamber. She fumbled with the door handle, and when it didn’t open immediately, a sharp, high sound erupted from her throat.

Jon stepped forward and moved her away, gentle as he could without properly touching her; he knew exactly what would break Sansa, and just then she was holding onto the dregs of her composure with the tips of her fingernails, her pride and little else. A moment later, he’d gotten the door open and was shuffling her inside, a hand pressing against her shoulder blades.

As soon as the door shut, though, Sansa shuddered and let out a sob just loud enough to make Jon’s chest ache; he moved forwards, hand skittering over her shoulders uneasily, unknowing what would make her feel worse-

Sansa stepped into his embrace, near-collapsing against his chest, and let her tears soak his collar.

And if Jon let a few of his own fall, as well, there was no one there to see it.

Oberyn slapped the flat of his hand against the table.

Queen Sansa had delayed speaking to the Dornish delegation for another three days, and for all that Oberyn was insulted by it, it wasn’t as if she’d met with anyone else during that time- she’d refused to leave her rooms, in fact, and only emerged two nights previous when her mother left for Winterfell.

There was no news as to why. No hints. Just a whisper from a serving girl that the Queen had looked agitated when she left her mother’s solar one morning; but she’d said that Sansa was nowhere near emotional enough to countenance three days of solitude. There were infinitely more questions than answers.

And now, when she finally deigned to sit and speak to Oberyn and his people- she wasted hours talking about Tyrell tariffs instead of anything useful. His patience had run out ages ago; it was only a healthy wariness of her husband’s prickly presence- and certainly that was a new development, him actually attending these meetings, though he refused to sit and act anything less than utterly impatient with the whole affair- that had kept Oberyn from shouting.

And that wariness had dissipated as his temper flared incredibly, terrifyingly, satisfyingly hot.

“I do not care for your taxes or your bloodless answers to injustice,” he hissed, distrusting himself to speak louder and maintain control. “I do not know how you Northerners answer violations of the law, but I know how we Dornish do, and I want blood.”

Sansa studied him for a long moment, before asking, evenly, “What violations?”

“Elia,” Oberyn snarled, and only just managed to claw himself back from the edge. “My sister is dead,” he said after a pause. “I have not received a single blood price for her death save for her body, save for her children’s body, as if-” they were a whore and her bastard children, as if Elia wasn’t a princess in her own right-

He breathed deep, averted his face, and went on: “I want blood, Queen Sansa. I’ve waited almost two decades for it. I want blood, Your Grace, or I will take it, do you understand?”

“Is that a threat?” Jon asked, suddenly standing straight, suddenly looking far more dangerous than any nineteen year old boy deserved to look. “Prince Oberyn-”

“That wasn’t a threat,” Sansa said, as cold and cutting as steel. Oberyn jerked his head down in a sharp nod, and Jon subsided, looking irritated; she continued, “Tell me, Prince Oberyn, whose blood do you wish for? Tywin Lannister is dead. Jaime Lannister has lost his swordhand and is as feeble as a newborn calf, on the days he recognizes his surroundings. Tyrion Lannister is my chosen heir to the West. Do you wish for me to offer up Myrcella? Tommen, perhaps, to sate your bloodthirst? An eleven year old boy to answer for his mother’s sins-”

“I care nothing for them,” Oberyn told her, coldly. “I want the Mountain- he yet lives, does he not?”

“He does live,” one of her ladies answered reluctantly, when it looked like Sansa wouldn’t. “Though he is under no lord’s rule now- he’s last been seen ravaging the Riverlands.”

Oberyn leaned forwards, eyes narrowed on Sansa. “Give me free reign to go and kill him, Your Grace, and I’ll sign whatever documents you want.”

Sansa blinked at him. She’d gone slightly rigid when he leaned forward, her cheeks paling- but her pretty blue eyes seemed to flash with something that was two parts indignant and only one part fear.

His advisors, ready to haggle and push percentages a fraction here or there- they shuffled, distressed. Who knew what Dorne stood to lose under Oberyn’s impatience? If Doran had been there, Oberyn knew, he’d have shaken his head and sighed exasperatedly.

After a long pause, Sansa set her shoulders and straightened her back and firmed her jaw, and Oberyn knew her answer before she even opened her mouth.

“I cannot.”

“No? Tell me, how can the ruler of Westeros not be able to do something?”

“The Westerlands are an independent kingdom,” she said softly. “Or they will be, soon enough. I cannot- I will not- infringe upon the rights due Lord Tyrion as a king.”

“So this is how it is to be.” He rose to his feet and stepped closer to her. “You hold the Iron Throne, Queen Sansa. And you will not use this power to bring justice- you use it to preserve some paltry form of stability. Little wonder, isn’t it- soon you’ll go back North. And then what will you care about wars in the south?”

Weaponless, almost a half-head shorter, and slender enough to mark scarce half his shoulder-width, Sansa Stark didn’t flinch. Oberyn was impressed- he’d known grown fighters who’d pissed themselves when he was half as angry as he was now.

“Are you threatening war if I don’t hand over Ser Clegane?”

Oberyn moved even closer. His hand flexed against his side, aching for the warm, welcoming weight of a spear. “I am threatening-”

“Watch yourself,” Jon snapped, stepping forwards and half-unsheathing his sword.

In response, Obara drew a knife that she’d been hiding somewhere; Trystane straightened and shifted closer to the door; Ellaria flung out an arm to keep Nymeria in her seat. The Northerners- one of them, the same girl who’d spoken to him three days previous, angled herself towards the door, and the other one, the one who’d spoken-she let out a loud shriek.

Everyone froze, at the sharp, high-pitched sound; they were suddenly, abruptly, aware of what had nearly occurred.

Into that silence, Sansa exhaled, loudly, and then snapped, “Everyone, out.”

Oberyn winced, retreating a half-step; her husband drew back just as slowly, his sword disappearing into its sheath easily. Obara did something complicated with her hand, storing the knife in her sleeve again. Ellaria relaxed, fractionally.

When still nobody moved, Sansa lifted her chin, eyes flashing. “Did you not hear me?”

Heads bowed, they rose to their feet began to troop out. Her husband remained, too, though she seemed perfectly willing to forget him behind her. Oberyn was nearly out the door when he heard her mutter something to Jon, and then, louder: “Prince Oberyn- a word, if you please.”

I’ve just prodded your husband into baring steel, he thought, stepping back into the room. Why would you wish to see me again?

“If he’s staying, so am I,” Jon told her firmly.

“If he hurts me,” Sansa replied, “you’ve full right to toss him from the same window Cersei Lannister threw herself off of. But you will not stay here now, Your Grace.”

Strangely enough, he flinched at the title- but then he bent down and whispered something in her ear that made her sigh deeply; when he was done, she looked up at him and nodded.

“We’ll talk about this later,” he murmured, just loud enough for Oberyn to hear, and walked away.

Sansa waited for the door to click shut before turning to him.

“I would like to remind you that when you came to King’s Landing, you came as an envoy of Dorne.” Abruptly, the hard look on her face shifted into one of weariness; she sighed and sank onto a chair. “Prince Oberyn- would you truly refuse a crown simply because you don’t have Ser Clegane’s head? Does your personal vendetta measure up against your people’s desire that much?”

“My people desire vengeance as well.”

“Do they?” Sansa asked quietly. “Elia Martell was a martyr. But she is dead for near two decades. Is it not better to let sleeping ghosts lie?”

“Is it better to forget where you have come from?” Oberyn asked rhetorically. Rolled his shoulders, and sank into the chair as well. “I cannot answer you, Your Majesty. But I do know that it isn’t right to let these people walk free when they’ve committed such crimes.”

Sansa ran a hand down a stack of paperwork, before nodding slowly.

“I cannot give you the Mountain,” she told him. “I cannot be seen giving you the Mountain.”

“What?” Oberyn felt his brows pull together, confusion knitting with sudden hope.

“He is a Westerlands bannerman, and I refuse to damage Lord Tyrion’s standing amongst his men by demanding Ser Clegane.” She shuffled through the papers, finally lifting one out. “But that does not mean that I want him to remain at large- the man is a menace, and one that ought to be taken care of.” She handed him the paper. “That might interest you.”

Oberyn took the paper and scanned it. His eyebrows rose higher the further down the page he’d gone.

“Is this a spy report?”

She smiled, small and real. Then it faded into a look of pure determination as she leaned forward. “Tell me, Prince Oberyn, how well do you know Princess Myrcella?”

He blinked, startled. “Not- well. Is there a reason for it?”

“You haven’t spoken recently to Prince Trystane, then.”

Oberyn frowned. “I… have. Why?”

“Because they’ve been taking long walks in the gardens,” Sansa told him. “Within the bounds of propriety, perhaps, but only just. And I think- I think if I can make them happy, I should.”

He frowned, parsing through her meaning, and felt his stomach lurch.

“No- no- it will not work. Even if Doran countenanced it, and there’s nothing saying that he would- Tyrion Lannister would never agree to a marriage contract!”

“Prince Trystane is a second son,” Sansa countered. “Additionally, Princess Myrcella is a woman whose marriage prospects- for the near future- are determined by me. Lord Tyrion has no say in them so long as I remain Queen of Westeros. And anyhow, why would he refuse a marriage when the best he can hope for after this is an advantageous one with a Riverlander lord?”

“Why are you even bringing this up?” He asked, finally.

It was rather a lot to absorb, this new-found romance between his nephew and the Princess. Oberyn blinked, and waited for Sansa to answer him. When she spoke, her voice was slow, as if she were forming the ideas as she spoke them.

“Because Princess Myrcella will be leaving for the Westerlands in a week’s time,” she said. “If you wish to truly find the Mountain, you will accept this marriage contract. We shall announce it two days before the coronation ceremony, and then you shall take a ship and sail to the Westerlands to, ostensibly, escort her to Dorne. You will go alone, and along the way your ship will suffer an- unfortunate- accident. And then you shall head into the Riverlands under the cover of darkness, take whatever vengeance you wish to take on Ser Clegane. If you survive, you will take Princess Myrcella and return to Dorne.”

“And if I don’t survive?”

“Then you die,” she said, plain and honest and brutal for it. “There will be contingencies, of course: you will not be able to tell anyone what you truly intend to do, for example.”

“Of course not,” he murmured. Then, curiosity overcoming him, Oberyn asked, “Tell me, do you truly believe that you will be successful in breaking Westeros apart?”

“Yes,” she said quizzically. “Do you think I won’t be, Your Grace?”

“I think-” he turned and dug through a pile of papers left behind by one of her ladies. He’d seen what he was looking for, he knew that he had-

He found it and turned back to Sansa, spreading a map of Westeros between them with a flourish.

“If there isn’t a war in a few years’ time, you’ll be lucky.” Oberyn smoothed the worn corners down with his fingers and met Sansa’s gaze smoothly. He hoped she listened to him- if nothing else, she was young, and the young were willing to at least listen to others before actually acting. And all her actions up to this point spoke to a disposition for even-handed consideration before taking decisions.

Gods, if they’d had a good ruler all these years, who knew what they could have achieved? Aerys had been a mad man; nobody ever dreamed of disputing that. Rhaegar wouldn’t have been a much better king, always lost in dreams instead of paying attention to what was right in front of him. And Robert had hated the Iron Throne and all it represented, from the very start; he’d weighed it against Lyanna Stark and found it utterly wanting, and in the end the realm had paid the price.

But Sansa Stark had a deft hand; a quick smile, a quicker mind. She had a cold-blooded steadiness running through her bones, and a quicksilver desire to remake the world that Oberyn had last seen on a young, gilt-edged Cersei Lannister, yet unbroken by her husband’s cruelties.

Sansa had a dream, and the ability to see it through. It was terrifying to watch.

It was humbling, was what it was.

“Which realms will be at war?” Sansa asked. Reached forwards and tapped a finger against the map. Against a specific region of the map. “Dorne will be content with your brother, won’t they, Your Grace? And the Reach won’t rebel against the Tyrells- they’re happy enough.”

“And the Stormlands? The Vale?” Oberyn pointed to each in turn, finally stabbing his finger against Pyke. “The Iron Islands? They’ll be happy, will they?”

“The Iron Islands will accept Asha,” Sansa sighed. It must have been an old argument- she sounded impatient with it. “She’s the only Ironborn that I can support that doesn’t want to return to their old ways of pirating and looting that’s actually likely to take the Seastone Chair. She’ll convince her bannermen, I’m sure of it. And what is the problem with the Vale? Sweetrobin is the only remaining trueborn Arryn. They’ll follow him when he comes of age.”

“And until then?”

“They’ll follow Lord Yohn Royce.” She shrugged. “He’s rather a well-liked man, Your Grace. There are no problems I can see there.”

“Apart from Robert Arryn’s sickliness,” Oberyn pointed out.

“I cannot simply order him to get better,” she replied, eyes rolling the tiniest bit, irreverent as only a ruler could be of the throne they sat; Oberyn let a laugh bubble out of his chest at the sight.

“No,” he said. “But it is a problem.”

“One so distant in the future that I wouldn’t name it one,” Sansa said crisply.

Oberyn shrugged easily and changed the topic. “And the Stormlands? They’re already threatening rebellion. And you’re placing a thirteen year old girl as head of that proud kingdom.” He shook his head. “It won’t survive a year.”

“It will survive five,” Sansa said softly. She measured him with her eyes and then smiled, slow and dignified as a queen’s shade. Elia- Oberyn thought, and cut it off before he could ache too much. “You must have heard of what happened when Lord- when King Renly lay siege to his brother at Dragonstone.”

Oberyn nodded. “Of course I have,” he said. “But what does that have to do with anything?”

“The Tyrells retreated,” she said. “The Tyrells retreated, Your Grace, and they did not retreat alone.”

Gods above, does she mean-

“They took prisoners,” Oberyn said, a little numbly.

“Precisely.” She shook her braid over her shoulder. “The Tyrells have prisoners: the heirs and knights and able-bodied sons of the Stormlords. What do you think I had to give to convince them to keep the prisoners for another few years?”

“...I couldn’t hope to guess.”

“Well- which realm does the Reach dread the most?”

“The Iron Islands,” Oberyn said, slowly.

Her head tipped forward a bare fraction. “An Ironborn ruler who doesn’t support their Old Way was of enough interest to the Tyrells to agree to keep the men prisoners. And, of course, the Tyrells are known for their marriages, aren’t they? I’m sure it won’t take very long for the notices to wing across the ruins of Summerhall, particularly if there are any heirs in the Tyrell’s clutches.”

It was brutally efficient in its simplicity. In one fell stroke, she ensured the Reach was content, the Stormlands were forcibly pacified, the Iron Islands were not left to run wild- and she did all this without so much as letting on what she was doing.

Oberyn inhaled slowly, through the gaps in his teeth.

“It gives too much strength to the Reach,” he said. “They’ve neutralized the Stormlands; they’ve forged a peace treaty with the Iron Islands- tell me, is your uncle happy with it? And anyhow, how will this stop the Stormlords who don’t have sons held hostage from invading the Reach?”

“The Riverlands will gain dominion over the vast majority of the Crownlands, seeing as they didn’t have a ruler anyhow,” Sansa replied calmly. “The Stormlords who bend the knee easily to Lady Shireen are also being given parcels of land. Lord Penrose is being given Dragonstone, for example, and Lord Selmy is being given Driftmark. Other small bits of land are being given directly to Lady Shireen.”

“You’re making the Riverlands act as a buffer,” Oberyn said, and shook his head. “You’re strengthening the Stormlands with land, and keeping the Tyrells placated with- good gods, little wonder your brother fled North as soon as he could, if this was what you’d decided upon.”

Her lips quirked. “Robb is many things. A politician- not so much. Not when he doesn’t have to be, at least.”

“The people call you good with words,” he said slowly. “Good at inspiration. But ruling is a different animal altogether. No- this is what ruling is: taking a hundred people who hate each other and making them sit quietly, ensuring that they create something greater than anything they can do alone.”

“There are those who kill for it,” Sansa said, hands flat against the table. “I will never understand them- what is the glory in this office? It is only hunching over papers until your eyes water. It is only giving your blood and your life to a land that will never offer anything back. It is tiring.”

Oberyn arched an eyebrow. “If only so many others understood that.”

Sansa sighed, and then nodded, another small smile pulling at her lips; then she pulled a blank page out of the pile.

“Would you be amenable to drafting the contract now, Prince Oberyn?”

Oberyn breathed out, just as slowly as he’d breathed in.

Elia, he thought, now, limbs old and drawn and worn with time; all the aches that Elia would never know. All the losses and triumphs and joys Oberyn had experienced in the nineteen years following Elia’s death that she never would. But at the core of him, he was still her younger brother. He might be old and bent when he met her next, but he’d always be the bloody-kneed little boy chasing her in the Water Gardens when he thought of his sister.

And next to this pale-eyed, dark-haired queen, next to this coldly dignified, painfully lovely girl- how could he not think of her?

Elia, oh, was this your destiny? To be a queen and a force to be reckoned with? Gods above, we lost so much when we lost you- and I’ll always mourn your kindness, your softness. But the world lost so very, very much more.

I see so much of you in her.

“Of course,” he said, and it was a smile pulling at his lips, he realized suddenly; a smile of warmth and wonder and a slow-building, arcing desire to see this world Sansa would craft.

Jon was waiting for Sansa when she returned.

It was almost past dusk, and Sansa’d walked into the meeting with the Dornish delegation just after breakfast. She was worn-out like a wrung cloth, and yet happy with it- soon enough, they’d be able to finalize everything. Really, the hardest work was finished, and the euphoria buzzed in her veins stronger than any Arbor Gold.

“Sansa,” Jon said, when she stumbled into their bedchamber.

Sansa turned a goofy smile on him, barely closing the door before balancing on one foot to pull off her slippers. All she wanted was to sleep, or perhaps to kiss Jon until she couldn’t tell which way was up- it made her impatient, and simultaneously giggly, and she couldn’t remember the last time she’d ever felt so utterly not in control.

“Jon,” she cooed, stumbling forwards. “Oh, gods, it’s over! I’m done! I can actually rest!”

“Sansa,” he said, again. His hands came up and wrapped around her waist, steadying her, though she thought she saw something flicker across his mouth like a frown. Then, in a voice too flat to belong in Sansa’s world tonight, he asked, “Can we talk?”

“Of course!” She spun away and then sank onto the bed, reaching out and tangling her hand with his. “Talk away. I don’t promise to listen, Jon, I’ve spent the last six months listening to everyone- but go on, I like your voice anyways.”

“I-” he frowned. “Are you drunk, Sansa?”

“No.” She laughed. “Maybe a little. Oberyn gave me a little Dornish wine, after we signed. It was supposed to be a-”

“I wanted to talk to you about that, actually.”

Sansa lolled her head towards him. “About what?”

His lips twisted. “Prince Oberyn. Or Oberyn, as you seem to prefer.”

“I haven’t called anyone by their titles in these rooms,” she pointed out lazily. “Also, Prince Oberyn’s rather too long to say. Exhausting, don’t you think?”

“I’d rather not think about it,” Jon said darkly.

Sansa shoved at his shoulders. “Good gods, spit it out! I’m not going to figure it out, sweetling, not before you turn red as a plum. Not tonight, at least.”

He chewed over it for a moment, and then his shoulders slumped.

“I- waited outside the door, while you were doing- you know. Whatever queenly thing you were doing. Signing documents and all.”

“Mmm. Father says signing documents are the most important part of a monarch’s rule.” She rolled over so that she was half on top of him, and sighed contentedly. “I think my hand’ll fall off if I do it any more.”

“Aye.” Jon coughed. “Anyhow. I… was standing there. And Ellaria Sand walked up to me and started talking. And she wouldn’t stop, if you take my meaning.”

“I don’t,” Sansa informed him cheerfully. “But go on.”

“She told me that the Dornish have open marriages and so long as we’re both consenting, she’d like to take me to bed,” Jon blurted out. “And that Oberyn would love to do it for you, too.”

Sansa blinked. Blinked again, and then one last time.

And burst into peals of laughter.

“Ho- how did you react?” She choked out.

“I-”

“Turned white, went faint-”

“I only walked away!”

“Did you?” Sansa asked, lips still twitching. “Or did you fall down into a heap and try to restart your blushing heart first?”

“Give me some credit,” he answered, turning away, shoulders hunched as if wounded. “I managed to get here before I did that, didn’t I?”

Sansa laughed again and slumped back against the pillows. She watched, through half-lidded eyes, as Jon began to move her slippers and cloak back to their respective positions- it was a part of sharing a room that had come as a full surprise for her, that Jon was so particular about the cleanliness. But it was something Sansa cared little about, either way, and so it had been easy enough to notice where he placed some things and maintain them.

Now, as he did so, she felt something a little heavier than laughter slide up her throat. Perhaps the drink was loosening its hold, allowing her to think properly for the first time in ages; but she was sure that Jon had something else to say to her.

Oberyn would love to do it for you, too.

“Were you-” jealous, she thought, but didn’t finish; the rest of the sentence got swallowed up by something as sweet and thick as honey wrapping around her throat, sinking into her lungs, floating through her veins.

Oh, thought Sansa, simply reaching out a hand to Jon. Oh, very well, then. This is what love tastes like, isn’t it?

Thicker than affection, softer than laughter, brighter than kindness. It made her press the sensitive skin along the inside of her wrist to Jon’s curls, made her arch her back and kiss him, hard and bruising and absolutely, incredibly perfect.

(Later, hours later, they lay against the bed, panting and sweaty. They were already late for the dinner banquet, and Alys had made three pointed comments about how the other courtiers were discussing the impropriety of their new queen and king during her meeting that morning before breakfast. Sansa closed her eyes and pressed closer to Jon.

“I’ve always loved you,” Sansa whispered against the bare-soft skin of his chest. “Only you, Jon. Before I knew what to call it. Before I knew I could.”

Jon propped himself on his elbow and looked down at her, eyes softer than any smoothed silk could hope to be.

“Aye,” he breathed, and reached forwards, and pressed a kiss to her cheek, and then her forehead, and then her nose, and finally her lips-

They missed dinner, that night.)

“I give up,” Wylla told Alys.

The dinner was good, and the food was flavored with Dornish spices heavy enough that it was just too spicy to eat easily; light enough that it was addictive. Wylla’d compensated for the burning on her tongue with three goblets of sour Dornish wine, and it had pooled a nice warmth at the base of her belly, one that let her ignore the ache in her leg.

“Do you?”

Alys looked particularly lovely in the lamplit feast hall, Wylla thought. Had they not been in the south, had they not been so closely watched by everyone who considered their actions a commentary on Sansa’s- well. She might have done something mad, that was all.

Has she asked her father, she knew what he’d say: A kiss is not madness.

But her mother would’ve said, A kiss is a sweeter kind of madness, sweetling- but a madness all the same.

And Wylla knew her duty enough to know that if she pressed, Alys would give in; and they loved Sansa too much to do that to her. They were, the both of them, too ambitious by far to sacrifice their lives for whatever this was.

Still. Even if Wylla would never feel Alys’ silk-soft hair run through her hands, even if Wylla would never kiss Alys as she wanted to- she could talk. She could flirt, and enjoy the frustration in Alys’ eyes that mirrored her own.

“I’ll never figure it out,” Wylla told her. “There’re too many Northern men to identify, and Eddara’s too good at secrets!”

“Then here’s a hint: he isn’t a Northerner.”

Alys’ eyes flicked up, a blue-grey as lovely as any snowfall, as deadly as any snowstorm. Wylla felt her heart speed up, an ugly red creep over her cheeks, and shifted, jumpy as a spring hare. In a slightly futile attempt to pretend all was normal, she pulled the first name that came to mind.

“Theon Greyjoy?”

“I suppose I owe you a bag of stags,” Alys murmured, stirring the vegetables in her plate delicately.

Wylla’s jaw dropped. “Theon?” She demanded, a little too loud for comfort. Then, softer, though no less intense, she hissed, “Theon, Alys? Theon Greyjoy is an understandable- no, he isn’t! Are you telling me that Eddara seduced him?”

“I’m telling you that she wanted to,” Alys responded. Then, sighing, “It might not go anywhere. But I rather think she might have a chance- when we go back, he’ll still be there, won’t he? Doesn’t seem in a hurry to return to the Iron Islands at any rate. And it’s a nice match, too.”

“It isn’t a nice match the way a forest fire is nice,” Wylla said flatly. “They’ll eat each other alive and leave a slew of bodies behind them, see if they don’t! And Eddara’s going to get her heart broken, poor girl, even if she doesn’t let it happen easy.”

“But the bedding would be wonderful in the interim,” Alys offered, eyes flashing suddenly, wickedly.

Wylla choked, feeling a laugh catch in her throat, the flush deepening; she exhaled slowly, shakily, and wondered when she’d last felt like she wasn’t drowning.

But, oh- what a wonderful way to go, she thought, and threw her head back, releasing the laughter into the hall.

They were young, and so was the night. Wylla might never know the pleasant weight of Alys’ head in her lap, but she did know the edges of Alys’ tongue. Wylla knew her fears and her pleasures; she knew Alys, and that would always be worth more to her than any warm pressure of lips or teeth or fingers.

Perhaps it wouldn’t be enough, years later, when they were faced with potential husbands and their families. Perhaps then, Wylla would curse herself for her patience, for her cowardice- but right there, right then, she was content.

It was enough.

It was a cool, sunny morning when the kings and queens- or their chosen representatives- entered the godswood.

This was to be a private ceremony, with only the closest family and friends of each ruler present. Later, they’d ride to the Great Sept of Baelor and allow the septon to crown them- more of the rulers were followers of the Seven, after all, and they wished to be crowned by their own faith- but before that, they’d be crowned here, before the old gods, in the Northern fashion.

The rulers all wore their own colors, in their own fashions. Some were followed by close family members or advisors; but they each looked, in the blinding morning light, unbreakable. They looked beautiful and young, all of them, as if they had eternity stretching out before them, as if they were the very messengers of the gods.

This is what a new era looks like, Jon thought, hands flat against his thighs. This is what change looks like.

They knelt, each of them: Edmure in his silver and scarlet doublet; Asha in a black and gold gown covered with a breastplate, the hem cutting into long strands that emulated seaweed; Shireen in a blue-black gown that had lightning-pale stags embroidered against the hems; Robert in a bluish doublet that hung loose at the sleeves and a cape slashed to look like a falcon’s wings; Oberyn in sunny yellow and brilliant orange; Garlan Tyrell, resplendent in dark green and gold; and Tyrion, in gold and a red as defiantly, sharply reminiscent of blood as simple cloth could manage.

Sansa, painfully colorless in her lilac gown, covered in a paler cloak of Stark blue and white, looked almost ghostly under the red dragon’s breath flowers and the dark smokeberries. Jon had dressed in a doublet of black with red accents, a subtle throwback to his Targaryen heritage that Sansa had insisted on.

A reminder that no one needed, Jon had said; but Sansa had only levelled a look at him as flat as the deserts of Dorne and said, a Targaryen took their crowns three centuries ago, and a Targaryen will give them back. It is only right, Jon. And she wouldn’t hear another word of it.

And so: Sansa stepped forwards, and anointed them with a paste made from weirwood sap and a powder made from weirwood bark. She wore her own crown, a silvered metal that rose in a varying pattern of three repetitions- a wolf’s muzzle, a dragon’s wing, and her own personal heraldry, a dove’s head. The rulers looked pale, Jon decided. Pale but determined, and it made a fire light in his blood to think that he and Sansa had achieved this, this historic moment.

Sansa anointed them quietly, leaning forward occasionally  to whisper something into their ear. Jon followed, placing a crown on their heads. Once he did, they rose, and every person there hailed them as king or queen.

Once the last of them was finished- a jaunty-eyed Oberyn- Sansa stepped back. She’d told Jon that he’d be the first one to speak to them here, in the silence of the godswood; but when he’d asked what he’d be expected to say, she’d only shrugged.

Which left him wrong-footed before all these people, most of whom he’d never even spoken to before. And yet, as he looked at them, each bright-eyed and hopeful, all he could think of was his fath- his uncle. All Jon could think of was Ned Stark, was his honor and the bone-deep strength he’d passed down to his children.

“You are rulers, now,” Jon told them. “There is a responsibility to that. A responsibility handed down from the gods, some might even say.” He breathed deep, let the scent of oak and pine ground him. “But we’re human, all of us, first. We’ll make mistakes, and those mistakes are going to have consequences, because we’ve so much more power. The important thing is to keep trying. Trying to become better than what we are. We are the rulers of Westeros, and we cannot- we cannot be held to the measures of our citizens.”

“It is a hard, thankless job,” Sansa said, stepping forward so her shoulders were matching his. She was almost of a height with him, and the gods only knew what image they presented to the others, the white-wraith queen and her black-demon king; but it seemed to be a powerful one, for they all seemed to gain new confidence from it. “It is a job that drives you mad and leaves you with only ashes in your mouth. But it is something that has to be done, and we are the only ones who can, and so we shall.”

Jon felt his lips curve into a smile.

“Chin up,” he murmured, and led them out of the godswood.

After they were crowned in the Sept, they returned to the Red Keep for a feast.

Jon was rather done with the crowd. He simply wanted to return to his rooms and perhaps sleep off the screaming and the stench, but no- he was a King, and he had to remain behind.

“I’ve never seen a king scowl at his own feast so blackly,” he heard a voice say, before Oberyn Martell swung himself down to sit next to him. Jon let his face darken. “That unhappy about the power change, Your Grace?”

Jon ignored the faint mockery. “Don’t tell me you actually enjoy this- ruckus.” He waved a hand at a purple-painted man, who was attempting to swallow a sword. A moment later, the man set his sword on fire, and Jon felt his face twist in grotesque, unwilling interest. “A smaller banquet wouldn’t have been such a waste of money.”

“You would’ve gotten along with Stannis Baratheon, then,” Oberyn replied, guzzling his wine. “The man hated anything that was even the slightest bit frivolous.”

Except Stannis didn’t care much for his wife, according to all the rumors. And the reason I want to lock myself in my bedroom is almost entirely due to my wife.

That pale gown had looked ghostly, perhaps, in the godswood, but under the brilliant sunlight of midafternoon, she looked like nothing less than a goddess come to earth. Jon really just wanted to drag her into their bedchamber and not leave for three days.

“Perhaps,” Jon said, shrugging.

But Oberyn didn’t go away.

“According to all the rumors, you and Queen Sansa don’t fight.” He winked. “Tell me, how do you manage that? Lesser men wish to know.”

“By being respectful of her demands,” Jon said flatly. “We talk, Prince Oberyn. My apologies if your lesser men have no knowledge of such.”

Oberyn grinned toothily. “So you’re the one to sacrifice, then. When will it become too much, Your Grace? How much can you abandon before you’ve given up everything? You took her name, received your title through her- how much more?”

Sansa had said she liked Oberyn, which meant that he hadn’t asked her these impertinent questions. Jon was rather glad of it, because she had bigger things on her mind than what others saw in her husband, and she had to pay attention to those bigger things. Best he be the one to nip it in the bud, right here.

“When I stood before a hearttree and wed Sansa, I swore to give her all that I am and have,” he said, “And she swore to do the same. We are Starks, Prince Oberyn- we always keep our vows. I am hers and she is mine, and no name, or circlet, or title can change that. And that is the simple truth of it.”

“So you don’t care that she makes you stand in court?” He asked curiously.

“Stand?”

“She hasn’t offered you a chair.”

Jon felt his lips twitch, almost against his will. “Sansa would love it if you could get me to sit in on the meetings,” he told Oberyn. “I simply find that I cannot sit still for long enough. And if I do sit in on some meetings, I’ll become overprotective, which is why she sends me away. As you’ve seen.”

Oberyn arched an eyebrow, and then bowed out of their conversation suddenly; when Jon turned to see what his focus had turned to, he saw an Ironborn captain speaking to a girl in Dornish silks. It was startling, the size difference: the captain was a large man, made even larger by his armor, and the girl was almost half his height, perhaps a fourth his broadness.

One of Oberyn’s daughters, Jon noted, and watched as Oberyn clamped a firm hand on the captain’s arm, steering him away. The girl exhaled in relief, walking closer to him- a moment later, Jon realized that the girl wasn’t so much relieved as frustrated.

I suppose I’m not the only overprotective one, he thought, and laughed to himself before squinting into the sunlight to find Sansa.

...

That night, Asha Greyjoy rowed away with her fleet. Sansa told her she’d miss her and meant it- Asha was a sharp-edged woman, all steel and salt, and in another time Sansa might have disliked her for her sharp tongue and ease with weaponry; but in this one she felt that there was some kind of a power to be found in seeing a woman take the reins of power with no thought for her sex or her faults.

But when Asha did row away, Sansa didn’t dispute the idea that she was relieved. Fifty longships in the Bay of Blackwater, ready to break out in war if necessary- it was enough to make her shudder. As a result, Sansa had done the same thing Tyrion had done in the last Battle of the Blackwater: load a single ship with wildfire, and maintain that in a small, hidden cove until it became necessary to use. Thankfully enough, it hadn’t been necessary.

And now, hopefully, it never would be.

The next morning, both the Vale and the Reach left; the day after that, Dorne. A week later, the Lannisters and the Baratheons marched away. Sansa sent her court back to the North after that, seeing their impatience and desire for home. She and Jon remained to smooth over the handover to her uncle.

A thankless job, Sansa’d said, and her head bowed; one that must be done, she’d added, and so straightened her spine.

Weeks later, they finally left King’s Landing. It was just Jon and Sansa- escorted by Tully guards, perhaps, but with no one they knew. This would be as close to privacy as they’d ever get, and both understood that very well. Sansa started waking up early in the mornings, started teaching Jon to braid her hair, learning how to sharpen a sword.

There were still so many things to fear for.

Westeros was split apart peacefully, bloodlessly; but Robb was still out battling wildlings, and Bran and Arya were still missing. Daenerys Targaryen was coming, and Sansa still wasn’t sure how to deal with her and her dragons. And after all of this, even if they dealt with all of it, the Others would rise, and bring the darkness with them.

Sansa breathed deep and reached for Jon, felt the beat of his pulse against her fingers. They had a thousand things to fear. It left her shaking, sometimes, the magnitude of what she’d done, of what she’d yet to do: Sansa’d set out to change the world, and she’d done it. What if she’d done wrong?

But even if they had a thousand things to fear, they didn’t fight for it- they never had. Sansa and Jon had always fought for love: the desperate kind that broke mountains and shattered stars, the kind that left no room for anything else inside their bodies.

When they got up in the morning, they’d ride out and be as steel-strong as their blood demanded. They’d be terrified, and they’d be brave, and they’d be as unbendingly strong as the kings and queens of legend.

But here, in this darkness lit only by stars, Sansa took Jon’s hand and pressed it to the thin line of her throat.

We’ll be frightened, she thought. We’ll be brave.

But first: oh, gods, first we’ll live.

First, we’ll love.

Chapter Text

“Aunt Arya!”

The joyous scream echoed through the snowy courtyard of Winterfell.

Sansa sighed reprovingly, and felt Jon’s hand wrap around her arm; she turned and quirked a weary smile at him. It’d been a long week, readying the castle for Arya’s return and Alysanne had known that- but the girl took after her aunt far more than was healthy, and Arya had never cared much for propriety.

But Arya’s visits were far rarer than either Robb or Bran- and Rickon, of course, spent most of his time at Winterfell- she hadn’t come to Winterfell in recent memory, in fact, and only met ‘Anne when Sansa took her to a meeting with the Skagosi last year.

At least Sansa had Jocelyn and Beron to call her own. ‘Anne might have looked like Sansa- all save her eyes, which were the palest grey, almost purple in the right lighting- but she loved racing through the woods, loved wielding a sword. Both Jocelyn and Beron had Jon’s look, however: dark hair and long, lean bones. And yet they were the ones who enjoyed reading the old books and hearing the same stories Sansa had enjoyed as a child.

“Annie!” Arya had barely entered Winterfell, and already she’d managed to look utterly undignified as she swept her niece into her arms. “Gods, you little rascal, you’ve grown tall. You’re nearly my height now!”

“I’m ten,” ‘Anne said proudly. “I had my nameday just a fortnight ago. How come you couldn’t come?”

Arya lips twisted. “Stupid adult stuff, sweetling,” she told ‘Anne regretfully. “I wish I could’ve come, you know that.”

“But-”

“Alysanne,” Sansa said, just a hint sharp. When 'Anne slid forwards, hair hiding her eyes, Sansa placed a hand on her shoulder and said, firmly but quietly, “We’ve talked about how there’s a time and a place for this kind of thing, haven’t we?”

“Yes,” she said mulishly.

“And do you think this is the time for it?”

“...no.”

“You’ll get time to talk to your aunt,” Sansa sighed, guiding her towards Jocelyn and Beron. “Don’t you worry. Just wait until we’re inside, alright?”

‘Anne nodded, nudging Jocelyn aside and taking her place.

Sansa stepped forwards at that, Jon beside her, and handed Arya a piece of salted bread. Arya took it; broke it and ate a portion before tossing the rest of it to Nymeria.

Once she’d finished that, Sansa reached forwards and embraced Arya, tightly.

“I missed you,” she mumbled into Arya’s ear. “Gods, you’ve gotten thin.”

“The fat’s gone, but it’s become muscle,” Arya replied airily, but her arms were just tight around Sansa as Sansa’s were around her.

Jon cleared his throat and scarce waited for them to separate to drag her into his own hug. Sansa took the moment to glance over at the group now trooping into Winterfell, following Arya- she arched an eyebrow at one of the shields’ colors.

“There were rumors of a- man,” she commented carefully. “A- Magnar of Thenn. That he almost killed you?”

“Well that’s true enough,” said Arya. Sansa stiffened, hands clenching; Arya rolled her eyes. “Gave me a good scar along my back; you can see it if you want. It’s as bad as Robb’s, Sansa!” At both her and Jon’s stony expressions, she exhaled gustily. “Marriage has made both of you such bores, I swear to god-”

“You didn’t send word?” Jon asked lowly.

Uncharacteristically, Arya flinched. “The reason why I didn’t send news was because-”

“Because she was right near comatose,” said Tormund Giantsbane. He rocked back on his feet when Arya glared at him, though he continued without a pause. “Spent the whole ride here feverish. There were quite a number who thought she wouldn’t make it. I made a lotta bets on that one, I’ll tell you.”

“You took bets on whether Arya would live or not?” Jon demanded, outraged.

Tormund shrugged. “You Starks are hard to kill, aren’t you? And this girl’s more stubborn than the whole lot of you put together.”

Sansa dug her fingers into Arya’s upper arm, ignoring the others easily. “You’re the only person inside Winterfell for the next month, sister. So you’re going to tell me all about your near-death experience, Arya, and I’m going to listen to all of it, and then we’ll spend a little more time talking about how to avoid such events.”

“Or what?”

“Or I won’t calm Jon down,” Sansa said flatly.

Arya took one look at Jon’s slowly-reddening face, the hand that was steadily creeping towards his sword, Tormund’s challenging grin- and she gave in, ungracefully, unrepentantly, as irritable as a tomcat cornered in a rain-damp alley.

But she did give in.

At least she’s grown up a little bit, Sansa thought, and dragged her sister into the keep unceremoniously.

Sansa still didn’t know the full story of what had happened to Arya all those years ago.

Bran had told her parts, and Meera some more: Bran, Meera, Jojen, and Arya had been kidnapped by wildlings, as it turned out, ostensibly to serve as hostages to Robb Stark; but along the way Summer and Nymeria had caught up to them, and they’d escaped. Meera was injured in their escape, and they’d headed to Queenscrown to regroup, only to get caught in a snowstorm.

There, Arya’d gotten separated from Bran.

She resurfaced almost a year later, a dragonglass crown on her head and a band of wildlings almost ten thousand strong at her back.

(Sansa’d heard a thousand rumors, afterwards, but there was one that had become common enough for a singer to put the event into words. The story still sent chills down Sansa's spine: a man, they said, had challenged a queen- known only as the Ice-Blooded- to single combat. The man was taller by two heads, older by two decades; he disarmed the queen easily.

Choking on her own blood, fallen to her knees, the queen reached up for her crown. The people thought she'd surrender, there, but all the Ice-Blooded Queen did was break the crown against her thigh, was wield pieces of dragonglass that cut into her palms as deep as she slashed at her attacker. She cut open his throat.

The rumors said a thousand different details, but they all agreed on this one thing: the Queen took the bloody shards embedded in the man’s throat, and braided them into her scalp, and then she said, “There shall be only one person to wear this crown, in all the ages. When I die, I shall burn with this crown."

When they met Arya next, there were two shining pieces of dragonglass against the rest of her North-dark hair.)

She led the wildlings into the battles against the Night’s King. She'd left Winterfell less than a month after the last battle. Sansa, at the time, had barely left the sickbay; as the battles ended, her work began, and she'd been entirely engrossed in ensuring Jon and Rickon survived wounds that ought to have killed them. It was only after months that Robb told her what had happened: Robb asked the wildlings to bend the knee to him; they refused; he decided to send them beyond the wall. Arya had decried his decision, had shouted and snapped and screamed, but Robb had remained firm. 

And so, Arya took the wildlings and left Winterfell.

I can't have wildlings roaming freely, Robb had told Sansa, weary down to his bones. The Long Night had been exhausting on all of them, but perhaps worst on him: there were lines carved into his face, and knotted scars running down his spine, and he rarely ate. I can't have people in my lands who don't accept my rule. And Arya-

Arya will always be Arya, Sansa had replied, pressing a hand against his shoulder. She's always going to want things. She's always going to want to hurt those who don't give those things to her. She's the hardest of us all, Robb, you know that.

She'll never forgive this, he'd said hoarsely.

Sansa had sighed and said, She is your sister. She's also a grown woman. She'll come around sooner or later.

But Arya was as stubborn as any of them. She'd spent the last fifteen years traveling through the North, both beyond the structure that was once the Wall and south of it, uniting the wildling bands under her banner. After a few years she met Robb at Queenscrown, and negotiated a place for the wildlings in the Gift. It was then that she and Robb put aside the worst of their disagreement- Sansa hadn't heard anything more of it after that.

Though this still marked her first visit to Winterfell since. 

Sansa didn't understand it. Fifteen years spent chaining people together who were lawless marauders; the gods knew how much longer it would take Arya to finish the job. Didn't Arya ever get tired of wielding a sword? Of killing people, of maintaining control of thousands of people who wanted nothing more than to kill and pillage? Didn't she ever just want to come home, be among people who weren't waiting for the slightest sign of weakness to revolt?

We're two different people, Sansa thought, then, and with the weight of twenty years' history behind it, it tasted true. Sansa might hate the weight of a sword in her hands, but Arya would always love it. 

And Sansa would never stop her. Not if Arya actually enjoyed what she was doing.

Though she still reserved the right to question Arya on being nearly killed.

“Feverish?” Sansa asked, almost before they were inside Arya’s chambers. She slammed the door shut and whirled to face her. “Feverish, Arya? You were damn near killed and you didn’t think we’d be interested in it?”

“The Magnar was better with a spear than I thought,” Arya replied. “It won’t happen again.”

“Because if it does, you might not be so lucky!”

“It isn’t like I go looking for these fights!” 

“No?” Sansa demanded. “Well, if you don’t have to go looking for a fight anymore, then it’s only because anyone who’s raring for one knows just where to find you!”

“That isn’t fair,” Arya said quietly.

Sansa inhaled, sharply, and averted her face; slowly, she nodded.

“It wasn’t,” she replied, just as quiet. “I apologize for that. But Jon and I do deserve to know what’s happening to you. What you’re doing. Not everything- you’re an adult, Arya, and we understand that- but maybe just a little bit about where you’re going, what you're doing. Just so that we aren’t blindsided. Because I can handle rumors, but I cannot handle watching your corpse come home, with no explanation, with no rhyme nor reason- just a ‘Sorry, we killed your sister, now bury her,’ from a wilding if we’re lucky.”

“I-"

"What do you think Mother would say?" Sansa asked, gently ruthless. "Or Father? And if you did die, if something were to happen to you, if we were to suspect that those who truly killed you were still alive- do you not think we would root them out? You've spent more than a decade building peace for your wildlings. Is that not worth something?"

Arya looked shaken. "I... hadn't considered that."

"You're not selfish enough for it," agreed Sansa. "And I'm not saying that we'll interfere in your choices. But tell us. You owe us that much, at least." 

She sighed. “I’ll try harder." Then, muttering rebelliously, "Though I still say that I did the only thing I could, Sansa."

"What do you mean?" Sansa asked curiously.

"Back then. After we defeated the Others." Arya tilted her head to the side. "You and Jon weren't there. Mother and Father were taking care of Rickon. Bran was recovering from the whole- greenseeing. And the wildlings were here, in Winterfell." She shook her head. "There was a disagreement between a wildling and a Karstark over a woman. The wildling knifed the Karstark, and Robb went into a rage- he told me that he wanted them gone. That these people who'd fought shoulder to shoulder with us less than a week ago had to return to their homes beyond the Wall, and as soon as he could, he'd rebuild it."

"Robb didn’t want lawless marauding bands roaming through his lands," Sansa said softly. “Which is… understandable.”

“Maybe.” Arya’s hands tightened on each other, knuckles white even against her pale skin. “But you don’t know how bad it can get that far north, Sansa. It turns people mad, or-  gods, you don't know what it does to some. What I saw- there're nightmares everywhere, I know that, both in the south and beyond the Wall, but these nightmares are of a different kind. A kind that turns good men into monsters, and doesn't leave anything behind. I couldn’t let Robb banish these people again. They fought beside us, for us, and- well. Robb’d only agree to have them here if there was someone who’d take responsibility for them.”

"So you left."

She nodded. "So I left. I was really angry, don't doubt that, but it wasn't as if I didn't have good reason." She snorted. "And after I'd united enough of them, I had Robb give me the Gift- it wasn't as if it was being used anyways. And that's where I've lived, for the past couple years."

"Why didn't you come to us?" Sansa asked. "We could've helped."

"The job was hard enough on account of me being a woman," Arya said bluntly. "I mean, honestly. I tell you, Mance Rayder had it easy- he was good with a sword, and the free folk respect that easily enough. But for me, oh, they'll throw thrice as many challenges my way and even after I defeat them all they'll still name me unworthy. It would've been far worse if they thought I had you two on my side: they respected that I was leading on my own terms, not because I was a Stark."

"Because you were good with a sword, not because of your name." Sansa arched an eyebrow. "There's something to admire in that."

"Oh, aye. And when I die, everything's going to be fucked to the high heavens."

Sansa snorted and started towards the door. "There's a bath in the other chamber," she told Arya. "Also: if you use language like that in front of 'Anne, Jocelyn, or Beron, I'll have you strung up on these walls, don't think I won't."

"No promises," Arya chirped. "Oh, and make sure Jon doesn't kill Tormund, would you?"

"If he hasn't already," Sansa said airily, and left.

...

Robb had rallied the North, rebuilding keeps and establishing a new lay of the land before the Others ever came. When it became clear that they needed more arms, it’d been Jon and Sansa who’d journeyed south once more, approaching and bargaining and posturing against the men and women they’d crowned- demanding men, demanding arms, demanding gold.

And after the war had finished, the armies had gone back home, but there were a great number of those who were too tired to make the long journey back home. War-weary southron soldiers settled into the lands Robb offered them, populating lands which had once held either few people or were wiped out by the Others.

It wasn’t unheard of for people to hear the Dornish accent sprinkled liberally among the high Vale-born dialect; to face children with hair Riverland red and eyes Westerland green; to have households strung up with gold roses at the solstices as in the Reach or banners dipped in salt and woven with seaweed as in the Iron Islands.

It was a bright new land. It was sharper edged, carefully formed, a powder keg waiting for things to explode.

New rituals, born of old, exhausted rivalries and the compromises reached, were formed. Friendships across once-impassable lines were established. Families with parents from across Westeros were created.

Once, a long time ago, Jon had watched Sansa stare at a court ringed with vicious, circling hatred. He’d watched Sansa watch them, had watched Sansa straighten her back, had watched Sansa think, Enough.

He’d watched Sansa reach out and remake the world until it fit her vision for it.

(He might still be just the tiniest bit in awe of that.)

It’d been Robb who led an army of northerners, Jon who led an army of southerners, Arya who led an army of wildlings; but they all led humans. In the end, the man that saved the day was Bran, who wore a weirwood crown on his brow and led the Children of the Forest into a battle against the Night’s King.

Sansa picked at her lunch, frowning at the pieces of potato in the soup until Beron asked her if something was wrong.

“Not a thing, sweetling,” Sansa told him, sending him a small smile. “Just hoping your aunt’s alright.”

“I saw her heading to Wintertown this morning,” Jocelyn offered quietly. “She looked- angry.”

“That’s Arya’s default expression,” Sansa assured her, pressing her fingers against her cheeks until the bones ached. Gods, this is a mess. The last time Arya’d been in Winterfell, Wintertown hadn’t yet been rebuilt. Arya’s visit could result in a disaster, were she anywhere near her usual abrupt nature. “Stay here, would you? Tell your father- after he wakes up- that I’d like to speak to him.”

Jocelyn nodded, and Sansa walked out of the small room, pulling on a cloak as she went, Lady loping out of the shadows when she stepped out of the keep- she was halfway to Wintertown before realizing that she’d forgotten her gloves; but, then, it wasn’t as if they were necessary. It was warmer now than it’d ever been in her life.

“Arya,” she called, upon sighting the slight shadow standing in the corner of the street. Sansa hurried over to her, catching Arya’s hands in her own. Raised, knotted scars pressed against Sansa's palms.

She almost spoke, but when she turned, slightly, she realized what Arya was looking at.

When the Others invaded, they’d come to Winterfell. Sansa hadn't been here then- she'd been in the Iron Islands, drumming up support alongside Jon- but her father had been. They'd evacuated it, taking all the smallfolk they could into their keep. The wights barely reached Winterfell's gates before being forced to turn back, but they'd ravaged Wintertown anyhow.

When Arya left all those years ago, nothing had been rebuilt. And though they'd all wept to see the neat structures so violently destroyed, there was something different to mourn in the rebuilt town: the only people who remembered it were right here. New villagers came and went, and the streets Sansa and her siblings had all played on were utterly gone. There was something to mourn when a town was destroyed, when everyone wept at it; but there was something else to mourn when people rebuilt, and forgot that there was ever a town before the current one. Sansa and Arya and their brothers had played on different streets: rang the bells and lit the lanterns and tumbled through the icy cobblestones until breathless. But Sansa's children would only ever know these ones. 

"Arya," Sansa said, almost noiselessly- and then she saw Arya's face, all the loss and numb, resigned shock.

In the end, all Sansa did was drag Arya close and embrace her.

“What happened to Mikken?” Arya asked, muffled into Sansa’s furs. Then, before Sansa could answer: “I know he died, but- there’s a new smith. I just never thought I’d see Winterfell have a new blacksmith. Mikken always seemed so- unbreakable.”

“Yes,” whispered Sansa.

“I didn’t expect it to be the same. I knew it wouldn’t be. But still-”

“It hurts,” Sansa finished.

Arya dug her fingers into Sansa’s arm, pressing closer. After a long moment, she turned away and wiped her eyes. Slowly, they picked their way through the streets. When Arya saw something particularly different, when she went pale and grim as a ghost, Sansa waited; after a long hour, she inhaled slowly, unsteadily, and began walking towards Winterfell.

Almost at the gates, Arya turned to look at Sansa. Her eyes were slightly reddened, her hair not-quite hiding the hectic flush to her cheeks.

“Where’s Rickon?” She asked, voice still slightly unsteady. Sansa knew better than to comment on it.

She shrugged easily. “He comes and goes like a ghost. Though Dacey Mormont sent a raven a few weeks back, saying that he’d taken a- liking- to Lyanna. I suppose we’ll see where that’s going.”

“And Bran’s in Greywater Watch, I suppose.”

“With the Children,” Sansa agreed. “And the Reeds, too. He scarce leaves the place, in all honesty. Robb’s in Moat Cailin with both Mother and Father. What with the whole rebuilding business, he tends to use the castle as an administration center more than anything, so… well. Let’s just say that Mother and Father tend to do more of the actual work, while Robb rides out and decides where to build castles.”

“Are they happy?” Arya asked curiously. “I spoke to them last year- at the Skagosi meeting- but Mother was ill at the time, and Father looked miserable.”

Sansa hummed noncommittally. “Father rather likes being in Moat Cailin. He’s started training a good many of the men there- you know Robb's never had a good head for teaching others."

"Yes," Arya said wryly. "Rodrick always said Robb was a genius with a sword, even if he could never tell anyone else how to do what he did."

"And Mother’s been handling the lordships that come with twenty extra keeps- she’s happy there, too, I’d say." Sansa shrugged. "They tend to spend most of their time there, anyhow. Though they visit me more than they visit Bran, and I'm fairly certain that has to do with the bugs. Mother hates the trip into Greywater Watch, but she hates staying there even more."

“And they never visit me.” Arya shook her hair back, starting to walk towards the gates again. “You could come if you wanted,” she offered suddenly.

“And watch Jon get stuck with twenty arrows the moment he offends someone?” Sansa shook her head. “I’m happy here, Arya. This is my home.”

“It was meant to be Robb’s,” she grumbled back, without any heat.

Sansa rolled her eyes and entered the keep; shed her coat. “Robb chose to live in Moat Cailin because he got tired of me.”

“Because he got tired of you and Jon,” Arya corrected.

“I don’t know anything about that,” Sansa said.

Well. Maybe Robb had chosen to shift his court from Winterfell because he’d caught Sansa and Jon in a- compromising position a few feet from his solar. Maybe he could’ve waited for the rebuilding to be over instead of leaving unceremoniously within a week. Maybe, just maybe, Sansa and Jon had something to do with it.

But Sansa didn’t have to admit that.

“Sure you don’t,” Arya snorted.

Sansa shook her head, a smile curling over her lips. “Also- if you’ve the time- just talk to ‘Anne. She’s been obsessed since she met you last year. And if you could be a little less bloodthirsty than usual, I’d be grateful.”

“Less bloodthirsty?” Arya asked mockingly. “How could I be that?”

“Be Arya the Vengeful,” said Sansa. “Not the Ice-Blooded Queen. For just a few minutes.”

“Alright, alright, I suppose I can try and be a nice little lady for a while. Gods know the girl needs some a proper example to look up to."

"I'm sure you didn't imply anything with that," Sansa said mildly.

"Good, because I didn't." Arya bit her lip. “Can I take her to the wildling camp?”

“... let me talk to Jon. Though if you’re careful, there shouldn’t be any problem.”

“We’ll have fun, then,” said Arya, and walked away.

When Sansa and Jon returned from the Great Separation- as the dissolution of Westeros was now called- they left Edmure Tully in charge of King’s Landing.

Sansa’d told him about the ship full of wildfire still hidden away, but Edmure hadn’t told anyone else. And when Daenerys Targaryen came with her dragons, Edmure was in Riverrun; the man he’d left behind in King’s Landing, Ser Marq Piper, refused to bend the knee to Daenerys’ army, to Daenerys’ fleet, to Daenerys’ dragons.

In response, she set fire to King’s Landing.

For all that dragons were immune to fire, however, wildfire was an entirely different beast. Two of her dragons perished in the eldritch flames, and less than a quarter of her fleet survived. Daenerys, still believing herself capable of conquering Westeros- based on the assumption that there would be little chance for the assemblage of a proper army against her, even if her own forces were lessened- took her crippled army and marched further inland. 

And yet Edmure Tully wasn't sitting idly while Daenerys recovered, and struck an alliance with the Reach; his friendship with the Vale stuck true, and Lord Royce maneuvered Lord Penrose into seizing the ships Daenerys left behind. By the time Daenerys had left King's Landing, a sizeable army of Tully and Tyrell bannermen had assembled, and they pushed her back to Duskendale.

There, facing mutiny by her own men, stranded in a land she never before saw, in a castle where her father was held prisoner, Daenerys signed away her rights to Westeros in return for Lord Penrose's ships.

Or, as Bronze Yohn told the Dragon Queen: “There is no more room for Targaryens in Westeros, Your Grace. Go back to Essos with the dragon left to you, and keep those bastards in Slaver’s Bay from taking slaves again. You’ll do no good here, and only make it worse if you try to take what you think is your right. Go home, Your Majesty.”

Or, as Arya put it: Only Sansa could kill two full-grown dragons completely by chance, and never realize what she’d done.

Two days later, Jon met Arya in the godswood.

“What’s this I hear about Beron being named after Bran?”

Jon laughed, and seated himself at the base of the heart tree, back sliding against the bark.

“Who told you?”

“Your daughters.”

“Well.” His lips twitched. “They aren’t lying, not- exactly. Though it isn’t the full truth, either.”

“Gods damn you, you’ve two daughters and only one sister, couldn’t you name at least one after me?” Arya huffed, still glaring at him- though her lips twitched at the end.

“It wasn’t purposeful!” Jon protested. “We didn’t mean to. Robb just made it out to be larger than it was, you know, as he does, and Jo’s his favorite, so… the girls caught on.”

Arya seated herself with rather more force than necessary. “Explain.”

“Ah- well. When Sansa was pregnant- and this time we were sure it’d be the last time- she basically told both Bran and Robb that she’d name the kid after the one who was in Winterfell during the birth. ‘Cause Bran was there for ‘Anne’s birth, and Robb was there for Jo’s, and she wanted them both here this time.” He shook his head. “We all forgot about it afterwards- it’d just been a joke. And, as it turned out, Bran and Robb were coming together, so there wasn’t supposed to be a problem anyways.”

“But there was.”

Jon nodded. “One of Robb’s carts got caught in some mud. Bran went on ahead and reached Winterfell that night, and Sansa- as you probably know- went into labor early. So as our son was born, Bran was the only one there, though neither of us knew that.”

“And you named your son Beron,” said Arya.

“A name we’d decided upon before, no matter how much it sounds similar to Bran.”

“Robb threw a fit?”

“Robb threw a fit,” Jon agreed. “Went berserk. Bright red. Didn’t allow Bran to be in the same room as Beron if he wasn’t there, too. Which, you know, is probably why Bran stayed for so long. He waited for Robb to leave- Robb had to negotiate some treaty with the Karstarks- and then spent another month here just to spite him.”

There was a rustling sound at the entrance, but it was only Sansa who stepped out of the shadows, coming to stand next to Jon.

“Rodrick’s looking for you,” she said softly, and then turned back to Arya. “What were you talking about?”

“Beron’s name,” said Jon.

Sansa broke into a smile. “Ah. That isn't even the funniest story," she told Arya. "Has he told you about how he still hasn't forgiven Robb?"

"Not this one," Jon said, groaning theatrically. "Can't you just let me have some dignity in the eyes of my little sister-"

“Haven’t forgiven Robb for what?” Arya asked curiously.

Sansa smile turned wicked. “For being nice to Jocelyn.”

“It’s perfectly understandable!” Jon objected. “I mean. I was gone for, what, three months? And Robb made my own daughter turn against me.”

“Jocelyn still likes Robb more than Jon,” Sansa confided to Arya.

“Hey!”

“She was terrified of Ghost when Jon left,” Sansa explained, as Jon glared at her, an unrepentant grin on her face. “Jocelyn was scarce five, and Jon had to go to the Manderlys for quite a long time, and so Robb came here for a few months. It was rather an important time in Jocelyn's growth- she was starting to get curious. And you know Grey Wind's always been good with children-"

"So's Ghost."

"-Grey Wind doesn't have red eyes," Sansa told Jon flatly, before continuing her tale. "And Jocelyn fell in love.”

“If it was just that, I’d be fine with it,” Jon muttered.

Sansa’s grin grew even wider. “Robb fell for Jocelyn’s curly little head, too. Took her to all the council meetings. Sat her on his shoulders during the smallfolk sessions. Scolded 'Anne when she made her cry. He didn't let up at all. I think he saw more of Jocelyn than I did, some days!"

"And you were okay with that?" Arya asked, startled. She'd always thought Sansa would be more controlling of her children.

Sansa rolled her eyes. “‘Anne’s enough trouble on her own. If Robb was willing to take some of the burden- I wasn’t exactly going to refuse.” Sansa leaned, just slightly, against Jon. “Anyhow. When Robb left, Jocelyn cried. And refused to talk to Jon or Ghost for-”

“Ages.”

“-a week.”

“Which feels like an age. Have you ever had a five year old girl refuse to talk to you, Arya?” Jon shuddered. “It’s right near painful.”

“And so,” Sansa finished, “Jon still hasn’t forgiven Robb.”

“As far as things go, not such an unforgivable crime.”

“He turned my daughter against me!”

“Next time Jocelyn asks about going to Moat Cailin, Jon’s going to forbid her from going anywhere outside of a two-day ride of Winterfell, mark my words,” Sansa said, before reaching for Jon and squeezing his hand. Her smile softened, slightly, and she turned back to Arya. “But all three of the children have their favorites: ‘Anne has you, and Jocelyn has Robb, and Beron has Bran. It’s rather fair, I’d say.”

Arya frowned. “What about Rickon?”

Jon choked. “Rickon’d piss himself if he thought one of them looked up to him.”

Sansa swatted him on the shoulder.

“Don’t be mean,” she scolded. Then, slightly regretfully, "Though it's true enough. I've always treated him more as a child than anything, and he's... gotten used to it."

"He takes full advantage of it like you wouldn't believe," Jon told Arya. "The number of times he's tried to kick me out of Winterfell- it's astonishing. And you-" directed to Sansa, "-let him. All the time. He's seen almost thirty name days!"

"The funniest part," Sansa commented, "is that you think I'm blind to it."

"If you're not, then why do you let him just-"

"Because," she said, leaning forward, "you get so entirely worked up about it."

Arya jack-knifed upright. "No!" She said, loud and sharp. "Nope, you're not kissing in front of me, go away. Didn't Sansa tell you that Rodrick was looking for you, Jon? Shoo. Now."

Jon pulled away and made a face at Arya; Arya simply crossed her arms over her chest and glared until he started walking.

Once he'd gone, Arya frowned; she had to change the topic quickly, or else Sansa'd get even more intrusive than she usually was.

"I've been meaning to ask you-" Arya hesitated for a moment, then continued, "-last I heard, Alys and Wylla were serving on your council. But now nobody seems to know where they actually are.”

“I told them to leave,” Sansa replied. Arya went dangerously still, and Sansa arched an eyebrow. “Don’t act coy, it doesn’t suit you.”

“Both of them loved you,” Arya said heatedly. “They were-”

“Fools,” Sansa finished archly. “Madly in love with each other, still refusing to do anything about it. The looks alone were enough to drive anyone mad. I mean, Jon commented on it, and he never notices anything.”

Arya looked at her incredulously. “You knew?”

“It started in King’s Landing. Of course I knew, Arya, what do you take me for? A half-blind fool?”

“I’m not sure you’ve the right to tell anyone that they’re being inappropriate,” Arya grumbled back, relaxing slightly. “You are the person who chased our elder brother out of his own seat, just because you couldn’t keep your hands off of your husband.”

“Jon isn’t any less invested in the whole touching business,” Sansa announced, and Arya’s hands shot up to cover her ears.

“I don’t want to know.”

“Are you sure?” Sansa asked, laughing slightly. “No wildling man to share your furs, Arya? No vows said before the heart trees? I’d be happy to give you tips-”

“Shut up.”

“Alright, alright.” Sansa sighed. “Anyhow- both Alys and Wylla refused to start anything so long as they were on my council, so I sent them away. Both were adamant that they wouldn't have any scandals clouding my rule, which is a sweet sentiment, albeit an unneeded one. And so when I told them to leave, they started a band of outriders that answer to me. See what problems are in different keeps, and send my the ravens.”

“A spy service,” Arya said. “Impressive.”

“Particularly because it all but landed in my lap, full-grown,” Sansa said, and offered Arya a hand; pulled her up. “We should head back. It’s getting dark.”

On the way, Arya turned to her. “They are happy, though?”

“Disgustingly so,” Sansa answered.

There was a flare of happiness in Arya's gut, and she sighed at it- less than a week in Winterfell and she was becoming a homebody.

But for all that she couldn’t find happiness here, for all that she loved the fury of a good fight and the bite of the wind across her cheeks, for all that Arya couldn’t stand still- she knew Sansa was different. She and Sansa had settled their differences ages ago. And she was happy now: what she did mattered, was something none other could do, and for all her complaints she could think of no other life she’d rather live.

“I’ll see what I can do.”

“Wylla,” Alys called, panting as they stumbled to the top of another hill.

Wylla was already heading for the next, higher one, stubbornly limping her way forward.

The wind caught her green hair, pulling at it until it was whipped taut, brilliant as a Tyrell banner. She turned to look at Alys, and the sunrays spilled over her face, painting her cheeks a molten gold. Alys stumbled, slightly, struck dumb.

 There was something to be said for this life, thought Alys. They’d spent such long years serving Sansa on her council, dancing around something made entirely of shadowed glances and quick smiles, something that neither had words for. And then they’d been given a chance to do something more-

The world wouldn’t remember Wylla Manderly or Alys Karstark. They gave that dream up when they left Sansa’s council. But that didn’t mean that they couldn’t make their world better, and that was what they did, a sword strapped to their hips, a smile strapped to their lips, a warm hand outstretched; a quiet, sincere offer of help to those who had no one else to turn to.

Alys gasped her way over to Wylla.

“You look beautiful,” Wylla murmured, reaching up to whisper in Alys’ ear.

Alys knew she was flushed, skin a blotchy red, hair half out of her braid- but they had a policy of not lying to each other. She tipped her head to the side.

“I was thinking the same,” she replied, hand reaching out and tangling in Wylla’s hair. They’d spent overlong in the wild; the roots were growing in, a brown deep as fresh-tilled soil. “Like a golden rose.”

Wylla’s lips curved in a faint smile. “If I’m a rose, you’re a-”

“Thorn?”

“-storm,” Wylla finished firmly. Then, grinning, “All beautiful and deadly. And bringing water to let me bloom.”

Alys grinned back, nudging Wylla with her shoulder. They had to reach the Flint’s hometown before sundown to meet a girl who’d sent them a raven telling of a lord who’d left her sister with a babe in her belly and run off- and they yet had a ways to go.

“Well,” said Alys, wrapping Wylla’s hair in one fist, stepping forwards and pressing a sharp kiss to her lips, “Gods know that I’ll always want to watch you bloom.”

They turned and set off, into the stony mountains, and Alys was sure that she’d never know a way to be happier than this.

Oberyn went missing for four years.

Doran wished he could say he was surprised when his brother resurfaced all those years later, head nearly split open and in heavier clothes than ever before, but he hadn’t been. Until Doran saw Oberyn’s body, saw him dead under his fingers, Doran would always think him alive. After all, Oberyn’d always had a nasty habit of being cocky beyond all belief, with the skill to back up just over a half of his boasting, and it was always enough to get him out of the incredible mess he often found himself in.

But Oberyn returned to Doran’s court, and he returned empty-handed.

It was later- weeks later- that he confessed to killing Gregor Clegane; a month later that he confessed to spending two years learning to make wine; a year later that he confessed to visiting the Isle of Faces and seriously considering switching from the Faith.

Doran watched Oberyn re-learn the ways and customs of Dorne, watched his younger brother treat with his daughters in a gentler manner than ever before- and he realized that for the first time in decades, Oberyn didn’t carry the blazing need for Elia’s justice that he once had.

In all the years to come, Doran would never put pen to paper. He’d find himself, sometimes, staring at the ravens that were trained to go to Winterfell, but he never reached for one. And yet, he penned the letters in his mind. He knew exactly what he would tell Sansa Stark, were he to ever see her again.

You have returned my brother to me. You have given him justice. You have given my sister, a woman twenty years perished, justice. There is no higher kindness, my lady. All of Dorne is grateful to you.

Edmure, for all that his men named him an inveterate bachelor, knew what it was to be in love.

Once, after years of cajoling and escaping and quiet, furtive kisses- Edmure had loved a man. And he’d left him in King’s Landing as a sign of his respect for Marq, as a sign of his confidence in Marq. And then Daenerys Targaryen had come and burned King’s Landing to the ground, killing Marq along with thousands of innocent lives. Edmure took his vengeance, as honorably as he knew how. No dragons would ever come to Westeros again.

But this did not mend his heart, did it?

Perhaps, one day, Edmure would be able to take a wife. Until then, he had a sister to care for in Riverrun, half-mad and despairing. He had a kingdom to care for and nourish. He had a dignity to uphold.

And so he carried on as he always did: dutifully, honorably, steadily.

Eddara handed a cup of wine over to Theon and sank into a seat next to his.

“Your sister’s coming here?”

“She wants to,” said Theon. “Though she might be too busy. But- Asha tends to do what she wants, so she’s most likely coming.”

They’d been married for almost ten years now. Eddara’d watched him march off to battle, unknowing of how she felt; she’d watched him return, bleeding and almost dead. The first morning he’d gotten out of bed and started walking, she’d kissed him silly.

They were ten years married, and Eddara had learned her husband well: she could see the quiet, exhausted resentment in the corners of his eyes, the downturned edges of his lips. She could see the careful respect he’d fostered for his sister, and the fragility with which it could topple.

Everyone’s always loved her more, he’d said once, tongue loose with wine.

“Ask her to bring your mother as well,” Eddara said quietly, and watched his eyes light with the idea.

I’ll always be beside you, love. She smiled, soft and gentle, because Theon listened to her; he didn’t see her quiet nature and name it weakness.

Eddara loved him for it.

Tyrion spent years rebuilding the Westerlands.

He spent even longer rebuilding his family- but that’s another story.

(When Jaime first challenged him to a duel, actually strong enough to demand something of someone, Tyrion laughed at his brother. Then he shut himself up in his solar and continued to laugh, right up until he tasted salt down his cheeks.)

Meera was tired.

Down to the marrows of her bones. No; deeper. Jojen had survived the war against the Others and yet in their home, he wasted away. Greywater Watch left his skin sallow, his hands shaking; he spent his nights screaming and his days sullen. Meera had begged him to leave. There was no call to remain in the Neck- Sansa would surely give them refuge if they were to even hint at it.

But Jojen refused.

"I will die here," he announced, and Meera snarled back, "Why?"

"Because," he said, "This is my home. And I have been gone from it long enough. 'Tis not sadness that kills me, Meera."

"It is your greensight," Meera said flatly.

"The old gods give," said Jojen, simply. "The old gods take. There are no reasons for it. Perhaps I should've died of the greywater fever, all those years ago."

And so it went, for years on end. Meera cajoled, and wept, and screamed, and still Jojen did not budge. He watched her with those all-seeing eyes, grim and knowing, and Meera wondered if she'd ever known a man so selfish. Decades later, she buried her father and took up the mantle of Lady of the Neck, and still Jojen hung on to life, paler and weaker by the moment; alive by only fraying strands.

I survive, thought Meera, on the coldest mornings, when her spear felt fused to her palms, when tears felt stuck in her throat. I survive, even when none else do. The battle at Last Hearth, their travel beyond the Wall, their return- Meera'd buried friends she loved, family she adored, enemies she loathed. It was what she did, this black-haired swamp girl. She was tired and angry and bitter, but she had a castle to see to. She had a duty to serve- and Meera, for all her laughter, always did her duty.

I survive, she thought, and walked back inside.

 

...

Robert Arryn met his mother when he turned sixteen. There was something pitiable in her thin, lanky strands, he thought, a reminder of what was once beautiful and was not gone to rot.

Traitor, Bronze Yohn named her, for killing Robert’s father. Once, deep in his cups, he’d even spat, whore-

But Robert knew what it did to people, to be told to love only those your parents ordered you to love. Maybe he’d inherited his mother’s heart along with her eyes. Maybe others would name that a weakness.

Only a few months previous, Bronze Yohn had sat him down and told him what happened to women who had children out of wedlock after he saw Robert kissing a maid behind the kitchens. If no one had told his mother that, if she’d fallen in love- Robert could see his own future written out in his mother’s eyes. He could see himself becoming her.

“My poor boy,” she whispered, toddling forward and wrapping pale arms around him.

Robert could see Bronze Yohn’s distaste. He could feel his own pity.

But he was a man grown now.

He inhaled, hugging her tighter, this woman he could scarcely remember, and he said, “I’ve missed you, Mother.”

Robb loved his kingdom.

That was the long and short of it: Robb loved the North, loved it with a weight that left little space- and that smallest of spaces was taken up by his family. From where was he supposed to find the space in his heart to love a woman?

He might’ve done it had it been necessary; might’ve wedded a woman to gain an heir for the North.

But it wasn’t necessary, was it?

Margaery had other lovers when Asha was gone, just as she knew Asha did as well.

And yet-

Yet.

There was a day, summer-mad and wine-drunk, when Margaery fashioned a crown of salt and seaweed. She placed it on her heavy brown curls. Asha went pale, and then flush with desire.

This wasn’t quite love, perhaps, but it was something close enough to it that there was no other name. Margaery, once, might have wanted more- but age had taught her temperance. When she kissed Asha, she tasted salt across her tongue, and Margaery knew: salt was not only the taste of tears.

It was the taste of freedom.

Shireen married Edric Dayne, in a sept she’d rebuilt with blue and green glass.

It was on that altar, before a young man who was lovelier than any star, that she first felt beautiful.

(It wasn’t the last.)

Robb had yet to choose a consort. There wasn’t pressure on him now, insofar as there was for any king- Sansa had three children, after all, and they’d need crowns some day.

But Arya would rule over the wildlings, and she’d choose her own heirs; Bran would choose a greenseer to bear his weirwood crown after he died; Rickon was as likely to actually pay attention to the minutiae of administration as he was to paint himself bright blue and dance upside down. That left Sansa and Robb- and it always boiled down to the two of them, didn’t it?

The eldest. The ones with Tully looks and Stark hearts and a deep-rooted protectiveness that was what they built themselves around. The proud heirs of a kingdom they forged through peace.

Sansa knew, in her bones, who she’d name her heir. Bran had, years ago, spoken to her about Alysanne's dreams. When she came of age, she'd likely spend time with Bran in Greywater Watch, learning the gifts she'd been born into. But even if she hadn't had that, Alysanne had always been wild with her freedom; and queens- the inheritors of Sansa's silver crown- would always have to hold fast against storms. They would have to be the rooted trees, the steadiest hands. When darkness fell, they would have to bear the torch.

And that would always be Jocelyn, who wielded kindness as easily as if it were a sword, both a weapon and a shield. She wept easily, but Sansa knew herself well enough to know that softness was no measure of steel. Her daughter was her heir.

Robb, then, would likely take Beron- though that was no true measure of anything. Perhaps Arya would wish for an heir, or perhaps Robb would wed. There was still a long time before her children had to choose their paths, and for all that Sansa might plan, in the end it would be their choice- as Sansa's had been, all those years ago. 

And yet, they weren’t getting younger, any of them.

Sansa could feel her bones creak as they never had before. When the snows fell, she felt the chill take up residence in her marrow, sink into the gaps between her ribs. There were lines on her face that she’d never before seen, and faint streaks of grey in hair that had only ever been a bright red. 

But these were good changes, Sansa decided; these were the best changes. The kind that meant you were alive, and you’d been shaped by the world. That you’d shaped the world in return.

(There’d been a few years, in the beginning, when their children had died in her womb. Sansa had buried them when she could and wept, every night, misery clawing up her throat. For a time, she and Jon’d stopped trying.

‘Anne had been a glorious surprise, the girl who seemingly had three children’s brightness in her. And after her came Jocelyn, and after Jocelyn came Beron. With them came the strength to rebuild Wintertown.

With them came new life.)

When Sansa named her children, she gave them good, honorable Stark names. She refused to name them after any dead relative, however: they would never carry the sins of their ancestors. Let them write their own stories onto their skins. Sansa wouldn’t gift them with that weight.

There was another life Sansa had once lived, but it felt like a dream now; distant as only the worst nightmares could be. There was another life, one that she barely remembered. There was another life, and it didn’t matter at all to this one.

Every morning, she kissed Jon awake and braided a crown of direwolves and dragons and doves into her hair. She ate breakfast with three children who adored her. She spent her evenings reading letters from her parents and brothers, her nights in bed with a loving husband. 

We Starks don’t turn our faces, thought Sansa, back straight, head high, chin up. We will see the injustice of the world. We will root it out, inch by inch, moment after moment, steadily, unerringly. We Starks don’t turn our faces, and we do not hold our tongues, and we do not sit silently, and we will survive everything you think to throw at us.

We will endure, as we always have.

FIN