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They’re alone in the godswood, Jon and her, walking through a world of white that swallows up all noise save the snow crunching under their boots. He’s been quiet since he returned with a shipful of invaders--and got quieter still once he learned about his true parentage. She’s quiet too, now, should’ve said something minutes ago but he keeps walking and she’s trailing after, her carefully rehearsed speech lost somewhere back at the courtyard along with her conviction.

He won’t like what she’s about to propose, but she likes it even less. That’s the problem. The longer she stays silent, the longer it takes before she has to do something she promised herself she’d never do again.

It has to be done, though.

She’s heard the whispers around Winterfell, the speculations about him, his Targaryen blood, and Daenerys. Sometimes Arya dons a face Sansa doesn’t want to know where she got, and moves around the castle to learn what people say when they think no one important is listening.

It’s rarely kind, gossip. But the situation is stable, for now. Ravens have flown through snowfall from house to house, carrying words of the crumbled wall and the dead crossing into the land of men. When death is knocking on your door to turn your families into wights, it doesn’t take much to turn a king’s betrayal into a noble sacrifice that secured the living their only chance of winning.

But once it’s all over, once the dead are shattered and Daenerys’ armies and dragons don’t mean protection but oppression, Sansa fears the Northern lords’ loyalties will wane.

They’re a fickle lot, after all. If they have any reason to suspect he’ll favour his Targaryen side, they’ll break faith.

They need to marry, Jon and her, it’s the only solution. She learned that in King’s Landing, where harsh realities knocked a little girl’s dreams of gallant knights out of her head and filled the aching emptiness with lessons about politics and duty and games. Daughters were commodities that formed alliances and brokered peace. By marrying one of the Northern lords’ daughters--and by marrying off his sister to one of their sons--Jon will prove his heart belongs to the North.

She throws him a glance. His eyes are locked at the ground, his jaw clenched together; he’s so far away in thoughts she doubts he remembers her walking by his side.

“Jon,” she says.

His head snaps up to look at her and it takes a second for his eyes to focus. He doesn’t talk to any of them--not her or Arya or Bran--about what’s bothering him even though he so clearly could use it. Identity crisis, Sam calls it, but Sansa can’t quite relate. Throughout her life, she’s been so many people, always adapting to survive, but at her core she remained a Stark. Arya’s the same.

But then, Jon never did feel like a true Stark, did he?

They’ve stopped by the old tree with a wound in its enormous trunk leading to a roomy hollow. They used to play there as children, hiding in the tree’s embrace while Robb pretended to be a grumkin looking to steal some children. Well, Sansa rarely did. When her siblings played, she often sat inside with her sewing, or stayed at the pools with a book, her skirts arranged prettily around her as the others rumbled around the trees. Always the perfect lady, wasn’t she, in a family of roughhousing children. Always trying to make her mother proud.

She does have one memory, though, and she shares it to put Jon at ease, to warm him up before the dreaded topic.

“Do you remember that tree?” she says. “When Arya and I hid in there, and a caterpillar fell in my hair so I shrieked and Robb found us instantly. She got so angry she tried to make me eat it.”

“I remember hearing about it.”

Sansa closes her eyes. She could kick herself. “I’m sorry. I assumed you were there.”

“It’s all right. I was probably…”

“Off sulking in a corner?” she fills in and it earns her a smile, so rare now, and she feels herself return it.

He meets her gaze for the shortest moment before turning to look out over the woods, gesturing at it with a gloved hand. “Is this why you brought me here? To talk about memories?”

“No. I wanted to talk about marriage.” She pauses when he stills, his eyes round and blank and staring resolutely at the tree instead of her, but as he remains silent she goes on. “Jon, I know this is the last thing you want. But I think you and I--”

A firm hand around her elbow cuts her off. He pushes her into the tree hollow, squeezes himself inside too. They stand so closely together she feels his breath on her lips and the heat of his body against her own, the toes of their boots kissing.

“Varys,” he whispers and then she hears it, the careful melody of the eunuch’s studied voice. Tyrion’s too. “I don’t trust them.”

Cloaked in shadows, they listen to Daenerys’ advisors speak. They rarely use names, rarely say what they mean, and use shorthand to which Sansa’s not privy. Their meaning is still clear, though: they wonder about Jon and Daenerys. Sansa has wondered too, has seen the looks Daenerys sends Jon’s way. People do talk, too, about Targaryens and their penchant for marrying their relatives.

And yet she can’t hold back a gasp when she learns Jon’s bedded the Dragon Queen.

The hollow is narrow enough she feels him go rigid.

But then his hand is around her arm again, as though to steady himself, and his body presses against hers, his lips close to her ear.

“It’s over,” he whispers, his warm breath and soft beard tickling her, and there’s a strange sensation in her stomach she can’t quite define. Disgust, yes, and relief that it’s over but also anger and... and something else. Something that makes her nervous, that makes her shiver.

He rubs his thumb over her arm. “Are you cold?”

“I’m fine,” she whispers, suddenly aware of how close he is, how he’s not removed his hand yet. How she doesn’t really want him to.

How being this close to someone who wants nothing in return from her awakens something within her: a need to be closer, perhaps in his arms, wrapped in his cloak, in the safety of him, where she can breathe in leather and warm skin. Where she can finally relax, far away from the exhausting games she’s so often forced to play.

His clothes rustle, his elbows nudge against her, and then he’s close again, so close her breath hitches and the strangest thoughts try to enter her mind. She squeezes her eyes shut to ward them off and waits for... she doesn't know what. But then the weight of his cloak settles on her shoulders and he moves back, miles away, cold air rushing to fill the space between them.

It reminds her of another time a man put a cloak on her shoulders, that she’ll soon have to enter a third unwanted marriage to clean up Jon’s mess, and the anger that has festered inside her chest ever since she received the raven about his bending the knee seeps out of her mouth.

“Don’t be an idiot.” Her voice is dark and low, as hard and sharp as the dragonglass he betrayed his family for. “You’ll freeze to death and then your precious Dragon Queen will leave us all for King’s Landing.”

“If I didn’t freeze to death when I fell into that bloody lake, I won’t freeze to death now either.”

He forgot himself, speaking a little louder than a whisper, and she presses a finger to her lips, glancing out the opening. Only a tuft of blond locks can be seen of Tyrion, who is shielded behind the gorgeous charcoal cloak of Varys. They’re still speaking, oblivious to their audience, and Sansa realizes she’s not listened to their words in quite some time.

“Have you seen the way he looks at her?” Varys asks and Tyrion mumbles something under his breath she can’t discern, but it pulls a throaty chuckle from the eunuch. “True, my friend. Very true. But what about her?” he continues. “She’s hard to read, that one.”

“Perhaps I should ask my brother,” Tyrion says and Varys laughs again, but the laughter dies when Ghost comes bounding out of the woods, his mouth glistening red from a fresh kill.

“Ah,” Tyrion says, “I believe that’s our cue to leave. His master is never far behind.”

Sansa keeps an eye on Ghost as they leave, but the direwolf stands still as though he knows not to reveal their hidden place. Jon’s breaths are heavy and the leather of his gloves creaks as he clenches and unclenches his fist. A nervous tic of his, she’s noticed, as though he’s spent so long fighting his hand misses Longclaw whenever it’s in its sheath. But there’s not much to be nervous about out here. Perhaps it’s impatience. He has better things to do than huddling up with her inside a hollow tree while listening to castle gossip.

“Who were they speaking of, do you think?” she asks anyway, because anything is better than the uncomfortable silence eating away at the pocket of intimacy they created. “That last bit.”

Jon’s quiet for such a long moment she’s about to repeat her question, louder this time, when he finally replies. “Brienne and Tormund?” His voice is hoarse and he clears his throat before continuing. “He took a fancy to her the moment he saw her.”

“Oh, of course. He’s not a very subtle man.”

Jon chuckles. “No. No, he’s not.”

“I suppose it explains why they should ask ser Jaime. They’re close.”

“Aye.”

“It’s nice, you know,” she says, softly. “Hearing you laugh again.”

His eyes meet hers, so dark, with glints of waning sunlight reflected in them. They drop to her lips, or perhaps the dark is playing tricks on her, but that sensation is back in the pit of her stomach and she doesn't understand any of it.

But then Jon heaves a sigh, deep enough that she feels his chest expanding. “I think we can leave now.”

He slips outside without looking at her and keeps his back to her as she slips out of his cloak, as though she’s doing something indecent.

“Thank you,” she says, handing it back. “You’re very kind. But I really didn’t need it.”

Jon shrugs, and puts the cloak back on in one smooth movement, the wool billowing around him. “Ghost, to me.”

The direwolf pads after him as Jon strides toward Winterfell, his boots kicking up snow as they make deeper tracks beside the faint prints of their old ones already softened by the constant precipitation.

“Jon,” she calls after him, lifting her skirts as she tries to catch up. “We still have matters to discuss.”

“After supper.”

If a back can look angry, his does, especially behind that dark cloak that does its best to convey the turmoil of emotions Jon has bottled up as it flaps dramatically behind him.

She understands now, though, his silence and anger the past few days. Why he’s not talked to any of them about what troubles him. Why mentioning marriage elicited such a strange reaction.

He’d probably planned on marrying Daenerys before learning who he was. Perhaps he’s hoping he can still, somehow. But that would ruin everything they’ve worked so hard to accomplish.

After supper, it is, then. Food and mead in his belly will cushion the bitter pill she’ll have him swallow.

Chapter Text

“They’re talking about you, you know.”

Looking over her shoulder, Sansa smiles at Brienne who’s standing by the door with a hand on the hilt of her sword as though someone could crash into Sansa’s bedchambers any moment.

Brienne’s brow knits together. “My lady?”

“Gossiping,” Sansa says. “About you and Tormund.”

Sansa’s handmaiden, Lyra, giggles through the hair pins secured between her lips as she twists Sansa’s braids into a neat bun. Brienne all but rolls her eyes.

Sansa turns around to look at Brienne properly. “You don’t like him.”

“My lady, I greatly appreciate all he’s done for you and your family. And I suppose others think I should feel flattered that someone wants me. I’m not spoiled with that. But I prefer a different sort of man. Someone with manners .”

“Manners can be taught, m’lady,” Lyra says.

A smile tugs at Sansa’s lips. “You like him?”

“Many of us do. He’s a big man. A wildling .” The last word is more breath than voice and Lyra blushes prettily, eyes lit up with an anticipation Sansa’s not sure she’ll ever understand. “They say wildlings steal you away in the night and...” Lyra trails off, the light fading in her eyes. “I’m sorry, m’lady. I’m being too familiar.”

“It’s all right,” Sansa says, kind smile hiding how uneasy she feels about talk of men stealing women. “Thank you, Lyra. I’ll finish up myself.”

Once they're alone, Sansa tells Brienne, “I very much doubt Tormund would succeed in stealing you away."

“I’ve sparred with him. If you can call it that. He seemed to think it would lead to a different sort of play.” Brienne stands tall and proud as she speaks, but then she turns around and there’s a vulnerability in her eyes and voice she rarely lets slip through. “As I’m sure you’ve noticed, my lady, my heart belongs to someone else.”

“I’ve suspected it, yes. Is he still being an idiot?”

“Pardon?”

“Is he devoted to Cersei?”

Brienne allows herself the smallest of smiles before she turns back again, speaking to the window. “I’m not sure. Perhaps he is, deep down. I can barely fathom it. The Jaime I know, in love with her ... His own sister. Can you imagine?”

“No.” Sansa grabs her jewelry box and busies herself with picking out something pretty for tonight. “If I hadn’t seen the love my mother and father had for one another, I’m not sure I’d believe in love at all anymore.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. You deserve so much better than what life has given you.”

“Thank you, Brienne, but it doesn’t matter,” Sansa says and her voice is strong and crisp and winter cold. “I know my duty. I’ll make a prudent match and produce heirs.”

She picks out her favorite necklace, the one that reminds her of a Maester’s chain. It's been an amulet for her as she’s ruled, first with Jon and later in his place, and had to use all the tricks of the game she’d learned from Littlefinger, Cersei, Margaery, and all the rest. But she’s yet to master love. She’s never even been in love, not really. She’s never been loved either, not properly. Her childhood affections for Joffrey, for Loras, were superficial and misguided. Whatever Littlefinger felt for her was twisted and selfish.

Jon has told her about Ygritte, in that way of his where one has to listen as much to what he doesn’t say as the scanty words he does say, and Sansa knows he loved Ygritte truly. That he thought he would never love anyone else again… until he met Daenerys, she supposes.

Sansa puts back the necklace and runs her fingers over her meagre selection. Most of her old favorites were left behind in King’s Landing and others have vanished during the different ownerships of her childhood home. But one is left: a delicate dragonfly pendant on the thinnest silver chain.

She’s not that girl anymore, though, hasn’t been for the longest time. But sometimes, when the fire is crackling along with the clinking of her knitting needles and Arya spins her dagger while telling another story of her travels and Ghost rests his head in Bran’s lap and Jon says nothing at all, just sits with a cup of ale in his hand and contentment in his soft smile, Sansa knows that part of her isn’t gone. She knows she still wants love and family and joy. She wants all things good and true instead of this awful world fate has thrust her into.

But she’s the Lady of Winterfell. What she wants doesn’t matter.

Sansa closes her jewelry box without choosing something to wear. Her dress is beautiful as it is, with the direwolf and the heart-tree embroidered across the chest. She needs no necklace.

 

---

 

The din of the great hall doesn’t strike her the way it used to anymore. Before Jon returned, she could scarcely hear herself think as her people dined together beneath the shine of chandeliers, among the cheer of past victories told to bolster one another for the upcoming war.

In Daenerys’ shadow, however, the Northerners still. Scraping of utensils against plates, of cups against the wooden table tops, have replaced the rumbling of fathers bragging about both sons and daughters and how their skills with swords and bows have grown immensely under Arya and Brienne’s guidance.

Beyond the walls of Winterfell, on a hill overlooking the courtyard lies a dragon. Another roams the sky, circling the castle while singing its dreadful songs. They all know that with one word their new, unwanted queen can make those great beasts open their mouths and drown Winterfell in fire--with only Daenerys walking unscathed away.

Some wonder whether Jon would too.

Sansa sits on his left, Daenerys on his right. Most dinners he’s favoured the latter, listening to her many comments and questions, but tonight he favours his own thoughts. His fork moves between plate and mouth without pause, clearing each dish like a man for whom food stopped being a pleasure a long time ago as he learned it’s nothing more than fuel for a body who has to fight.

Taking their cue from him, his people are even more quiet than usual, all eyes on their plates. Except Alys Karstark, whose gaze drifts toward Jon every so often, drinking her fill as though Jon’s brooding visage is all the sustenance she needs. He made himself two loyal admirers that day, when he forgave her and Ned Umber. Perhaps Jon should marry Alys. He wouldn’t have to steal her away.

 

---

 

After supper, they meet in his solar, Jon and her, where he offers her a chair. He stays on his feet. The energy of a restless animal radiates from his tense body and his eyes never meet hers. It’s starting to provoke her, this mood of his, how it’s worsening by the day.

“How is Daenerys finding Winterfell?” she asks with her voice full of honey.

“What?” Jon frowns at her. “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know whether she likes our home? I thought you were close.”

“We’re not.”

“But Varys and Tyrion--”

“Don’t know as much as they think they do. There was....” He scrunches up his face and dismisses the topic with a impatient hand gesture. “You didn’t come here to talk about Daenerys.”

“No. I did not.”

“Get on with it, then.”

“Well,” Sansa straightens her posture and clasps her hands in her lap, “I came to talk about marriage. It’s something neither of us want, I’m aware of that, but we have a duty to marry, to produce heirs, to strengthen our bond to the North--especially yours. They doubt you, Jon. You handed us over to a foreign invader and we need to show them that this is your home . That you belong in the North and to the North. And I think we need to settle this before everyone rides off to fight the White Walkers.”

“All right.” He sits down on the chair next to her, but at the edge of his seat, like a shadowcat ready to leap up at any sign of danger. Proffering his hand, he waits for her to take it before continuing, “If that’s what you want, what you think is best--if you’re sure-- then of course I’ll marry you.”

“Good.” Sansa exhales in a smile… and then his words register and she pulls her hand from his grasp. “Wait, what? Marry me ? Why would you marry me?”

“Because you asked me to.”

“No, I didn’t!”

“You said we should marry!”

“Not each other!” It comes out in such a loud shout Jon springs up from his chair, and she draws in a shuddering breath to calm herself. “You should marry someone like Alys Karstark.”

Alys Karstark? Why would I want to do that?”

“Why would you want to marry me ?”

Jon goes very still, his mouth hanging open. He swallows. “Well, I thought… You said! You .” He punctuates the word by pointing at her, eyes wide under a furrowed brow, and laughter starts bubbling inside her.

It’s ridiculous, this whole situation, and even though she sometimes feels as if she’s lived a hundred lives, none of them prepared her for this. She lets out her nervous energy in peals of laughter that transforms Jon’s frustration into confusion. He almost look a little hurt, bottom lip pouting and brows tugged together.

“You don’t have to laugh at me.” Glaring at her, he throws himself back into the chair. “I thought… With me, you’d never have to-- Sansa. I’d never touch you against your will. Not ever.”

“I thought you promised you’d stop trying to protect me.”

“Well, sometimes I lie.” He takes a deep breath and, exhaling, sags down a little in his seat. “I don’t want you to be forced into yet another marriage.”

“And you’d accomplish that by forcing me to marry you?”

“I’d never force you.” His mouth his tight and he stares at the floor instead of looking at her. “Who have you chosen for yourself, then?”

“I haven’t, yet. I wouldn’t mind your help, though.”

Jon scoffs, shaking his head, but then he leans forward, towards her, and his demeanour changes into something soft, like a winter fur enveloping her in warmth. He doesn’t take her hand, doesn’t encroach on her personal space, but still stays close enough that she could easily take his hand if she wanted it.

She can’t tell whether it’s an invitation, whether she wants it to be.

“Sansa,” he says and it sounds like a sigh. “How am I supposed to find someone good enough for you?”

His voice is so tender, his eyes so warm, so caring, tears spring up in her own eyes.

Sometimes, when she’s alone, she thinks about the day she found him at Castle Black, how it felt to relax in his arms and feel safe, finally, blessedly safe. How his embrace stripped her of all her roles and titles and claims until only her own neglected self remained.

His frame is open, now, ready to catch her if she decides to fall, and in the depths of his eyes, something calls to her. Her body leans in on its own accord, following her strange little heart down a slippery slope.

But her mind reels her in. She leans back, averts her gaze, blinking the tears away.

She hears Jon’s breaths. They’re uneven, loud, sharp even--but then anything would be in this silence. It stretches on and on, and she scrambles after the broken thread of their conversation because she’s not ready to explore what hides in the silence between them.

“We could ask Maester Wolkan for help. We could make a list.”

Jon scratches his beard, humming noncommittally, and it won’t do.

“So,” she lets mirth into her voice, the gently mocking kind, “you thought, all evening, that I proposed to you in the godswood?”

“Aye.” Jon’s sullen mask cracks into a grin. “I did.”

“Well, that explains why you were brooding even more than usual.”

“Why does everyone say that? That I’m brooding? I don’t brood.”

“It’s all you ever do, Jon.”

He laughs at that and, as he says it’s getting late and walks her to her bedchambers, he lets her tease him some more, rewarding her with good-natured grumbling that makes everything feel right again.

“So… Alys Karstark,” he says at her door.

“A suggestion, that’s all. The choice is yours.”

Jon looks unconvinced but doesn’t protest. “Sleep well, Sansa.”

She watches him walk away, happy to see that some tension has left his body--until she remembers the guards posted outside her door. They don’t look at her, but she feels exposed nonetheless, and slips into her bedchambers with cheeks warm and pink.

Once she’s tucked into her featherbed, all she sees when she closes her eyes is Jon's earnest face as he told her he'd marry her.

Sleep doesn’t come for a long while.

Chapter Text

Arya didn’t agree when Sansa called herself a slow learner. Her big sister always excelled where Arya struggled--but then she saw Sansa with a training stick in her hands.

No matter how carefully Arya shows her how to move, Sansa can’t compel her body to mimic the movements. Her long limbs falter when they should flow, and far too often, she’s off balance. She never gives up, though, always staying focused and determined--and she never complains about bruises or sore muscles. She barely even flinches whenever Arya gets a hit. In fact, sometimes Sansa’s instinct is to steel herself for a blow instead of ducking it.

Arya doesn’t like thinking about why that is, but she does know, now, all of Sansa’s not-very-pleasant stories, and Sansa knows hers.

Today, as they fight with quarterstaves, Sansa is worse than usual. They’ve barely got started and she’s already fallen on her arse three times.

“Where’s your head at?” Arya asks with a deep sigh. “I almost hit you in the face just now. You need to focus.”

“I can’t. I have too much on my mind.”

“That’s not how this works.” Arya gives her sister a gentle rap on the arm. “You can’t say, ‘“Oh, sorry ser White Walker. I can’t fight today. I’m too preoccupied by the grain situation. Can we fight tomorrow? Does noon work for you?’”

“Arya.” Sansa levels her with the exasperated kind of glare only a sister can shoot. “It’s not about the grain.”

“Then what is it?”

Sansa’s eyes glides over the courtyard, over the people milling back and forth, and Arya follows her gaze. They form a motley crowd, the people of Winterfell: highborns, small folk, free folk, enemies-turned-allies, all working together. Jaime wouldn’t even be alive if Arya had any say in it. But Brienne vouched for him, and Sansa trusts Brienne.

Arya trusts Brienne as well, as much as she can trust someone who’s not family, but she doesn’t trust Jaime. His armies are still not here. But then, which he points out whenever someone asks him about them, neither are the Dothraki or Unsullied. They’ll show, though, Daenerys’ armies. Arya’s not so sure about the rest. Perhaps that’s what bothers Sansa. If Cersei’s armies fail to show, the Dragon Queen will surely leave.

Or perhaps she’s learned about the Tarlys.

While skulking around in the shadows, as has become her habit as the sort-of Master of Whisperers to her sister’s not-quite Queen, Arya overheard Bran and Jon talking about it, how no one can know because they can’t afford alienating Daenerys. Not even Sam knows. He’s following Maester Wolkan around, happy as a clam in this wintery world where ravens can’t bring him the news of his family.

As though the thoughts summoned her, Daenerys appears by their side before Sansa’s answered the question. She’s accompanied by her beautiful advisor, Missandei, and lord Varys, with two Dothraki men hovering in the background.

“How’s the lessons coming along?” the Queen asks. She’s already moving about Winterfell with the kind of confidence of someone who belongs , and it sets Arya’s teeth on edge.

“Well enough, your Grace,” Sansa says. “Thank you for asking.”

“Walk with me?” Daenerys asks, gesturing at the gate leading to the godswood, but it’s not really a question.

People move aside as they cross the courtyard. Daenerys rewards them with benevolent smiles and doesn’t seem to notice how they hold their breaths as they bow, and glance at the soaring dragons as they straighten. Outside, she’s shining white--her skin, her hair, her coat--among the gray and brown and black of Winterfell. Inside, she favours the black and red of glowing embers, constantly reminding people of her heritage and her family’s predilections.

 

The godswood is still, the snow on the ground untouched save the scratches of bird feet and the light touches of rabbit paws weaving between the trees.

Daenerys strokes the heart tree’s pale bark, runs her fingers along the edge of its red leaves. “It’s so beautiful, this tree.” She turns to Sansa. “Do you believe in the old gods, my lady?”

“They were important to my father, your Grace.”

“I never knew my father. The man your sworn shield loves so much murdered him. Didn’t he push your little brother out a window as well?”

“Yes,” Sansa says. “It is unfortunate how these dire circumstances have forced us to accept enemies as allies.”

Varys ducks his head to hide a smile Daenerys doesn’t catch because she can’t tear her eyes off Sansa. She rarely can, in fact: when she’s not looking at Jon, she often watches the Lady of Winterfell as she takes care of her castle and its inhabitants.

Pretending to pace aimlessly without really listening, Arya circles them slowly while listening intently. Daenerys would never harm her or Sansa, because she’d lose Jon forever, and yet Arya can’t relax in her presence.

“Jon told me about your plans,” Daenerys says. “You want him to marry a Northern girl.”

“I do. We should both marry.”

“Won’t you be sad to leave your home?”

“Why would I leave? I’m the Lady of Winterfell. My husband will move here.”

“You’ll have to forgive me. I received no formal training. But,lord Varys tell me, isn’t Winterfell home to the Warden of the North?”

“Not always, your Grace.” Varys bows his head respectfully. “Ramsay Snow was Lord of the Dreadfort while he was Warden of the North.”

Daenerys hums, nodding to herself. “He was not the kind of man whose example we should follow, though, was he?”

“No, your Grace. He was not.”

She walks to the hot springs, the rest of them trailing after, where she sinks to her knees and dips a hand into the steaming water, drawing leisurely fingers through the surface and watching her beautiful reflection shatter beneath the ripples. “Jon is the Warden of the North, is he not?”

“He is, your Grace,” Sansa says.

“And Ramsay Bolton did became Lord of Winterfell eventually. Or have I been misinformed?”

Sansa’s nostrils flare, her jaw tightening before she relaxes with a slow exhale. “He was Lord of Winterfell. For a while. Then we took back Winterfell.”

We ?” Daenerys rises to her feet and locks eyes with Sansa. “Jon, you mean. Jon took back Winterfell.” She smiles sweetly. “Wouldn’t that make Jon Lord of Winterfell?”

“No, it would not. Jon didn’t conquer Winterfell. He exterminated the vermin who stole it from us.”

The tension between them grows into something palpable, but Varys dispels it by stepping forward with soft feet and softer demeanor. “Your Grace,” he says, “Winterfell has belonged to the Starks for thousands of years. Jon, while obviously having Stark blood, is no trueborn Stark. Lady Sansa is the rightful heir. And the honorable Jon Snow would never throw--”

“No, he wouldn’t, would he? I know how much he loves his little sister.” Daenerys eyes trail over to Arya. “ Sisters . Family is important to Jon--but I’m his family too, now. And when I sit on the Iron Throne, my nephew will be seated here. Together, we’ll unite the North and the South and finally bring peace to the Seven Kingdoms.”

“Peace sounds wonderful, your Grace,” Sansa says.

“You don’t like me very much.” Daenerys pauses long enough for Sansa to part her lips in search for words but not long enough for her to say them. “I don’t blame you. If I were you, I wouldn’t like me very much either. But then, you don’t know me very well. My reputation, yes, but me? Daenerys Targaryen? No.”

“My apologies, your Grace. I’ve been consumed with preparing for the war. I’ve neglected you.”

“No, you’ve done your duty. You’re everything I imagined you’d be. Jon never spoke a word of you, but Tyrion has. Very warmly. Hasn’t he, lord Varys?”

“Indeed. Tyrion has great respect for you and your family.”

“And now that I’ve met you,” Daenerys says, “I can see why Tyrion liked you so much.” She crosses the distance between her and Sansa and cups Sansa’s hand in her own, speaking in a friendly tone, “I’d like us to be friends, Sansa. I’d like that very much. And... “ Daenerys tilts her head to the side with an almost flirtatious smile. “You were lady Lannister once. You could be again, if you wanted to. Together, you and Tyrion would be”--she quirks her eyebrow as though she’s hooked a wriggly worm in front of a ravenous trout--” powerful . You could even be on my small council. I have a feeling you'd be a tremendously valuable advisor.”

“Your Grace is very generous,” Sansa says. “It would be an honor to call you friend.”

Daenerys watches her for a moment, but Sansa’s features rest easily in the gentle expression of a young girl who looked at knights with stars in her eyes and thought queens were as good as they were beautiful.

Placated, Daenerys moves closer to Arya. “And what about you, Arya? You’re old enough to marry as well.”

“I don’t want to get married.”

Daenerys lips curve into a smile. “I didn’t think you would.” She leans a little closer and adds in an intimate voice, “I don’t either.”

It’s a real smile, warm with twinkling eyes. The smile of someone who thinks she’s bonding. Perhaps they would have, Arya and the Dragon Queen, had they met under different circumstances. If she’d shown up to do the right thing, soared through the air to burn down the dead, and then returned south and left the Northerners alone. A woman who frees slaves and wants to burn Cersei to a crisp can’t be all bad. But then, a woman who threatens to burn any opposers alive can’t be all good either.

And when those opposers happen to be Arya’s people? Well...

Arya folds her arms behind her back and shoots Daenerys a grin that’s all teeth and false friendship.

When Daenerys and her advisors leave, Sansa gestures for Arya to linger. Once they’re safely alone again, they settle down at their usual spot by the black pond that’s frozen over. A stick becomes a brush in Sansa’s hand which draws a sketch of a long lost direwolf in the fine layer of snow covering the surface.

“I can’t stand her,” she whispers, watching her hand move.

“Me neither,” Arya says and they share a smile.

“I thought you’d love her, with her dragons and battles.”

Arya shadows her face with her hand, looking up at the sky. “I’d love to ride one. Tormund can’t shut up about it. But she’s hurting my family. That makes her my enemy. I can’t believe she’s trying to make you leave.”

“I can. I’m dangerous to her--especially as the Lady of Winterfell. As a Stark. Jon’s position is precarious.” Sansa’s words are slow and measured. “It has been for quite some time, as you know. The only reason why the other houses are following him now is because he’s the only one who can lead them in the fight against the White Walkers. So, what happens after the war?”

“He’ll be the Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North, apparently.”

“And you think they’ll accept that? That they’ll accept him? They wouldn’t. Even if I left voluntarily. He gave up our independence for her .”

“No. He gave it up for her dragons and her armies.”

“You know that’s not what they think, Arya. They’re scared. They’re scared he’s a Targaryen, that he’ll marry his aunt, have a million silver-haired babies, and restore their house. They’re scared they’ll rule the Seven Kingdoms together with fire and blood. That their children will. They don’t want a Southern ruler. They know no king but the King in the North whose name is Stark.”

Sansa’s brow crinkles, her gaze falling aside as she falls deep in thought.

“What?” Arya asks. “What is it?”

Sansa shakes her head, swallows. “Jon… He misunderstood me. When I brought up marriage. He thought I wanted to marry him and at first--”

Arya can’t help but laugh at that. “Why would he think that? Did he manage to get that out without losing his breakfast?”

“Arya.” Sansa puts down the stick daintily next to her sketch, and inches closer to Arya. “He said yes.”

“He what?”

“He said he’d marry me to protect me.”

Arya huffs out a breath. “Jon would do that. Idiot. Did it ever occur to him it would mean he’d have to...” Her stomach turns and she swallows the bile along with the words she refuses the utter. “With you .”

A blush tints Sansa’s cheeks pink and she bows her head like a shy maiden and everything suddenly feels very wrong . The way Daenerys has watched Sansa ever since she arrived. How jealous she’s seemed. Arya always assumed it was because the Northerners love her sister, but now… Did Daenerys have more reasons for wanting Sansa at King’s Landing instead of by Jon’s side?

“Arya, I need to ask you something.”

“No.” Arya jumps to her feet as though the movement will shed the nauseating feeling creeping along her skin. “Whatever it is you have to say, I don’t want to hear it.”

“Arya, please, I feel so confused and I have no one to talk to.”

“Talk to Brienne!”

“I can’t talk to her about this!”

“Well, you can’t talk to me either!”

“Arya, please .” Sansa tightens her arms around herself and looks so incredibly forlorn Arya can’t help but sit down again, but does so with the grumpiest expression in her arsenal. “I’ve spent years with men like Joffrey and Littlefinger and Ramsay. I know what it looks like when a man wants you. When he wants your flesh .” Sansa’s lips curl around the word as though it were made of maggots. “But when Jon looks at me... It’s so different. Jon is so different. I don’t know what it means.”

“Brotherly affection. That’s what it means.”

“But it doesn’t--”

“It’s. What. It. Means.”

“You’re right. I’m being silly. Thank you for listening, Arya. I won’t speak of it again.”

Sansa pushes herself to her feet, but Arya pulls her back down before she can leave.

“Then why did you? Speak of it.”

“I don’t know. You notice everything. I suppose I wanted to know whether you’d noticed-- Well, you said it yourself. It’s just brotherly affection.”

Arya is quiet for a beat. Yes, she notices everything. She dons the faces of the dead and haunts the hallways and the courtyard, watching and listening and learning. But she’s relaxed around Jon because she never thought she’d have to see anything unexpected in him.

Has she been as foolish as the men in Syrio Forel’s story who saw a fabulous beast instead of a tomcat?

“I’ll watch him for you,” she says, then.

And she will. To prove Sansa wrong.

Chapter Text

A girl doesn’t need to wear another’s face to disappear. She knows how to move in the dark like a shadowcat, body crouched so that she’s so, so small, and feet light enough to make no sound.

She didn’t mean to spy for once, honestly, she didn’t. She merely wanted to talk to Jon. Daenerys wouldn’t leave his side, though, striding beside him with her arm hooked around his as though they were lord and lady of Winterfell. When they slipped into the crypts, Arya decided to follow, to act the strange little sister and pester them until Daenerys lost her patience and left.

But then Daenerys mentioned Jaime and the distinct lack of his men, and now Arya lingers in the shadows without making her presence known. Their new queen is like a jar of wildfire: the slightest tremble could set her off--and set Winterfell ablaze. Arya’s determined to know everything that might make the jar rumble so she can carefully dispose of the vessel before it detonates.

Hopefully, it won’t come to that, though. They need her, after all. Her and her dragons.

“They’re coming,” Jon tells Daenerys. He’s looking at the stone version of his mother, the light of candles cradled by stone hands giving his profile a glowing outline, while Daenerys looks at him. “It takes a lot longer for armies to travel the King’s Road than a single man to board a ship and sail to White Harbor.”

“And why isn’t he riding with his men?”

“Why weren’t you?”

Daenerys shifts closer, places a light hand on his arm. “Shall I remind you?” she whispers and lets her hand wander down his torso, her nails scraping across the leather of his jerkin. But when Jon remains passive, Daenerys moves away with a sigh. “My armies have reached White Harbor. The Lannister men have not. Is that not strange? Perhaps I should take Drogon and search for them.”

“And how do you think they’d react, seeing you on him, after what you did?”

Daenerys raises her chin, eyes narrowed. “I did what I had to. To win.”

“Sometimes strength is terrible,” Jon says.

“You understand. You know .” She runs her hand down his arm again, but this time cups it around his elbow, turning him to face her. When she speaks her voice takes on an almost motherly quality. “You’re not really marrying some Northern girl, are you?”

“That’s the plan.”

“Your sister’s plan, you mean. Is it really what you want?”

“Doesn’t matter.”

Jon slips from her grip and lights another candle, carries it to the statue of Ned, drips wax onto his stone hands and secures the candle there.

“It does,” Daenerys says, following him. “I know you think you’ll have to marry. I know Sansa does. But she doesn’t know what I know. Once we defeat the White Walkers, once they see what we can do, together, they’ll love us. They’ll worship us. They will.” As she turns to face Jon, the flickering light of candles illuminates her wide eyes, transforming them into pools of molten gold. “Trust me. I have some experience in the matter.”

Had she looked at him one second sooner, she would’ve seen exasperation washing over his features. But now his face is carefully blank. He looks up at the statue of Ned Stark and from her hiding place, Arya does too. It’s been so long since that day, when Yoren shielded her from the horror performed for the people of King’s Landing. She knows the statue lacks her father’s likeness, but she’s no longer certain she could say in what way. The memory of him fades more each year.

Sometimes, though, when she catches a glimpse of herself in a pond or a puddle, she sees the ghost of him in her features. The slope of his nose. The planes of his forehead. How he held his mouth.

Does Jon see it too, when he looks at her? Tears spring to her eyes and she notices in the sheen of Jon’s eyes, he’s missing Father as well. But she can’t comfort him, because a stranger stands by his side and looks upon their ancestors, tries to seduce Jon in front of their ancestors, and it’s so wrong Arya’s stomach grows hot with anger.

Daenerys doesn’t belong down here.

“Your sister doesn’t want to leave Winterfell,” Daenerys says. “She claims her future husband will live here, with her.”

“Aye. Winterfell is Sansa’s.”

“Is that so? Has she told you I’ve asked her to join me in King’s Landing, once I take my throne from Cersei. A woman like Sansa shouldn’t be hidden up here.”

Jon does not reply, doesn’t have to: the steel in his eyes says enough. Daenerys doesn’t let on that she notices, but Arya knows she has. Arya’s not the only one who’s been watching Jon and Sansa.

“I’ve come to realise the Stark name carries quite some weight. Your uncle was an honorable man and the people here loved him.” Daenerys smiles up at the statue of Ned. “I wish I could’ve met him.”

She pauses, as though to give Jon the time to say he wishes it as well, but he doesn’t. Disappointment pulls at her features for the briefest moment, and then it’s gone and the soft smile is back in place.

“All my advisors are very cunning, but cunning has led me nowhere. I need someone honorable by my side--and who better than the honorable Ned Stark’s daughter? She’s kind and sweet and practical. I’d rather have you by my side, of course. We could rule, you and I. The last Targaryens. Together. Doesn’t it sound beautiful?”

“And how do you think your people will react if you wed your own nephew?”

“My mother and father were sister and brother. As were their mother and father. Targaryen tradition is nothing new to the people of Westeros.”

Jon remains quiet and still, as unwavering as the statues around them.

“Jon...” She sounds so small and tired and miles away from the dynamic presence who’s flowed through the halls of Winterfell lately--and when she takes his hand and pulls him closer, he lets her. “They’re already whispering about it so why are we hiding our feelings? Why does it matter? Let them see. Come to my chambers this evening.”

“It matters to me. In the eyes of the gods what we’ve been doing is a sin. You might not believe in the gods, but Northerners do. They won’t take kindly to it.”

With a deep sigh, Daenerys drops his hand. “Varys told me your own grandfather and grandmother were related.”

“They were cousins. It’s different.”

“Ah.” Daenerys’ features turn hard. “Yes, I have noticed just how different--”

Jon softens her in an instant by cradling her cheek in his hand. “I’m not good with words,” he says, sounding so sincere, and she looks up at him with adoring eyes. “I can’t tell you how hard this is for me. I can’t make declarations. But you must know how important you are. More important than anything .”

“Jon,” she breathes out. Pushed up on tiptoes, she presses a kiss to his lips. Arya can’t see his features, but his back is straight and stiff. “You’re too honorable for your own good, but I suppose it’s what makes you different from all other men I’ve known.” Giving him a private smile, Daenerys lowers herself back on her feet. “I don’t enjoy waiting, but you need time and I respect that. So I’ll wait.”

As she leaves, Daenerys trails her fingers along his arm and shoots him a coy look over her shoulder. She doesn’t notice Arya, even though she passes her close enough that Arya can smell the lemongrass of her hair.

Once she’s gone, Jon sags forward with a heavy exhale, eyes closed and shoulders slumped, looking more weary than Arya’s ever seen him. As though he waited for Daenerys to leave, Ghost traipses into the crypt and draws Jon’s eyes to him--and to Arya, who steps out of the shadows and walks by Ghost’s side.

“How long have you been there?” Jon asks.

“The whole time.”

“Did you find out anything useful?”

“Always do,” she says, and when Jon makes a face, adds, “If you decided to start talking to me I wouldn’t have to spy on you all the time.”

“All the time?”

“I know about the Tarlys.”

Jon presses his lips together, nodding. “Have you told anyone?”

“I won’t. Don’t worry.”

“Thank you, Arya.” He glances back at the statue of Lyanna and sighs deeply. “I wish I’d known her. I wish I’d listened more carefully when Father told us stories about her. I would’ve, if I’d known. I wish he’d told me. Told us , all of us. Everything would’ve been different if only he’d told us.”

“Yeah, you’d be dead.”

“I’m already dead,” he says with not particularly well-executed humour, and he falls silent afterwards, eyes downcast. When he speaks again his voice is low and quiet. “I would’ve been accepted. Your mother would’ve accepted me.”

Arya glances at him as he strokes Ghost’s fur absentmindedly, trying to read his sullen face, his thoughts. If Mother had accepted him, Sansa would have as well. Had his true identity been known, would Sansa have been betrothed to Jon instead of Joffrey?

Are such thoughts what haunt his mind when he casts long looks after the lady of Winterfell?

She’s watched him today, Arya has, how Jon’s gaze constantly wanders over to Sansa when he thinks no one’s looking. How he, when his body is heavy with the overwhelming responsibility of protecting his people, rests his eyes on her and finds strength anew.

It pains Arya to admit it to herself, but Sansa wasn’t delusional after all.

“How long have you been in love with her?” It comes out in a childish tone, almost whiny, but she can’t help herself.

Jon looks up at her in confusion. “What? I thought you were watching.”

“I don’t mean Daenerys.”

Jon knits his eyebrows, looks away. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“In Braavos, I learned this little game. It’s called the Game of Faces. I played it with Sansa before I knew whether I could trust her. But I don’t want to play it with you. I just want you to talk to me. I’m not a little girl any longer. You can talk to me. I can help.”

“Help me with what, exactly? Matters of the heart you’ve made up?”

“I’m not making anything up. You know how Daenerys looks at you? It’s how you look at Sansa when you think no one’s looking.”

“And how is that?”

“Stop being an idiot.”

Jon studies her, then, and it feels as though he sees her, truly sees her, the person she’s become in the years they were apart, and the stony mask he’s worn ever since returning with Daenerys crumbles. He looks like a little boy again, one who knows his place is in the corner where he can’t be seen or heard or be a nuisance to anyone else. One who could never dare to love the pretty lady Sansa.

“Does she know?” he murmurs and Arya swears she can see him blushing in the dim light.

“I’ve not told her.”

“Good. Don’t.”

“Why not? Don’t you want to marry her and make her your lady and have a thousand red-haired babies?”

Jon emits some sort of half chuckle. “Imagine if Catelyn Stark heard you saying that. She’d tell you Sansa deserves better than the bastard of Winterfell.”

“You’re not, though.”

“No, I’m something even worse. A Targaryen bastard. And your mother would tell you no lord in his right mind would allow his daughter to marry someone like me.”

“But you’re not a bastard, Jon.”

“I have to be. If Daenerys were to find out I’m not...” He sighs, shaking his head. “I don’t know what she would do, and I don’t care to find out.” He turns to Arya then, face scrunched up in bewilderment. “Wait, why do you... Do you want me to marry Sansa?”

“Don’t be disgusting. Of course I don’t. Well… suppose anything’s better than Daenerys.” Arya grimaces at the name. “You’re not marrying her are you?”

“Not if I can help it.”

“Good.”

They share a moment in silence before Arya says his name, softly. “If you married Sansa, I’d still love you, you know.” She gives him a nudge with her shoulder. “Doesn’t matter how much of a pervert you are. You’re still my brother.”

Her words pull a grin from Jon and, when he reaches out to ruffle her hair, she gracefully dodges his hand with a smile, which transforms his grin into laughter.

“Very good,” he says. “I’ve seen you, with Brienne. You’re impressive.”

Arya’s chest swells with pride. “Yes, I am.”

“Promise me something,” he says, all serious now. “When the White Walkers come, you’ll protect your sister.”

“Why?” Arya crosses her arms over her chest, frowning at Jon. “She’ll have Brienne. I want to be on the battlefield with you.”

Jon’s quiet for a beat, staring pensively up at his mother’s statue. “When I died, when the Red Woman brought me back, it was for a reason. I think it’s to kill the Night King--and I don’t expect to return from that.”

Arya takes a step back. “What are you talking about.”

“I don’t know what I am, Arya. Alive, dead, something in between. I shouldn’t be here, breathing, eating, fighting. It’s not natural, and it can’t last. And if I’m gone… Once the war’s over, once we’ve won , the North will need someone to lead them. All of them. Lords, small folk, free folk . I don’t trust anyone but her to do it. She’s the only one those stubborn idiots listen to, and I know she’ll protect the free folk. The North will need a queen--a good queen--and you’ll make sure the one they need survives. Promise me.”

Arya swallows, jaw clenched tight, but nods her promise. She’ll make sure the one they need survives--and that anyone else who tries to rule them won’t.

Chapter Text

Time moves like the seasons as Sansa stares blankly into the looking glass, waiting for her sister. Lyra helped her dress, but her hair’s undone, tumbling past her shoulders in loose waves. She doesn’t touch it until she hears Arya’s knocking on the door.

“Come in,” Sansa calls, untangling her hair with her fingers to braid it over her shoulder, like her mother used to wear it.

Quiet as a shadow, Arya slips inside and positions herself behind Sansa.

“Well?” Sansa asks. Through the looking glass, she sees her sister shaking her head.

Oh.

Sansa’s breath rushes out of her, bringing with it the knot of anxiety she’s carried in her chest for days. The hollow it leaves soon fills up with the sense of solitude that was her constant companion for so many years it now brings a sort of calm. A comfort. It’s easier this way. She won’t have to think about it anymore, her and Jon, marriage, how preposterous it is. How, the more she thought about it, the more used to the idea she became, and how dangerous that is.

“You’re disappointed,” Arya says.

“No, the opposite. I’m relieved.”

Arya quirks an eyebrow, watching her sister with her head tilted to the side like a wolf, but she doesn’t say anything and Sansa changes the subject. She talks about all the things on her plate while Arya hums like someone whose mind was created for battle and can’t focus on the minutiae of politics.

As Sansa applies the finishing touches to her hair, someone else knocks on her door. Outside waits Missandei, who with the politest of smiles and softest of demeanours invites Sansa to Daenerys’ chambers after supper.

“What’s that about?” Arya asks once they’re alone again.

“Her wanting me at King’s Landing, I presume. I’m sure she’s looking to convince me.”

“You should say yes.”

Sansa turns around. “You can’t be serious.”

“Doesn’t matter whether you mean it. Say yes and please her. She’ll probably die in the war anyway. She’s already lost one dragon because of her arrogance. How long do you think she’ll survive once she loses the other two?”

“What makes you think she won’t turn that dragon around and fly south the moment she believes she’s in real danger?”

“Or when she realises Jaime came alone…”

“Or who Jon truly is.” Sansa shakes her head. “It’s precarious, all of this. I can’t add another lie to it. And if word got out to the lords, that I would abandon them all… No. I can’t.”

“She wants to marry Jon, did you know?”

“That’s disgusting.”

“Oh that’s disgusting is it?” Arya grins when Sansa can’t stop her cheeks from flushing pink. ”Maybe you should marry him. Just so she can’t.”

“You wouldn’t hate me forever?” she asks and it comes out so rushed, so breathy, her blush deepens into crimson.

Arya’s only reply is a shrug.

 

-----

 

Daenerys’ armies arrived before supper, their tents and horses making the snowy grounds around Winterfell mottled. Now a selected few sit in the great hall along with Northerners and Free Folk. Friends exchange looks after glancing suspiciously at strangers and no one says a single thing. Sansa glances at Jon, who looks so faraway in thought she doubts he’s aware he’s sitting in front of his people. He has at least forgotten his duties as host.

Admittedly, he’s not the most verbose person, especially not since returning, but he’s always had a word and a smile for Daenerys. But now he’s a monosyllabic grump who stops her every effort of keeping the conversation flowing by staring into his ale in between uncharacteristically frequent gulps. Under different circumstances, it would’ve filled Sansa with a selfish kind of satisfaction, but no one needs a repeat performance of yesterday’s morose supper.

She usually slips easily into her little bird role whenever she’s around the Queen and she never questions Jon in front of others anymore, but the more sullen and drunk Jon gets, the harder it is to stay quiet.

He’s the one who got them in this mess, brought a foreign invader and her armies to their lands, and now he can’t even be bothered to ease them all into this new normal. They all look to him for guidance in how to deal with this unprecedented situation and he gives them nothing . The brewing tension, the freely flowing ale, will culminate in something bad. Sansa feels it so strongly her stomach is tensing up and despite entering the great hall ravenous, she’s barely eaten a bite.

What's gnawing away at him anyway? What could possibly be so important he chooses brooding into his ale over his responsibilities? He can’t still expect her to clean up his mess, can he? After pulling out every little trick in her arsenal to ensure the Northern lords stay loyal to Jon and their cause, after supporting his every decision, speaking warmly of a Queen she doesn’t believe in, of armies that in truth terrify her, she’s exhausted . And now the idiot is ruining it all with his stupid mood--and why? Because he can’t marry his aunt?

Did he truly fall so deeply in love with someone he just met?

Well, wasn’t that what happened with Ygritte? a nasty voice whispers in the back of her mind. Didn’t he fall for the enemy once before and lost her because he chose duty over love? Perhaps he doesn’t want to make the same mistake again. Perhaps the honorable Jon Snow found that love is more important.

Sansa doesn’t realise she’s glaring at Jon until he tears his gaze from the bottom of his empty cup and looks at her with big puppy dog eyes, hazy from ale.

“What?” he says.

She leans in close and, when she lays her hand on his forearm so that she can whisper in his ear, Jon jolts as though he can feel the ice in her veins. An unpleasant thrill shoots through her body. Did Arya tell him flat out the ridiculous things Sansa pondered? Did they speak about her and come to the conclusion Sansa must harbor unnatural feelings for her brother? It would explain his strange behavior this evening.

Her stomach bottoms out at that thought and she has to push it far from her mind because shame burns so brightly on her cheeks everyone in the hall must see the evidence.

“Start behaving,” she whispers through clenched teeth, letting the heat out in the harshness of her tone, ”or I’ll drag you to your bedroom by your ear and make you go to bed without pudding.”

Jon pulls back just enough to look at her, blinking slowly. His mouth drops open, closes again, and then spreads into a wide grin. “I’d like to see you try.”

“You’re not a very large man, Jon. I’d manage, I’m sure.”

“I’m large enough where it counts.”

A moment pass with their eyes locked and no words what so ever entering her head before she manages out a whispered, “What?”

“On the battlefield.” Jon straightens his posture and leans away from her. “I might not be as big as some of the men I’ve fought, but I still won.”

Sansa straightens too and smooths her hands down her skirt, staring into her lap. “Perhaps you should tell some of those stories to your people. I don’t know what’s got into you this evening, but if you actually bothered to look at them you’d see they’re all worried of what’s to come. We train and prepare all day--it’s all we ever do, Jon. They need some fun at night. Share amusing stories from your time at Castle Black. Or… oh, I don’t know. Have Tormund tell them his bear story that--”

Jon leans in close again, hanging over the armrest. “You want Tormund to tell them about the time he fucked a bear ?”

“I don’t know! Anything’s better than this. If we don’t do something soon, they will start fighting amongst themselves. You need to do something. Unify them somehow. You know this better than I do, Jon, I know you do. You’re their leader. Start acting like it. You can brood when this is all over.”

He nods, his smile tired, gentle, and all Jon. “Thank you, Sansa.”

Standing, he commands attention and tells a story of a dead man rising in the night and how he slayed it for good with fire. When he reaches that part, he turns to Daenerys, as though to remind them all why she’s there, and although Sansa can’t see Jon’s face she does see Daenerys beaming up at him, and Sansa has to turn away to hide the resentment brewing within her.

After him, Sam, eagerly encouraged by Gilly, gets to his feet and stammers out that he too once killed a White Walker. But before he gets into detail, a couple of protests are heard because they’ve all come to know Sam as a gentle lad, anything but a fighter, and Sam folds in on himself, ostensibly overwhelmed by all those skeptical eyes aimed at him. Gilly won’t hear it, though, and defends her man fiercely by recounting the story with such gusto (and a few embellishments from the last time Sansa heard the story) the crowd bangs their cups on the tables by the end of it, and Sam plonks down onto his seat with flushed cheeks and a silly grin.

Then one by one, others join in and tell their war stories. Northerners, men from the Vale, Free Folk… Even Grey Worm stands, eyes never leaving Missandei as though her mere visage cures his insecurities, and tells stories from before they reached Westeros. Sansa only listens with one ear, though, and barely that. Thoughts of her interaction with Jon, how peculiar it was, do their best to block out everything else.

What did he really mean by what he said about his size?

She’s seen him in his cups before. He’s a jovial drunk, usually, but there’s not been anything jovial about him since his return. Perhaps that’s why it felt so odd--the contrast of it all--because surely he didn’t mean… Surely he wasn’t... flirting?

To even consider it, is foolish. She should know herself better by now, how she always does this whenever there’s a… A potential suitor. She builds it up in her head as though her life were a song and she’s the pretty princess loved and adored by the gallant knight. She did it with Joffrey, and Loras. She even thought, the stupid little girl she is, that Ramsay would treat her like a lady before he shed his sheepskin and flaunted the hideous monster beneath. But Joffrey and Loras never loved her, and neither does Jon. Not the way a husband loves a wife.

Knowing they’re cousins changed nothing for Jon. She’s deprived and broken for seeing romantic love in a big brother’s gentle heart.

No. I should not waste any more thought on this matter , she thinks, shaking her head at herself. No one will ever love me for me. I know this.

When she returns her attention to the crowd, she finds Tormund waxing poetic about a glorious night in the arms of a bear--until someone interrupts him with the suggestion that it was Jorah Mormont, not an actual bear, and it being the true reason behind his escape to Essos. Always in on the joke, Tormund fires off a flirty grin and waggles his eyebrows at ser Jorah, sending the crowd into a raucous laughter that grows even stronger when ser Jorah glowers at the wildling fellow.

Bolstered by the happy audience, Tormund swings around to face Jon, pointing at him with his cup of ale. “Did I ever tell you about when King Snow lost his maidenhood?”

Silence settles once more over the great hall, but its previously oppressive nature is now replaced by attentive listening. Even the most cantankerous of men lean in closer with eager expressions to hear every last word as though they all have longed for a reason to laugh at the man who handed over their independence to the Dragon Queen.

“He was a man of the Night’s Watch,” Tormund says, his voice booming in the hall, “a proper Crow, and yet his little pecker wanted what it wanted. I’d call it dick, like you do in the South, but that tiny thing isn’t worth the name--” He pauses as the crowd rewards him with whoops. “She was a fine woman, Ygritte. Wild as an eagle. Fierce as a shadowcat. Stubborn as a ram. Kissed by fire. They met when he prete--”

“Aye,” Jon interrupts, loudly, and stands up with his cup raised. “She was a fine woman, Ygritte. I loved her. And then she died, because us living folk couldn’t get along. We fought amongst ourselves and we lost people we loved. People we called friends. And I look at all of you now. Free Folk among Northerners among Unsullied and Dothraki. And I’ve seen you. I know some of you have found friends. Some of you have even found lovers,” he adds in a more intimate tone and people around the hall bang their cups into the tables and murmur in agreement, “and yet you don’t get along. It’s us against the White Walkers. It’s the living against the dead. And if we want to win, we need to fight. Together. We need each other.” Jon turns to Daenerys. “And here sits another fine woman. Our Queen. Someone who saw the threat with her own eyes and knew she couldn’t leave us undefended. Someone who--”

Sansa stops listening to Jon’s toast. She doesn’t need to hear Jon gush over his beloved aunt to know when to raise her cup with all the rest and cheer to their new Queen.

It easier to fake a smile that way--and it'll be easier to keep that smile on her face once she's summoned to Daenerys' chambers.




Chapter Text

As Sansa leaves the great hall that evening, she smiles at the noise of men swaying from side to side with their arms slung across their neighbours’ shoulders, singing and laughing. The language barrier is breached by expressive gestures and helpful translations from the well-travelled. Even the Dothraki become friend-shaped once there’s enough ale in a Northerner’s belly and mirth in his heart, it seems.

Ghost waits in the dimly lit hallway and trots behind her all the way to her chambers, the flickering torch lights coloring his fur gold. As she freshens up, he watches her. As she heads to Daenerys’ chambers, he shadows her. Does he know what those chambers once were? That Sansa had been locked up in there for months, brutalized daily, nightly…

When Sansa was forced to welcome Daenerys into her home, giving her those chambers felt like a quiet rebellion. Daenerys would never know, no, but Sansa knew the unwanted Queen slept surrounded by the ghosts of pain and torture. It provided her with a sense of comfort--ugly and petty, perhaps, but a comfort nonetheless. Now, though, Sansa regrets the childish decision. She hasn’t been in there since she and Theon fled.

“You can’t follow me in, you know,” she murmurs, kneeling by the direwolf. “No matter how much I wish it. She won’t take kindly to it. She’ll think I don’t trust her.”

Ghost nudges her with his nose, red eyes round and sincere, and Sansa gives up without a fight. With a sigh, she goes back to her chambers for the brush she uses for Ghost’s coat.

----

When Missandei opens the door and steps back with a delicate little gasp, Sansa holds the brush up and says, “Ghost is a little peculiar about who gets to care for his coat,” even though it’s not true, because she, Jon, Arya, Bran, and Sam are all welcome to do it.

“It’s more than fine.” Daenerys motions at Sansa to enter. “Jon’s bonded with my children, after all. Now I get to know his.”

She’s sitting by the fireplace, curled up on embroidered floor pillows, huge, florid things with tassels hanging from each corner. On a low table of dark wood stand three glass goblets painted with golden lace, and a decanter filled with brilliantly red wine. Silks hang on the walls, trinkets and baubles adorn shelves and empty surfaces, and on the bed lie white furs from animals unknown to Sansa. The only thing that is unchanged is the lightning-shaped crack in one of the walls: a spot on which she so often locked her eyes while fighting back the urge to scream out in pain as Ramsay did whatever he pleased with her body. But the change is enough to make walking through the doorway a little easier.

Daenerys extends her hand, curved softly, toward Ghost. A smile plays on her lips, anticipation shining in her eyes--Sansa could swear she’s is holding her breath, even--but Ghost merely sniffs undramatically at Daenerys before returning to Sansa’s side. Disappointment barely makes an appearance on Daenerys features before her smile is back in place.

As Missandei pours the wine into the goblets, Sansa chooses her spot carefully so that she can brush Ghost’s coat without showering the ladies with flyaway fur.

“He’s beautiful.” Daenerys follows Sansa’s movements as she works the brush. “I’ve been told all Eddard Stark's children had direwolves once. Is it true?”

“Yes, Your Grace.”

“What happened to yours?”

“Cersei. Cersei happened.” Sansa’s lips tighten and she sends a silent apology to Lady for using her death, and the real pain she felt and still feels for the loss, to manipulate a conqueror. “I should’ve known, what she was. That it was only the start. But I was young and foolish. I didn’t understand how far someone can go when they hate someone.”

“I’m sorry. I know how difficult that kind of loss is.”

“Thank you, Your Grace.”

“You must hate Cersei more than anyone.”

“I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t hate Cersei.”

Daenerys arches an eyebrow. “Hm, I can think of one or two. How about Jaime. Or Tyrion. You saw them together, did you not? What were they like? He claims he hates her, but lately his actions say otherwise.”

“She’s his sister. No matter how much you hate your family, there’s still love there. You did not grow up in Westeros, Your Grace, but in Westeros family is more important than anything.”

“Isn’t it everywhere?” Missandei says, still smiling. “I don’t think Westeros is unique in that regard.”

“You’re right, my lady. I’m sorry. Do you have family?”

Before replying, Missandei glances at Daenerys, who nods her consent. “I don’t. Not as such.”

Lips locked in a smile, Daenerys tucks her chin the slightest bit, looking intently at Missandei in a silent command.

“I have… Grey Worm?” Missandei says and Daenerys breathes out, body relaxed again. “We’re… together.”

“Married?” Sansa asks, because she knows what they’re doing, creating an atmosphere of friendship and intimacy to put Sansa off-guard, and she knows how to play along, too.

“No, we’re not. Marriage is not a concept where I’m from.”

“And where is Grey Worm from? Would he like to get married? It’s so beautiful, the ceremony. The vows, the feast, the gown . As a child, I couldn’t think of anything I wanted more than marrying a handsome knight and giving him a million sons. Do you want children, my lady?”

Missandei pauses for a moment, lips softly parted. She looks genuinely surprised, as though no one’s ever asked her about her hopes and dreams before. Looking at Daenerys, how interested she seems to hear the answer, Sansa comes to the conclusion it’s true. But then the kings and queens she grew up around never asked their servants about their own lives, either.

“Sometimes,” Missandei starts, speaking slowly, carefully, eyes shifting between Daenerys and Sansa, “I think about the destruction of war: all the casualties; all the children without parents. Grey Worm is cut, my lady, but I know in my heart he’d make an excellent father. Sometimes I dream of helping the children who lost their families. I dream of giving them food and clothes and shelter. Love. A home .” She looks down into her goblet, plaintive. “What was taken from us.”

Looking at Missandei as though she’s seeing her for the first time, Daenerys sits speechless for so long the silence is bordering on uncomfortable.

“A beautiful dream,” Sansa says, “and one I hope will be fulfilled.”

Missandei gives her a soft smile. “And you, my lady? What is your dream?”

“I’d like children one day.” Sansa’s gaze drops to the brush in her hand, to the coat she’s forgot to tend to, and she starts again with methodical strokes. “But as long as Arya, Bran, Jon and Ghost are alive, well, and happy, so am I.”

Is that why I’m here ? Sansa wonders. Are they worried about my plans for the future? Do they take me for a usurper?”

But then Daenerys hums, shaking her head, and brings the topic back to Tyrion in a way too inelegant to be inconspicuous. She still talks of family, yes, but the Lannister family and it dawns on Sansa that, Varys aside, she has to be the only person Daenerys knows who has seen Cersei and Tyrion together--both often and in unofficial settings.

“Your worries are prudent, Your Grace,” Sansa says. “I do think a small part of Tyrion will always love Cersei, but it’s too small to matter in the end. Cersei once told me you need to ensure your subjects fear you more than they fear your enemy--”

“No,” Daenerys interrupts. “Your enemies should fear you. Your subjects should adore you.”

Sansa suppresses a smile. She’d once thought the very same, but she knows now how easy it is to ignite a flame of adoration in people’s hearts and how easily it snuffs out when they fall on hard times. She knows now that the Tullys had it right all along-- Family. Duty. Honor --and how, when you view your people as family, respect, devotion, and loyalty soon follows. Those words guide her in all she does. They guide Jon as well, although she’s certain he’s never realised it.

“Tyrion once told Jon,” she says, “‘All dwarfs are bastards in their father’s eyes.’ Tyrion is not like the other Lannisters, because they never allowed him to be. He sees himself as one of the people. Like you, he wants to be loved, not feared. He would never choose Cersei over you. Never.”

Sipping her wine, Daenerys mulls over Sansa’s words for a moment and when she speaks again, her tone is lighter. “I heard what you told Jon this evening. It was very clever of you. Nothing unites people as well as having a common enemy, and you reminded him of that. You’re very good at it. Supporting him.”

“Thank you, Your Grace.”

“You ruled in his stead while he was away, did you not?” she asks and Sansa nods. “He was gone for months. It must be difficult to hand back the crown.”

“No, Your Grace. It wasn’t difficult at all.”

Daenerys puts down her wine glass to move closer to Sansa; Ghost’s ears perk up but he remains still. “Have you given my offer any thought?”

“You flatter me, Your Grace, but my place is here. My people are here.”

Jon is here.” Daenerys lifts an eyebrow, a smirk playing on her lips. “When I was a little girl, I thought I were to marry my brother, Viserys. Of course that never happened. Instead he sold me to Khal Drogo because he needed armies to take back the Iron Throne.”

Despite her words, her tone is wistful and Sansa doesn’t quite know how to react. When she speaks of her own forced marriages she sounds either hard and bitter or dispassionate. She glances at Missandei for a clue in how to respond, but Missandei sits perfectly poised with a gentle expression.

“I’m sure your brother would be pleased to see you carrying on his mission, Your Grace.”

Daenerys hums noncommittally. “I’m not on the Iron Throne, though, am I? Cersei Lannister is. You know her well. Do you think her armies will come or was she lying when she agreed to the truce?”

“I couldn’t possibly--”

“Try.”

Sansa takes a moment to think, not about what she believes Cersei would do because there’s no doubt in her mind Cersei aims to deceive them all, but what to tell Daenerys so that she doesn’t drop everything, rush out to Drogon, and fly away.

“Forgive me, Your Grace, but I fail to see why it matters.” Sansa notices Daenerys' displeased expression and speaks quickly lest she’s interrupted. “If you leave us now, we’ll all die. You might even have to fight us, risen as wights by the Night King, when the army of the dead marches south. You say you want to rule the Seven Kingdoms, but what are the Seven Kingdoms without its people?”

Daenerys watches her through narrowed eyes. “So you think Cersei lied.”

Steeling herself for whatever’s to come, Sansa can’t do anything but nod. But Daenerys doesn’t fly to her feet and run for Drogon. She doesn’t throw a fit or order Sansa to leave the room. Instead she gestures at Missandei to top off her goblet. She sips wine in silence, a worry-line forming between her thick eyebrows.

“If I stay, will your people support me in the war for the Iron Throne? I foolishly thought they’d follow Jon, but now that I’m here I’ve noticed their loyalty lies with the land not their king. I’ve noticed they look at me and see my father. But I never killed Rickard and Brandon Stark. Why should a daughter be judged for her father’s actions?”

“You shouldn’t. You should be judged for your own.”

“Yes. For my actions. For my accomplishments. Don’t they know what I’ve gone through to get here? I’m the mother of the only dragons in the world. The only dragons anyone has seen for ages! I’ve spent my childhood running from men who wanted me dead. I’ve been sold like a broodmare. I’ve been raped, beaten, chained, betrayed. All so I could come here and take back what was stolen from me, from my family. Don’t they know how I have bled for my name, for my birthright?”

“I’m so sorry about what happened to you, Your Grace,” Sansa says in her most gentle voice. “I know how--”

“Know? Know ?” Daenerys practically growls it out, seemingly unaware of Ghost raising his head with a snarl, teeth bared, and of Sansa pressing a calming hand against his chest. “How could you? How could anyone? Unless you’ve gone through what I’ve gone through don’t you dare claim to know.”

“And what makes you think I haven’t?”

The words slipped out without Sansa’s permission, and now she ducks her head in shame.

“I’m sorry, Your Grace. I shouldn’t have--”

“Hush,” Daenerys says, but her voice is kind and when Sansa looks up she finds Daenerys watching her with concern, the anger already drained from her features. “Speak freely, my lady. What happened to you?”

“All of it,” Sansa whispers, staring at that lightning-shaped crack in the wall. “I was held captive by Cersei and her family. I was beaten, abused. They killed my father right in front of me. Made me look. They forced me to marry lord Tyrion when I was still a child. They blamed Joffrey’s murder on me. I was whisked away by a man old enough to be my father. A man who wanted me because he loved my mother. He pretended to be my friend, to care, and then he sold me to the Boltons. He sold me! To a monster . I was beaten, tortured. I was raped. He locked me in my room for months and raped and tortured me every day.”

As she speaks, her fingers move on their own, tugging at her sleeve to expose her arm, the pale scars marring the skin

“He cut me. Everywhere. Everywhere . Not my face. Never my face. He needed the face of Sansa Stark to remain pretty .” She spits out the word as though she can spit out the last revolting taste of him that, even now, lingers in the depths of her. “He needed them to believe I was treated well.”

She never meant to share this much, but it all flew out and now, without her noticing it happening, she finds herself cradled in the arms of a woman she hates and she keeps staring at that wall, fighting the urge to push Daenerys away. This isn’t bonding. A similar history doesn’t bridge the distance between them--the Dragon Queen has filled it with fire and blood: a foundation on which you can’t build anything at all--but for a moment, Sansa pretends it does. She uses her own pain to fool Daenerys into thinking Sansa’s nothing but a broken little bird whose love and trust can be won with a kind gesture.

Then she pulls away, wiping at her eyes, and apologises for her outburst.

“Where is the man who sold you to the Boltons?” Missandei asks.

“We had a trial and he was found guilty. He’s dead.”

“But Cersei isn’t,” Daenerys says and the cold determination in her voice sends a chill down Sansa’s spine. “I could fly to King’s Landing, burn down the Red Keep, put Tyrion on the throne to rule in my stead, and fly back North to deal with the White Walkers. What do you say to that, my lady? I can avenge you.” Her eyes light up with something Sansa saw far too often in another’s eyes, in this very room. “I would do that for Jon’s sister. I would do that for you .”

“I’m grateful but…" Sansa pauses, choosing her words. “Targaryens are not loved in the North, Your Grace. You’re tolerated. It would take the smallest rumble to make the goodwill you’ve earned disintegrate. A drunken brawl between an Unsullied and a Northerner ending in--”

“Forgive me, my lady,” Missandei says, “but an Unsullied would never have a, as you say, drunken brawl.”

“A Dothraki, then. Or a Dothraki taking a Northern woman--”

“Rape is not allowed,” Daenerys says, harshly. “Men who rape are burned alive.”

“Very good. But how about your dragons, then, Your Grace? What if a dragon burns someone they shouldn’t. What if they burn a child?”

Daenerys pales and whatever retort she’d prepared dies unspoken on her lips.

“Flying South and leaving us to fend for ourselves is not a small rumble. Even if you managed to return in time, they’d turn on you. And if they learnt of your plan in advance, they would not let you leave the walls of Winterfell. How would you fare, do you think, against hundreds of Northern fighters, with your dragons circling the skies unaware?”

“I have my guards. Ser Jorah. Grey Worm.”

“And yet they would be outnumbered. I once saw a mob of starving people tear a man apart. And not just any man. The High Septon. They ripped off his arms and legs, because their king, because Joffrey , did not care about their empty stomachs. They would’ve done the same to him if given the chance. That’s what happens to kings and queens when the people feel neglected and betrayed.”

“Jon would never allow--”

“Jon wouldn’t be able to stop them. Nor would I.” Sansa scoots closer, holding Daenerys’ gaze. “I believe in you, My Queen. I believe you alone can save us from the Night King. I believe you alone can remove Cersei from a throne she never deserved. I believe you can change our world for the better. It’s not me or Jon you have to convince; we’re already on your side. It’s them . And you do that by being here and showing them you care. By leading them into battle the way only you can. There’s no one in the world like you, Daenerys Targaryen, and you best remind them of that.”

As Sansa spoke, Daenerys hung onto every word, but now as those words land, her eyes lose their focus and she drifts off in thought.

Sansa exchanges a few pleasantries with Missandei before she can finally leave, and when the door is safely shut behind her and she’s out in the drafty hallway, slumped against the wall, it feels as though she draws her first true breath in hours.

Chapter Text

The tired Dothraki guards perk up when Sansa and Ghost exit their Queen’s chambers, but they neither greet Sansa nor bid her good night. Sconces on the wall cast pools of light every few meters. Nothing will happen to her, she knows it, and yet she can’t help the chills crawling down her spine as she moves from light to shadow.

When she turns the corner, a hand falls on her shoulder. Her stomach makes a funny little lurch and her breath catches in her throat in a strangled cry. But warmth radiates from the dark in front of her and the air smells like ale and leather--and Ghost remains relaxed, happy even.

“You scared me half to death,” she practically growls. “What are you--”

“Shh.” Jon presses a finger to her lips, clumsily, the finger slipping, and she plucks his hand off her with a grimace. “Come,” he whispers and pulls her with him, his hand warm and coarse in hers.

When she left the great hall, the sounds of singing and cheering followed her through the hallways, but now Winterfell lies quiet. With everyone in bed, was Jon waiting for Sansa to leave so he could safely sneak into Daenerys’ chambers without anyone knowing?

He said it was over, though, but ale is in the habit of clouding the judgment of men. Considering how he smells, and the lumbering way he walks when he’s usually so lithe, he’s swallowed a considerable amount of it.

Outside Sansa’s chambers Brienne stands, hair impeccable but cheeks flushed and eyes shining. When she sees them, she stammers out an apology for neglecting her duties, but Sansa saw how Jaime looked at Brienne all evening and how no ale was needed to send her into a state of intoxication. If they snuck off for a private moment, or stayed and talked for hours, why would that be anyone’s business but their own? Jaime would not be her first choice for a beloved friend, but the Dead march closer, bringing winter with them, and old grudges vanish under piles of snow and the weight of new threats.

“Jon’s with me,” Sansa says and Jon straightens up, almost managing not to sway. Brienne’s eyes narrow. “It’s fine, Brienne. I’m here and I’m safe. And now I have my guards”--she nods at the two men posted outside her door--”and I have Ghost, so I don’t need you anymore this evening.”

She says it with a soft voice and something very close to a smirk, and Brienne stifles the smile tugging at her lips as she understands what Sansa really mean: Brienne’s free to spend her time with anyone she wants, however she wants.

“Very well, my lady.” Brienne bows. “Good evening.”

Jon’s already fumbling with the door, so Sansa nudges him aside, opens the door, and pushes him into her chambers. The chambermaid’s kept the fire going, its light dancing on the twin chairs and wooden table in front of it, and on the pitcher of water atop the table. In a locked cabinet, she has a sleeping draught she takes with water on nights when memories of Littlefinger’s pleading eyes and Ramsay’s cruel hands are too difficult to block out. Tonight she leaves it be, but pours Jon a glass of water and pushes into his hand once he’s seated.

She kicks off her boots and settles down too, wiggling her cold toes in front of the hearth. When she speaks she keeps her eyes on the flame and her voice steady and casual. “Were you waiting for me to leave so you could be with Daenerys?”

Jon frowns. “No. Waited for you. Wanted to know what she wanted.”

“You were worried about me.”

Jon heaves a sigh. “I’m always worried about you.” He clears his throat and takes a mouthful of water. “And Arya. And Bran.”

“She likes me, I think. She believes I’m harmless.”

“She’s a jealous woman, Sansa.”

“Why would she be jealous of me?” she asks, and if her cheeks heat up, it’s because of the fire.

Jon shrugs, sliding a little in his chair until he’s half-lying in it, the bottom of the glass resting against his thigh. “Everybody loves you. They don’t love her. That’s enough.”

“Did you wait for me all evening?”

“Aye.” He swallows a burp and pushes himself up to sit properly.

She eyes him suspiciously, because those Dothraki guards wouldn’t have missed a drunken lord skulking around in the shadows no matter how sleepy they were getting. “Did you really?”

“No.” His serious mask cracks with the flash of a smile. “Arya. She fetched me when things seemed to be winding down.”

“Where is she now?”

“She had somewhere to be.”

Sansa smiles. “Gendry. Do you think she’ll marry him?”

“I wouldn’t presume to know what Arya plans on doing. But…” Jon shrugs again. “Suppose I never saw her as the marrying kind.”

“No, nor did I. But then I never thought I’d marry again and here I am.”

Jon places the glass, still full, on the table and leans forward. “You’ve decided?”

“No. No, I…” She inhales deeply and shifts in her chair until she’s seated like a proper lady. “I still don’t know whom, it’s not something I’ve prioritised, but I should. I’m still determined.”

Jon leans back, glass back in hand, and holds it up against the fire to watch the flames through the lens of water. “How about little Ned Umber?”

Ned Umber ? He’s afraid of me.”

“I know.” Jon chuckles. “He’s perfect.”

“Speaking of. Have you given Alys Karstark any more thought. She likes you. She’s the head of her own house...”

“No. Not her.”

“Why not?”

He leans his head back, eyes drifting shut. “Her hair is red.”

“You don’t like…” she trails off--and then she remembers what Tormund said. Kissed by fire. “Ygritte’s hair was red."

"It was."

"I suppose that means you won’t want someone blond either, then?”

Jon makes a confused noise, head shooting back up so he can look at her. It takes a second for his eyes to focus. “Why not?”

“Daenerys is blond.”

Jon breaks out into a wide yawn and blinks sleepily. “Need to sleep,” he murmurs and drags himself up. Hopping on one leg, he tugs off one boot and nearly falls to the floor in the process. He laughs quietly at himself, shoulders bouncing, and tries the other foot. This time he does fall, but lands nose-first in her bed. Whatever he mumbles gets lost in the furs spread out over the linen.

“Pardon?”

Jon rolls over on his back and struggles with the furs for a moment until he settles on having the corner of one folded over his hip. “Night, Sansa.”

She shakes her head at him, but gets up nonetheless and starts tugging at the boot still left on his foot. “Jon, this is my bed.”

He looks at his hand, how it lies against her furs. “Oh. I thought we were in my room?”

“It’s fine. I’ll sleep in Arya’s room. You’re in no state to be gallivanting around Winterfell. You’ll end up sleeping in the kennels. Come on.” She helps him under the furs, tucking them around him so the cold air won’t seep inside. “There you go. Would you like me to tell you a good night story as well, Jon?”

“Know you’re teasing, but not heard a proper story in ages.”

“I thought you heard them all tonight.”

“War stories. It’s not the same. I miss… Just being. Drinking ale. Listening to Sam’s old tales. He’s good at it, when he’s not so nervous. Instead it’s just fighting and speeches and lying and--”

“Lying? About what?”

“Liked it, though. Tonight. I needed it.” He finds his way out of the cocoon she made and grabs her hand. “Thank you,” he says and squeezes it.

”You’re welcome.”

His eyes are closed and she allows herself to watch him for a moment, but refuses to reflect on why. Why she won’t let go of his hand. Why she doesn’t settle down on the edge of the bed. Why it wouldn’t feel innocent the way it would had it been Bran lying there.

“You meant to marry her, didn’t you?” she hears herself asking.

Jon’s eyes open slowly. They flicker between hers. “I did,” he says, voice raspy with sleepiness. “Wed her, bed her, anything she wanted.”

“Because you love her,” Sansa says and it sounds weak and pathetic. A little girl’s voice.

“Love?” His eyes find the fire and, when he speaks, his voice sounds far away and strangely sober. “You think I never listen, but I do. You asked me to be smarter and I have been. I didn’t want to, but I played the game, and it worked.”

He lies silent for several heartbeats, still staring into the fire while she couldn’t tear her eyes off him even if a dragon landed in the courtyard and roared Winterfell awake.

“Everything I tried failed. And I tried, Sansa, I really did. But she wanted only two things: the Iron Throne... and me. So I gave her what I could.” He looks at her, then, and his eyes are so sad she feels his pain in her own body. “She has dragons, Sansa. We need dragons.”

“You don’t love her,” she whispers and he holds her gaze, shaking his head. “And yet you would’ve married her, for us.”

“I can’t be with the woman I love anyway so why does it matter?”

Sansa's  whole body simmers with an odd kind of heat. It’s unpleasant, far to similar a sensation to how her stomach swooped when aunt Lysa held her by the moon door and the ground was both too close and too far at the same time and she would’ve done anything not to fall.

“Ygritte?” she asks because she needs that name on her lips like a shield. She needs it on his.

“Aye.” Jon’s eyes drift shut and he nods slowly. “Ygritte.”

“I’m sorry you lost her,” she murmurs but then he’s already breathing like a man asleep.

Her legs won’t carry her and she sinks down on the bed, sitting right at the very edge so she won’t touch him. Thoughts won’t come to her mind; she’s staring blankly into the dark until Ghost gives a little noise and nudges her knee with his nose. Gingerly, Sansa tucks Jon’s hand back under the furs, and sneaks out of her chambers with Ghost in tow.

The guards outside rest against the wall, gossiping quietly, but stand at attention when she appears.

“The King”--she’s still not got used to calling him anything else, but when the guards don’t seem to care, she continues--”got in his cups and is sleeping it off in my chambers. I’ll sleep elsewhere tonight.”

“Will you need an escort, m’lady?”

“No, thank you.” She scratches Ghost behind the ears. “I have my protector.”

They walk together through the dark, past Bran's door and Jon's, but as they reach her sister’s chambers, Sansa hears laughter and talking even through the thick walls. Without her saying a word, Ghost turns back around and leads her back to Jon’s chambers. There she takes off her shoes, undoes her hair, and removes her jewelry, placing it on his nightstand. Then, still in the safety of her own dress, she curls up in Jon's featherbed and falls asleep on furs smelling of him.

Chapter Text

Wearing another’s face, another’s clothes, Arya slips seamlessly into situations where she doesn’t belong. She sweeps floors with chambermaids, traps rabbits with hunters, hikes to the frozen lakes and chisels holes in the ice with fishermen, and like now, scrubs pots and pans with the scullery maids. It provides her with whispers.

She knows Bran scares most folks--and that she scares them even more. She knows those who’ve survived both Theon and the Boltons see echoes of Ned and Catelyn in Jon and Sansa whenever they take their seats in the great hall or stride down the hallways or watch the courtyard from the battlements. She knows Northerners have warmed up to the Free Folk and that they share stories and songs, and knowledge in hunting, fishing, sewing, and brewing--they even share beds when the nights are cold and frightening, and desire burns deep in their bellies.

She knows most worry about Daenerys and the kind of queen she’ll make, and that, while the smallfolk always hunger for gossip about the fine lords and ladies they serve, the need for tidbits about the her is greatest of all. So when a chambermaid bursts into the kitchen and breathes out, “The Dragon Queen and the Imp are fighting,” everybody drops what they’re doing--even the cook’s steady hand stops chopping turnips--and huddles around the maid.

“I was minding my own business, sweeping the floors in the Imp’s chambers, when I heard them. Didn’t mean to pry, honestly I didn’t, but they were shouting so loud I couldn’t help but hear,” she says and Arya has no doubt the girl pressed her ear against the cold stone walls to hear better. “She’s accusing him of not being loyal! She says Queen Cersei’s never coming and he knew all along. She says everybody’s turning against her--even lady Missandei--and that no one in the North loves her even though she’s come to save them. She called us ungrateful! And he said maybe she better stop burning people alive, cos maybe then people would love her better. ‘My burning enemies has always been necessary,’ she said then and do you know what he said? Do you?”

Everybody in the kitchen leans forward, mouths open and breaths held in anticipation, and the maid’s eyes shines with glee.

“He said, ‘We’ve talked about this. You didn’t need to burn the Tarlys. At least not Dickon,’ he said. Tarly! That’s lord Sam’s name, isn’t it? Dickon Tarly, that’s his brother! The Dragon Queen burned King Jon’s best friend’s brother and I don’t think anyone knows!”

Arya rushes forward and grabs the maid by the arm. “Who else have you told?”

Frowning at Arya, the maid slips out of her grip. “What’s it to you?”

Arya grabs her arm again, so hard this time the maid whimpers out, “My sister, but that’s all.”

“Who’s your sister?”

“Lady Gilly’s chambermaid,” she whispers, eyes teary, and tugs her arm to get free. “I thought she should know.”

------

Like a shadow of the man she once slayed in this very room, Arya leans against the wall to better survey the spectacle in the great hall. While anger roils in the sea of people, insults and accusations showering down on a white-clad Dragon Queen whose chin is held high and expression haughty, Arya’s steeped in calm. This way she hears with her ears and sees with her eyes and she’ll be ready in case the crowd crashes up against the table where Jon and Sansa sit to wash them away in a flood of fury.

Sansa’s face is inscrutable, as always, but Jon looks as though a volcano rumbles within him and he’s using every ounce of strength he has to keep it from erupting. While most direct their ire at Daenerys, he’s getting his fair share as well with no one to defend him, not even little Lyanna Mormont.

Not even his siblings.

But like Arya, Sansa is ostensibly reading the room and waiting for the right moment to act, and Bran, well… Arya rushed to his chambers first for help, but he claimed he wouldn’t be needed and then his eyes rolled back in his head and he was gone to spy on the Night King or hone his skills or whatever it is he’s doing, and now here they are in disarray.

Finally, Jon slams his fist into the table and barks at the crowd to calm down. “You’ll all get your turn and we’ll listen to all your concerns, if”--he raises his hand to emphasize the word as he repeats it--” if you speak one at a time.”

Yohn Royce rises from his seat. “And if we don’t, Snow, shall we expect dragon fire to put us in our place?”

“I burned my enemies on the field of battle.” Daenerys’ voice is strong and clear and her gaze cold and unwavering. “I gave lord Tarly and his son a choice. They could join my cause or--”

“Burn?” Sam cries, so red and sweaty from anger his hair lies slicked against his forehead. “That’s not a choice. Kneel or die--what kind of Queen tells her subjects that and calls it a choice?”

“They weren’t my subjects. They were my enemies.”

“Then what does that make me?” Sam waits for a reply but gets nothing but a glare from her. He steps forward in anger and jolts when two Dothraki men draw their swords. It softens him instantly and in a gentler tone, he says, “You stole a husband and an heir from my mother, who’s now defenseless as winter comes and…”

Arya stops listening as his words conjure images in her mind of countless lifeless Frey bodies collapsed on tables and floor. How many widows did she create that night? How many fatherless children?

No, she can’t focus on that now. Shaking off the thought, she turns her attention back to the present.

“Sam cured ser Jorah from his greyscale,” Gilly says, clutching little Sam close to her body as though she’s scared someone will burn him too if she lets go. “He risked his own life to save ser Jorah so he could go back and serve you. And you murdered his father and brother.”

Daenerys folds her hands primly in her lap. “Ser Jorah had not yet returned to me and--”

“It shouldn’t matter!” Sam shouts. “You can’t go around setting people on fire because they don’t fall to their knees before you. Is that what you’ll do to us if we don’t submit? Will you burn us, Your Grace ?”

“No one’s getting burnt,” Jon says with a tired exhale. “What Daenerys--”

“Daenerys, is it?” lord Royce narrows his eyes at Jon. “How familiar. But then we should expect that, shouldn’t we? That you’ll marry your Targaryen aunt, as is your way, and rule over us with fire and blood.”

Lord Glover joins in. “How long have you known about your Targaryen blood, Snow? Before leaving Winterfell? Was it your plan all along, to give us up so you could sit on the Iron Throne with a Dragon and rule the Seven Kingdoms? Lord Commander wasn’t enough for you, nor Lord of Winterfell. Not even King in the North. You had your eye on a much bigger prize all along.”

“None of that is true,” Jon says. “You know it’s not.”

“Winter is here. Your people are cold and starving and you’ve handed them to a foreign invader who has no place in Westeros--no place at all! Why is she here?”

“I’m here to break the wheel.” Daenerys rises to her feet and her cold gaze turns blazing. “I’m here to unite the Seven Kingdoms the way I’ve united the Dothraki people into one single khalasar! I’m here to remove Cersei from the throne--or would you rather have her as your queen?”

“With respect, Your Grace,” Royce says, “we’d rather have lady Stark.”

Murmurs of agreements fill the hall, low at first, but bolstered by cups banging against tables, they soon rise strong. Daenerys pales to the color of her pristine dress, save the angry pink splotches on her cheeks, and Arya sneaks as close enough as she dares without it being conspicuous and while still being able to see the important players. Jon tries to defends Daenerys but is drowned out by the clamour. They call him Targaryen bastard, claims his loyalties lies with the Dragon Queen, that he aims to marry her, and other insults that all blend into an unpleasant cacophony--until Sansa manages to silence the whole crowd with the simple act of standing up.

Daenerys jaws tighten so hard her lips go white while Jon sinks into his chair like a defeated man.

“We’re all upset by these news,” Sansa says. “We’re all surprised. And our hearts ache for Samwell Tarly who did not deserve to lose his father and his brother.” Her gaze softens as she looks at him. “My deepest condolences, dear friend. If you’d rather leave with Gilly and little Sam to help your mother and sister, no one here would blame you.”

“I can’t leave now,” Sam says, “no matter how much I’d like to. I’m not a brave fighter like so many of you, but war is coming and I’m determined to help in defending us in any way I can.”

“Thank you.” Sansa smiles at Sam, then turns that smile to Jon, who looks more than a little befuddled. “And thank you, Jon. I have not forgotten your words the day we chose you for our king. I know you’ll never stop fighting for us, that you’ll do anything in your power to defend and protect us--even when it means bending the knee to a new queen.” She faces the crowd once more. “Jon didn’t go to Dragonstone with the intention of giving up our independence. He never aimed to betray us. He hasn’t betrayed us. He’s protected us, because protecting us is his duty. And because Jon takes his duty seriously, we now have an even more powerful protector: our queen, Daenerys of house Targaryen.”

Arya has no idea how Sansa manages to beam at Daenerys, but beam she does--despite the watchful look Daenerys gives her.

“A queen needs to be adored by her subjects and feared by her enemies, and is Daenerys Targaryen not that queen? She risks her own life, the life of her dragons, and the Iron Throne that is her birth right, to protect us. When ser Jaime appeared without his armies, she could’ve left Winterfell to defeat Cersei, but she didn’t. Our Queen is still here, by our side, because she already sees us as her people and she believes in protecting her people. So if she will stand by us as we fight the White Walkers, why shouldn’t we stand by her once we win?”

The confused crowd before her looks to one another for help in how to react, searching for a consensus or even a leader whose example they can follow. Lord Royce quickly fills that spot.

“Pretty words, my lady,” he says, “but no amount of pretty words can conceal how strange it is that the foreign conqueror our king bent the knee to turns out to be his aunt. A Targaryen aunt, no less.”

Lyanna Mormont stands. “I might be young, but even I have heard whispers about the intimate nature of their relationship. Is there any truth to that? Will Jon Snow marry Daenerys Targaryen?”

“Of course not,” Sansa says. “As Warden of the North, he will marry a daughter of the North. He belongs here .”

“My lady,” lord Glover says, “no man in his right mind would give his daughter to Jon Snow. I promise you that.” The rest of the men in the hall hum, nodding at one another. “I’d rather see him on trial for treason, and I’m not alone in that, I assure you. If he’s plotted to give away the North to his aunt, he deserves to pay for his crimes.”

Once more, the crowd murmurs their agreement. Sansa’s eyelashes flutter and Arya’s certain she can see the slightest tremble of her lips. But then Sansa presses her lips together, swallows, and grabs Jon’s hand, pulling him to his feet--and Arya understands well enough what’s coming that her heart plummets in her chest and lands deep in the pit of her stomach.

“No one will need to give away their daughter,” Sansa says, “for Jon Snow will marry me.”

The collective gasp of the crowd sucks the air out of the room, and for a moment everyone is very, very still, and very very quiet--so quiet Arya can hear the creaking of floorboards as someone shifts their weight, the crackling of chandeliers above, the singing of a dragon soaring in the distance, and the brushing of skin against skin as Jon’s thumb caresses Sansa’s knuckles in a comforting movement.

Lord Royce clears his throat and steps closer, speaking gently. “My lady. Surely, you’re not serious.”

“I am.” Sansa glances at Jon who nods faintly. “We are.”

“A Targaryen ?” lord Glover shows his displeasure with a grimace, and his obvious disgust at the match revitalises the crowd, people whispering amongst themselves, aghast, as he speaks. “We supported Snow when we believed him to be Ned Stark’s son, but a Targaryen bastard? You shouldn’t feel forced to marry that , my lady, when we have many strong Northern sons, from honorable noble houses, for you to choose from. The Lady of Winterfell deserves better than Rhaegar Targaryen’s bastard. We cannot let you do this. We will not.”

He looks for support among the other Northern lords, and they all cheer him on. Some even draw attention to themselves by puffing up their chests and flexing their strong arms as to say they wouldn’t mind being that strong and noble Northerner who gets to wed the beautiful Sansa Stark.

“But I’m not,” Jon says, low enough in the din that Arya’s not certain whether he actually spoke until he continues. “I’m not a bastard,” he says, and once the din has simmered down, he says it even louder, but he still keeps his eyes down as though he’s trying to convince himself as much as them. “I’m not a bastard. My… mother and father wed before I was born. On her deathbed, my mother gave my real name to my uncle. To Ned Stark. She told him my name is Aegon Targaryen.”

The reveal leaves everyone with eyes as wide as their gaping mouths--everyone except Daenerys, whose eyes narrow and mouth thins into a pale line.

“No, you’re wrong,” she says, “my brother was already married.”

“It’s true, Your Grace,” Sam says. “I read the records when I was at the Citadel. Rhaegar Targaryen had his first marriage annulled so he could marry Lyanna Stark. Gilly read it too,” he adds and Gilly nods emphatically. "I have the book in my possession if you want proof."

Varys, who’s usually either simpering or simply looking bored, now eyes Jon with fascination. “But, if this is true, it would make you, Jon Snow, the rightful heir to the Iron Throne.”

“Aye.” Jon nods slowly, and Daenerys fingers curl so forcefully around her armrest Arya’s sure it’ll leave marks, but she doesn’t say a word. “But my place is here,” he continues, addressing his people, “in the North. And our Queen’s place is on the Iron Throne. Do you honestly believe I would give up my birthright to a woman I’d just met if I didn’t believe in what she can accomplish?”

He gives them a moment to ponder his words. Some murmur amongst themselves, others mutter under their breaths, but Lyanna Mormont stays quiet, her eyes moving from Daenerys, to Sansa, to Jon, and back again, as though she’ll find the answers to her questions in their demeanour if only she looks hard enough. And perhaps she does, perhaps she understands, all of her own, how Sansa and Jon have struggled to keep Daenerys at Winterfell to protect them all, for suddenly she rises to speak.

“Jon Snow is Warden of the North. Lady Stark is the Lady of Winterfell. They are cousins. He’s the nephew of the Queen who will sit on the Iron Throne, which gives the North an advantage. I’m not a romantic. I don’t believe in marrying for love; I believe in sensible matches that form alliances--and I know a sensible match when I see it. This a sensible match.”

“But a Targaryen in Winterfell,” lord Glover protests.

“Our marriage,” Sansa says, squeezing Jon’s hand which she still hasn’t dropped, “will heal old wounds. It will bring the North and the South together, like my father intended when he promised me to Joffrey Baratheon. You all knew my father. Don’t you think he would’ve arranged a marriage between myself and Jon had Jon grown up with his own parents? Don’t you think he’d be happy and grateful to see his daughter finally married to a good and honourable man?”

Tyrion shifts uneasily in his chair, staring into the wine goblet so often found in his hand when there’s a cup of ale in everybody else’s, but then he hops down on the floor and gestures with the goblet as he speaks. “Lady Mormont is wise beyond her years. If Lady Stark were to wed her cousin, Jon Snow, he would be Jon Snow no more, and”--he glances at Daenerys--“neither would he be Aegon Targaryen. He’d be Jon Stark and, as the Warden of the North, he’d stay at Winterfell where he belongs. A very sensible match, indeed.”

His pauses, seemingly gauging the crowd, and when he notices a few people nodding along, he continues while wandering the floor, “A wedding is a happy occasion--and we need those now more than ever. I think last night proved that, didn’t it? Many friendships formed that night, and many more will form during the wedding feast. Here’s to the happy couple”--Tyrion raises his goblet--”may they have many fat children and may their wedding take place soon so that we can all get properly drunk before we go off to fight the dead.”

“And so we can get a proper bedding ceremony before the war,” someone in the crowd shouts.

Jon’s lips pull up in a snarl, but before he can say a word, Brienne flies to her feet and stares down the crowd with her hand demonstratively on the pommel of Oathkeeper. “There will be no bedding ceremony. If anyone of you as much as think about touching lady Stark, you’ll have to answer to me.”

At first they’re all silent, the atmosphere stifling, but then someone breaks it by joking about what a fierce beauty ser Jaime’s landed and how he must fight to gain entry to her bed. Soon more jokes follow and no one seems to think about burned Tarlys or scheming Targaryens, instead revelling in how the uncomfortable tension crumbles beneath their japes and laughter.

Arya does not relax, though, because underneath the pretty smile Daenerys has plastered on her pretty face, Arya sees the scorching flames of jealousy, and she knows her sister will need her now more than ever.

Chapter Text

The green one lies on his usual hill outside Winterfell. Sometimes he flies away for a good while, leaving a patch of sodden green behind that’s always white again once he returns with his belly filled with… well, who knows what. Who knows how much food it takes, and what kind, to keep a dragon satiated.

Sansa can’t see him from the godswood, but she feels his presence nonetheless--the news about the Tarlys made the threat of his flames all the more real. It was such an abstract concept before, being burned alive. An unpleasant thought, yes, but she never actually imagined what it must be like to stand in front of a dragon as it opens its mouth, seeing fire bloom within the depths of its maw, and feeling the heat of the flames long before they lick your body. She never wondered before this how long a person is stuck in searing agony before the flames claim their life.

Now it’s all she can think of because after all her careful acting, she’s made herself the rival of the only woman in the world who can set someone ablaze with a single word.

This is fear talking , Sansa thinks. I’m not being rational. Daenerys wouldn’t burn Jon’s sister. Not even if he married her.

Once people were trickling out of the great hall, Jon tugged Sansa close enough to whisper in her ear. By then, his hand was clammy and his face sallow, as though the prospect of marrying her stole all the warmth from his body.

“I need to speak with Sam,” he said. “Then I’ll come to your solar.”

From his tone, she knew they wouldn’t have a pleasant conversation, and her stomach swoops uncomfortably when she remembers the set of his jaw and the dark look in his eyes. But then she did trick him into marrying her in a way, didn’t she? What must he think of her?

Taking a deep breath, she lets cold air turn the shame still simmering within her into ice.

Was it ever this difficult for her father, for her mother, to rule Winterfell? Did they ever feel this bone tired, this powerless in their own home? Sansa wants to sit in a patch of sunlight spilling in through the window, with fabric, needle, and thread in her lap, and a plate of lemon cakes waiting for her in the kitchens. She wants to look up from her work and find children throwing snowballs in the courtyard instead of training with swords and staves. She wants some peace and quiet instead of this constant rushing between messes to clean up and impending disasters to avert.

Snow crunches under boots and she whirls around with her heart in her throat and Jon’s name on her tongue, but it’s not. It’s Lord Royce, whose stony face reveals nothing of his intentions.

“Oh, you frightened me.”

“Pardon, my lady, I was wondering whether I may have a word. In private.”

She glances up at the castle, as though she can see through the walls whether a fuming Jon’s already in her solar. “Of course.”

Royce leads her deeper into the quiet godswood, surveying the area to ensure the only thing that mars the beautiful blanket of snow is animal tracks. She ponders how to play the game, how to answer the questions she’s certain he’ll ask without giving anything important away. Every so often when she notices his face in the crowd, or when he walks by her side as she performs her duties as Lady of Winterfell, she thinks about that day so long ago, now, when she spun a tale about a protective uncle by marriage, an innocent kiss, and a suicidal aunt. Does lord Royce ever think of that? Has that memory rested in the back of his mind until now, when it reminded him of her sly nature?

Perhaps he doesn’t want this lying Lady Stark for his queen after all. Perhaps he doesn’t even want her for his Lady of Winterfell--and if he doesn’t, none of the other lords will.

“My lady.” When he clears his throat, she tampers down the urge to do the same to her own constricted throat. “Let me apologise.”

“Apologise?”

“It struck me that I have been most blind. I watched you endure Baelish whispering in your ear for many, many months while holding him at arm’s length when anyone could see the man wanted you. I listened to your lies--”

“My lord, I’m so--”

“No.” He holds his hand up to stop her. “ I’m the one apologising. I’m an old man, my lady, and while I’m not one for playing games, I’ve spent enough time with politicians to know why you lied then. And, it pains me to admit, I have no excuse as to why I did not realise much sooner why you lie now. No one who fought so valiantly to reclaim the North, like you and your… cousin did, would give it up so easily. I let my fear and disappointment get the better of me when someone as experienced as I am know how much we need those dragons and those armies if we want to survive the Great War and slay those things that murdered my son. When that’s the case, you do what you can to form and keep an alliance, do you not?”

“We do need her. Her and her dragons.”

“I thought as much.” He allows himself a rare smile. “Am I then to assume you have a plan on how to proceed once the war is won? Like you had with that pest Baelish.”

“I will do my best to protect the North from harm. Any harm.”

“Very good, my lady. I have quite some influence with the other lords, and I’ll make sure no more trouble rises from us. Not even regarding this wedding… if you can swear to me Jon Snow is a trustworthy sort of fellow. A Targaryen cannot be trusted, after all.”

“You were good friends with my father, my lord. My father raised Jon. When he was still alive, there was no man I trusted more than my father. Now there’s no man I trust more than Jon.”

“Well, then. You are cousins. It’s perfectly legal in the eyes of the law and in the eyes of the Gods. Anything else, well, that is your private matter.”

He can’t hide his true feelings about the unconventional union, but she knows him for a man of his word and she does believe him, that he’ll respect her and support her.

“You’ve been a good and loyal friend to me and my house, my lord. Thank you.”

“It’s my duty, my lady.” He bows and turns, but as he’s about the leave, pauses and turns back around. “I was a good friend of your father’s,” he says. “You learn a great deal about a man when you hunt together...” He nods to himself. “He’d be proud of you, my lady. I have no doubt.”

Before she can reply, he leaves her alone in the godswood with nothing for company but her stinging eyes and a heartfelt, desperate wish that his words are true. That both her father and mother would look at her now with pride and understanding.

Then a flurry of black brushes past her shoulder. A crow, flying toward the castle, as though it’s telling her to hurry up and meet Jon.

As she walks across the courtyard where people work and train, she ignores all the looks they give her. She doesn’t need Arya to know what occupies their minds. She sees and hears enough herself to know that talking about Lady Stark marrying her once-brother--and a possible prince--is much more interesting than talking about some random lord they never met burning to a crisp.

When she steps inside her solar, Jon shoots up from the chair he sat on. A fire crackles in the fireplace and she peels off her gloves and warms her fingers in front of it just to have something to do. His gaze tears at her back, begging her to turn around, but she ignores it until her fingers feel soft and flexible.

“How was Sam?”

“Gilly wouldn’t let me in. He was writing his mother and sister.”

“Are you worried he won’t understand?”

“Of course I’m worried!”

“You’re angry with me.”

“Nothing escapes you, Lady Stark.”

She turns around and drops her gloves on her desk. Had he been anyone else, she would’ve sat down, shown him that, yes, she is Lady Stark and this is her domain, but she doesn’t need that with Jon.

“Why?” she asks instead.

“Why? You’re wondering why ?” He stalks over to her, brow knitted and eyes aflame. “Why do you think? You told all of Winterfell we’re to marry! There’s no getting out of that!”

“You told me you wanted to!”

“No! I told you I would . And I will. I’ll do anything you ask of me, but I’m not going to be happy about it!”

“I don’t need you to be happy about it. I just need you to do it!”

“I already said I will!”

It does something strange to her body, his demeanour, something like fear but it’s not. Oh, it’s really not. When his cheeks flush and his chest heaves with breaths and his eyes shine like that, it’s not anger she sees. It’s-- No. She squeezes her eyes shut and focuses on her breathing, slowing it down and hoping her racing heart will follow.

“Sansa.” His voice is tender now, speaking to the terrified little bird she must look like, but he doesn’t do what dangerous men often do when they try to convince you of how very safe they are. He doesn’t invade her space, doesn’t stroke her arm or cup her cheek or tilt her face up with two fingers under her chin. “What’s wrong?”

She opens her eyes and finds him a little hunched before her, as though he’s making himself even smaller, even less imposing, but beneath his gentle smile hides a nervousness she’s never seen in him before--as though she’s not a terrified bird at all but a terrifying beast he must placate. But what could she have possibly done to make him feel nervous?

“You’re usually not done yelling this quickly.” He breathes out in a grin that fails to be fully convincing. “You’re supposed to tell me it’s all my fault. If I hadn’t ruined everything, you wouldn’t have had to save me by marrying me. Go on. Yell at me a little.”

“I’m tired of fighting,” she says, putting distance between them. He watches her move, then adds to the distance himself until you could easily fit two direwolves between them. “I have too, you know. Fought. Ever since I left home. Not on the battlefield like you, but I have.”

“I know you have. I wish I could make it all go away, Sansa. I would if I could.” He gives her a sad, crooked smile. “But I only seem to make thing worse, don’t I?”

“Yohn Royce came to see me. He told me he supports us and will make sure the other lords do as well.”

Jon breathes out his relief. “That’s good. We’ll need him on the battlefield.”

“Yes. And afterwards. Jon”--she moves closer again, speaking quietly--”he’s seen through our ruse. He knows. And he wanted to know what will happen once the war is over. I do as well. We won’t be able to march South, even if we wanted. We’ll be broken and tired and cold. Our armies will be decimated. And then there’s winter… Are we staying here, all of us, wintering at Winterfell? I don’t have the supplies for that, and with those dragons eating all the wildlife, will there be any game left in our woods?”

“I don’t know, Sansa. I’ve not thought that far.”

“No,” she says with a sigh, “you haven’t. But someone has to. I wish you’d told me sooner. About the Tarlys, about Daenerys, about all of it. It would’ve given me time to do things properly instead of improvising solutions on the spot.”

“I know. I’m so sorry, Sansa. You shouldn’t have to marry me. It’s not right. It’s not fair. You deserve so much better--”

“No.” She doesn’t realise she’s stepping into his personal space until he flinches. He doesn’t shy away, though, but his reaction steals the strength in her voice. It’s barely above a whisper as she says, “Marriage terrifies me--it does--but not with you.”

Jon’s eyes searches her face, drops down to her lips, but there’s no warmth there, and his tense shoulders are raised, his brows tugged together. He’s guarded. Worried. Disgusted?

“You respect me in a way no other man has,” she says, speaking so quickly she stumbles over the words. “You’ll never touch me against my will. I know you won’t. You’ll--”

“But one day you’ll want to be touched, Sansa, and you won’t want that to be me. You’ll want children--you should have children--but not with me.”

His tone carries no accusatory notes--he sounds tired more than anything--and yet her cheeks burn with shame.

“It’s not right. None of it. Not the way...” he trails off, shaking his head. “I don’t know who I am anymore.”

“You’re Jon.” By giving him a warm and kind smile, she tries to lure one out of him--but it would be easier to lure a smile from the statues in the crypt. “You’ve always been Jon and you’ll always be Jon.”

He rubs his hand over his heart, where the scar must be. “I’m not the same. I’m wrong, I’m broken. I don’t know what she did to me, the Red Woman, or her god, or whatever it was that made me come back, but I didn’t come back right.”

“What do you mean?”

His body is turned halfway away from her now, and when he looks at her, it’s a glance through the corner of his eyes that merely skirts her before skittering away. “You heard them, didn’t you? You must’ve.”

“Who?”

Jon’s exhale is so heavy his whole body sags.

Before he can clarify, a knock on the door interrupts them and he springs alive, practically bounding to the door and flinging it open. Missandei stands outside, ever smiling, and asks him to follow her to Daenerys’ chambers. He’s out of the door in an instant, without saying goodbye, without even looking at Sansa, and she drops down in her chair, staring into nothing--until she realises she doesn’t have time to sit and brood. She has a wedding to arrange, a dress to sew, and a castle to run.

Chapter Text

Daenerys watches Tyrion pour a goblet full of his precious red. Of all her court, he was the only one who settled down once they were safely inside the chambers she’s called home for far too many and hopelessly uneventful days. Ser Jorah lingers by the door with Grey Worm. Missandei looks attentive but blinks too often and doesn’t let her eyes stray to Grey Worm at all when they so often do otherwise. And Varys… He has his hands tucked into his sleeves like the pious man Daenerys knows he’s not, and wears an insultingly serene expression when the rest of them wear their worry plainly.

It takes all her effort to keep her voice low and steady in this horrible place where walls have ears and gossip spreads like the plague.

“I’m wasting my time up here. I’m flying to the Red Keep and I’m taking the throne from Cersei. Tyrion, you’ll join me. If you think you can manage to let go of that wine for long enough to ride on Drogon’s back without falling off.”

Tyrion looks up from his pouring, spilling wine on the table like an actor in a mummer’s farce. “Your Grace?”

She lets him see the feelings of distaste he evokes in her and it drives him to put down the carafe and rest his hands in his lap. While once under control, his drinking has become quite the problem since their arriving at Winterfell. “A man used to warmth and pretty girls in thin dresses doesn’t thrive in the dreary and cold North where he’s more likely to score fermented goat’s milk from a wildling than Dornish red, and all the girls hide their figures beneath pelts and wool,” he told her.

She doubts that’s the whole truth. It’s his family; she’s certain of it. Despite all she’s done for him, pulling him up from the muck his family had shoved him into, cleaning him off, and giving him the coveted position as her Hand, loyalty to the Lannister name lingers. Guilt tugs at him whenever the wine leaves his body, so he keeps a steady flow to wash it out.

“You’re not a warrior.” She stares him down, but keeps her face impassive now, and she can’t help the little thrill looping in her stomach when he shrinks down in his seat. “You’re not a commander. No one here likes a Lannister. You’re no good to me at Winterfell. You would be in King’s Landing--unless you’d rather see your sister on the throne?”

“Of course not, Your Grace, but--”

“Good. You will rule in my stead when I return to avenge Viserion and save the ungrateful North.” She lets her gaze linger on him until he remembers who’s in charge, then turns to address the others. “Ser Jorah, you will protect Tyrion and remain in King’s Landing until I return. Missandei, you shall be Tyrion’s advisor.”

Missandei’s eyes dart to Grey Worm, lashes fluttering, before looking back at Daenerys. “As you wish, My Queen,” she says, disintegrating any fears Daenerys might’ve had of her dear friend choosing a boy over her.

Tyrion slides out of his chair. “Your Grace, we’ve discussed this. It’s not a great idea--”

“You criticise my ideas when your ideas has got me nowhere?” She takes a step forward, driving him back into his seat. “I’m done listening to you; it’s time you listen to me.”

Varys approaches with slightly bowed head and an expression he must think is meek, but her piercing glare stops him.

“Did you not hear me?”

“Your Grace, I was about to tell you you’re right.”

“Oh.” Daenerys lets her shoulders drop and straightens her posture with a benevolent smile, nodding her consent for him to continue.

“You are right,” he says, walking closer again. “Tyrion Lannister has no friends in the North. Nor have I. Oh, little birds fly wherever I go, but friends? No. Missandei has no friends. Grey Worm has no friends. Not even ser Jorah has any friends left. You do, though. You have Jon Snow--”

Aegon Targaryen, you mean.”

She scoffs and turns to pace the room, hiding how her jaw tenses up at the mention of Jon. This man who shrouded his nefarious intentions behind a veil of honor only to spring the truth on her in front of everyone and make her look the fool for ever trusting in him and his feelings. If it is the truth, this story about an annulled marriage and secret baby. The memory of it sets her blood aflame, pushing her to act, but she refuses to let it eat away at her composure, refuses to let it blind her from the true goal. Instead she breathes deeply through her nose and slips into the detached version of herself she’s honed over the years since earning her first khalasar.

When she speaks again, her voice is calm and collected and her hands tightly clasped in front of her. “Is there any truth to that? Rhaegar marrying Lyanna Stark. Or is my brother’s bastard trying to take what is rightfully mine?”

Varys gives a little shrug. “I do remember a few rumors of Lyanna coming willingly, but it’s hard to say. But I doubt a man who disliked being King in the North so much he shed that title at first convenience would steal your throne. In truth, Jon Snow is your ally, your nephew, your… intimate friend?”

He pauses as though he’s looking for confirmation, but she merely stares at him until he continues.

“Unfortunately, he’s losing friends and allies by the second because of it. Those lords chose Jon for their king because they believed he’d protect their independence. And instead, Jon fell in love with a foreign queen and handed her his kingdom on a silver platter.”

“Is that what the lords believe? He’s marrying his sister, not me.”

“He’s marrying her because she realized he was losing their support and this was her way of saving him. They’ve all heard the rumors, Your Grace. About you and Jon Snow. If you leave before his wedding, how do you think that will look?”

“Like I had a throne to take back.”

Tyrion shakes his head. “Like a woman who abandons them in their hour of need because she is scorned in love.”

“Scorned in love?” She shows her amusement at his ridiculous statement with a smirk. “My bed was cold and empty and he filled it. That’s all.”

“Perhaps your heart is difficult to catch, Your Grace,” Varys says, “but anyone with eyes can see Jon handed his heart to you long ago.”

“If he loved me so, he would’ve told me who he was sooner.”

“I won’t pretend I know much about matters of the heart, but I can’t help but wonder... If a man loves a woman, loves her so much he risked alienating his own people, his own family , to be near her, would he also risk losing her love by telling her the only thing she wants in this world is his by right of birth?”

Daenerys’ brow furrows as she goes over his words. “He’d have nothing left. Nothing but enemies.”

“Perhaps he hoped he’d never have to tell you. To keep your love, he’d keep his secret.”

“And then his sister forced his hand,” she fills in. “This Queen in the North nonsense”--Daenerys turns to Tyrion now--”will anything come of it? Does Sansa Stark desire a crown? You knew her in King’s Landing. What was she like?”

“Oh,” Varys says, “nothing but a sweet, innocent little girl. I often--”

Daenerys shuts him up with a mere look before turning back to her Hand. “Tyrion?”

Tyrion, who was watching Varys with pity in his eyes, lifts his gaze to Daenerys and nods. “Varys is right. She was as empty-headed as she was pretty.”

“That’s cruel,” Daenerys says, yet she can’t stop a smile from touching her lips. “You shouldn’t speak that way about lady Stark. What else?”

“She loved songs of brave knights rescuing princesses. She believed that beauty begets kindness, and hideousness cruelty. The usual things little girls want to believe. She never understood the real world, the politics of court, how deceit hides in all things sweet.”

“And you have reason to believe she’s still this naive little girl?”

“I haven’t seen any evidence of the contrary.”

“Really.” Daenerys purses her lips. “The same Sansa Stark who was cunning enough to save Jon Snow by marriage? A man who now claims he’s the true heir of the Seven Kingdoms. If she’s such an empty-headed thing, if she truly didn’t harbor a secret desire to steal the throne from me, how did she think of that plan?”

“You know her history,” Varys says. “All the men she’s been promised to or forced to marry, all because they wanted the North and she was the key to it.”

Daenerys nods, remembering another naive little girl who learned the hard way what family name and high birth mean to men. But she changed, she grew, she learned. Why would Sansa be different? “It’s all she knows. I understand that. But why should I trust it’s as simple as that?”

“As I said earlier, little birds fly everywhere. I’m told, once Jon left, they offered her the position and she turned it down. If Sansa Stark wanted to be Queen in the North, she would have been moons ago.”

“Moons…” Daenerys shakes her head in frustration. “I could’ve been Queen of the Seven Kingdoms moons ago if only I’d listened to Yara Greyjoy instead of all of you. I’ll take King’s Landing with fire and blood. I’ll fly back North. And after I’ve killed the Night King, if anyone here is foolish enough to refuse me as their queen, I know what makes men bend the knee instantly.”

Tyrion scoots off his chair and sidles up to her, speaking softly, “But what about Jon, Your Grace?”

“What about Jon?”

“You might get the lords to bend the knee by burning a couple of them. But you’ll lose Jon’s respect and his love.”

“Jon has made his choice. He wants to be a Stark. He’s marrying his sister.”

“Isn’t that a good thing?” Ser Jorah says gingerly. “If they have children, you can have heirs.”

Heirs?” Daenerys all but shouts. The thought of Sansa Stark’s children on  her  throne, taking care of herdragons, almost thaws the careful cool she’s wrapped herself in. “Why is everyone so concerned about what happens after I die?”

“I was married to Sansa Stark once,” Tyrion says, then, in an aloof tone, gesturing with a hand that’s clearly missing the weight of a filled goblet. “I’m not anymore, though, and do you know why? It was a sham marriage. Never consummated. Easily annulled.”

“You doubt they’ll consummate their marriage?”

“Of course they won’t. Does anyone truly believe the honorable Jon Snow would lie with his own sister in their Father’s bed?

Varys tuts. ”After everything that poor girl’s been through as well… No, that marriage won’t be consummated, and once the war is over and everybody’s grateful for those who slayed the White Walkers, Jon will be free to marry whomever he pleases.”

To think in peace, Daenerys walks to the fireplace, toying with one of the trinkets decorating the mantlepiece, an ivory dragon presented to her by a merchant wanting to please her. It’s a pretty thing, and she likes the smooth feel of it against her finger tips. She’s seen the looks Jon sends Sansa’s way, but desire doesn’t have to mean love. And while most men wouldn’t hesitate to touch their beautiful bride no matter the age or birth, Jon isn’t like most men. If he’s managed to reject her, his aunt, why wouldn’t he reject his sister?

“I won’t fly to King’s Landing,” she says, slowly, testing out the words to see how they feel, and when she hears several breaths of relief being drawn, quickly adds, “Yet. I will stay for the wedding. I will celebrate and give my support and kiss my new niece on the cheek. And then, unless the Night King’s managed to reach Winterfell, I will go to King’s Landing. That’s final. Missandei? Bring me Jon Snow. I need a word with him. In private.”

Still with her back to them, she listens as they leave one by one until only one remain. She can hear their soft breathing and the brush of skin against fabric as they fidget.

Daenerys sighs. “What is it?”

“My Queen, before I go,” Missandei says and her voice is so small and gentle, Daenerys settles down in one of the chairs and motions to Missandei to join her.

“Thank you,” Missandei says as she sits down. “I have heard many rumors today, about the same events. I’ve heard Drogon swallowed whole armies alive. I’ve heard you let him play with lord Tarly and his son before burning them in front of everyone to frighten them into submission. I’ve heard--”

“And you believe them?”

“Of course not. Those stories speak of a cruel woman, and the woman I’ve chosen to follow is not cruel. She is Mhysa. The Breaker of Chains… I heard more rumors, though. About myself… and you.”

“Oh?” Daenerys arches a brow, smirking. “How salacious. Do tell!”

“No.” Missandei ducks her head, blushing prettily. “Not those kind of rumors. The rumors told of your disappointment in me. Or, if I were to listen to the more cruel rumors, your doubting my loyalty. Your fear that I’m scheming behind your back. One rumor even suggested I have… relations, with lord Snow.”

Daenerys lets out a puff of laughter. “With Jon? That’s preposterous.”

“It is.” Missandei’s earnest expression shifts into a smile. “A most ridiculous rumor. But even so, if I’ve given you reason to doubt my loyalties by speaking of a private dream, I can’t apologize enough. I aim to serve My Queen for as long as you’ll want me. It was a dream, nothing more.”

“You’re allowed to dream. I’m leading you through war, Missandei. It’s only natural for you to fantasise about a different life." Daenerys leans closer, keeping both gaze and voice tender. "We’ve been through so much together, dear friend. I would never doubt you.”

“Thank you, Your Grace. Thank you.”

“If there was nothing else, please find Jon.” Daenerys lowers her voice, speaking through a smirk, “And no indecent behavior on your way here.”

Missandei beams now, the tension drained from her body, and she leaves the room with light steps.

 

As Daenerys waits for Jon, she stands by the window to rest her eyes on a world of white. A crow who’d been stealing warmth on her window sill unfurls his wings and flaps away. She watches his journey through the light snowfall, how he weaves between obstacles only visible to a bird’s eyes, until hers land on Rhaegal lying on his usual hill. While Drogon keeps close, soaring above Winterfell where he can keep an eye on his mother, Rhaegal often leaves for hours at a time. Despite his frequent absence, she’s never felt closer to him. While she’s trapped in obligations, he takes to the skies and flies free for her.

Before arriving, she imagined her time at Winterfell would be spent differently, that she and Jon would walk the hallways arm in arm. Betrothed. It’s why she left Daario behind, after all, to form a marriage alliance--and who better than the Warden of the North? Then Samwell Tarly and that strange little brother of Jon’s told him about his father. And while the news made him an even better match than before in her eyes, Jon pulled away. Since then, they’ve barely been alone together. In fact, save a short moment in the crypt they haven’t been alone in a room at all.

On her bed lies furs she once saw him sleep on, naked and satiated. He came to her bed. He was the one so overcome by emotion he had to stop to gaze upon her, to drink in the beauty of her, while breathing like a man driven by a desperate need. A need for her, Daenerys Targaryen. Perhaps he doesn’t trust himself alone with her, eager to feel her moving beneath him again, to cup her flesh in his palms. She closes her eyes and thinks back on the few times they’ve made love, the heat of him inside her, and when Jon finally arrives, she’s flushed from imagining all the things they’ve yet to do.

He walks into her chambers without a word, and when he sees the hunger in her eyes, he stills. His nostrils flare as though the wolf in him can smell her desire, and there’s a moment when she swears she can hear him deliberating with himself, whether to give into lust or suppress his need for her.

Feet barely touching the floor, she moves to him and lays her hands on his chest, looking up into his eyes the way his sister never can. “You’re marrying Sansa,” she murmurs.

“Aye. To keep the lords’ support.”

“What else would you do to keep their support?” She plays with the straps of his jerkin, tongue darting out to wet her lips. “Lie about your feelings for me?”

Jon’s jaw tightens and he swallows, but he doesn't push her away.

“There’s no one in here to lie to, though. We’re all alone.” She presses a kiss to his neck, the pulse point throbbing against her lips. “I can be very very quiet,” she whispers into his ear. “Would you like that? Would you like me quiet?” When sucks his earlobe into her mouth, a shiver run through his body and his hands fly to her waist, anchoring her to him, and she smiles against his skin because his body says what his lips refuse. “You almost made me doubt you today. I almost left. But I can feel how much you want me.”

And there it is again, that heavy breathing, violent almost, that betrays his true feelings for her and suddenly her back is pressed against the wall and his lips are on hers and he’s kissing her like a starved man who’s spent days yearning for a woman just out of his reach. His fingers dig into her upper arms to the point of delicious pain, and she wants more of it, wants him to mark her skin with the evidence of his passion for her. Wants to leave hers on his, rake her nails down his back and give his body scars of pleasure to rival the ones of betrayal.

But as she tugs at his breeches, Jon stumbles back. His dark eyes watches her with something akin to shock, as though he can’t believe he failed in controlling his lustful self, and he wipes off the feeling of their bruising kiss by dragging his hand over his mouth.

“My,” she purs, closing the distance between them, “abstinence becomes you, Jon.”

“I’m marrying Sansa.”

“Yes, to appease your people. And any other man wouldn’t hesitate to bed her, but I know you, and you’re not planning on consummating that marriage, are you?”

His brow knits and a tremor goes through his lips. “Of course not. I could never touch her.”

She keeps their eyes locked, and lets her hands drop to grip his hips, keeping his body flush against hers. “Sometimes I wonder whether I’m a fool for staying here, wasting so much time...” She smiles up at Jon. “But I’ll stay for your sham wedding. I’ll show you my support and play the happy aunt, while you play the happy groom. And once the war’s over, well… I’m told unconsummated marriages can easily be set aside.”

“You want to annul my marriage to Sansa?”

“Don’t you?” She kisses the corner of his mouth. “We belong together, Jon. You and I. The last Targaryens. I can walk unscathed through fire; you can rise from the dead. Once we defeat the Night King, the people of Westeros will worship us. They’ll sing about us. In a hundred years' time, they'll sing of how the god of ice loved the goddess of fire. We’ll be legends.”

“We’re not like everyone else.

“No, we're not. So how could we ever be with anyone else?” Her body still wants him, but when she tries leading him to her bed, he resists. “You disagree?”

“After the war,” he says. “After the annulment. I don’t care if it’s a sham marriage. Sansa deserves a faithful husband, even if I’ll only be hers for a few days.”

“Ever so honorable,” Daenerys says with a sigh of disappointment. “I can't say I like it, but I do respect it. And after the war, you belong to me.”

Glancing at her bed, Jon sighs too and nods. “I already do.”

He leaves her then, with the heat still raging through her body, the way no other man would ever dare to, and it makes her want him even more. Alone, she curls up under the covers and helps herself peak with Jon’s name on her lips and the sweet memories of him in her mind. After the war, he'll be hers for true. She can wait.

Chapter Text

“Did it help?” Bran looks calmly at Arya. “Did it answer your questions?”

While Bran shared what he saw through the eyes of a crow, she played with the Valyrian steel dagger, twirling it from hand to hand. But now, as she mulls over his narration, she presses the pad of her thumb against the blade until a droplet of blood appears. Bran’s crow flew off before Jon showed up in Daenerys’ chambers, but she doesn’t doubt the nature of the conversation.

On the surface, Daenerys and Littlefinger are entirely different people. While he slunk through the world, keeping to the shadows, she storms through it, always in the light. But both leave chaos in their wake, tearing houses and whole worlds apart, so does it matter that he did it with a whisper in a carefully chosen ear while she does it shouting from a dragon’s back for all to hear?

That Daenerys wants to leave for King’s Landing surprises Arya little. The Queen’s desire for the throne clouding her judgment was, after all, the reason why Arya sought out her own personal spy immediately following the meeting.

“I feel like I have more questions now,” she says.

“Tell me. I might be able to help.”

Training taught her how to lead an opponent where she wanted them by avoiding their blows, dancing around them on light feet instead of listening to instinct telling her to lash out now now now. The way Varys and Tyrion weaved their words into a silk net around their gullible queen reminded her of that, but she doesn’t know why they did it.

They’ve played the game for far too long to buy Sansa’s innocent act, but are they only telling the Queen what she wants to hear to stay in her good graces?

“What do you know about Varys? Have you visited his past?”

“I have, a little. He appeared now and then when I went back to watch lord Baelish.”

Arya pulls a face. “They were friends.”

“No. He was a friend of Father’s, though, as much as a man like Varys has friends.”

“Father?”

“He disguised himself so he could visit Father in the dungeons. He tried to help him.”

Arya averts her eyes, avoiding how mentioning their father fails to warm up Bran’s blank face. “He’s not loyal to Daenerys, is he?”

“Varys serves the realm. When a regent’s no longer what’s best for the realm, he tries to find a better one.”

“Really.” Arya lets a sly grin spread across her face. “That’s very interesting.”

“Are you making plans?”

“Not yet. We need her for the war. But after that…” Arya twirls the dagger, watching the reflection of the fire gleam in the Valyrian steel, in the blood still clinging to the blade, before wiping it on her trousers and sheathing it. “Do you think she’ll leave for King’s Landing after all? She didn’t seem convinced. Perhaps she would come back in time for the war. And if it means she’ll kill Cersei… I want to do it myself, but I suppose it doesn’t matter much whose hands close around her throat.”

“If she uses dragonfire in King’s Landing, the whole city will burn and all the people in it. There are caches of wildfire hidden beneath the city.”

Arya’s eyes widen. She thinks about a little girl who lived on the streets of King’s Landing, several lifetimes ago now, chasing pigeons and cats. She thinks about the thousands of people milling back and forth, trying to survive on stale bread and bowls of brown. She thinks of them burning in green flames, their flesh melting away, their bones turning to embers, until nothing inhabits the city but a queen haunted by the ghosts of people she should have protected.

“I should leave,” Arya says. “I want to talk to Sansa. Will you join me?”

“I can’t. I need to practice.”

“You’re always practicing.”

“It’s important.”

“I thought you said it’s easier by the heart tree.”

“It is. But it would be too obvious what I’m doing.”

“What are you doing?”

Bran nods at the window. “Can you see Rhaegal from there? He’s the green one.”

After giving her brother a confused look, Arya gets up and stands by the window. Indeed she can see a green dragon curled up on a hill, the snow melted around him.

“Someone once told me I’d never walk again,” Bran says, and she turns to look at him over her shoulder, “but that I would fly. I have walked, in Hodor’s body. In Summer’s. And I have flown.”

His eyes roll back in his head and when Arya looks back at the dragon, it’s whipping up snow clouds as it takes to the skies. She watches it fly over Winterfell, its shadow playing on her face as it passes over Bran’s chambers and blots out the sun. A beautiful sight she feels almost guilty for enjoying. She feels almost guilty for wondering what it must be like to ride one of those, to soar through the air with the sun on your back and the wind in your face. She shouldn’t love the sight of dragons so when their mother is intent on tearing her family apart when they just found one another again.

“It’s difficult.”

Bran’s voice makes Arya jolt and she whirls around with her breath in her throat. “You did that? That’s amazing! What’s it like?”

“Difficult. More difficult than other animals. Dragons are intelligent, magical creatures. They resist my visit. I’m practicing on Rhaegal because the Night King is riding Viserion and--”

“He what?”

“The Night King has resurrected Viserion. I’ve not told anyone and you shouldn’t either. If Daenerys finds out, I believe she’ll do something rash. We have to wait for the fight to come to us or we’ll lose. Like Jon did when he rushed to save Rickon. He would’ve lost if it weren’t for Sansa and the Knights of the Vale.”

He says it without a hint of emotion while Arya can’t stop her eyes from brimming with tears. She’s forgotten what Rickon looked like, sounded like. She’s forgotten the smell of his hair even though she used to breathe it in every time he curled up in her lap as Old Nan told stories. At night, when she tries to sleep, fails to sleep, she often thinks about what would’ve happened if only she’d gone North sooner. She could’ve saved Sansa and Rickon both from the horrible clutches of Ramsay Bolton.

“I’m getting better, though,” Bran says, oblivious to her emotions, and she quickly sniffles and wipes her eyes. “Yesterday I flew to the Shivering Sea and caught a whale. A small one. Perhaps we can hunt that way after the war. We’ll need food and there’s lots of food on a whale.”

“Perhaps,” Arya says, airily, for a little seed of an idea has taken root in her mind and it’s already sprouting. “The Shivering Sea. That’s pretty far.”

“Yes. The farthest I’ve flown so far.”

“I might have an idea, after all,” she says and tells him all about it.

 

-----

 

Sneaking Varys a note is trickier than she first imagined, what with his hands constantly tucked into his sleeves. She manages, finally, when he’s carrying a couple of books he’s borrowed from the library. It’s not neat or inconspicuous, bumping into him so that he drops them and she can slip him the note while she helps him pick them up, but she’s in a hurry and it does the trick.

When they meet in the burned down tower later that afternoon, he’s dressed as a servant in simple clothes and a muddy cloak, long hair and a wiry beard peeking out from beneath the dome of his hood.

Arya’s become proficient in sticking people with the pointy end, but she struggles with this bit, the politics of it all. Sansa would’ve known how to get this out politely and without being too obvious, but time’s nipping at Arya’s heels and better blunt than late.

“I believe you and I have something in common. You’ve lost faith in someone I never had any faith in at all.”

“Belief is a funny thing, isn’t it?” He slips the hood from his head, revealing eyebrows bushy enough to shade his eyes. “Many great men have risked far too much based on belief alone and--”

“I know when people lie, so you can just tell me the truth without all that flourish.”

“I see. You trained with the Faceless Men, I hear.”

“I did. Does that frighten you? Don't worry. If I wanted you dead, you’d be dead already. I’d wear your face and your pretty robes and your luxurious perfumes, and take your place in Daenerys’ council, and no one would even know you’re gone.”

Varys shudders, his mouth curled in distaste beneath wild whiskers. “You’re a strange child.”

“You serve the realm. You want what’s best for the people. We both know she’s not what Westeros needs.”

“Even strange children are right on occasion, it seems.”

“Why’d you do it? Help her. You knew she had dragons and what she’s done with them. You knew what she was. What changed?”

Varys shrugs and settles down on a fallen beam. “I thought she’d be better than Cersei. I believed the stories of her good heart, of her determination to break the wheel. I was wrong. Like Cersei, she wants power and she cares about little else. I acquired her three powerful allies and she did nothing to protect them. Olenna Tyrell is gone while Yara Greyjoy and Ellaria Sand rot away in Cersei’s dungeons. She’s done nothing to save them, even though opportunities have risen. Even though she would’ve burned them alive if they’d treated her that way. Then there was the Battle of the Goldroad… It shook my dear old friend, the lion. When he told me of it, all I could picture was her father.”

“And now she wants to burn down King’s Landing. Do you think she’ll do it?”

“We’re doing everything we can to stop her, but she’s an impulsive, emotional creature who stopped listening to us long ago. She only listens to Jon, now. I’m afraid I can make no guarantees as to her actions.” He shakes his head to himself, beard rustling. “I’ve watched your dear sister, you know. She’s an intelligent young woman. She understands what her rival never will fully understand. To inspire loyalty in people, you need to care for them and put their needs before your own. You need to rule for them , not yourself. A ruler who doesn’t care about her people won’t be cared for by  her people. Alas, we need the Mother of Dragons for the war and she wants all the seven kingdoms as payment.”

“People die in wars.”

“Yes, war has a tendency to claim many lives; though, rarely the ones it should.”

“I’m no stranger to taking lives.”

“No, I imagine you’re not.” He draws a deep breath and, as he exhales, looks out through the broken walls, as though he can see the great hall from there. “I’ve heard about my old friend’s demise. Well, friend might not be the right word. The realm is better for what happened here.”

“Yes, it is,” Arya says. “People who hurt my family don’t live for long.”

Varys looks back at her, really looks, examining her build, the weapons at her hips, the determination written on her features, but he says nothing.

“I have to leave, for a while. I have things to take care of. But when I return, I’ll need your help. I’ll need your whispers and the places you can reach. Will you help me?”

“I liked your father. An honorable man. Honorable men’s lives are often cut short, sadly. Every time I see your brother, I’m reminded of that. But you…? You have the Stark look, there’s no doubt about that, but I’m glad to see you’re more like your mother.”

Even in this winter cold, with the wind streaming in through collapsed walls, his words warm her down to her hardened heart. Catelyn was a fierce woman, fierce in ways Arya never understood until she was a woman grown herself, and she can’t think of a better compliment.

“I’ll help you,” Varys says. “If it means the country will finally being to heal, I will help.”

“It does. I promise. If you promise this conversation won’t reach your little friend. I don’t trust him.”

“Nor should you. The veil is not yet fully lifted from his eyes. I do dare say, though, it won’t linger long. But he won’t hear about this conversation. You have my word, if it means anything to you.”

“Can you promise me something else?”

“You want more promises? You are as greedy as you are strange.”

“While I’m gone, look out for Sansa for me. Don’t let that woman hurt her.”

“I will,” Varys says with a smile Arya’s relieved to find genuine. “She’s worth looking out for. If only I had known earlier… Things would’ve been very different.”

He pulls the hood back up over his head, and sneaks out of there much more gracefully than she ever would’ve guessed.

 

-----

 

This evening, Daenerys’ usual seat, next to Jon, is empty. She’s opted to sup in her chambers where no one can glare at her or question her actions. Arya walks through the great hall, over the spot where Littlefinger bled out, and sits down next to Jon. Sansa still avoids walking over that spot, she’s noticed, but it doesn’t affect Arya at all. But then she wasn’t the one who lay on her knees with a brush and bucket, insisting on scrubbing away the blood herself.

Her siblings eat in silence, and their people follow suit. Many eyes turn their way, though, and Arya notices both sincere warmth and disgusted disbelief in their gazes. By the looks of Sansa’s pink cheeks and Jon’s vacant stare, they’ve noticed too.

As her own gaze wanders, she finds Gendry at the back of the room. He shoots her a little smile and a happy wave. Meeting him again was… odd, to say the least. He knew her as a feisty little girl eager to pick fights with people she couldn’t beat and quick to throw a punch when words were preferred. Whenever she’s around him and his constant teasing, she feels that scrappy version of herself emerge and even though this new her could win any verbal sparring he attempts, she finds herself shoving him or hitting him instead--and doing it again when he laughs at her.

Throughout supper, she keeps an eye on him and, when he leaves, sneaks after. She shadows him past the smithy, the well, the library tower, but when he nears the guesthouse, where a cot’s assigned to him, he makes a turn for the godswood instead.

Seated on the mossy rock where her father used to pray, Gendry stares down into the milky surface of the frozen pond until she’s close enough she can hear his breathing. Then he says, without turning around, “I know you’re there, m’lady.”

“I came to say goodbye.”

“Thought as much. You had that look. Where are you off to, then?”

She nudges him aside with her hip and settles down too. It’s too snug to be comfortable, but their sides press tightly together and he smells of sweat and smoke, of working hard at the forge to provide them all with weapons, and that's comfortable in a different, and much better, way.

“Gendry, I have to take care of something.”

“I’ll come with you.”

“No. They need you here. I’ll be back, though.”

“You better. I’ve got used to having m’lady yapping at me again.”

He gives her a crooked smile and his eyes are all too blue and instead of pushing him, she feels her lips pressed against his and his shocked little gasp for air and how his hands fail to grasp her because she’s already running away, snow crunching beneath her feet and wind doing its best to wipe off the feeling of her very first kiss from her lips.

 

-----

 

Back curled over her work, Sansa sits by the fire in her solar with needle in hand. It weaves into familiar fabric, familiar in all the wrong ways, and it pulls Arya’s features into something hard and ugly.

“Is that Daenerys’ white dress?”

“We don’t have fabric to spare,” Sansa says in a flat voice. “She insisted.”

“I hate her. I hate her.”

“It was a generous gesture, Arya. I do need a wedding gown.”

Arya throws herself into the chair opposite her sister. “She wants Jon to think of her when he marries you.”

A small smile quirks Sansa’s lips. “I’m afraid our Queen doesn’t know my talent with a needle. This won’t look like her dress once I’m done with it.”

“She doesn’t know my talent with a Needle either.”

“Now, now, little sister.” Sansa gives her a stern look. “Play nice.”

“I have something to tell you, but you won’t like it.”

Sansa’s hand slows down, eyes drifting to the side as she listens.

“I won’t be here for the wedding.”

She resumes sewing in her usual speed, neat stitches running along a perfect hem. “You’re angry with me for marrying Jon.”

“I’m not. I should be, I suppose, but I’m not. I have... somewhere to be. Somewhere important.”

“I see. Then you don’t judge me?”

Arya shrugs. “I killed the Freys. I don’t think I’m in a position to judge.”

Sansa does stop sewing now, her mouth dropped open in a way Septa Mordane would’ve rapped her knuckles over. “You killed all the Freys?”

“Not all of them. Just the men.” As her conscience picks at her resolve, Arya picks at a loose thread on her jerkin until she realizes it might make Sansa insist on mending it. “Do you think I’m horrible?”

Do you think I’m like Daenerys?

“I could never think that.” Sansa purses her lips, sewing forcefully. “They murdered mother. They murdered Robb. They murdered a sister we never met, Robb's baby--” She chokes on the word and blinks away tears forming in her eyes. “They deserved it.”

They deserved it. They did, as did everyone else already crossed out on her list. As do the ones she’s yet to take care of--and the ones newly added.

“Will you say goodbye to Jon for me? Tell him… I don’t know.” Arya breathes out in a smile to conceal how much even a goodbye with Sansa affects her. “To treat you right or I’ll hit him.”

“You’re not saying goodbye to him yourself?”

“No.” Arya shrugs. “Some things only a sister can understand.”

Sansa nods, putting down her work. “Brothers are too overprotective.”

“Yeah.” When Arya stands, so does Sansa, and she pulls her in for a hug. “I love you, Sansa,” she murmurs into her sister’s red hair. "I'll be back soon, I promise."

When Sansa pulls back, the tears are back in her pale blue eyes and Arya can’t remember a time her sister has ever looked more frightened. For a beat of a heart, Arya thinks Sansa will beg her to stay, but then she just replies, “I love you, too,” and Arya is on her way.

 

-----

 

Please, don’t eat me. Please, don’t eat me. Please, don’t eat me.

As she climbs up the hill, courtyard noises ring out into the night. A woman’s giggles at a man’s advances. Shrieking laughter from children doing their best to make the evening last until someone pulls them to bed by their ears. Blades kissing as fighters take every opportunity to train. Someone whistling along to Gendry’s hammer coaxing songs from steel. By now, though, darkness lies heavy over the North and not even the most eagled-eyed can spy her brown clothes against the white of snow.

Then she stands before it, this huge green fire-spewing monster who can end it all tonight with one single breath. Its nostrils flare and, as the scent of delicious human fills its nose, Rhaegal opens its enormous eyes, peering at her in the dark.

“Bran, please tell me that’s you,” she says and her voice trembles like a fawn surrounded by hungry wolves.

After everything she’s gone through, after learning how to control her emotions and taking care of herself, defending herself, she’s forgotten what it’s like to be scared, properly scared.

I suppose it’s time I remember, she thinks and clambers up on Rhaegal’s warm back.

Chapter Text

While Sam did let Jon in this time, he did so by calling, “enter,” instead of opening the door, and he’s yet to step away from the books cluttering his desk. Jon waits awkwardly by the two wooden chairs by the fire. He sits down, then stands up, staring at the table between the chairs. Sam and Gilly usually keep a tidy room, but now the table’s sticky with toddler-sized handprints and full of dirty plates, pitchers, and ale cups. Sam, Gilly, and little Sam didn’t sup in the great hall this evening, and it’s all too obvious why.

Should he tidy up? Should he gather it all and put it in the hallway? Jon shifts his weight from one foot to the other, shifts his eyes from the table to Sam. Sam’s forehead is furrowed in concentration, his back sloped as he leans in closer to the weathered pages of whatever tome he’s poring over, one hand scribbling down notes on parchment.

Letting the dishes be, Jon practically tiptoes across the room to look out the window. Rhaegal rests out there, on his favorite hill. After the truth of Jon’s parentage came out, Tyrion suggested he should try to ride the green dragon, but after Daenerys glared at her Hand as though he’d casually said Jon should cut her darling dragon’s heart out, no one had broached the subject again.

Could he, though? Jon sighs deeply, trying to picture himself crawling up the wing and straddling that spiny beast. If he could, they’d have an advantage on the field…

Sam closes the book and pushes his chair out, the legs screeching against the floor. Leaving two cups and a pitcher of ale on the table, he grabs the dirty dishes and puts them outside before taking a seat by the fire.

“They’re not clean,” he says, pouring them ale as Jon sits too. “Want mine or Gilly’s?”

“I don’t care.” Jon grabs the cup closest to him and downs the ale in two big swallows. “What are you working on?”

“I’m helping Bran.” Sam refills his cup. “But you already know that.”

It’s true. Jon knows that Bran suspects dragonglass or Valyrian steel alone won’t kill the Night King, and that Sam’s grabbed any book he can find that mentions Lightbringer, the Prince Who Was Promised, and other myths, legends, and prophecies. He knows whatever Sam finds helps in guiding Bran on his journeys to the past.

“You’re stalling,” Sam says, and that’s true as well. Once Jon opens up about Daenerys, it’ll be hard to keep all his secrets safely tucked away. “Gilly won’t come back until you leave, so you better get on with it.”

“Where is she?”

Sam takes a deep pull of his ale and puts down the cup with something very close to a bang. “In the library. She’s become quite good at it, reading. It’s a comfort to her. When we first came here, Bran told us about princess Shireen. Gilly didn’t take it very well. She read and took care of little Sam and read and took care of little Sam. That’s all she did. And then today… We were so happy this morning and-- Well, it’s been an upsetting day for her.”

Jon nods slowly and takes a deep breath to speak. “I’m sorry, Sam, for not telling you about your father and brother. You have every reason to be angry with me, but I did what I thought was right.”

“That wasn’t much of an apology.”

“Suppose not.”

“I understand why you had to keep it a secret from everyone, I do, especially after that meeting. But not from me. You could’ve told me.”

Jon shakes his head. “Secrets have a way of getting out, and I’d rather you be angry with me than risk scaring off Daenerys and her dragons.”

“I’m not angry with you,” Sam says, and when he notices the disbelief on Jon’s face, adds, “I’m not! I’m… disappointed, I suppose, that you didn’t trust me. And I’m worried, about Mother and Talla. Life’s not easy on widows and fatherless daughters, especially not during wartime. I’m sad as well, because I never truly got to know the man my little brother grew up to be and now I never will. And I am angry--not with you--but I’m angry I’ll never get to prove my father wrong. I wanted that, I suppose. But I’ll never have that chance either. It doesn't feel real, that they're gone.”

“You already proved him wrong.”

“Not in his eyes.” Sam stares at his lax hands lying in his lap. “I hated him. And still I wanted him to love me. Deep down, no matter how cruel he was, I wanted my father to love me.”

“He was your father. Lady Stark wasn’t even my mother, and still… Not loved,” Jon says, because it would’ve been too greedy, too insolent a want, “but accepted. I wanted her to accept me.”

“Especially now, I imagine. With you marrying her daughter and all.”

Sam grins at him, but it’s not right, that grin. His eyes lack his usual warm shine and his mouth looks tense. Jon thinks back on Gilly refusing to let him in earlier, on her harsh tone of voice and cold eyes, on how conveniently absent she is now. A woman forced to marry her own father, forced to bed him and bear him a child… Small wonder she could barely stand looking at Jon.

“It’s a sham marriage,” Jon mumbles. “I won’t consummate it. And once the war’s over and Daenerys is queen, she’ll annul it.”

As Sam breathes out, his grin loses its awkward tension. “Who else knows?”

“Only you. And Daenerys.”

“Not your-- Not Sansa?”

Jon clears his throat, shifting in his seat. “No. And I don’t want her to know.”

“Why not?”

“It doesn’t matter why.”

“I know you’ve never been much of a talker, but it’s gotten ridiculous. We’re brothers, Jon. Talk to me.” Sam is quiet for a while, waiting in vain for Jon to speak, then he leans forward with his elbows on his knees and a concerned wrinkle on his brow. “Whatever you’re carrying is wearing you down. Don’t think I haven’t noticed. The headaches. Dark circles under your eyes. You’ve lost weight too, haven’t you? How can you lead us through a war when you’re not taking care of yourself?”

Jon picks the dirt from under his nails. He has lost weight, Sam’s not wrong about that. Not much, but enough to give his clothes a looser fit. He pretends it’s from rationing and training, though, not because food tastes bland and sleep’s become an elusive thing that leaves him wandering the hallways at night. With everything he has to balance, every lie told, every feeling suppressed or faked, his shoulders grow tenser and most mornings he wakes with his shoulders by his ears and his jaws clenched together. The headache that follows usually lingers until the sun’s down and he’s alone in his chambers, the only place where he’s free to divest himself of his role in this mummer’s farce.

Perhaps he should tell Sam. Not about Sansa, never about Sansa. He’ll die in that war; he must. Whatever breathed life into his corpse will steal it once the Night King falls, because it’s not right Jon gets to live when so many people he loved remain dead. Once he plunges Longclaw into the heart of the Night King, perhaps he’ll shatter like a wight. Then no one but Arya will ever have heard him speaking of his unnatural feelings for Sansa, and Sansa will never know he’s betrayed her yet again. But he could tell Sam some of it.

“All right. Daenerys wants me for her consort after the war. She made me promise, or she’d leave for King’s Landing to take the throne from Cersei.”

Sam blinks. “She made you?”

“She made it clear without saying it.”

“That’s concerning, and oddly unsurprising, but she made you? I thought you and Daenerys… Well, I know she’s your aunt, but you didn’t know that when you fell for her.”

Jon exhales sharply. “Fell for her? You call yourself my brother, and yet you know me so little.”

Sam shrinks back in his seat, but doesn’t comment, and now that Jon’s started he can’t find it in himself to stop.

“How does no one see it for what it is? I’ve fought so many wars and it’s dirty and gritty and bloody and you hurt, and you feel it when you take a man’s life. War is hell , Sam, but not to her. No, she sits on her dragon, high and mighty in the sky, and she says Dracarys as easy as you’d say hello, and people burn to death and she enjoys it. How can you think I’d love someone like that?”

“Well, I--”

“She’s my aunt, she’s family, so I care for her, I do, but love? Part of me wish I did. It would make it all easier. I thought I could do it. I thought I could pretend and perhaps maybe I’d feel it. I’ve done it before, with Ygritte. But it was different with her. She was different.”

I was different .

Absentmindedly, Jon traces the scar across his eye made by a jealous dead man trapped in the body of a hawk. “With Ygritte, the hard part was to resist her. Giving in was easy.”

“I can’t say I’m not relieved--I am, but this didn’t alleviate my worries much. You’ve been carrying all this around--and more, I imagine. You have to talk to someone, Jon.”

“I’m talking to you right now!”

“You’re not telling me everything, though, are you?” Sam waits for him to reply, but Jon merely shrugs and he feels his dumb face fold into the grumpy expression of a six year old scolded by his father. “You could at least talk to Davos. The man’s your Hand. You should at least talk to him.”

Jon huffs of a mirthless laugh. “I’m not a king anymore.”

“It doesn’t matter what you’re called. King. Lord. Lord Commander. Warden. You’re the chosen leader of your people and Davos is your Hand. He’ll listen and he’ll help in shouldering your burdens.”

“Suppose you’re right.” Jon lets out a long, tired breath. “Thank you, Sam. I needed this. And I’m sorry. I am.”

“I know, Jon.”

“Well, better let Gilly and little Sam come back. It’s getting late.”

He gets up to leave, but as he puts his hand on the door handle, Sam stops him by calling his name. Jon turns around and finds Sam standing up, straighter than he’s ever seen him, with the broadest smile on his lips.

“Gilly’s pregnant,” he says and his voice breaks, tears shimmering in his eyes. “I’m to be a father. We found out this morning. I’d just asked her to marry me when we heard about…” He shrugs, smile turning wistful. “This was supposed to be a happy day.”

Whatever sullenness still remained melts away and with warmth spreading in his chest, Jon crosses the room and pulls in his dear friend for a hug tight enough to make Sam laugh out a protest.

Jon lets him go, patting him on the shoulder. “Fathering children and taking wives, Samwell Tarly?”

“No need for plural, Jon Snow. It’s just the one wife.”

“Children, at least?”

“If we win that bloody war, I hope Gilly and I will have a long, happy life with many children.”

“We better win that war, then,” Jon says and fails to deliver a convincing smile. “I’ll let you get back to your books.”

“Take better care of yourself, Jon. Promise me that.”

Jon nods. “I’ll do my best.”


Burdening his little sister with his shameful secrets isn’t fair, he knows, and yet his feet take him to Arya’s chambers; however, once there he finds nothing but a made bed and a cold fireplace. A fleeting thought of her leaving enters his mind, but no, she would never leave without saying goodbye. She must be in Sansa’s chambers. Perhaps he could spend the evening there as well, relaxing in the homey noises of Arya whetting her dagger and Sansa knitting yet another scarf for one of the many children taking refuge at Winterfell.

But when Sansa opens her door, she reveals a quiet, empty room behind her. On her bed lies a bundle of clothes tied together with a pretty silk ribbon. Her bed. A bed they’re supposed to share, albeit platonically, in only a few days. His stomach swoops uncomfortably.

“Where’s Arya?”

He pretends to look around, but he’s really looking for a good place to sleep on his wedding night so Sansa can have the bed to herself. Curled up in his cloak by the fireplace, perhaps. He's slept in worse places.

Sansa pulls him inside and closes the door behind him, motions at him to join her by the fireplace. A basket of fabric and her sewing kit stand by her chair, on which white fabric is draped. She doesn’t speak again until they’re both seated, and the white fabric is in her lap.

“She had to leave.” Sansa pierces the fabric with a sewing needle, keeping a close eye on her work instead of meeting his eye. “I’m not sure when she’ll be back.”

“Because of the wedding?”

“No.” She looks up swiftly, with a small smile, before returning her attention to the sewing. “Surprisingly enough, she supports it. She realized we need Nymeria for the fight. That’s all.”

“I have a hard time believing that.”

“It’s true. She told me to tell you you better treat me right or she’ll hit you when she comes back.”

“All right, that does sound like her. When did she leave?”

“A while ago. You won’t catch up with her, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“She’s not getting Nymeria, is she?”

“I don’t know, but it’s what I will tell anyone who asks and so should you.”

Dread constricts Jon’s chest, but his little sister has more than proven she can take care of himself and she wouldn't leave unless she had a good reason, so he pushes away the feeling. No matter how much he’d like to, he can’t afford rushing after her. One wrong move is all it takes for Daenerys’ to leave as well.

“That looks pretty,” he says, nodding at Sansa’s sewing to distract himself. “What are you making?”

“My wedding dress.”

Oh, that didn’t help. Jon groans inwardly but keeps his tone light as he speaks, “Hm. Fabric looks familiar.” He scratches his beard. “Was it your mother’s?”

A smile touches Sansa’s lips, and then it grows and grows until she’s beaming at him, her radiance enveloping him in the warmest of embraces. He forgets responsibilities and pretense and the distance he’s vowed himself to keep, grinning back at her like the Northern fool he is. When she finally breaks eye contact and resumes her work, he finds he’d also forgotten what breathing is, and coughs out the breath he was holding.

“It’s Daenerys’,” Sansa says. “Or was. I suppose it’s mine, now.”

Jon can’t say he’s paid much attention to Daenerys’ wardrobe, but he mostly remembers her wearing black and red--except this morning, when she sat in a pristine white dress with a warming cape like a pretty diamond in a room of coal.

“From this morning?” he says, but only a few hours have passed since he left Daenerys’ chambers with her still in that dress--and trying to get out of it.

With a shudder, he remembers how he grabbed her, thrust her against the wall, and poured all his frustration with her into that kiss. How he used the heat Sansa sparked in him during their fight to deceive Daenerys. What would Sansa think of him if she knew?

She does know, though, doesn’t she? What being near her does to him. When she met his eyes during their fight, saw the want in them, she closed hers and willed it to disappear. Was that when she first knew, or did she hear Tyrion and Varys talking about them? Perhaps Littlefinger whispered it into her ear, or perhaps Jon gave it away when he gave her the North.

Perhaps she knew at Castle Black, a dark voice murmurs in the back of his mind, spilling a truth he's tried to forget: that it started even then, long before it was appropriate.

Dragging a hand over his mouth, he looks away.

“Yes,” Sansa says. “I don’t even have time to wash it if I want to be done on time.”

“I’m sorry, Sansa. You deserve--”

“No one deserves anything. Things happen and we make the best of them.”

“You’ve dreamed about your wedding all your life, I wish--”

“This is my third wedding, Jon. Those dreams died a long time ago. At least this time I’ll be marrying someone I love.”

She doesn’t mean it that way, he knows she doesn’t, and from the way she averts her eyes and resumes working with a slight tremble in her hand, he knows she’s afraid of even saying it. As though he’d be foolish enough to take it as encouragement. Hasn’t he made it clear already he’ll never act on those feelings? He can’t make it clearer without also confirming them, and there’s no going back from that.

She cuts off the thread and grabs a swath of gray fabric from the basket, holding it to her chest. “This was mother’s. One of the few still here. I’m using it for the bodice.”

Close to your heart, he thinks. You'll protect yourself with your lady mother’s armor.

To let the tension fade, he watches her work in silence as she takes the white fabric again and attaches gray beading with a sure hand. But she bites her lip in concentration, wets thread with her mouth before threading the needle, and the light of the fire dances in her red hair, casts her beautiful face in the softest glow, and he can’t help but watch her in a slack-jawed sort of trance, longing for her willing lips against his to erase the memory of all other kisses; imagining their wedding bed and her silky hair fanning out on the pillow, her smiling up at him as he lowers himself--

Jon stands up abruptly and heads for the cool draft of the window. Braziers light up the courtyard, and a full moon the snowy world outside, and there, against the milkiness of moonlit clouds, he sees the silhouette of Rhaegal aflight. He’s away often, now, roaming the country and doing only the gods know what.

At Dragonstone, after they first arrived, Daenerys rarely supped with him and often left Tyrion and Grey Worm to entertain him and Davos. Sometimes Missandei joined them, growing more and more giggly with each cup of wine while Grey Worm looked at her the way Jon tries his best not to look at Sansa.

One night, when Tyrion was well into his cups, he told them of the charred remains of a little girl. He’d not been there himself, he said, but from the way Missandei’s giggles died and tears sprang to her eyes, the way Grey Worm reached out for her hand, Jon knows Tyrion didn’t exaggerate.

Jon thinks about that often, the bundle of black bones, and how little control the Queen has over her the beasts she call children, and yet he brought them here, to his home, his people, his family. What kind of king was he, to betray them so?

What else could he have done, though? 

Watching Rhaegal’s silhouette shrink in the distance, he tells himself such thoughts are useless. He took a vow to guard the realms of men and for that he needs her and her dragons. All he can do now is make certain she stays, and that his betrayals will be worth it.

Chapter Text

Long after the moonlit sky has swallowed Rhaegal’s tenebrous form, Jon remains by the window. His thoughts wander to Arya: his little sister alone out there where dragons roam. Wherever she’s going, he hopes Rhaegal flies in the opposite direction. Fabric rustles as Sansa tucks her sewing into the basket. When he turns around, she’s on her feet with her arms lifted over her head. As she stretches, a small moan escapes her and she’s so enticing he forgets himself. When she opens her eyes, they look right into his. This is so much deeper than infatuation, and the realization strikes him in the chest with such force the air rushes out of him.

She peers at him at first, but then a yawn breaks the tension and she squeezes her eyes shut, hiding her sleepiness behind the curve of her hand.

Blinking, he ducks his head and heads for the door. “I should leave. It’s late.”

“Jon, wait.”

She plucks the bundle of clothes from her bed. In the light of the fire, the pale gray ribbon tying it together has the color of peaches.

“I made these for you.”

He runs his fingers over soft, bone white wool before untying the ribbon. Pinching the fabric, he shakes it out to get a better look. A tunic trimmed with gray at the sleeves, hem, and neckline and, embroidered on the trims, a running pattern of heart trees and mirrored direwolves. Only, like the heart tree, the wolves are white and red. They look like Ghost.

“When…?” He looks up at her in awe; she’s still holding the rest of the bundle, dark gray trousers, and a belt embossed with the Stark direwolf. “When did you make this?”

“Weeks ago.”

Weeks ago?  The joy, the smidgen of hope he shouldn’t allow himself, fade away as it dawns on him where he was then, and with whom.

Sansa swallows and folds it all back together, carefully re-tying the ribbon, and lays it aside on the table by the fireplace. “It was Littlefinger. He told me you’d marry Daenerys. I didn’t believe him at first, but... I couldn’t deny what an advantageous match it was. So I started sewing. I assumed she’d wear black and red, the colors of her house, so I added red to yours.”

Words escape him, eyes moving between her beautiful work and her all too composed face. He can see her so clearly, how she sat in a pool of sunlight, the red of her hair shining like molten copper, and worked out her fears and worries and frustrations as she worked the needle through wool.

“Mine will have red, too,” she says, voice as clear and smooth as an iced-over lake. “For the heart tree.”

“Sansa… I’ll wear them, of course I will, but do you really want me to? You made these for-- Are you sure?”

“It’s her wedding in a way, isn’t it? We wouldn’t do it if not for her. So why does it matter?”

Jon can’t keep the disappointment from showing on his face, and averts it to avoid flaunting emotions so unwelcome to her.

“I’m sorry,” Sansa says, stepping closer and sounding so sincere--and he’s certain she looks sincere too, but he’s staring so firmly into the fireplace he’ll be dazzled for days. “I’m being childish. It doesn’t matter where the fabric’s from; I’m making that dress my own. It doesn’t matter that I made those clothes for a different wedding; I still made them for you. I thought of you, what you’d like to wear, how handsome you’d look--”

His heads snaps back; now there’s nothing he’d want to look at more than her expression, but she talks on as though she’d only stated a truth--like his hair is curly or his eyes are dark--rather than confessed any sort of attraction.

“--next to her. Littlefinger said she’s a great beauty. And she is. If only she were as kind as she’s beautiful...” Sansa shakes her head at herself and he stays silent, giving her space to think out loud. She yawns again and dabs at the corner of her eyes. “I'm being unfair. Perhaps she believes she did me a kindness? I’m struggling to understand why this particular dress. Was it the only one with enough fabric? The only one she was willing to part from? Does white mean something in her culture? Does it mean anything to you?”

Jon goes entirely still, pushing away memories of Daenerys’ hot lips, of her eager tongue. “To me?”

“If I loved a man, and he was marrying someone else, perhaps I’d do the same.”

If she loved a man.

“You wouldn’t.”

“I don’t know. I gave her the room Ramsay tortured me in. That’s not a kindness. It was stupid of me. What if she finds out? Perhaps she already knows--and now I’m marrying the man she loves. The North wants me for their queen instead of her. She must hate me.”

“She doesn’t hate you.”

“Jon. Don’t be an idiot. Of course she hates me. I would hate me. If you were--” She ducks her head, licks her lips. “When I loved Joffrey, if some other girl were scheming behind my back to take him from me, I would’ve hated her. I’m sure I would’ve given her my old dress and felt very gracious about it.

“You were a child. She’s not.”

“But she was, wasn’t she? When she was wed to that Dothraki warlord.”

Jon doesn’t follow the leap her mind makes, so he stays silent to let her elaborate.

“Joffrey was a child too when he became king. A child who never suffered the consequences of his terrible actions. No one told him no. No one stopped him. He ordered his men to hit me, and they did. He ordered them to tear the clothes off my body, and they did. In front of everyone. I was just a little girl and no one did anything, they just stood there, except Tyrion. And that’s not enough! One person is not enough! Joffrey never grew, he never learned. He was a spoiled child wielding too much power and hurting people until one day someone poisoned him. Is that what lies in our future?”

She looks at him for answers, but he has none to give. He wants to tell her no, but how can he when he’s the one out there, polishing away every one of Daenerys’ stains to present an immaculate queen to his people?

“As long as she has those dragons, she’ll never learn and she’ll never change because no one dares telling her no in case she burns them alive for it. I don’t believe she’s as bad as Joffrey, but given time... She could be. She could be her father’s daughter.” Sansa’s eyes move around as she thinks, words pouring out of her mouth in a rushed pace. “Once this is all over, we need to help her. Promise me that, Jon. If we can’t free the North from her rule, then we’ll shape her rule. I’ll accept her offer to come to King’s Landing, and you’ll come with me as my husband. We’ll advise her. We’ll teach her. We owe the North that much.”

“I don’t think she’d like that.”

“No,” Sansa says, “I suppose you’re right. She wants you for her own. Oh, I don’t know. I’m worried about the future, about her rule, what will happen after the war. I feel... “ She lets out a loud, heavy breath and grabs his hand, holding it tightly. “I’ve spent my life surrounded by people who only think about what they want--and it’s always more of what they already have. You’re not like that. You think about everyone else, what’s best for the realm, never what’s best for you. I should be more like you. You were right about Alys Karstark and Ned Umber, and I was wrong. I let vengeance guide me when--”

Fine lines form between her brows as she tugs them together, her mouth forming a small pink ‘o’. Blinking rapidly, she looks down at their joined hands in such confusion he doubts she remembers who initiated the contact. Then she lets go and steps away, even wipes her hands on her dress. If he’s ever wondered what a cue to leave is, he now holds the answer in his own grubby hands.

“Night, Sansa,” he manages to get out, but once again she stops him before he’s reached the door.

“What has Arya told you about Braavos?”

Sansa's seated again, the sewing in her lap and the needle in her hand. She’s already made several stitches by the time he’s back in his chair, and she doesn’t look up at him while waiting for an answer.

“Not much,” he says.

On the evenings they’ve spent together, Sansa, Bran, Arya, and him, his little sister has shared many anecdotes from her travels in Westeros. He knows all about the brotherhood, the Hound, and Tywin Lannister. He knows she met Brienne and Podrick, and a mysterious man called Jaqen H’ghar with red-and-white hair and knack for killing. Her stories from Essos, however, are brief and dull, and lack the nostalgia all her stories about Gendry and Hot Pie glow with even when they’re gritty.

“She trained to become an assassin,” Jon says, “but left before her training was done. She wanted to come home."

"That's all?"

He shrugs. "She mentioned something called the Game of Faces once, but I don't know what it is. Something about trust and lies, I think. Do you think that’s where she went? To get help from Jaqen H’ghar.”

“I don’t know.” Sansa brushes her fingers over the gleaming, dark gray beads sprinkled over the hem of the skirt, examining her work with heavy-lidded, sleepy eyes. “All I know is, she learned a great deal there. You needn’t be worried about her.”

“Perhaps I don’t need to, but I can’t help but be.”

“Me neither.” She smiles but keeps her eyes on her work. “But she’ll be back. I know she will.”

He nods at Sansa with a tight smile, and scoops up the bundle of clothes from the table to leave.

“Will you try them on?” she says just as he rises from the chair, and he drops back down with a heavy exhale. “I’m not sure the fit is right.”

“What--now?”

“Yes. I need to see whether I have to take them in.”

His blood doesn’t care that he’s a man grown and far too old for blushing; it heats up in his cheeks until he’s sure he’s as red as the leaves of the heart tree. Undressing in front of Sansa. Dressing in front of Sansa. Sansa’s hands on his body, her kneeling by his side, measuring, tucking in, perfecting. The thought tilts his world and he can no longer tell whether he’s standing or lying down. His hands curl around the armrests of the chair and, right, he’s sitting and she keeps talking about using his old clothes for measurement and other things he’s barely aware of, because the only thing that seems important to him right now is this: despite the late hour and her obvious sleepiness, she still finds excuses to keep him in her room.

It’s selfish and stupid, he knows, but perhaps he’s allowed to be, just this once, and think about what he wants, just this once, and what he wants is to see whether she cares at all.

“I kissed Daenerys.”

No scolding or berating, not even a sound, leave her lips, but the look on her face hurts him more than any harsh words ever could. He regrets his selfishness instantly.

“I’m sorry, Sansa. I told her--”

“I let Littlefinger kiss me before I felt I could say no. I’m sorry she makes you feel like that, Jon.”

Her voice is as soft as her lips, as her hair would feel tangled in his hands if only he acted on an impulse, a feeling, he longs to see reflected in her eyes. But her eyes are distant.

“I said no. After,” he murmurs with a voice much too hoarse. “I told her no more. I’m yours now, and I’ll be faithful to you.”

She nods her forgiveness, but the tightness around her mouth and the way she refuses to meet his eyes tell another story. Whatever he suspected was born from the imagination of an exhausted, desperate man. She cares, yes, because she loves her brother.

He rushes out of her chambers with his heart beating so hard he wouldn’t even hear her if she tried to stop him again by calling his name. What a fool he is. I’m yours now. Treacherous little words slipping out of his tired mouth.

This is what talking gets you, Jon Snow. Shut your bloody mouth next time.

 

Once he reaches his chambers, he’s out of breath and full of regret, full of thoughts of a woman who soon will be his--but never to hold or to touch or to kiss.

“Are you avoiding me, Jon Snow?”

His hand fly to Longclaw, body already prepared to fight, but then the voice registers. Davos stands behind him with a stern look on his friendly face.

“I’ve been busy.”

Davos hums, unconvinced. “Are you going to let an old man stand out here in the drafty hallway all night, when he could sit by your fireplace and warm his old knees?”

With a demonstrative sigh, Jon shows Davos into his chambers and throws him a blanket for good measure as the man makes himself comfortable in front of the fire. Jon, though, doubts he’ll find any form of comfort as long as he has company, and hovers by the fireplace, leaning against the mantelpiece because he’s so tired now, he can barely stay upright. He blinks slowly, rubs at his eyes. It feels as though he’s shoved his entire face into the Dornish desert.

Davos turns something over in his hands, rubbing his thumbs over something smooth and black. Shireen’s deer. He’s carried it around, touching it for luck, for comfort, Jon knows. Even at Dragonstone--or perhaps especially there.

“Did I ever tell you I once sat in Stannis’ dungeon?”

Jon shakes his head even though he has heard the story before, on their way to Dragonstone, but he knows better than to point that out.

“I don’t coddle, and fear of being branded a traitor has never stopped me from speaking my mind. I didn’t like the things the Red Woman whispered in his ear, nor the way she went about things.” Davos’ lips twitch. “I wanted to kill her. I was going to kill her. Instead I ended up in the dungeons. When we first got to Dragonstone and they took our ship, it occurred to me I might get to share my old cell with you.”

He turns the deer head-on, staring with watery eyes at the blackened horns.

“Princess Shireen taught me how to read down there. She was a good girl. The kindest girl you’d ever meet. I often wonder whether I could’ve stopped it. Foolish thoughts that change nothing, I know, but I can’t help but wonder. If I had spoken against the Red Woman sooner, before she’d got under Stannis’ skin...” He looks up at Jon and while the tears softened his eyes as he gazed upon the deer, they now make his pale eyes look hard like glass. “When a man wants a woman, he makes unwise decisions. When a man wants two women, it’s even worse.”

Not this man , Jon thinks, I only want one .

“I’m not Stannis.”

“True. Stannis would never marry his own sister--nor fall in love with her, for that matter.”

“I don’t,” Jon starts, wearing a smile that says he finds Davos’ words preposterous, but gives up before he’s even finished the sentence and drops the smile like a rotten apple.

“I've spent more time with the two of you than most. But it’s only a matter of time before more people see it. Before our new queen does.” Davos pushes himself to his feet, the blanket pooling at the floor, and places the deer on the mantelpiece. “I want you to have this. I want you to remember what happens to good girls when fire-mad women are about.”

“I won’t let Daenerys hurt Sansa,” Jon says, more energy leaving him with each heavy word Davos lays on his shoulders. “I won’t give her reason to.”

Davos nudges the deer closer to Jon. “A man who’s taken it upon himself to protect the entire realm will crack sooner or later. You’ll slip. You’ll expose your secrets. You’ll do something unwise out of desperation. You’ll think to hell with it and do something you shouldn’t. You’ll seek comfort where there’s no comfort to be found, like in the arms of a beautiful woman. And it won’t matter whether that beautiful woman is your aunt or your sister, because the result will be disastrous either way. You have to hide your feelings better, Your Grace. If that woman burns lady Sansa--” Davos draws in a shuddering breath, squeezing the deer hard. “Not again. I won’t let it happen again. Your sister’s a good woman and--”

“Cousin.”

“Jon.”

“I know.” Jon growls out a breath. “I know who she is. I know who I am. I know I was never put on this world to experience a great romance. I was never meant to father children or own lands. My grandfather killed my other grandfather and my uncle. My parents’ union tore the Seven Kingdoms apart. How many people have died just so I could be born? I’m here to repent for their stupid choices. That’s all. I’m here to protect and to serve, and I’ll do that. Whatever it takes, I’ll do that. You don’t have to worry about me. I won’t touch her. I won’t even kiss her when I marry her. I’ll kiss her forehead, I’ll sleep on the bloody floor and I’ll--”

Jon scrunches up his face in frustration, in exhaustion so deeply rooted in him he fears he’ll never feel rested again. “I don’t want this. I don’t want any of it. I just want to go back to Castle Black and be Mormont’s stewart and believe I’m Ned Stark’s bastard son and learn from Uncle Benjen what it means to be a ranger. I want to sit amongst my brothers and eat food that tastes like nothing. I want to laugh with Sam and Pyp and Grenn. I’d rather die the bastard of Winterfell than live as a bleeding Targaryen prince!”

“It’s all right, son.” Davos wraps his arm around Jon’s shoulders, and Jon relaxes into his steady frame. “It’s all right. You need some rest. I’ll make sure no one drags you out of bed tomorrow.” Holding Jon firmly, Davos ushers him to bed. “Get all the sleep you need. Good night, Your Grace.”

As he leaves, Ghost pads inside, bringing with him the smell and chill of crisp winter nights. He jumps up on the bed and stretches out, resting his head on Jon’s arm, and Jon falls asleep to the rhythm of his faithful friend's steady breaths.

Chapter Text

Up above on dragonback, the world turns into a map. Houses and leafless trees become dark splatters of ink sprinkled over untouched parchment. Rivers become blue-painted snakes slithering from the snowy North down to the green and mud-brown fields of the South, where winter is in its early stages and still comes and goes. While snow rests on mountains and valleys, it lingers only briefly on sunlit plains, leaving the grass glistening and damp.

Once upon a time, she stood at the bow of a ship and watched the horizon with wind whipping her hair and ocean air filling her lungs. She thought it felt like flying, then, and now she laughs into the biting wind at the memory. While a part of her thought she might better understand Daenerys after this experience, it’s had the opposite effect. Why would anyone start wars to sit in a boring room on a chair made of swords, when they could sit atop a dragon and fly anywhere they wanted?

If Rhaegal were hers, Arya would be the first person in the known world to see what lay west of Westeros.

When Bran steers the dragon into a steep dive, she clutches the ridges of its back and readies herself. Once it’s close enough to the ground for its claws to drag over the morning frost clinging to every blade of grass, she slips off and does a rolling landing.

The first time it happened, Bran tossed her into a pile of snow before taking off. She wasted no time, shook off the snow, and ran for cover. Peeking out from behind a boulder, she watched the dragon fly away. Once he showed up again, landing in a nearby clearing and waiting for her to approach with bated breath, she’d been walking South for a long while. Every time after that, he gave a little warning by moving closer to the ground and allowing her to slide off. And every time the dragon returned, she prayed to any gods who’d listen that it still was her brother controlling the beast.

They didn’t have much time to talk about it before she left, but she knows it’s Bran feeling his control slipping, or Bran needing a break, to eat and drink or relieve himself. She’s caught catnaps on the dragon’s back, kept warm by the heat of its body, but Bran can’t have gotten any sleep at all.

Shadowing her eyes with her hand, she watches the dragon beat its huge wings, stirring up dirt and frost that glitters in the morning sun, and fly off. It settles on a northward course, and she knows Bran won’t return this time. They passed Harrenhal earlier, dawn breaking over God’s Eye and the Isle of Faces. She’s close enough now.

“Are you her?” the owner of a little voice says behind her. “The Dragon Queen.”

“No, silly,” another, slightly deeper, voice says. “The Dragon Queen is silver-haired. My dad survived the Battle of the Goldroad. He’s seen her with his own two eyes.”

“Your dad only has one eye.”

“He had two when he saw her!”

Arya turns to see three children: a ten year old boy, a younger girl, and a little one shy enough to hide behind big brother’s legs. They gawk at her with wide eyes in gaunt mud-streaked faces. Arya pulls three gold coins from the pouch hanging from her belt and throws them one each.

“Is there an inn nearby?” she asks and waits patiently for the children to tear their shining eyes off the treasures in their hands.

After some discussion and less-than-helpful descriptions, she learns the closest still-running inn is the one at the Crossroads, where Hot Pie works. It’s too far, though, and in the wrong direction.

“You have a horse?” Arya unhooks the pouch from her belt and weighs it in her hand, the children’s eyes growing even wider. “I have more gold.”

Shortly after, she’s goldless and on horseback, snacking on bark bread and a thin slice of cheese the grateful families insisted on her taking. Spoiled from flying, galloping now feels like trudging to her, and her bored mind wanders to Hot Pie. She wouldn’t mind seeing him again, listening to his explaining how to bake pie while stuffing her face with one. She wouldn’t mind telling him she finally found her siblings.

And Gendry.

She touches her lips with light fingers. No one but the birds and the trees sees her blushing or the silly smile she can’t stop from spreading on her face.

 

-----

 

Evening’s fallen over King’s Landing, lanterns twinkling in the strong wind all along the streets. Despite the long years leaving her memories of the city foggy, now that she’s here, her body remembers the narrow streets and back alleys where one can move unnoticed. As she passes taverns and brothels and inns, she sees both Essosi sellswords and Ironborn milling about--far too many to be a coincidence. Lingering outside an alehouse, she listens to the clamor inside and it doesn’t take long for her to learn of Cersei’s plans with the Golden Company and Euron’s fleet.

 

-----

 

Fashion in the capital has changed for the better, it seems. Instead of flowy, diaphanous gowns, the handmaidens now wear sturdy black high-collared dresses that are only slightly less comfortable than what Arya usually wears. When she knocks on the door to Cersei’s chambers, the Queen’s voice on the other end sends an excited thrill through her body. She won’t be able to keep her plain old face straight once the Queen recognizes it. Alas, when Arya enters, she finds Cersei at her vanity table, patting onto her cheeks a cream that smells like orange blossom, too consumed by her own reflection to spare Arya more than a passing glance.

“You’re not Bernadette. Where is she?”

“Indisposed, Your Grace. I’ll help you undress.”

“Only a fool would think I’d let a girl I’ve never seen before put her filthy paws on my body. Leave.”

“Never, Your Grace? You wound me.” Arya stalks closer, into the light cast from wall sconces above Cersei’s vanity. “Don’t you recognize me?”

Cersei puts down the small container of cream and wipes her fingers on a piece of cloth, scrutinizing Arya with narrowed eyes. “Yes…” She knits her brow, lips parting with a soft exhale. “The little Sta--”

Then she sucks in a big breath as if to shout, and Arya has her dagger pressed against the white column of Cersei’s throat before she’s able to call for her undead protector.

“Now, now,” Arya says, grabbing the back of Cersei’s head by her short blond hair to better angle her neck, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you. We can’t have the Mountain in here for our girl talk, now, can we?”

“If you’re here to kill me, just do it instead of torturing me with your inane banter.”

“I need a letter, written by your hand, stamped with your seal.”

“A letter. That’s all? Do you expect me to believe that?”

“You can accomplish quite a lot with a letter, if you manipulate the right person into writing it.”

Cersei’s lips curl with distaste. “How is the little whore?”

“Never better. She’s the Lady of Winterfell now.”

“For now. We’ll see how long that lasts now that the silver-haired bitch has her claws in the North and your brother. Pray tell me, little wolf, are they fucking yet?”

“Oh, you’ve not heard? You should get a better Master of Whisperers. Jon’s marrying Sansa.”

Cersei huffs out a laugh. “Oh, you’ve gone mad. Poor little Arya Stark has lost her head, just like her father.”

“Jon’s Lyanna’s son. You remember my aunt, don’t you? The one your husband loved. And Jon’s father was Rhaegar Targaryen. Weren’t you supposed to marry him? I’ve heard he was very handsome.”

Cersei’s lips twitches as she holds back whatever vitriol must be festering in her mouth.

“He married Lyanna. Did you know? Jon’s the heir to the Iron Throne.” Arya can’t stop herself from laughing. “So now Sansa’s marrying her brother, in front of all the Northern lords. She’ll be Queen, ruling by his side, and they’ll have a hundred beautiful, legitimate children. Some girls have all the luck, don’t they?”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Yes you do.” Arya strokes the crown of Cersei’s head with her thumb. “And you couldn’t be more jealous. That little whore, as you so lovingly call my sister, gets to do everything you didn’t get do. With the son of the man you never got to marry.”

From Cersei’s withering glare, Arya knows she’s gotten under her skin. The horrible woman doesn’t let Arya’s words goad her into doing something foolish, though. Arya almost admires her composure.

“Perhaps I should call ser Gregor after all,” Cersei says in a light tone. “He’ll help me finish what I started so many years ago, when I decided to exterminate your family like the vermin you are.”

“You want to die so soon? With all this fun we're having.”

“You won’t kill me.” Cersei smiles at her, a wicked thing. “How ever would you get your letter?”

Arya adds enough pressure to the dagger to draw a drop of blood, so brilliantly red against Cersei’s pale skin. Cersei sucks in a breath, her eyes as round as on a frightened horse, and presses a hand against her abdomen, as though she’s trying to keep blood from gushing out of a stab wound.

“Do you honestly think someone who can get this far, stand with a dagger against the Queen’s throat in her own bed chambers, couldn’t copy the Queen’s hand and use her seal?”

“Then why don’t you?”

“It’s easier if you do it,” Arya says with a casual shrug that conceals how she studies Cersei, her movements, her words. “I was never as good at penmanship as my sister. Besides, I want Daenerys Targaryen to look out her window in a few days time and see Cersei Lannister in the courtyard of Winterfell.”

“Hm. Am I to be a prize for your new queen?”

“She’s not my queen.” Arya loosens her hold on Cersei, lightens the pressure of the dagger. “We need your armies. Your stupid brother showed up without any men and now Daenerys wants to fly South to burn down King’s Landing with dragonfire. And she will, unless your armies appear soon to fight alongside hers. But Arya Stark can’t lead your armies North.”

The tension leaves Cersei’s body, but her eyes take on a sharp glint. “I’ll write your letter, little girl. What should it say?”

Arya transforms the triumphant grin waiting to break out into a relieved smile, backing away from a woman who now believes she’s safe, who believes Arya’s a naive little girl who’s not planned ahead, who believes she can write that letter, pretend to gather her armies, and wait for Arya to relax enough that the Mountain can crush her. A woman who has no idea what Arya can do.

“It should say that you’re coming North with your armies to fight against the White Walkers. That it only took you this long because you were getting Euron Greyjoy and his fleet back, and hiring the Golden Company.”

Cersei dabs the blood off her neck with the cloth, and moves to her desk, where she pulls out parchment, ink, a quill, and wax. While she writes, Arya plays with her dagger without ever taking her eyes off Cersei. Cersei’s eyes never leave the paper, but Arya can tell from the tension in her back and the way she holds her head on a stiff neck, that she’s listening intently to Arya’s every move.

“There. Would you like to read it before I seal it? If you can read. You're such a feral little she-wolf. If your mother was alive to see you...”

Arya leaps forward and snatches the scroll from Cersei’s hand. It says just what it needs to, and why wouldn’t it? With that letter, the idiot must believe she’s buying herself time before Daenerys unavoidably returns South.

“Perfect.” Arya tucks the scroll into her pouch. “Any last words before I kill you for what you’ve done to my family?”

“Are you trying to frighten me?” Cersei tilts her head to the side, fluttering her lashes with a smirk. “You've shown your hand, you halfwit. You need me to lead the armies North. You said so yourself.”

“I don’t need you.” Arya gives her a sly grin, reveling in the tremble of Cersei’s chin and the horror dawning in her eyes. “I only need your face.”

Chapter Text

Through the blood dripping from a gash in his forehead, Theon looks up at Cersei’s impassive face. She sits on her throne of iron, protected by her lethal shadow that reeks of death and rot. On the steps leading up to her throne, Euron is sprawled, wearing the smuggest grin anyone’s ever flaunted and a shirt that exposes his suntanned chest. Theon’s followed him for a while, all the way to Essos and back, waiting for the right moment to strike. He’s seen how his uncle’s kept Yara as a pet in a cage, a collar around her neck, always close to him, to taunt and torture. It wasn’t until Euron finally returned to King’s Landing and threw Yara in Cersei’s dungeons that Theon thought he had a chance.

They arrived close to midnight, Theon and his men, thinking they could sneak in, find Yara, and steal away in the night. Instead they found droves of soldiers--Ironborn, sellswords, and Lannister men alike--all awake and preparing for a journey. Theon and his men fought well, they did, but now they’re here, in the throne room. Theon’s on his knees before Cersei, but his men are lined up along the aisle, all staring at him, their hands and feet tied with ropes. He’ll be the first to go, he gathers, then Euron will saunter down the steps and tell the others to join him or die. And they'll join him.

Perhaps running away is what he does best after all. One man kicks him in the balls he doesn’t have and he thinks he can take on King’s Landing.

I’m an idiot. Worthless. I’m stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

The doors open. A wall of Euron’s Ironborn shields him from whatever’s behind him, but he can hear the chains, the shuffling of tired feet, bare soles slapping marble. The smell of her hits his nose long before she sinks down next to him. Her hair’s a matted mess, her body’s bruised and battered, and she’s so skinny he can count every bone in her body, but it’s Yara. It’s still Yara. He’s only faintly aware of Ellaria dropping to her knees beside his sister, because Yara’s gray eyes still hold the strength of a storm-whipped ocean, the strength of an Ironborn. Euron didn’t break her.

“I’m sorry,” he says and he’s already weeping like the useless twat he is. “I’m sorry I couldn’t save you.”

“Little brother,” she rasps out. She lifts a stick of an arm and lovingly grabs the scruff of his neck, as though he were a wolf pup after all. “Stop crying. You always give up too quickly. It’s not over yet.” When she notices the unconvinced tremble of his lip, she adds, “If we die tonight, we die together. And”--she digs her fingers into his flesh, pulling his head so close to hers their foreheads touch--”we die fighting.”

“I’ve brought you here to talk,” Cersei says, “not fight.”

Euron leers at them. “I wouldn’t mind some fighting. Tell you what, little Theon. I’ll let you go, if you kill your sister. You can live a whole life of… whatever it is cockless men like to do.”

Theon shakes his head, his whole self trembling now. “I won’t.”

Cersei shoots Euron a tired look and rises from her throne, glides down the steps until she’s so close Theon could grasp the hem of her skirt if he dared. “Theon Greyjoy,” she says and looks down at him as though he were maggot-infested meat on her plate. “You helped the Stark whore escape Winterfell. Why?”

He glances at his sister, at his uncle, trying to piece together what Cersei’s after. Yara nudges at him to speak.

“I wanted to make amends for all the horrible things I did to her family. To my family.”

Cersei lifts a brow. “Yours?”

Theon closes his eyes, drawing strength from the memory of Jon’s forgiveness. “They were my family. And I hurt them.”

“Do you know where she is now?”

“At Winterfell,” Theon says, but it sounds more like he’s asking, like he’s hoping, and dread lies in his gut like an oily, fat lamprey.

“Would you like to see her again?”

Theon’s head whips around, his breath coming in short bursts, waiting for someone to drag out Sansa by her red hair and throw her in front of him. The images of her bruised body, the echoes of her screams still haunt him every night. He doesn’t want to see her pain again. He squeezes his eyes shut.

I can't.

“I don’t have her here, you halfwit. Would you like to go back to Winterfell?”

He falls forward with relief, palms slamming against the floor. “Why?”

“If I were to offer you Winterfell, would you kill Sansa for me?”

“No,” he says to the floor.

“No? You and your sister at Winterfell. Wardens of the North. Kill the whore, and Winterfell is yours, once the war’s over.”

Theon forces himself to tilt his head up and look her straight in the eye. “No. I’ll never hurt her. No matter what you offer me.”

Cersei hums, pacing in front of them as she speaks. “Do you know how much time has passed since Euron took you?” She waits for a reply, but none of them gives one. “Yes, I lost track as well. Do you know how many rescue attempts the silver-haired bitch has made? Take a guess.”

“None,” Yara grinds out.

“None.” Cersei nods. “She even had one of my bannermen and his son, and did she ask for a trade? No, she killed them. Burned them alive.”

“Is that what you’re going to do to us? Kill two of her allies for the two she killed?”

Cersei smiles at Yara. “Do you honestly believe she’d care? She’s at Winterfell now, supping in the great hall in her beautiful gowns, strolling through the godswood with Jon Snow on her arm, thinking it all belongs to her. And you’re here, dirty and starved.”

“What do you want?” Ellaria asks through gritted teeth.

“I want us to be allies.”

Ellaria scoffs. “Allies? You think I would work together with the monster who murdered my daughter?” She spits at the floor. “Never.”

“You murdered mine. Doesn’t that make us even?”

“And what about Oberyn?” She glares at the Mountain. “What about Elia? Her children. What about Obara and Nymeria?”

“You’re free to try killing ser Gregor,” Cersei says, gesturing at him. “If that makes you feel better.”

The Mountain steps closer, his shadow spilling over the steps until it looms over Ellaria. She’s trembling like Theon, now, shrinking before the undead abomination.

“No? How about that one, then?” Cersei nods at Euron, who does a come-hither motion while fluttering his tongue at her. “Would you like to try? No? How about Daenerys?” Cersei stops her pacing in front of Yara. “Or are you still her loyal servants?”

“Loyal? No,” Yara says. “But I don’t care about Daenerys. So she left me to rot--I would’ve done the same. I don’t care about your pointless war either. There won’t be any people left to rule soon. Just let us go.”

“There’s nowhere to go. Daenerys lost one of her dragons to the Night King and now the whole world is available to him. None of us is safe, not even you islanders, unless we band together. And once we’ve killed him, we’ll kill Daenerys.”

“I don’t understand,” Theon says. “Why do you need us to kill Daenerys?”

Euron sits up. “Yeah, why do you need them? I thought we were going to play with them, draw their blood to make our own blood run hot so we could fuck on the Iron Throne.” He grabs himself between the legs, giving her a filthy grin. “Even saying it makes me hard. I can't wait to throw that in your brother's face.”

Cersei’s nostrils flare with held back anger, but she doesn’t turn around or reply. “I need your men,” she says to her captives, “and I need your ships.”

My men.” Euron stands now. “My ships.”

“Do I have to ask ser Gregor to see to it that your mouth stays shut while I speak to my guests?”

Euron glances at the Mountain through the corner of his eye and for once in his life he stays quiet.

“Remove their chains,” Cersei tells the Ironborn behind her captives. “Now,” she adds when no one lifts a finger.

The Mountain moves a little closer and suddenly the Ironborn can’t remove those chains fast enough.

After they’ve set Yara and Ellaria free, Cersei gestures at them to step back. Then she drops down on her haunches like a wildling so that they’re face to face. Theon watches his sister and Ellaria through the corner of his eye for a lead to follow. But while his sister looks hard as stone, Ellaria's anger has dissipated, leaving her pensive as her eyes trail over Cersei.

“Your uncle is annoying,” Cersei says to Theon. “I thought I could take him North, but I’ll just end up killing him and then his men will leave. If he were to die, would his men follow you?”

“Not Theon,” Yara says. “But if I killed him, they would follow me.”

Theon isn’t too convinced. No matter how many men she kills, Yara’s still a woman and the Ironborn made their feelings about that clear. But, perhaps, if she convinces the men in the throne room, shows them how strong and resilient she is, the rest will follow. Cersei must certainly think so, for out of her sleeve she slips a dagger--a beautiful ornate Valyrian steel dagger--and lays it at Yara’s feet.

“Good luck,” she says with a smile and returns to her throne.

The light catches the dagger’s blade, drawing Euron’s eyes to where it lies. Not a trace of his usual smirk lingers on his face. His eyes lock with Yara’s, hand dropping to his own dagger. But then Yara’s frail body hurtles through the air, carried by the wings of vengeance and justice. Her battle cry rings in the large room; the blade shines like a crescent moon. When she crashes into Euron, his dagger falls to the floor, clinking down the steps, and he falls too. The back of his head hits marble with a thud. He groans, eyes shut, but then his eyes fly open again as Yara plunges the blade into his throat.

With one hand clamped over the handle of the dagger, keeping it in his neck to keep the blood in his veins, Euron tries to get a punch in with the other. But Yara evades a blow, accepts another, grinning even as his nails rake down her cheek. Then she slams her forehead into his nose. A sickening crunch. Pulling out the dagger is easy for her now, and she laughs at the spray of blood that follows. She stabs him again and again, creating a horrible song of wet noises and the long wheezing moan hissing out from Euron’s lips.

She doesn’t stop until the light leaves his eyes.

Chest heaving with labored breaths, Yara throws her head back and roars out in triumph. She’s like something out of a child’s nightmares. A blood-drenched demon come to feast on human flesh.

“Ironborn!” She drops the dagger and pushes herself to stand on wobbly legs in a pool of their uncle’s lifesblood. “Now I’m the one who has paid the iron price. I’ve avenged my father, your King, and now the Salt Throne is mine!”

Then follows a rousing speech about making their mark on the world, about killing White Walkers, the Dragon Queen’s armies, and wearing dragon-teeth around their necks, but to Theon it’s nothing but the whispers of ocean waves lapping at the shore. All he sees is the dagger.

He grew up around inlanders, around their precious highborn daughters. They wield no weapons, those daughters, and never learn how to defend themselves. Well, unless they were like Arya, but Cersei Lannister is no Arya Stark.

He could take her. The Mountain is strong, yes, but he’s slow and Theon is lithe and quick. He can dart forward like a marlin, grab that dagger, and bury it in the heart of the woman who wanted him to kill Sansa. Then the Mountain will kill him, he knows that, but it would be a good death. Ned Stark would be proud of him for protecting Sansa.

I can do it. I can.

His body’s taut like a bowstring, ready to launch, but then Ellaria lays a hand on his arm and his body goes slack under her touch.

“Don’t,” she says.

“We can’t trust her,” Theon whispers. “Once we reach the North, she’ll try to kill Sansa.”

“A Lannister can never be trusted, no, but I know Cersei Lannister and that is not Cersei Lannister.”

She inclines her head discreetly, prompting him to look at Cersei. The Queen's picked up the dagger and is now hastily wiping it on a clean spot on Euron’s trousers.

“Ever heard of the Faceless Men? That is someone who killed Cersei Lannister and stole her face. And now she wants to kill Daenerys Stormborn, not your precious Sansa. If she’s going North, she needs to get better at pretending. Tell her that as you sail together. She's too light. Too... unpolished." 

“You’re not coming with us?”

“What’s the point? Oberyn wanted justice for his sister and her children. It got him killed. I wanted justice for Oberyn. It got my daughter killed. His daughters killed. And now… Cersei’s dead. The Mountain is… Whatever he is, it’s worse than death. Who shall I murder for justice? That Dragon Cunt, who let Cersei kill my daughter? Why?” Ellaria shakes her head, dark hair bouncing around her face, and he notices then the tears on her cheeks, how the light from the braziers color them gold. “It’s just more death. I’ve been staring at death for months. I want to go home.”

No one stops her when she walks out of the throne room with her head held high. Part of him wants to follow her, hiding from winter in the lands where snow rarely falls, drinking his fill of the ruby red wines the Ironborn tease him for enjoying, learning to be content with merely watching beautiful women in airy dresses instead of seeing only his loss in the curves of their bodies.

Yara needs him, though, and he still needs to atone.

Chapter Text

The myriad of children at Winterfell ask for Arya Stark every day. Off finding her direwolf, her siblings claim, but Daenerys knows the truth: the girl’s avoiding the wedding. As the favorite sister, it must smart that Jon doesn’t marry her to secure the loyalty of the North. She’ll slink back into Winterfell tomorrow or the day after, bringing bad excuses instead of a pet. Until then, though, Grey Worm has taken her place by Brienne’s side out in the courtyard, teaching the children how to fight with spears.

Bundled up in a wool cloak, Missandei often watches from the warmth of the forge where the handsome smith, the one with strong arms and blue eyes, hammers away on something or other. Today Daenerys watches as well, but from the battlements with Tyrion by her side and two of her bloodriders behind her.

The children are sparring two and two, with Brienne and Grey Worm pacing among them to oversee their movements. When a boy tumbles back with a surprised oof , Grey Worm is there instantly to pull the child to his feet and joke the embarrassed look off his little face. At this distance, Daenerys can’t hear Grey Worm’s comforting words, but she sees his smile clearly. He’s never smiled like that before: an easy thing, so warm, almost fatherly. None of the Unsullied ever do.

“He’s good with children,” Tyrion says. “I’m surprised to see it. I would’ve expected something a little more… stringent.”

“He is.” Daenerys’ eyes trail over to Missandei. She’s beaming with pride and love and a kind of hope that twists something inside Daenerys. “A shame he can’t have them.”

Tyrion hums thoughtfully. “War often leaves children without parents, as you know.”

“That was never my wish. It’s not why I am here.”

“It’s inevitable. And when that happens… Well, there are many orphans in King’s Landing already. Grey Worm and Missandei could do much good there--without leaving your side.”

“Mm, they could. But I’m not planning on orphaning children.”

“I know you’re not. But, Your Grace, if you wage war against my sister, you will orphan children whether you want it or not.”

Today is a busy day. With so much to do before the wedding this afternoon, few pay them any mind. Beneath the noisy cover of training children, of hammer against steel, and people bustling to decorate Winterfell and prepare the feast, Daenerys says, “Not if I fly to the Red Keep.”

“But the wildfire--”

“The wildfire? The one your sister used to blow up the sept? I’d be surprised if there were any caches left.”

“I’m sure there are--”

“You’re sure.” She glances down at him and lets something of the dragon simmer in her voice. “If your sister managed to blow up nothing but the sept, I’m sure I can manage to blow up nothing but the Keep.”

Tyrion sags, head lowered in defeat. “You’re going.”

“I am. Tomorrow. I will break fast with the newly-weds in the great hall. I will express hopes of there already growing a babe in her belly, even though I know it’s impossible because that marriage won’t be consummated. I will make it abundantly clear I support the marriage in every way. And then I will fly South, take care of your sister, and return in time to kill the Night King.”

Tyrion nods, a deep sigh leaving him. “Have you considered how Jon Snow will feel about this?”

“If you think I’d let a man’s opinion stop me from getting what is mine , you’re a fool.”

He gives her a tight smile. “It wouldn’t be the first time.”

“Tell Missandei to join me,” she says without looking at him. “Lady Sansa is waiting for us.”

 

-----

 

A pretty girl with thick hair the color of wheat opens the door to Sansa’s bedchamber. Although they’re expected, she still manages to look shocked at finding Daenerys and Missandei in the hallway, and quickly moves aside to let them in. Lady Sansa herself sits on her bed by the window, sewing on her wedding dress, the long skirts draped over her lap. The girl scurries back to Sansa’s side and picks up a needle, attaching red thread to the gray bodice.

“Your Grace, a moment, please. We’re almost done.”

“Of course,” Daenerys says graciously, and moves closer for a better look.

Delicately, lest she disturbs the sewing, Daenerys lifts the once-simple skirts and watches the sunlight bring life to gray pearls, silver beads, and rough-cut crystals sewn into a lacework of silver thread fanning out from the hem. An embroidered heart-tree stretches out on the bodice, its blood-red crown covering the chest. Above looms a pair of silver direwolves who follow the curve of the shoulders, noses kissing above the breast and tails trailing down the white sleeves as though to deter unwanted hands.

Hadn’t she given Sansa the dress herself, Daenerys would’ve never known from where the fabric came. It looks nothing like it.

“Do you like it, Your Grace?”

“It’s extraordinary.” Daenerys sinks down on the bed, and the handmaiden scrambles so far back she slides down on the floor to stand behind them. “How come no one’s told me of your talent?”

“I couldn’t say, Your Grace. It’s no secret it’s one of my greatest passions.”

“Once I marry”-- Daenerys strokes the fabric, imagining herself in a similar dress, the direwolves replaced by dragons, the heart-tree replaced by flames--“I want you to make my dress.”

“I didn’t know you were planning on marrying, but it would be my honor to make your dress.”

“I left someone behind, in Meereen. A lover. So I could marry a Westerosi lord.”

“I hope you find someone worthy of you, Your Grace.”

“I’m certain I will,” Daenerys says and shares a secret smile with Missandei.

Sansa puts down the needle and takes a deep breath, holds the dress out in front of her. “There. All done.”

“It’s lovely, m’lady,” the handmaiden whispers.

Sansa looks over her shoulder “I never could’ve done it without you, Lyra. Thank you.” She smiles kindly. “That will be all, for now. You may leave.”

The handmaiden, Lyra, trembles with awe as she curtsies before Daenerys. Then she scurries away without a word. Once Daenerys and Missandei leave, she’ll be back with Gilly to dress Lady Stark for her wedding. This morning, as they broke fast, Daenerys offered lady Sansa her chambers and her maids, and a bath in water infused with her own fragrant oils brought from Essos. She praised her maids’ talents for braiding hair and painting faces, and sweetened the offer with a promise of rich wines and dried fruits shared with herself and Missandei. And yet Sansa politely declined. She’d promised Lyra and Gilly, she said, and a lady keeps her promises.

To Daenerys, though, it seems Sansa often sacrifices her own wants for the sake of others. Daenerys pities her, a little. A generous nature is wonderful, but women need to learn how to take what they want. Unless… unless that is exactly what Sansa is doing. In her youth, Daenerys sometimes acted the girl to fool her enemies into underestimating her. Is Sansa clever enough to do the same?

“Wine?” Daenerys gestures at the flagon in Missandei’s hands. “I brought one of Tyrion’s favorites for us.”

They settle down by the fire. Missandei still shivers a little, as though the cold has settled in her bones, and Sansa finds her a blanket.

“I hope I didn’t shock you, my lady.” Daenerys smiles against the rim of her wine glass before taking a sip. “When I told you about my lover.”

“Not at all, Your Grace.”

“No, why would you? Your brother has had lovers. Your sister has a lover. And yourself, I’m sure. A beautiful woman like you must’ve had many lovers.”

“I have not.”

Sansa’s wine is still untouched, so Daenerys tops off her glass in encouragement. Sansa dutifully takes a sip.

“You must be looking forward to tonight. Jon’s a very generous lover.”

Missandei chokes on her wine and coughs discreetly behind her hand, while Sansa looks so impossibly young and innocent it can't be an act. She even blushes, staring at her lap, and it helps Daenerys to keep her tone light when all she wants is to shake the girl and ask her whether she and Jon will consummate the marriage. Whether they’ve already shared a bed. Sometimes he looks at Sansa in a way that makes Daenerys question everything about him.

Sometimes it makes dark prophecies echo in the back of her mind.

“I trust Jon has told you about us,” Daenerys says.

“He has. But, Your Grace, Jon and I will wait to consummate the marriage.”

“Don’t you find him handsome?”

“What woman wouldn't find him handsome? But we were only just brother and sister.“

“Why should you let that stop you if you want him?”

“The union is a political one, Your Grace.”

“Even more the reason to consummate it.” Daenerys forces a smile. “Won’t the Northern lords and ladies want that?”

Sansa blinks, swallows, the blush gone from her now pale cheeks. “I’ve never…” She tightens her hand around the stem of her glass and takes a big gulp. “Not willingly--and Jon respects me. He’d never force me. If that’s what they want, we’ll lie. I trust that secret will be safe with you, Your Grace?”

Daenerys suppresses the need to draw a breath of relief. Instead she leans over the table and rests her hand on Sansa’s to give some comfort. She feels for the girl, she does. Few understand what it’s like to go through what they have, and fewer still take those experiences and turn them into strengths like Daenerys has. Like Sansa has not.

“I can see this upsets you, my lady. We shall speak of it no more.”

 

-----

 

No matter how much she twists and turns in front of the looking-glass, Daenerys can’t find her new dress flattering. Her seamstresses made it sound so elegant and appropriate: gray wools and silks, snow-white furs, and pale silver jewelry combined in a Northern gown. Ever the journeyer, Daenerys knows how to assimilate into new cultures, and weaving their styles into your own wardrobe always helps. She thought she’d belong in this--without blending into the crowd. It won’t do, though; it’s much too dull. And while she’d never dream of outshining the bride, she is a queen. The queen. She needs to look it.

“Bring me the azure blue one,” she tells her handmaidens, gesturing impatiently. “And the golden belt.”

Once dressed, she twirls in front of the looking-glass, the skirts swishing around her slender form. Perfect. When people gaze at her, the summer sky won’t seem so faraway anymore.

She sends out all her handmaidens except Missandei, who’s weaving golden bells into Daenerys’ braids and chattering about Grey Worm and his work with the children. With a sigh, Daenerys smooths out the dress over her flat stomach. While sailing to White Harbor, she secretly, foolishly thought she’d be with child by now and that she’d be the one kneeling with Jon by the heart-tree before flying out to war.

“You look very beautiful, My Queen.”

Daenerys stares at her reflection until she loses focus. Unlike other men, Jon doesn't shower her with compliments, but Tyrion and Varys often point out how she has an inexorable pull on Jon's gaze. Tonight all eyes will be on Sansa, but she can't help but hope at least Jon's will be on her.

“Am I terrible, Missandei?”

“Never, Your Grace."

Daenerys clasps her hands before her. "What do you think of lady Sansa?"

"I like her very much."

"As do I," she says, eyes downcast. "And yet I hate her. How could I not? I’ve never felt like this before. Jon’s different from all other men. It’s as if we were made for one another. We’re one and the same. Two halves of a whole. And I think he feels it too, but he’s so quiet. I never know what he’s thinking. And now he’s marrying someone else even though we should’ve already been married if this world had been kind! My brother would have insisted on our betrothal had he lived; I’m certain of it.”

“I thought Jon Snow had promised you an annulment."

“Yes, but how can I be sure? She’s everything a man could want in a wife, she’ll make a wonderful mother, and she’ll be in his bed. He’ll have every right. Perhaps he’ll even enjoy being married to her. Perhaps he’ll want children. Something I can never offer him. But she can."

“Your Grace, if I may… I have spent some time with the people of Winterfell, and Grey Worm even more than I have. While the Northern lords are… difficult, he has become friends with many of the Free Folk and they've told him of Ygritte. If Jon Snow wanted a beautiful Northern girl who could sew and run a household, he would have married one already. As King in the North, he would have had little difficulty finding a good match. It’s my belief no one caught his eye. You say he has had lovers, but Your Grace, he has only had two. You, and this Ygritte, a wildling girl, a spearwife, a warrior .”

Daenerys hums. “A strong woman who took what she wanted.”

“Yes. And… If you love someone, you’ll be with them regardless of whether they can have children. No matter how much you want them yourself. Trust me on this.”

“Thank you, Missandei.” Smiling at Missandei through the looking-glass, she takes her hand and gives it a grateful squeeze. “Shall we go?”

 

-----

 

It’s only late afternoon and still, as they step outside, darkness envelopes them. Jon will marry his sister beneath torch lights, and once he rises the next morning from a wedding bed he’s only slept in, the land will lie dark still.

Why would anyone choose to live like this, trapped inside a castle to be safe from the cold and ever-dark North? How can a man like Jon not ache for freedom? He claims he belongs here, but he’s only ventured South once, to the windy island of Dragonstone where he wrapped himself in his cloak to protect himself from the raw ocean air. He doesn’t know the loving touch of true summer sun.

She must show him. As she stands in the snow and watches him marry someone else, she comforts herself with that thought. Once the war is over and the marriage annulled, she’ll climb up on Drogon and this time, when she holds out her hand, Jon will take it and climb up too. He’ll sit behind her, his arms around her waist and his nose in her hair. With her so close, his hands won’t help but wander and soon his hardness will press into the small of her back, and once they can no longer take the heat sizzling between them, they’ll land in the great grass sea where she once stepped out of the ashes, reborn. There he will shed his Northern inhibitions as he sheds his Northern clothes, and when he takes her, it will be with all the passion of a Targaryen. And in her embrace he’ll be reborn too, as a dragon.

Chapter Text

Down in the crypts there’s nothing but silence, the dance of flames flickering in the draft, and the musty smell that reminds Jon of childhood. For a moment, before he has to go out and look the contented groom, but not so contented it’ll crack the frail shield of lies he’s cobbled together, he takes comfort in nostalgia, in the echoes of simpler times that still lingers in the shadows.

What a fool he was, the spoiled boy who thought a cold Catelyn Stark and sitting away from his family during feasts, meant he suffered hardships. He’s suffered in truth since then, in so many different ways, and yet what lies before him tonight surely has to be one of the most difficult thing he’s had to do… and if he’s tormented, then what must Sansa be feeling? A third marriage forced upon her because he saw no other solution than making a deal with a subjugator.

He’d ask Ned for forgiveness, for understanding, but he must understand, mustn’t he? The man who lied to his wife, who lied to his best friend, who lied to everyone to protect a boy who had no business being born in the first place. He’d understand and forgive all the lies that spill out of Jon’s mouth no matter with whom he’s speaking, because Jon is protecting so much more.

Well... there’s one thing Ned wouldn’t understand. The thing that brought Jon down here, to seek strength in the stone features of the man who raised him and called himself his father. The strength to do the right thing and say no when he knows he’ll never be able to reject her. Because if he allows himself to picture the day unfolding, he knows there’s a risk Sansa will insist on cons--

He squeezes his eyes shut and blocks out thoughts he doesn’t have the audacity to entertain before his father’s statue. It’s pointless either way; she never will.

Ghost rubs up against his leg and he can hear Davos shift his weight at the top of the stairs leading down to the crypts. It’s time.

 

The gods are wicked things. Many nights before the battle for Winterfell, as they traveled the North to call the bannermen, Jon lay in his tent and thought about Sansa. The moment his eyes fell shut, his mind filled with wants and wishes his conscience did its best to suppress during the day. He imagined her appearing in his tent, seeking to share his warmth, or some other selfish fantasy. He took himself in hand, then, and with shame burning in his body, imagined all the things they’d do, things he wanted now that the gods had given him life anew but left his sense of morality in that black nothingness where he belongs.

Soon he’ll kneel before the heart-tree and ask those bloody gods to bless his sham of a marriage and the space for him in the bed he’ll never share with her. No, they’re not wicked, those gods; they’re cruel.

And he’s still a foolish, spoiled boy who thinks heartbreak means anything in the end, when that end is nipping at the heels of everyone he’s sworn to protect.

 

The warm light of torches and lanterns bring a soft glow to the godswood, the snow mottled with the inky blue shadows of lords and ladies huddled together to witness the ceremony. Daenerys stands out in gold and blue among all the earthy shades Northerners wear. She smiles when their eyes meet, and he gives her a curt smile in return. The knots in his stomach keep him from making it genuine, and yet that minuscule sign of affection makes her eyes gleam like the golden bells in her hair.

And now Jon waits, Davos by his side, Ghost at his feet, and the heart-tree at his back, the susurrus of leaves moving gently above his head. His hand longs to curl around the solid wolf’s head of Longclaw; his hip misses its weight. Davos looks as calm as a still sea, while a turmoil of emotions washes over Jon.

He sees Bran first, his chair pushed by Brienne whose fair hair is slicked back and tall body wears the simplest of dresses in linen the color of her eyes. With a leather jerkin and that black cloak protecting her from the cold, she reminds Jon of Arya. Would she have dressed similarly had she been here? He can’t help but search the crowd for her familiar little face, but she’s still gone. Wherever she is, he hopes she’s safe--and that she’ll send a raven to ensure they know it.

Then she appears. Sansa. The woman who carries wolves on her shoulders and can never be his. The cold has kissed her nose and cheeks pink and the firelight dances in the red of her hair, but she still looks as pale as the snow she strides over. The hem of her dress is dipped in a sea of silver stars and it comes alive under the torches, glittering the way a bride’s eyes should but Sansa’s eyes don’t. Scars peek out behind the mouths of the direwolves resting on her chest, and as she notices how his eyes have dropped to them, she raises her chin the way she does when she’s being brave.

Smiling at her is an easy thing to do. She’s never been more beautiful and his smile surely tells her so, tells all of them so, and he pulls his features back into something solemn.

With her hand clutching Bran’s, they move closer to Jon until he’s trapped between the heart-tree behind him and the one embroidered on her chest.

“Who comes before the gods this night?” Davos asks and he sounds so chipper in the mirthless godswood Jon has to fight a chuckle.

Sansa notices, of course she does, and to his great relief he sees some of the cold in her features thawing.

“Lady Sansa of House Stark,” Bran says. “She comes here to be wed and beg the blessings of the gods. Who comes to claim her?”

A slew of emotions have lodged themselves in Jon’s throat and he clears it to speak soberly. “Jon Snow. Warden of the North. I claim her. Who gives her?”

“Brandon of House Stark. Her brother.”

“Lady Sansa,” Davos says, “do you take this man?”

Sansa gives Davos a small smile. “I take this man,” she says and her smile is gone.

In his deprived dreams Jon’s heard her say those words many times but always willingly, lovingly. Now she reminds him more of the Lady Stark who stood with her head held high in front of Lord Glover and Lady Mormont, and asked them with an unwavering voice to support their war. She’s wearing the brave mask he would’ve called haughty once, before he truly knew her, but the last thing he ever wanted was for his bride to summon strength and bravery to marry him.

The mask lingers as they kneel before the heart-tree and pray, and as he rises to his feet and helps her to stand. He hangs no cloak on her shoulders. What colors would he use without offending anyone? Besides, she’s the one bringing him under her protection and she’s already given him a cloak. He wears it already, every day.

A hundred eyes watch them. Some eager for a lovely kiss in place of the cloaking. Others... not. Davos' words of warning ring in his ear. The burned deer he gave him weighs down the pocket of his trousers. Sansa looks at Jon as though she’s waiting for him to do something, but still hides her true feelings behind that mask. Then it slips the smallest bit. Her lips part, tongue darting out to wet them in such a tempting invitation he cradles her cheek and presses his lips to her forehead before he does something foolish.

Something foolish to his wife. His wife . As he pulls back, his thumb absentmindedly strokes her cheek. Her eyes flicker between his, deliberating, and a wrinkle forms between her brows. For the space between two heartbeats, he thinks she might kiss him full on the mouth and his stomach flops like a fish out of water. But then she wraps her arms around his shoulders instead and steals a hug, and some strength too from the way she presses so close.

And then she whispers into his ear, “You look like you’re going to the gallows. Smile, husband.”

He’s in a mind to find her a looking-glass so she’ll see the same expression on her own features, but then she brushes her hand down the white wool of his tunic, over his many scars, and he can’t help but shiver.

“You look very handsome.” She pats his chest and it feels like a courtesy. “Come, we have a feast waiting for us.”

Calling it a feast is generous. There is no excessive number of dishes, no dove-filled pie, and no grand spectacle for entertainment, but a few days ago Tormund and a band of merry wildlings headed out for a hunt and came back with an elk, a handful hares, a ptarmigan or two, and bundles of fish, Cook’s worked out a recipe as close to lemon cakes as he can without any actual lemons, and Sansa’s found musicians among the smallfolk whose clever fingers fill the great hall with the tender notes of flutes and harps and lutes.

In here, Jon and Sansa look at their guests instead of each other, and fill their mouths with food instead of cumbersome words they’d struggle to get out. She drinks water between sparse sips of wine; he merely lets the wine wet his upper-lip even though he wouldn’t mind the rich drink lulling him into oblivion for a night. Exhaustion has done enough of a number on him; he doesn’t need wine as well to steal the little sense he has left.

Soon the gentle music swells, drowning out scrapes of knives and forks as the guests finish off the last of their lemon cakes. Still savoring hers, Sansa puts the smallest morsel on her fork and lets her eyes flutter shut as she brings it to her mouth.

As though she feels him watching her, she opens her eyes and looks at him with the closest thing to want he’ll ever see in her gaze. “Lemon balm oil. It’s not quite right, but it’s very good. Very sweet.”

He’s not touched his and pushes the plate closer to her. “You want mine?”

“You don’t want it?”

“I know you love it.” He swallows, staring down at the offering. “I want you to have it.”

“We’ll share it.” She cuts it in half with her fork and scoots over her piece to her plate. “I think they’re expecting us to lead the dance.”

Jon scrunches up his face. “Do we have to?”

“Of course not.” She pops a larger piece of lemon cake into her mouth with a satisfied sigh. “I’ve not forgotten what a terrible dancer you are.”

“I’d argue but…”

He tries to shrug casually, but she’s grinning at him and he can’t help but grin back.

In the end, Samwell leads a blushing Gilly onto the floor to lead the dance, and Jon can so easily picture his old friend spending evening after evening teaching Gilly all the right steps for their own wedding they’re bound to have shortly. Soon more guests join them, moving two and two in symmetric patterns.  Daenerys, who sits at Jon’s other side, is in an effervescent mood. The duller Jon feels, the happier she looks--and she doesn’t move her goblet to her lips for show. She’d had enough wine to bring a pretty flush to her cheeks. When Tyrion asks her to dance, she lays her hand in his and patters out on the floor, people moving aside to give them room. Unlike Gilly, she’s not had a kind tutor teaching her the dance beforehand, but she’s quick to pick up the steps, flows as gracefully as water in her blue dress, and laughs at herself whenever she makes a mistake--and for the first time since arriving at Winterfell, she looks affable and human and eager to belong.

Not teaching her beforehand, Jon realizes, is the smartest thing Tyrion could’ve done.

Her beauty doesn’t hurt either. Many a men, and a few women, cast long looks after her. Given enough wine or ale, he’s certain a few will ask her to dance. If she accepts, perhaps even ser Jorah will find the courage needed instead of sitting in a corner and moping much like Jon did as a child when he felt left out.

Even though he’s on occasion let Jorah think he’s been jealous of him, in truth Jon likes the man. There’s little of the Old Bear in him, but there’s enough of Jon himself that he understands why the Lord Commander took a liking to him. He excuses himself to Sansa and moves across the floor to share fond memories of Jeor Mormont with the man’s son. During their conversation, Jorah’s eyes often return to Daenerys and, because Jon sits beside him, her eyes often travel to them. And whenever she finds Jon already looking at her, a burst of energy travels through her and she dances with more vigor than before. She’s good at that, seeing things in his eyes that aren’t there--and ignoring the edge in his voice, the tension in his face, when he tells her what she wants to hear.

When Jon walks back to his seat, he finds his new wife shielded from view by a flock of clucking ladies. He doesn’t mean to eavesdrop, but as he comes closer he hears one of them mentioning the bedding, and he stops behind their backs and listens in secret to their concerns.

“We know there’s no bedding ceremony, my lady, but the marriage will be consummated, won’t it?”

“Our husbands are very worried, very worried indeed,” another lady says. “What’s the point of an advantageous match if it can be easily undone?”

“I wouldn’t trust the Dragon Queen, my lady,” a third says so quietly he strains to hear her words. “We’ve all seen the way she looks at your husband. Make sure he puts a babe in you and he’s yours forever.”

“Yes, make sure he puts a babe in you before the war, my lady.”

The ladies nod along, murmuring their agreement, and move the conversation to the horrors of war, of waiting at home for husbands and sons who never return. Jon takes his seat, then, and they scatter like frightened hens.

Sansa acknowledges him with a weak smile and he leans closer to her to ask whether she’s all right, but before a sound has left his lips, Daenerys draws the attention to herself for a speech. Once she’s finished gushing over her new niece, Davos wants to say a few words, then Sam, and soon Jon’s lost in playing the happy groom who laughs in all the right places.

 

-----

 

The night is still young as Jon leads Sansa to the lord’s chamber through uncomfortably quiet hallways. He can’t think of anything to say to break the silence and her hand’s a dead weight on his arm. Once they’re inside and the door is closed, is locked, he expects her to drop her armor of courtesy and become Sansa, but she welds it shut around her body as she works the lacing of the bodice and lets the dress drop to the floor instead. In nothing but a pale chemise, she steps out of the dress and drapes it over the back of a chair. Scars snake all over the exposed skin of her arms and back and calves.

When she turns around and finds him still dressed, she asks him whether he needs help and has already removed the leather belt that hung on his hips before he snaps out of the shock of seeing her undress.

“Sansa.” He stops her with a gentle grip around her wrists. “Don’t.”

“We need to. I saw you. You heard them, the ladies. They’re right.” She frees herself of his grip and starts tugging at his tunic. “She’ll take you from us, if she can. You should put a babe in me, Jon.”

Her eyes are not teary but so vacant tears fill his own eyes.

The woman who stands before him is not the brave lady Stark who married him in the godswood, but a soldier he's seen too many times before since joining the Night's Watch. A soldier who’s yet to heal from their first battle and now is thrust into the front lines of the next. A soldier who, trembling with fear, clings to their sword to ensure they’ll at least die with one in hand, while their mind does what their body cannot and flees to memories of happier times so that they’ll hold the line as the enemy thunders closer, and not be the reason the battle is lost.

“Sansa,” he whispers, hands hovering awkwardly inches from her body as he tampers down the urge to comfort because he won’t touch her ever again unless she invites him to and does so willingly. “No. We’re not… I will not.”

“But--”

“No. I would never do that to you. I couldn’t.”

Her bottom lip trembles and then she falls into his arms like an elm who’ve weathered countless storms only to be felled by a gentle breeze.

“I’m so tired of being strong all the time,” she whispers into his neck. “I’m so tired, Jon.”

So he does what any good husband would do and lifts her up and carries her to bed. But when he tries to extract himself, so he can find a snug little spot somewhere on the floor, her tight fists still clutch at his tunic, pulling him with her, and he melts onto the bed. He works his feet out of his boots, which fall to the floor with two soft thuds, but he keeps his tunic and trousers on. She settles in his arms, lying tightly against his side with one arm resting on his chest and her head resting on his shoulder. He pulls the furs over them and wills his heart, which beats so treacherously fast beneath her hand, to slow down.

“You don’t have to be strong all the time, Sansa.”

“Yes, I do.”

“Not when you’re with me.” He strokes her back in leisurely movements, fingertips brushing over linen and scars and soft, soft skin. “You can be whatever you need to be. Strong, soft, silly--”

“Broken. He broke me.”

As she says it, her voice breaks too and he wishes he could break Ramsay’s face all over again. Wishes he could kill him with his bare hands. One death isn’t enough for a man like him.

“I want to be a good wife to you. But I can’t… I can’t be present.” She sniffles and burrows closer to him to hide her tears, but he feels them nonetheless as his tunic soaks them up. “When he came to my room, I hid myself, somewhere inside. I can’t explain it, it’s just something I do. When Joffrey tormented me, when Littlefinger kissed me.”

“You did it to protect yourself,” he says because he knows .

“Yes. They could hurt my body, but never me. But I was fooling myself, wasn’t I? Because I didn’t mean to, with you. It just happened. I’m broken.”

“You’ll heal. Given time, you will heal.”

“What if I don’t?”

“You will.” He holds her tighter. “You will; I promise you will.”

“I will.” She nods against him and determination spills into her voice. “I will heal, and I will give you children, Jon, I promise you. I just need time.”

“That’s not what I…”

He trails off with a sigh. What’s the point? Why have the same conversation again about her finding a husband she truly loves, of having children with someone whose touch she’ll welcome? It won’t change the fact that this marriage won’t last very long. Either he’ll fall in the war, or Daenerys will take him as a consort, as payment for saving the North--and if that happens, he hopes he’ll have Sansa’s forgiveness, her understanding. But she must understand, mustn't she? The woman who grew up in the shadows of the best manipulators knows that sometimes, to protect the ones you love, you have to betray them.

All he has to give Sansa now, all he has to give his wife, are lies and empty promises--and an embrace free from demands.

So he holds her close and feels her relaxing in his arms, feels her breaths falling as peacefully as the snow drifting down from the black sky outside their window. He drops a kiss to the top of her head and murmurs, “goodnight,” into her hair. She smells like summer memories, and she feels like she belongs in his arms, and he loves her.

He can admit that now, without the cushion of wine and ale around his heart and around his head. He loves her. And that’s enough.

Chapter Text

There once was a maid with a belly full of fortifying wine and a back burdened by a lion’s cloak who sat, glum-faced and beautiful, at a head table next to a husband she never wanted, dreading what was to come behind closed doors. A maid no more, she still sits at a head table next to yet another husband, who won’t share her bed tonight--albeit for very different reasons--and she's still beautiful, despite the glum face.

Seated among the men who once ventured beyond the wall because of him, Tyrion brings a wine goblet to his lips and wonders what his life would’ve been like if Sansa’s first marriage had been her only marriage. If she’d allowed him to take her maidenhead. If they had traveled North and taken Winterfell. If they had been married still and the halls of Winterfell had echoed with the laughter of children with red-gold hair and parents who loved them more than anything.

He wouldn’t have killed his father and been forced to run. He wouldn’t have found Daenerys, fallen for Daenerys, fought for Daenerys, failed with Daenerys--

“You two should stop,” Tormund says. “If Jon notices how you stare at his sister-wife, he’ll gouge your eyes out with a fork.”

Tyrion swallows a burp and swings his head to look at the burly man, whose beard glistens with meat juice and ale. “I was married to her once, did you know?”

“Everybody knows. You never shut up about it.” The Hound empties his tankard and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. Then, waving his tankard, he searches the room for a serving maid instead of staring at the woman he once called Little Bird--and at the scars on her chest that tell tales of horror. “Funny that you never mention she’s the one who refused to fuck on the wedding night.”

“And how would you know? You weren’t there, as I recall. You disappeared, quite mysteriously, during the Battle of the Blackwater. I do wonder why. It was such a beautiful night, the water alight with green flames.”

The Hound’s mouth twitches. “Word travels, about the gallant little lord who wouldn’t touch his child-bride. But you and I both know you would’ve, had she let you.”

“Hm. I seem to remember you being the one who lusted after the Stark girl. That was the word around court. But it’s easily done, mistaking me for you. I always think I’ve stumbled upon a mirror whenever you appear before me.”

The serving maid squeezes in between them, pouring golden ale into the tankard from a pitcher. Leaned forward as she is, her breasts almost spill out of her dress, and Tyrion has no trouble tearing his eyes off Sansa with this work of art before him. The serving maid notices him staring and flashes him a smile. There’s something familiar about her, the charming gap between her front teeth, the way her dark-brown ringlets bounce as she moves. He thinks he might’ve fucked her once, a long time ago, before he became Hand of the Queen and gave up his whoring ways.

Father would be so proud.

Tyrion smiles at her as she leaves and scoots off the bench to leave too, keeping to himself the nights he drunkenly collapsed onto the bed where his then-wife lay asleep. He never tried anything, no, but still nurtured a secret hope that the sweet girl who treated him so kindly during the day would see something worthwhile in him and treat him kindly at night too. That she would end his watch and his father’s berating and the gossiping around the Keep.

Guilt plagues him still when he looks at her--and when he looks at Jon. By inviting Jon to Dragonstone, Tyrion thought he acquired Daenerys yet another ally; alas, he offered her a prisoner who was stuck on a windy island, and in a dour mood, for months. So Tyrion does what he can to ease his conscience. It’s never much. A lie here and there; a misdirection--all to assuage the worries of their Queen and mollify her temper.

Oh, he’s known about Jon’s feelings for Sansa for quite some time now. Tyrion is the little brother of Jaime and Cersei, after all. Only tonight is the first time he suspects Sansa might feel the same. He’s noticed how their bodies always are angled toward one another even when their faces are turned away, how they steal glances when the other isn't looking, and how, despite the fact they’ve married one another, are so terrified of being found out, they become as happy and lively as the statues down in the crypt whenever the attention is directed at them.

Luckily, Daenerys is much too elated this evening to notice the tension between her lover and his bride. Only a night’s rest and a dragonflight stand between her and the throne. If she has her way, by this time tomorrow, she’ll be Queen of the Seven Kingdoms in truth.

So he redirects the attention of the room from the two who don’t want it to the one who needs it in the same way he needs wine and sex. And as they dance together, the Queen and her Hand, she smiles as brightly as flames and moves as lightly as butterflies, and he remembers why he loved her, once, and why he loves her still in a way, even though he knows he shouldn’t. Because when Daenerys Targaryen looks at you, this shit world they live in fades to nothingness and you feel as tall as the shadow she casts.

And when she lavishes someone else with that attention, you feel trapped in her shadow. Trapped and cold and alone.

Have I fallen for my own father?

No. Where Tywin Lannister’s cruelty was blunt and sharp all at once, hers is thoughtless and misguided: a by-product of her altruistic ambition. Tyrion could never hate her like he hated his father, not even if she burns down the Keep tomorrow.

“You look deep in thought tonight,” Daenerys says, eyes flitting quickly to the other ladies on the floor to ensure she’s making the right steps. “I thought dancing was supposed to be accompanied by conversation.”

“I’m sorry, Your Grace. You’re so right. Are you having a pleasant evening?”

“I am. It’s a wonderful wedding. A beautiful bride, a handsome groom, food that’s… cooked.”

Tyrion smiles. “Northerners were never famous for their cooking. It’s their ale you want.”

“I’ve tried it; I prefer your wine.” She spins, skirts fluttering around her, bells ringing softly in her hair. “And what about you? Are you having a pleasant evening.”

“Always, when I share it with you.”

She narrows her eyes at him, but her smile is still bright and warm. “You only flatter me when you want something. What is it you want?”

“A speech. Later. You should give a speech. A toast to the happy couple.”

He nudges Daenerys later, when Sansa looks distressed and in need of distraction, and then he leans back and enjoys the show. No matter how the Northerners feel about Daenerys, they’re not immune to her charisma and beauty, and when she speaks about love for family, and how welcome Sansa is in hers, Tyrion sees several guests nodding along. It’s not a battle won, but it’s a start. Perhaps the Essosi needed a dragon flying high in the sky, but the Northerners need someone grounded, someone connected to them, who values family and tradition.

Once the awkward couple leaves for their bedding--and a ferociously glaring Brienne stops anyone who tries to follow to eavesdrop outside their bedchamber--Tyrion follows Daenerys out to the battlements for some air. The clamor of the feast becomes a murmur out here, and for once the courtyard is still, but Daenerys turns her back to the reminder of what might happen inside Winterfell tonight, and looks out over the snowy landscape.

“He won’t do anything,” Tyrion says. “If I know Jon Snow correctly, he’ll sleep on the floor.”

Snow begins to fall, the flakes small and glittering like faraway stars. In the distance, he hears a dragon singing a haunting song as though it expresses the feelings its mother bottles up.

“I can’t wait to fly again.” She gazes up at the shape of Drogon piercing through moonlit clouds. “It’s been too long. It makes me restless... Tyrion? Do you still think I’m what’s best for Westeros?” She looks down at him with too-wide eyes and that rare vulnerability she only shows to a selected few. “Do you think I belong on the Iron Throne?”

“Of course. I wouldn’t be by your side if I didn’t.”

He says it confidently, even though, yes, he’s had doubts. He still has them. A Hand always has doubts no matter the ruler they serve. A Hand has to question his ruler, or he isn't a good Hand. But this is the queen he chose, and her beliefs are the ones he believes in, her vision of the future is the one he wants to see come to fruition. He only need to look at Missandei and Grey Worm, at their devotion and love for the woman who set them free, to remind himself of what she truly is and all the good she's accomplished: the people she's liberated; the corrupt men she's destroyed. The wheel that turns over Westeros is different, yes, but still rotted. You don’t repair rotted wood; you replace it with something else. You burn it. Only the Mother of Dragons can do that.

Daenerys watches him carefully as she asks, “Would you still serve me if you didn’t think I’d burn you alive if you betrayed me?”

“Well, while I’d rather go out with my hands full of tits and my cock inside a beautiful woman, at least dragonfire isn’t being shot to death on the shithouse.”

Daenerys quirks a brow, a smile tugging at her lips, and he smiles too because it feels good to help her forget Jon and Sansa for a moment.

“Beg your pardon for my language, Your Grace.”

“Foul language never bother me when truths are spoken. Only lies offend me--especially pretty ones.” She clasps her hands and breathes deeply of the crisp winter air, breath as silver-pale as her hair streaming from her nose like smoke from a dragon. “You wouldn’t prefer Lady Sansa? Everyone else seems to.”

Ah. A very short moment.

“She’s malleable," she continues. "You could create the queen you’ve always wanted.”

“She is sweet,” Tyrion says, “and many love her for it. They love her because she’s familiar. And because she’s rejected their offer, because it’s so very easy to want something you know you can’t have. It’s safe. And as for me… She’s more fish than wolf, and I want someone with a little more bite. Westeros needs someone with a little more bite. And you, My Queen, are all dragon.”

“Flattery again--and so soon. What else do you want?”

“Sometimes, Your Grace, I flatter you for the pure joy of it. In case it’s escaped your notice, I am very fond of you.”

She hums and rolls her eyes. “And I of you. But…?”

“Are you sure, about leaving tomorrow? There’s an awful lot of people living in King’s Landing.”

“My enemies are in the Red Keep.”

“There’s an awful lot of people living in the Red Keep too.”

“I’ll give them a chance to surrender. I always do.”

“And if they refuse?”

“What kind of queen would I be if I saw an end to this war and didn’t take it? An end that wouldn’t mean tens of thousands lives spilled on a battlefield. My men chose to fight for me; Cersei's men are forced to fight for her. So, tell me, Tyrion, whose lives are worth more? The pampered court, or the several thousand lowborn men who fight for your sister against their wishes? Whose lives would you have me prioritize?”

The lives up here , he thinks. The ones you’ve vowed to protect.

But there’s no use telling her that. She’s had the world at her fingertips only for it to evade her grasp, and now that even Jon Snow is slipping away, she’s too desperate for a win to be reasoned with--and yet he can’t give up. Not just for the people living in King’s Landing, but for the life growing in Cersei’s womb. Jaime’s child.

Hands clenched, Tyrion turns his head to hide how his eyes fill with tears when he thinks about Tommen and Myrcella. But then he swallows his grief and his guilt and tries again.

“It’s an impossible choice, Your Grace. But you don’t want to start your reign stained with the blood of the innocent. There has to be another way. Give me some time. I’ll think of something.”

“You’ve had more than enough time to find another way and yet you haven’t. The realm will bleed as long as Cersei’s on the throne, and I can’t win a war against her--I can’t protect the people of Westeros--without killing. Change always comes at a cost.”

"If you leave, the people of the North--"

"The people of the North are not stupid. They might be upset, but they won't reject my help once I return. And after I've saved them, they will see me for what I am and they will kneel."

“Then, please. Give me until tomorrow at least, to find another way to take King's Landing. Please. I know you don’t want to hurt all those people.”

Daenerys expels a tired breath but nods her consent. Then she leaves him for her bedchambers and a good night’s sleep.

-----

Trudging back to the great hall with its women and wine, Tyrion thinks back on every war story he’s ever read, every war story he’s ever heard, every lesson told by his father. He examines the little experience he has himself--and kicks himself for never appointing a competent Lord Commander of Daenerys’ forces, one with decades of experience leading armies into battle.

The great hall is teeming with life and laughter and the out-of-tune warbling of The Dornishman's Wife. Many still dance, although steps are abandoned for something loose and free. Tormund tries to drag the Hound onto the floor where people dance in a ring with their arms around one another’s shoulders. A group of wildings sits by a long table with a proudly grinning Grey Worm and a shy Missandei who, while she sits primly with a polite smile, has such an excited spark in her eyes Tyrion can’t help but swing by their table to listen in.

Ah. A satisfied smile spreads on his face when he realizes Missandei’s asking them questions about the Old Tongue and trying to wrap her own tongue around the unfamiliar words as she parrots what they tell her.

It was his idea. Oh, he never stated outright that Missandei should try to strengthen the bond Grey Worm already has formed with the group of people furthest away from their Queen, the ones who don’t kneel. But he’s ever-so-casually mentioned the Old Tongue around her so often her curiosity was bound to beat her insecurity eventually, and motivate her into reaching out.

For a while, he watches the couple he’s come to care for so deeply. At Winterfell, Missandei has mostly kept to Daenerys’ side, but Grey Worm has been thoroughly involved in all the preparations for the war and it’s given him some well-needed confidence. Smiles come more easily to him now, as do words in the Common Tongue. He’s come a long way since the days when he called himself This One, and he never would have, had Daenerys not freed him.

And it’s then, as Tyrion thinks about the boy Grey Worm once was, and all the stories ser Jorah’s told of their time with Daenerys before Tyrion joined them, that he remembers Yunkai. No, Daenerys won’t have time to march an army South. But she did leave Dothraki men at Dragonstone to guard it. And with Varys’ many secret tunnels...

It could work. It would take a little longer than simply burning it all down, but it could work.

Tyrion nods at Grey Worm as he passes, his steps lighter now, and heads for the table where his forlorn brother sighs into his ale and repeatedly glances at the empty doorway where Brienne disappeared a while ago.

“Where’s your Beauty?” Tyrion asks as he settles down.

“Guarding lady Sansa’s door. I was hoping…” Jaime takes a defeated breath and, as he exhales, slumps down over the table with his head propped up by his left hand. “I don’t know what I was hoping.”

“That ale and the general atmosphere of romance would put her in the mood?”

“We’re always dancing around each other and… While I quite like it in fighting, I’ve grown tired of it when it comes to love. I just want to be near her.”

“Then stop dancing and tell her how you feel.”

“She knows how I feel about her.”

“Sometimes women like to be told, even when they do know.”

“I told her about the baby.”

Tyrion winces. “Ah.”

“Mm.” Jaime nods, empties his cup, and grabs another one someone’s left on the table. He peers into it, shrugs, and empties that too. “She didn’t take it well. Oh, she was polite. Kind. Happy for me, even. And very, very distant.”

“Jaime,” Tyrion says, leaning in closer, “are you absolutely certain it’s yours?”

Jaime pulls down the corners of his mouth into a grimace, shaking his head. “Cersei's taken other men into her bed before so, no, not absolutely certain. Do you know what she whispered in my ear after she told me? ‘Don’t ever betray me again.’ It felt less like happy news and more like a trap. But I suppose she would’ve said that regardless of whose baby it is.”

“After we’ve defeated the Night King, Daenerys will march South. Does that worry you?”

“I learned a long time ago to not think of my children as my children. But… If you could manage to prevent your Dragon Queen from murdering Cersei while she’s pregnant, I’d be very grateful.”

“I'll do my best. And... after she’s given birth?”

“I want to be free.” Jaime’s eyes wander back to the empty doorway where Brienne's have yet to appear. “I love Cersei. I will always love her. But as long as she lives, I’ll never be free.”

After patting him on the shoulder, Jaime leaves for the night and perhaps Tyrion should get some sleep too before he presents his idea for Daenerys and her council tomorrow, but he needs to have some fun for a change. So when Podrick waves at him, he finds himself moving to yet another table.

There he gets to know Gendry better, who’s become close with Pod and often spars with him out in the courtyard when he’s not busy forging weapons. He laughs at Tormund’s constantly teasing the Hound, and at the grumbling way the Hound puts up with it instead of leaving with a snarled fuck off.  He tries a mix of ale and fermented milk Tormund swears by and finds it... perhaps not delicious, but it does put hair on your chest. And he notices, with something akin to hope, hope for love and a brighter future, when Grey Worm and Missandei sneak off for a private moment. He even makes eyes at that buxom serving maid with the dark brown ringlets, because making eyes doesn’t have to lead anywhere.

And then, when too much fermented milk and ale and Dornish red have sent his world spinning, he leaves the great hall in a happy mood. He serves a queen who’s tempestuous, yes, but once she’s on the throne, the storm will calm and it will be better. She will be better. She’s a good person who wants to do good in the world. The Breaker of Chains. The Breaker of the Wheel. And she’ll trust him again, listen to him again, let him check her worst impulses again, because now he has a plan, a good plan, that will protect his brother’s baby, the innocent people of King’s Landing, and still put Daenerys on the throne where she belongs.

Tonight his empty bed won’t feel so crowded by the intrusive thoughts who’ve set up camp on his sheets to bother him whenever he tries to get some rest.

But then he passes a room with soft-spoken words sneaking out the door that’s been carelessly left ajar.

“...the war is won, I want to stay.”

Tyrion stops. It’s Grey Worm.

“Here?” Missandei asks. “You want to stay at Winterfell after the war?”

“I want to stay in the North.”

“Why? I thought… What about us?”

“I want you to stay as well. I am tired of fighting other people’s wars. I want Daenerys Stormborn to set us free.”

“We are already free,” Missandei says in her most tender voice. “Because of her. But I will ask her.”

“If you have to ask, Missandei, you are not free.” He pauses and then quietly adds, “If we have to ask, Mhysa is a Master.”

Tyrion doesn’t stay to hear the rest of the conversation. No, he turns around and heads back to the great hall, where the serving maid still moves from table to table, pouring ale with flirty smiles. When she notices him staring, she saunters over to him with her hips swinging in a way that makes his cock twitch. He thinks she might be a whore who used to work at the brothel in Wintertown and could do spectacular things with her mouth. He thinks she might be a stranger. A complete--and utterly compelling--stranger.

Either way, she’ll warm his bed tonight. And the following night, if she wants. And all the nights until the day comes when he has nothing left but doubt and regret and a wish to be free, and he’ll be burned alive for it.

Chapter Text

The groan of a moving door wakes up Sansa. Her eyes fly open and she peers into the dark. Jon? No. His arm still cradles her back and her hand still rests over his heart. Then she hears soft footsteps over stone floors followed by the smattering of snaps and creaks as new wood catches fire. Watching the silhouette of a chambermaid feeding more wood to the famished flames, Sansa’s eyes grow heavy. She’s almost asleep when the door creaks again and a flash of yellow and blue on the other side pulls her back.

With a blanket wrapped around her, she pads to the door and sticks her head outside.

“Brienne,” she whispers at the shape who’s dozing against the hallway wall. “Go to bed.”

Brienne shoots up, nostrils flaring and eyes watering as though she’s stifling a yawn. “Are you all right, my lady?”

“I’m fine. Where are my guards?”

“I sent them away. They were trying to listen . To you and… Lord Stark. Are you sure you’re all right, my lady?”

Sansa opens the door another touch, revealing a snoring Jon still in his wedding tunic. “Nothing happened. We’ve just slept.”

Brienne’s lips curve into a quiet, relieved smile. “If you ever need my help--”

“I know. Thank you, Brienne.” Sansa gives her a chiding look, but takes the edge off by smiling too. “Now go to sleep.”

Sansa closes the door and leans against it with a sigh, eyes drifting to the bed. There he lies, the White Wolf, in his white tunic made for his wedding to another. But when she walked into the godswood and saw him by the heart-tree, that fact never entered her mind, for all of him looked made for her. Beneath the slowly rising panic born from memories of a much too similar wedding night, Sansa felt something she’d given up hope on ever feeling: a bride’s tender anticipation from seeing her groom.

Sansa lets her fluttering heart calm before crawling back into bed. Jon turns in his sleep, his back to her as white and cold and deterring as the Wall itself. No matter how much she wants it, she doesn’t find the courage to scoot closer and fit her body to his. Instead she lies in the dark and stares at that white wall, thinking about a kiss that never happened. In the safety of her own imagination, she smiles at him after the forehead kiss, cups his cheeks and brings his mouth to hers to seal their vows properly. Another kiss when he offers up the lemon cake he saved for her, and one when he rejects her impassive advances without blame or disgust. And, finally, she kisses him for staving off the nightmares that always reek of mint and blood.

She falls asleep with a smile on her unkissed lips and dreams of lemon trees blooming in the Glass Gardens, of sunshine spilling from the blue and endless sky, and of direwolf pups tumbling through the godswood.

 

When she wakes, the thin morning light plays over the furs covering her and Jon. She’s back in his embrace. The wool of his tunic tickles her nose. She scrunches it. The wool of his trousers scratches her inner thigh. Still lingering in the cottony cradle of sleep, she rubs her leg against his trousers without registering she’s slung her leg over his some time during the night. He grunts once, then keeps snoring lightly.

Slowly, she blinks her eyes open. The first thing she sees when they focus is a mistake in the embroidery around the neck of his tunic. A missing leaf. Then she notices a crooked stitch. Yes, she was upset when she sewed the wedding tunic; she couldn’t possibly have done an immaculate job--and yet it nags at her. Did anyone else notice it? How noticeable is it? She pushes herself up slightly for a closer look. A wonky wolf’s eye. A too-short tail. She has to fix it. She has to--

“What are you doing?”

Sansa freezes. Their eyes connect. Jon’s brown eyes are as wide as the sun, as blinding, as burning. The sleepy contentedness lurches in her stomach, leaving her more awake than she’s ever been. She’s painfully aware of every place their bodies touch. The pads of her little finger and ring finger rest in the hollow of his throat. Her breasts weigh against his rib-cage. The arch of her foot fits perfectly over his shin. The private part of her no one’s ever touched in a gentle way presses against his hip.

“Examining my errors,” she says.

Jon’s eyebrows twitch. “What?” He glances down at his chest, at her fingers and how the fabric of his tunic is pinched between her thumb and forefinger to give her a better look. “Couldn’t you wait until I wasn’t wearing the bleeding thing?”

The heat of him scorches her inner thigh and she remembers with a thrill of excitement--and with the deepest shame--how men’s blood runs hotter in the mornings. Her eyes drift downward on their own volition... and then a gust of cold air hits her bare legs and Jon’s standing on the floor, panting, blinking. Looking at her as though she did something untoward.

She wills her eyes to stay on his face. “You don’t have to worry about your... morning situation.”

“My what?”

“I know what happens to men’s bodies in the morning, Jon. I know it’s something you can’t control.”

“In the… No! I’m not hard right now, Sansa. Seven hells! It just felt weird to…” He gestures angrily at her and the bed. “You know!”

She breaks eye contact and busies herself with arranging the furs to fully hide her trembling body until she feels the comfortable chill of composure suffusing her. “Well, we are sharing a bed now and it’s bound to happen. Wouldn’t you say it’s best to talk about it now, to avoid feeling uncomfortable when it does happen?”

He glares at her. “No, we wouldn’t wanna be uncomfortable, would we?”

“I’m sorry, Jon, but we’re married now. Husband and wives do talk about… things.”

Jon tosses his head back with an exasperated groan and spins around, heading for the door.

“Where are you going?”

“To get dressed!”

“In the hallway?”

“I don’t have any clothes in here!”

“Yes, you do. I had your things moved yesterday. They’re in the armoire.”

Jon’s brows are arched, his eyes round, and his mouth tight, but he doesn’t say a word. Instead he grabs something from the armoire and slips behind the dressing screen painted with motifs from her favorite songs. As he freshens up, water splashes at it and the drops run like rain down the image of a knight at a tournament. She picks at her nails and doesn’t watch Jon’s shadow moving behind the screen. Fabric rustles. Leather creaks. A belt buckle clinks.

She doesn’t ask him why he’s upset; she would be too if she rejected someone only to wake up and find them half-sprawled over her. The shame over her body reacting against her will would even make her petty.

But when he appears again, he’s washed away his mood along with the smell of sleep and he offers her a kind smile. “I’m sorry, Sansa.”

“I’m sorry too.”

“Now, go on.” He nods at the screen. “I’ll wait for you.”

-----

Once they appear in the great hall, the Lady and Lord Stark, the ladies who yesterday urged her to consummate her marriage now gather around her to shower her with well-wishes and hopes of her already carrying a babe. But she only listens with one ear. Sam has approached an already seated Jon and is looking so excited to talk, she can’t help but move closer to eavesdrop.

“You look well,” Sam tells Jon. “Got a good night’s sleep, did you?”

“Aye.” Jon draws a sigh, but it’s the deep and content sigh of a happy man. “I’ve not slept that well in ages.”

“I can tell. You almost look alive again.” Sam grins, eyes twinkling. “I’m happy for you, Jon. You needed that.”

As she takes her seat beside her husband, Sansa presses her lips together to stop herself from breaking out in the widest smile. She fails only a little.

From the rest of the people gathered in the great hall, they get more well-wishes--and quite a few good-natured jabs about looking happy. Even Daenerys joins in. In fact, Daenerys is in a remarkably good mood and it chips away at the nugget of happiness Sam and Jon’s interaction left in Sansa’s chest.

Something’s wrong.

She scrutinizes the rest of Daenerys’ council. A sickly-sweet, and awfully familiar, musk of red wine and sick trails after Tyrion, and his clothes are as rumpled as his mop of hair; yet, he looks quietly pleased. Proud, even, whenever Daenerys shoots him a look filled with approval. He’s figured something out. Something that gives his queen great joy.

Missandei, however, is not happy. Over and over, her eyes seek out Grey Worm without lingering, while his never leave her. She picks at her food--and chews more times than necessary the few bites she does take. She’s aware of Daenerys' ever movement in a way Sansa recognizes much too keenly. Once upon a time she learned to read Cersei’s different moods to know who she was to expect that day: the acerbic mother figure who doled out life lessons to a flowered lady, or the cruel cat who played with the little dove in her gilded cage. She learnt it so she could behave accordingly.

She learnt it with Joffrey too. And Littlefinger. Lysa. Ramsay.

Sansa’s stomach feels oddly empty and full at the same time. Something’s happening. Something--

“My lady.” Maester Wolkan stands by her side. “A raven. From King’s Landing.”

It bears the Lannister seal. With trembling hands, she unfurls the scroll.

------

Sansa taps the scroll against the desk of her solar. Jon stands behind her--she feels his body heat against her shoulder; his measured breaths tickle her hair--while Daenerys stands before her with her hands clasped tightly in front of her waist. Suspicion has replaced elation; the looks she shoots Tyrion now are of a calculating kind.

None of them knows what to make of the letter. Sansa’s first thought was Arya, but unless Arya has learned how to take the shape of birds, she couldn’t possibly have reached King’s Landing, killed Cersei, taken her armies, and already boarded a ship sailing North. No, it’s Cersei Lannister herself and the thought of her sweeping through Winterfell, tainting everything she touches, fills Sansa with an almost paralyzing dread.

A knock on the door. Missandei opens it and lets in Brienne, who has ser Jaime in tow. His eyes travel over the room. Varys is there as well, and Davos, ser Jorah, and Grey Worm. None of them, however, occupies the chair placed before Sansa’s desk.

“You wanted to see me, Lady Stark?” Ser Jaime flashes Sansa a disarming smile.

“Yes.” Sansa gestures at the chair. After a glance at Brienne, who nods at him, Jaime takes it. “When did you last speak with your sister?”

“I’ve not been in contact with her at all since I left King’s Landing. I suppose ravens have a hard time finding their way in this weather.”

“I received one today.” Sansa hands him the scroll. “Lord Tyrion tells me it’s her hand-writing.”

Jaime’s eyes move over the paper before handing it back. “It is.”

“We’re surprised by its contents,” Daenerys says. “You’ve said nothing about Cersei acquiring the Golden Company. You’ve said nothing about her trying to get Euron Greyjoy back. And now she claims they’re all coming North to fight. Fight with us. That it’s the reason for her delay.” She bores her eyes into Jaime. “It sounds like a trap.”

Jaime’s brow furrows in confusion. “She’s the one coming here, which she is telling you about, by the way, and you think she’s laying a trap?”

“I know Cersei,” Sansa says. “She never does anything out of the goodness of her heart. She’d rather fight our tired forces after we defeat the Night King than helping us, so why is she coming here?”

If we defeat the Night King,” Tyrion says. “We might not, without her armies. She knows that. When I spoke with her, she… had a different outlook on life.” He speaks like a man searching for words while looking intently at his brother. “After I pointed out the danger we’re all in, she was committed to our cause.”

“Tyrion is right,” ser Jaime says in that easy tone of his. “Things have changed for Cersei. They’ve changed quite considerably. Our father taught us that nothing matters but the family name--nothing--and Cersei happens to be pregnant.”

While most people in the room gasp or exchange looks, Brienne looks unperturbed, as though she’s heard the news before, and Sansa knows ser Jaime spoke the truth.

“This baby will carry on the Lannister name and legacy. This baby will be her heir. She wants the Night King to die just as much as the rest of us--and she wants him to die while there still are people left to rule.”

Daenerys scoffs. “How convenient. You expect me to believe that? She must know I’d never harm a pregnant woman.”

Tyrion moves closer but keeps a guarded posture. “It’s true, Your Grace.”

Daenerys whirls around to face her Hand. “You knew about this?”

“No,” he says, slowly, “not knew, precisely. When we spoke, Cersei refused the wine I poured her, which isn’t like her and she kept cradling her stomach. She never confirmed my suspicions, but… Yes, I suspected it.”

Running her thumb over the silver scales of her dragon ring, Daenerys looks out the window for a beat. Then she orders everyone but her council to leave the room. But as Jaime, Brienne, and Davos head out the door, Sansa remains seated. She hears Jon shifting closer.

“Sansa,” Daenerys says with a smile that doesn’t reach her eyes, “I wasn’t aware of you having joined my council.”

“Your Grace,” Sansa says, and Jon’s lays a supportive hand on her shoulder--or perhaps he’s trying to stop her. Either way, she keeps going, “I can only assume you’re to discuss Cersei’s arrival and what to do once she’s here. Once she’s in my home. She hates me, possibly more than anyone. It worries me. With your consent, I’d like to stay.”

“Cersei hates you more than anyone?” Daenerys smirks. “That’s presumptuous of you.”

Varys, who’s kept to the wall much like Littlefinger once used to, glides out on the floor. “Your Grace, Cersei believes Lady Stark had a hand in Joffrey’s murder. She’s nurtured her hate for Lady Stark for many years. We can’t afford underestimating her desire to see Lady Stark dead, because if Lady Stark is murdered, you will lose the support of the North.”

Daenerys gives Sansa a look-over. “Did you? Have a hand in Joffrey’s murder.”

“Yes, Your Grace. But without my knowledge. I was manipulated.”

“Mm. Of course,” Daenerys says much too sweetly for it to be sarcastic, just sweetly enough for it to be condescending, and Sansa suppresses the impulse to mention the time she fed a man to his own dogs.

“You may stay.” Daenerys looks at Jon’s hand on Sansa’s shoulder. “As may your husband.”

Jon clears his throat and removes his hand, but stays behind Sansa through the entire meeting. He doesn’t say much, neither does she. Not even when they learn about Daenerys’ plans on leaving later today, plans which are now thankfully cancelled because her council convinces her she’s better off apprehending Cersei up here, once the war is over.

“And how shall we accomplish that?” Daenerys turns to Sansa. “You’ve been awfully quiet. You wanted to give me council, so give me council.”

Sansa takes another look at the scroll, rubbing the paper between her fingers as she thinks. Could it be Arya, after all? If it is Arya, for how long can she hold up the ruse before arousing suspicion? If it isn’t Arya, how can Sansa protect her home from the most vicious woman she’s ever known? What solution would work in both scenarios?

“Before King Robert died, Cersei was always nice to me. She often gave me motherly advice. After they took my father, Cersei changed. She wasn’t as nice anymore, but she still gave me advice. I was to marry her son, and she was preparing me for it, in her own way. I learned a great deal about how she thinks. And she once told me a woman’s weapon is her tears and her--”

Sansa bites her lip and lets her eyes drop and she thinks about this morning, of Jon’s warm body against hers, to help herself blush.

Daenerys gives her an amused smile. “Yes?”

“What’s between our legs. She also told me to love no one but my children. Without children, Cersei can be reckless because she doesn’t love anything. But if she’s carrying a child? She isn’t joining us out of the goodness of her heart, but for the sake of her unborn child. One she’ll want to see on the Iron Throne. So we can accept her help--I think she’s willing to give it--but we can’t allow her to use that pregnancy to soften us. We can’t let her sink her claws into Jaime and drag him back to her side. Because once the threat is over, she will deceive us.”

Back to her side?”

“Ser Jaime loves Brienne, Your Grace. He’s not as loyal to Cersei as one might assume.”

“It’s true,” Varys says. “The years have not been kind to Cersei and Jaime Lannister. Hardship has worn down the love between them. There’s little left but spite.”

“Spite and a child,” Daenerys says. “But, I suppose his being here instead of by her side tells us something.”

“And regarding Euron Greyjoy,” Sansa says. “If Cersei’s used her womanly weapon on him, so can someone else. So could you, Your Grace.”

“You want me to seduce Euron Greyjoy?” Daenerys asks, every word sharp and laced with vitriol as though her mere voice could cut Sansa and poison the wound.

“No, Your Grace.” Sansa forces herself to soften her gaze instead of meeting Daenerys’ fire with her Northern ice. “You are younger and more beautiful than Cersei. You have dragons. You’re not carrying another man’s child. Offer a marriage alliance and he’ll take it. He’ll give us his armies, his ships, and then, once the war is over, you execute him for his crimes and give the Iron Islands back to Theon and his sister. If they’re still alive.”

The heat in Daenerys’ eyes cools into the same kind of calculating look she directed at Tyrion earlier. Sansa tries her best to look the appropriate amount of meek, while Daenerys' expression remains unchanged.

“I agree with Lady Stark,” Varys says, and Daenerys tears her gaze off Sansa to look at him. “The Golden Company cares about gold. They're not loyal to Cersei Lannister.”

“Which means they’ll run once they realize what we’re up against,” mutters ser Jorah.

“Yes, I imagine they will.” Varys nods. “The Ironborn will stay, though, but not because of any loyalty to Cersei. Win Greyjoy’s heart and you win his men. And lock up Cersei Lannister in a comfortable room where she can gestate all she likes, but give her armies to Jaime Lannister to command. They’re already trained to follow him.”

“As long as we treat my sister well,” Tyrion says, “I doubt Jaime will have any objections. And if he has no objections, Cersei’s armies won’t have to find out she’s held against her will until after we’ve defeated the Night King. And after we’ve defeated the Night King, the people will recognize you, Daenerys Targaryen, as the only queen worthy of ruling the Seven Kingdoms. The Iron Throne will be yours without any bloodshed at all--and the people will love you for it.”

Twisting her ring, Daenerys mulls over their words. “Jon, what do you think?”

“I think you’re all making a mistake in assuming Cersei Lannister will set foot outside of White Harbor. She won’t show up here; she’ll send an emissary.”

“Then why come at all?” Daenerys asks. “You’re not a woman, Jon. You couldn’t possibly know how Cersei thinks. Oh, she’ll come, because she’ll want the father of her child back. And she’ll want to crush the woman who’s taken him from her.” Then a smile creeps on her face. “I suppose we better prepare that comfortable prison cell.”

-----

Jon’s logical thinking does little to quell Sansa’s fears. She’s already dealing with one volatile woman who hates her and doesn’t need another one--especially not one who won’t buy her little dove act. Worry preys on her throughout the day, finds her no matter how well she hides in her duties as Lady Stark, and by the time she’s able to retreat to her chambers for the night, the worry has grown so large and heavy and cold, it lies like a block of ice in her stomach. Not for the first time, she misses Littlefinger's whispering in her ear. When you fight someone as dark and twisted as Cersei, you need someone equally dark and twisted on your side.

Oh, please let it be Arya wearing Cersei's face!

By the time Jon shows up in their chambers, Sansa's undressing behind the screen. She listens to him remove his sword, his boots, his leather jerkin, his trousers; she listens to his quiet sigh when he sits down on their bed. She tries not to picture what he might look like in his smallclothes as she strips down to hers. She tries not to imagine how sleeping in his arms might feel like with fewer layers between them. She tries and she fails and she--

“You were right," Jon says, his voice hoarse. "This morning. Not about--”  He sighs again. “I could’ve been, though. It’s bound to happen. So you were right. We should talk about it now. Because I want you to know that if it does, it’s not because I want something or expect something. It’s just how it works.”

“I know that, Jon.”

“I don’t want to make you uncomfortable.”

“You’re not.”

“But if I am, will you tell me?”

“Yes.”

She pulls off her chemise and for a moment nothing covers the awful map of Ramsay’s conquest that is her skin. The chill of the room spreads goosebumps over her body and pulls her nipples taut and, as she slips a floor-length sleep tunic over her head, she can’t help but wonder whether Jon’s trying to catch a glimpse of her through the screen.

Unbraiding her hair, she walks out and finds him sitting on the bed with his back turned to her. Of course he wouldn’t watch her; he wouldn’t even if he wanted it.

“And if I make you uncomfortable,” she says and takes a silver brush from her vanity, “will you tell me?”

“Aye.”

“Jon?” She sits down on her side of the bed and starts brushing out the knots in her hair. “Did you mean what you said to Sam?”

“I suppose that depends on what I said to Sam."

“About sleeping well. I overheard you.”

“Oh.” Jon massages the scar above his eye with his thumb. “Aye. I meant it.”

She chews her lip, nods, and finishes brushing her hair. Then she gets up again, finds her sleeping draught and walks back to bed, hands curled around the vial as though it were a shameful secret.

“Sometimes when I close my eyes I still feel him, lingering in the shadows, waiting for me to fall asleep so he can--” She draws a shuddering breath and tightens her fingers around the vial. “He did that sometimes. Hid. Waited until I relaxed and then...“

She sinks down on the bed and holds out her hand, eyes locked on the vial and how it gleams in the light of the fire. Talking about Ramsay is never hard when she can be hard as well, when she can be steel and ice and stone, but now she has to be soft and sincere and she knows that if she looks at Jon, she’ll cry.

“Maester Wolkan gave me this, to help me sleep. But it’s not a nice sleep. I never dream and the whole night passes in the blink of an eye. Most of the time, it’s as if I’ve not slept at all. But last night… I was so upset. I was sure I'd sleep horribly. But then we lay down and I knew that even if he hid in the shadows, you were here, and you’d protect me.” She licks her lips and dares herself to meet Jon's eye. “I slept well too. For the first time in a very long time, I dreamed something beautiful."

Jon nods slowly with knitted brow. Then he gets up, takes the vial from her and puts it on his nightstand and just as she fears he might leave, he pulls down the furs and crawls into bed--and opens his arms to her in a wordless invitation. Without hesitating, she curls up in his embrace, her head back on his shoulder, her hand back over his heart, and as he makes sure the furs cover them both, the block of ice in her stomach melts.

She feels him brushing a kiss to the top of her head, hears him murmur sleep well into her hair, and she thinks about what Mother often told her about love and marriage: that it’s built stone by stone.

Perhaps this is how it starts, for her and Jon. Slowly, in the quiet of the bed they share, in the softest glow of firelight, when they’re allowed to finally find respite in each other’s arms.

Breathing in him, she closes her eyes and allows herself to hope that, perhaps, this is where they'll fall in love.

Chapter Text

The voices of the Ironborn cut through the roar of wind and rain as they carry the last few things aboard the ship. Clinging to the hope that a few days of milder weather means autumn will last a moment longer, they joke about a cowardly winter who hesitates to venture this far south. They don’t believe in the Night King or the long, icy and deadly dark winter he brings. They’ll learn soon, though, with dragonglass weapons in their hands and fallen friends at their feet.

Watching the Greyjoy banner twitching in the harsh weather, Arya lingers on deck for a moment. The rain hits her face like the bites of a whip and she’s already soaked through, but she needs the fresh ocean air to remind her of who she is beneath all those layers of Cersei. Who she’s been: a girl boarding a ship to Braavos, hiding Needle, selling oysters, clams, and cockles, and falling into the canal with her stomach full of holes...

A stomach that carries no baby when Cersei’s stomach apparently should.

Men move the Scorpion aboard, with Qyburn trailing behind to dote on his contraption. He’ll build more, he told her, and his eyes glittered as he spoke of dragons falling from the skies. Arya’s not mentioned Viserion to anyone, but as soon as they reach Winterfell, she’ll have Gendry create dragonglass arrows for the thing. He can keep a secret.

Then Qyburn notices her and pauses by her side, saying in that whispery voice of his, “Your Grace. You shouldn’t stay out here in your condition.”

She stalks below deck, to her cabin, with the Mountain clomping mindlessly behind her. Her fingers itch to curl around the dagger and shove it under his helmet, into the base of his skull, but as she reaches her door, she merely orders him to stay put. As the dutiful dog he is, he obeys.

Once alone, behind the safety of a locked door, she breathes out. Although she can’t feel it, not really, the face itches and chafes and she peels it off first, even before removing Cersei’s suffocating, damp dress. Then follow the chunky rings that make her hands clumsy, and the heels in which she can’t run or fight. Arya hangs up the dress to dry and drops the rings on the desk placed in the corner of the cabin. There’s a quill, ink, and parchment there, begging to become a comforting letter to her sister, but she can’t risk it.

She crawls into bed, but it’s too big, too soft, too open. Instead she pulls the blankets and furs down onto the floor, creating a cosy nest between the bed and the wall. Curled up beneath the furs, she doesn’t think about Cersei’s pregnancy, doesn’t curl her hands around her flat belly, doesn’t think about Robb and his wife and--

She bites down on her lip hard, soothing herself with the sharp pain, and doesn’t let go until she tastes blood.

Qyburn’s mentioned examining her this morning. That’s how she found out. Her fingers itch to kill him too, but a Cersei without her undead guard and her creepy Hand would raise questions.

Too used to traveling alone, doing everything on her own, there were so many things Arya didn’t consider before crossing Cersei’s name off her list. A queen surrounds herself with servants, advisors, and guards: people Arya has to learn how to fool--or keep at arm’s length in case fooling them proves too difficult.

So far glaring at anyone who dares to look at her, or using the Mountain’s imposing figure to scare them off, seem to do the trick. Cersei was never a friendly sort of woman, after all. But for how long can she keep that up?

Arya turns on her side and makes herself think of home, of cuddling Ghost in front of a fire, of watching Gendry beat steel into swords, of teasing Jon over anything she can think of because she loves to see his sullen face shift into a smile.

It’s no use, though. Every thought leads her back to what awaits her on this boat and at Winterfell. She can’t do this on her own; she needs a pack.

-----

Theon’s gaze flits around like frightened hens, from the floor, to the two chairs Arya’s placed opposite her desk, to the filled wine-glasses waiting to be emptied, to his sister, to the windows showing a dull sky with heavy clouds blocking out the sun, and to the Lannister lion choker wrapped around Arya’s throat. He never looks at the face she wears.

He’s a man-shaped husk containing only echoes of the Theon she once knew: that sardonic boy whose streak of cruelty was kept somewhat in check by her father. His sister, though, sits easily with her legs spread and an unruffled look on her face. Now that she’s a free woman, a sword usually hangs from her hip, but Arya had it seized before Yara entered her cabin.

Arya can still spy the outline of one dagger in Yara’s boot, though.

“You must be wondering why I summoned you.”

“In my experience,” Yara says, “queens always want something from you. But we’ve already pledged ourselves, our men, and our ships to your cause. What else could you possibly want?”

“We know you’re not Cersei Lannister,” Theon says and his sister glares at him through the corner of her eye. But he tries his best to look brave, even as his quivering chin and watering eyes betray him. “We’re sailing North for you, and we deserve to know who you are.”

“No you don’t. You’re going North for Sansa Stark.”

Theon’s mouth twitches. “Are you planning on hurting her?”

Arya sighs and hops up on the desk, swinging her legs lightly. “She trust you, you know. And I don’t get it because I want to kill you for what you’ve done.”

Yara lifts her right foot and rests it on her left knee in a way she must think looks too casual for someone like Cersei to see through. But Arya knows she’s giving herself easier access to the dagger.

Arya pulls her own dagger, hidden inside her sleeve, and flips it in a graceful loop from one hand to the other, then back again. “I don’t want to hurt you. But if you pull that little knife of yours, I will.”

Yara lets her foot back on the floor. “Who are you?”

“If your brother hadn’t betrayed Robb Stark, he’d be alive.” She gives Theon a cold look. “Do you ever think about that, Theon? Do you ever wonder what would’ve happened if you hadn’t been such a cowardly little shit?”

Arya puts down the dagger and pulls her face off, looking impassively at Theon as he scrambles backward which such force his chair flips over and he tumbles to the floor like a sack of apples.

“Mother would be alive. Robb’s wife would be alive. Their baby. I’d be an aunt. Sansa would’ve been rescued before she had to marry Ramsay. Ramsay would never have gotten Rickon.” Arya shrugs. “I suppose I can’t know whether that’s true. Maybe all of this would’ve happened anyway. But when I look at you, all I can think is: what if.”

“Arya. You--” Trembling, Theon pushes himself to his feet. “Why-- How ?”

“Why? Because some bleeding idiots helped Daenerys and her armies cross the Narrow Sea, that’s why.”

Theon ducks his head, but Yara’s gaze doesn’t waver. “We did what we had to do, what was best for us.”

“And I’m giving you the chance to do what’s best for everyone. She’s dangerous. Unpredictable. Impulsive. She can’t sit on the Iron Throne. She was going to leave Winterfell, take her dragons, and fly down to King’s Landing to burn it all down. How is that better than Cersei? Jon can barely keep the people’s trust as it is, and if she’d gone... I had to do something. But, it's not enough, is it? Once the war's over, I still need to stop her. And I’d like you to help me. You said we’re family, Theon. Did you mean it?”

“Yes." He nods quickly, straightening his back. "Whatever you need, we’ll help.” He looks at his sister. “Won’t we?”

Yara gives a crooked smile. “How could I say no to the woman who helped me murder my uncle and take back my crown?”

“Good.” Arya puts Cersei’s face back on. “It’s better if you think of me as Cersei from now on. It’s who I have to be now.”

Yara lets out an incredulous huff. “How did you do that? It’s incredible.” She gets up and leans in closer, examining Ayra closely as though she can detect where Cersei ends and Arya begins. “Can I touch it?”

Arya swats Yara’s curious hand away. “Stop it."

Smirking, Yara plonks back down in her chair, but she won’t stop staring, and it’s a hungry kind of stare that makes Arya feel uncomfortably warm in her belly.

“Does it change everything or just your face?” Licking her lips, Yara trails her gaze along Arya’s body. “We could have a lot of fun, you and I, stuck on this ship.”

“Ignore her,” Theon tells Arya. “She’s been locked up for too long. What do you need us to do?”

Arya draws a heavy sigh. “I haven’t figured it all out yet. But… I can’t stay at Winterfell. Jaime Lannister will know something's wrong. So l need an emissary. Someone who knows Winterfell, who knows Sansa. Someone Daenerys and her council will underestimate. Sansa told me about Reek. Could you be Reek again? Could you be Cersei’s Reek?”

Theon’s eyes shutter. Yara lays a hand on his shoulder, giving it a squeeze, and she nods in encouragement to him.

“I could,” he whispers. “I can. I’ll be your Reek.”

-----

 

The farther they travel, the paler the world becomes. The once-blue ocean lies like a steel blade between the ship and the coast, all rippled and shiny and gray. A heavy snowfall blurs out the line between snow-covered mountains and the washed-out sky. Arya shadows her face with her hand to see whether she can detect any landmarks.

“That’s the Fingers, that, Your Grace” an Ironborn says, pointing at the coast. “Not long, now, before we reach White Harbor. A couple of days, if the weather allows.”

Even though it’s barely past noon, Arya thanks him and heads back to her cabin to retire for the day. Claiming the smell of the ocean makes her nauseated, she only ever comes out for air early in the mornings or late at night. She takes her meals in her cabin and only ever invites Theon and Yara inside. The Mountain makes sure no one else dares to come near her.

After everything that’s happened, trust doesn’t come easily to her. Yara’s perpetual smirk and Theon’s trembling skittishness kept her guard up at first, but in the days they’ve spent together at sea, she’s opened up at least a little--enough for them to know she acted out of desperation as opposed to heading south with a well thought-out plan, and they’ve helped her shape her vague ideas on how to deal with Daenerys into something more tangible.

The Mountain follows her with his eyes as she moves past him. She’ll never get used to the stench of him; she’ll never shake the feeling that she needs to hurry now now now to get the key into the lock and slip inside, away from him, before he rips her head clean off. But she makes herself move in a normal pace as she unlocks the cabin door and opens it.

The stink of death grows even stronger. Something cold pushes against her back and then she’s inside the cabin, trapped between the Mountain and Qyburn, who sits by her desk with the most serene smile on his face.

“Your Grace,” Qyburn says, his voice as thin and creepy as spider web. “You’ve been avoiding me.”

“This is my private cabin. Get out.”

“No, I think I shall stay. Ser Gregor?" He gestures at the Mountain to close the door.

Fishing out the dagger from her sleeve, Arya starts backing away, but with one whispered order, Qyburn has the Mountain stop her with an iron grip on her shoulder. She thrusts the dagger into his wrist; he flings her into the room as easily as though she were a cotton-stuffed doll, and pulls out the dagger without a noise. When he hands it back to her, the blood clinging to the blade is much too dark and viscous.

“Sit, Your Grace.” Qyburn gestures at a chair. “You need not worry. We only want to talk.”

Arya takes a seat, but doesn’t settle. She’s right on the edge, ready to spring up, and her eyes search the Mountain’s armor for any weaknesses. A knife through the eye, perhaps…

“You should be showing by now.” Qyburn pauses as though to give Arya a chance to respond, but she says nothing. “It took me a moment, I’ll admit it, but you’ll never fool her brother.”

...or maybe she needs to pierce his heart. She can’t get through that armor, but there are gaps between the breastplate and the shoulderplates. Needle’s under her pillow. She could roll forward, grab her sword and--

“I’ve heard stories about the Faceless Men. That is what you are, is it not? I never knew they were this talented. The resemblance is astounding. How does it work?”

“I won’t tell you that.”

“No, I didn’t imagine you would.” Qyburn hums. “I can help you, you know, to sound just right, to look just right. Pregnancy and all. We have a few days to practice.”

Arya looks at him then. “Do you think I’m an idiot?”

“I hear the Mother of Dragons is impervious to fire. Is it true?”

“As far as I know.”

“How interesting.” A soft smile spreads on his face, but despite the softness there’s nothing gentle about it. It’s the smile of a man longing to carve you up like a pie. “People say dragons are magic corporealized. Imagine what one could do with their scales and teeth and eyes. With their hearts and their blood. Well, if one had access to their bodies.”

Arya glances at the Mountain, at the blotchy skin visible under the helmet, at the red of his eyes. “You want their remains?”

“I’d prefer the Mother of Dragons alive but…” Qyburn lifts one shoulder casually. “I’m not greedy. If you help me, I’ll help you.”

“I murdered your queen. I cut her throat and I stole her face.”

“I liked Cersei Lannister. It’s rare, finding someone who shares your interests in the, shall we say, bolder pursuits. But, you said it yourself, you cut her throat and stole her face. Something tells me we could see eye to eye on a thing or two.”

“So that’s all you want? The remains of Daenerys and her dragons. If I promise you that, you’ll pretend I’m Cersei?”

His smile grows stronger, eerier. “I want as much as you’re able to give. Wights, White Walkers, dragons, dragon queens… Let me have my pick once the war is over, and I’ll be your faithful servant.”

She watches his face for all the small signs of lies most people miss, and she's trained to pick up on, but every instinct tells her he’s telling the truth. He’s a man whose loyalty never lies with a person but with his “bolder pursuits”. He’s a man whose knowledge might come in handy when they try to figure out how to kill the Night King.

It’s an easy deal to make. She holds her hand out for a firm shake, and reciprocates his creepy smile with one of her own she’s often used to unsettle others. It pleases him, she can tell, and it hides the fact that she’ll never let that man live once the war is over.

Daenerys will die, the dragons will die, and they will stay dead. Arya will make sure of it.

Chapter Text

He’s grown so strange, her little brother, so cold and distant. He claims he’s not really Bran anymore, but there has to be some of him left because he works so diligently to protect his family. When he’s asleep, though, he once more looks like the boy who lived in kinder times. The boy who climbed walls, dreamed of becoming a knight, and always smelled of dirt and moss and summer sun. Looking at him brings a sweet ache to Sansa’s chest. She thinks of Mother picking leaves and pine needles from his hair, of Father giving him his first bow, and of Robb charging through the wolfswood with a stick-wielding Bran on his shoulders, playing knight at a tourney.

Sam sits by Bran’s desk, quill rasping against parchment. She found them like this, Bran asleep in his bed and Sam writing down everything Bran told him before giving into exhaustion.

“There,” Sam whispers and lays down the quill. First he rubs his eyes and then his neck. “I never thought I’d say this, but I wouldn’t mind trudging through snow for a bit.”

“How long have you sat in here?”

“Since dawn.” He rolls his shoulders and lets out a tired breath. “I sit in here all the time now. Someone has to look out for Bran. He’s working himself too hard. He forgets to eat and sleep and… Oh, I don’t know. Live? Not sure how much of a life he has anymore, though.”

“Are you finding anything useful?”

“I couldn’t say.” Sam’s eyes skim over the parchment. “I take notes. Then I read and compare, try to find some sort of pattern or something that stands out. Another thread to unravel. But it always leads to Bran finding another event to witness, and then we’re back where we started. It never ends!”

“At least you’ll have a break tomorrow,” she says with a smile. “Are you excited?”

Sam’s cheeks turn pink as he grins back. “Never thought I’d marry. I wish Mother were here. Mother and Talla.”

“I’m sorry, Sam. I would’ve wanted Arya at mine but… Has Bran said anything? Has he seen her?”

“He’s mentioned her. He said she’s safe, but that’s all I know.”

Sansa nods slowly. “And Theon? Has he said anything about Theon at all?”

“Theon Greyjoy? No, not that I can recall. Why?”

“It doesn’t matter. Did Jon tell Daenerys she’s not welcome at the wedding?”

“In a much more diplomatic way than that, yes.” Sam looks down at his papers with a little shrug. “I’d be fine with it. It’s Gilly. She can’t stand the woman.”

“And you can?”

“I’m better at pretending. She gets very protective, my Gilly.”

“You should be with her. Go get some sleep, Sam. You have a big day tomorrow. I’ll sit with Bran for a while.”

Sam arranges his papers into a neat pile and heads toward the door, but stops by her side for a moment, his hand on her shoulder. “Thank you, Sansa. For making us feel so welcome, me, Gilly, and little Sam. For helping with the wedding. It means a lot to us.”

“It’s been my pleasure.”

Life hasn’t showered her with friendly women. Most have either hated her, or wanted something from her, and the only things they’ve given her in return are cruelty and lessons learned. With Gilly, there are no games to play or ulterior motives to find. The past few days they’ve sat in Sansa’s solar, sewing and chatting about the new life growing in Gilly’s womb, while little Sam’s played at their feet. It’s given Sansa a taste of the life she always wanted as a little girl--and it’s made her wonder whether she’ll ever have a child of her own to dress.

 

When she returns to her chambers, Jon’s already in bed. A smile lights up his face, and it strikes her with such incandescent joy that this will be her life, Jon waiting in bed for her every night, his arms ready to hold her, that she blushes like a maid.

She rushes through her evening routine, hastily finger-combs her hair instead of brushing it, leaves her dress in a pool of fabric on the floor, and jumps into bed. Now that bed-sharing has become comfortable rather than a comfort, they often talk before sleep, the way she imagines husbands and wives do when they’re lucky enough to love each other. And when he speaks and his voice rumbles in his chest, she feels it reverberating within her own chest, as though the gods created them to be attuned to one another.

“This is my favorite part of the day,” she murmurs.

Jon’s silent for a beat; his hand, which had lazily brushed over her arm, stills. “Is it?”

She hums and wraps her arm around him, the linen of his sleep tunic cool against her skin. After years of being trapped by the rough hands of greedy men, she thought she’d always fear a man’s touch. But Jon’s always so gentle with her. When she lies in his arms, imagining his hands on her body doesn’t fill her with dread, and she’s starting to believe that part of marriage doesn’t have to hurt. That it won’t be something to endure but something to welcome.

“When we’re in here,” she says, “I don’t have to be Lady Stark. I can be me. It’s so tiring sometimes, ruling, politics. Don’t you get tired?”

“Aye.”

“Cersei coming here worries me. How are we to feed all these men? I know we need them, I do, but it’s hard enough as it is with Daenerys’ armies. And what happens after the battle is won? All those armies, up here. Daenerys won’t waste a moment. We’ll have another war in our own home. The North will suffer because of something that shouldn’t concern us.” She pushes herself up to look at him. “What are we to do, Jon?”

“I don’t know. We don’t even know who’ll live after the war. Whose armies will be decimated. Daenerys might not survive. I might not.”

“You will.”

“You can’t know that.”

“No, I can’t. But I have to believe you’ll live, because”--she lies down again, head pillowed on his shoulder--”I need you. I can’t do this without you.”

“You don’t need me to rule the North. You’ve more than proven that.”

“But I prefer to do it with you. When you left me… I was so alone. I missed you, Jon. I missed you so much.” She bites down on her lip to silence herself. There was a needy quality to her voice and Jon feels like stone against her body, his chest no longer rising and falling with steady breaths. It must’ve sounded dangerously close to a confession he’s not ready to hear. When she speaks again, she makes herself sound matter-of-factly. “We’re a sensible match, you and I. You’re the military man; I’m the politician...”

“Yes, we’re stronger together. You, me, Bran, and Arya.” He falls silent again, fingers twirling a lock of her hair--something that happens every so often when he’s deep in thought. “You asked me once about Braavos. The night Arya left. I’ve thought a lot about that night and at first I thought--” He swallows and drops her hair, his arm stretched out beneath her instead of holding her close. “You tried to figure out whether I knew something. Didn’t you?”

Sansa sighs and rolls over on her back, staring at the canopy. “Yes.”

“The Freys were poisoned. She learned about poisons in Braavos. She was a cupbearer at Harrenhal. She killed the Freys. She killed all of them. Didn’t she?”

“They deserved it.”

“Did they? Every single one of them? Did she make sure that each one participated that night before taking husbands and fathers from their families? Did she ask them whether they had a choice?”

“I don’t know.”

Jon exhales, shaking his head. “That night, you realized she’d gone to kill Cersei, I know you did, and now Cersei’s suddenly coming North. Doesn’t that strike you as a bit odd? She has Arya. She has Arya, and I stayed here when I could’ve run after her! When I could’ve stopped her!”

Sansa sucks in a breath and spins around, her hand against his chest as she pushes her head up to look at him. “I’m so sorry, Jon! I forgot. Bran’s seen her. She’s safe. Arya is safe. I visited his chambers before coming here.”

Jon’s eyes flit between hers. “Where is she?”

“All I know is that she’s safe. And Cersei couldn’t possibly have her. Unless she’s learned how to fly, Arya wouldn’t have reached King’s Landing in time. I am worried, though. About Theon.”

Jon frowns in confusion. “What?”

“Didn’t you say he went to save his sister? Euron had her. And now Cersei is taking Euron and his forces here. What if Cersei has Theon?”

“I have far more important things to think about than the whereabouts of Theon Greyjoy.”

“He saved my life.”

“Aye! He saved your life after standing idly by as you suffered for months .”

“You never knew Ramsay, how he broke people. How he lingers with you, even long after he’s gone. You have no idea what it took for Theon to gather enough courage to help me. You’ll never know, and you should be grateful for it.”

Jon sighs, closing his eyes. “You’re right. I’m sorry. If Cersei has Theon, we’ll try to free him.”

“Thank you.”

Her body longs to cuddle close again, but his frown lingers, his embrace stays closed off, and his eyes remain shut. She allows herself to watch his profile, the slope of his nose and the soft curves of his lips, the beard she’s yet to feel rasping against her skin as they kiss. Then she lies back down, turns her back to him, and closes her eyes. He pulls his arm from under her and she feels the bed shift as he turns on his side too.

The nature of the argument confuses her. She doesn’t feel angry, doesn’t know why he is--or even if he is--and doesn’t understand why they’re lying back-to-back in silence instead of shouting at one another like they usually do.

She parts her lips to break the silence, but then he’s already snoring and she’s left alone with thoughts that keep sleep at bay for much too long.

When it finally comes, it carries frightful dreams of blood and blades and boys trying to save her. It shocks her awake. Heart pounding in her chest, she moves on instinct and tugs at Jon. He mumbles in his sleep, but turns to her and lets her slip into his embrace. And as they settle, she hears him humming contently, feels him holding her closer than usual, and she falls asleep with a smile on her lips.

The following day, that little hum follows Sansa in everything she does. How can she focus on figuring out how much salt there’s left to salt-cure meats and discussing what barks are best for eking out bread-flour and asserting that, yes, the Free Folk do have experience surviving harsh winters and should be listened to, when her mind insists on examining her relationship with Jon?

There was a time she suspected he loved her, not like a brother but like a man. But even though he’s her husband now, he’s not tried anything with her. Not once. Despite her lying scantily dressed in his arms every night. His hands never wander, nor do his eyes, and the only part of her he kisses is the top of her head.

On her wedding night with Tyrion, he said he wouldn’t touch her until she wanted him to, which must've meant he was already willing. Jon has said no such thing. No, he’s said he neither expects nor wants anything from her. Not even children, even though he's a man of duty and his duty is to produce an heir.

That contented hum wasn’t because of her. Perhaps he dreamt of Ygritte, a woman he loved deeply and shared sleepskins with for far longer than he’s been married to Sansa.

The way he smiles at her, though; the way his eyes follow her sometimes... Perhaps he's only waiting for her to tell him she--

“Sansa?” Gilly says, pulling her out from her thoughts. “Are you all right?”

Sansa looks down at her hands. She’s holding a brush, running it through Gilly’s long brown tresses. Soon they’ll walk together to the godswood where Sam will be waiting. Sam, a Southern boy, who joined the Night’s Watch and took the old gods as his own and grew into a man who slayed White Walkers and Thenns and defied vows and rules because he loved a wildling girl. Perhaps she could blame him and Gilly at least somewhat for her romantic nature springing to life again after being buried beneath years and years of harsh reality.

“I’m sorry,” Sansa says. “What were we talking about?”

“Were you thinking about Jon?”

“No, I was thinking about food. How to feed everyone, I mean.”

“You’ve not lain together yet, have you?”

She meets Gilly’s eyes in the reflection of the looking-glass before them, and finds a friendly smile on her face. “Is it that obvious?”

“You don’t want to?”

“I doubt he does.”

“He’s man, isn’t he?”

“A man who thought he was my brother for a very long time.”

“In my experience, being kin doesn’t stop men from wanting you.”

Sansa puts down the brush and begins braiding Gilly’s hair, a loose plait running from each temple to meet at the back of the head where she’ll twist them into a delicate bun.

“It’s not my place to talk about this,” Gilly says. “I know that.”

“It’s fine, Gilly. Go on.”

“Well, the maids don’t mind their tongues much around me. They know I’m a wildling. They talk a lot about you and Jon. How handsome he is and how lucky you are to share his bed. And then they talk about how maybe you don’t. Share his bed, I mean. And they say Daenerys can take Jon from you, because your marriage isn’t real, and that she will. Is it true? Do you think she would?”

“It’s occurred to me. But Daenerys wants the Iron Throne far more than she wants Jon, and she must know the North won’t take kindly to her marrying him. They’ll feel betrayed. She can’t afford to lose more allies.”

“I don’t think that will stop someone like her. This world is full of horrible people who do what they want because they can, and she’s no different. They say she was queen in Essos, but that wasn’t enough. So she came here to take the throne from Cersei and be queen of however many kingdoms Cersei’s queen over. But that wasn’t enough for her either. She wants it all. All the seven kingdoms and the wildlings too. What other people think won’t stop her from taking what she wants. If she wants Jon, I’m sure she won’t stop until she has him.”

“Perhaps you're right.”

“I don’t know,” Gilly says and quickly changes the subject to something innocuous, and when Sansa catches a glimpse of herself in the looking-glass she understands why. She looks wan and worried and glassy-eyed.

A gentle knock on the door interrupts their conversation. Sansa secures the bun with hairpins and gestures at Gilly to remain seated while she opens the door. Outside stands Daenerys, for once without Missandei (though, Grey Worm hovers a few paces behind her). In her hands lies a beautiful box with rosehip fruits and flowers carved into the wood.

“Sansa.” She smiles gently. “May I come in?”

Gilly rises from her chair and folds her arms over her chest. “What do you want, Your Grace?”

“I respect your wishes, Gilly. Jon's told me your wedding is a private affair, with only your closest friends as guests, and I wouldn't dare intruding. I only come bearing a bride’s gift. My Hand tells me the brothers of the Night’s Watch consider themselves family. Which means, by marrying my nephew’s brother, you’ll be my family.”

Gilly sighs but lets Daenerys’ into the room. The Queen’s dressed in muted colors, simple fabrics, and wears her hair in loose waves that tumble past her shoulders. She even has the decency to look abashed. Upon handing Gilly the box, Daenerys watches her reaction carefully. Inside lies a necklace with double rows of gems: rubies and emeralds. Not the exact shades of Tarly red and green but close enough.

Gilly’s eyes do widen, but that’s the only indication she gives of admiring the gift. “Thank you,” she says without even a hint of a smile. “It’s beautiful.”

“I’m glad you like it.”

Then they stand like that for a touch too long, neither of them willing to take the next step. So Sansa hooks her arm around Daenerys’ arm and gives her the kind of smile women reserve for their closest friends and confidants, and ushers her out of the room with the excuse that Gilly needs to get dressed.

Once they’re alone in the hallway, Sansa leans in closer and whispers, “I’m glad you respect her wishes to keep the wedding intimate. Gilly is a pretty girl, Your Grace, but you are the most beautiful woman in the world. What bride would want to compete with the Mother of Dragons?”

Daenerys pulls back a tad to look at Sansa. “Were those your thoughts on your wedding day?”

“Not at all. I grew up in the shadows of such beauties as Cersei Lannister and Margaery Tyrell. I learned long ago to accept I’d never be the most beautiful woman in the room.”

Daenerys lays her hand over Sansa’s, which rests on Daenerys’ forearm. “I have seen Cersei Lannister. You are much more beautiful than her.”

“Thank you, Your Grace. You’re too kind.”

“I won’t let her harm you. I hope you know that, Sansa. You’re important to the North, to Jon, and to me. You’re my family now. And if she so much as touches you, she’ll live to regret it. In fact, she will either way. Tyrion has finally informed me of how you were treated at King’s Landing. She’s harmed you enough and will pay for all she’s done to you and your family.”

“I’ll admit I’ve slept poorly since receiving her letter, but your words give me comfort.”

“Oh? You have? That explains why you look a little peaked. I was worried my nephew didn’t let you sleep.”

Daenerys’ tone is light enough, but her face conveys a rarely seen vulnerability, her wide violet eyes searching Sansa’s for a clue as to what happens in the Lord’s chambers at night. Despite herself, Sansa feels a twinge of empathy in her chest. Underneath her queenly mask, Daenerys is only a young woman in love with a man who married someone else before her very eyes.

Sansa tries to imagine how she would feel if Jon had married Daenerys that evening and spent the night in her chambers--and finds the thought so appalling she has to stop before it shows on her face.

“He lets me sleep,” she says with a kind smile. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, Your Grace.”

When she returns to the room, Sansa finds Gilly twirling in front of the looking-glass, the skirts of her green wool dress billowing around her legs. The necklace still lies in the box.

“You look beautiful, Gilly. Sam’s a lucky man.”

Blushing, Gilly beams at Sansa over her shoulder. “I’m the lucky one.”

“You’re not wearing the necklace?”

“That was a bribe, not an apology.” Gilly closes the box and lays it in the chest standing at the foot of her and Sam’s bed. “My father was a bad man. He did whatever he liked because there was no one to tell him no. Randyll Tarly was a bad man as well. I didn’t spend long in his home, but it was long enough to see…” She swallows and purses her lips. “No one dared telling him no either. Daenerys is beautiful and she’s saved a lot of people. They say she’s done good things. But all I see is another bad person who makes sure no one around her dares saying no.”

“You told her no.”

“And she came here anyway, trying to get invited. You shouldn't trust her, Sansa. She’s not your friend.”

“I know. I’m only pretending.”

“When you pretend for too long, it can start feeling real.”

Gilly picks up her cloak and wraps it around her shoulders, while Sansa sinks down on a chair, twisting her hands in her lap.

Is that what’s happened to Jon?

He spent weeks pretending to be in love with Daenerys. He kissed her and touched her and lay with her and--No. No, he could never love a woman like her. Could he?

“Sansa?”

“Hm?”

“If you’re worried she might unmake the marriage, perhaps it’s time to... “ Gilly gives a shrug. “If you want to.”

Sansa clasps her hands hard to stop fidgeting. “What’s it like? Is it ever… good?”

Gilly sits down too, scoots her chair closer so she can speak quietly. “It wasn’t at first. It wasn’t bad. But it’s not like it is now. It was…” Gilly’s eyes move about the room as she thinks. “It just was. But now it’s lovely.” She strokes Sansa’s arm, smiling encouragingly at her. “When you’re with a good man, it can be lovely.”

“Jon doesn’t initiate things. And I don’t know how to”--Sansa drops her gaze--”seduce a man.”

“Seduce? Just show him what you want. That’s all you need to do. Men aren’t very complicated.”

She doesn’t know how to tell Gilly that the cool confidence of Lady Stark is nothing but an act she can’t keep up when she’s alone with Jon in their chambers. But Gilly seems to understand anyway.

“There’ll be ale tonight,” she says. “Ale can make you feel brave.”

“I’m sorry, Gilly. I’m making this all about me. It’s your day.”

She helps Gilly with the final touches, shakes her cloak out, and arranges her hair prettily around her shoulders, shows her how to pinch her cheeks and bite her lip to give them a lovely pink tinge. Not that she needs it. Gilly's a beautiful bride, yes, but anyone knows that Sam would’ve shone with pride even if she walked to the heart-tree wearing an old hessian sack. He loves her the way Gendry loves Arya, and Jaime loves Brienne. Not for her beauty or her claim, but for who she is.

He loves her the way no man has ever loved Sansa.

She can’t tell Jon about her budding feelings, feelings that must seem so unnatural to him, for while he'll never harm her body, he can so easily break her heart.

Children, though… He never looks more relaxed than when he plays with little Sam or joins Arya, Brienne, and now Grey Worm, as they teach the children who stay at Winterfell how to fight. Smiles and laughter come easily to him, then, and to her eyes he already looks like a father.

He wants to have children; she’s sure of it. Little Stark children with leaves in their hair and bows in their hands, who sit on aunt Arya’s shoulders as she charges through the godswood, and who gather around uncle Bran’s chair in front of the fireplace to listen as he talks about what it feels like to fly.

With a little ale in her belly, Sansa could talk to Jon about children.

Chapter Text

Growing up surrounded by enemies, by people who want to hurt and use and betray, Sansa never was much of a drinker. Drink dulls what needs to stay sharp--not just the mind but the pain that reminds you to heed the warning signs around you. This evening, though, is spent in the company of friends and allies--not a single person in the great hall belongs to Daenerys--and Jon is by her side. For the first time in years, Sansa allows herself to float in the easy flow of a joyous feast.

Watching Gilly and Sam dance as husband and wife brings a smile to her face, and with a happy sigh she reaches for Jon’s hand under the table--only to snatch it back as though she were reaching for something forbidden when Tormund plonks down opposite them.

“Did I ever tell you about Sheila?” he asks.

The people seated with them at the longtable all murmur that, yes, he has, more than once, but he tells his bear story anyway. And although Sansa usually finds it crude, ale and wine make her see the humor in the anecdote, and soon she’s laughing along with the others. Jon’s chuckling too. He’s sitting so close she can feel his shoulders jumping. Then Tormund slaps his hands together and declares he’s in the mood for some dancing. He eyes Brienne, who suddenly finds her cup of ale the most interesting object in the realm, but it does little to kill his good spirits. Instead he shrugs and grabs a wildling woman around the waist, whirling her onto the floor. They swerve to avoid a serving maid, who expertly moves aside without spilling a drop from the tankards she’s carrying. Sansa catches her eye with a smile and gestures at her now-empty cup.

“Maybe you should have some water, Sansa,” Jon says once the serving maid’s left their table.

Sansa looks at him, one eyebrow arched. “Oh, so now that you’re my husband, you think you can decide what and how much I drink?”

Jon rolls his eyes good-naturedly, face softened by a smile. “You don’t normally drink. It’ll hit you soon enough and it’ll hit you fast. You’re already a bit giggly.”

Holding his gaze without blinking, she takes several mouthfuls of ale and hums with satisfaction. “So good.”

Jon huffs out a laugh, shaking his head.

“Don’t you think I’ve earned some fun?” she asks.

“You’ve earned it. I’m only looking out for you.”

She nudges his shoulder with her own. “Yes, always protecting me.”

She says it with a playful voice and expects him to fall into comfortable banter with her, but Jon just says, “Always,” so quietly she wouldn’t have heard it had she not read his lips too.

Her eyes flicker up to his; they’re dark and gleaming in the candle light, ever inscrutable. She doesn’t want to be like Daenerys, who chooses to see love where there is none, and yet Sansa can’t help but wonder whether he’s warming up to this arrangement they’ve entered. Perhaps now’s the time to tell him of her hopes and dreams for their future together, but she can’t think clearly when he stares at her like that. She can't think clearly when his lips are that close and she still doesn't know what it feels like to be kissed by someone she wants. She looks away to gather her thoughts.

They’re in a small pocket of intimacy, shielded by the noise of people Gilly and Sam have come to call friends: a healthy blend of highborn, lowborn, and Free Folk dancing around the modestly decorated hall. Even Brienne has now been coaxed onto the dancefloor by a charming Davos, with ser Jaime and Podrick as a happy audience (and Tormund shooting her injured looks). No one pays Lady Stark and her husband any mind.

“Jon, I need to ask you something.” Sansa flutters her lashes as she looks back at him--but his shoulders are slightly raised and his eyebrows lightly tugged together and what is she doing? She can’t ask him that here. The ale has stolen her sense and filled up the empty space with foolhardiness.

“What?”

“Da-daenerys,” her mouth stutters out. “What should we do about Daenerys?”

Jon’s frown deepens. “What?”

“We’ve never properly talked about it, when we really ought to. Even if she kills Cersei, whatever peace that brings won’t last. The North wants its independence. Robb died for our independence.”

“I’ve not forgotten. Believe me.” Jon rubs at the worry line between his eyebrows. “There’s no use talking to her about it now, but I will. Once the Night King’s defeated. I’m the heir to the Iron Throne, after all.” His smile doesn’t reach his eyes. “I have some leverage.”

“What, you’ll swear off your birthright if she lets you stay King in the North?”

Jon tilts his cup of ale, stares into its contents, pulls a face, and leaves the drink be. “Something like that.”

“Do you honestly want to see her on the Iron Throne?”

“It's not my responsibility to choose the ruler of the seven kingdoms. And even if it were... Who else is there? Would you like a go at it?”

“No. My place is here, at Winterfell.” She watches him carefully. “Would you?”

“No, if she wants the throne she can have it.”

Should she have it? I’m starting to think we should melt the thing down.”

“Aye, maybe we should. But it’s not the Iron Throne that’s the problem. It’s the position, and the position still needs to be filled. And Daenerys has large armies, two dragons, and the Targaryen name. She has Varys, she has Tyrion--”

“She has a penchant for burning people alive.”

Jon sighs. “I won’t let her burn anyone.”

“You’re a fool if you think you can stop her.”

“She’s not all bad, Sansa. She wants to do good, she wants to help the smallfolk, and she doesn’t want to burn innocent people alive or she would have the throne already. She’s gotten a bit lost along the way, that’s all.”

“Power corrupts.”

“Aye.” Jon sighs and turns his attention to the dancers for a moment, watching Sam pull in Gilly for a kiss. The people around them cheer as the happy couple blush and beam. “She’s not like Cersei. She has a good heart. And once she has the Iron Throne, perhaps she’ll remember that.“ He shrugs and does a poor job of looking convinced by his own arguments. “At least I want to give her the chance to remember that because it’s easier than waging war against her.”

To ensure no one’s eavesdropping, Sansa glances at their surroundings before leaning in to speak quietly in Jon’s ear. “Some would suggest we dispose of her in a different manner.”

“Aye. Some would. But it’s bad enough I married my sister, I’m not murdering my own kin too.” He closes his eyes and lets out a tired breath. “I didn’t mean--”

“I know what you meant.” Sansa empties her cup and gestures at a serving maid to fill it up again. She smiles at the woman, thanks her, and watches her sashay over to the table where Jaime’s seated. Brienne observes their interacting with a pained look on her face, and Sansa wonders whether she has a similar look on hers. “I didn’t think you believed in the gods anymore.”

“I shouldn’t be alive, but I am. Dragons didn’t exist and now they do. The Night King was only a story, but he’s real. I was a bastard and now I’m a prince. I don’t know what I believe anymore.”

“But if she’s a threat. If she threatens to harm us--”

“Then I would. You know I would. But I don’t want it to come to that. I’m tired of killing. I’m so tired, Sansa. It’s all I ever do and it scares me how easy it’s become--and not just for me. It has to end. If we keep killing everyone we don’t agree with, everyone who wrongs us-- Is that the world we’re trying to save? Is that the world we want for our children?”

Sansa’s head snaps to look at him, but he stares at the table as he keeps ranting.

“Arya kills all the Frey men, leaving countless children fatherless. Do you know how many Freys there are? Enough for a bleeding army. And what will become of those children? They’ll grow up hating Starks. When they train, they’ll imagine Stark faces on their targets. They’ll be encouraged to. And what you think will happen once they’re old enough to avenge their fathers? Something has to change or it'll never end. We have to change. When the war’s over, if I live, I don’t want to do this anymore, Sansa, I want to--”

He groans, shoulders slumped, and she’s never seen him look more defeated. “Doesn’t matter. I’ll do what needs to be done.” He lets out a mirthless chuckle and raises his cup of ale in a toast to no one in particular. “I am the shield that guards the realm of men. And that's enough."

When Sansa was trapped in King’s Landing, in the Vale, in Ramsay’s hold, she stopped laughing, and if she smiled, it was usually to placate someone, to play the sweet little dove. She picked at her food and never got a good night’s sleep and it wore her down until her mind felt soft and cold and dark like mud. Jon might’ve gotten more sleep lately, and he might be eating better, but she rarely sees him enjoying himself. And Sansa knows more than anyone how desperately you need a reminder that there’s more to life than fighting to stay alive.

“Jon.” She lays a hand on his; he turns it to hold hers properly. “I’d like to dance.”

“I’m sure any man in here would be happy to dance with Lady Stark.”

“But Lady Stark wants to dance with her husband.”

“I don’t remember any of the steps.”

“When we were at King’s Landing, Father arranged sword lessons for Arya in secret. They told me she took dancing lessons. And she did, in a way. Water dancing. I’ve seen you fight. You’re graceful, light on your feet. If you can fight, you can dance.” Sansa laces their fingers together and tugs his hand closer to her. “Please? For me.”

Jon sighs deeply, demonstratively, but follows faithfully when she leads him out on the floor. At first, he plays the sulking boy, shooting her sullen glances, but soon the pout turns into the broadest of smiles for every one of his adorable failures makes her laugh, and he starts doing it on purpose because of it, grinning whenever she giggles, laughing whenever she teases him. It catches Tormund’s attention, and he and his friends envelope them into their own crowd where dancing is as wild and free as the Free Folk themselves. So they dance and they drink and they laugh until she’s both so tired and in her cups that she stumbles on her own feet and falls into Jon’s arms a little too often.

Finally, he holds her firmly to his body, his hands splayed over her back, and she wraps her arms around his neck and rests her head against his shoulder while the world moves around them. In the gap between a dancing lord and his lady, she spies Brienne and Jaime watching them across the room. There’s a gentle smile on Brienne’s face, much like the one Mother used to wear, while Jaime smirks as if he can see right through her.

Sansa burrows her burning face into the crook of Jon’s neck.

“I think it’s time for bed, Lady Stark."

“You speak wisely, husband,” she mumbles into his skin.

Walking to their chambers, she realizes he’s not drunk at all, for while she keeps giggling and stumbling, he’s as sturdy and quiet as an old oak, and he doesn’t fumble with the keys as he unlocks their door. But even through the haze of ale, she notices that the looks he gives her are warm, not annoyed, and when she admonishes the troublesome laces of her dress, he shakes his head fondly at her and loosens them without difficulty. She shimmies out of the dress and struggles to remove her slip as well when she feels warm hands on her upper arms.

Gently but firmly, Jon moves her behind the dressing screen and throws her a nightgown without looking.

“Jon?” She peers out from behind the screen, and he looks up at her from unbuckling his belt. He's let down his hair and he cards a hand through the soft curls--something she longs to do too. She could run her fingers through his hair as they-- Her heart pounds in her chest. Despite the wonderful foggy feeling of ale, she’s not quite brave enough yet to suggest what she was so intent on suggesting. Faking a giggle is easy. “Nothing. I forgot.”

He’s quiet for a beat, then he hums and removes the belt. She licks her lips and watches his fingers move to the straps of his doublet. He's always so careful to stay dressed around her, when all she wants is to see what he looks like beneath all those layers of leather and wool. As though he can feel her watching, he looks up at her again and shrugs as if to ask her why she’s staring.

She mumbles something indiscernible and ducks behind the screen. Grumbling to herself, she fights with her stubborn nightgown that refuses to allow her arms into its sleeves, and tosses the blasted thing on the floor in exasperation. Wearing only her carefully chosen smallclothes--lace-trimmed things with fabric sheer enough to hint at what waits beneath--she ambles over to the bed and collapses on it, on top of the furs and covers. She’s cold and there’s one pillow too many under her head and yet lying down feels like heaven.

Still standing by the bed, now dressed in his sleep tunic, Jon stares down at her with round eyes.

“Sansa? Do you need help with your… uh”--he swallows and looks away--”nightgown?”

“It hates me. Don't want it.” She pats the empty spot beside her. “Come.”

Careful not to touch her, Jon lies down too, so close to the edge she could push him to the floor with only her little finger--which is nothing but impractical. How can they make babies if he lies so far away from her?

Jon makes a surprised noise. His cheeks are pink and he stares up at the canopy without blinking.

Oh, gods, I said that out loud? 

She swallows, hard, and despite the delicate smallclothes revealing more of her than she’s ever willingly let any man see, she rolls over on her side to meet his gaze as steadily as she can. But he won't tear his eyes off the canopy.

“We should, you know.” She struggles to get the words out without slurring. “Heirs. Children. With leaves in their hair.”

“Leaves?”

“And bows. Not those, well, those too but”--she mimics shooting an arrow, but he doesn’t see what a clumsy job she does of it because he still won't look at her--”those kinds of bows. With arrows.”

“In their hair?”

“No, you idiot. In their hands. We should.” She shifts closer and lays a hand on his cheek, turning his face to look at her. “The war. And you might die.” Her eyes widen. “No. That didn’t come out right. I don’t mean-- I’m only being prama-pagr-pragmit.”

“Pragmatic?” Jon removes her hand and smiles at her the way you’d smile at a child, and it shames her so deeply she grabs the corner of the fur she’s lying on and pulls it over her exposed body. “Sansa. Is this why you’ve been drinking?”

“No,” she says but her blush betrays her.

“If you have to get this drunk to do something, it’s not something you want to do. It’s not something you should do. You’ll only wake up with a headache and a lot of regret.”

“No I won’t.” She cringes at how whiny she sounds. “I’m ready.”

“No you’re not. And neither am I.” He places a chaste kiss on her forehead, but instead of closing his eyes and falling asleep he watches her for a moment, his brow furrowed. “I need to tell you something. Something important. But… not when you’re drunk. Tomorrow. All right?”

He waits for a confirmation, so she nods her head to show she’s understood. Then he helps her under the furs properly but, while he slips under them too, refrains from holding his arms out in invitation like he usually does. 

She closes her eyes and a voice that sounds like Littlefinger whispers in her mind that Jon has nothing good to tell her, that it's not confessions of love but betrayal, and yet she falls asleep easily because the world spins and spins and spins.

 

That night, in her dreams, Sansa runs through a summer forest, the pine needles dry and warm and surprisingly soft beneath her bare soles. A shadow dances between the trees. But although its spindly fingers grasp at her thighs and arms, comb through her hair, she’s never scared. They’re only playing, the shadow and her. So she laughs and skips easily away like a fawn, taunting and teasing the shadow until its featherlight caresses start teasing her in return. Filled with a need for firmer hands, firmer touches, she closes her eyes and lets it catch her. Something warm winds around her waist. Something coarse brushes over her neck. Something hard grinds against her back.

She wakes up with a gasp. Jon’s clinging to her, his breath hot against her ear. His hand move from her waist to her thigh, drags the short leg of her smallclothes up to her hip where he cups her bare flesh with greedy fingers. Her body is on fire. She can’t help but push back against him, angle her neck to give his kisses better access. She can’t stop a moan when he parts his lips and the sharp nip of his teeth shoots a blazing spark straight to a part of her that craves his touch the most.

“Sansa?” Jon mumbles sleepily--and then he goes very, very still.

His hand loosens its grip, and he starts pulling away.

“Don’t leave,” she murmurs and reaches behind her to grab his hip and keep him flush against her body; he groans. “We could… We should.”

Jon breathes as though he’s fighting. She spins around in bed to face him and grabs the fabric of his sleep tunic to hold him close. Morning light streams in through the window and yet his eyes are so dark they look black. Gingerly, she rolls over on her back and guides him to lie atop her, between the cradle of her open thighs. The heat of him spreads inside her own body; the weight of him relaxes the tension in her limbs. His nose brush against hers and his ragged breaths hit her parted lips.

Sansa squeezes her eyes shut and waits for him to kiss her and pull off her clothes and take her. She braces herself for the inevitable pain.

“I can’t,” Jon whispers. When he rolls off her, she feels as if she’s untethered, floating away into a winter-pale sky. “I’m sorry, Sansa.”

She sits up in bed, the balusters of the headboard digging into her back, and listens to his breaths calming down, to the noises already stirring in the courtyard as their people take advantage of the few hours of sunlight winter provides. A dull pain throbs in her head. A sweet ache throbs between her legs. Her mouth feels dry and tastes an awful lot like regret after all.

Cold wind sneaks in through drafty walls and windows, tickling her bare arms. She shivers, gooseflesh spreading over her body. She wants a bath, wants to submerge herself in steaming hot water and wash off the humiliation coating her skin. A skin so horrible not even pretty lacy things could make her enticing. She stares at the evidence of Ramsay’s cruelty etched on her. She’s repulsive. Why else would a man reject her when his dreams have left him trembling with arousal?

“I’m sorry I--” Jon clears his throat. “I wasn’t awake. I was dreaming. I didn’t mean to... touch you. I shouldn’t have.”

“People are whispering, Jon. Can’t we-can’t we pretend? If you close your eyes and--”

“No, Sansa, I can’t.” He exhales harshly and sits up as well, his legs pulled up and arms resting on his knees. “I need to tell you something. Something you won’t like.”

Sansa stares at her hands in her lap. The morning light paints them white. She tightens them so hard her nails bite into her palms and she focuses on that physical pain, takes comfort in it.

“I’ve promised Daenerys I won’t consummate. I’ve promised I’ll marry her once the war’s over.”

Even though Sansa already knew, deep down, hearing it out loud shocks her so much her chest constricts. She takes quick, shallows breaths through her nose, her stomach jumping, and stretches out her fingers. Crescent marks are littered over her palms. She tightens her hands back into fists.

“And what about your promise to me? Your vow to me.”

“Sansa. I’m sorry. I’m so sor--”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

As though he can pull a good excuse out of thin air, Jon lifts his hands helplessly. “I thought I’d be dead by now. That the war would’ve come and gone.”

“And if you survived?” she asks, every word controlled and careful to keep the tremble out of her voice. “You would’ve told me once you came back? You would’ve let me be happy that you were alive and well only to reveal you’ve been lying to me all along?”

“Sansa,” he says and reaches out to her, but she slaps his hand away.

“Don’t touch me.”

“I just want you to be safe, Sansa. I’m doing this--”

“Safe? Safe? I’ll have to do this again, Jon. Do you understand that? I’ll have to marry. Again. I’ll have to find myself a fourth husband and I have to stand in front of the heart-tree and I have to go through another wedding night, and if you think he’ll be gentle, you’re wrong. How would that make me safe?”

“You’ll find someone. I promise you. You’ll find someone you love, who loves you too. It's all I want for you. Something real, with a good man--”

“A good man?” A hollow laugh slips out of her. “There are no good men. They don’t exist! Men lie and manipulate and use and take. Oh, I know we didn’t marry for love, but I thought this was our way of protecting each other! I thought we’d keep each other safe, that we could be happy! I thought--”

She sucks in a shuddering breath and, to keep painful confessions and tears from falling, presses her lips together and closes her stinging eyes. She’s still that stupid little girl who traveled to King’s Landing and believed in songs of honor and love. Life’s hardened her, yes, but these days with Jon, these nights in his arms, have buffed away her sharp edges and she’s once more too emotional, too soft for her own good.

Her once-comfortable armor doesn’t slip on as easily anymore nor does it fit as well. When she finally feels it slot into place, it chafes against new bruises and blisters. But it’s whole and it’s there and it will protect her. It’s the only thing that can.

“Sansa,” he whispers, “I never meant to hurt--”

“I don’t care.” She looks at him with eyes as cold as winter. “I don’t care what you meant. You did hurt me. Because I was stupid enough to trust you never would. I know better now and I won't make that mistake again.”

He recoils as though she slapped him. Part of her wishes she had. But he looks at her like an oft beaten dog, and a much bigger part of her wishes she could pull him into her embrace and hold him close until they both feel better. A lump forms in her throat. Her eyes sting again. Her armor’s cracking already and she hates him a little bit for how he weakens her. She takes a deep breath to keep her composure, to keep her broken heart from spilling out more confessions than she can stand him knowing.

“I don’t demand your forgiveness,” he says, carefully, “but we do need to talk about--”

“Yes. We do. We do need to talk. But I need to be angry first before you come with your excuses and your reasons and make me feel sorry for you. I think I’ve earned the right to be angry. Or do you want to tell me how I should feel? Would you like to tell me I have no reason to feel betrayed?”

Jon shakes his head, his eyes vacant and dull.

“I won’t force you to stay married to me. You’ll have your annulment. But until then we have to pretend. For the North. And I will pretend, don’t worry. I’m rather good at it. But”--something twists painfully in her chest when she remembers how happy they were only a few hours ago, laughing and dancing, but she hardens her heart and keeps going--”you’ll have to find somewhere else to sleep. You’re no longer welcome in my bed.”

"I understand," he rasps out. "Sansa, I--"

The sound of a horn cuts him off. The horn that signals a new party arriving to the gates of Winterfell. A chill creeps down Sansa’s back, pulling all the anger and pain from her body and replacing it with unease.

“She’s here,” she whispers, staring out the window even though she can see nothing but pale sky from this angle. “Cersei’s here.”

Please let it be Arya. Please. I need my sister.

Chapter Text

While Missandei sleeps soundly by her side, Daenerys’ mind is too busy to succumb to sleep. Staring into the fire, she thinks about Gilly and what things she’s surely whispering in Sansa’s ear. Things that can so easily happen on a night of romance with freely flowing wine and ale. There’s something in the way Jon’s eyes linger on Sansa, something in how protective he becomes around her, that leave Daenerys suspecting he wouldn’t reject her advances.

Tyrion says she has nothing to worry about, that Jon’s lost half his family and will fight tooth and nail to protect the little family he has left. He says one doesn’t need to be protective of the Dragon Queen, because she can protect herself. And he likes to point out how friendly Sansa always is, as though she’s craving the approval of the woman her brother loves. But while Daenerys finds sense in Tyrion’s arguments, a dark voice in her heart whispers that Jon loves Sansa. That Sansa can tame the wolf in him into a lap dog by merely crooking her finger--and that all she needs to try, is the encouragement from someone like Gilly.

With a sigh, Daenerys turns on her side to face her bedfellow. Missandei’s hands are tucked under her cheek, and her hair tucked into the satin bonnet she wears to bed, and she sleeps on and on, no matter for how long Daenerys stares at her, willing her to wake up so they can talk.

Being cooped up like this for weeks isn’t good for her. Tomorrow she could climb atop Drogon, spend the day aflight, and remember what it’s like to move forward...

Daenerys closes her eyes and imagines the wind caressing her face, the world rushing beneath her like a waterfall. She imagines intrusive thoughts trailing behind her and getting lost among the clouds.

 

It feels as if she only just fell asleep when a horn sounds. It can be no other than Cersei, and Daenerys rolls bleary-eyed out of bed. She picks a black-and-red dress and tells her handmaidens to braid her hair tightly, intricately. Then she leaves her chambers with Missandei and Grey Worm in tow, setting a leisurely pace. Cersei doesn’t need to know how eager Daenerys is to meet her again, to show off how the North has welcomed her as their queen, how she’s now a part of the family Cersei hates.

Two chambermaids walk huddled together down the hallway, whispering about how in love Lady Stark and her handsome husband looked last night. The moment they notice Daenerys, they giggle nervously and scurries past while she’s stuck to the floor. A flare of jealousy burns deep in her belly and spreads through her body, only to fade back when she feels Missandei’s cool hand on her arm.

“My Queen,” she whispers, “don’t listen to Winterfell gossip. There’s little truth to it. Remember?”

Daenerys pats Missandei’s hand gratefully and nods, keeps walking. But as they turn a corner, Jon and Sansa step out of the Maester’s chambers. Sansa is leaning on Jon’s arm, her face pale and puffy--and the memory of morning sickness stabs Daenerys in the chest like a dagger.

“Your Grace.” Sansa smiles sweetly and takes her arm instead as though they’re close friends, and it takes all Daenerys’ will to not brush her off. “How pleased I am to see you.”

“I hope you're not unwell, Sansa?”

Sansa shakes her head at herself. “I’m afraid I overestimated my tolerance for ale, and I had too much to drink last night. Maester Wolkan gave me something for the headache and the nausea.”

Daenerys holds back a breath of relief. “You surprise me. I didn’t think you drank much at all.”

“No, and now I remember why.” Sansa laughs. “I won’t make that mistake again.”

“I thought you might be pregnant,” Daenerys says as easily as she can. “I’m sad to hear you’re not. I’m sure Jon longs for a son.”

Sansa smiles again, but the sweetness is replaced by a familial tenderness. “Your Grace,” she murmurs, leaning in close, “you don’t have to pretend with me. Jon’s told me about your… arrangement. Our marriage is purely political. It’s not consummated, and it never will be. Ever.”

Daenerys glances over her shoulder. Jon walks behind them, eyes locked on the floor, and she can’t tell whether he’s listening in or is so far away in thoughts he doesn’t hear a word.

“But,” Sansa continues, “until the war is over, Jon and I will have to keep up appearances. I hope it won’t offend you.”

“Not at all.”

“It will be our little secret-- Ah. Here comes Koner.”

A young guard walks up to them and bows awkwardly. He tells them of the party waiting outside the gates. A party that carries a peace banner and isn’t lead by Cersei at all, but by Theon and Yara Greyjoy. Sansa inhales sharply and rushes off, while Daenerys stays until she feels Jon’s arm brushing against her. Walking by his side, she glances up at him through her lashes, but he’s too deep in thought to notice, so she leaves him be until they’re out on the walkway, where she asks him to linger for a moment in a private corner, away from ears eager to eavesdrop.

Leaning against the bannister, Jon absentmindedly pulls something out of his pocket and fidgets with it as his eyes follow Sansa over the courtyard.

“Jon?”

He sighs and turns his head toward Daenerys, but his eyes doesn’t move until he’s almost finished the movement. “What?”

“Was that wise? To tell her about what we want once the war’s over.”

“I don’t know. Maybe not. But I couldn’t lie to her anymore.”

“She seems to be taking it well.”

A little too well.

“I suppose,” he says, his eyes already wandering back to Sansa, who has thrown herself into the arms of that young man with the large watery eyes who always seems intent on blending into the background. Yara Greyjoy smiles broadly at their affectionate reunion that never seems to end--and Jon can’t tear his eyes away.

“Hm.” Daenerys watches Jon with sharp eyes but keeps the sharpness from her tongue. “I didn’t know she and Theon were this close. Perhaps we should arrange a match between them after the war.”

“Theon Greyjoy?” Jon finally gives her his full attention, and a storm is brewing in his dark eyes. “Theon Greyjoy? No.”

“You’re very upset.” Daenerys steps close enough that she must tilt her head up to meet his gaze. “Why should you care whom she marries?”

“She’s my little sister. That gives me plenty of reason to care.”

“She’s your wife . Rumor has it you’ve grown close since your wedding. Happy. In love .”

Jon scoffs, shaking his head, but he looks away.

“No?” Daenerys trembles with held back anger. “So she’s not fallen in love with you?”

“No.”

“You’re not exactly astute when it comes to women. I flirted with you for weeks before you caught on. How would you know?”

“How I know?” He laughs darkly and traps her in his feral gaze. “Do you know why she got drunk? Because she felt so pressured by others to consummate the marriage, she drank so much she could barely stand up. Because that was the only way she could go through with it. Does that sound like someone who wants me?”

“Did you?”

“Did I what ?”

“Go through with it,” she says, enunciating every word through a snarl.

The storm rages in his eyes now, the dragon within him woken, and her body can’t help but respond to it, help but long for him to push her up against the wall again and pour that anger into a bruising kiss with the kind of passion he didn’t show until he could no longer have her.

“If you have to ask me that,” he says, voice hoarse, “you don’t know me at all. You think I’d touch her?”

“You’d be in your right. She’s your wife, and very beauti--”

“You think I’m a monster?”

He looms over her and it would be so easy to kiss him, to show all of Winterfell that he is hers, no one else’s, because he is, has to be. A man does not look at a woman like that unless he loves her so much it drives him mad--and a woman can’t drive a man that mad unless she’s loved by him.

“You think I’d hurt her, after everything she’s suffered? Is that the kind of man you think I am?"

“Is that the only reason? Not your love for me? Are you in love with her, Jon? Do you love her more than you love me?”

His nostrils flare with labored breaths; his mouth twitches with the need to press against her own, to show her whom he truly loves now that she’s made him too angry to control himself. Her tongue wets her bottom lip, pulls his gaze down to watch. He pants. She lays her hands against his chest to push herself on tiptoes, but then he blinks, and she can see the anger and the want dissipate, as his eyes fade from black to brown. He blinks again, his gaze shooting from her to Missandei and Grey Worm as though he, for a moment, forgot other people existed. As though he’s ashamed for letting her wake the dragon in front of an audience. He backs away. Throws a quick glance at the courtyard, where Sansa and Theon are still talking, their hands linked. Jon ducks his head and stares wide-eyed at the object in his hands while his breathing calms.

“After everything I’ve done for you,” he says, quietly, “after what I’ve given you. Do you honestly doubt me that much?”

“I needed to know, my love, my dragon. Now I know.”

He nods softly, giving her a hint of a smile. “I shouldn’t have yelled at you, Dany. I am sorry.”

She strokes his arm soothingly. “You have the temperament of a dragon. Never feel ashamed of it. Not with me. I understand. I’m the only one who can.”

Eyes closed, Jon sighs deeply with relief and moves to pocket the object in his hands, but she stops him and holds her hand out. He hesitates for a beat before placing it in her palm. It’s a stag carved from wood, its limbs and antlers singed.

“Uh, it’s just one of Rickon’s old toys.”

“A stag?”

Jon shrugs. “He liked King Robert. From Father’s stories. He, uhm, he got it when King Robert came to visit.”

“Why is it burned?”

“Because Winterfell burned.” Jon stares down at Theon. “Because of him. I’ve forgiven him--I have--but I’ve not forgotten. I’ll never forget.” He takes back the stag and rubs his thumb over the swell of its body. “I can’t afford to forget how easily people turn on you. Not if I want to keep my family safe.”

Daenerys calms his fidgeting by folding her hands over his, so that they hold the stag together. “I won’t let him harm your family. I won’t let anyone harm them. You have my word.”

“Thank you,” he says, once more glancing at the courtyard. “Oh, seven hells!”

Jon squeezes past Missandei and Grey Worm, flies down the stairs, and Daenerys follows. Jaime Lannister has approached Theon, shouting at him as he cowers like a little boy, with Sansa shielding him with her body while Yara merely rolls her eyes.

“What’s going on?” Jon shouts, pushing ser Jaime away with a firm hand against his shoulder. “Did you miss the peace banner?”

Daenerys bores her eyes into ser Jaime. “Behave yourself or I'll have Grey Worm throw you out. The Greyjoys are my allies.” 

Ser Jaime tilts his head. “Oh, are they?”

Ignoring him, she turns to Yara with a smile on her face. “Yara. I’m so happy to see you alive and well.”

“No thanks to you.” Yara’s smile is sharklike. “You let me rot in a cage.”

“Forgive me, Your Grace,” Sansa says and Daenerys turns to her--only to realize Sansa’s addressing Yara. “Let me introduce you to my brother--”

Jaime snorts. Sansa’s eyes widen and a blush colors her pale cheeks. “My husband. Jon. Stark. Jon, this is Yara Greyjoy, Queen of the Iron Islands. I don’t believe you’ve met?”

“Queen?” Daenerys narrows her eyes at Yara. “The Iron Islands belong to the Seven Kingdoms, and the Seven Kingdoms belong to me.”

“Last time I looked,” ser Jaime says, “my sister was crowned Queen of those seven kingdoms. They’re Cersei’s allies now.” He gestures at the guards who followed the Greyjoy siblings through the gates. Half of them are Ironborn; half of them bear the Lannister sigil. “And this little twat”--he nods at Theon--”refuses to tell me where she is.”

“No,” Yara says, “this little twat has been forbidden by her to tell you. She doesn’t want to see her traitor of a brother. Or lover. Whatever is is.”

Daenerys balls her hands into fists. “You are my allies.”

Yara huffs a breath, shaking her head. “I gave you my men and my ships and what did you give me? Nothing. Euron kept me in a cage for a long time and you didn’t lift a finger to save me.”

“I let Theon go after you!”

Yara scoffs and directs a disgusted look at her brother, who shies under her cruel gaze and seeks out Sansa’s hand for comfort. “Reek, you mean? Or whatever he calls himself now. Euron caught him; Euron broke him. Theon Greyjoy is dead. My little brother is dead, and he’s been dead for a long, long time. He never fully came back after what Ramsay did to him.” She tilts her chin proudly at Jaime. “Your sister saved us. She let me kill my uncle. She let me take back the Iron Islands. You have nothing to fear from us. She’s safe and well with Qyburn and ser Gregor by her side. No harm has come to her.”

“But she won’t see me?”

“No. You’ve made your choice.” Yara indicates Daenerys with her head. “You’ll have to live with it.”

Daenerys glances at the sky, where Drogon circles Winterfell, then looks back at Yara. “Why are you here?”

“We carry a message from Queen Cersei.”

Sansa lets go of Theon’s hand and moves to stand next to Daenerys. “Then let us converse in my solar.”

“Ellaria Sand is alive too, in case you were wondering. I hope worrying about her well-being hasn't kept you up at night.” Yara mocks Daenerys with a bow. “My Queen .”

I’ll burn you for your betrayal. I’ll burn you and your brother and all your men--

“Your Grace.” Missandei’s soft voice caresses Daenerys’ ear; her hand finds Daenerys’ fist and unfurls it, entwining their fingers. “The peace banner, Your Grace.”

Daenerys lets her other hand relax, then slips it around the crook of Sansa’s elbow and holds her possessively as they stalk through Winterfell together. Ser Jaime’s not invited to the meeting, but Varys, Tyrion, and the rest join them in the solar. Jon takes his usual spot behind Sansa, but it doesn’t bother Daenerys anymore. He wasn’t raised Targaryen. As a brother, he’s all Stark.

“Lady Sansa.” Theon approaches her with his head bent. Everything about him trembles: his body, his gaze, his voice. “Queen Cersei invites you, your sworn shield, and an advisor of your choosing to a meeting. Yara and I are to escort you.”

“A meeting concerning what?” Sansa asks.

His eyes skirt Daenerys’ body and she knows, as surely as she knows that she’s born to sit on the Iron Throne, that Cersei will want to sway Sansa to her side. “The armistice. The war. I’m her emissary. She wants you to be Daenerys’.”

“With my Queen’s permission, I will of course--”

“No.” Jon steps forward, shielding Sansa from Theon's view. “It’s too dangerous. I’ll go. I’ll be the emissary.”

“Theon will be there. He’ll keep me safe. Won’t you, Theon?” Sansa asks and Theon nods emphatically. “And Brienne. And--”

“Theon will keep you safe? Theon?" Jon scowls at him with such force Theon’s shrinks back to the wall. "Aye, he’s done an excellent job keeping you safe. And now he’s with Cersei Lannister. A woman who wants you dead. I’m not letting Theon take you anywhere.”

“If you think you have a say in the matter, husband, you’re mistaken. It’s my choice, and I will accept.”

“You’re wrong,” Daenerys says. “I’m your Queen. It’s my choice, and I agree with Jon. You’re far too important to me, both politically and personally. If Cersei captures you or harms you in any way, I will have to retaliate. The Northern lords will insist on it. I will insist on it. You’re my family now and no one hurts my family. And we must focus on the great war, not quarreling with the living. So, as your Queen, I forbid it.”

With a loud breath, the tension rushes out of Jon and he gives her a warm, grateful look--a look that makes her stomach swoop for it tells her he’d shown his gratitude in a much more intriguing way had they been alone in the room.

“And when this war is over, she will burn. I will burn her alive for all the horrible things she’s done to House Stark.” Daenerys looks at Theon. “Tell your queen that.”

“No,” Sansa says, and Jon’s hand is instantly on her shoulder, fear creeping into his eyes. “No more burning people alive. It has to stop. You’ve shown Westeros what your dragons can do, and it’s all well and good on the battlefield. But if you use those dragons to execute more people, all you’ll accomplish is making people fear you. Show them how just and fair you are. Show them how much better you are than the woman who burned down the Sept of Baelor and all the people in it. No one will be more relieved than me when Cersei finally dies, but please, My Queen, give her the trial she deserves for all her horrible crimes, and then execute her by beheading her or hanging her. It's the Westeros way.”

Daenerys glances first at Tyrion, who nods sincerely, then at Jon whose nod is almost desperate.

“Thank you for your wisdom, my lady," she says. "Dragons once filled people with awe and wonder. I'd like to see that again. Only my enemies in battle should fear my children. Cersei will be beheaded by one of my me--”

“I’ll do it,” Jon says with barely contained rage. “I’ll behead her.”

“Perhaps,” Tyrion says with a pointed look, “we should discuss this further when her emissary is not present. And, perhaps, we should decide who will represent you, Your Grace, if you won’t allow Lady Sansa to leave.”

As on cue, the door to the solar opens and through it comes Jon’s strange little brother, his wheeled chair pushed by the handsome blacksmith with the piercing blue eyes.

“I hear you’re discussing who shall meet with Cersei,” the boy says in that detached voice of his that always sends chills down Daenerys’ spine. “We’ll go. Gendry and I.”

Any lingering doubts Daenerys has about Jon’s feelings for his sister fade when the protective big brother in him protests Bran’s leaving as fiercely as he did Sansa’s. But Bran silences him by holding up his hand.

“I know you’re worried, but you needn’t be. Cersei Lannister will not harm me.”

Bran looks calmly at Jon, and Daenerys’ can’t help but shiver at the empty look in that boy’s eyes. He reminds her of Drogo, after the witch stole his soul.

“We need Qyburn’s help. Together with him, Gendry will forge the weapon that will bring down Viserion before--”

Daenerys’ heart nearly stops. “Viserion?”

Bran turns his horrible eyes to her. “The Night King has made Viserion his. He’s a wight now, and the Night King rides him. We believe...”

His voice turns into a monotonous drone in her ears. Her beautiful child, a lifeless withered thing ridden by the Night King, used by him to destroy and conquer and kill everything full of life. Before her mind's eye, flashes the memory of her child falling and falling and crashing into the icy lake, sinking into its dark frothy depths as the light left his green eyes; of Jon sacrificing himself to ensure they’d be able to fly away before the Night King stole her other children too.

When she left Jon and Viserion behind, she willed her heart to grow hard and her eyes to remain dry. Yes, the Night King stole from her, as war always steal things one loves, but she couldn’t allow him to steal her strength too. She needs that strength to avenge her child and take what’s hers with fire and blood.

Once more, she’s filled with the need to climb atop Drogon and fly away--not to flee the past but to find the Night King and burn him and his dreadful armies to the ground.

Something warm touches her hands. Her vision clears from memories and she sees Jon sitting on his haunches before her, his hands cradling hers which rest in her lap. Jon. Her touchstone. The dragon with just enough wolf in him to remind her to stay grounded. To stay. Blinking, she looks around the room and finds it empty. They’re alone, truly alone, and with no need to pretend or hide, she lets her feelings for him shine in her gaze and takes comfort in the softness in his. It so sweet and warm she basks in it.

“I’m sorry, Dany. I’m so sorry.”

“I suppose we should’ve known.”

“I told Bran he could go, and Varys offered to be your emissary. They’ll come back with the weapon. And then we’ll kill the Night King, together. I promise you.” He brushes his thumb over her knuckles. “Sansa’s invited Yara and Theon to share a meal and some ale before they leave. We should join them.”

She nods, but when he moves to leave, holds his hands more tightly to pull him back. “You were scared this morning, weren’t you? That I’d find out about what Sansa did. That she tried to consummate the wedding.”

Jon says nothing, but she can read the truth in his eyes. He was scared, scared she’d think he’d betrayed her, scared of losing her love.

“I’m not angry with you--nor with her. I expected something like this to happen. That Gilly… Now, I know she’s married to someone you consider a brother, and that it means she’ll always be welcome in your home, but the girl has more passion than sense. People like that cannot be trusted. Please tell your sister she shouldn’t listen to her.”

Jon fights a smile, his eyes downcast, and it warms her that he can still see who Gilly is despite how much he loves Sam.

“I’m glad you told Sansa about us, and I’m glad you told me about her. I hope she and I can finally be friends now. Good friends. Sisters, even. I think I'd like a sister.”

“I’m sure she’d say the same.”

Daenerys toys with his fingers, looking coyly at him. “Will you come to my chambers this evening?”

“I can’t.”

“But she knows now. Come to my chambers.” Daenerys adds a flirty note to her voice. “Don’t let your queen beg.”

“We can’t risk it. If word got out... We still need the support of the Northern houses. They would not take kindly to it.”

“I understand.” She leans forward to kiss him, but he turns his head and her lips find a scruffy cheek. “Jon…”

He slips his hands from her grip and stands. “I know this is hard, for the both of us. But as long as I stay married to Sansa, I will be faithful to Sansa.”

Daenerys sighs, smiling sadly. “I respect your wish to stay an honorable man.” She rises, then, and pats him on the chest before taking his arm. “Your father would be proud."

Together, they leave the room and walk to the great hall. Together, they’ll kill the Night King and bring peace to the Seven Kingdoms. And, together, they’ll make up for all this lost time once the war is over, and they’ll do it with the fiery passion only two dragons can rouse. Waiting will only make it better.

Chapter Text

As servants set the tables and light the braziers in a smaller hall she’s chosen for the meal to be shared, Sansa watches Theon from across the room. He’s cowering by Yara’s side while she shoots him contemptuous looks--but Theon sounded nothing like Reek when they spoke in the courtyard and Yara didn’t seem to hate him. At least not until Jon showed up.

Jon, who’s still in her solar coddling a stricken Daenerys after news that didn’t seem to surprise the Greyjoys at all. Bran’s already left to prepare for the long ride to wherever Cersei’s set up camp, but at this point, Sansa’s not sure he would tell her the truth even if she were to ask him what he knows. Jon, Arya, Bran… They’re all keeping things from her.

Sansa crosses the room and takes Theon’s hand, pulls him away to a somewhat secluded corner. Except Brienne, who throws them a discreet glance, the other people in the room are too occupied with discussing Viserion to pay them any mind.

“Is it true, what Bran said,” Sansa asks, quietly, “that Cersei’s committed to our cause? That she won’t harm him.”

Theon throws a quick look over his shoulder. “You have nothing to worry about. Nothing at all. Do you understand?”

His eyes are calm, warm, and all Theon.

A slow smile spreads on her face. “It’s her, isn’t it?”

Theon nods. Tears spring to Sansa’s eyes and she throws her arms around him, hugging him tightly with her eyes closed in blissful relief. “Thank you,” she whispers into his collar. “Thank you, thank you.”

“You can’t tell him. Jon,” Theon whispers back. “I promised her. She thinks he’ll ruin it.”

When Sansa opens her eyes, she finds Jon standing in the doorway with a pale Daenerys on his arm. He’s staring at Sansa with sad eyes, and when their gazes connect, he smiles faintly, kindly. It only makes her angry.

“He would ruin it,” Sansa says. “I won’t tell him anything.”


As they eat, silence falls over the room. She hears only scrapes of spoons and the slurping of a meager fish stew. Because Daenerys has had other priorities than feeding her armies, Winterfell’s storage is thinning rapidly. If only they’d lived in Dorne, where snow rarely falls and winters are so mild a Northerner would call them summer. There they’d never run out of food, while the only things the North has aplenty are vast forests covered in snow.

Sansa watches Yara tear off a piece of bread from a small loaf she shares with her brother and dip it into the stew. The North does have ice and lumber. They have mines. And they have ser Davos Seaworth, the Onion Knight, the smuggler. Yara has ships and a connection to Ellaria Sand and wouldn’t that--

Jon’s lips brush Sansa’s hair and a wave of heat courses through her, scattering her train of thought. Whatever he murmurs in her ear, she doesn’t understand because memories of this morning flood her mind. He woke something in her, something she’s spent years suppressing, and now she finds herself wishing to once more feel his beard rasping against her neck, his teeth nipping at her flesh, and his hand dragging up her thigh. She finds herself wishing he’d order everyone to leave so he could make her his, properly his, right here on the table. She wishes it so strongly it frightens her.

It pains her too, for now she knows he never will. Ygritte haunted his dreams, that’s all, and then he woke up with his face nuzzled into hair as red as Ygritte’s but belonging to a woman he never wanted. And that’s all it is, isn’t it? That confusing tenderness Sansa sometimes glimpses in his eyes. It’s her red hair evoking memories of the woman he lost.

“Sansa,” Jon says, louder this time. “You seem unwell. Is your headache back? Would you like me to walk you to Maester Wolkan?”

“I’m fine. Thank you.” She lays down her spoon, pulls herself and the pieces of her scattered thoughts back together, and turns to Yara. “Your Grace, may I ask how Cersei is feeding her armies? Is she relying on us to feed them?”

“No yet, but we might need help because someone ”--Yara scowls at Daenerys--”burned all the food from the Reach.”

Daenerys draws a breath as to speak, but Sansa rushes to continue before Daenerys makes everything worse. “Winters are harsh in the North, but they’re mild in Dorne. Mild enough for food to still grow. You said Ellaria Sand is alive and well. Did you part on good terms?”

“I think so.” Yara tears off another piece of bread and mops up the last of her stew. “You want me to set up a trading route to Dorne.”

“If it can be done. We have ice. We have lumber. Silver. You have ships. Lend us a few for trading and I’ll give you lumber to build new ships once the war is over. I know it’ll take quite some time before the first shipment arrives, but better late than never.”

“If you don’t mind, my lady,” Davos says, looking at her the way Father always did when she made him proud, and it’s both a welcome balm and painful all at once. “I wouldn’t mind taking this with Her Grace. I think it warrants a deeper discussion and I have some experience moving goods across the sea, as well as contacts in Essos. They need ice too.”

“I wouldn’t mind at all, ser Davos. You may use my solar.”

 

After Davos and Yara leave with the men who followed her, Daenerys walks away as well with Missandei on her arm and ser Jorah and Grey Worm trailing behind like goslings. Soon only Sansa, Theon, and Jon remain. Breathing calmly, Jon watches Theon for an uncomfortably long time before getting up. He walks to the still-open door, the heels of his boots loud against the floor, but instead of walking out, he closes it. Then he turns around, eyes locked on Theon, and Theon shifts uneasily in his seat.

“You’re with Cersei now.” Jon stalks closer to the table. “Cersei Lannister. Just when I thought you were done betraying us.”

“I haven’t betrayed anyone.”

“No? I thought you decided to be a Greyjoy and a Stark.”

Theon stares into his empty bowl, ostensibly deliberating with himself. Then he straightens his posture and meets Jon's eye steadily (and closes his hands into fists to hide how they tremble). “I did. I am.”

“Then what are you doing with her?”

“Cersei offered us a choice. Kill our uncle and join her, or let Euron do whatever he wanted with us. What would you have chosen? If it were you. You and Sansa.”

Jon’s jaw tightens; his throat bobs. He glances at Sansa through the corner of his eye before looking back at Theon. Then he sighs deeply and sits back down, leaning tiredly over the table on his forearm. “I do whatever it took to keep her safe.”

“That’s all I’m doing. I’m keeping Yara safe.”

Jon nods slowly. “She will turn on you. Cersei. You can’t trust a word she says. She wants Sansa dead and--”

“Cersei’s many things, but she’s not an idiot,” Sansa says. “If she wanted me dead, she would’ve found another way to do it. Marching her armies North only to murder me or fight Daenerys is nothing but stupid.”

“Daenerys. That’s it, isn't it?” Jon narrows his eyes at Theon. “Cersei wants us to betray her. She wants us to betray her after the war. That's why she wanted to see Sansa. She must think she'd have better luck with her than me. Does she have a plan?”

“I don’t know,” Theon says, “but when I do, I’ll let you know. I promise you. As your brother.”

Tapping his thumb against the tabletop, Jon watches Theon as he thinks. Then he nods and stretches out his arm. Theon eyes it for a second before clasping it.

“All right. If Sansa trusts you, so do I. Don’t make me regret it. Brother .”

“I won’t.“ Theon slides out of Jon’s grip, gets up, and bows awkwardly at them. “I wish I could stay, but I need to be with Yara, now.”

Sansa moves to leave as well, but Jon stops her by saying her name. She throws a glance at Theon. She didn't have time to explain everything as they reunited, but he knows their marriage isn't a happy one, and he gives her a supportive smile before slipping out the door.

“What is it?” she asks without looking at Jon.

“There’s something I need to tell you.”

“Is it a matter of life or death?”

Jon sighs heavily. “No.”

“Is it about the war?”

“No.”

“Then it can wait. I have work to do.”

 

-----

 

Later, as the Greyjoy party leaves, Sansa stands on the battlements and watches them until they’re but a dot against the horizon. “There should always be a Stark at Winterfell,” Bran told her as they said goodbye in the courtyard. “You’re needed here, Sansa.” But all she heard was, and I’m not Bran Stark anymore, not really . He’s alluded to it many times by now and yet it never fails to break her heart. He’s right, though. Her place is at Winterfell, because when everyone is busy with forging weapons and drawing battleplans, she’s the only one who takes care of the people. Not even the woman who calls herself Queen offers much help.

The people of Winterfell need me more than I need to cry on my sister’s shoulder like a little girl.

Paperwork sends Sansa’s mind wandering to places it shouldn’t and instead she opens up the great hall to her people to listen to their issues and complaints. Usually, it’s taxing business, but today she welcomes solving other people’s problems, and by the time darkness falls and she calls it a day, she almost feels like herself again. Tired and stiff, yes, but not as emotionally raw as when she has to spend time with Jon. Perhaps she can avoid him even longer by supping in her chambers and turning to bed early…

“My lady?”

Sansa looks up to find Missandei before her, with Grey Worm waiting by the door in an otherwise empty hall.

“Our Queen invites you to join us in her chambers for supper.”

After such a demanding day, no valid excuses come to Sansa and she finds herself being led to Daenerys’ chambers with a foreboding feeling filling up her stomach. Throughout a dinner Sansa mostly picks at, Daenerys asks her questions about her time in King’s Landing, about Tyrion and Cersei and the nature of their relationship. It smells of a paranoia Sansa does her best to abate, but she knows it’s not the real reason for why she was invited. Daenerys might've forgotten it, but Sansa remembers they’ve done this dance before. It was about Jon then, so it must be about Jon now.

But once Daenerys seems satisfied with Sansa’s answers, the conversation moves on to stories from her time in Essos, and Sansa relaxes. Sipping the offered wine, she smiles and pretends to enjoy herself so well she almost believes it herself. Missandei recounts how she came to serve her queen, while Daenerys speaks affectionately of ser Barristan Selmy and how he came into her service. She even tears up when she shares how she lost him.

“I remember him,” Sansa says, and Daenerys’ misty eyes light up. “The day he left King’s Landing. Cersei told him in front of the whole court he couldn’t serve in the Kingsguard anymore. That he was too old. They would give him a keep with servants where he could live out his days. But he refused. He tore off his cloak, he threw his sword at the floor, called Joffrey ‘boy’”--Sansa chuckles at the memory--”and then he stormed out of there. Seeing someone defy Joffrey like that, defy the King … It was magnificent. Inspiring.”

Smiling wistfully, Daenerys blinks away the tears in her eyes. “He was magnificent. I miss him dearly. It’s so important, isn’t it? Being mindful of whom we surround ourselves with.”

The lightness in her voice doesn’t match the sharp glint in her gaze. Sansa puts down her goblet of wine, clasps her hands in her lap, and slips back into a submissive demeanor.

“It’s come to my attention you’ve been spending more time with Gilly lately.”

“She’s pregnant, Your Grace. We sew and knit together. For the babe.”

“Hm. I’m not sure I like her influence on you. You should spend more time here, with us. We’re planning on visiting Wintertown tomorrow. To spend time with the children. We’d love your company. Wouldn’t we, Missandei?”

“Influence, Your Grace?” Sansa asks.

“Jon told me she pressured you into trying to consummate the marriage.”

“Jon said what?” Sansa’s voice is barely above a whisper, and her cheeks sting with heat as if she’s been slapped.

“Oh, he never mentioned her by name. But I knew who was behind it. It wasn’t hard to figure out.”

Sansa’s eyes dart between the two women before her. Missandei’s staring into the wine goblet she’d holding, while Daenerys keeps a benevolent look on her face that’s so studied it seems almost smug.

“I’ve frightened you. It was not my intention.” Daenerys reaches for Sansa’s hand. “I’m glad Jon told me. It eased my worries. For a long time, I believed you wanted to steal him from me. That you arranged that marriage because you wanted it. I believed you were in love with him. I was jealous, I admit it. He can be so… taciturn. I never know what he’s thinking or feeling.”

“It’s the way he’s always been,” Sansa says, and to her ears she sounds almost as monotonous as Bran. “He doesn’t speak to me either.”

“Well, he’s finally opened up to me, and now I know you don’t want Jon. And Jon does not want you. This marriage is unfortunately necessary for now, but soon I’ll be able to relieve you of this burden. You’ll be free--and I’ll be able to call you sister. It will be my honor and my pleasure to call you sister, Sansa.”

It takes every drop of energy Sansa has left to smile. “Thank you, Your Grace.”

Daenerys beams. “I’m so happy we can finally speak freely about this. Aren’t you? I’m so happy we can be friends now. True friends.”

“As am I, Your Grace.”

“Did you know Jon insists on being faithful to you while you’re still married? Oh, of course you do. It must’ve been your clever idea.”

Sansa shakes her head, still with that smile plastered on her face because if she lets it slip she’s not sure she can force it back on.

“No? Hm, well, it’s for the best. We can’t upset the North, can we? We must wait, until they see me for who I truly am. Until I’ve saved them from the monsters.” She tilts her chin up and her eyes burn with such intensity it’s as if a fire roars within her. “I will kill the Night King, Sansa. I will kill him and all the wights. And I will kill Cersei. And then I will kill the Greyjoys for betraying us both. Have no doubt.”

“I have no doubt, Your Grace.”

“I’m happy to hear it. I have something for you.”

Daenerys gestures at Missandei to help her, and they move to a small leatherbound chest standing in a corner of her room. As their backs turn to her, Sansa can’t hold that smile any longer. It slips and slips and she doesn’t realize just how much until she feels eyes on her. Half-cloaked in shadows Grey Worm stands at attention by the door, but his gaze isn’t directed forward but at her. The hilt of his sword gleams by his hip. Sansa’s stomach bottoms out. She feels herself shaking, her lip trembling. How could she forget he was still in the room?

Don’t tell her, she pleads at him with her eyes. Please don’t tell her.

Grey Worm breaks eye contact and stares blankly ahead without a word.

“I never gave you a proper bride’s gift,” Daenerys says. In her hands she holds a delicate hair comb with silver-and-sapphire flowers. Missandei holds a pile of books. “I heard your library burned. I’d like to do my part in rebuilding it. These are stories from Essos, written in the common tongue.”

She nods at Missandei to hand over the books, and as Sansa’s hands become occupied, Daenerys leans in and tucks the teeth of the comb into Sansa’s bun. She then steps back with a satisfied look. “Mm. Perfect. The sapphires reminded me of your pretty eyes.”

“It’s beautiful. Perhaps I’ll wear it at my next wedding. If it please Your Grace.”

“You’ll make a beautiful bride.”

“Thank you, Your Grace. And thank you for this evening. I’ve had a wonderful time. But I fear the events of the day are catching up on me. I’m quite tired.”

“My Queen,” Grey Worm says. “I will walk Lady Stark to her chambers.”

They say their goodbyes, and Grey Worm grabs the pile of books from Sansa, carrying them in silence as he walks her down torchlit hallways that usually look homey to her but now feel ominous. Grey Worm smells of leather and Essosi oils, of strength and fighting. His steps sound sure and his breathing steady. And he knows how she feels about Jon.

It's not escaped her attention that Varys and Tyrion's loyalty to their chosen Queen is waning. Varys supports Sansa too often, and Tyrion loves his brother far more than he loves Daenerys. But ser Jorah, Missandei, and Grey Worm are all tied to their Queen by something deeper than mere duty. They love her, are devoted to her, are indebted to her, even. Whatever could she say to convince Grey Worm to keep what he discovered tonight to himself?

“Lady Stark.” Grey Worm’s voice jerks her out of her thoughts. She finds they’ve reached her chambers, where two of her guards are posted, and she exhales in relief. “Allow me to thank you,” he continues. “You have invited us into your home. You have fed us, clothed us. I have made new friends and I teach children. I… like it. In the North. Today reminded me of that--how you care about your people. How you take care of us. And I want to thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” she says, sounding as confused as she feels. “Thank you for fighting with us, Grey Worm. Thank you for teaching the children.”

“It is my pleasure. And”--he lowers his head a little, speaking softly--”you do not have to worry. Good night, Lady Stark.”

Then he hands her the books, bows, and walks away. She watches him until the dark has swallowed him before unlocking the door to her chambers.

Once inside, she leans back against the door with a heavy exhale and closes her eyes. If Grey Worm--a man she’s barely spoken two words to-- could see right through her, then how can she ever hide how she feels about Jon from other people? How can she hide it from Jon?

She needs time to bury it beneath a layer of ice thick enough that a heated moment won’t be enough for the ice to crack and spill out all these pathetic feelings whirling within her.

“Sansa.”

She jolts, the books crashing to the floor. Jon’s in a chair, leaned forward with his elbows on his knees, playing with something in his hands. As he stands, he pockets it and moves to help her with the books.

She pushes him away and gathers the book herself. “What are you doing in here?”

“These are my chambers now, and if I’d waited outside my own chambers, people would’ve talked.”

“Let them. I’ve had a day. I can’t do this. I told you: I need time.”

“I’m not here because of that. I have to tell you something. Something else.”

“You’re too late. Daenerys has already let me know you told her about my humiliating moment this morning.”

“That’s not-- I only told her about the one last night.”

“Well, you’ve rejected me three times now. How should I have known which one you picked?”

“I’m sorry, San--”

“Stop apologizing. It’s annoying.” She drops the books on her dresser, and pulls the comb from her hair and throws it on the floor, silver clinking against stone until it meets the wall. Then she slumps down in a chair, rubbing her temples. “I know what she’s like. The way she prods at you until you tell her something that pleases her.”

“Doesn’t matter. I shouldn’t have said it.”

“I don’t know. It’s probably the best thing you could’ve done. She doesn’t see me as a rival anymore. She listened to me today. She actually listened. Only time will tell whether she’ll refrain from burning anyone else but--” Sansa bites her lip. Falling into conversation with him is far too easy and she can’t do this, can’t let the conversation run on until it winds down paths she’s not ready for just yet. “I want you to leave. I’m exhausted.”

“I will. But there’s something else.”

Sansa stifles a groan. “What now?”

“I’ve spent the evening with Sam. Bran's said they're marching toward Winterfell now. It's almost time. So you won’t see much of me the next few days. I’ll be busy. Strategizing. If you don’t want to talk, I respect that and I won't bother you. But,” he says, moving a bit closer, “I might not come back, Sansa.”

His voice is too raw, his eyes too haunted; she looks away.

“I don’t want to leave like this. I don’t want--” He stops himself; she hears him swallow. “I know you need time, but I don’t have that much time to give.”

“The night before you leave. We’ll speak then.”

“Thank you.”

The heels of his boots are soft against the floor. She hears his hand close around the door-handle. Her chest feels so tight with loss she can scarcely breathe.

“Jon,” she whispers. The leather of his jerkin creaks when he lets his arm drop. His measured breaths are louder than the crackling fire. “You can’t leave. Not now. People will talk, you were right about that. All those people, all those armies, they look to us to lead them, to take care of them. We can’t fail them now. We have to look united.”

“Are you sure?”

“It’s not what I want, but it’s what duty demands.”

Without sparing him a glance, Sansa changes behind the dressing screen, takes her sleeping draught, and curls up in bed. She listens to him undressing, putting on his sleepwear, and lying down. The furs they usually share strain over her body in a way that tells her he’s lying atop them, not underneath them. Then she hears him drape his cloak over himself, the smell of winter wafting over her.

She closes her eyes and hears Daenerys’ voice whispering in her mind: For a long time, I believed you wanted to steal him from me. That you arranged that marriage because you wanted it. I believed you were in love with him.

If Jon found out how she feels, would he believe the same? Would he believe her to be that horrible?

Was I that horrible? Did I love him even then?

Did I trap him?

Sleep already pulls at her and she escapes into the dreamless haven the draught creates. When she wakes up again, dawn’s broken and Jon’s side of the bed is empty and cold. His pillow still smells of him, though. She smooths her hand over the silky fabric before grabbing the pillow and pulling it close, burying her face in it, breathing in the scent of him. Soon she must get dressed and become Lady Stark again, but first she allows herself to be a silly girl for once. First she allows herself to weep.

Chapter Text

The past few days winter’s flaunted its echinate face, pelting down sharp snowflakes with harsh gusts of wind, trapping everyone inside. Still, Sansa only ever see Jon during meals in the Great Hall, where she pretends to be happy and he looks at her like a man in love. He sneaks into their bed once she’s asleep and he leaves before she wakes. If not for the rumpled state of his side of the bed each morning, she wouldn’t know he slept there at all. Today, though, snowflakes drift lazily from the sky, soft and fat like the downs of a bird, and when Daenerys once more asks her to join them to Wintertown, Sansa is glad to have an excuse to leave the castle for a few hours.

Before Jon left for Dragonstone, before her days filled up with the duties they once shared, Sansa liked filling baskets with food and taking a stroll with Brienne to the settlement outside Winterfell’s walls to visit the sick, the elderly, and tired mothers with newborn babes. She sat with them for a while, asking questions about their children, their work, their lives. She held babes while their mothers took well-needed kips. She spoon-fed those who couldn’t feed themselves. She mopped the feverish brows of children. And she held the hands of the old and dying, singing them songs she once thought forgotten that now came easily to her lips.

Although claiming love of the people doesn’t flatter her would be lying, she never did it to be loved. Spending a few hours in a busy home reminds her of her childhood; it reminds her of the life she wants for herself: honest work, a good husband, and a handful of children bringing life and laughter to her home. The life Mother and Father had.

Podrick walks merrily next to her, snowflakes mingling with the freckles on his face as he looks up at the sky. With Brienne and Grey Worm teaching at Winterfell, he’s escorting Lady Stark for the day and he takes it seriously and with great pride. Before them, down the muddy road, walk Daenerys and Missandei escorted by ser Jorah and Dothraki men bundled up in thick fur coats. While Missandei’s wrapped up in wool, fur, and a thick cloak, Daenerys strides on wearing only her white fur coat and thin leather gloves. A dragon is never bothered by the cold, she claims.

“We’ve visited before,” Daenerys says over her shoulder. “The children love hearing stories about my dragons and my time as a little princess hiding in Essos.”

Sansa thinks of Margaery prancing through a sea of children, doling out smiles and toys and sweet caresses on dirty cheeks, and decides it initially must’ve been Tyrion’s idea. She pulls her gray wool cloak closed over the direwolf on her chest, pulls the hood over her red hair. The Queen would not enjoy competing for the attention of the people.

They pass the Smoking Log and Sansa spies Sandor Clegane holding up the door as Tormund walks into the inn. When he notices them, the Hound gives a curt nod before following his friend. Part of her wish she could join them. While she’s glad to be outside, she doesn’t really want to share Wintertown and its people with Daenerys. She’s tired of handing over everything she holds dear to that woman while smiling prettily and pretending it’s an honor and a pleasure.

Along the stocky houses of log and stone run tented stalls selling roasted chestnuts, freshly caught fish, grilled meat, eggs, apples, and other goods. The people huddling under the awnings stop their perusing to stare at the Dragon Queen gliding through town. More people file out of the houses for a good look, and Daenerys soaks it all up, aiming smiles in every direction. But the looks she receives aren’t ones of admiration. People are whispering amongst themselves, their eyes narrowed in anger. Sansa’s stomach tightens. This is all too familiar. She hears only snippets, harshly uttered words standing out: “Viserion, Night King, dragon wight.”  Her breathing becomes labored and her eyes flit between irate faces as the whispers grow and grow until they’re a cacophony of insults and accusations. Someone shouts: “She gave the Night King a dragon!” Another joins in: “Targaryen cunt!”  A snowball, brown-speckled with mud and gravel, shoots through the air and crashes against Daenerys’ head. “We’ll all die because of you!”

“Protect your queen!” ser Jorah shouts just as another snowball smacks Daenerys in the face. She tumbles backward and falls into Podrick’s arms. Her lip is split, blood dripping down on her pretty fur coat, and her eyes are open wide like on a frightened horse.

“We’ll slaughter your dragons and eat them! We’ll feast on their hearts and drink their blood!”

With guttural cries, people rush forward. The Dothraki draw their arakhs. A muddy snowball hits ser Jorah, another hits Podrick. Jeers and taunts rain down over them. Something hard hits Sansa in the back and she groans with pain, stumbling forward. A hand drags down her arm. On the ground lies a boy not older than Bran. Blood taints the snow underneath his body, mist rising from the warm pool of it. She fumbles after someone to hold, someone to protect her. Podrick is gone. Missandei is gone. The snow melts away and the muddy road becomes the sun-soaked streets of King’s Landing. The people around her don’t wear fur but flowy fabrics in russet and ochre. She hears Joffrey’s voice cracking as he screams, "Kill them all!"

A hand still tugs at her arm and she knows what happens next, knows how they carry you away and throw you on the ground and rape you. Her knees feel like slush. The sounds around her meld into a deafening drone and her vision blurs, as if someone’s pulled a gauzy black veil over her eyes. Then someone scoops her up, strong arms holding her close to an armored chest, lifting her away from hands scrambling for her feet and legs.

“I’ve got you, little bird.” He yanks off her hood so that her red hair spills forth. “It’s Lady Stark, you fucking idiots.”

The hands pawing at her stop. Horrified noises come from the crowd. She hears the oof of someone having the wind knocked out of them, and then they’re moving. She wraps her arms around his neck and holds on tightly. The screech of a dragon pierces the din. Sandor Clegane stops. In the distance, she hears Jon shouting her name--Sansa Sansa Sansa!  She listens to the voice, how desperate it grows, and as his panic rises, hers diminishes, his voice dispersing the fog around her senses. The world becomes clearer, sounds sharper, and the blurry shapes around her become solid. A Dothraki lies face down on the ground, eyes unseeing, a dagger planted in his back. Another is drowning in the sea of angry Northerners tearing at his limbs, his arakh dropped to the ground and trampled by Northern boots. Ser Jorah’s fighting off men trying to get ahold of Daenerys, but does so with his sword still in its scabbard. A wailing woman slams her hands against a Dothraki. His blade is lifted and Sansa closes her eyes.

Sansa!

Wing-beats thrust too-hot air onto the street, and as it wafts over her, she opens her eyes again. At the end of a side-street leading into the open field between Wintertown and the Wolfswood stands Drogon, black as coal against the snow melting around his scorching body. Daenerys darts toward him with ser Jorah making sure she’s unhindered.

Sansa!

Drogon opens his giant maw and Sandor Clegane turns around, his back to the dragon. The people around her throw themselves to the ground--everyone but Jon and Tormund, who weaves through the crowd, their swords drawn and bloodstained. Jon’s glassy eyes are on her and he reaches out, fingers straining for her uselessly, and she knows in the pit of her stomach she’ll be engulfed by flames.

Drogon roars. Sansa closes her eyes and waits for the word Dracarys--but instead she hears his enormous wings whipping up wind as he takes off.

“Sansa!” Jon’s close enough she can smell his scent even in this miasma of roasted chestnuts, fish, fear, and blood. “Sansa?” She feels his hands on her arms, hears him ordering the Hound to release her, but she clings closer to her protector. “Let go of my wife!”

Has he ever called me that before?

“Don’t you worry, little King,” the Hound says and ploughs forward easily. “I’ll carry your woman for you. Wouldn’t want you to exert yourself.”

As he walks on, she looks over his shoulder. Jon is stalking behind them, fuming with anger. His nostrils are flared and his top lip twitches, but he doesn’t say a word. When they reach the Smoking Log, he pulls the door open and lets the Hound into the blissfully quiet and dark establishment. He puts her down gingerly on a bench in a dimly lit corner of the room, and the innkeeper is by their side instantly, calling Jon Your Grace as though he never bent the knee at all. Jon settles down next to her, ordering ale and whatever sweets they can offer. Podrick isn’t with them. She doesn’t remember seeing Missandei. Missandei, with her beautiful eyes and soft skin, in that crowd. Bile rises in Sansa's throat.

She grabs the Hound. “Missandei. Find Missandei. Bring her here. Tell people she’s under Lady Stark’s protection. Save her. But don’t hurt anyone! And Podrick! Find Podrick!”

Tormund follows the Hound outside, but Jon stays. He takes her hand in both of his, and sits next to her like a suitor from a song with eyes only for her. How much of it is this acting they do in front of others? In Wintertown, a place where the smallfolk cling to the title Jon gave away, as though it will shield them against the coming war, it’s important to seem happy, to seem solid. So she lets him fuss over her, lets him kiss her knuckles, lets him tuck her hair behind her ear, let’s him buy her candied almonds she dutifully nibbles.

Gilly’s words come unbidden to her: “When you pretend for too long, it can start feeling real.”

She must remember that. She must remember that when he looks at her like he loves her and her breath falters and her stomach swoops. She must remember that he would’ve rushed to save Bran too, that she’s nothing but a helpless little sister who can neither fight nor take off on a dragon, and he’s nothing but an overprotective brother with his sword drawn and--

“The blood,” she says. “The blood on your sword.”

“Dothraki,” Jon whispers and some of the tension leaves her body. “They were hurting people. Our people.”

“How did you know to come? Was it Ghost?”

Jon shakes his head. “I’ve not seen Ghost in days.” She must’ve looked worried, for he adds, “He takes off, sometimes. He’s fine. I would know if he’s not. I saw Drogon flying toward the settlement. I knew something was wrong and I started running and then I saw Tormund. He was coming to get me. How are you? Are you hurt?”

“You called me wife today.”

Jon glances at the innkeeper standing behind the bar. “You are my wife.”

“For now.”

“Aye. For now.” He lets go of her hand and leans back, wraps his hand around a tankard of ale. “I won’t call you that, if it makes you uncomfortable.”

“I don’t care.”

His lips tighten, he nods, and takes a swig of ale.

Through the door bursts Sandor Clegane with Missandei lying limply in his arms. Scratch marks run down her cheek and there’s a blood-drenched tear in the sleeve of her coat, near the shoulder. Her lips are swollen and blood trickles from a gash in her forehead. She’s thankfully stilled clothed, but Sansa still feels a pang of guilt over not thinking of her sooner. Podrick trails behind them, supporting himself on Tormund’s arm. His eye is blackened and he limps slightly, but seems otherwise fine.

“All the Dothraki are dead,” Tormund says and pats the hilt of his sword with a wide grin. “They're not used to fighting in furs, the clumsy fuckers. They injured quite a few people, but they’ve simmered down, the mob. I think it helped, to see their King defend them.”

“Daenerys?” Jon asks. “Ser Jorah?”

“She’s gone. Didn’t see him. He might’ve left with her.”

“He did,” Podrick says. “I saw her pull him up on that thing.”

“They know about Viserion.” Sansa gives Jon a displeased look. “They’re not happy.”

“Oh, they’re not happy?” Jon frowns at her. “I hadn’t noticed. Thank you for your astute observation, Lady Stark.”

Instead of stooping to his level, she slips on her cool mask and stands up to leave, but her knees buckle and her head feels too light, and he’s there immediately, holding her up with his arm around her waist, a whispered apology in her ear, and she can’t help but lean into him. She hates herself for being such a weak girl. Missandei’s the one who actually got hurt. Sansa only stumbled upon a well of bad memories and meekly let it pull her into its depths.

“We should go back to Winterfell,” she says, pushing herself free of Jon. “Missandei needs Maester Wolkan.”

 

------

 

The gash in Missandei’s forehead and the scratches on her cheek require only some ointments, but the flesh wound on her upper arm requires stitches. After giving her Milk of the Poppy, Maester Wolkan patches her up and orders them to carry her to bed. Once all the men have left with Missandei, he examines Sansa. She removes her dress without discomfort. He served Winterfell under the Boltons and he’s seen every part of her, mended too many of her nasty wounds. After a while, he even taught her how to do it herself, if the need would arise, and praised her for her neat stitches.

And he was the one who snuck her moon tea to ensure Bolton wouldn’t put a babe in her. He’s one of the few men she trusts.

“Your back is bruised, my lady, but nothing’s broken. I recommend rest, though. But the fainting…?” He squints at her and she knows what he’s thinking, what everyone will think once they learn Lady Stark swooned in the middle of the day.

“I’m not pregnant,” she says. “I couldn’t be.”

“I understand, my lady. Do you need something for the back pain?”

Sansa shakes her head, thanks him, and leaves. Jon and Podrick are waiting outside. The latter gives her a smile before hobbling into the Maester’s chamber, the former proffers her his arm. There’s no one around, but she takes it anyway; her back does ache when she walks and her knees are still somewhat wobbly.

She feels Jon’s eyes on her, but he doesn’t say a word until they’re in their chambers and he’s made sure she’s seated in bed.

“I have to go back to Wintertown. I need to talk to them. I have to fix this. We can’t risk anyone hurting Daenerys or her dragons. We can’t risk losing the war.”

“I’d like to come with you. I can help with tending to the wounded.”

“No. I'll bring the Maester and Sam. You need rest. When we carried Missandei, the Hound told me about the riot of King’s Landing. What happened to you.”

“Nothing happened. He saved me before anything could.”

“And today he saved you again.” Jon gives her a concerned smile. “I’m glad he was there. Now rest. Please.”

Obediently, she lies down on her side and pulls the furs over her body. He might be right, but how can she rest when guilt plagues her over what happened to Missandei? She should’ve grabbed her and held on for dear life the second she sensed anger in the crowd.

Sansa listens to him leaving, imagines him walking through the halls of Winterfell until she’s certain he must be outside before she gets out of bed and looks out the window. She catches a glimpse of him, Davos, Tormund, Sam, and Wolkan just as they leave through the main gate. With her cloak wrapped around her, she makes her way to Daenerys’ chambers. After giving the door a discreet knock, she’s let inside by Grey Worm. He’s lit candles all over the room: on the window sills, the mantelpiece, and the shelf above the bed where Missandei is now asleep. The furs are rumpled on the empty side of bed, as though he lay there and watched her before Sansa came to call. Neither Daenerys nor her handmaidens are present.

“I should have been there,” he says. “What happened?”

They stand by the bed, next to one another, and as Sansa talks, she keeps her eyes on him while his never leave Missandei. She recounts what happened carefully, lest she gives away her true feelings about Daenerys, lest she reveals that Jon and Tormund killed some of the Dothraki--something that would fill her with hope if she dared letting it.

Grey Worm stays silent for a long while, brushing his fingers over Missandei’s unharmed arm. “You ordered Sandor Clegane to find Missandei?”

“Yes.”

“Daenerys left Missandei?”

“She did.”

Grey Worm clenches his jaw. “It is not the first time. And there will be more. Unless things change.”

This subject is too dangerous to venture forward with, but before she’s uttered some platitude, he asks her something that gives her pause.

“Lady Stark. Do you think Daenerys Stormborn will be a good queen?”

Sansa watches him for a beat; he looks determined, defiant even. “I hope so,” she says. “I’ve never seen her rule.”

“I have seen her rule. I do not want to see her rule again.” For the first time since they started talking, he turns to look at her. “I thought she was different. But she is not. Power makes everyone a master.”

“A slave master?”

Grey Worm nods. “Daenerys expects us to serve her, all our life. Missandei asked. To be free. Daenerys did not say no but…”

“...she made it clear it was a no?”

“Yes. Missandei deserves to be free.”

“Yes, she does. You both do.”

“Lady Stark. If you do not want her for your queen, if you stop her”--he glances at the sleeping Missandei--“I will help.”

“You will betray your queen?”

Grey Worm’s only answer is his straight posture and the proud tilt of his chin.

“Won't Missandei hate you for it?”

“If Missandei hates me, Missandei hates me. At least she will be free. I will help, Lady Stark. But I will never kneel again. Not to you or your husband. I will be free man. I will have no queen, no king. No master.”

Fear and doubt creep into his eyes, his eyebrows twitch, but he holds her gaze without wavering as he waits for her reply.

“I accept your help, and your conditions,” she says and the faintest smile graces his lips. “And…” She touches his arm gently. “Missandei will come around. Sometimes, when you love someone terrible, it takes a while before you see them for what they truly are.”

 

-----

 

Rushing to her solar, Sansa tries to ignore how her back aches. Jon was right; she needs rest, but she has to get a message to Bran first in case it changes whatever they have planned. She writes the letter so quickly ink stains her fingertips. She stamps her sigil on it, furls it into a neat scroll, and seals it with wax. She doesn’t know for sure where Arya’s set up camp and can’t send a raven, but she can send a courier...

Sansa finds Sandor Clegane sitting on an old barrel by the forge, wineskin in his hand, legs stretched out, staring into the fire. Gorm, the blacksmith, prattles on the way he usually does with Gendry, but the Hound only ever makes grumpy noises in return. She greets Gorm and inquires after his wife and children before kindly asking him for a moment in private with Clegane; Gorm bows and leaves them alone. The Hound doesn’t acknowledge her presence, his eyes locked on the flames.

“I’ve heard you see things in the fire,” she says. “Do you see anything now?”

He shrugs, drinks more wine.

“What do you see?”

“You,” he says.

“Me? What do I do?”

“You live.”

He tips his head back and empties the wineskin. From the corner of his mouth, a drop of red trickles down his chin. He wipes it off with the back of his hand.

“Through the war?”

“Some of it. I don’t see the end.”

“Is that all you see? What about the battle? Do you see anything?”

“Aye, but you won’t like it.”

“Tell me. Please?” She takes a step forward and he stares at her skirt as though it’s contaminated. “Please.”

“Jon and Daenerys riding a dragon, together. He has his arms around her.”

Sansa’s stomach churns, but she keeps her face impassive. “Before or after the Night King’s defeated?”

“I don’t know. I’m not your fucking fortune teller.”

“No, you’re not. You’re my hero.”

She says it matter-of-factly and he looks up at her, wide-eyed, before making a gruff noise, trying to drink from the wineskin again, and throwing it on the ground when he realizes it’s still empty.

“Thank you for saving me today.”

“Someone had to, since your idiot husband can’t make the effort to protect you.”

“I need your help.”

“Of course you do.”

She hands him the letter. “I need this delivered to Bran. I don’t know where Cersei’s set camp, but they arrived at White Harbor. So I assume they’re somewhere between here and there.”

“And why should I help you?”

She sinks down to her knees so she has to look up at him through her lashes as she whispers, “Because I don’t want to see the world burn, and I don’t think you do either.”

At first, the Hound seems entranced by her, his eyes roving over her face, but then he snatches the letter from her hand. “I heard the Ironborn mention the White Knife and ice-fishing. There’s a field by the river, halfway between Winterfell and White Harbor, large enough for a camp.”

As he gets to his feet, he grabs her wrist and pulls her to stand as well. He looks at her the way men do before they steal something from you, the way he always looks at her, but it doesn’t scare her anymore because she knows he never will. He’s all bark around her, never bite. Sansa thanks him for agreeing to help and then, on an impulse she can't explain, pushes herself on tiptoes and brushes a kiss to his burned cheek.

Glaring at her, the Hound growls and cups his reddened cheek as though the kiss burned him too. “Don’t tell your husband you did that. He’ll throw himself at me and I’ll have to kill the little bugger. Can’t have you weeping through the night and disturb all the good folks trying to get some rest.”

“I’m putting my trust in you, Sandor Clegane. If this gets in the wrong hands…”

“I know, I know.” He tucks it into his sleeve. “I’ll see to it your brother gets the letter.”

 

After he leaves, she sinks down on the barrel and rests by the fire until she notices Lyra passing through the courtyard. With her help, she returns to her chambers and curls up in bed. Tonight, though, she leaves the sleeping draught be and although she falls asleep, it’s lightly enough she wakes when the bed dips from Jon’s weight.

“How did it go?” she mumbles into her pillow.

“Well. It went well. Everything’s fine. You needn't worry.”

“That’s good. That’s…” She sighs sleepily, struggling against her heavy eyelids. “They still call you king.”

“Aye. We got a raven from Dorne. They’re willing to trade,” he says and she hears the smile in his voice. “You’re the one who’s good at ruling, not me. I’m proud of you, Sansa.”

She wants to tell him she’s not his to be proud of, but she supposes she is. She’s his little sister, and perhaps that’s all she should be, all she wants to be once they stop pretending. When did her feelings for him change? Before or after the wedding? She tries to remember, but her mind’s too tired to comply and she falls back asleep, dreaming of olives and cheese and legs of lamb. And lemons. Shiploads of lemons.

Chapter Text

At first, the innkeeper of the Black Axe refused them entry, but after Arya dropped a heavy coin purse in his hand, he spat on the ground and let Lannister scum into his establishment. (The Mountain standing menacingly behind her did its part too.) She’d much rather stay in a tent like a soldier of the armies she now calls her own, but Cersei would insist on private chambers with a proper bed, a bathtub, and a door to lock, so Arya insists on it too. Even though it feels more like a prison cell than a safe haven to her.

Since Yara and Theon left for Winterfell, she has nothing but Qyburn and the Mountain for company and that only increases her restlessness. There’s little for her to do here and she grew tired of working with Qyburn on her Cersei mannerisms before they even got off the ship. To pass the time, she trains with Needle for a while, and then slips on the face of a young man and ice-fishes in the White Knife with some soldiers. Whenever she’s around the Lannister armies, she scans the crowd for the features of the boys with whom she once shared a meal, but she’s yet to see any of them. Perhaps they all burned in the Battle of the Goldroad.

By nightfall, the restlessness becomes worry. Theon and Yara should’ve been back by now. The inn is only half a day’s ride from Winterfell and they set off before sunrise. Sprawled on the bed, still wearing Cersei’s dress and face, Arya pictures Daenerys burning the Greyjoys for their betrayal, or Theon failing to convince anyone. Was she wrong in trusting him? She should be hunting with her pack, not with krakens, lions, a madman, and the abomination he’s created.

Voices coming from outside draw her to the small square window overlooking the narrow road leading from the Kingsroad to the inn. Through its rippled, grimy surface, she sees the reason for the delay. Cast in the light of braziers by the entrance stands a horse-drawn sleigh escorted by two Stark men. In the wagon sits not Sansa but Bran, all bundled up in furs with his chair next to him, secured to the wagon by leather straps. Varys is there as well, the firelight making his bald head shine like polished copper. A black-haired man unties the straps and places the wheeled chair on the ground before helping Bran into it. The man turns around and looks up at the inn. Arya’s breath catches in her throat and she’s halfway through the door before she remembers Cersei wouldn’t dart out to visit a Stark boy and his blacksmith.

As always, the Mountain stands outside her door, still as the Titan of Braavos. She slips back into her chambers and sits down to wait, bouncing her knee impatiently.

She’s told Gendry about the House of Black and White, about her training, the Waif and the wounds she gave. She’s told him about being blind and begging on the streets. She’s told him about selling oysters and murdering Meryn Trant.

She’s not told him how she acquires her faces, nor has she let him know when she’s worn one around Winterfell.

While time moves like a glacier, her thoughts run amok. Will he want to kiss her once he knows? Would he regardless? She never did stay to see his reaction after she kissed him, and he’s never initiated anything himself--even though they’ve lain next to one another and talked whole nights through and massaged the knots out of each other’s sore backs after too much training and even slept side-by-side in their nightclothes and woken up holding hands. While she might be trained to read faces, her own emotions and insecurities meddle and muddle her mind, and she can’t say for sure how he feels about her.

She’s not a poised lady like Sansa. She’s not beautiful and mysterious like Melisandre. She’s not what men wants, and Gendry loves her far too much to hurt her with a blunt rejection--even though a blunt rejection would hurt so much less...

Finally, there’s a knock on the door. She takes a deep breath through her nose and exhales slowly through her mouth before opening it. Qyburn stands outside.

“Your Grace. Your guests are waiting for you in the innkeeper’s study downstairs. For privacy.”

He proffers her his arm and they walk downstairs together, the sounds of their steps drowned out by the Mountain’s clunking feet. They pass through the common room, where the Stark men are blowing on bowls of hot soup and listening to the innkeeper’s son playing the lute. The only other patron in there glares at her as he gnaws on his leg of lamb, then freezes as he notices the Mountain. As they reach the study, she gestures at the Mountain to guard the door while she and Qyburn move inside. For now, it’s safest to pretend and she wears the haughtiest expression she can muster, even glowers at Bran for good measure. He meets her gaze blankly. Varys stands by the only window with his hands tucked into his sleeves, watching her with great fascination, while Yara smirks and Theon looks almost like himself. Then Arya makes the mistake of letting her eyes glide over Gendry. He’s leaning against the wall, his arms crossed over his chest beneath the cloak hanging from his shoulders. A grin pulls at his lips and she feels her own lips twitching in return, as though they're two children doing something mischievous.

“Amazing.” He steps close enough that she feels his breath on her face as he leans in and examines her features with eyes squinted in concentration. “This is amazing.”

When he lifts his hand to poke at her cheek, her training takes over and within seconds, she has his arm locked behind his back in an iron grip.

“Ow, all right, all right,” he says through a laugh and she releases him. “I won’t touch you, m’lady, I swear.”

“Everyone in here knows,” Varys says. “Your brother confirmed my suspicions on the way over here. Hence our leaving the guards outside.” He gestures vaguely at the door. “You don’t have to pretend with us. But Gendry is correct. It’s marvelous. I’ve not encountered any Faceless Men in a long, long time. I’d forgotten how incredible the likeness is.”

“Well, I am literally wearing her face.”

Varys raises his eyebrows appraisingly, nodding. “Indeed you are, and the world is already a better place for it.” His eyes drift down to her padded belly. “Ah. Unfortunate. Once you reveal your identity, I would stay away from the Kingslayer if I were you.”

Arya wraps her arms around her waist. “I didn’t know.”

“We have many things to discuss and prepare,” Bran says, “and not much time. Sam and I believe we know how to kill the Night King, and that we all have parts to play in bringing him down. Me, Jon, Daenerys, Gendry, even Qyburn… and you, of course, Arya. You’ll have to fly again.”

She steals a glance at Gendry, but his attention is already turned to Bran, so she takes the empty chair reserved for her and settles down to listen.

 

-----

 

Gendry and Bran are given the chambers next to hers. Lying in bed, she listens to the muffled sounds of their settling in. Gendry didn’t hug her, but then why would he when she looked like the woman who wanted him murdered? Arya wiggles her toes, bites her lip. Someone on the other side of the wall talks, but the stone between them transform their words into indiscernible murmurs. She can’t even tell whether it’s Gendry or Bran. She can tell they’re still up, though, and she won’t get any sleep like this. So she puts Cersei’s face back on and shrugs a dressing gown over her nightdress. The Mountain’s eyes follow her dully as she passes him in the hallway. Once this is all over, she’s going to cut his head off and set all of him on fire. Perhaps she can ask Bran to get Rhaegal to do it. She has a feeling it’s the only thing that would kill him, that even if you pierced his heart or brain, or cut off his arms and legs, he’d just keep moving.

Gendry opens the door and, scratching the back of his neck, watches her with an amused expression. “Your Grace. To what do we owe the honor and pleasure of your company?”

“Can’t sleep,” she says, pushing him aside as she moves into the room.

Like in her chambers, there’s nothing of value or beauty in theirs. Only two narrow beds, separated by one nightstand, a dresser, candles, a fireplace, and a basin for washing. Once the door is closed and locked, she peels off the face with a satisfied sigh and lays it carefully on the nightstand. Bran sits in his chair next to the fire that has yet to warm up the room. She can’t help but shiver.

“Cold?”

Gendry unfastens his cloak and wraps it around her shoulders. It smells like a day of hard work at the forge, it smells like him, and she turns her head to nuzzle the fur lining it and breathe him in. Then she feels Gendry’s eyes on her. He’s wearing the most self-satisfied smirk she’s ever seen.

“I missed you too,” he says so softly it makes her blush.

“Shut up.”

He takes a step closer, the toes of his boots knocking into hers, and looks at his own fingers as he pulls the cloak closed over her chest. “Nice to see your face again. Your real face.” He looks at her, then, caressing her face with his gaze, letting it run over her forehead, her cheeks, the slope of her nose, her chin, her lips… Still holding the fabric of the cloak warming her, he tugs her a little closer. Arya takes a trembling breath.

“Sansa had to stay at Winterfell,” Bran says.

Gendry closes his eyes with a barely held back groan and slumps down on the bed closest to the fire. Arya sits down next to him, picking at her nails, trying to ignore the swirling sensation in her belly.

“And I had to come here,” Bran continues, staring into the fire. “I’m glad to see you accomplished everything you set out to do. Bringing Qyburn was clever.”

“How is she? Sansa. How is Jon?”

“I’ve not spoken with them, really. And I never watch them. Sansa doesn’t like it. I watched her wedding night with Ramsay. It made her uncomfortable. I try not to make her feel comfortable.”

Gendry exchanges a look with Arya and they both laugh quietly at her strange little brother.

“Thank you, Bran,” she says, schooling her features. “For helping me. I never could’ve done it without you.”

“I liked it,” he says and she's drawn in by a dreamlike quality to his tone, a warmth she’s not heard in a long time. “Dragons are different. Their minds are complex, intelligent. When I warg into any other animal, after a while instinct overcomes intellect. But in Rhaegal… The longer I stay, the more I can feel again, like I used to, before I met the Three-Eyed Raven. I feel like myself again. I feel like I’m Bran. I’d forgotten what that was like.”

When he turns to look at her, his eyes shine with unshed tears and for the first time since she left Winterfell all those years ago, she sees her baby brother.

“I know I’m unfeeling. I know I’m cold. And I know it scares you and Sansa and Jon. But I have to be. I can see everything, everything that has passed, everything that’s happening. If I had to feel it too… I couldn’t bear it. I would go mad.”

Arya doesn’t know what to say and by the time she’s reached out to stroke his shoulder in comfort, the mistiness of his eyes has dissipated--and so has the glimmer of Bran Stark. He’s the Three-Eyed Raven again.

“I’d like to go to bed now,” he says. “We have a long day ahead of us.”

 

-----

 

Rhaegal lies in a clearing in the woods behind the inn, snow-covered trees separating him from the plains stretching out along the White Knife. Countless tents are raised on those plains, housing Lannister armies, the Ironborn, and the Golden Company. When he flew over the camp earlier this morning, discord rose among the soldiers, but it died down once he was out of sight.

Lazily, he lifts his tail and shakes off slush clinging to his scales. From a distance, Arya watches Qyburn approaching the beast gingerly. Bran sits in his chair by her side, his eyes white as snow, while Gendry stands behind him with his hands on the bar running across the backrest. They’ve yet to find a private moment, Gendry and her, and she struggles to keep the memory of their kiss from her thoughts--and what would’ve happened yesterday had Bran not been in the room. They have much more important things to focus on and yet… She glances at Gendry through the corner of her eye and finds him already watching her.

“Kind of weird,” he says. “You won’t get stuck that way, will you?”

“Don’t think so.”

“Suppose I’d have to get used to it.” He smiles, blinking softly, and her stomach swoops. “I’m sorry about…”

He nods at her padded belly, but it’s not something she wants to discuss. Instead she shrugs and returns her attention to Qyburn, who’s now walking toward them with a vial full of dragon’s blood in his hands and a strange sort of delight shining in his eyes. It makes her skin crawl. Behind him, Rhaegal rises from his spot and moves forward on the joints of his wings before lifting off and flying northward, toward Winterfell.

“This should be enough,” Qyburn says. “For now.”

“Do you think you can create the sedative?”

“I believe so. I'll have to test it, of course. But that's why your brother is here, isn't it?” He bows his head, always so courteous toward her as thought she truly were a queen. “Your Grace.”

After he leaves for the laboratory he’s set up in his chambers, Arya and the others linger. Bran is still warged into Rhaegal and will stay that way for a little while as he moves the dragon safely away. And yet, despite being alone with Gendry, no words come to her. Because they’re not alone, not really. Cersei’s ghost hangs between them, ready to taint every word uttered, every smile shared. Once she talks to Gendry about this thing between them, she wants to be none other than herself.

 

-----

 

Gendry spends his days in an open shed by the stables, fashioning dragonglass into arrowheads for the bolts to the Scorpion. Yesterday, Qyburn taught him how to use it, while Arya kept drifting off in daydreams where she killed not only Viserion but also Drogon and Rhaegal. She already knows how. The eye. She’ll shoot them in the eye. Preferably when Daenerys is seated on top of Drogon so that she crashes to the ground like Rhaenys did when her dragon got hit in the eye by a scorpion bolt. While Bran’s told her nothing useful about the intrigues taking place at Winterfell, and Gendry and Varys know more rumors than facts, it’s clear to Arya that Daenerys has her mind set on stealing Jon from the North once the war is over.

Arya protects her pack, though; she won’t let that happen.

If only she could be there when they roll that thing through the gates of Winterfell to witness the look on Daenerys’ face when she sees the contraption that can kill her children. A smile creeps across Arya’s features--but then she realizes Gendry’s looked up from his work to watch her with a funny expression, and she remembers that she’s wearing Cersei’s face. She must look half-mad. Letting the smile die, she kicks awkwardly at the snow. Yesterday evening, as they said goodnight, he almost kissed her again but she’d yet to take off the padded belly, and when it bumped into him, the moment was lost.

Rushed footsteps behind her. She whirls around, hand already fumbling after Needle that doesn't hang on her hip, but it’s only Varys dashing across the yard between the inn and the stables.

“Your Grace.” He bows. “Bran Stark needs a word. Immediately.”

She finds her brother in his chamber, by the fire, where Varys has kept a watchful eye over him as he has controlled Rhaegal for another of Qyburn’s examinations. Bran has dark circles under his eyes and his lips and cheeks are pale. He misses the heart-tree, she knows, and the power it provides. Warging into dragons are draining--and returning to his body even more so.

“When I was flying Rhaegal to Winterfell, I saw Daenerys on Drogon. She looked determined. Angry. She was following the Kingsroad, so I think she’s coming here. I went back in time to see why she left. There was a riot in Wintertown.”

“Riot? Is anyone hurt?”

“Several people were hurt," he says, calmly. "Some of them died.”

“What?” Arya shoots Varys a terrified look.

“She didn’t burn anyone. And no one you love is hurt,” Varys says and she breathes out in relief. “I think I know why she’s coming here. By now, I know how she thinks--and we need to think of a plan.”

 

-----

 

There’s no looking-glass in her chambers, but Qyburn makes sure Arya looks perfect, with a studded black dress and the Lannister lion choker around her throat and the padded belly wrapped tightly around her midsection underneath the dress. Varys assures her Daenerys won’t burn her as long as she believes the pregnancy is real, but Arya knows how impulsive that woman can be and that no one in the whole world is safe as long as she has dragons.

And yet, she walks out to the White Knife with Qyburn and the Mountain by her side. Daenerys has landed by the river, still perched atop her monstrous son, while ser Jorah stands on the ground where the snow’s already melted to reveal grass as green as Cersei’s eyes.

“Where is he?” As she speaks, Daenerys’ lips strain with anger, blood filling up a crack in her bottom lip. “Give him to me!”

“Good day, Your Grace,” Arya says. “How very nice to see you. I am well, thank you for asking.”

“Where is he? Where’s the traitor?”

“And which traitor would that be?”

“Varys. I promised him I’d burn him for betraying me and I aim to fulfill that promise.”

“I believe that is called a threat, sweetling.”

“I’m not here for a lesson in semantics. I’m here for the traitor. He tried to have me killed!”

Arya eyes the blood-stains on Daenerys’ coat, her split lip, and the bruise on her cheekbone, the similar, minor battle wounds ser Jorah sports. “I can certainly see something’s happened, but you still haven’t told me what--or why Varys would be involved, for that matter.”

“All of Wintertown knowing the fate of my dragon shortly after Varys inexplicably leaves Winterfell to join your camp? That’s hardly a coincidence.”

“There’s nothing inexplicable about it. He’s here as your emissary, and I’m treating him and the Stark boy well as we discuss the armistice and how to proceed once the Great War is over. Not that you asked. But then, you never did care about your allies, did you?”

Daenerys’ nostrils flare bovinely. “Do you think I’m a fool?”

“Yes. Finally, you get something right. How does it feel?”

“My Queen,” ser Jorah says, his voice as smooth as silk, mollifying the beast raging within Daenerys. Then he turns back to Arya. “If you would be so kind, Your Grace, we’d like a word with Varys.”

“Well, now that you ask so nicely. I have one little favor to ask you, though. You can’t harm him. I’ve had enough trouble rallying my bannermen after what you did. If they see you burn yet another man alive, I fear they’ll abandon our cause completely. I don’t think Jon Snow would like that very much. If you believe Varys to be guilty, I’ll detain him and you can burn him after the war.”

Daenerys purses her lips, but gives a nod. “He won’t be burned today. You have my word.”

Arya gestures at Qyburn, who weasels back to the inn to fetch Varys. While they wait, she cups her padded belly. “Has Ned Stark's bastard gotten you pregnant with pups yet?” she asks. “Little birds have flown all the way to King’s Landing and told me you’re in love. How sweet.”

Sansa would call this cruel and give her a displeased look; Jon would tell her to stop, but Arya strokes the swell of her belly with a serene smile on Cersei’s face. She strokes and strokes and stares at Daenerys, until she remembers Robb again and everything becomes much too painful. Shame burns through her. She lets her hands drop before she rips the damn padded thing off her body.

Then Varys sidles up to her and bows to Daenerys. “My Queen. How pleased I am to see you.”

Drogon extends his wing and Daenerys climbs down with dignity and grace, instead of throwing herself off the dragon like Arya always does. Keeping one hand on Drogon’s snout, Daenerys quirks an eyebrow at Varys. “You expect me to believe that?”

“On the way here, Qyburn told me you believe I have betrayed you. But I assure you, My Queen, whatever’s befallen you, I had no part in it.”

Daenerys caresses Drogon in a way far too studied to be absent-minded, as though she wants to remind them of the horrible flames he can conjure. “Then why did you run here? I never gave you permission.”

“You didn’t stop me either. You and I both know, at this moment, I am the man best suited for the job. I’m neither drunk nor busy entertaining a serving maid in my bed chamber.”

“I wouldn’t know who is best suited for the job, because no one’s told me what Cersei Lannister wants!”

“I think we both know what she was hoping when she invited Sansa Stark to her camp.” Varys offers Arya a simper before looking back at Daenerys. “Forgive me, My Queen, but isn’t it far more pertinent to discuss the reason for your coming here? You are bruised and battered and agitated, that is clear, but I still don’t know why.”

Daenerys glances at Jorah who, with a nod of his head, encourages her to explain. And she does, passionately, angrily, with fire burning in her eyes--a stark contrast to Bran’s dispassionate recount of the riot. Once she’s finished, her chest is heaving and her cheeks are colored pink. Varys takes a moment where he pretends to mull over her story, then he leads her onto the path Arya, Bran, and him mapped out beforehand.

“I’m sad to say it, My Queen, but I understand why you’d come for me. While I’m not behind this, it does sound orchestrated. All of it. Even Sansa Stark being rescued by the Hound. Or perhaps especially Sansa Stark being rescued by the Hound. How very convenient that he was close by. Has anyone ever told you about the food riot in King’s Landing? The people were starving under the cruel rule of--” Varys smiles meekly at Arya. “No offense meant of course, Your Grace. But you were there that day. Surely you remember how the people rioted. Lady Stark was but a slip of a girl when an angry mob carried her away to rape her.” He aims a conspiratorial look at Daenerys. “Do you know who saved her?”

Daenerys narrows her eyes. “Sandor Clegane?”

“Indeed. Yes, that man has a strange fascination with the child. It really is rather unsettling.”

“Yes,” Daenerys says, “I have noticed him staring at her. But why would he create a riot? Even if he wants to play the hero, it wouldn't be worth the risk. He’s friendly with Jon and knows how important I am.”

“Oh, he didn’t. He doesn’t have the mind for it. But... I might have a theory as to who does, if you would do me the honor of listening to it.” Varys turns to Arya and Qyburn. “And then I’m certain we can all finally come to an agreement, so that Bran Stark and I can return to where we belong. You see, My Queen, Cersei Lannister has told me what she wants--and what she’s willing to give to get it.”

Once more, Daenerys glances at Jorah for his council. It takes him a while longer this time, but finally he nods.

 

-----

 

“Do you think she believed us?” Varys asks. Qyburn is finally done with the sedative, Gendry with the arrowheads, and they’ve gathered in the innkeeper’s study, all of them, to wash down hardbread, cheese, and sinewy meat with ale. “She did already fear it.”

Arya nods, popping a nugget of cheese into her mouth. “Yeah, she believed us. But Ser Jorah? He’s not convinced.”

“No, he wouldn’t be. But I don’t think we’ll get any trouble from him. If she’s convinced, he’ll follow.”

“The Unsullied, though.” Yara puts down her tankard, grabs a chunk of meat, and tears off a strip with her teeth, chewing as she speaks, “And the Dothraki. There’s our trouble.”

Qyburn hums. “Perhaps we could sedate them as well. I’m sure I could whip something up that would make them… shall we say, pliable?”

“If you do, I’ll make sure they ingest it.” Arya stretches her arms over her head with a long yawn. “I need to get some sleep before I fly off tomorrow.”

Gendry jumps eagerly to his feet and holds his hand out to her. “I’ll walk you to your room.”

Grinning at them, Yara whoops and makes suggestive noises Arya does her best to ignore--even as they wake a hope within her that, finally, something can happen between her and Gendry. She’s longed for it for ages and whenever she touches herself, her thoughts always wander to memories of him. How his muscles play when he works at the forge. How good he always smells. How his eyes sparkle when he looks at her.

When they reach her door, she opens it and leans against the door-frame in a way she hopes is enticing. But Gendry scrunches up his face.

“It’s too weird, you looking like that.”

“Right.” She laughs breathily. “I keep forgetting. Well, if you come into my chambers, I don’t have to look like this.”

“A fair point, that,” he says and ducks into her room.

She locks the door behind them and lays the key on the mantelpiece. Then she pulls off Cersei’s face and the lion choker, tucking both carefully into her bag. He’s seen her in nothing but an undertunic before, many times, but now as she steps out of Cersei’s dress and pulls off the padded belly, she feels naked. When she turns around, Gendry’s staring up at the ceiling instead of looking at her, and it makes anticipation shoot through her body. She's all Arya now, and they're all alone, and he's already blushing like a maid.

“Do you think they’re real, the Green Men?” he asks the ceiling. “Suppose you’ll find out soon.”

“Old Nan always said they were magical, like the Children. But I didn’t invite you in to talk about the Green Men.”

“No? Why did you, then?”

She licks her lips, lets her teeth sink into her bottom lip, and inches closer to him. “Tomorrow, I’m going to ride half across Westeros on dragonback. When I return, you’ll have to make the weapon, and then we’ll have to fight. There won’t be any time to…”

“To what?”

Arya stares down at their feet. They’re only a hand’s breadth apart. “I kissed you before I left.”

“Oh, that’s what that was? It was such a brief little thing; I couldn’t really tell.”

She punches him on the arm and laughs when he whines and rubs the sore spot.

“We might die.” She looks up at him then, and he’s so, so tall she’d have to climb him to kiss him, since the idiot won’t lean down and kiss her himself. “I don’t want to die without ever having…”

“Having what?”

She pokes him in the chest. “You know.”

“Oooh!” Gendry pulls the corners of his mouth down, nodding while looking out the window. “You have a whole army of men out there. I’m sure I can round up a handful soldiers for m’lady to choose from. What d’you like? Golden hair? Brown eyes? Short? Tall? Fat? Skinny?” He flexes his arms. “Strong?”

With a playful growl, Arya pushes him; he stumbles backwards a couple of steps, angling himself for the bed in a way much too deliberate to not be a suggestion.

“I like black hair and blue eyes, you idiot.”

Gendry grins. “Unusual look, but I’m sure I can find one or two like that.”

She pushes him again; the bed-frame hits the back of his thighs with a thud.

“I don’t want just any black-haired, blue-eyed man.” She gives another push so that he falls down on the bed, lying across it with his legs hanging over the edge. He’s still grinning his stupid, beautiful grin, and before she can overthink it, she jumps atop him, straddling his hips as though she's already conquered him. “I want this black-haired, blue-eyed man.”

He points at himself. “This boring old thing? Baseborn and all. Are you sure?”

“Well, yeah,” she says, toying with the laces of his leather tunic. “Unless you don’t want to?”

He shrugs. “Is a bastard like myself allowed to turn m’lady down?”

Arya drops the laces and starts to move off him. “Well, if you don’t want to--”

“No-no.” Grabbing her hips, Gendry pulls her back and secures her to him. “I want to. I want to, Arya. I’m sorry for being an idiot. I’m just nervous.”

“You’ve never…?”

“I have.” He stares at his thumbs rubbing circles over her hip bones. “But it’s never meant anything. That’s why I’m nervous. Cos this does. Mean something.”

Arya smiles shyly at him, her heart fluttering in her chest. “It does?”

Gendry nods, the grin replaced with the most sincere expression. “With you, it does.”

“Well”--she strokes her hand down his chest and stomach, his muscles jumping under her palms--”I’m nervous too.”

He reaches up and cups her cheek, brushing the pad of his thumb over her cheekbone. “Then we’ll be nervous together.”

He slides his hand to the back of her head and, gently, brings her down for a kiss. It’s soft at first, almost timid, but soon it grows deep and hungry in a way she feels all the way down to where they connect--and from the way he bucks up to press closer her, from the way his hands are desperate to divest her of her tunic, she knows he feels it too.

 

-----

 

She wakes up before dawn. Still wrapped in Gendry’s embrace, she stretches out with a yawn, feeling deliciously sore, a little strange, and very content. Not one part of her wants to leave the warmth of the bed and clamber up on Rhaegal’s back, especially knowing Bran isn’t as strong this far from the godswood, but the fate of the world is more important than lying in the arms of the man she loves.

Gendry hums and squeezes her tightly. "Is it time?" he murmurs.

"Yeah."

She gives him a lingering kiss before slipping out of bed. By the time she's fully dressed and ready, he's already snoring.

Bran has landed Rhaegal in the clearing. He lifts his tail in the way they’ve agreed upon, to signal to her he’s properly warged into the dragon. Soon the others will wake up and bring her still-warging brother back to Winterfell and the heart-tee, where he'll be strong again, and the Scorpion to Jon. Hopefully, she'll be back before the Night King attacks. She must be. Grabbing the spiny ridges running along Rhaegal’s back, she flings herself atop him. As her brother moves the enormous beast skyward, she sees a familiar shape riding down the moonlit Kingsroad. The Hound. Her intuition tells her he's bringing word from Sansa, but there’s no time find out.

Fly, Bran,” she whispers, stroking Rhaegal’s scales. “Fly us to the Isle of Faces.”

 

-----

 

The Gods Eye shines like a silver coin in a sea of snowy white and, at its center, lies a milky pool of mist. Beating his wings, Rhaegal disperses the mist as he descends slowly and lands on the isle hidden beneath. A face is carved into every weirwood tree and black obelisks stand in patterns around them. For a moment, everything is eerily still and silent. The only things moving are her breath freezing in the cold air, and the snow melting under them from Rhaegal’s heat. But then she registers movement to her left. To her right. In front of her. Arya slides down on the ground.

Creatures sneak forward, peeking out from behind snow-covered stones. According to Maesters, Green Men are nothing but mortal men dressed in green clothing and horned headdresses, but as the one closest to her walks out into the moonlight-drenched patch of snow in front of her, she sees that Old Nan’s stories were closer to the truth. His skin has the color of wet moss and vines wind around his legs and climb up his torso to nestle in his hair where antlers stretch toward the sky. Pale lichen runs along his knees, hips, chest, and shoulders. His eyes are black as dragonglass.

He rests his bark-like fingers against his chest, then raises his hand as though to greet them, as though to tell them he means no harm, and Arya repeats the gesture to say the same.

“Hello. My name is Arya, of House Stark.” She lays her hand against Rhaegal’s body. “And this is my brother, Bran Stark. We’re here because we need your help to forge a weapon. We need your help to kill the Night King before he kills us all.”

Chapter Text

When Sansa comes to call on Missandei, she finds her still in bed with a book in her lap. Missandei’s arm is tucked into a sling, to protect the stitches, and a purple bruise blooms on her other wrist, but she looks otherwise well. Grey Worm sits by her side with his legs criss-cross, leaned over the book as he sounds out the words written on the pages. On the floor-pillows piled in front of the hearth lies Tyrion lulled into sleep by Missandei’s gentle tutoring, ostensibly waiting for his queen to return. Although night came and went and fast has been broken, Drogon’s black shape has yet to appear against the gloomy sky.

Panic shattered Sansa’s memories and she remembers only fragments of the riot, but she knows Jon ran for her, not Daenerys, and she knows Jon and Tormund killed the Dothraki escorting them. This morning, before breakfast, Sansa went to the godswood to pray for the first time in a long, long time. She prayed that Daenerys would remain wherever she is until the battle, so that no one would have to suffer her wrath over yesterday’s mess. Perhaps, for once, the gods heard her.

“How are you feeling today, Missandei?”

“Quite well, thank you.” A blush tints her cheeks pink and she looks down at the book. “I didn’t mean to faint yesterday. I suppose I no longer have the constitution for that kind of violence.”

“We were abandoned in an angry mob. I doubt anyone would fault us for fainting.”

“Abandoned?” Missandei shakes her head softly, and keeps her voice soft as well as she speaks. “Our Queen is the most important person in the whole world. If she’d risked her own life to save us, she would’ve risked the lives of everybody in Westeros. Her leaving protected us--and she'll return to us, to protect us once more. I know it.”

“I’m sorry. I let self-pity get the better of me.” Sansa forces a bright smile on her face and asks Grey Worm, “You’re learning how to read?”

“I am. We are reading about Prince Aemon the Dragonknight.”

“He was Jon’s favorite. He often pretended to be him, when he and my brother Robb played.”

“And now he’s learned he's a Targaryen,” Missandei says. “A childhood dream come true!”

“Indeed. If only Robb could see him now.”

As though mentioning Jon’s name summoned him, the door opens and Jon steps inside with Daenerys on his arm (and ser Jorah following them like an afterthought). A dark bruise mottles her cheek, blood stains her coat, and tufts of hair stick out of her usually neat braids. When she sees Missandei, she releases Jon and flows toward the bed with her arms stretched out. Grey Worm scoops up the book, drops it on the nightstand, and stands at attention by the wall.

“Dear friend.” Daenerys sits down on the now-empty side of the bed and takes Missandei’s hand. “Are you in pain?”

“No, My Queen. I am well. How are you?”

With her eyebrows tugged together in the most sincere expression, Daenerys pulls Missandei’s hand closer to her. “Your well-being never left my thoughts, please know that, but I had to leave you. You must understand. They were hurting me, and Drogon could feel it. He always feels it when his mother is in pain--and he would’ve burned them all to protect me. I couldn’t let him. All those people... So I left, even though it pained me. Please say you understand. I couldn’t bear losing you, my dearest friend. I’d be lost without you.”

Missandei’s eyes light up with adoration. “This is why you’re the queen I chose. You think about the people; you always think about the people. And if you have to leave one person behind to save the many, you will make that difficult decision. As your servant, I’ve always known this. As your friend, I admire it. There is nothing to forgive, My Queen.”

Sansa glances at Grey Worm, but he keeps his soldier’s stance and his eyes forward, staring at nothing.

“I’m glad to see you unharmed, Your Grace,” Sansa says. “You were gone for so long I couldn’t help but worry.”

Daenerys drops Missandei’s hand and turns around to face Sansa. Her lips are stretched out in a smile likely meant to be friendly, but Sansa remembers all too well the desperation in Jon’s voice as he called for her, and she sees all too clearly the draconic glint in Daenerys’ eyes. But then they glide over to Tyrion, who’s still snoring. He emits a cloying stench of red wine and he’s wearing the same clothes as yesterday. Daenerys’ smile shifts into a displeased frown.

She walks closer to him and clears her throat loudly. When he doesn’t stir, she nudges his hip with the toe of her boot. With a deep inhale, he sits up straight and blinks confusedly like a hen, smacking his dry lips.

“My Queen! How delighted I am to see you safely returned.”

Daenerys positions herself so that he’s cast in her shadow as she looks down at him. “I don’t care who warms your bed at night. Serving maids, handmaidens, whores… If that’s what you need to survive this dreary North, so be it. But either you control your thirst, or I’ll find another chest to pin that on.” She nods at the Hand brooch attached to his doublet. “Do you understand me?”

“Of course, my Queen.” Tyrion gives her the same kind of hammy smile he often aimed at Joffrey when he had to act the fool to diffuse a tense situation. “Consider it controlled.”

“I met your sister yesterday,” Daenerys says airily, watching him wobble to his feet. “It was quite illuminating, speaking to her on my own instead of letting my advisors do the talking. Sometimes, a queen will only listen to another queen--and a mother to another mother. I believe we might reach an agreement--one that’s a little less violent. We’re having another summit after the war is won.”

“While I am glad to hear it, I very much doubt it. Forgive me, My Queen, but my sister can’t be trusted.”

“No. Few people can.” Daenerys gives him a sharp look, a look she then aims at Sansa--and Sansa can’t help but wonder what in all the seven hells Arya told Daenerys. “I’m sure you must be worried about your brother, but Cersei has kept her word. He’s unharmed. I believe we should expect their returning today.”

“Thank you, Your Grace. I was worried. So worried I sent Sandor Clegane after them, to protect Bran.”

“Hm. What a thoughtful sister you are.” Daenerys scrutinizes Sansa’s friendly mask while wearing one of her own, but she fails to make her smile reach her eyes. Then Daenerys turns back to Missandei and dismisses the rest of them with a hand-wave. “Leave us. I want a moment alone with Missandei and Grey Worm.”

 

-----

 

The trickle of new arrivals entering the gates of Winterfell has turned into a steady stream. And with all these people from Wintertown and other surrounding areas seeking shelter, Sansa’s running out of places to put them. So she orders all the long-tables to be moved from the Great Hall and for the floor to be filled with beds of hay, blankets, and whatever furs they can spare. If everything goes according to plan, Jon claims Winterfell won’t be attacked, but they’ve taken precautions nonetheless. According to Bran, their ancestors resting in the crypts will prevent any undead from entering, so they’ve carried down provisions for those unable to fight. If the battle does move to Winterfell after all, they’ll be able to stay down there for days.

Sansa heads to the courtyard to oversee the work there. But as she descends the stairs, her gaze is immediately drawn to the white coat and silver hair of Daenerys. As if she already were his wife, she’s following Jon around with her arm in his, shielding herself with his presence against any criticism from passersby. Sansa clenches her hands, the leather of her gloves creaking, and joins Brienne in watching ser Jaime sparring with Tormund instead. He’s become quite good at fighting with his left hand, ser Jaime, and he’s intent on leading armies on the battlefield--while Brienne’s intent on staying by Sansa’s side.

Sansa lets the clanks of clashing swords clear her mind, but her respite is cut short when the horns sound and two Stark men ride in through the gates. A horse-drawn wagon rolls behind them and stops in front of Sansa, and in her peripheral she notices how Jon and Daenerys make their way to join her, for in the wagon sit Gendry and Varys on either side of Bran, whose eyes are rolled back in his head. But before anyone’s had a chance to ask them any questions, Gendry moves Bran to the wheeled chair and rushes off with a hurried excuse Sansa doesn’t catch. Then a second wagon comes, a strangely-shaped one, escorted by Theon, two Ironborn, the Hound, and an older man she finds faintly familiar. A hand-shaped brooch is attached to his chain-less Maester-like robes, and his presence distracts Jaime so much he misses to block a blow and falls on his behind.

“Your Grace.” Qyburn unmounts his horse and smiles at Daenerys as if they share a secret. “I’m here to offer my services. My Queen thought Maester Wolkan might need some help.”

“How generous of her. Your help is greatly appreciated.”

“Allow me to show you the Scorpion.”

Qyburn gestures at Theon and the Hound to unveil the weapon, and once the walls of the wagon have fallen to the sides, Daenerys glowers at it with such heat Sansa wouldn’t be surprised if it were to burst into flames.

“Promise me, Jon,” Daenerys says. “Once Viserion is laid to rest, we burn that thing. And any others like it. I don’t want any harm to come to Drogon or Rhaegal.”

“You think I do? Targaryen blood runs in my veins.”

Resting her head on his shoulder, Daenerys smiles up at him, so obviously in love no one around them can fail to notice. Jealousy twists Sansa’s stomach. But then she feels Brienne’s hand close around hers for a brief, comforting squeeze, and it’s enough to remind her that she’s being ridiculous. She’s indulged in her own silly pain for far too long. Brienne and Jaime love one another, truly, reciprocally, and life’s kept ripping them apart. Now the only thing still standing between them is gone, and she can’t even tell them that Cersei’s dead and that they’re finally free to love one another.

She can’t even tell Jaime he’s lost his child.

“You should be with him,” Sansa says.

“My lady?”

“Ser Jaime. You shouldn’t stay here with me. You should be on the battlefield with him.”

“I’ve vowed to protect you.”

“It doesn’t matter anymore.” Sansa can’t stop herself from stealing a quick look at Jon, who’s running his hands over the smooth wood of the Scorpion as he inspects it. “We might not live through this war. If you only have a few days left, wouldn’t you rather spend them by his side?”

Brienne sighs and watches Jaime with such longing Sansa turns her attention back to the Scorpion. Catching her eye, Theon smiles and shuffles toward her.

“I can’t leave you here,” Brienne says. “Who will protect you?”

Theon bows his head. “I will. I’ll stay with Sansa. I’ll protect you.”

Brienne fights a smile. “I don’t think that’s a good idea, my lord.”

“I will,” the Hound says. He doesn’t look at them as he speaks, but his chest is puffed up as if to prove what a large man he is compared to Theon. “I’ll protect Lady Stark.”

“We both will.” Theon nods. “We’ll protect her.”

“Well, I suppose…” Brienne looks at Sansa, who nods her consent. “Yes. Thank you, both.”

After an unreadable glance at Sansa, Jon gestures at Qyburn to join him by the Scorpion. Qyburn starts explaining how it works and Sansa sees no point in staying for it--nor can she stomach watching Daenerys prance around Jon for much longer. She has no idea what he's said or done to placate Daenerys and prevent her from punishing those she believes responsible for the riot, but considering the stars in her eyes, it must've been something spectacular. So Sansa excuses herself and walks away, but as she reaches the stairs, she hears rapidly approaching footsteps behind her. Without looking, she knows it’s Jon. Without asking, she knows what he wants to discuss. Without a word, she walks to their chambers with her back straight and her head held high. Every so often she hears him sighing deeply, as to make her move faster, but she keeps her pace calm and steady, and doesn’t acknowledge him until they’re in their chambers with the door closed.

She turns around then, and finds Jon staring at her incredulously, his brow knitted. She would’ve rolled her eyes at him had she not been a lady.

“What is it?”

“Do you really trust him?”

“Oh, this again. Yes, I trust Theon.”

“No. The Hound. I don’t like the way he looks at you.”

“And how does he look at me?”

“You’ve not noticed? You expect me to believe that?”

“Humor me.”

Jon huffs a breath, shaking his head. “He looks at you like he wants you. No. Like he’d hurt you, like he’ll take what he wants the moment he can. I promised I’d never let anyone hurt you again, so how can I leave you with him?”

“You left me with Littlefinger.”

Jon blinks, opens his mouth, closes it again. His sword-hand twitches. “Aye. I left you with Littlefinger, but you weren’t alone. You had Brienne. But now you’re sending her to the battlefield and laying your life in the hands of a man who--”

“Who protected Arya?”

“That’s different. You know it is.”

“He won’t hurt me, Jon. He’d sooner die than hurt me.”

“You believe that?”

“I’ve spent my entire life around men who wanted me, and I know none of them really did. Joffrey and Ramsay wanted someone to break. Tyrion wanted a sad and pretty wife to make him feel better, to give him children and a castle. Littlefinger wanted Mother and I was similar enough. And the Hound? He wants me to be a little bird he can protect. So, yes, in a way I do trust him. I trust him like I trusted Littlefinger. Because sometimes it was necessary, sometimes I didn’t have a choice, sometimes it was better than the alternative. Sometimes-- Oh.” She huffs out a laugh. “I trust him the way you trust Daenerys.”

Jon watches her in silence for a beat, then says quietly, “I don’t trust Daenerys.”

“But you trust in your own ability to handle her, don't you? And you expect me to trust it as well. So why can’t you do the same and trust me?”

“I do trust you!”

Sansa raises her eyebrows. “You question my judgment. You don’t tell me the truth about… anything! You make all these important decisions that will affect me, my family, my home, and you make them without consulting me. We took back Winterfell together. You left the North in my hands. And still you won’t talk to me! You said we have to trust each other. But you don’t! You never have. So don’t pretend you--”

“But I do trust you! Trust doesn’t mean we can’t question each other’s decisions. Trust doesn’t mean we have to tell each other everything. Trust means that sometimes you should have a little faith in me and that I know what I’m doing!”

“Do you? Then I have no reason to be upset that you’ve been lying to me for weeks--because you know what you’re doing. Is that what you’re trying to tell me?”

“And what have you been doing, Sansa?” He stalks closer, watching her through narrowed eyes with his head tilted like a wolf. “You think I don’t know you’re lying about Arya? You know where she is and what she’s doing and you’ve not said a bloody word, even though you know how worried I am. And I’ve not pushed you. Because I do trust you. I trust that you’re keeping it a secret for a reason. I trust that if you believed Arya were in danger, you’d tell me! And I hate it, and I worry, and I wish you’d tell me, but for some reason you won’t and I respect that! And I trust there's a reason for it, that it’s not out of spite, even though everything points to it! Because I trust you. I trust you more than anyone!”

His outburst leaves him breathless, and even though she has no reason to, Sansa finds her own chest heaving in time with his and when his tongue darts out to wet his dry lips, she can’t help but lick her own. He’s so close. So close that if only she were brave, she could lean forward and leave him breathless in an entirely different way. But she’s not brave and her dress feels much too tight, much too warm, suffocating. Her fingers ache with the need to loosen her collar, the laces of her bodice, the straps of his leather jerkin, the buckle of his belt--to grab ahold of him and never let go--but her desire is unwanted and inappropriate and she clasps her hands tightly before she does anything foolish.

Jon steps back with a careful smile. “At least I hope it’s not out of spite.”

“It’s not the same,” she murmurs. “The things I know--those are Arya’s secrets to tell, not mine. And until she does, I’m protecting my sister. But you? You’re choosing Daenerys over me, over all of us , and you didn’t even tell me. You let me believe that--”

“Choosing Daenerys?” He scoffs at her. “How could you  ever think I’d choose her over you?”

“Because that’s what you’re doing! Marrying her can't be the only solution! If only you’d told me sooner, I could’ve helped you. I could’ve fought for you!"

"I'd never ask you to do that. It's too dangerous!"

"Instead you ask me to stand idly by as you marry her? When I know what it's like to be forced into marriage! It makes no sense! I can’t for the life of me understand why you’d make these choices unless you actually fell for her and was too ashamed to tell us!”

“Is that what you think? That I’d choose to marry her? That I’d want that? That I want to abandon my home and my family? That I love her? I’m doing this, all of this, because I love you!”

Sansa sucks in a breath, staring at him with round eyes. For a brief, naive, and achingly desperate moment, she takes it as a confession. But all the anger she mistook for passion drains from him and he approaches her gingerly, like a man delivering unwanted news, and it slakes the flicker of hope ignited in her heart. She feels her chin trembling and she clenches her jaw to stop it. If only she could run from this conversation. If only she hadn’t let herself be dragged into it before fortifying all her walls to protect her shameful secret.

“Sansa,” he says so very gently she could scream. “I love you and Arya and Bran. You're more important to me than anything. Anything. I was done. I knew the Night King was coming and I couldn’t find it in myself to care anymore. Then you rode through the gates of Castle Black and I knew I had to fight again. That I wanted to fight. For you, for Rickon, for our home, for the wildlings, for the North. Every decision I’ve made has been to protect you, all of you. When I got the raven about Bran and Arya being home, I knew I had to fight even harder. Even if it meant doing things I wouldn't like. Choosing Daenerys over my own family?” Shaking his head, he looks at her as though she’s accused him of stealing bread from hungry children. “Is that what you think of me?”

“You bent the knee,” she says, but it doesn’t come out as a solid argument but as a petulant accusation. “You gave away our home without once asking for my advice.”

“No,” he says so quietly she has to strain to hear him. “It's not true.”

“What?”

“I want you to know that. In case I don’t come back. I never bent the knee. She knows nothing about our customs, she knows nothing about our traditions. I’ve never knelt before her; I’ve sworn no vow. We were alone, no witnesses, and I tricked her.” He chuckles mirthlessly. “I’ve not even promised I’ll marry her. I’ve only let her believe it, and today I let her believe I can't wait to have children with her and restore our House"--his lips curl as if the words left a bad taste in his mouth--"but I’ve never made that promise.”

Sansa’s chest constricts. “But you told me…”

“Aye. I did. It’s not an easy thing, lying. The more people who know the truth, the harder it is to keep lying. I understand Father now, better than ever, because lying's all I've done since I returned from the South.” He shrugs, shaking his head. “The more people who know, the sooner the truth will come out. Haven’t we seen enough of that? Can’t keep a bleeding secret in this place. And if she learned that you knew all along...” A tremor goes through him. “What do you think she’d do? What do you think she’d do to you?”

He pulls something out of his pocket and hands it to her. She’s seen him fidget with it a few times, seen him move it from the pocket of one pair of trousers to the pocket of another pair, but she’s never gotten a good look. It’s a child’s toy in the shape of a stag. Burned.

“This was Princess Shireen’s. It burned as she did, at the stake. A sacrifice by the Red Woman and Stannis Baratheon, to please the Lord of Light. Davos loved that little girl, as if she were his own. He gave this to me so I’d never forget what happens to good girls when fire-mad women hold the power. I know you don’t want me to protect you, but Daenerys is the most dangerous person in the world and I have to try. And if you hate me for it, then hate me. At least you’ll be alive to do it.”

Staring at the toy, Sansa feels her chest constrict again, forcing her breaths to quiver, and she blinks away the tears forming in her eyes. She wants to tell him he’s an idiot, because if Daenerys finds out she’ll most likely burn Sansa either way, but the lump in her throat steals all her words.

“Sansa, I know I’ve made mistakes. I know I keep making them. And maybe you’re right. Maybe I should’ve talked to you sooner, but I’ve been fighting so hard to--” Jon stops himself. He swallows and shifts away from her, pressing his fingers to the scar above his eye.

“What?” She brushes away the few tears that trickled down her cheeks. “Fighting hard to what?”

Jon sighs heavily. “I’m tired of fighting. I don’t understand why this should be my concern, my responsibility. I never wanted to be Lord Commander. I never wanted to be king. I don’t want to be a Targaryen prince. I don’t want to be the man who saves the realm. I want none of these things. And I don’t want to be the person who decides that Daenerys Targaryen will be a horrible queen so now I’m going to murder her. I don’t want to live with that. I don’t want my own kin’s blood on my hands. But no one cares about what I want. No one ever has!”

“Perhaps if you actually told someone what you want once in a while, you’d see how wrong you are.”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“It does. I’m so sick of hearing you say that! What you want, what makes you happy, it matters to me.” When he doesn’t answer, she closes the distance between them and speaks to him with her most gentle voice. “Tell me, Jon. It matters to me.”

He gives a sullen shrug, the corners of his mouth drawn down in a dejected expression. “I don’t know. No wars. No fighting. No killing. No more blood on my hands. No more armies to lead. I want to be here, at Winterfell. I want to be a Stark. It’s all I’ve ever wanted. I want to be with you and Arya and Bran and Ghost. And I want-I want…” He takes a deep breath and lets it out loudly, tiredly. “I don’t know. Nothing I can have. Nothing I should have.”

“A family,” she says, because she’s seen him teaching the children in the courtyard and she knows. “You want children, don’t you?"”

He lets his eyes fall shut and nods slowly, defeated. “Had things been different. Yes. I would’ve wanted children. But I won’t have any. Those children would never be safe. Not from Daenerys. Not from whoever sits on the throne if she dies in the war. Targaryen children will never be safe.”

“You think she’d hurt your children? Her own kin?”

“If she considered killing all those people in King’s Landing for a throne, what do you think she’d do if she thought you could be pregnant? I’m the heir to the Iron Throne. What would that make my children, Sansa? She’s barren. I don’t care what lies Qyburn’s told her to manipulate her.”

“What? What lies?”

He waves off her question. “She can’t have children. So any children I have would be a threat to her. I’d have to hide them. Like Father hid me. He hid me from a quick-tempered ruler who was afraid to be usurped. He hid me from his best friend in the whole world, a man he loved, a man he should’ve been able to trust. He even lied about me to your mother and almost ruined his own marriage. That’s how terrified he was that I’d be murdered. That’s not the life I want for my children.”

That’s why you won’t touch me? You should’ve told me. I didn’t marry you to have children, but to protect you and the North. It wouldn’t have changed anything. I still would’ve married you.”

“It’s not the only reason. You know it’s not.”

He doesn’t look at her as he says it, and she’s glad for it. With how brightly shame burns in her cheeks, she wouldn’t be able to meet his eye. Of course that’s not the only reason. He’s repulsed by the desire she struggles to hide.

Turning the stag in her hands, she wills her blood to cool and her mind to stop thinking of Jon in ways he doesn’t want. She must stop with this nonsense. He’s made it painfully clear he doesn’t love her like she loves him, and only disappointment awaits her if she examines every interaction in hopes of finding hidden meanings in unfinished sentences and emotional outbursts.

The silence weighs on them like too much snow on a fragile roof, but before she’s found a way to break it, a knock on the door does it for her. Davos’ voice travels through the wood. “My Lady? Sam and Bran have called a meeting in your solar. You’re needed immediately.”

Jon gives her a tired but warm smile. “I’m sorry, Sansa. I am.”

“I know.” She holds up the stag and lays it daintily in his outstretched hand, careful not to let their fingers touch. “I forgive you.”

 

-----

 

Bran sits by her desk, wolfing down bread, boiled turnips, and salted fish. The solar is packed with people: Daenerys and her council; Jon and his closest men; Sansa, Brienne, and Podrick; Theon, the Hound, and Qyburn; and even ser Jaime and Gendry.

“We have some news,” Sam says. Standing next to Bran, he rocks on his feet to calm his nerves. “I know you’ve all been wondering where Arya is and”--he shoots Jon an apologetic look--”we’re sorry for not telling you sooner, but we sent her on a quest to the Isle of Faces. It’s where the First Men made peace with the Children. They carved faces into every weirdwood there, so the Gods could witness the pact, and it imbued those trees with powerful magic. As I’m sure most of you know by now, the Night King was created by the Children’s magic as well. Now, we’ve learned fire doesn’t hurt the Night King, and we have reason to believe dragonglass and Valyrian steel don’t either.”

Upset murmurs come from the people gathered, but Sam quiets them by holding up his hand. “Calm down, everyone. Please. Thank you. Bran has discovered the weirwood from the Isle of Faces will.”

“Arya’s on her way back home,” Bran says. “She’s carrying a dagger and arrows created by the Green Men.”

“And that will kill the Night King?” Jon asks.

“It will help.” Bran finishes off his plate and downs a cup of water. “You need to get ready to leave tomorrow, before dawn. We know now why the Night King hasn’t attacked and why the White Walkers lay down corpses in strange patterns. They’re an offering to the Great Other to conjure the darkest of nights that will blot out the sun and last for days. Perhaps even longer. They’re stronger in the dark and the long night is almost upon us. You need to fight their forces now, in sunlight, and pave a way to the Night King for when Arya returns.”

Daenerys frowns. “She’s the Princess Who Was Promised?”

Sam shakes his head. “We don’t think so. Now, we’re running out of time. And Bran needs to get back to the godswood.”

Bran’s eyes are already white, and Sam pulls back the wheeled chair from the desk and navigates him out of the room with such haste Sansa’s certain they know more than they’re willing to let on. Gendry follows, then Tormund, the Hound, and Davos. Jon’s hand finds hers and he tugs her closer to him until her body's pressed into his side. His lips brush her ear as he whispers, thank you.  She turns her face to ask him what for, even though she knows it's for forgiving him, for understanding, but he's already pulling away. He leaves to do whatever it is men do the night before a battle, and the other people in the room follow, while she feels bolted to the floor. The battle is nigh--a battle Jon is convinced will end him--and after tomorrow she might never see him again.

It’s too much. Her knees won’t support her and she stumbles to her desk to sit down--only to realize she's not alone at all. Daenerys is still in the room. A chill trickles down Sansa’s spine as their eyes meet.

“Cersei told me she wants you. For what, I’m not sure. To torture and kill you, I presume. Or perhaps she wants you for a pet. She calls you little dove, doesn’t she?” Daenerys walks up to her and pats her gently on the hand. “Don’t worry, dear sister. I’ll protect you. Oh, and thank you for taking care of Missandei. I won’t forget it. And I promise you, once the war is won, whoever instigated that riot will be punished.”

Then she smiles sweetly and leaves--and Sansa can’t help but feel that every word was a threat. She’ll give Jon his annulment--but she’s not letting him sell himself to that woman. As soon as her legs carry her, Sansa heads to the godswood and sits down in Father’s favorite spot, next to her warging brother, and sends another prayer to the gods. A horribly selfish prayer that Daenerys will fall in the battle--and that Arya’s plans will succeed in case she doesn’t.

Jon would never ask them to fight for him, no, but he doesn’t have to. They already are.

Chapter Text

Sitting by her vanity, Sansa unbraids her hair and brushes it until each stroke crackles and flyaway hairs cling to the bristles. Moonlight spills through the window. Jon’s yet to return. She removes her circle necklace and the simple silver ring she wore today, but when she opens her jewelry box to put them away, she notices that the silver comb Daenerys gifted her lies inside, tainting all her other pieces. A chambermaid must’ve found it on the floor and put it in the box. Trapped beneath its shining teeth lies her precious dragonfly pendant. Her lips curl with distaste. It’s so delicate, that pendant, so beautiful. Silver wings, slender body, opal eyes. A necklace for a little girl who doesn’t hear the tragic undertones in the songs she worships.

Sansa frees the dragonfly and chucks the comb under the armoire, then leaves the vanity and undresses, slowly. Everytime she hears a noise, footfalls or creaking wood, she looks over her shoulder, but the door handle never rattles. She forgoes the sleeping draught and curls up in bed with a book--only to stare blankly at the page until the letters blur together. With a sigh, she closes the book and lies down on her side, resting a hand on the empty spot beside her.

She’s grown used to having him by her side. She’s grown used to his scent and his snoring and the heat he radiates.

Perhaps that’s why she thinks she loves him--for knowing nothing will ever happen between them has made her comfortable with his embrace, and it’s made him safe for her to love. She’s just like the Hound, but instead of pushing love away with a surly disposition, she’s fashioned Jon’s brotherly affection for her into a golden cage and locked herself away willingly.

I’m not in love. I’m not.

She tries staying awake, but soon sleep whisks her away, dropping her into dreams of blood sticking to her hands, pooling in the snow, gleaming on a dagger.

 

The rustle of fabric wakes her. Creaking leather. Clinking metal. Jon getting undressed. She stretches out in bed with a yawn and blinks her eyes open. He’s standing in front of the fireplace, unfastening the straps of his leather jerkin. No. Fastening. She reaches out to touch his side of the bed. It’s warm. Her stomach lurches.

“You’re leaving.”

Jon looks up from what he’s doing. “Aye.”

“Did you get any sleep?”

He nods. “Will you... “ He gestures at the window overlooking the courtyard. “Will you see me off?”

“I’m your wife. I would assume that’s expected of me.” Although she meant it as a joke, it comes out bitter and harsh, and he shoots her a wounded look. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that.” She averts her eyes, twirling fur around her fingers. “I’d never let you leave without saying goodbye.”

“Thank you,” he says and turns his back to her to give her privacy.

All dressed, with a dragonglass dagger in a sheath tied around her hips, she sits down by the vanity to do her hair. She forgot to close the jewelry box last night and the speckled opals of the dragonfly come alive in the firelight, glittering at her, stealing her attention away from the messy braid her fingers weave. Absentmindedly, she ties a leather string around the end of the braid and plucks the pendant from the box.

As though it were alive, she curls her hand around the dragonfly protectively, the delicate silver chain spilling from her fingers like sand. When she reaches Jon, she taps him on the shoulder; he turns around with a puzzled look.

“On my eighth nameday,” she says, “Mother gave this to me. I’d never seen anything more beautiful.” She opens her hand to reveal her treasured possession. “I was so happy. It reminded me of one of my favorite songs.”

“Jenny of Oldstones and the Prince of Dragonflies. I remember.”

“It’s the only necklace I have left, from before everything…” Pain makes her voice waver and she pauses to swallow it. “Before we left home.”

She moves closer to him. He stiffens. She freezes, her hands already by his shoulders to bring the open chain around his neck and close it. His gaze moves from her face, to her left hand, then back to her face again. She can’t breathe. Why did she do this? She wasn’t even thinking. She acted on an impulse, a stupid childish impulse, and if he rejects her favor--

But then Jon bows his head, helping her, and she peers over his shoulder as she fastens the clasp. The silver chain rests on the fur of his cloak, so she moves even closer to adjust it, and he shivers when her cold hands brush over the warm skin of his neck.

“I want it back,” she whispers as she pulls away. “It’s very dear to me.”

Something too fleeting to define washes over Jon’s features before they harden. He swallows, nods, and tucks the pendant underneath his jerkin. Then he offers her his arm and together they leave, walking down the hallways as husband and wife for what could be the last time.

 

-----

 

Only a few braziers light up the courtyard. Up ahead, Daenerys flies over Winterfell on her black-and-red dragon and lands somewhere outside its walls, from where Sansa hears the din of Dothraki, Unsullied, Free Folk, and Northerns who have left their tents and gotten into position to march to battle. No one's seen Rhaegal in days, but Daenerys claims he'll sense he's needed and come. Missandei and Grey Worm are embracing, speaking softly in a foreign language. Tormund casts longing looks after Brienne, who only has eyes for ser Jaime. Gendry and Podrick laugh about something, both looking sleepy and excited and nervous. Yohn Royce, Lyanna Mormont, and Lord Glover already sit on their horses, while a handful other lords exchange kisses with their wives who’ll be safe at Winterfell.

Jon pulls away from Sansa, but catches her hand and holds it as he moves to stand in front of her. She still can’t read him, but then she must look as blank, as strong. Queens do not cry, and neither do kings, at least not with others around to witness it--and witness it they would. She feels a hundred eyes on her. They’re all watching them, waiting for them--not to cry, she realizes with a pang, but to say farewell the way husbands and wives do.

She keeps her eyes on Jon’s chest, because she can’t bear looking into his eyes as she tells him.

“I think they’re expecting us to kiss,” she murmurs. “They think we’re in love. We’d kiss, if we were in love.”

He sighs. “I don’t want you to be uncomfortable, Sansa.”

“I wouldn’t be.” She finds her inner strength, squashes her silly nerves, and meets his gaze steadily, without a hint of the want or need or love she’s fooled herself into feeling. “It’s just a kiss, Jon. Kiss me.”

His eyes searches her face and she sees a tremor in his brow, as though he’s holding back a look of concern. He leans in a little closer. His gloved hand cups her cheek and then his face changes, softens. His eyes shine at her, like they did at the inn when he fussed over her and pretended and pretended and looked at her like he loved her. She can't stand it. She closes her eyes and focuses on her breathing. In and out. She’s not in love. It’s just a kiss. The way he looks at her means nothing. She’s not in love. He’s not. His nose bumps against hers before he angles his face and then his lips meet hers. They’re warm and soft and his beard scratches her skin and it’s much too good, much too sweet, and if it lasts any longer she’ll deepen the kiss and pretend a little too well. So she turns her head instead and hugs him, buries her burning face in the cool fur of his cloak. His arms close around her waist and she hopes he can’t feel her racing heart through all the layers between them.

When you pretend for too long, it can start feeling real. When you pretend for too long, it can start feeling real. When you pretend for too long, it can start feeling real.

She’s not in love with him. She’s caught up in a mummer’s farce, because he’s the only man she trusts enough to do this song and dance with, and she’s allowed it to sweep her away. She wants to be his sister, nothing more. This is only pretend. Why does she keep forgetting that?

Because that’s not what this is, Littlefinger whispers in the back of her mind. This didn’t start after the wedding. This didn’t start because of pretending, as you like to call it. You’ve loved him for longer than you care to admit. I saw it, before you killed me.

Blocking out Littlefinger’s nagging voice, she steps back. Jon removes his arms instantly. She places her hand over his chest, where the dragonfly pendant is hidden beneath his armor, reminding him of the mission she’s given him, and he nods at her that he understands. Then, as though he needs to remind her of something as well, that their relationship will only ever be familial, he kisses her on the forehead and walks away, leaving her empty and cold and utterly incapable of lying to herself any longer.

As she watches him swing himself up on his horse, Missandei sidles up to her.

“This is always the hardest part,” she says, “staying behind. But they’ll be back.”

“You can’t know that.” Sansa realizes she’s worrying her hands and lets them drop limply to her sides. “No one can.”

“No, but I choose to believe it. I choose to believe they’ll all be back.”

Mounted, Jon turns around one last time. He still has that look in his eyes, the one that makes Sansa’s heart flutter, but she can’t allow herself to return it because then she won’t be able to stop her tears from falling. She lifts her chin and gives him a wave, her eyes hard and dry like stones. Then Jon rides off and the rest of the crowd falls in line behind him. Sansa forces herself to stand still and watch until he’s out of view even though her body screams at her to run after him and kiss him again, properly this time.

She’s in love. She is. Not because he’s safe, not because he doesn’t want her back, but because of who he is. If they’d met today, as strangers, she still would’ve fallen for him. The naive girl of her childhood, who still resides in the nostalgic parts of her, would’ve loved him for his handsome face, graceful movements, and his heritage. A secret dragon prince posing as the bastard of a highborn lord to hide from all the people who wanted him harm. What could be more romantic?

But the woman in her, the woman she’s become who doesn’t care about beauty or titles, would love him for his good heart, his dedication to his people and his family, his wry sense of humor he so seldom shares with others, his sullen shyness, the warmth in his smile, and how he’s so determined to protect everyone around him he’d die for them if need be.

She’d love him because he is wonderful.

With a deep sigh, Sansa tears her eyes off the empty gateway and looks at Missandei. “Do you knit? Gilly’s waiting for me in my solar. We’re knitting for the children staying at Winterfell.”

“I’m afraid I never acquired that skill.”

“Would you like to acquire it? It doesn’t take long to learn.”

Missandei glances up at the star-strewn sky, where Daenerys no longer can be seen. “Yes. I’d like that very much.”

 

-----

 

Missandei lays her work in her lap and rubs the spot on her index finger where the needle always bites when she pushes the yarn from one needle to the other. Smiling to herself, Sansa remembers using the same bad technique as a child--and how Septa Mordane scolded her for it until she unlearned it. She doesn’t point it out, though. Missandei learned basic knitting quickly, without complaints, and with a delightful enthusiasm Sansa doesn’t want to risk killing.

“This is helpful.” Missandei picks up her work again--a black-and-red scarf--and keeps knitting slowly, carefully. “To take one’s mind off things.”

“For me it’s the opposite,” Sansa says. “When my hands are busy, my thoughts wander.”

“You must be so worried, both of you,” Gilly says. “At least my Sam’s still here. Makes me feel a bit guilty.”

“I hope you don’t mind my asking, lady Gilly,” Missandei says, “but has your husband told you anything about how to kill the Night King?”

Gilly throws a glance at Little Sam, who’s playing on the floor with pine cones fashioned into cows with sticks for legs. “He doesn’t tell me much. It’s all very secret."

Missandei’s hands stop moving as she turns her attention fully to Gilly, scrutinizing her casual expression. “Don’t you find it peculiar that they won’t tell anyone what they’ve learned? What do they fear we’d do if we knew?”

“I don’t know, but I know men. They never tell us anything. We’re to run the household and have children, that’s all.”

“That reminds me,” Sansa says. “I’ve been meaning to ask you, Gilly: have you thought of any names yet?”

Gilly strokes her still-flat belly. “The other night I dreamed it was a little girl and we named her Shireen. I told Sam when I woke and he liked it.”

“Shireen. A beautiful name,” Missandei says. “I believe it means sweet.”

A wistful smile graces Gilly’s lips. “She was. The sweetest little girl you’d ever meet. She taught me how to read and was so patient with me. Unlike Sam. She taught ser Davos as well.”

Gilly’s mouth tightens and Sansa quickly changes the subject before anyone brings up burning others alive. “Missandei is teaching Grey Worm how to read.”

“That’s nice. I’m sure you’re a very patient teacher as well.”

“He’s a good student.” Missandei’s face lights up. “And he loves reading about old heroes and battles. There’s so much knowledge waiting for him--and I can’t wait to share it with him.”

“Yeah, whole worlds open up to you when you can read. It angers me that only men can go to the Citadel and become Maesters. There are so many things to learn, and so few who are allowed to learn it. It’s not fair.”

“No, it’s not,” Sansa says. “I loved learning how to read and write when I was little. More children should get the opportunity to learn.”

All children should,” Gilly says.

Missandei makes a careful stitch, then another. Her lips part only to close again. She swallows. Sansa and Gilly remain quiet and focused on their work. Then Missandei draws a breath and says, more to her work than to her company, “I sometimes dream about teaching children how to read. Lowborn children. And languages. Knowledge they can use, not to help their masters, but to help themselves.”

Gilly smiles at her. “I think that sounds lovely.”

Sansa nods. “Considering how dedicated our Queen is to helping the smallfolk and change the world, I’m sure she'd help you arrange something like that, Missandei.”

Sansa notices Gilly’s discreet shake of her head too late, but not how Missandei’s face fell nor how quickly she lifted her head with a proud tilt to hide it.

“My Queen needs me by her side. I’m one of her most trusted advisors and her dearest friend.”

“Of course she does,” Gilly says. “It’s clear to anyone how much she loves you.”

“Thank you for teaching me how to knit.” Missandei lays down her work in Sansa’s yarn basket. “I look forward to doing this again sometime. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m not used to sitting still for this long. I believe I need fresh air and a walk.”

After Missandei’s left, Gilly’s usually efficient and quick knitting slows down. She turns her head in the direction of the door, as though to listen, and once she’s certain they can speak freely, she leans closer to Sansa.

“Be careful around her,” she murmurs. “She reminds me of some of my sisters. Craster’s favorites. He made them feel special, like they mattered more than the rest of us. They told on us, when we did something we shouldn’t because they were loyal to him, not to us. She loves Daenerys too much. We can’t trust her.”

“And what about Grey Worm?”

Gilly furrows her brow as she thinks. “He’s different. He’s spent so much time with the Free Folk, and the only person he seems to adore is Missandei, not Daenerys. Why? Has he said anything?”

“He’s willing to betray Daenerys if it means he and Missandei are free.”

“She’ll be angry with him. So angry she might leave him. That could stop him.”

“That was my fear, but when I pointed that out, he said she can hate him all she likes, at least she’ll be free. I suppose that’s how much he loves… Oh.”

“What?”

“Hm? Oh. I forgot I promised the other ladies we’d pray in the godswood before noon. I still have some work to do before then. Excuse me.”

 

As Sansa rushes back to her chambers, she tries to remember what Jon looked like when he told her he didn’t care if she hated him for trying to protect her. That he didn’t care, because at least she’d be alive to hate him. But she didn’t look at him, did she? She was staring at the toy stag. But his voice, she heard his voice, and why did he sound so much like Grey Worm talking about the woman he loves?

By the time she reaches her chambers, she’s out of breath and she sinks down on her bed, on Jon’s side. She grabs his pillow and hugs it tightly, eyes falling closed as she breathes in the scent lingering on the linen. What else did he tell her that night? What did he look like, sound like? It’s all a blur. She’s been too focused on controlling herself and her emotions to pay enough attention to his. She’s been too focused on stopping herself from blurting out how she truly feels to even consider that perhaps he was doing the same.

“Maybe I should’ve talked to you sooner, but I’ve been fighting so hard to--”

Sansa gasps, covering her mouth with her hand. He never completed the sentence, even changed the subject when she asked him to complete it. What has he fought so hard to do? Control himself? Does Jon love her?

He said he did. In a heated moment when he lost control, he did say--

No. She’s being conceited and remembering things wrong. She’s a woman grown and no one’s ever loved her for who she is. Not ever. She’s unlovable. All her life, she’s been told all a woman needs to be is kind and beautiful and ladylike. All her life, she’s been told she is those very things--and still no one’s loved her. Once too stupid and silly, now too hard and cold. Always too selfish. He cares for her because he must, protects her because he must--or Father’s ghost will come back and murder him. Jon said so himself. Family. Honor. Duty. Tully words, yes, but Jon lives by them nonetheless--and to him, she’s family and duty. Not love.

If they’d met as strangers, Jon wouldn’t have looked at her twice. This man whose great love was a spitfire spearwife. He could never love the weak woman Sansa is--one who can’t shoot arrows or throw daggers, whose knees give way when she’s in danger, who knits by the fire while others fight. How could he love the woman he must rush to protect with his sword drawn when he’s so tired of fighting?

Voices from the courtyard pierce through the dense wall of her thoughts. She walks up to the window and takes a look. The long tables from the Great Hall now stand in the courtyard while smallfolk stand in neat lines leading to a large kettle of stew manned by one of the scullery maids. The ladies are probably already waiting for her, while she’s in here neglecting her duties. Sansa shakes her head at herself; she can ponder this later.  

 

-----

 

For the rest of the day, she manages to keep Jon out of her thoughts--until she finds herself in her solar, long past supper, with Sandor Clegane, Sam, and Theon for company. Bran’s still in the godswood and Maester Wolkan stays with him now so Sam can eat, drink, and get some rest, but no one will tell her why. She worries about her little brother sitting out in the cold for hours and hours. But they’ve moved braziers to the heart-tree and wrapped him in thick furs, and if the wind becomes unbearable, they’ll roll him into the hollow tree where she and Jon once hid.

Jon. She aches with worry--and she's not alone. Worry permeates all of Winterfell. They’re all wringing their hands and praying to the gods, old and new, that their loved ones will return unharmed. Meals are eaten mostly in silence. Even the small children who usually run around and play cling to their grandparents as they ask over and over where their mother and father have gone, when they will come back.

Would she feel it if Jon were to fall? Ghost would, but he has yet to return.

Sansa turns her head and covers her mouth to hide a yawn. It must be past midnight by now; she’s exhausted--and yet her empty bed tempts her little.

“I’m going back to Bran now” Sam says. He empties his cup and stands. “You should get some rest, Sansa.”

“I’ll stay up a little while longer.”

Lingering by the door, Sam offers her a sympathetic smile. “Jon always comes back. Always.”

She thanks him and does her best to return the smile, but lets it slip the moment he’s gone. Why didn’t she tell Jon when she had the chance? She could kick herself. Why didn’t she ask him? She has to ask him. As soon as he returns from the war, if he returns, she’ll ask him. Because either he’s as obtuse as she is and they love each other, or he already knows how she feels and loves her dearly as a brother regardless. She has nothing to lose.

“I can stay with you, if you like.” Theon’s voice pulls her out of her thoughts and she looks at him in confusion. “In your bedchambers,” he clarifies. “If you’re afraid to sleep alone. I’ll sleep on the floor.”

The Hound narrows his eyes and points at Theon with his tankard of ale. “Do I have to protect you from this one too?”

“I’m, uh”--Theon gestures at his crotch--”cut.”

“You still have a tongue, don’t you? You still have fingers. You don’t need a dick to--”

“That’s enough,” Sansa says and the Hound glares at her before shifting that glare at the flames dancing in the fireplace instead. “Clegane is right, though. It wouldn’t look good if I let another man into my chambers. Thank you, Theon, but I’ll sleep alone.”

“Everybody says Jon’s the best swordsman alive.” Theon looks at the Hound. “He’s good, isn’t he?”

Clegane hums distractedly. The light of the fire plays over his face, gleams in his eyes, mesmerizes him. Sansa touches his shoulder lightly to ground him, to make him listen. He turns his head slightly in her direction, but his gaze stays on the flames.

“Do you see anything? In the fire.”

“The dead marching. I always see the dead marching.”

“Marching where?”

“Nowhere. Over snow. In the dark...” He frowns, shaking his head lightly. “Wait.” He shoots to his feet; the tankard crashes to the floor, ale spilling out over the flagstones. “Here. They’re marching toward Winterfell.”

“The Night King?”

“No. Just wights. A giant. Maybe two. One of those frozen fuckers leading them. They want to turn more people.”

“The crypts!” Sansa flies to her feet and grabs Theon’s hand, pulling him up to stand as well. “We need to get everyone to the crypts!”

Sansa orders Theon to alert the archers and the sentries posted on the walls. They’re to sound the horn twice to prompt people into moving to the crypts, thrice if they actually see the undead coming. With torches in hand, she and the Hound run to the Great Hall, where hundreds lie asleep--men, women, and children, all too old or young or unfit to fight. They blink blearily at the light, but as soon as the horn sounds, once, twice, they’re scrambling to their feet, hoisting up babes and toddlers in their arms. Although everyone staying at Winterfell has been given a dragonglass dagger, she sees plenty of them still glimmering in the rumpled makeshift beds.

She shouts at them to remember their daggers, but they’re all too busy making it for the exit to listen.

“Fuck them,” the Hound says. “We have to get you to the crypts.”

“But Gilly and little Sam! Missandei! You get them.”

“I’m not leaving you alone. If you faint again--”

The Hound grunts and grabs her arm so hard she knows it’ll bruise, but she doesn’t protest when he pulls her along as he lumbers through the hallways. They meet Gilly on the way. Little Sam’s on her hip and a dagger’s in her hand. Her breathing’s already labored, but she doesn’t stop, only nods at them as she keeps running. They don’t run into Missandei, though, and once they reach Daenerys’ chambers, they find her door locked. The Hound bangs on it and shouts at her to come out. The door glides open. A pale Missandei stares at them with round eyes. She’s shaking so violently she’s barely holding onto the dragonglass dagger in her hand. Three handmaidens are huddled behind her.

“They’re here?”

“Not yet.” Sansa grabs Missandei’s other hand. “We need to go to the crypts. Now.”

Then they’re running again, down hallways, down stairs, over a courtyard lit by braziers, torches, and the full moon. People are moving out of the guest house, and a few scullery maids rush toward them from the kitchens. They’re on the south side of Winterfell, while the entrance to the crypts is on the north side, half a world away.

The horn blares. One, twice. At the third time, Sansa’s knees buckle. The Hound wraps his arm around her and drags her along as he weaves over the courtyard between panicked people. Her lungs burn, she keeps tripping on her skirts, and she’s holding Missandei’s hand so tightly, it feels as though her arm will pop out of its socket whenever Missandei sags behind. The handmaidens are lost in the crowd. People are screaming. She hears someone command the archers to nock, draw, loose. In the far distance, wolves howl. A pack of them. A chill runs down her back, goosebumps spreading along her whole body. Then a deafening boom. Nock. Draw. Loose. Frightened shrieks. An archer falls from the wall. Then another. A second boom. Wood splintering. Nock. Draw. Loose. The cries of men falling from the wall. Stones tumbling. Nock. Draw. She never hears a loose.

They reach the armory. One of the handmaids bumps into Missandei, while the other two run hand-in-hand in the wrong direction. She calls after them, but her voice drowns out in the cacophony, and they disappear. A river of people flows down the lane between the armory and the guards hall, disappearing into the archway leading to the small garden where the crypts lie. Guards form a wall between the North gate and the people. Sansa can’t see Gilly or little Sam, but she thinks she spies the bald head of Varys up ahead. And then she sees something else. The reason for why the guards suddenly tremble. A pair of eyes glinting icy blue in the dark. Another pair appears, and another, and another. People knock into her. Shouting, running. The last handmaiden shrieks and runs away. Sansa pulls in Missandei and they huddle close to the Hound lest they get separated. Someone shoots a fire arrow into the horde of wights. One falls to the ground, convulsing, melting, and she feels a glimmer of hope. Fire. More fire. As though the archer heard her prayers, another arrows hits a wight. But then the ground shakes. A giant stomping forward. He grabs fistfuls of wights and hurls them into the line of guards, breaking the human wall. People scream, push at each other, climb over one another to get closer to the crypts.

“We won’t get past them,” Clegane says. “There’s too many of them. And we'll get trampled in that crowd.”

“Bran. We have to get Bran.”

“Fuck Bran. We’ll go out the East gate and--”

“No! I don’t know why Bran won’t leave the godswood, but it has to be important. More important than me. Protect him. Missandei and I will--”

Boom! Sansa whirls around. The East gate vibrates. Boom! The wood of the gate splinters.

Fuck! ” Clegane grabs Sansa with one hand, Missandei with the other, and heads back the same way they came. “Where’s that useless Greyjoy? Probably hiding somewhere, craven cunt.”

They move across the courtyard and into the godswood. It’s eerily silent in there. At first she thinks the snow and trees soak up all the noise, but snow crunches under their boots and the wolves howl somewhere close by and she hears footsteps and panting behind her. A glance over her shoulder tells her a handful guards followed them. Then why is it so quiet? Why is no one screaming? Is everyone safe already?

Is everyone dead?

They want to turn more people.

Her stomach bottoms out. Her feet keep moving. They find Bran warging by the heart-tree, with Sam by his side, and Theon guarding them, clutching a dragonglass-tipped spear, a bow and quiver slung over his shoulder. When he sees Sansa, he throws one arm around her pulls her close.

“I thought you’d reached the crypts already. I didn’t see you.”

“Where’s Gilly,” Sam says. “Where’s Little Sam?”

Tears well up in Sansa’s eyes and she shakes her head. “I don’t know. I think they made it to the crypts.”

“Think? You think?”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t--”

"I saw them, m'lord," a guard says. "They made it."

Sam grabs him. "Are you sure?"

"Yes, I--"

“Shut up,” the Hound roars. “All of you! Is there a way out of here?”

The screech of a dragon pierces the silence, loud and horrible and unusually short. If another one falls... Instinctively, Sansa looks at Bran, but his eyes are still white. He’s so pale, even in the warm light of the braziers, and so still. She can see neither his chest moving nor his breath freezing in the cold air.

“We didn’t know,” Sam says. “We’ve been so focused on the Night King. I swear, we didn’t know. We thought we’d be safe--”

“It doesn’t matter. Can we get Bran over the wall?” Sansa's barely finished the question before she hears branches snapping.

With a sickening feeling in her body, she remembers the second gate leading into the godswood. The one right where the giant appeared. The braziers around them blind her to their surroundings and she squints into the dark woods. She thinks she sees something moving.

“We’re going to die, aren’t we?” Missandei asks with the calm of someone who’s already accepted their fate. “We’ll die tonight.”

“The hunter’s gate,” Sansa says but Theon shakes his head, eyes wide and glassy.

Then she sees them. Blue eyes. Blue eyes everywhere, twinkling like terrifying stars in the dark, surrounding them. The Hound positions himself in front of Sansa, shielding her.

“There’s no way out,” she whispers. “We’re trapped.”

Something silver shoots across her field of vision, fast and pale like a bolt of lightning. Ghost! Another direwolf follows. Even in the dark, even after all this time, Sansa knows her. Nymeria. More wolves follow her. They tear into the army of undead and the Hound doesn’t waste any time. He knocks over a brazier into a nearby wight. The fire eat at its clothes, melts its icy flesh. It flails and falls into another wight and the fire spreads like a disease.

The Hound grabs Bran’s chair and pushes it toward the hollow tree, ordering them to follow. Theon paves the way, shattering wights one by one by shooting dragonglass arrows into their heads until his quiver is empty. Sansa, Missandei, and Bran huddle inside the tree, so cramped they can barely move.

"You stay in there," the Hound says. "You stay until we've killed enough to make a run for it."

Sansa pulls her dagger from its sheath and gestures at Missandei to do the same.

"I don't know how to fight," MIssandei whispers.

“The flesh, not the armor. You need to hit their flesh or the dagger will shatter instead of them.”

Missandei nods emphatically. "I won't faint this time. I promise."

"Neither will I," Sansa says with a quick smile.

No, she’s not going to faint. She's going to protect Bran and she's going to fight. Some of what Arya taught her before she left must've stuck. Sansa tightens her hold on the dagger and gives herself a determined nod. She's going to live--and when this is all over, she's going to tell Jon she loves him.

 

Chapter Text

Waning sunlight peers through the milky mist surrounding the Isle of Faces, bounces off the dagger in Arya’s hand. Pale wood forms a gnarly hand-like hilt, its spindly fingers winding around a blade of sharpest dragonglass. She thinks its lustre is a little brighter than regular dragonglass, as though the Green Men imbued it with their own magic, but she can’t tell for sure. The weirwood arrows they’ve fashioned her, though… She pulls one out of the quiver on her back to inspect it. Slender and sleek, designed to burrow deep, and surrounded by a fuzzy sort of haze. Many things on this isle are, as though the mist clings to everything the Green Men create.

As she waited for the weapons to be forged, the Green Men spoke with their hands and eyes, and by drawing in the snow with sticks. She already knows, though, what the weapons will do to the Night King. She knows they slow down his movements and weaken him, but that more is needed to end him. Bran’s note lies in her pouch, his sprawling script telling of magic of blood--the blood of the dragon--and the greatest sacrifice. She knows what needs to be done.

Arya pulls a strip of pickled fish from the food package the Green Men gave her for the journey back North. Pickled fish, herbs, and roots. That’s all they eat. The morsel grows in her mouth; she grabs the waterskin hanging from her right hip and washes it down. The waterskin on her left hip contains Qyburn’s sedative.

The mist disperses and Rhaegal’s talons come into view. He extends his feet and touches the ground, his tail flicking happily in the water that kisses the shore. She turns around and, as a goodbye, puts her fingers first to her heart, then to the air. The Green Men return the gesture and watch her leave.

As they fly, Bran and her, she eats her fish, drinks her water, and enjoys the wind in her hair--and tries very hard not to worry about her loved ones. Even if the battle’s already begun, even if it’s moved to Winterfell… What else can she do but cling to the dragon’s back and keep moving on foot whenever Bran shrugs her off for a break? Every so often, though, her eyelids drift closed and sleep pulls her into the woods, where she runs along her wolf pack. Ghost is there too, guiding them through forests and snowy plains.

Each time she wakes, worry becomes harder to shake.

 

They pass Moat Cailin, and far away, to the east, she sees clusters of light so tightly knitted it can only be White Harbor. Soon they’ll reach Castle Cerwyn--and then Winterfell and after that, the battle. Bran told Gendry to move the Scorpion close to the Wolfswood. They’ll need a tree to kill the Night King. Something old and solid, connected to the living earth.

Somewhere in the distance, she hears wolves howling against the full moon and she likes to think her dream was true. That Nymeria is coming home with Ghost to protect Bran and Sansa when Arya and Jon can’t. Then Winterfell comes into view, the lit braziers painting its walls golden. Everything is still. They must all be sleeping--everyone except Bran and whoever watches over him. Arya cuddles closer, resting her cheek against the spiny body Bran possesses as though she can lend him some of her strength.

She’s been gone for too long--and has to be gone for longer still once the battle is won.

Bran beats Rhaegal’s wings harder, faster. Winterfell is but a dot of light behind them now--and Arya sees something that makes her stomach knot.

Hordes of undead, marching toward Winterfell, lead by a mounted White Walker, his long hair flowing in the wind. He lifts his head and follows them with his gaze. Fear grabs her lungs with its icy fingers and squeezes hard.

“Bran!” She tugs at the ridges running along Rhaegal’s spine. “We have to do something.”

The White Walker slides off his undead horse, grabs a javelin attached to the saddle, aims. But Bran flies on, putting enough distance between them that the White Walker lowers his arm and returns to leading his army. Leading it to Winterfell, where someone else’s body will be pierced by that javelin because Arya and Bran never warned them about the coming threat.

Arya screams her frustration into the night. No matter how free she feels when she’s on Rhaegal’s back, she’s never been more trapped. She doesn’t ride that dragon, doesn’t steer him or control him. Bran does--and Bran flies her wherever she’s needed. And she knows what he’d tell her if he could: there’s no time to deviate from the plan. Every delay means Bran has to spend longer and longer inside another creature’s body; it means he’ll get no rest or food; it means he might die before he has the chance to warg into Viserion--and then they’ll all be lost.

She looks over her shoulder, but the night has already shrouded the horde in darkness. Taking a deep, calming breath, she lets her shoulders drop. Then, on the exhale, pushes out the stress and worry with the air leaving her. She has a mission. She can’t let anything distract her.

 

Rhaegal dives; Arya readies herself. They fly past a line of catapults, now abandoned. She can already hear the clamor from the battlefield: people screaming, swords clashing, and horses whinnying in panic. Broken trails of fire slash through the snowy fields, and in the light they cast, she sees the living staggering and the undead plowing on and horses fleeing the fires. For how long has the battle lasted? A battle against a tireless force who doesn’t need to sleep or eat or rest. No matter how well-trained the living are, they’ll eventually succumb to exhaustion--or to the fire that doesn’t know who’s friend or foe.

Rhaegal’s mouth opens. Arya presses closer to his back as he flies close to the ground and obliterates a swarm of undead with his fiery breath. Bran gives his back a little shake, a move she knows well by now, and Arya climbs down on Rhaegal’s wing. When Bran moves the dragon so close to the ground his talons scrape against the snow, Arya jumps.

With only spots of fire dotting the battlefield, flames alive in the remains of the fallen, and moonlight faintly reflected by snow, she has little light to guide her. But she’s been blind before. Standing close to a heap of smoldering bones, she closes her eyes and picks out the sounds around her. The living are so much louder than the undead. Their noises are striking metal and thudding blows and the squishy softness of flesh being pierced; agonizing screams, wheezing breaths, and bolstering battle-cries. The dead rattle and clank and never, ever stop. The living smell worse too. Like blood and shit and grilled meat.

A screech draws her eyes skyward. Viserion. Viserion swooping across the sky, ducking Drogon’s pillar of fire that briefly illuminates the edge of the Wolfswood. That’s where she must go. A horse. She needs a horse.

Relying on her senses, Arya weaves through the battlefield with Needle in one hand and her Valyrian steel dagger in the other. Swish. A sword coming. She ducks. Ghosts her fingers over moving bones. Undead. Thrusts the dagger into the wight. It crumbles around her hand; falls to the snowy ground. She leaps forward and keeps running, the quiver thumping against her back. Footfalls coming closer. Labored breaths. Living. She runs on. A nearby whimper tugs at her heartstrings. Man, woman, young, old, Westerosi, Essosi--she cannot tell. It doesn’t matter. She wants to help, but like Bran flew past Winterfell, she flies past the wounded soldier.

The thunder of hooves pulls her to a stop. She squints into the dimness. A dappled stallion gallops toward her, its Dothraki rider hanging limply in the saddle. The horse halts, snow spraying against her breeches, hissing against the glowing embers of a corpse by her feet. The horse flicks its tail. She cuts the dead Dothraki loose, swings herself up, and rides toward the forest.

Up ahead, in the light of yet another burning corpse, she spots the familiar shape of Gendry swinging his hammer, crushing wight skulls and kicking their bodies into the flames around him. Her heart beats a little faster at the sight of him. As she comes closer, she sees more familiar faces. Ser Jorah, Podrick, Grey Worm, and a handful Unsullied pushing back against the undead. Jaime and Brienne fighting side by side. All of them protecting the Scorpion as it’s being dragged forward, not by horses but by Jon, Tormund, and two Dothraki.

Arya spurs the horse to gallop faster. It stops a few meters from Gendry and she flies off, weapons already in hand. A wight grabs her; she slams the dagger in his eye. As he shatters, she whirls around and kicks another wight in the chest so it stumbles past Gendry and into the flames. They burn so quickly, the undead. The smallest kiss of fire spreads across their bodies and devours them like a spring flood.

“About time,” Gendry says without looking at her, slamming a wight in the face. “We’re swarmed.” He spins around. Slam. Another wight down. “I have something to tell you.”

Rhaegal lands in front of the Scorpion and spews out flame after flame, killing every wight in front of them. Then he takes to the sky and paints lines of fire around them, melting encroaching soldiers of the undead. A wight scrambles through a gap between the flames. Brienne chops his head clean off. Jon shouts at them to keep moving, but Gendry grabs Arya’s arm, pulling her to a halt. He’s panting, blood trickles from a cut in his cheek and one across his forehead. Slashes cover his leather armor, but she can’t see much blood. He looks more tired than injured.

“When you were waiting for the Green Men, Bran tried to warg into Viserion. It doesn’t work.”

Arya’s fighting spirit turns into stone and sinks to the pit of her stomach. “What?”

“Well, he can , but it’ll kill him. Viserion’s dead. His mind is dead. Hollow. Empty. That’s what Bran said. He can’t survive in that body for long. He said he could feel death calling. Pulling at him.”

“Then how… He’ll destroy the Scorpion. The Night King will. As soon as he sees it, he’ll forget all about Daenerys and destroy it!”

“I don’t know. Bran said he’d find another way. They’ve been pushing for Winterfell, and we’ve been pushing back. It’s taking ages. Horses fled. We’ve run out of oil barrels. Catapults are useless now. We have to follow the plan and trust Bran.” Gendry points into the dark. “The Wolfswood’s over there. You better get ready.” He pats her shoulder, the one carrying the bow. “How’s your aim?”

She shrugs and gives him a crooked smile. “I always hit what I want to hit.”

He nods and tightens his grip around his hammer, but before he’s able to run to the others, she pulls him back and kisses him as though it’s the last time. Just in case. Gendry flashes her a dazzling grin and then they run together toward the line of trees while fighting off wights with the others.

 

They’re close enough to the woods, now, that Arya can scan the trees. Birches and ashes are too lanky. But she spots an oak too, thick enough to be centuries old with roots stretching deep into the ground. A tree that has withstood many a long and dark winter and carries the life of spring and summer in its trunk and branches. That will do well. She throws a glance at the sky. Viserion hurls blue fire at Drogon, who evades, swoops under him. Jon’s already pulling down the walls shielding the Scorpion. He jumps up on the wagon, loads a bolt, lines it up, and waits for a clean shot.

“Jon, wait!” She flings herself up to him.

“Arya!” His breath rushes out of him and he pulls her in for a tight hug, kisses her forehead. “Gods, I’ve been so wo--”

A screech cuts him off and they all look up at the sky. Rhaegal barrels into Viserion, grabs him with his claws. They spin around in a deadly dance. Viserion thrusts out his wings and beats them frantically to stop the spinning--only to knock into Drogon. Daenerys cries out, slides down his side, her feet dangling in the air as she holds onto his ridges. Someone on the ground gasps. But as his brothers battle, Drogon regains control and glides down to land behind the Scorpion, putting out the fires around him with the whoosh of his wings. Daenerys tumbles to the ground. Ser Jorah’s by her side instantly. Wights stream forward. Ser Jorah rises, his sword drawn. Daenerys scrambles back on her hands, pushing at the ground with her feet. Arya pulls her dagger, ready to jump down and join the rumble, but then Drogon opens his mouth and showers the wights with fire. Daenerys is safe. For now.

Arya looks up at the sky again. Viserion bites Rhaegal’s tail, tearing at it, shaking, and blood falls over them like fat raindrops. One hits her cheek and she hisses with pain, wipes it off with the sleeve of her tunic. The blood’s scorching. Then Viserion slams his tail into Rhaegal’s head and the green dragon hurtles toward the ground with such a wail she has to cover her ears. He crashes into the line of trees, whipping up a flurry of snow, dirt, and twigs that rain down over him. A birch cracks, falls over, lands on his back, rolls off, knocks down a Dothraki. She hears nothing but the ringing in her ears. Bran. Her hand curls around Jon’s arm and she holds her breath as she stares at Rhaegal, waiting for him to get back on his feet and shrug off the snow clinging to his scales. To flick his tail. He doesn’t move.

Daenerys stumbles to her feet and runs toward her fallen child. Jon growls and turns the Scorpion to Viserion, aims, shoots. The bolt whooshes through the air. Viserion tilts. The bolt misses.

“Fuck!”

Jon spins the wheels, the ropes creaking. Grabs another bolt. But then Arya hears the swoosh of something shooting through the air. She pulls Jon with her as she ducks. A javelin flies over their heads, toward Rhaegal and Daenerys. Arya shouts a warning. Daenerys spins around, eyes wide and mouth open. For a heart-stopping moment, Arya thinks the javelin will hit, but it only nicks the shoulder of Daenerys’ coat and burrows into the trunk of a birch. Jon spins the Scorpion around, takes aim, pulls the lever. The bolt soars through the air and lands in the chest of a White Walker. He bursts into a million shards of ice--and countless wights shatter around them.

A growl rumbles through the air like thunder. Viserion is hovering in front of them, wings beating up snow, tail curled beneath him. Jon pushes Arya so hard she tumbles down on the ground and rolls away from the Scorpion. Viserion opens his mouth. Jon slips another bolt into the slot and fumbles for the lever.

“No! Jon!” She reaches for him uselessly. “Get away!”

Viserion’s maw glows bright blue. Arya lifts her arm to shield her eyes, but then she notices Viserion’s tail. He flicks it, the way Bran does when he’s warged into Rhaegal. The blue flame dies in Viserion’s throat. Jon releases the bolt and jumps. The bolt hits the dragon’s open maw. Viserion crumbles with a brittle burst of a screech, drowning out Arya’s cry after her little brother. Her stomach feels hard and tight. Her eyes sting; tears blur her vision. Only a few feet away, the Night King rises from the remnants of the undead dragon, his icy glare burning into Jon.

Grief threatens to overcome her, but if Bran was in Viserion, if Bran died with Viserion, she can’t let his death be for nothing. Brushing away her tears, Arya springs to her feet.

“Get Daenerys.” Arya pulls Bran’s note from her pouch, and the Green Men’s dagger from its sheath, and hands them to Jon. “We need her. And this. Protect Daenerys.”

Jon opens his mouth to speak, but she doesn’t stay to listen. The Night King has already drawn his sword. Arya darts to Brienne.

“Brienne!”

Brienne pulls her sword from the body of a crumbling wight and throws a glance over her shoulder. “My lady! You’re all right!”

“Brienne! That tree. The oak.” Arya points at it. “You have to fight the Night King. Bring him to that tree. His back to the tree. But don’t touch him. Don’t let him touch you!”

Confusion is written plainly on Brienne’s features, and yet she doesn’t question Arya’s orders. Instead she leaves the fighting to ser Jaime and charges the Night King. Oathkeeper slams into his sword. Brienne pulls back, ducks, parries a blow. Then they dance and blow by blow, step by step, Brienne leads the Night King toward the oak. Ser Jaime follows behind, fighting off wights trying to get to them.

“Protect Daenerys,” Arya shouts, to anyone who can hear her. “She has to live! Protect Drogon! He has to live!”

She grabs the bow hanging on her back, grabs a weirwood arrow. This is it. Her heart beats too hard, too quickly. Her trembling hands are slick with sweat. Closing her eyes, she summons memories of Anguy the Archer and lets his voice guide her, calm her.

Elbow high. Never hold. Never aim. Your eye knows where it wants the arrow to go. Trust your eye.

Arya opens her eyes. Quick as a snake. Calm as still water. Determination courses through her veins. She can do this.

Moving toward the Night King, Arya nocks the arrow. “Brienne, kick him into the tree!” She pulls the string back to the center of her chin. The Night King slams into the oak. She releases.

“Duck!” The arrows whistles through the air. Arya holds her breath. Brienne ducks. The arrow hits the Night King in the chest, pierces his armor. He looks down at it, bewildered, and it buys her time to grab another arrow. Pull back, release. It shoots through his shoulder and burrows into the bark behind him. A third through his throat. A fourth through his other shoulder, trapping him against the sturdy oak his powers cannot control. Oh, he’ll manage to pull them out eventually, she knows. But it’ll bring sap and splinters from something living into his lifeless body, weakening him further--and she has more arrows.

Brienne’s head snaps between the Night King and Arya. “What’s happening?”

“They slow him down,” Arya says, running closer. “Weaken him. But they don’t kill him.”

“But Valyrian steel?”

“Doesn’t work on him. You’ll ruin your blade. And don’t touch him.”

The roar and rattle of wights rushing closer from every direction tells Arya all undead soldiers still standing now move as one to protect their king. She knows Tormund, Gendry, and all the rest will hold them off.

She hopes they will.

Daenerys is on her knees by Rhaegal’s side, holding a hand against his slowly moving side as he takes laborious breaths. Blood runs out of a gash across Rhaegal’s stomach and the bite wound in his tail, steam curling as it pools on the ground. Jon’s sitting on his haunches next to them, stroking the dragon’s snout comfortingly as he explains to Daenerys what needs to be done. Arya listens with one ear, keeps the other at the fighting.

“The blood of the dragon?” Daenerys blinks at Jon, eyebrows tugged together. “I don’t understand.”

“They’re two extremes finally meeting. Ice and fire. It's the only way.”

Two wights throw themselves at Gendry. Arya reaches behind her, feels the sharp tip of an arrow, nocks. She shoots one wight in the eye, as Gendry crushes the other.

“I’m not doing it,” Daenerys says. “You can’t make me. I’m your Queen .”

“We need the blood from the heart. A sacrifice of what you love the most. And this dagger.” Jon presses the dagger into her hand. “You have to do it.”

She drops the dagger. “I will not.”

“Dany.” He cups her cheek, tilting her face toward him. “You must.”

“No, no. We’ll go.” She clutches at the leather of his jerkin. “You and I. We’ll get on Drogon and go.” She gives him a desperate smile, nodding eagerly. “The Night King has no dragon anymore. He can’t follow us.”

“But everyone else will die.”

Her smile crumples. “I won’t. You can’t make me. I won’t. I can’t.”

Snap.

Arya throws a glance at the Night King. His hand is wrapped around one of the arrows and, so very slowly, he’s pulling it out. Another already lies by his feet, snapped in half, useless. Reaching behind her, she pulls a new arrow from her quiver and replaces the one he pulled out. The Night King glares at her. If he gets free, he’ll kill her first. He’ll kill her cruely. Wights struggle to get to him, to help him, but Brienne and Jaime fight them off, back to back.

“If you don’t kill the Night King,” Jon says, “we’ll all die. All of us. All the people you love. Missandei. Ser Jorah. Tyrion. Even Drogon and Rhaegal. They’ll all die and turn into wights.”

“You don’t know that. There could be another way or--”

Dany !” He grabs her by the shoulders, and her eyelashes flutter at the force of it. “There is no other way. You have to do it. Now.”

“Not Drogon. Never. I won’t. He’s my child. You can’t expect a mother to murder her own child.”

“It’s him or us. All of us. Every person alive in the world. Every living breathing thing.”

Daenerys’ bottom lip trembles. “But who will I be without him?”

Jon closes his eyes with an exasperated sigh. Arya shoots another arrows into the Night King, keeping him at the tree. She’ll run out of arrows soon, unless Jon hurries the fuck up and convinces Daenerys to do what’s right.

But then Jon presses his hand against his chest, breathing in deeply as though he’s drawing strength from within, and when he opens his eyes again, they’re soft and loving. He cups Daenerys’ cheeks, brushing away her tears with his thumbs. “Only you can do it. You’re fire made flesh. Only you can touch him without freezing. You’re the one the Red Woman talked about. The world’s been waiting for you, Daenerys Targaryen, and only you can save it--and everyone in it. And your subjects will love you for it. Will worship you for it. The woman who brought the dawn, who brought spring and life and peace.”

“My subjects?” Her eyes glitter with tears. “What subjects? How can I take the throne without him? I’m no one without him.”

“That’s not true. You know that’s not true. And you’ll have me. And Rhaegal. We’ll take the throne, together. We’ll kill Cersei together. Then you’ll rule, with me by your side. And we’ll have children, as many as you like. Beautiful Targaryen children who’ll carry on our legacy, our blood, restore our House. But if you don’t, if you don’t make this sacrifice, the Night King wins. He’ll take everything we hold dear, he’ll take that future from us. Our future, Dany. The things we dream of. Our life together.”

Enthralled by his words, Daenerys gazes up at him with so much love Arya feels uneasy. But she squashes that rare pang of empathy for the woman. Daenerys doesn't deserve it.

Daenerys closes her eyes and tilts her chin up, her plush lips slightly parted. A tremor goes through Jon, his brows twitch, but he closes his eyes too and presses his lips to Daenerys’.

“My queen,” he murmurs against Daenerys’ mouth, “don’t let him take our future from us.”

Arya knows the moment Daenerys’ mind is made up, because suddenly Drogon stops killing wights. They’re connected, Bran says, the dragon and its dragonrider, their emotions intertwined. Arya spins around. Drogon beats his wings, ready to take off. She pulls an arrows from her quiver, flips the lid off the waterskin on her left hip, dips the arrow into the sedative, shoots. The arrows only grazes him and hits the ground. He roars and shakes his body, takes a step toward her. Swearing under her breath, Arya grabs another arrow. Dips. Nocks. Pulls. Releases. This one hits him in the nostril. Drogon opens his mouth as though to drown her with fire, but then his eyes roll back in his head and he flops down, the ground quaking beneath them.

“Hurry the fuck up,” she snarls at Jon. “The sedative wears off quickly and I need my arrows for the Night King.”

“Sedative?” Daenerys frowns at her, at Jon. “Sedative! They’ve planned this! Her and that creepy little brother of yours. They want my dragons dead and you’re help--”

Snap.

Arya whips around. More arrows lie at the Night King’s feet, broken. She fumbles behind her back. She has three arrows left. Nock, pull, release. She throws a glance at Drogon; he’s still sleeping. Her second to last arrows finds its way into the shoulder of the Night King. A Dothraki, who’s fought his way closer to them, swings his arakh. It shatters against the Night King's chest. He tries his dragonglass dagger--only for it to shatter too. Arya screams at him to stop, but he doesn't hear her. Instead he picks up one of the discarded arrows.

“Don’t!” Arya screams, but it’s too late. He’s already pushed the arrow into the Night King’s body, and as their flesh touch, ice creeps across the Dothraki’s body and he falls, rigid and frozen.

“Only Daenerys can touch him,” Arya screams. “No one touch him! You’ll either freeze to death or turn!”

Hearing her name, Daenerys pulls away from Jon and stares at the man on the ground, his eyes fixed at the night sky without seeing.

“It’s true,” Daenerys says, almost to herself. “You didn’t lie. No one can touch him. No one but me. I’m a dragon. I am fire. The cold can’t hurt me. Only I can touch him.”

Jon picks up the dagger and hands it to her. “I hope you believe that I’d never lie to you. But, please, Dany, please. Save the world. Save us. I want to be with the woman I love.”

Daenerys takes a trembling breath, eyes shining with adoration. “Love?”

Jon nods and bows his head, pressing his forehead against hers. “Only you can save the world. Only you. There’s only you. Only you.”

Daenerys closes her eyes and breathes out his name. Arya turns back to Drogon, watching for any sign of his waking up because she can’t stand seeing Jon coddling Daenerys for even a moment longer. Dawn should’ve broken by now, shouldn’t it? But it’s darker than ever. No moonlight. Only starlight and the burning dead. The Long Night must’ve come.

Drogon’s eyelids move.

“Now, Jon! Do it now!” Arya can’t afford to waste her last arrow. She flings herself forward. So close she can smell Drogon’s rotten breath. She grabs the waterskin, pours sedative over Needle, and slams it into the soft flesh of Drogon’s nostril. He lets out a long, loud moan, his tail whipping weakly. Then his head crashes down.

Huddled in Jon’s embrace, as though she can’t walk without his support, Daenerys moves closer. Tears stream down her face. Her hands, holding the weirwood dagger, shake. Jon guides her hands, cups them with his own, brings the tip of the dagger against Drogon’s chest. Daenerys closes her eyes with a wince, chin quivering. Jon pushes her hands forward; the knife slides easily through Drogon’s skin, dark blood gushing over Daenerys’ hands. Splashing over Jon. He recoils with a howl of pain and throws himself to the ground to bury his hands in the snow. Drogon twitches but sleeps on.

Snap.

The Night King drops the broken arrow on the ground. Only one remain, buried deep in his throat. He moves as in water, slowly, strenuously. The weirwood arrows have done their job well. He’s weakened and sluggish. But the wights soldier on. And now that no dragons fight, the living must fight harder than ever to hold off the half-circle of enemies closing in on them. Tormund cries out as an axe scrapes over the side of his head, pulling hair and his ear with it. Blood sprays over the snow. He keeps fighting. Heavy footsteps trample closer, quick like an animal’s. Arya spins around with Needle in her hand, locating the sound. An undead bear plows through the line of wights and charges into Podrick, who falls on his back. The bear’s jaws close around his waist, tugging and shaking a screaming Podrick. Someone rushes to help him and--

Snap .

Arya grabs her last arrow. Nocks, pulls, releases. It hits the Night King right in the hollow of his throat.

Daenerys is blood-drenched. Steam rises from the dagger, its blade coated with the scalding heartsblood of a dragon, and it glows in the dark like embers. It’s working. Arya’s pulse races. The blood magic is working. Entranced by it, Daenerys stares down at the dagger in her hands, her pallid face reflecting its unearthly shine. No, not entranced. Arya knows that look. The pain of the sacrifice has left Daenerys numb and useless.

“Jon!” Arya gestures at Daenerys. “Do something!”

With his arms around Daenerys, Jon ushers her closer to the Night King. Arya can barely stand still. It’s too slow, so slow . They move like molasses, oblivious to the chaos surrounding them. Everyone’s injured and tired, squeezing out their last strength to keep fighting. Podrick’s gone, his body torn into ribbons by the bear. A bear who now has his sights set on Gendry. The air leaves her lungs. Her Gendry. Torn into ribbons. No. No.

The Scorpion! She drops the bow and hurls herself up on the weapon. One bolt left. Qyburn showed her how to use it. She can do it. The bear’s paw hits Gendry across the face, tearing deep furrows in his cheek, down to his shoulder. He falls back with a cry of pain. Arya loads the bolt. Aims. Pulls the lever. The bear rises on his hind legs over Gendry; falls forward. But then the bolt shoots through the bear’s back and the bear shatters.

Snap.

Arya spins the Scorpion’s cogs, whirls it around to face the Night King. His sword is drawn. She scrambles after another bolt automatically, but there’s none left. And they wouldn’t work either way. Only weirwood, the Green Men said. Only weirwood. The Night King has already raised his sword. Clang. Longclaw stops the Night King’s blade. Daenerys backs away.

The arrows. The arrows she used on Drogon. Arya pulls out the one in his nostril, while scanning the ground for the other. There’s blood everywhere, still warm and stinking. She hears Jon grunting. The clashing of swords. But it’s staggering, both combatants weak and tired by now. There! A faint misty glow in the pool of blood. She grabs the arrow, sticky with Drogon’s blood.

“Jon! Kick him!”

Jon’s boot connects with the Night King’s stomach. He pushes, falls, lands with a grunt on his arse. The Night King hits the trunk with a thud. Arya aims, releases. The arrow flies over Jon and spears the Night King’s upper arm. The second arrow hits his other arm. He’s stuck to the tree again, too tired to lift even his hands. Jon helps Daenerys to her feet. Only a few steps left. No more bolts. No more arrows. Wights are still trying to get to the Night King, pushing all living fighters closer and closer together. Grey Worm and the only remaining Unsullied are swarmed. Ser Jorah and Tormund fight together, both bleeding and limping. Gendry’s dragged himself into the middle, hand pressed against his wounds. Jon’s now helping Brienne and ser Jaime in protecting Daenerys as she steps up to the Night King.

Arya hears the hissing of arrows before she sees them. “Archers! Cover Daenerys!”

The first arrow misses; the second grazes the side of Daenerys’ head, cutting off a few strands of silver hair. With Longclaw drawn, Jon charges into the crowd of wights in search for the archer. And ser Jaime throws himself forward, shielding Daenerys with his body. Arrows rain down on him. Brienne cries out his name, but more wights are coming, an endless fucking stream, and she can’t stop fighting. Arya glances at Gendry. Still alive.

“I’m sorry,” Arya whispers to the man she loves and rushes to help Brienne protect the woman Arya loathes.

She thrusts and stabs and kicks. Ducks. Rolls forward. Stabs, stabs, stabs. Wights shatter; their weapons fall to the ground. Something cuts her thigh; she barely feels it. Something nicks her forehead. She wipes off the blood and keeps going. Jon must've found the archer, because no more arrows come. And, as if the gods see their plight, they give Rhaegal a burst of energy. He pushes himself to stand and tears a horde of wights apart with his fire. Daenerys has cut through the Night King’s chestplate and bared his chest, placed her pale hand against his blue skin. She presses the bloodied, glowing blade of the dagger against his flesh and it melts away. Even the bones of his rib-cage melt away, revealing thick, black blood and a lump of ice for a heart. And there, lodged inside it, the shard of dragonglass that started this blasted thing.

“Pull it out!” Arya shouts. Something slams into her back and she falls into a pile of glowing embers. She hisses as they burn her cheek and she forces herself to stand, her back aching. “Pull it out!”

Daenerys’ fingers close around the shard and then she pulls. Blue skin turns pink. Black viscous blood turns red and thin, gushing out of his chest. The Night King turns into a man, a regular man. He wheezes, looking at Daenerys with so much pain in his eyes, so much confusion, and then the little life still clinging to him leaves. Everything around them stills. The wights shatter, every single one of them. The man who once was the Night King is dead for true, his head hanging, his body speared to an old, strong tree whose roots soak up his lifesblood.

Arya collapses. Tears run down her face. Now she feels everything. The pain throbbing in her thigh, her back, her cheek, her every fucking muscle. How bleeding tired she is. Brienne falls to her knees by ser Jaime’s side. She’s bawling, her hands fluttering over his face, over the arrows sticking out of his body like horrible little trees.

“Enough with the tears, wench.” Jaime smiles at her, a weak, tired smile full of love. “I’d rather have a kiss. Can’t you spare a dying man a kiss?”

“You’re not going to die. I’ll take you back to Winterfell. The Maester--”

“There’s no time.” He blinks slowly, as though he’s struggling against the pull of unconsciousness. “If it’s your honor you worry about”--he groans, face scrunched up with pain-- “you should know I never kiss and tell.”

Brienne sucks in a shuddering breath. Jaime fumbles after her hand. She leans forward.

Arya turns away to give them privacy. Ser Jaime’s right. There is no time. Not for anyone. Not for him, or Gendry, or Tormund. She needs help as well. Probably Jon as well, wherever he is. If he still-- No. He is. He must be. Either way, it’ll take them hours to get back to Winterfell on foot. Unless… Movement catches her eye. Jon's silhouette is limping closer to her. She breathes out in relief.

“Jon! Can you ride Rhaegal?”

He looks up at the beast. Inches closer. Rhaegal eyes him warily but accepts Jon’s careful caresses. However, when Jon tries to climb up, Rhaegal shakes him off. Daenerys turns around without a word. She looks like something out of Old Nan’s stories, a silver demon dipped in dark, dark blood, coming to devour naughty children. The dagger dangling from her fingertips now emits only a faint glow, ever fading.

“Does that work?” Jon says as Daenerys drops the dagger and grabs ahold of Rhaegal’s spines to climb him. “Can you ride another dragon?”

“I’m different.” She sounds as lifeless as Bran. “I’m his mother.”

At first Rhaegal protests, but Daenerys hushes him, caresses his cheek, and he calms. Arya’s running on very little hope, but it’s still there, glowing inside her chest, telling her it’ll work. It must work. Shouting at ser Jorah for help, she runs over to Gendry. Grey Worm joins them, and together, they carry him to Rhaegal. Once they’ve reached the dragon, Daenerys is already seated on his back, and Jon and Brienne are tugging ser Jaime atop him too.

With a little work, they’re all aboard. Daenerys leans forward and Rhaegal takes to the skies. Gendry sits between Jon and Arya, his head leaned against her shoulder. He doesn’t say a word, but she feels his chest moving against her own. Jon sits behind Daenerys. They’re both covered in Drogon’s blood, reeking of it. Ser Jaime groans with pain behind Arya. Sometimes he twitches, his leg bumping into the cut on her--

Rhaegal screeches. He bucks in the air like a wild stallion intent on throwing off its rider. Arya clenches her thighs and holds on, gripping his ridges with one hand and holding Gendry close with the other. Someone shrieks, the sound falling, dying, and she sees an Unsullied plunging toward the ground. Then she feels ser Jaime moving behind her. His body hangs down Rhaegal’s side, head thumping against the scales. If Arya lets go of Gendry or Rhaegal, they’ll both fall, but Brienne’s hand is closed around ser Jaime’s ankle. And with Tormund’s help they pull him back.

Jon turns around to look over his shoulder. “Everyone all ri--”

Another buck. Jon loses his balance, falls. Gendry’s arm shoots out, their hands connect, but at the impact Gendry cries out in pain and drops Jon’s hand reflexively. Jon falls and falls and falls and Arya screams and screams.

Rhaegal dives. Shoots through the air. The wind and the force of it push them close to his back. She can’t see anything. She can’t see Jon. She squeezes her eyes shut and tries not to picture him splattered on the ground. Then Rhaegal lands, awkwardly, tipping to one side. Arya falls off and lands on her back. Oomph . The air rushes out of her when Gendry lands atop her. Gingerly, she rolls him off her and stands, gaze sweeping their surroundings for Jon. Both Tormund and Grey Worm have fallen off as well, but see can't see Jon anywhere.

“Arya!”

Jon’s voice. Arya spins around and there, cradled by the talons of Rhaegal’s left foot, is Jon. Looking dazed and worse for wear but so very alive.

Arya bursts into tears and, when Rhaegal releases Jon, throws herself into his open arms.

“I thought you died.” She buries her face in his neck. “I thought you died.”

“Not yet.” He pats her on the back. “We have to go.” He looks up at Daenerys. “Will he throw us off again?”

Her face is blank and pale, her eyes vacant. She shrugs.

“Fly him close to the ground, all right?”

And so they climb up again and Rhaegal takes off, flying safe and true across the fields, close enough to the ground snow whirls around them. Daenerys wraps herself in Jon’s arms and weeps quietly. Jon lets her, but murmurs no words of comfort. All those things he told her earlier… Lies. They have to be. Arya knows her brother. He only said what he needed to say, no matter how much it pained him--and it worked. He only holds her now because she still controls a dragon.

If one can be relieved and heartbroken at the same time, Arya is. Daenerys still has a dragon, she still has that hold over them, but at least they’ll all return safely to Winterfell. And once they're healed, they can move on with the plan to get rid of her once and for all.

Closing her eyes, Arya prays to the gods that Winterfell still stands.

Chapter Text

The strangest purring sound echoes through the godswood--like windchimes and dragonsong and the clatter of clay urns shattering against flagstone floors. Then, for half a heartbeat, everything is silent. But before hope’s taken root in Sansa’s chest, hope that this dreadful war has ended, the clamor of battle continues.

“They must’ve killed a White Walker on the battlefield,” Sam says. His back blocks most of the entrance and, stuck inside the hollowed tree with her brother and Missandei, Sansa can’t see much except the glare of fires in the dark. “If you kill a--”

“We know how it works!” the Hound shouts. “Less yapping; more fighting!”

Missandei takes trembling little breaths; her body is shaking.

Sansa gives her hand a comforting squeeze. “Breathe with me.”

And then she takes slow, deliberate breaths and listens to Missandei following her rhythm. They have to stay calm. Panic saves no one. Sansa tries to remember the words of wisdom Arya learned from Syrio Forel and attempted to pass on to her sister, something about deer and shadows and snakes. Quick and calm and no fear. No death. Not today. Not--

A loud gasp jolts her out of her thoughts. She whirls around, ready to attack the intruder who’s impossibly found their way into the tree, but instead of a wight, she sees the fire reflected in the brown of Bran’s eyes. At first she smiles, but then she notices how vacant and glassy they are, those eyes, and how his breaths come in short, panicked bursts. When she whispers his name he makes no indication of having heard her. She wants to ask Sam what in the seven hells they’ve been doing, Bran and him, but this is not the time for conversation. This is the time for surviving and to survive she has to focus. Any moment, now, they might have to run or fight.

A gurgling wheeze tells her another living man has fallen. Then comes the whimper of a wolf. Not Ghost. Not Nymeria. She’d feel that; she would. And they’d feel it if Jon and Arya fell. They’d howl out their grief. She clings to that, wraps herself in that comfort, as she adjusts her grip on the dagger.

Someone pushes Sam aside. The Hound’s face appears, eyes wild. “Now!” He pulls out Sansa first, then Missandei, and squeezes himself past them to get to Bran’s wheeled chair. “The crypts!”

Running to the northern gateway would be fastest, but the woods stretching out before them is littered with wights kept in check by Ghost, Nymeria, and her pack. Only the path to the gate leading to the courtyard is cleared. Three guards lie on the ground. The remaining two stand with swords in hand, ready to strike any undead daring to approach. From what she can see of the courtyard, it’s strewn with bodies--but only a handful wights amble among them. They can take on a handful wights. They can make it to the crypts.

Theon’s limping closer to her, panting, and proffers her his hand to lead her to safety. His pale eyes glitter in the firelight; a small, hopeful smile blooms on his lips. She lays her right hand in his, and gathers her skirts with her left hand to run, and then his eyes widen and blood sprays up on Sansa’s face. Something hard and sharp protrudes from his chest. White and red and gleaming. A javelin, the tip of it only an inch from her chest. Theon sinks to his knees, falls on his side. Her eyes flicker up to the gate. There stands a White Walker, his long hair playing in the wind. Something nudges her calves. Someone shouts something. But she feels buried in snow that dulls all sound and movement around her, traps her in its raw embrace. She knows only the White Walker’s terrible eyes, bluer than anything she’s ever seen. Then he raises his hands.

One by one, the dead come alive in a gangly dance, all of them setting those blue-blue eyes on her. Tightening the grip on her dagger, she gathers the little courage she has left and glances down at Theon. If he turns... But he doesn’t move.

“Well, we’re fucked,” the Hound says. “Take care of your brother.”

Cursing under his breath, he grabs Heartsbane from Sam’s hands, and charges the White Walker. Bran’s eyes are still open, but they don’t seem to register what’s happening around them. Missandei’s crying quietly, clutching the dagger to her chest as if it were a talisman rather than a weapon. Sam takes the dragonglass-tipped spear that fell from Theon’s lax hand and positions himself in front of them.

“We’re not fucked,” Sam says. “Gilly’s having my baby. That baby is going to know its father. I’m going to live. We’re going to live.”

Everywhere Sansa looks, there’s fighting. The guards, the wolves, the Hound--but it’s not enough. The wights are coming closer and closer to form a wall around them they’ll never be able to breach. One breaks free from the crowd and shambles toward her. She feels bony fingers grasping at her, paralyzing her. Why is this her instinct? To freeze like a shallow puddle at first sign of winter, instead of raging against the cold like the deep and vast ocean whose surface never turns to ice.

Something flashes at the corner of her eye and the bony fingers leave her arm. Pulling back the spear from the wight’s body, Sam shoots her a nervous grin; a proud grin. But he’s only postponing the inevitable. The undead are rattling closer. The White Walker pulls his sword from the Hound’s stomach and flings him aside as if he were a sack of hay. Wights flow to Clegane, pull him into their savage stream. His screams make her blood curdle. Missandei was right. They’ll die tonight. Sansa fumbles behind her for Bran and touches his cheek. It’s as cold and smooth as ice. She turns to look at him and finds a child peering over his shoulder. A blue-eyed child with torn skin covering her once-round cheeks. Her chubby fingers close around Bran’s neck and it thaws fear’s icy hold on Sansa. Her dagger plunges into the wight’s temple and its fingers slip from Bran’s neck.

A crow flies toward her, the feathery tips of its wings brushing her hair, and she thinks she hears Bran’s voice in the rustle of it, thanking her. When she looks back at him, his eyes are white again. When they die, he’ll be watching the battlefield from the eyes of a crow. Perhaps she should be grateful for it. At least he won’t be in pain. The crow flies past the White Walker, who turns to follow its flight, then his gaze returns to Sansa. His face never moves, but she knows he’s smiling as he stalks toward her. It’s taking him years and years, and yet she can’t move, can’t run, can’t do anything at all, and then he stands in front of Sam. She knows, deep in her bones, that it’s Bran they want. That the White Walker will kill them and grab her defenseless brother. Missandei’s crying so hard she hiccups. In her peripheral, Sansa sees Ghost hurtling toward her, but he won’t be there in time. The guards are dead. The wall of wights is so close she could touch them if she were to reach out. The White Walker lifts his sword. Swings--

And then he shatters. Everything shatters, crumbles. Every single wight falls down in heaps of bones and limbs--and Sam gives a whiny ow and collapses on the ground.

Like a woman pulled from waves trying to claim her, Sansa swallows down air in greedy gulps. It’s over. They won. It’s over. But it’s not, is it? So many dead; so many injured. Sam’s lifeless by her feet. A slash covers his chest and blood is… Sansa frowns. Where's the blood? She drops to her knees and tugs at his jerkin to see the wound. It’s barely a scratch.

“I suppose one of us had to faint, after all,” she says to Missandei. “Wake him up.”

Something dark crawls over the snow by Sansa’s feet. With a gasp, she stumbles back and falls on her bottom. But it’s not a frightening shadow conjured by magic; it’s only blood. Theon! Sansa moves to her knees and feels for his pulse. It’s slow, so slow and weak she can barely detect it against her icy fingertips.

“Theon?”

“Yara?” His voice is faint as starlight and his eyes struggle to focus on her. “Yara. You’re safe.”

While drawing patterns into her skin with his favorite knife, Ramsay liked to go on about what happened to a body when you tortured it. “Be careful when you play with blood,” he’d say. “Spill too much and your toy won’t recover. If it becomes delirious, it’s too late.”

The realization settles in her chest, blunt and cold and numbing. It’s too late.

“I’m safe, little brother.” Sansa caresses his cheek. “I’m safe.”

A whisper of a smile touches Theon’s lips. “I kept you safe.”

“You did. You saved me.”

His lashes flutter and then his eyes clear and it’s as if he sees her, truly sees her. “Get to Jon,” he says, lips pale, blood-rimmed, trembling. “He’s at Castle Black. Get to Jon. To Jon. Go on without me.”

“I will.” Her throat’s too tight and the words come out strangled.

“I’ll lure them away. Go, Sansa.”

Her lips find his forehead and she whispers to him that she loves him, that she forgives him, that he’s her hero, her knight, her savior and protector. She holds him close and rocks him as his eyes stop seeing and his blood stops pumping and she’s drenched in the gruesome warmth of it.

A hand comes to rest on her shoulder, thumb stroking her soothingly. “Sansa? I’m sorry, but we need to wake Bran.” Sam’s clothes creak and rustle as he gets to his feet. “He’s not slept or eaten in far too long. I’m not sure how much more his body can take.”

“Yes.” She nods and gently releases Theon from her embrace. “We’ll wake Bran.”

It takes vigorous shaking and even a slap from Sam to pull Bran out of his warging. His eyes find Sansa and there’s a glimmer there, a glimmer of Bran, that catches her breath, as though their rough treatment of him left the Three-Eyed Raven behind. She smiles at him, because her brother is back , but Bran doesn’t return the smile.

“I have to go back, Sansa,” he says, so very softly. “I have to save them. I’m the only one who can.”

Before the question forming on her tongue can leave her lips, his eyes are white, and she drops her forehead to rest against his lap for only a sigh of a moment before getting back on her feet. She's Lady Stark, and Lady Stark cannot rest yet.

Beneath the rubble of the undead, she finds Clegane clinging to life with his arms wrapped around his stomach.

“The Maester,” she calls. “Missandei. Get the Maester!”

“Fuck the Maester.” The Hound's voice scratches like gravel over marble. “I’m done. End it. Kill me.”

“Let the Maester--”

He steals the rest of her sentence by lifting his arm and revealing the latticework that is the insides of his body. Through the holes and tears, she can see the ground beneath him. Bile rises in her throat and she turns her head away from the mess that no Maester can heal. Missandei stops next to them and sinks to her knees, shows her support with a gentle arm wrapped around Sansa’s back.

“Don’t let Qyburn near me. Just kill me, Little Bird. I’m ready.”

“But--”

“Kill me,” the Hound growls, pressing a dagger into her hand. “Make it quick.”

The world is built by killers, he told her once, and she supposes she is one. After Ramsay, she is one. Perhaps after Littlefinger too. But this isn’t killing; this is mercy. And yet her hands won’t move.

“Do I have to be mean to you? Is that it? Tell you all the dirty things I wish I’d--”

“That’s enough.” Sansa brushes his hair from his eyes and ghosts her fingers down the burn mark covering his face, silencing him with the gentleness that so terrifies him. “You saw this, didn’t you? In the fire. That you’d die saving me. You could’ve left.”

Clegane averts his eyes. “Don’t let her burn the world.” He glances at Missandei. “That goes for you too.”

“We won’t.” Sansa places the tip of the dagger against his pulse point and closes her eyes, gathering strength. It’s mercy. “Thank you, Sandor. For protecting me. For protecting Arya and Bran. Thank you for everything.”

But mercy is so much harder than vengeance and justice, and her hands still refuse to move. But then Missandei’s hands close around hers, and her eyes meet Sansa’s with understanding and empathy. Together, they push the blade into his throat. Blood, warm and smooth like scarlet silk, gushes over her ice-cold fingers like the strangest sort of comfort. Why didn’t she wear gloves? They must still lie at her desk in her solar, forgotten in her rush to warn everyone of the coming undead. Somewhere close by, Ghost lets out a long howl. Nymeria joins in and their howls echo in the hollow of Sansa’s chest and it makes no sense to her at all. Why would they--

“My lady?”

Sam’s voice. Sam who never calls her my lady anymore. Sam, who calls her Sansa. Sam, who’s watching over her little brother. Sansa closes her eyes and braces herself for the horrible words to come.

“I’m sorry,” Sam says and something inside her breaks.

On wobbly legs, Sansa walks up to her little brother. He looks so peaceful with his lips slightly parted and his eyes closed, dark lashes resting against his white cheeks. There’s not a drop of blood on him, while she’s covered in it. She can’t even touch him without tainting him. Grief burns in her eyes, in her chest. Why doesn’t this ever become easier? How can it still hurt so much to lose someone you love? But she can’t give in to the pain. Not now. There’s still too much to be done, too many people to help in the courtyard and in the crypts. Survivors making their way from the battlefield to Winterfell in hopes of care and healing. People Bran’s given his life to protect.

“I’ll protect them too,” she whispers. “I promise.”

Careful not to spill blood on him, Sansa leans down, brushes a kiss to Bran’s cold cheek, and says goodbye.

-----

 

With its many makeshift beds, the Great Hall becomes the infirmary. Able-bodied survivors carry the injured inside, while the Maester, Qyburn, and Sam tend to them. Sansa, Gilly, Missandei, and others who can close up wounds do their parts as well. It’s still dark out. The Long Night must’ve come--and the Night King’s demise must’ve done nothing to break that curse on the world. Sansa should feel tired, but all she feels is a steely determination to help anyone who needs her.

It helps her too. No matter how much her back and eyes and hands ache, it helps her stand, helps her stay awake, helps her keep her thoughts on the matter at hand. And they’re all so grateful to be patched up by Lady Stark. Even the ones she doesn’t mend reach for her, as if her touch blesses them and helps them heal.

Once a guard finally bursts into the Great Hall and shouts about a dragon approaching, Sansa’s so focused on her work it takes her a moment to understand what it means.

But then Missandei meets her eyes across the room, and they rush outside together. Ghost waits for them in the courtyard. Through the slush of snow, mud, and blood, and the people working to clear the courtyard from the remnants of battle, the direwolf leads them to the still-intact South gate. Braziers overturned in the fight have been erected and re-lit, but in the dim light they provide, her ears detect new movement before her eyes do. The sound of footsteps bounces in the gateway. Missandei hugs her arm tightly.

Backing through the gate, comes Tormund. Sansa cranes her neck to see better. He’s carrying someone, with ser Jorah holding up the person’s torso and head. Then comes Arya, limping after them. Sansa’s legs are moving and before she knows it, she feels her little sister crushed in her embrace.

“Gendry,” Arya says. “We have to help Gendry.”

“The Great Hall.”

Before Sansa has time to ask about Jon or tell her sister about Bran, Arya is gone. Then comes Brienne and Grey Worm, carrying an unconscious ser Jaime. Missandei gives a relieved noise and then she’s gone too. Only Sansa and Ghost remain. She stands tall, with one hand nestled in Ghost’s fur, and waits and waits.

Then the light spills over something silver. Daenerys’ hair. She looks as if she’s floating through the gateway, lifted by the arms of a man swallowed by darkness. Jon’s drowsy eyes don’t notice Sansa until he’s so close, she can see the fine lines around them. When their gazes connect, he draws a shuddering breath and nearly drops Daenerys. Staggering back to keep his balance, he hoists her back up to his chest. Daenerys moans; her usually pristine fur coat is black with blood. They both reek of it, and of smoke and war.

“Is she hurt?”

“You’re unharmed.”

“Yes.”

Ghost whimpers, nudging his nose into Jon’s side, begging for scratches behind his ears.

“Bran?”

Sansa's chin trembles, but she suppresses her emotional reaction and shakes her head quietly instead.  Jon’s eyes fall shut and the air rushes out of him. Daenerys nuzzles her head into his neck and murmurs his name, and ugly, petty hate surges through Sansa, screams at her to tear that woman from her husband’s arms so she can take him in her own embrace and hold him as they both weep over what they’ve lost. But outside the walls of Winterfell lies a dragon who feels its mother’s pain. A dragon who’d douse Winterfell with fire and curl up inside the blackened ruins to feast on the charred remains of the people who fought the Night King and won.

“Take me to my chambers, my love,” Daenerys whispers. “I’m so tired.”

Clenching her jaw, Sansa moves aside and lets them pass.

 

-----

 

Somehow, the kitchens keep track of the hours and has food ready around the time Sansa’s stomach tells her it’s noon. The long tables are once more set in the courtyard, and by now any remnants of wights, casualties, and weapons are gone. No one speaks as they slurp their bowls of stew. There’s not enough of them to fill the tables any longer, but there’s enough work for every single one of them and each face is lined with exhaustion.

Once her belly is full, Sansa returns to sewing and cleaning wounds, stroking ointments on scrapes, and holding the hands of those afraid of the saw or the needle. Arya’s curled up next to Gendry, both asleep. He from milk of the poppy; she from fatigue. Someone stitched a wound on her thigh earlier; Sam made her a poultice for the burn on her cheek. As she passes them, Sansa runs her fingers through Arya’s hair. Tomorrow, once they’ve both rested, she’ll invite her sister to her chambers, to curl up in front of the hearth with hot cider and honeycakes to talk about the chaos that’s surrounded them for far too long.

Ser Jaime’s drifted out of his milk of the poppy-induced sleep to chat with Brienne, while she tries to silence him with spoonfuls of broth. Sansa finishes up the wound she’s dressing and moves closer to check on him and, yes, to ask what happened out on the battlefield because she’s yet to learn any details.

“Ser Jaime, respect my choices,” Brienne says, but her voice is soft and her eyes shine like sapphires.

“I do respect them.” The silly grin of a man drunk on more than just pain relief spreads on his face. “I just don’t like them very much.”

“And what choices would you have me make?”

“To combine duty and love. To serve and protect lady Stark, while marrying me and having several very blond, very very tall children.”

Brienne huffs a laugh. “How am I to serve lady Stark if I have to raise babies?”

“I’d raise them.” The brightness of Jaime’s eyes fades to give way for an uncertainty and vulnerability Sansa’s never before seen in him. “You’d only have to carry them. Then we’d get a wet nurse and I’d raise them. I’m done fighting, Brienne. If I survive all these holes in my body, marry me. Or not. We can raise very blond, very very tall bastard children if you prefer. We could go to Tarth. I sailed past it once. It looked like heaven.”

“I’m sure it did. But I’ve sworn to protect Lady Stark.”

“I couldn’t help but overhear," Sansa says. "I won’t hold you to your vows, Brienne. You don’t have to protect me anymore. I have Jon.”

The easy smile Brienne wore while speaking to Jaime falters. “My lady. A word?”

They find a secluded corner where Brienne tells Sansa what happened on the battlefield. She tells her first of Arya’s bravery, of Daenerys’ sacrifice--and then of Jon’s words of love and devotion, of the kiss he gave. Each word stabs Sansa in the heart, and the girl whose dreams were beaten out of her a long time ago, tells her she’s stupid, stupid, stupid. Stupid to believe she even had a chance of being loved, when she’s so silly and cowardly and useless. But this time Sansa refuses to listen to that awful voice that carries notes of Cersei and Joffrey and even aunt Lysa. This time, she refuses to give in to the comfortable discomfort of self-loathing.

This time she decides to trust.

“Thank you, Brienne,” she says. “He said what he had to say. That’s all.”

“He sounded very sincere.”

“I hope he did.” Sansa manages a smile, and the longer she holds it, the truer it feels. “I don’t expect you to understand, but I trust Jon.”

“Very well, my lady. But then--with respect--why are you here? She’s going to hold him to the promises he made her. How long do you have left with him? Days? Before the war, you told me to be with the man I loved, the little time we had left. Perhaps you should take your own advice.”

Sansa looks away, massaging the hollow of her palm, trying not to picture Jon cradling Daenerys in her bed as she weeps over the dragon she lost. “I’m needed here.”

“Yes, so many injured people--and more will come. A lot more…” Brienne trails off, looking out over the busy room. A crinkle forms between her brows. “Where’s Podrick? I’ve not seen him in a while. Have you seen him?” She leaves their corner and walks down the aisle of makeshift beds. “Has anyone seen Podrick?”

A few feet away from her, ser Jorah sits on a bench along the wall, while Gilly’s stitching together a wound in his arm, so deep in concentration she’s oblivious to the conversation. Or what would be a conversation had ser Jorah’s eyes not told Brienne all she needed to know. As Brienne’s face crumples, Sansa has to look away before she bursts into tears herself. She can’t allow herself to cry. She has to be strong. Everyone in this room looks to her to be strong. Balling her hands into fists, Sansa swallows down the grief before it swallows her.

Brienne wipes her nose with the back of her hand, sniffles. “With your permission, my lady, I would like to bring back his remains.”

 

After Brienne leaves, Sansa returns to her work. Whenever she’s patched up one person she only has to turn around to find another in need of her help. People keep appearing in the courtyard, people who’ve managed to find their way back to Winterfell from the battlefield. A few hours past noon, Tyrion rolls into the courtyard on a horse-drawn wagon. Apparently he and Davos were considered a liability and left behind long before Jon and the others reached the Night King. Now Davos lies in the wagon, holding little Lyanna Mormont whose face is marred by an ugly gash running from her hairline, across an eye she’ll never use again, and down her cheek where it ends at her jawline. Davos himself has to be carried into the Great Hall. It doesn’t take long for Maester Wolkan to assess his damages and tell him he’ll never walk again.

“Well,” Davos says with surprising mirth, “I don’t need my legs to be Hand, do I?”

Sansa smiles at him. “No, I suppose you…”

The rest of that sentence fades away--everything fades away--when she notices Jon entering the room. Even like this, tired and bloody and dirty, he’s so beautiful her chest aches. Lungs filled with a breath of anticipation, arms held out and ready to embrace, she moves toward him. But as she comes closer, the hollow look in his eyes wards her off. Her arms drop. She’s two paces in front of him, and he doesn’t even notice she’s there. In fact, he doesn’t seem much aware of anything happening in the very busy room of people rushing back and forth, of patients screaming and moaning. He’s lost in the chaos of it. No, behind it. As though the war built a new wall around him and trapped him there.

His hands are red and full of broken blisters. Scalding dragon’s blood, Brienne said. Sansa cups her hand around Jon’s elbow and ushers him to Sam.

“What can I do,” Jon says, eyes wandering absentmindedly over the room. “Tell me what to do.”

Sam catches Sansa’s gaze and gives his head a shake. “He needs rest,” he says quietly. “We have enough hands here. Take care of Jon. People shouldn't see him like this.”

As Sam cleans Jon’s hands and wraps bandages around them, Sansa finds Lyra and asks her to draw a hot bath in the Lord’s chamber. Then she returns to Jon’s side, hooks her arm with his, and leads him outside to walk to the Great Keep. Still, he doesn’t speak nor does he acknowledge her or anyone else. He doesn’t even react when Ghost bounds up to them and noses his bandaged hands. Once they’re in their chambers, he stands still in the middle of the room and waits while she strips down to her shift and cleans herself up in the basin.

He reminds her of Bran, after he first woke up in the godswood. Unresponsive, staring, slowly blinking. Gone.

“I’ll undress you now, all right?”

In vain, she waits for consent. Then she sighs and removes his sword belt, his gorget and every piece of armor he wears until he’s in his undertunic and breeches. When she pulls the undertunic over his head, he lifts his arms dutifully, and when she lets his breeches and smallclothes drop to the floor, he steps out of them without protest. But when she reaches for the clasp of the necklace she gave him, Jon’s shoulders tense up and his hand close around the pendant, as though it’s the only thing still keeping him together.

“It’s all right,” she whispers. “I won’t.”

As she helps him into the bath, she keeps her eyes on the copper of the tub instead of his naked body even though she’s certain she could stare at him until her eyes rolled out of her head without his noticing. After making sure his hands won’t get wet, she settles on a stool by his side, works up a lather in a washcloth with hard white soap, and starts scrubbing him clean of the war. When she gives his shoulder a nudge, he leans forward until his chin dips into the water and lets her wash his back.

“It’s over,” he says, his voice gravelly as if he hasn’t spoken in years.

“I know. You can rest now.”

When she unties the leather string tied around his bun and shakes his hair free, he closes his eyes with a hum. Running her fingers through the damp tresses, she works out any knots and then washes his hair. It’s soothing work, her fingers massaging lather onto his scalp, winding around his curls. She doesn’t realize she’s singing until Ghost lifts his head and peers at her, as though he expects her to grab the brush and groom his coat.

“Later,” she says, smiling. “We have to take care of Jon first.”

Then she sings again. Some of the lyrics are lost in the hazy memories of childhood, but she sings the ones that come to her, and hums the parts that don’t. Soon Jon’s breathing grows heavy and calm, and she rinses his hair and helps him out of the tub before he falls asleep in it.

Once both his feet are planted on the floor, his arms wind around her waist and he holds her close for a long, long while, soaking up the strength and comfort she offers so readily, while her shift soaks up the bathwater running from his hair and down his tired body. The dragonfly pendant digs into her chest, but it’s a good kind of bite that reminds her they're both alive. Ghost jumps down on the floor, then up on the bed again, telling them to join him, but Jon won’t let her go. So, leading him along, she backs up to the bed, reaches behind her, pulls down the furs, and pulls him with her as she lies down. It registers somewhere in the back of her mind that he’s not wearing a stitch of clothing, but this embrace stirs no heat within her. He’s clinging to her like a child, his arm hugging her waist, his head resting on her breast, his leg curled around her shin. Ghost lies down on her other side and rests his head on her thigh, watching his listless Jon with worry in his red, red eyes.

Settling in, Sansa tucks the furs around them and threads her fingers through Jon’s hair comfortingly while singing to him. They’re steeped in pain and loss, both of them, but as Jon falls asleep in her arms, healing seems a possible thing. She’s almost asleep herself, when someone knocks on the door. She tries prying herself from him, but he’s attached himself to her so tightly it’s as if he can’t survive unless their bodies are fused together.

Thinking it’s Lyra coming to check on them, Sansa calls, “Come in.”

It’s not Lyra. It’s Missandei and Grey Worm.

Missandei’s eyes fall over their entwined bodies, over Jon’s bare limbs sticking out from under the furs, and Sansa's chest constricts.

“My lady,” Missandei says, “our Queen woke up and found Jon gone. She’d like for him to return to her side.”

Sansa could scream. She could howl like the wind, like the wolf that she is, and storm through Winterfell and grab Daenerys by the skin of her neck and throw her out. But she can’t, can she? She can’t do anything. She remembers Brienne’s words, then, and the promises Jon made to Daenerys. Promises Daenerys already expects him to fulfill. That he’ll share her bed, that he’ll be her husband, the father of her children, her consort as she rules. And all Sansa can do is hold Jon tighter and plead with her eyes for them to let her have this moment with him. With her husband. Hers.

Missandei swallows, staring at the floor as she speaks with a wavering voice. “She’d like him to return now. She’s in mourning and she needs Jon.”

Sansa presses her lips together and keeps her head held high and doesn't let go, not ever.

“Please, lady Sansa. She--”

“This is not right,” Grey Worm says. He shakes his head to himself, then takes Missandei’s hands and speaks quietly to her in his own language.

Missandei’s gaze travels between him and Sansa while she takes in his words. Then she chews on her lip, forehead furrowed in thought as she struggles to make a decision.

“Missandei.” Grey Worm brushes his fingers under her chin and tilts her head up so he can look deeply into her eyes. “Please. We can lie, this once. We can lie."

Finally, Missandei nods and then they leave. As the door closes behind them, Sansa’s eyes close too and she feels tears of relief falling from her lashes. Jon is snoring lightly against her, blissfully unaware of what just transpired, while Ghost licks the tears from her cheeks. She whispers good boy to him, rubs his ear, and he curls up by her side to doze off. Snow begins to fall outside her window, the flakes small and glittering like a million stars drifting down from the black sky to bring beauty and magic to the still dark, war-torn North. Exhaustion winds around her like the softest cotton until she's all wrapped up and can't fight it any longer. Breathing in Jon's clean scent, Sansa lets her eyes drift shut and soon she sleeps as well.

Chapter Text

Sansa’s back in the forest, pine needles soft beneath the bare soles of her feet. This time, though, she’s the one on the prowl. But every time she closes in on her prey, he evades her, leads her deeper into the forest. Dragonflies dance in his wake. Through their wings sunlight breaks into a thousand dazzling colors that entrance her, distract her so that he can spin the world around and around until she’s lost all sense of direction. Then they scatter and he stands before her, all clad in black with a winter’s cloak on his shoulders. Though his lips never move, she still hears her name whispering through the foliage like a want too bold to utter. Have me, she whispers back, take me, and he envelopes her, sets her body ablaze with his greedy lips, and she needs him so desperately it would shame her had she not lost her sense of propriety too. Tearing at his clothes, she tries to reach warm, smooth skin, but underneath each layer of wool she finds another and another and another--

Sansa wakes up ensnared by furs and linen and Jon’s limbs. He’s pressing against her stomach, hard and naked, and his face his burrowed into the crook of her neck, her hand cupped around the nape to keep him there. There’s a heavy, almost ticklish pull between her legs; a need to press down or… rub. Seeking Jon’s thigh that’s trapped between her legs, she shifts her hips and grinds down with a swallowed moan.

A snore disperses the arousal fogging her mind and she realizes with both disappointment and the deepest shame that, while she’s trembling with want, he’s utterly asleep.

Carefully, she detangles herself and pads to the window where she rests her forehead against the cool glass. It’s still dark outside, but a scullery maid is lugging water from the well to the kitchens. It must be morning and morning means work.

As Sansa sits down by the vanity to brush her hair, she finds a piece of paper rolled up by the jewelry box.

“I had to leave. I know you understand why. We’ll see each other soon, I promise.”

With a sigh, Sansa crumples up Arya’s note and tosses it in the fire. Her little sister, already back to wearing Cersei’s face. For how long can she be someone else before it sticks? Will Cersei taint her, leave her cruel and unfeeling? Sansa has so many questions, so many things she wants to talk to Arya about, but like everything else it has to wait. She never even had time to tell her about Bran. Sansa’s eyes sting, but she blinks away the pain and proceeds to transform the tired, heartbroken girl staring back at her in the looking-glass into the steadfast Lady Stark.

“Watch over him for me,” she whispers to Ghost, and then she leaves.

 

-----

 

With the Long Night came an unforgiving cold that drove everyone indoors. Only the wildlings keep to their tents, boasting about their resistance to cold while more and more Dothraki and Unsullied cough and sniffle. With Maester Wolkan’s help, Sansa organizes beds for all, in both Wintertown and Winterfell, separating the sick from the injured. Many inquire after Jon, and she tells them he too caught the sickness going around. The news will spread as quickly as the cold does--and squash any rumors about Jon’s mental state. Then she joins Missandei, Gilly, and a handful other women in redressing wounds, spoon-feeding the weak, and comforting the scared and the dying.

“Lady Stark, you are a vision.” Beorn, an older man from Bear Island whose nasty wounds refuse to heal, takes her hand. “A dying man could not ask for a more beautiful sight. But we’ll all die whether you hold our hands or not. You need rest too.”

“There’s nowhere I’d rather be.”

“Lies.” He winces from pain and she helps him to some ale. By now, they’ve run out of milk of the poppy and dreamwine. “Perhaps that Dragon Queen could take over for an afternoon before you drive yourself into the ground.” He squints and whispers, much too loudly, “No one wants her, you know.”

“She saved us all,” Sansa says with a quick glance at Missandei. She is close enough to hear them but keeps her eyes on the wound she’s cleaning. “She’ll be a wonderful queen.”

“Rubbish, that is.”

“Please, you need rest--”

“Rest? And miss my last chance of speaking my mind? Pah. King Robert showed us what kind of ruler a warrior makes. The North is suffering, my lady. It needs a firm but loving touch. It needs the woman who held our Lady Mormont’s hand when they removed her eye.”

The blacksmith, Gorm, who lies in the bed next to them, says, “It needs the woman who comforted me and told me I’d still have work at Winterfell after the Maester took my leg.”

Elna, the woman redressing his wound, nods. “It needs the woman who prayed with the children when they were scared cos the sun never rose. She didn’t do that. Your ladyship did. You’ve kept us fed too, and clothed. My children wear scarves knitted by your own hands.”

“I might be dying,” Beorn says in a weak, wheezing voice, “but a dying man can’t do much else but lie in bed and listen to the whispers around him. You’re the queen the North wants, Lady Stark. You’re the queen my grandchildren deserve.”

Sansa throws another look at Missandei, but she’s moved far away enough that the words she exchanges with her patient are swallowed by the noisy room. It surprised Sansa at first, seeing Missandei’s friendly face among the volunteering women. After a few carefully worded questions, however, she learned why.

When Daenerys and the others returned from the Wolfswood, the dragon was severely injured, even concussed, and the hours long flight back to Winterfell had drained him of the little energy he had left. He was close to perishing before Qyburn weathered the cold and spent the evening caring for the beast. Since then, both he and Daenerys have tended to his needs and his hunger, with Daenerys sending out men into the dark to hunt elks, deer, and bears for her child to eat.

Which has left Missandei able to offer her services and, if Sansa’s suspicions are correct, to find out how the people truly feels about their new queen.

Will Missandei tell her the truth, though?

Despite what they went through together in the godswood, despite Missandei’s promise to lie about Jon, Sansa knows better than to trust her. Once upon a time, she sat in an inn, with someone horrible and manipulative, and rejected an offer of help from another woman because she was too scared to trust someone new.

Sansa is no Brienne, however. While she does care for Missandei, this is winter, and in winter the pack protects their own. And a spy can be fed the wrong information.

At noon, when the kitchens serve blood sausage, fish soup, and bark bread, Sansa invites all the volunteering ladies to her solar to eat in peace--and to make sure she’s seated next to Missandei.

“I’m sorry about the food,” she says between bites. “I hope the shipment from Dorne arrives soon.”

“As do I, my lady.” Missandei cuts off the smallest bit of sausage and chews it primly, features set in the polite mask she always wears around others. “This is perfectly fine, though.”

“You’re too kind. What dish do you long for the most?”

“I haven’t given it any thought.”

“Well, I miss lemoncakes. They’re my favorites. Perhaps we can have them the next time we knit together, you and I and Gilly?”

“That sounds very pleasant, my lady.”

Sansa holds back a frustrated sigh. “That scarf you were working on, is it for Grey Worm?”

Finally, Missandei’s mask cracks and a genuine smile spreads on her lips. “It is.”

“I’m sure he’ll look very handsome in it. I’m so happy he wasn’t badly injured in the battle.”

“Thank you. I’m… I’m happy Jon wasn’t either.” Missandei breaks off a piece of bread and brushes the crumbs off her fingers onto her plate. “How is he doing? I hear he has a cold. I hope you won’t catch it, my lady, with you sleeping in the same bed and all.”

Her voice is too airy to be innocent, and Sansa hears the real question loud and clear.

“Yes, he does have a cold. Not a bad one, but Ghost is so worried he’s taken to sleeping between us. Isn’t that just too adorable?”

Missandei peers at her. “Between you?”

“Yes..” Sansa lets out a bright laugh. “It’s quite crowded in bed. I almost fell out this morning.”

“I hope he makes a swift recovery, my lady.”

When Missandei returns her attention to her food, so does Sansa, hoping the lie makes its way back to Daenerys and earns Jon a few more days to renew his strength in peace. She’s almost done with her plate when Elna asks her whether she’s heard the The Queen of Winter, a song composed by her brother. While Sansa has not, a few other ladies in the room have, and together with Elna they sing about the Queen whose winter eyes and frosty beauty belie the warmth of her touch, which heals all wounded bodies, and the warmth of her voice, which heals all wounded souls. As the last note rings out in the room, Sansa has to brush away a tear.

But, although she is touched, it frightens her too, this reverent loyalty her people hold for her. She remembers a wedding, long ago, when a bard sang of the Battle of Blackwater and another Queen’s courage. It was all lies, of course, because Sansa had been the one who’d comforted the terrified ladies, not Cersei, but she learned then that a lady cannot outshine the Queen. So when the women leave her solar, she motions at Elna to stay behind.

“Tell your brother the song warmed my heart.” She presses three gold dragons into Elna’s hand. “And tell him I’d consider it a personal favor if he were to compose another song, about the Dragon Queen’s bravery.”

With knitted brow, Elna regards Sansa for a moment, but then her concerned expression smooths into determination. “I will. Thank you, my lady."

With a tray of soup and bread in her hands, Sansa returns to her chambers. She finds Jon still in bed, curled up on his side with his face buried in the pillow, but Ghost has left which means Jon is at least present enough to see to his direwolf’s needs. She puts the tray on the nightstand and strokes his shoulders with light fingers, gooseflesh spreading across his skin.

“Are you awake?” Curls of steam rise from the bowl, and she waves at them so that the scent wafts to him. “I brought soup.”

“Not hungry.”

“You have to eat. Please?”

With gentle hands and murmured encouragements, she coaxes him to sit. The pendant slides down to rest over his breastbone and the furs fall to his lap, revealing wiry black hair she quickly covers up.

“Do your hands hurt?”

When he shakes his head, she wraps his hands around the bowl and brings it to his lips.

“Drink.”

“Arya,” he says against the lip of the bowl. “She was injured.”

“She’s fine. A flesh wound, that’s all.”

Jon nods and takes a sip. Falling asleep still wet from the bath has left his hair a tangled mess, so after he’s finished the bowl, she works the knots out with her fingers. Once it’s soft as wool, she looks over his hands, cleans them, strokes ointment over the burned skin, and replaces his bandages with fresh ones. Whenever she glances at his face to ensure she’s not hurting him, she finds his expression unchanged--and with each time, her chest aches more and more.

“Would you like me to help you into your sleepwear?”

He shrugs and lies back down, on his side. Staring at the bruised canvas of his back, she remembers a lonely little girl trapped in a tower with no one to hold her as she grieved. How lonely she was then--and perhaps she is, still--but Jon needn’t be.

She nudges his shoulder, and when he makes room for her, lies down beside him with her arm tucked around his waist.

“I’ll stay for a little while,” she murmurs. “I wish I could stay all day, but they need me.”

“Would you…” he trails off, swallows. He’s silent for a beat, then, “Sing. Would you?”

So she sings for him, songs of spring and summer, and holds him as his breathing grows deep and slow. Then she returns to her work in the infirmary and stays there until Maester Wolkan quite firmly orders her to go to bed before she collapses. Every part of her aches, her feet and back especially, and she has a bath drawn in her chambers, where she scrubs every part of herself until the stink of death clinging to her skin is replaced with the scent of soap. Every so often, she glances at Jon, who’s once more guarded by Ghost, but he never stirs. Not until she’s slipped into her nightgown and crawled into bed. Then he snakes his arm around her waist, tugs her flush to his body, and noses her neck--and all she can think is that he’s still naked. It sparks a flame deep within her, and her body begs for his hand to wander, his lips to wander, but he remains still, soft against her hip, ever asleep.

His hand remains burned.

What is wrong with her? He’s injured and depressed--and she’s nothing but depraved.

Perhaps the lie she told Missandei would be better as a truth.

Sansa withdraws from Jon’s embrace and has Ghost sleeping between them. It doesn’t take long for Jon’s arm to wind around Ghost instead, and she’s free to clear her mind of sordid thoughts. But as she closes her eyes and tries to think of nothing, her mind is flooded by memories of Bran’s pale face and Theon’s unseeing eyes and the Hound’s lifesblood drowning her hands, and the dreams that follow are so much worse.

The next day she plods through fog and fragmented songs of two different queens, never lingering in once place for long enough to hear more than a verse. Before noon, the Dragon Queen herself seeks her out and asks her to gather the surviving bannermen, and from the content look on Daenerys’ face Sansa knows her trick is working.

With most rooms occupied, they squeeze themselves into her solar, and listen to Daenerys’ tale of her great sacrifice. Behind her stands her retinue, that now seems to include Qyburn, with Tyrion closest to her. For once he doesn’t smell as if he spent the night in a wine cask, and save the fading bruise beneath his eye, he looks rather well. Proud, even, the hand pin on his puffed-up chest polished to a shine.

Sansa only listens with one ear. She’s already heard the story, from a more sensible source--a source who stands by the door with a watchful eye on Daenerys and her hand on the hilt of Oathkeeper--and her thoughts wander to Jon instead. What other tales can she weave to keep him where he is?

Once Daenerys is done, she stands back with a satisfied expression and waits for a reaction. Some of the bannermen exchange glances. Lyanna Mormont glares at Daenerys, the gray eyepatch covering her empty socket increasing her ferocious quality, while Yohn Royce shoots Sansa a look. When she nods discreetly at him, he rises from his seat and clears his throat.

“My Queen,” he says to Daenerys, “words cannot express how grateful we all are for your heroic deed. Many in this chamber know the pain of losing a child. None of us envy what you had to do. If any of us still harbored doubts about your strength before going into battle, now none of us does. I think I speak for all of us when I say: never has it been more clear why so many have chosen to follow you. And why we should as well.” He lifts his cup of ale in her honor. “To our Queen!”

Someone bangs their cup into the table and soon more follow. They murmur, “hear, hear,” bang their cups a tad harder, and even stomp their feet, and despite the initial half-heartedness and confusion so obvious to any Northerner, Daenerys laps up every sign of adoration until she stands as tall as a tower. Once she’s drunk her fill, she silences the moderate din with a gentle hand-gesture.

“I know we’d all like to celebrate our victory, but there’s still one enemy left: Cersei Lannister. We cannot allow that woman to control the crown any longer. But I came here to save the North, not see fathers, husbands, and sons perish on the battlefield. I see you, my friends, how battle weary you all are--and I assure you, no one wants another war less than I do. But I have good news. Along with my advisors, I have worked tirelessly to protect the people of the North and prevent another war from happening. We will succeed in removing Cersei from the throne without unnecessary bloodshed, and soon Westeros can heal again.”

A stunned silence fills the room. With her lady mask in place, Sansa glances at Qyburn. It must be all according to Arya’s plans--or has he switched sides? He meets her gaze with a creepy smirk that tells her nothing.

Once more, Yohn Royce stands. “Your Grace, if you don’t mind my asking, how are you to accomplish that? Will you burn down her camp and be done with it?”

“No.” Daenerys folds her hands, and Tyrion stands even taller. “I will no longer use my dragons-- dragon to burn people, not even my enemies. I don’t want the world to look at my only remaining child and be filled with fear. I want them to be filled with wonder.”

“Very wise, My Queen.”

Daenerys rewards Royce’s praise with a warm smile. “A summit will be held at Cersei’s camp. Well, that’s what Cersei believes. In reality, we will hold a trial for her and she’ll finally pay for all the crimes she’s committed against the realm. I have gathered you here today to invite you to join us at the trial.”

“That all sounds very good in theory, Your Grace,” lady Mormont says. “But what about her allies? What about the Mountain? I hear he can rip a man’s head clean off.”

“Oh, that won’t be a problem, my lady.” Qyburn’s voice whispers like silk over stone. “Yara Greyjoy has only pretended to be loyal to Cersei. And ser Gregor obeys me, not the Mad Queen, and as you can clearly see, I now serve someone else.”

“Lady Sansa, did you know about this?”

“I did not. But please don’t blame our Queen for keeping me in the dark. As you all must’ve noticed by now, every wall at Winterfell seems to have grown both eyes and ears. Even I struggle to find a safe chamber in which to converse. But now that we’ve all been informed, I must implore you to keep this information to yourselves. Not even your wives can know.” She catches Yohn Royce’s gaze. “It’s imperative that not a word of our scheming reaches the Mad Queen’s ears now that such an elaborate trap has been laid.”

“We understand, my lady,” Royce says with a nod and she knows he understands her perfectly. “None of us will breathe a word of this.”

As they all filter out of the room, Sansa exchange kind words with each one of them, inquiring after the health and recovery of their family members. Daenerys and her retinue linger, watching her, and once they’re alone, Daenerys walks up to Sansa with a sugary smile on her face.

“You mustn’t be upset with me, Sansa, for scheming behind your back.”

“I’m not, Your Grace.”

“The reticent nature of you Northerners takes a while to get used to, but it’s become quite endearing to me.” She laughs behind closed lips. “Only a Northerner would celebrate their savior in such a tempered manner.”

“True. We are reticent, but I did hear songs about you this morning. Beautiful, heroic songs that speak of the respect, love, and gratitude the people have for you.”

“Mm. I heard songs about you as well.”

Sansa shakes her head with a shy smile. “The North loved my father dearly, Your Grace. As Eddard Stark’s daughter, I will always be the North’s daughter, and they’ll sing my praise even when I’ve done little to deserve it. Your songs, however, are earned.”

“Yes, I have noticed how protective they are of you.”

“All because of my father. You know, he always said Northerners are different. More loyal and suspicious of outsiders--and yet, here they are, raising their cups in honor of a Targaryen ruler.”

Tyrion nods. “It takes a remarkable woman to change the minds of these surly Northerners.”

“Flattery? This early in the day?” Daenerys quirks an eyebrow at her Hand. “You spoil me. My apologies for being absent lately, Sansa dear. But I assure you, I have not been idle. Nor have my men. Those eyes and ears of which you speak won’t linger long on your walls. I promise you that.”

“Thank you, Your Grace.”

“You’ve not been idle either, have you? Wherever I go, I hear about the attentive Lady Stark who neither seems to eat nor sleep. You must be exhausted.”

“I am quite tired. How kind of Your Grace to notice.”

“Now that I have more time on my hands, please, allow me to relieve you of some of your duties. I’d like to get to know the people I’m to rule.”

“A splendid idea. Will you also take Jon off my hands?”

“Is he being troublesome?”

“Not at all. As any good wife, I love caring for my husband. I only meant to ask whether Your Grace wanted to--now that my bannermen are warming up to you--bring Jon to your chambers.”

“Wouldn’t that be an insult to the eldest daughter of their beloved Eddard Stark? Surely, not even you are so naive as to think they’d be happy about that? They’d feel… played. No, my relationship with the North is still much too delicate and I’m afraid you must participate in this mummer’s farce a moment longer. Cersei needs to be dealt with first, then we’ll see to the annulment of your marriage.”

“Of course, Your Grace.” Sansa suppresses the smile of relief tugging at her lips. “I wasn’t thinking.”

Daenerys huffs her contempt through her nose. “How is Jon? I hear he has a cold.”

Staring at her feet, Sansa fidgets with her sleeve. “I lied, Your Grace. Jon does not have a cold. We lost our brother. Jon is not taking it well. It’s only him, Arya, and myself left now. And Arya… She ran away with Nymeria. She always runs away when things get difficult.”

Daenerys’ draconic sharpness softens into genuine concern. “Not taking it well?”

“He mostly sleeps. He’s sometimes unresponsive. Sam thought it best people didn’t know, and I agree.”

Her eyes widen, bottom lip quivering. “My first husband... “ Daenerys swallows. “Unresponsive in which way? Is he… catatonic?”

“I’m sorry, Your Grace. I didn’t mean to alarm you. He eats, drinks, uses the chamberpot. He’s mourning, that’s all. Sleeping away the pain.”

Daenerys nods slowly, stroking the dragon ring on her finger. “I must visit him.” She lifts her head to look at Sansa. “Alone.”

 

-----

 

The godswood lies quiet and still, cast in the glow of braziers still burning where Bran once sat and gave his life for the North. Once she learns how, Sansa will tell her people and they’ll sing of his bravery too. The blood spilled that night is all gone now, covered up by the constant precipitation, as are the tracks of Bran’s chair. Ser Davos has it now. Sometimes Sansa hears it rolling down the hallway and her heart picks up its pace and a smile blooms on her face--and then Davos rounds the corner and breaks her heart. He’s come to avoid her because of it, she knows, giving her that small kindness.

Bundled up so well only their eyes and the tips of their noses can be seen among all the wool and fur, Sansa and Brienne sit by the roots of the heart-tree. Brienne is sturdy and warm against her side and it’s the most comfort she’s gotten in days, completely free of demands and duty, and she can’t help but lean closer. Because while people speak of the steadfast Lady Stark whose strength holds up the very walls of Winterfell, Sansa’s strength is ebbing. Only out here, in the gelid everlasting night, in the company of someone she trusts completely, can she find a moment of solace. A moment of being merely Sansa.

“Those songs about her, springing up so suddenly… Quite suspicious, wouldn’t you say, my lady?”

Sansa grins into the shawl wrapped around her head. “Very suspicious.”

“Have you heard the ones they sing about you?”

“Yes. How my cold demeanor belies a warm nature or something of that sort.”

“Well, yes, but haven’t you heard the verses about how the Dragon Prince melted the ice that had formed around the Queen of Winter’s heart after all the losses she’d suffered?”

Sansa pulls back her shawl a touch to better see Brienne. “What are you talking about? That sounds more like how Daenerys beat the Night King.”

“You’ve changed, since marrying him. I had my reservations at first, I’ll admit that. I didn’t want yet another man to take advantage of you. But, despite everything, despite that woman, you seem… different. There used to be this wall around you, but now… Forgive me, my lady; I’m being too frank.”

“You’re not. Jon makes me feel safe.”

Brienne’s eyes crinkle with a kind smile. “I’m happy for you. And a little worried. How is he, really? Were you telling her the truth?”

Sansa nods. “Sam said he should’ve expected it. Jon’s been fighting this war ever since he left home. For years, defeating the Night King has been his reason for living, for fighting, for getting up after every defeat, no matter how tired he was, no matter how impossible everything seemed, and now…”

“He’s lost his purpose.”

“He didn’t think he’d survive. He never planned further than that. And then Bran... Another brother he failed to protect. I’d sleep too.”

Brienne looks up at the inky sky. “And this perpetual night can’t help. I wish the sun would return.” She sighs and brushes a snowflake from her lashes. “I can’t stop thinking about Podrick. Every time I close my eyes I see his funny little face. All those freckles…”

“I’m so sorry, Brienne.”

Brienne sniffles. “I was so consumed with worry about ser Jaime, I didn’t even notice I’d lost him. I suppose that’s what love does to you. It blinds you, shifts your priorities. The Kingsguard, the brothers of the Night’s Watch, they swear it off for a reason, and I believe it’s a sound reason. How can I serve you when I- when I...”

“When you’re wondering what it would be like to marry ser Jaime and have those blond, very tall children after all?”

“I made an oath, my lady, and I intend to keep it.”

“The war is over and I have Jon. Perhaps your priorities should shift.”

“Forgive me, my lady, I mean no disrespect, but it seems to me there’s yet another war to be won. Well, two, really. You need me now more than ever. This summit… I have a bad feeling about it. Has it ever occured to you that Daenerys has two things Cersei wants? Jaime and you. And soon we’re all riding straight into her camp. Why would you go? You didn’t go to King’s Landing.” Brienne shakes her head. “Something’s brewing, I know it. And that man, Qyburn, where do his loyalties really lie? I overheard something, between him and Varys. He’s exhausted his supplies, he said, he can’t make the sedative. Then Varys said it didn’t matter. They have another solution. It sounds to me like they’re working with Cersei.”

“Did you notice what I said to Yohn Royce? About the Mad Queen.”

“I did notice that.” Brienne regards her with narrowed eyes. “Are you working with Cersei?”

Sansa fidgets with the fringed hem of her shawl. “In a way.”

“This is a dangerous game you’re playing, my lady.”

“I’m not the one playing it. Arya is. She hasn’t run away. She’s protecting us.”

Brienne’s frown deepens--only to smooth out with a gasp as she makes sense of Sansa’s revelation. “Who knows?”

“Very few people. Not even Jon knows. He doesn’t know what she can do. Barely anyone does, so you can’t tell anyone.”

“But Jaime-- His child.”

“You can’t tell him, Brienne. Do I have your word?”

Brienne averts her eyes but nods. “You have my word.”

 

-----

 

When Sansa returns to her chambers, Daenerys is still there. As is Ghost, who occupies the rest of the bed as though to deter Daenerys from lying down. Instead she sits on a chair by the bed, holding Jon’s hand, and when she looks up at Sansa, tears glisten on her cheeks. It’s not anger or jealousy Sansa feels then, but pity. Pity for this young woman whose sacrifice will earn her nothing, whose love is given to someone who doesn’t want it, and whose allies are abandoning her. Pity, for this woman has no idea how people truly feel about her.

Sometimes it frustrates Sansa that Arya doesn’t let her in on her plans; sometimes, like now, she thinks it’s for the best.

“Is he asleep?” Sansa asks, and for the first time she speaks to Daenerys in her own voice, without titles or pretense.

“Yes.”

“Would you like to stay a moment longer?”

“You wouldn’t mind?”

Sansa shakes her head. “Ghost, to me. Let’s brush your coat.”

Humming to herself, Sansa settles down on the floor and directs her full attention to caring for Ghost. She grooms him, rubs his ears, his belly, and gives him kisses. Every now and then she feels Daenerys’ eyes on her, but she ignores it. If Daenerys wants her to leave, she’ll have to say it out loud.

“Sansa?” she says, and Sansa takes a deep breath, preparing herself for standing her ground. “Has he spoken to you at all?”

Sansa deflates with a loud exhale. “Very little.”

“He’s barely said a word to me,” Daenerys whispers in the voice of a little girl. “And now he just sleeps and sleeps. We have to help him. How can we help him?”

With trembling fingers, she brushes a lock of hair from Jon’s forehead, and Sansa can’t help but feel for her. In this moment, they are merely two young women loving the same broken man, and that should make them allies, not enemies, shouldn’t it? No matter her flaws, Daenerys is still Jon’s kin, and her love for him strong and real.

But then steel creeps into Daenerys’ voice, cutting away the empathy for her that has formed in Sansa’s heart. “You should’ve told me sooner. You’ve kept him from me, when he’s needed me.” Daenerys sets her blazing eyes on Sansa. “Why is he naked? Whose is this pendant? It’s yours, isn’t it?”

“It was my aunt Lyanna’s. His mother. He’s been wearing it for good luck.”

“That doesn’t explain his nakedness. You want him for yourself. Don’t bother denying it. I know you do.” Daenerys waits for a reply, but when Sansa gives none, says, “Well?”

“You told me I shouldn’t bother denying it, but a denial is the only answer I have to give you.”

Daenerys scoffs. “Do you take me for a fool? Do you think I can’t see what you’re doing? And not just with him. With Missandei as well. You don’t care for her; you only want her because she’s mine. Just as Jon is mine. Mine. You're a fool to think you can steal them from me.”

“If my stealing them is so preposterous to you, then why are you so upset?”

Daenerys rises from her chair and stalks closer, looming over Sansa. Ghost’s muscles twitch against her side, so she lays a calming hand on him to keep him still.

“It must be difficult for you,” Daenerys says, “hearing the songs they sing about me--their savior; their Dragon Queen--when you’re used to being the only queen they want. Is that why you don’t want me with Jon--or are you simply in love with him? You are, aren’t you?”

Sansa’s heart beats steadily, truly, and calm settles in her chest, suffusing her whole being. “If I were, you wouldn’t make it out of the North alive.”

Daenerys lifts her chin, mouth curved into a wry smile. “And there she is, the Lady-Wolf of Winterfell. I’m pleased to finally make your acquaintance. Ooh, so wild and fierce. Threatening her Queen. Have you forgotten that’s treason? I’m sure Rhaegal wouldn’t mind reminding you.”

“I’ve not threatened you. I said, ‘If I were.’ Do keep up.”

“What do you want, Sansa? You do want something, don’t you? And if it’s not Jon… Is it the North you want? Would you like to be queen of it?”

“If I did, would you let it go?”

“I’m the rightful Queen of the Seven Kingdoms. The North is one of those kingdoms. I won’t ever change my mind about that.”

“I didn’t think you would.”

“Then why are you showing me your true colors after all this time?”

“Because I’m exhausted. I’ve not had the luxury of hiding from my duties and I have no energy left to pretend. But, perhaps, once the rightful Queen of the Seven Kingdoms decides to grace the infirmary with her presence, I’ll once more have the energy to pretend.”

“Hm, I can’t decide whether you’re brave or incredibly foolish. Have you forgotten who I am? One word from me, and you’ll die screaming.”

“Interesting words coming from a woman who only hours ago claimed her dragon would no longer burn people alive.”

“My dragon, yes.” Daenerys glances at the bed; Jon snores on. Then she rounds Sansa, kneels by the fire, and grips the red-hot grate in the hearth. “I never made any such promises about myself.”

“You won’t hurt me. You need me.”

“I need you? I don’t need you at all.”

“One word from me, and the North will rise up against you. And if you were to harm me, well… Even you can’t be so naive as to think you have their loyalty. They only accept you as a ruler because they think I do. Didn’t you notice how Yohn Royce looked to me for permission before he praised you? Haven’t you heard the songs they sing about me, their Queen of Winter? The North loves me. They feel indebted to you. You do understand the difference, don't you?”

Daenerys clasps her hands before her and walks back to stand in front of Sansa. “Then why haven’t you given that word already?”

Sansa takes a deep breath and averts her eyes, feigning bashfulness. “Cersei Lannister once told me that when a man’s blood is up, he’s not very discerning. I believed her, until I married Jon. You were right. I have tried stealing him from you--and I have failed.”

She looks up, then, and dilutes her fierce demeanor with a dollop of Cersei’s little dove. “I’ve offered myself to him many times, and each time he’s rejected me. Cersei taught me it’s a weapon, and I’ve tried to use it as one. But to Jon, it’s an act of love, and Jon… Jon loves you, not me.”

Daenerys looks down at Sansa with a self-satisfied smirk, the light of the fire dancing in her eyes.

“I’ve been a fool,” Sansa says to her lap. “I was too focused on keeping my family here, with me, to see what would truly make Jon happy. And that’s all I want, for him to be happy.”

Sansa rises to her feet until she’s the one towering over her opponent--and Ghost springs up instantly, growling deep in his throat at Daenerys as he moves in on her. She tumbles back until the chair hits her knees. Gripping the seat, she leans back to put as much distance between her and the direwolf as possible without taking her eyes off his red glare.

“Ghost,” Sansa says. “Lie down.”

Ghost pads back to the hearth and lies down, his head resting on his outstretched paws.

“You have nothing to fear from me, Your Grace. All I want is to be at home, and for my family to be safe. Jon loves you. That means I’ll protect you. And when my bannermen express doubts, I'll defend you. And when you and Jon fly South to rule the Seven Kingdoms, I will stay here and warden the North, and I will do it well. Because the pack protects its own, and Jon’s love for you means you’re part of the pack. I'm sorry it took me so long to understand that.”

She holds out her hand. Daenerys eyes it warily, but then clasps it and lets Sansa pull her to her feet.

“I’m not in love with Jon. I just couldn’t bear losing another brother. But I won’t lose him, will I? You’re his love; I’m his sister. That shouldn’t make us rivals.”

“No, it shouldn’t.” Tilting her head, Daenerys lets her thoughtful gaze search Sansa’s features. “We’re quite similar, you and I, are we not?”

“I suppose that would explain why we keep butting heads.”

“I appreciate your honesty more than your flattery. Don’t lie to me again.“ Daenerys lets her hand slide up to grip Sansa’s forearm. “Truce?”

“Truce.”

Once Daenerys leaves and the door closes behind her, Sansa sags down on the bed with a heavy exhale. She puts her cool hands over her burning cheeks and rubs the tension from her jaw. The bed dips next to her, and she feels Ghost’s nose nudging her side. She should wash up and change into her nightgown and brush her hair, but instead she settles down next to her husband and their wolf and falls asleep.

A knock on the door wakes her. And as she flutters her eyes open, it’s to sunlight slanting through the window and casting a golden belt across their bed. Sunlight. Sansa smiles into her pillow. From the courtyard come noises of horses and wagons and people working together.

Another knock. “My lady?” Brienne calls through the door. “My lady. The summit. They expect you in the courtyard.”

“We’ll be right out!”

Jon grunts and turns on his side, so Sansa nudges Ghost aside to get closer to her husband. “Jon. You can’t sleep today.”

When he doesn’t respond, she rests her chin on his shoulder so she can whisper into his ear, “Are you seriously letting me go alone to a summit with Cersei and Daenerys?”

Jon’s eyes fly wide open. He blinks, breathing in deeply. “When are we leaving?”

Sansa ducks her head to hide her smile. “Now, it seems.”

He rolls out of bed and starts to move groggily about the room. When he reaches the basin to wash, he stares down at his bandaged hands in confusion. With her help, the bandages come off and reveal new pink skin. The impulse to drop a kiss to each healed palm strikes her, but she tucks it away for another day. When she tells him she loves him, she wants him to be present.

After slipping his undertunic over his head, Jon reaches up to lace it--only for his fingers to find the dragonfly pendant. He then reaches behind his neck for the clasp. Though, as he hands the pendant back to her, she turns around and lifts up her hair, inviting him to put it around her neck instead. His breath tickles the fine hairs at her nape and his fingers are warm and gentle against her skin.

“There,” he says, voice hoarse.

She tucks the pendant underneath her dress to hide it, and turns back to him with a smile. But instead of finding a mirrored expression on his face, he only gives her one of worry. His hand comes to cup her cheek, thumb soothing the dark circle under her eye.

“Have you gotten any rest at all?”

“You don’t have to worry about me.”

“Sansa--”

Before his gentleness eradicates all her defenses and leaves her a crying, shivering mess, she slips away from his touch and continues to dress. Lady Stark must still be strong. Not until the final threat is gone, can Sansa allow herself to mourn.

Chapter Text

Arya Stark’s chambers once smelled of meadowsweet and sage, but ever since Gendry, Tormund, and himself were carried there to recover, those small herbal linen-bags kept about the room do little to mask the stink of soldier. Not that Jaime notices it much anymore. But considering the blatant effort needed for Missandei to keep her nose from scrunching in disgust, it must still be pungent. Daenerys, on the other hand, is too distracted by Gendry to notice. He was washing up when they came knocking, and no one could’ve missed the inexorable pull his playing muscles had on Daenerys’ attention. She must be starving, poor girl.

Tyrion rocks on his feet and offers him a smile. He looks kempt and smells of soap, and although he’s not had a drop of wine in days, the sparkle in his eyes has returned. She must be good for him, that Serra or Sarra or whatever the servingmaid who warms his bed is called. Perhaps Tyrion should do his duty and find his queen a bed-warmer too, so she doesn’t have to gawk at the bastard blacksmith.

Once Gendry and Tormund make themselves scarce, Daenerys steps forward with her hands folded.

“I always imagined I’d burn you alive for your crimes against House Targaryen. That once we’d defeated the Night King and your sister, you would be next.”

Brow furrowed, Jaime glances at his brother before directing the incredulous look at the woman who thinks she’s queen. “I rode North for your cause. You would reward that with fire?”

“You murdered my father,” she says in the tone of someone stating the price of steel. “You thrust your sword into his back.”

“Your father was a cruel man. I don’t regret what I did. Thrusting my sword into his back saved countless--”

“You tried to murder me. Have you forgotten already? Let me help you remember: it was after your man tried to murder my dragon.”

Ah yes. Two other cruel creatures--who were attacking him and his men no less--but he’s sensible enough to refrain from pointing it out. Perhaps it shows in his eyes, though, or at least Tyrion can tell, for he steps forward as well.

“What our Queen is trying to say is, up until very recently, you two were enemies. But then…” He looks up at Daenerys with a pointed look beneath raised eyebrows.

“But then you shielded my body with your own. I owe you my life, ser. I am here to tell you that your crimes against my family are forgiven. And that I invite you to stand by my side today at the summit with your sister.”

 

And that’s how Jaime finds himself in a closed winter carriage with ser Davos, the former king in the North, Lady Stark, and the woman he loves, who’s yet to give him another kiss even though she seemed to quite enjoy the first one. Now she and Jon compete in staring holes into the wall while Sansa Stark’s eyelids droop, and Jaime’s left to converse with the too-chipper Onion King. What he wouldn’t give to ride on horseback, but the Maester has strictly forbidden it while Jaime’s still somewhat perforated.

When Sansa yawns for what must be the fortieth time, Jon looks at her with dopey eyes and offers her his shoulder to sleep on. They shift a bit to find a comfortable position--his arm around her, her head snuggled into the fur of his cloak, and her hand curled around the cloak straps crossed over his chest--and soon the sound of her calm breathing fills the carriage. Jon looks positively serene. He keeps gazing down at her hand as if it holds his very heart and he couldn’t be more grateful for it.

They act like children in love who’ve yet to steal their first kiss, and Jaime finds it ridiculous, perhaps a little endearing (although he’d never admit it), and utterly aggravating. Don’t they know how lucky they are?

“You must be relieved. No more rivals.” Jaime waits for a reaction, but Jon only looks at him in silence, sharp as a log. “Greyjoy and Clegane. Gone.”

Jon frowns. “What?”

Brienne shakes her head with a sigh. “You didn’t know. No one told you?”

Even though he can’t see much more than her hair from that angle, Jon glances at his sleeping wife. Jaime sees her perfectly, though. The past few days have taken their toll. She’s pale with dark circles under her eyes and her beautiful red hair has lost some of its lustre. They’d barely left Winterfell before she started struggling against the lulling effect of the carriage’s gentle rocking.

“What happened?” Jon asks. “How did it happen?”

Brienne shakes her head. “She’s not talked about it.”

“Sam’s told me a little,” ser Davos says. “Theon went first. Javelin through the chest. Right in front of her. Then Clegane. He sacrificed himself to save them. Lady Sansa and Missandei had to... “ He gives Jon a sympathetic smile. “They ended his suffering. And then… Well, then your brother was gone.”

Jon closes his glassy eyes and drops a kiss to Sansa’s hair. Holding her even closer, he then goes back to staring at the wall with a pensive look on his face. Jaime feels Brienne eyes burning into him, so he does his best at staring a hole into the wall himself. With their joint effort, perhaps they can let some air into this stuffy carriage.

 

-----

 

At noon, the train of carriages and riding men stop so that they can all gather around a campfire and have a bit to eat before they travel on.

“I’d say it’ll be good to stretch my legs but…” The corners of ser Davos’ mouth lift in a jolly smile. “Lady Brienne, if you would be so kind.”

As Brienne helps Davos into Bran’s old wheeled chair, Jaime gingerly climbs out of the carriage. Every movement aches, but his wounds are mosquito bites compared to the seven hells he went through when that cunt of a goat cut off his hand. The Dragon Queen and her sheep are exiting one of the other carriages. Although Rhaegal’s been circling them, she does not ride it and it’s hardly difficult to understand why. She’ll avoid bringing it to another battle; she’ll avoid flaunting it around a camp which might house another Scorpion. If she loses that dragon too, well… Kneeling to her won’t seem as appealing when you’re not cowering in the shadow of a fire-breathing beast. Instead they’re escorted by a handful Dothraki and droves of Unsullied.

They were such a dull lot in the beginning, those Unsullied, but their time at Winterfell seems to have loosened them up considerably. One Unsullied even mumbles a joke that has the men around him roaring with laughter, until Grey Worm silences them with a sharp command. They spill back into line in a fashion lacking the orderly quality for which the Unsullied are known, but Jaime doesn’t linger to ponder on that. Instead he limps into the woods that stretch out alongside the road to make water, putting ample distance between himself and the camp, so that he can talk to Brienne alone once she seeks him out. He’s almost done when he hears snow crunching beneath heavy boots.

“You shouldn’t trudge through all this snow alone. You’re still recovering.”

He grins at her over his shoulder. “Well, my knight in shining armor is here now.”

“Why did you have to say that? About Greyjoy and the Hound. Why tease him? It was immature and, quite frankly, mean. You’re better than that.”

“Doesn’t it frustrate you?” Jaime tucks himself back into his breeches and turns around to face her. “Seeing them dance around each other like two headless chickens. They can be together, they’re married--no one cares that they were brother and sister once--and yet…” When he sees the stricken look on her face, he stops himself. “I didn’t mean it like that.”

“Lady Stark’s marriage is not ours to discuss.”

“You have nothing to worry about.” He walks closer, but she only turns her back to him. “Brienne.”

“We should head back. Do you need to lean on me?”

“I didn’t ride North for the Mother of Dragons or Lady Sansa. I rode North to honor my vow--and to be with you. I left Cersei for you. It doesn’t matter that we’ve not… It doesn’t matter if we never--my heart is yours. It has been for a very long time. Nothing will change that. Nothing can. Not even Cersei. You do know that.”

Staring at the snow, Brienne nods, but her face remains solemn. Is meeting Cersei again truly bothering her that much? She’s been off all morning, murmuring something about woman’s troubles, but she’s never complained about that before. In his experience, it’s nothing but an excuse women use to stop men from asking questions.

He watches her for a moment longer, but when her expression doesn’t change, he accepts her proffered arm without a word.

 

A fat bullfinch lifts from a nearby birch, its chest brilliantly red against all the sparkling white. Jaime breathes in deeply of the crisp air. Now that the sun has returned, the cold isn’t quite as biting and he can’t deny the beauty winter holds. Under different circumstances, this stroll through a stunning winter landscape might even be considered romantic. He looks to Brienne with a smile, thinking he can break the uncomfortable silence with something innocuous. But now her brow is knitted and she tilts her head as if to listen, brings a finger to her lips. He hears it then, the voices of a man and a woman.

They stop behind a wide spruce and take a careful peek through snow-heavy branches. Jon stands with his back to them, his hand on Ghost’s neck. From his other hand hangs a hare. Jaime remembers another wolf, another master with his hand on the beast’s neck. Ghost is not growling, though, but Jaime can’t help but wonder what would happen if Jon were to remove his hand. Before them stand Daenerys and Missandei, one all clad in white, the other all clad in black, both looking wide-eyed and innocent.

“I only wanted to know whether you heard us,” Daenerys says. “We must’ve sounded…” As she searches for words, Daenerys shakes her head. “Silly. It was silly. She was trying to provoke me, play those games she’s so fond of, so I played. I didn’t know how else to reach through to her.”

“What did you do?”

“It was nothing, my love. A verbal sparring that brought us closer together. Like you men with your fighting. You throw your fists around or play with your swords and then you become friends.”

“My father used to say you find your true friends on the battlefield, but you’re not talking about battle.”

“Men might fight their battles on fields, but women? No, most women fight their battles in the home. We bared our teeth, we bared our claws, and finally got to know one another. I’m your lover; she’s your sister. It should make us friends, not rivals. She said so herself. Aren’t you happy we’re friends, your sister and I?”

Jon sighs. “Aye.”

“We should discuss her future after the summit. She’ll need to be wed once I annul your marriage, sooner rather than later.”

“Who she marries is not your concern, Dany.”

“Isn’t it? She’ll be the Warden of the North. She must make an advantageous--”

She goes quiet when Jon closes in on her, Ghost pressed close to his side. From how he sets his shoulders, Jaime knows the Stark boy is trying to look intimidating, but it has another effect on Daenerys. A flush tints her cheeks a pretty pink and her tongue darts out to wet her parted lips.

“Who she marries is not your concern,” Jon says again, voice low and dangerous. “When she marries again, it’ll be to a man of her choosing. She’s been forced into three marriages already. Enough!”

Daenerys breathes out his name and it sounds an awful lot like begging. But instead of giving her the scraps she so desperately wants, Jon stalks off, Ghost padding faithfully by his side.

As Daenerys watches him leave, Missandei positions herself close enough that Daenerys can reach out for comfort if she wants it.

 “I can barely mention her without setting him off,” Daenerys says, her voice younger than Jaime’s ever heard it. “He’s always so protective of her.”

“As he was of Bran. Remember? He loves you, My Queen.”

Daenerys looks up at Missandei through her lashes. “He lay naked in their bed. Possibly for days."

Missandei moves even closer, speaking so quietly Jaime only catches a word here and there, but it’s enough for him to piece together that Lady Stark’s chambermaid died during the attack on Winterfell, and that the new one isn’t as tight-lipped.

“Their linen is always clean,” Missandei says, looking deeply into Daenerys’ eyes. “And Ghost has slept between them. He’s a good brother, My Queen, that is all.”

Daenerys sighs. “I suppose I wouldn’t know how a good brother behaves. But what about her? She claims she doesn’t love him but… You’ve spent time with her. What is the nature of her feelings?”

Missandei pulls away with an awkward smile, eyes averted. “We talk about other things.”

“You like her, don’t you?”

“She’s always been kind to me.”

“Yes, of course she has. She’s very manipulative. You think she cares for you, but I’m the one who cares for you. I'm the one who loves you. You’re nothing but a tool to her, and now that she and I finally are honest with each other, now that she’s accepted that Jon is mine, she no longer has any use for you. Her behavior toward you will change. You’ll see.”

Missandei ducks her head. “I’m sure you’re right, My Queen.”

“Oh, Missandei. Don’t let it upset you. It’s for the best. She’s not your friend. She never was. Whenever you’ve spent time with her, you return to me in such a mood. Does that sound like a true friend? Someone who only ever upsets you? You’re too innocent. Too good. People like her, they recognize that, they use that. Do you understand?” Daenerys squeezes Missandei’s hand. “Come, my friend. Let’s eat something. It’ll make you feel better.”

Plenty rumors regarding Jon’s supposed love affair with the Dragon Queen circulate Winterfell, but Jaime’s never believed them. He’s always assumed the honorable dolt was too, well, honorable to juggle two women at once. But if honor means Ned Stark lying to the world, to his wife, to protect his sister’s child, then honor must also mean Jon could lie about his feelings to a volatile woman to protect his family.

“Jon and Daenerys are fucking?” Jaime asks once they’re out of view. “Are you telling me the honorable Ned Stark’s bastard has been using his cock to control a queen? I’m impressed.”

“No, he’s…” Brienne struggles to find the right words. “He’s using the promise of it, I suppose.”

Jaime huffs out a laugh. “Someone should tell him he’d save himself a lot of trouble if he used his other sword on her instead.”

“He’d gain trouble, if you ask me. If she were to die, how do you think her dragon would react? And her forces. Her very loyal forces who would love to avenge their queen.”

“Yes… Those Unsullied,” he says. “Have you noticed anything…?”

“Of course I have.”

“And?”

“And it’s nothing we should discuss.”

“What do you know?”

“Very little. I’m starving.”

And then Brienne grabs his arm and leads him back to the camp, mouth set in a thin line.

 

----

 

As the highborn check into the Black Axe, and the soldiers and servants set up camp, Jaime asks for Brienne’s arm so he can take a good look at the area surrounding the inn. Ghost darts past them and bounds off to hunt again, or perhaps to sniff any lingering scent of elephants. If there ever were any. While Cersei might’ve spoken of elephants and horses and the Golden Company, now dents in the snow is the only hint of their tents ever standing on Northern ground. Most of the Lannister and Ironborn forces have left as well, with only a few tents remaining. Something’s not right about all this; Jaime can feel it in his bones.

Once the Unsullied have scoured the place for Scorpions or similar weapons, they all gather outside the inn and wait for Cersei. Brienne seems to find the toes of her boots riveting, so he does his best to look casual, as if he doesn’t care that his sister soon will appear. But when he hears the lumbering of that great undead oaf who always shadows his sister, Jaime can’t help but look up. A black wool cloak hides most of Cersei’s body, but Jaime thinks he can spy the curve of her stomach that carries his child. His child--and everyone knows it. His heart still swells at that thought.

Then a wan Yara Greyjoy appears with Ellaria Sand, and something rotten coils around his heart, deflating it. He can still feel Myrcella in his arms. His first hug as a father. He can still see her smile, her beautiful smile, and then the blood trickled out of her nose and his body moves on its own accord and his left hand stretches out to choke the life out of that demon who murdered his daughter.

“Ser Gregor,” Cersei says, voice as cool as the snow surrounding them. “Keep that traitor away from me and my allies.”

A great black wall of death and decay blocks Jaime’s path. His heart is beating so fiercely he can’t fight the impulse to draw his sword--but then a hand closes around his upper arm and pulls him away from ser Gregor before he’s gotten himself killed. He hears Brienne’s calming voice murmuring in his ear and lets it drain the murderous rage from his body.

Clinging to Brienne’s arm, he follows the others as they walk to a large clearing in the woods behind the inn, where groups of chairs have been set up on three daises in a half-circle. While the sun still shines brightly in the clear blue sky, it has begun its descent. Soon darkness will settle over them--and yet neither torched nor braziers have been set out. A safety precaution in case the Mother of Dragons doesn’t get her way and becomes petulant, he supposes.

Not that it’s the only way she can end it all today. He glances at the sky. No Rhaegal in sight. Cersei can’t be so foolish, though, as to think that makes them safe. Ellaria and Yara take their seats on either side of Cersei, who sits on the middle dais. Jaime watches his sister as her eyes travel over the crowd, passing calmly over Daenerys and her retinue--over Qyburn--and that niggling sense that something’s wrong returns.

But what else is there to do but taking his seat? Perhaps they’ll all die soon, burned alive by a madwoman, but he knows Cersei well enough to know not everything is what it seems. As he sits down next to Brienne on the dais to the left, where Lady Stark, her husband, and her bannermen have gathered, Jaime glances at Qyburn. He’s seated next to Daenerys on the dais to the right, that smirk in place that never fails to make Jaime’s skin crawl. No, that man has not switched allegiances. Jaime will bet his left hand on that--and he’s quite fond of that hand.

From a distance comes the haunting notes of dragonsong. As it crescendos, it pulls everyone’s gaze to the skies. Daenerys even leaves her seat and stands before the daises, waiting for her beastly child to appear. Then Rhaegal’s enormous body blocks out the sun, casting them all in its ominous shadow, and a shiver travels through Jaime’s body. Daenerys, however, smiles up at the dragon as though she couldn’t be happier at the prospect of never seeing daylight again. Snow whirls up from the ground as it makes a landing, and showers Daenerys in a thousand ice crystals that glitter in the sun. Jaime understands then why her beauty entrances so many, but he knows better than most how often beauty masks something rotten.

Scratching Rhaegal’s snout, Daenerys calls out a command in Valyrian, and the Unsullied march into the clearing, forming a ring around them all. Trapping them. But while some of Lady Stark’s bannermen exchange uneasy glances, Cersei’s expression never changes. Yara and Ellaria look calm as well, so Jaime decides to relax as well, just a bit.

“My lords, my ladies,” Daenerys says, “none of us wants another war. There must be another way to end our enmities. My friends, I’m here to tell you there is another way. Cersei Lannister and I have already reached an agreement. There won’t be another war. We’ve gathered here today for another reason. We’ve gathered for a trial. A trial of treason.

“I, Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, the first of my name, rightful Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Protector of the Seven Kingdoms, the Mother of Dragons, the Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, the Unburnt, the Breaker of Chains, accuse you, Tyrion of House Lannister, of conspiring against your Queen and willfully encouraging me to visit Wintertown after arranging for a riot to erupt. How do you answer these charges?”

Tyrion’s eyes flit about like a nervous hummingbird, searching after a face that can give him answers, but almost everyone in the clearing shares his perplexed expression. Not Cersei, though, whose satisfied smile perfectly conveys the delight she feels over finally getting revenge on their little brother.

“My- my queen.” Tyrion slides off his chair and inches closer to Daenerys, gaze gliding to Rhaegal. “I don’t know who has whispered in your ear, but I assure you. I had nothing to do with that riot.”

“No? So it wasn’t that servingmaid you sleep with who spread the news about Viserion? It wasn’t you who made certain Clegane was close by so that Lady Stark would come to no harm? Because it’s her you want for a queen, isn’t it? Every time I’ve asked you about her, about this little dove act she so enjoys doing, you’ve defended her. Don’t pretend you didn’t see her for what she is. You, who pride yourself on being such a good judge of character. You wanted me to fall for it! You wanted me to believe she’s a dimwitted little girl when she’s really the person you want to groom for the throne! Have you told her yet? Or were you waiting for me to fall in the battle?”

Tyrion shakes his head, eyes already watery. “I did not do this.”

Jaime’s stomach is in knots. How many unwarranted trials must his little brother suffer through? He tries to catch Cersei’s eye, to plead to her to stop this nonsense, but she only has eyes for Daenerys.

“I have had my doubts, it’s true,” Tyrion says, “we’ve discussed that, but I did not do this! My Queen, I’m still your loyal servant.”

“Liar.” Daenerys’ lip curls in disdain. “Traitor.”

“He’s not the liar. I am.” Everyone snaps their heads in the direction of the speaker. It's Varys. Varys, who never shows his hand. And yet he stands up, the unflappable look on his face matching the nonchalance in his voice. “Tyrion, old friend, I'm sorry for frightening you. Please, take your seat. We’re not here for you.”

Air rushes out of Tyrion in a trembling exhale and while he staggers back to his chair, Daenerys’ eyes burn so fiercely at Varys it’s a wonder he doesn't turn into cinders.

You. I warned you what would happened if you betrayed me.”

“Yes, yes. I’ll burn for this. I remember.” Varys pads across the ring and, when Cersei leaves her seat, settles down on her chair. “Let’s begin, shall we?”

“Yes,” Cersei says. “Let’s.”

With the Mountain stomping behind her, Cersei walks out into the ring and addresses the people gathered.

“As some of you already know, I’ve lured The Mother of Dragons here under false pretenses. I told her all I wanted was my brothers, the head of one and the hand of the other, and then I would leave for Essos, to raise my child with Jaime and live happily ever after, far away from all my enemies. For the sake of my unborn child. Well, I did try to make her hand over the murderous whore Sansa Stark as well, alas the Dragon Queen refused. I suppose she's at least clever enough to know Ned Stark’s bastard would never love her if she did.”

“You think I believed you?” Daenerys shakes her head with a mocking smirk. “You think I didn’t come here to seize you as well?”

“Of course not. Unlike you, I’m not a halfwit. Unlike you, I plan. Daenerys”--Cersei gestures at Varys, Ellaria, and Yara--”meet your judges. We’re having that trial after all. My lords, my ladies, we’ve gathered today to let Daenerys Stormborn of… Well, daylight is fading and you’ve all heard her many titles before, I’m sure. We’re here to let her answer for her crimes against the realm.”

Daenerys quirks an eyebrow. “My crimes? The throne is mine by right. It’s not a crime to take back what’s been stolen from you. You should be on trial. Varys should be on trial, for plotting against his queen.”

“You’re not a queen. You’re a usurper. You’re a conqueror. You came here to burn and murder and plunder and take something that is not yours--with fire and blood. How many children have you orphaned by now? Lowborn children, who need their fathers to survive this winter. Thousands of soldiers burned to ashes and scattered in the wind just so you could have your crown. Was it worth it? Was it worth the lives of all those soldiers?”

“Soldiers forced to fight for you, you mean? I give the people fighting for me, the people following me, a choice.”

“Ah yes. Bend the knee or die, isn’t it? Perhaps you need that lesson in semantics after all. That’s not a choice, my dear.”

Rhaegal flicks his tail lazily and adjusts his wings, settling in more comfortably on the snow-turned-slush beneath him. Jon shifts in his seat, attention moving between Daenerys and her dragon. Lady Sansa takes his hand, thumb brushing soothingly over his knuckles, but he doesn’t seem to notice.

“But, fair enough,” Cersei says. “If it’s a choice you want… Take your armies and your dragon and leave. Leave the North, leave Westeros, abandon your quest for the crown. Leave and never return, and you’ll live. Stay, and you will be judged for your crimes.”

“You’re threatening me?” Daenerys looks as if she can barely hold back a laugh. “I have a dragon. I have armies. Where are your armies, Cersei?”

“It got too cold for them. I didn’t want them all to freeze to death, so I let them leave for White Harbor and sail home. Have you let your poor armies sail home?”

Daenerys opens her mouth to reply, but Cersei cuts her off. “Don’t bother, Your Grace, I know you haven’t. Now, about that choice… Leave and live, or stay and… Well, I’m sure you can figure out the outcome all by yourself.”

Daenerys rolls her eyes with a contemptuous scoff. “Qyburn, have ser Gregor seize Cersei Lannister and end this ridiculousness. I’m sure everyone here longs to go back inside.”

Qyburn leaves his seat on Daenerys’ dais, walks in quite a leisurely pace to the middle dais, and positions himself next to Yara Greyjoy. “I’m afraid I will do no such thing, Your Grace.”

Shock washes over Daenerys’ features--but then her eyes narrow and she shouts an order in Dothraki. All five of her bloodriders rush the Mountain together. Their blades barely dent his armor and soon two are ripped apart while the other three are bleeding out on the snow.

Daenerys steps away from the blood creeping closer to the hem of her pristine coat. “Unsullied! Kill ser Gregor. Kill Cersei. Now!”

Cersei sighs as if she’s bored. The ring of Unsullied remain unbroken. Even Grey Worm, who’s standing at attention behind Missandei, remains passive. But then ser Jorah shoots to his feet, already pulling his sword from its scabbard, and finally Grey Worm acts. In one swift movement, the hilt of his sword connects with back of Jorah’s head, and the Northman collapses on the ground to the sound of the audience’s gasps.

“Kill them!” Daenerys’ eyes are wide and flaming, her nostrils flared. “Your Queen is giving you a command!”

An Unsullied steps forward and removes his helm, revealing a shaggy, ginger mass of hair and a face full of freckles. “You’re no queen of mine,” he says in a Northern burr. “And I’m no bleeding kneeler.”

Then, one by one, the Unsullied remove their helms. They’re wildings and Northerners, all of them, wearing armor Grey Worm must've provided.

“Oh, dear. All your allies abandoning you?” Cersei tuts at Daenerys. “One could almost be lead to believe no one here wants you.”

“Allies have been taken from me before. You think that will stop me? Perhaps you should’ve said all my titles after all. You seem to have forgotten the most important one.”

Daenerys saunters over to Rhaegal, strokes the scaly skin beneath its closed eye, and Jon’s on his feet instantly, rushing over the blood-stained snow.

“Dany. Please.” He grabs her hand and pulls her in close. “I’ll come with you. We’ll leave Westeros and fly to--”

“Leave? You ask me to leave? I was born to rule the Seven Kingdoms and I will! The Iron Throne is mine!”

Chest heaving, Daenerys turns to Cersei and opens her mouth as if to give another command, but Jon cups her cheek, forcing her eyes to stay on him. “Please, Dany. We’ll go somewhere warm. You and me and Rhaegal. Together. We don’t need the Iron Throne to be happy. We only need each other.”

Daenerys’ mouth curls with contempt, baring her teeth as she speaks. “If we leave, then Drogon died for nothing. Viserion died for nothing! Everything I’ve done, everything that’s been done to me, everything I’ve suffered through ever since my brother sold me to Khal Drogo, will be for nothing! I’m not leaving. The Iron Throne is mine and I take what is mine with fire and blood!”

The dragon’s eyes blink open. Jaime's stomach lurches when memories of Drogon's red-hot maw, of the destruction it left behind on the battlefield, flashes before his mind's eye. He’s too injured to put up much of a fight, but perhaps if they run--

“Rhaegal,” Daenerys says and the dragon rises to his feet. “Dracarys.”

Rhaegal’s mouth opens. A roar shakes the world. Jon shouts something but it gets lost in the chaos of people scrambling to get away from the pillar of fire that soon will engulf them all. Jaime grabs Brienne’s hand and steels himself for the inevitable agony.

But the fire never comes. It seems to dawn on everyone at once, because suddenly everyone is quiet and still, staring at the dragon with a mix of disbelief and hope. Jaime’s eyes move over to Cersei. Calm as a lake on a windless day, she watches Daenerys with detached amusement.

“Dracarys!” Daenerys cries. “Dracarys!” She whips around, bores her eyes into Qyburn. “What did you do? You’ve hurt him! You’ve stolen his fire!”

Qyburn smiles sweetly at her. “I’ve done nothing but heal him, Your Grace.”

“Perhaps he doesn’t want to burn us all,” Cersei says. “Perhaps he’s tired of murdering on his mother’s command.”

“Missandei!” Daenerys waves at her servant to join her. “We’re leaving.”

Missandei’s sitting directly on the dais with ser Jorah’s head in her lap, her gaze shifting between Grey Worm and Daenerys. She’s trembling, her large brown eyes shining with tears.

“Missandei!”

While Daenerys’ attention is turned toward her conflicted servant, Jon keeps his eyes on Rhaegal. His hand move to the hilt of Longclaw, fingers tightening around it. His sword leaves its scabbard. And then the Mountain’s hand closes around Jon’s wrist, gives it a good enough squeeze that Jon cries with pain, and then the oaf pries Longclaw from Jon’s fingers and throws in a high arch, over the ring of wildlings, and into the woods. His fist crashes into Jon's shoulder and the little king falls down with an oomph.

Daenerys whirls around. “Don’t you dare lay a hand on him. I’ll have Rhaegal tear you and that monster apart.”

“You think Jon was protecting you?” Cersei smirks. “My, how precious of you.”

“Of course he was. He loves me.”

“He’s a Stark. The pack looks after their own. He’ll never choose you over uh-- Over them.”

I'm his family,” Daenerys snarls. “Come, Jon. Missandei. We’re leaving.”

“Leave? You think I’d leave with you?” Jon pushes himself to his feet, eyes narrowed into slits. “You tried to burn everyone here alive!”

“They were threatening me.”

“Aye. And your first instinct wasn’t to leave. It was to murder them! All of them!”

“I wasn’t going to burn all of them. Only the people who betrayed me.”

“You shouldn’t burn anyone!”

Jon’s shouting leaves him panting and he’s glaring at Daenerys with so much anger it would leave most women cowering. But she only sets her jaw and closes the distance between them, staring defiantly up into his eyes.

“You’re a fool, Jon Snow. You want to stay here with her, is that it? Your beloved Sansa. You think she wants you?” Daenerys rolls her eyes. “She only wants you because you’re mine. She wants everything that’s mine. You, Missandei, the throne. She’s behind this--all of this. Sweet, innocent Sansa Stark has been working with Cersei Lannister behind your back to murder me, your own blood, and you’re letting them. You’re a pathetic little man. You're no dragon.”

After piercing him with a withering look, she spins around, her long braids nearly whipping him in the face, and strides back to her dragon.

“I’m leaving,” she says, one hand on Rhaegal. “And I’m taking Missandei and ser Jorah with me. Give them to me, or Rhaegal will tear all of you apart.”

“By all means,” Cersei says. “Give the order. Let’s see to whom he’s loyal. You or Jon.”

“You might’ve stolen Rhaegal’s fire, but I’m still his mother. He’s loyal to me.”

But as Daenerys tries to climb atop her dragon, Rhaegal shakes her off. Another try earns her a hard enough nudge of its snout that she tumbles back and falls on her arse with a whimper. Brow furrowed, Jon approaches the dragon slowly. He pulls off one glove and holds out his trembling hand for Rhaegal to sniff. The dragon blinks, sniffs at Jon’s hand, and leans into his touch when he strokes his fingers over its scaly cheek. Jon’s breaths come in short bursts and a smile tugs at his mouth as though he can’t quite believe it enough to give in to the joy.

For the first time since their arrival, Daenerys looks truly afraid. Her eyes flit around, frantically searching for a solution, but she has no friends left, none but an unconscious ser Jorah, and possibly Missandei, who still sits on the dais, looking more than a little lost.

“Trial by combat! I demand trial by combat! Once ser Jorah comes to. Trial by combat!"

“Trial by combat was forbidden by King Tommen, the first of his name,” Varys says. “But, I suppose, we are in the North. It could be allowed here. I’m afraid I don’t know their laws very well now that they’re an independent kingdom. You’ll have to ask the King in the North.”

“Jon bent the knee! This is my kingdom. And I demand a trial by combat! No. As your queen, I demand you let me go!”

Varys nods thoughtfully. “Would you care to explain how, exactly, he bent the knee? I’m sure everyone here would be delighted to learn how that happened.”

“Well…” Daenerys looks at Jon, who’s now back in his chair, next to his wife, jaw clenched and eyes hard. “He called me queen.” Daenerys lifts her head. “He said he bent the knee.”

“But did he? Did he physically bend the knee? Did he swear an oath? Did he offer you his sword? Did anyone witness this momentous act?”

“No, but--”

“No? How interesting.”

“Jon! Tell them!”

Jon glances at Sansa, who takes his hand and nods at him with a small, encouraging smile.

“I never bent the knee,” he says to the ground and a sound of disbelief--of relief--rolls through the people gathered in the clearing. “I lied.” He lifts his head and meets Daenerys’ eyes. “You told me you’d never received a formal education, and I used that to my advantage. I’ve lied to you, about…” Jon heaves a sigh. “Everything. All of it. And for that I’m sorry. I am. I’m so sorry, Dany. I never wanted it to go this far, but my lies protected my people, my lies protected my family, and I’d do it all again, if I had to.”

Daenerys’ top lip trembles with anger. “I don’t need you. I don’t need your help to take what’s mine. You’re nothing to me.”

“Maybe not, but you’re something to me.” Jon stands up, facing Cersei. “I believe in a fair trial, I do, but I’m not sure this is one. Seize her, if you want. Lock her up. Then give her a fair trial. Don’t let this day end with more bloodshed than necessary.”

“And what would you have us do, Jon? Ask her nicely to never invade us again and let her on her merry way? No. You’re a guest here, nothing more. Ser Gregor, incapacitate Jon Snow if he tries to interfere.” She turns to the middle dais. “Judges? Your verdict, please.”

“Guilty,” Ellaria says without hesitation.

Varys nods. “I’ve told myself for too long, ‘I’m not the one doing it.’ But I helped in bringing you here, and blood is on my hands because of it. So, I must help in bringing you down as well. Guilty.”

Yara sets her cold eyes on Daenerys. “I’ve been told what happened in the battle. How it happened. How much time was wasted because Jon Snow needed to coddle you and stroke your ego before you finally did the right thing. My little brother died only moments before the Night King did. If only you’d done your fucking job, he would still be alive. Theon would still be here!”

Daenerys trembles so with fear, now, that her words come out through chattering teeth. “You can’t- you can’t know that.”

“No, I can’t. But I believe it.”

“My dragon died so you could--”

“I don’t care.” Yara shakes her head. “What’s a dragon compared to a brother? Kill the dragon cunt. I don't care whether she's guilty or not. Kill her.”

Daenerys dashes back to Rhaegal, presses her forehead against its cheek, tears streaming from her closed eyes. “Rhaegal, do something. Help your mother. Protect me!” She slams her fist into its snout. “Kill them! Kill them all!”

The ring of wildlings breaks, as two men move apart. In the space between them a pair of red eyes glow, and Jaime realizes with a start how low the sun has dipped, how dark it’s gotten. Ghost stalks toward Daenerys, an ominous rumble coming from his throat, and she backs away from him with her hands stretched out until he’s herded her into the middle of the ring.

“Jon, call him off! I saved you! I saved all of you. I killed my own child for you!”

“Yes, you did.” Cersei glides up to Daenerys like a woman without a care in the world. “For that, I’m grateful. I think we’re all grateful. Thank you for your sacrifice, Daenerys. Thank you for saving us all. Any last words before you die?”

“Jon,” Daenerys whispers, eyes seeking him out, “please, do something. I’m your--”

Cersei cuts the rest of that sentence from Daenerys’ throat, the words spilling out with the blood gushing from the neat slit. Jaime never even saw the dagger. His mouth falls open in shock. Missandei screams and dashes to her queen, falls to her knees beside the lifeless Daenerys who now lies in a growing pool of her own lifesblood.

Struggling to make sense of it all, Jaime watches his sister as she approaches Lady Stark’s dais. The dagger is still in Cersei’s hand, the blade wet and red. She shoots lady Sansa a quick smile, raises the hand holding the dagger ever so slightly as she opens her mouth to say something. A growl rumbles in Jon’s throat and, quick as an arrow, he shoots out of his chair.

“Don’t you dare hurt her!”

Cersei dodges his attack so gracefully, so easily, so impossibly well, that Jon meets nothing but air. Then her free hand shoots out and ruffles Jon’s hair. He stops. Stares at her in shock. He knows, just as Jaime now knows with a sickening certainty, that whatever that thing is, it’s not Cersei.

“No,” Jon says, shaking his head as he stumbles backwards. “No.”

He turns around and runs away, through the broken ring of wildlings, into the woods, and the demon wearing Cersei’s face turns around too, calling after him to come back.

Cersei’s gone. Jaime’s stomach turns, bile rising in his throat. His twin, his other half, is gone and he never even felt it. How could he not feel it? His child. His child is gone. All his children, gone. Tears burn his eyes, blur the world. He sees only grayish white and the fuzzy torchlight coming from the inn, hears only the blood rushing in his ears. He doesn’t know he’s moved until his golden hand slams into the back of the demon’s head. They tumble down together and his left hand closes around its throat, squeezing the life out of that horrible creature that wears his sister’s body like a cloak.

Then he knows only pain. Pain, as someone tears him off the demon who murdered his sister and his unborn child. Pain, as his wounds are torn open and blood dampens his clothes. Someone gasps, coughs. A woman shouts something. But it’s only Brienne he hears clearly. Brienne, who was the one who pulled him away and now holds him in her strong arms and tells him he can’t hurt the demon.

Then the searing pain becomes too much to bear and the world falls away.

Chapter Text

Blood spreading across snow that dusk has colored gray as stone. Daenerys’ beautiful eyes wide open, unseeing. The slit in her throat. Fingers pressed against it, uselessly trying to keep life inside her body.

Sansa. Littlefinger’s gurgling echoes in her head. Sansa squeezes her eyes shut to block it all out, but it only brings forth memories of him on his knees; it only makes her more aware of the cold freezing the tears on her cheeks.

“Your Grace?”

She opens her eyes. Missandei’s hugging Daenerys’ body, rocking and crying. Arya’s sitting on the ground, rubbing her throat. Cersei’s throat. Behind her lies the Dothraki like broken dolls, their stuffing spilled out. Beyond them, Brienne’s tall form carries a limp ser Jaime to the inn.

“Your Grace.”

Sansa gets lost in her own trembling breaths. They come too quickly. Her head feels too light. She must sit. She doesn’t even remember rising.

“Lady Sansa?”

It takes a moment for her eyes to focus. Ser Davos sits before her in Bran’s wheeled chair, pushed by Tormund in Unsullied armor. He knew, then. They’ve all played their horrible part in this. All but Jon. She looks at the people gathered in the clearing. Their drawn faces look too alike in their solemnity, in their shock, in the shadows of spruces and deceit; she can’t tell one apart from the other. Only Yara and the dark-haired beauty who must be Ellaria Sand, both swanning off, sharing secret smiles and looks and touches.

“Your Grace,” ser Davos says when her gaze returns to him. “What now?”

Your Grace... Oh, that’s right, isn’t it? She’s queen now, and yet she’s lacking the pride and excitement of little Sansa who once dreamed of marrying a king. There’s no room for that.

“Ser Davos, please lead everyone back to the inn. Order food and ale. For the Unsull-- For the soldiers as well. Tell them… Tell them we’ll join them shortly. Oh, and get someone to carry the Dothraki to…” She looks around for a solution. “I don’t know.”

“I’ll see to it, Your Grace.”

“And tell them Grey Worm and Missandei are under my protection. Under Jon’s. No one’s allowed to harm them.”

“Grey Worm’s a friend,” Tormund says. “We won’t let them come to any harm. We should lock up ser Jorah, though. I don’t want to know what that old bear will do once he comes to.”

Sansa nods absentmindedly, already moving from the dais. Arya stands now, wiping her dagger clean. Their eyes meet and it’s the oddest feeling, seeing trepidation, guilt, and love in those wildfire green eyes that always either lied or despised.

“Are you all right?”

“He didn’t get a good grip,” Arya says, voice hoarse. “It’s hard, strangling someone with one hand.” She flashes a smile that quickly dies. “I need to take care of her. I need her face.”

“Jon won’t like that.”

“I need to send the armies back to Essos. Grey Worm will help me, but I can’t do it without her face.” Arya purses Cersei’s lips. “I’m not asking for permission. I’m telling you what I need to do.”

Missandei’s still hugging Daenerys to her body and Sansa approaches carefully. She’s barely said her name before Missandei scrambles back from her, trembling like reed in the wind. The blood isn’t visible on her black clothing, but she must be soaked in it.

“I won’t hurt you, Missandei.”

“Don’t touch me.” Her face scrunches up, tears running down her cheeks, spreading along her lips, gathering under her chin. “I lied to her for you. I lied. I helped. I helped.”

She crawls back to Daenerys and reaches for her with shaky hands and whispers something over and over in her own language in such a heart-wrenching tone Sansa can’t stand it. She might not know the words, but she knows the meaning. Guilt. Guilt for a crime she aided in unwittingly. Sansa thinks of Joffrey coughing, collapsing, clawing at his throat; of rushing through King’s Landing, holding ser Dontos hand; of a lethal necklace dropped onto his lifeless body pierced by crossbow bolts. She thinks of Jon rushing off, all alone with no hand to hold, with no one to help him make sense of this confusing mess. Her chest constricts. He’ll have to wait a small moment longer, though. Rubbing her palm with her thumb, she sighs. He always has to wait.

People are being rounded up by Davos and Tormund. Some are warily eyeing Cersei; others won’t tear their eyes off Rhaegal. She wants to tell them they’re all safe, but her mind is a cold and dense mass of white, as clear and useful as a pile of snow. So far, ruling has been challenging but manageable, but how does one manage this?

Grey Worm still stands on the dais, staring into nothing. She’s heard stories about the Unsullied, how they can withstand anything, any pain or fear. How they can do anything without guilt. Kill their own puppies. Take a babe from its mother’s breast and kill it. How do you do that and stay inside your body? When Ramsay touched her, she left. Whatever he did, he did to her body while she was safely tucked away elsewhere. Perhaps Grey Worm has tucked himself away too.

“Grey Worm,” she murmurs, a hand on his shoulder. “Missandei needs you.”

His eyelashes flutter and life returns to his petrified body. “It had to be done,” he mumbles without looking at her. “It was the only way. Now we are free. All of us.” He nods and sets his jaw. “Mhysa was a master.”

She doesn’t stay to watch him and Missandei. The bannermen are gone as are the Free Folk. The Mountain is carrying Daenerys’ body with Qyburn trailing behind, supporting Arya on his arm, watching her with a fascination that makes Sansa’s skin crawl. And there, in the clearing lies Rhaegal, still as a rock, as Ghost pads around its immense body, sniffing at it. There’s something about that green dragon that pulls her in, something familiar that calls to her, and soon Sansa’s crossed the distance between them without noticing. Although she doesn’t remember pulling off her glove, she sees her own bare hand reaching for Rhaegal’s snout. Its eyelid slides over its eye, slow as a content cat. Its scales are warm and dry beneath her fingers. Like her, it carries many scars and she follows one with her fingertip, heart pounding in her chest.

Are you Jon’s?

Ghost nudges her hip as if to say, come, come find Jon. So she puts her glove back on, whispers thank you to the dragon, and follows the white direwolf into the woods. They find Jon under an old oak, his back against the sturdy trunk, his legs bent with his forearms resting on his knees. Moonlight and shadows play over his still form, coloring him black and gray and deepest blue. There’s nothing of the dragon about him. He looks as if he’s a part of the forest: a deceptively handsome creature rising from its very soil to lure maidens deeper into the woods.

Ghost curls up on his right side, so Sansa settles down on his left and sweeps her cloak tighter around her body. Now that the sun has gone, the chill is slowly seeping through her many layers of silk, wool, and fur. Jon’s left hand is still gloveless after he petted Rhaegal. She takes it in her own and wraps her gloved fingers around it, warming it. He says nothing but lets his hand stay in hers.

The wildlings are already celebrating in their tents, the sounds of their laughter and chatting rolling through the woods. Are the bannermen celebrating as well? Is Brienne comforting ser Jaime? Is Arya carving Daenerys’ face off?

“It’s over,” Jon murmurs. “It’s really over this time.”

“I know. We can move on now. Live our lives.”

Jon huffs a breath in an unamused sort of laugh and slides his hand from her grasp to rub the scar above his eye. “Where’s Arya? Do I want to know?”

“Probably not.”

“It’s a lot,” he says quietly. “All of it. It’s too much.”

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have made you come. You needed rest.”

“Sansa… You need rest. I’ve been- I’ve been selfish.” Shaking his head, he exhales sharply. “Sulking in the corner, as always. Even now.”

Ghost buffing against Jon’s chin draws Sansa’s attention to her husband’s face, and in the cold, pale blue light of the moon and stars, she notices tear tracks glittering on his cheeks. He rubs Ghost’s ears and leans his forehead against the wolf.

“What’s she been doing? What is she? How many people has she--” He swallows audibly. “I don’t blame you for not telling me. I understand why you didn’t. I wouldn’t have agreed to this.“ He pulls back from Ghost but keeps his eyes on Ghost’s head, his hands in his fur. “She was cruel. Like it was a game to her. Is that who she is now? I don’t know who she is anymore.”

“I was afraid of her. When she came back. She’s different, it’s true, but she’s still Arya. Everything she does, she does it fiercely. Love and hate. Protect. She was protecting us, protecting you. Not because she’s cruel, but because she loves you more than anyone.”

Jon drags a hand over his mouth as though he can wipe away the evidence of the doubts he just voiced. “I know. I know she does. And I love her. I do.”

“I know.” She wraps her arm halfway around his shoulders. “Can I…?”

His only reply is turning into her, burying his face in her neck, and she wraps both arms around him fully. As though to make sure Jon is in good hands, Ghost watches them with his red eyes for a moment before bounding off. Snatches of songs echo through the woods, wildling voices warbling what must be The Dornishman’s Wife. She can’t blame them, the people whose culture revolves around standing proudly on your own feet, for celebrating the death of the woman who wanted the whole world to fall to their knees. But Sansa can’t share that joy; all she wants is sleep. Despite the kip she got in the carriage, she’s still so tired and Jon smells like home, like curling up in bed with her head on his shoulder and knowing she’s safe.

Her eyes are drifting closed when a thud makes Jon pull back. Ghost is back and by his feet lies Longclaw.

“Thank you, boy.” Jon ruffles his fur. “Well, suppose we should head back. We’ll catch our death out here. Can’t have that.”

Jon gets up, slides Longclaw back into its scabbard, and pulls her to her feet. They’re standing so close their cloaks kiss. Sansa’s heart thumps in her chest and, when their eyes meet, something flutters deep in her stomach. Kiss me, she wants to whisper, kiss me kiss me kiss me. But her mouth stays silent while his mouth curves into a sad smile and tells her only, “Thank you, Sansa.”

Then he offers her his arm and they trudge through the snowy woods side-by-side, Ghost padding soundlessly behind them. Soon a yellow light glimmers between the trees, and once they reach the clearing, they find Arya by Rhaegal, a lantern in her hand. She looks like something out of a song. A warrior princess sculpted from leather and steel, standing in the tracks of a brawl, in the slush of blood and snow. She looks right, somehow, next to Rhaegal. As if the dragon is hers, not Jon’s. She looks proud too, wearing the smile of someone who expects hugs and gratitude.

“Where is she?” Jon asks.

“In Cersei’s room.”

“I want to lay her to rest, where Drogon fell. I think she’d want that. Tomorrow, maybe.” He looks around them, takes in the remnants of the trial. “What you did… Arya, you really didn’t think this through, did you?”

He shakes his head and his blatant disappointment drains the pride from Arya’s demeanor until she wears the mask that once scared Sansa to tears; a mask she’s never before worn around Jon.

“Like you thought through fucking Daenerys?” Her words are harsh but her tone is smooth and cool like glass. “Your actions forced my sister to marry you. How do you think Father would feel about that?”

Jaw clenched, Jon pulls his arm from Sansa and moves a foot away.

“I’m only cleaning up your mess, Jon. You should be grateful. I saved you. You can stay married to Sansa now instead of whoring yourself out to that dragon queen.” She mocks a bow. “You’re welcome, Your Grace.”

“Arya, don’t,” Sansa says.

“Don’t what? I saved him! I even held a trial to make it right and--”

“Aye, and what a trial it was.” Jon glares at her. “You didn’t want her to pay for her crimes. You wanted her to know just how unloved she was. You wanted to rub it in her face before you killed her. That’s what you wanted. You wanted blood and revenge, not justice.”

“Oh, come off it!” Arya steps closer, bores her eyes into him, the cool mask of the Faceless Men discarded, forgotten. “You know why you’re angry, and it’s not because you’re disappointed in me. You think I’m blind? You’re relieved. You’re relieved that she’s gone and that you didn’t have to kill her yourself. You’re relieved your little sister did it for you and you hate yourself for it. Maybe you can’t admit it to yourself, but you can’t lie to me. No one can.”

“This has to stop, Arya. Please. Do you even know how many people you’ve killed?”

“Do you?”

“It’s not the same. I’ve been fighting wars. I’ve been--”

“And I’ve protected our family. I’ve protected everyone! Do you even know why I went to King’s Landing? Why I killed Cersei? To stop Daenerys. We were spying on her, Bran and I. She was going to fly to King’s Landing after your wedding to burn the place down and everyone in it, so I went there to get Cersei’s forces here so Daenerys wouldn’t leave! I’ve been wearing Cersei’s nasty face to save the bleeding world. I went to the Isle of Faces and got the weapon that killed the Night King. I’m the one who made sure he was stuck to that bleeding tree. We’d all be dead if it weren’t for me! For me and Bran! So what if I killed the monster who threatened to burn us all? So what if I killed a woman who was destroying my family? I was there!” Her face crumples and in the ruins stands little Arya Underfoot, the fiery emotional child who’s been lost behind too many faces, the vulnerable girl she never shows anyone anymore. “I saw him. At the Red Wedding. I saw Robb.” The name comes out choked and Sansa feels her own eyes watering, a lump forming in her throat. “They’d cut his head off and sewed Grey Wind’s head to his body. I saw it! They paraded him around. They were cheering. And I couldn’t do a thing to stop it. So no, I’ll never stop, Jon. Not ever. Because I can’t let something like that happen again. I just can’t.”

Arya chokes out another sob and Jon darts forward, envelopes her in his arms. The lantern crashes to the ground and she wraps her arms around him and cries into his chest. It feels wrong somehow to witness this, this embrace between a sister and a brother that reminds Sansa that she’s never been a part of the bond they share. That she shouldn’t be. So she turns around and starts walking away to let them have this moment alone where they can break down in each other’s arms and find some place within each other that will help them heal.

“I couldn’t let her take you from us,” she hears Arya saying in a voice thick with tears. “I couldn’t risk her burning you. Because she would have. Once she learned how you truly felt. She burns those who betray her. She would’ve burned everyone here if it weren’t for Bran.”

Sansa stops.

“I know. I-- Wait, what?” Jon says. “What are you talking about?”

Sansa turns around. Arya’s wiping snot and tears off her face with her sleeve before picking up the lantern, raising it to illuminate Rhaegal. Although its head rests on the ground, it’s watching them with bright eyes as though it follows their conversation.

“It’s Bran.” Arya indicates the dragon with a nod. “He was in Rhaegal when his body died.”

“Orell,” Jon whispers, touching the scar by his eye. “Oh, gods. I drew my sword.”

“What are you saying?” Sansa’s words come out breathy and strange. “I don’t understand.”

“Bran didn’t die. He…” Arya shrugs. “He changed, that’s all. He’s still here. He’s been warging into Rhaegal. That’s how I’ve been able to travel so fast. I’ve been riding Rhaegal. And when we flew back to Winterfell, it felt like Bran. But I wasn’t sure. He was so weak, I couldn’t ask him, and then I had to leave to prepare the trial. I had enough sedative left, just in case, but then he came here, last night, and he flicked his tail and let me pet him and talk to him and I knew for sure. It’s Bran. He understands us.”

“No.” Sansa shakes her head. “He’s in there?”

“If a warg dies when they’re in an animal’s body,” Jon says, “they live on in the animal. I’ve seen it before.” With furrowed brow, he approaches Rhaegal and strokes his hand down its snout. “How did he die? Bran.”

“We were in the godswood. He kept warging, growing more and more pale. Then he was awake, if you can call it that. In shock. Unresponsive.”

“That must’ve been after Viserion,” Arya says. “He was in Viserion. I thought he died with him, but he must’ve gotten out. Must’ve been traumatic.”

“He warged again after that, and the wights were coming closer. I thought we were going to die, but everything stilled. All the wights fell. Sam told me we had to wake Bran or he’d die. He was so pale, so weak. It was hard, waking him, and once we did, he said he had to go back. He said”--Sansa frowns, recalling memories she’s done her best to repress--”’I have to save them. I’m the only one who can.’ And I didn’t understand. Save you from what? The Night King was dead. Wasn’t he…?”

She trails off when she realizes Jon and Arya are staring at one another, wide-eyed, glassy-eyed, mouths hanging open.

“What is it?”

“When we flew home,” Jon says and he sounds so faraway, his voice like wind, “suddenly Daenerys lost control of Rhaegal. He tried to throw us off. He did throw me off. I was falling… I knew I would die. I’d made it through the battle only to… But then his talons closed around me. It was Bran. He saved me. He saved all of us. Me, Arya, Tormund, Gendry, everyone who sat on Rhaegal.”

“He was the only one who could,” Sansa whispers into her hand. “You would’ve died, because we woke up Bran. Oh, gods. I almost killed you.”

Her knees feel like bathwater, warm and liquid, and she stumbles to Rhaegal, to Bran, and falls into him. He’s solid and warm against her, curls around her to steady her, protect her, hold her as she finally gives in to all the grief she’s pushed so far down it has to tear out of her like a storm, leaving her gasping for air. Her mind and body disconnect, head too heavy and mind too light, and she doesn’t know how to put herself back together. But then arms wrap around her, ground her. Jon’s beard scratches her cheek. Arya nestles herself into their embrace too, until all four of them, her, Arya, Jon, and Bran, are snuggled up together. And so they sit, still and quiet and warm, until she can breathe easily again.

-----

Everyone in the common room rises when they enter the inn. Sansa scans the crowd for Brienne, but she’s not there. Tormund is, though, and Varys and ser Davos. The rest of the people there are mostly the bannermen who joined them today. Lyanna Mormont with her one eye. Alys Karstark who lost the hearing on her left ear after a hard blow, and several fingers and toes to the cold after hours trapped beneath dead bodies before someone found her on the battlefield. Lord Cerwyn who’s now one-armed, and Lord Glover who lost several teeth and walks with a permanent limp. Back at Winterfell, Sansa grew used to scars, bandages, and missing limbs. Now, though, in a cozy inn where comely serving-maids move between tables rubbed smooth by the elbows of a thousand travelers, where a nimble-fingered lute-player sings of knights and maidens, and weary travelers look at the gathered highborn, a little befuddled, she’s reminded all over again of what they’ve gone through. How much they’ve all lost.

“Are you looking for Brienne,” Jon murmurs in her ear and she nods. “Go to her. I’ll handle this.”

Sansa squeezes his hand as thanks and leaves the common room for the hallway leading to the bedchambers. She finds Brienne hovering outside a closed door, looking rather forlorn. Her nose is red-tipped and her are eyes red-rimmed and her usual rod-straight posture is slightly slumped. When she notices Sansa, she sniffles and straightens her back.

“Your Grace.”

“Is that ser Jaime’s chambers?” Sansa asks softly. “Is he hurt?”

“Qyburn took care of him. He’s going to be fine. Tyrion is in there, but ser Jaime didn’t want me. Not that I can blame him after what I did.”

“I’m sorry, Brienne. I pledged that I would ask no service of you that might bring you dishonor, but I have. If there’s anything I can do to help, please, I’ll do it. And if you want to leave my service, I completely understand.”

Brienne shakes her head. “Honor should’ve compelled your husband to fulfill his promises to Daenerys and marry her. But that would’ve meant he’d break his vows to you. Which means he never should’ve promised Daenerys those things in the first place, but... Your Grace, I was there. I witnessed the whole thing. Had he not made her those promises, we would’ve died. Every person in the whole world would have died. Lies and deceit saved the world, not honor. And tonight, lies and deceit saved it again. From burning.”

“She had no dragons left.” Sansa adjusts her sleeves over her wrists. “I can’t help but wonder how much of a threat she still was.”

“Her father had no dragons, and yet he managed to burn a lot of innocent people. You know why ser Jaime killed him, don’t you?”

“Yes, you’re right.”

“She wasn’t your guest, Your Grace. She wasn’t innocent. She didn’t come here to save us. She was a conqueror who came to subjugate us.” Brienne’s features and voice soften. “It can’t have been easy, being forced to invite her into your home, pretending you admired her and wanted to be her friend, but you did--and you did it for your people. Because you are strong and brave, just as strong and brave as your mother. You’ll be a good queen--one I’ll be proud to serve, if you’ll have me.”

“Of course I will. Thank you.” Sansa gives her a misty smile. “Well, I need to change out of my wet clothes before I sup with the others. Will you join us?”

“No, I think I’ll stay out here and mope, in case he changes his mind. Unless you need me?”

“No. Good night, Brienne.”

Despite Brienne’s encouraging words Sansa can’t shake the feeling that the spectacle that transpired tonight was excessive. That Father would’ve disapproved. But she can’t let others see her guilt and she peels off the guilt as she peels off her damp dress. Once she’s freshened up and slipped into a dry and clean dress, she does feel better. She feels like Lady Stark, like steel and ice and the river. She combs through her hair with her fingers and weaves it into a braid across her shoulder, like how Mother used to wear it. There’s no looking-glass in the room, but Sansa brought a hand-held mirror in her trunk and pulls it out to check her reflection, pinching her cheeks and biting her lips to make them pink and pretty. Then, because there’s no longer anyone around who’ll lose their temper at its presence, she pulls out the dragonfly pendant to rest visibly on her chest. Its opal eyes glitter at her in the firelight and it feels like a promise of better things to come.

When she returns to the common room, Arya is gone, but Jon still stands before the crowd, listening to Varys, who’s on his feet, addressing the room.

“...Lannister has done since becoming her Hand has been talking her out of returning cities to the dirt. Reminding her she’s not here to be the Queen of Ashes. He even tried to talk her out of burning the Tarlys; alas, she did not listen. It only got worse once we reached Winterfell. I was wrong in supporting her, but I don’t think what we did here today was wrong. What we did was necessary.”

Yohn Royce stands. “Queen Sansa kindly informed us that an elaborate trap had been laid and we chose to come here today. I remember the Mad King all too well. I saw nothing to persuade me his daughter would be much different. We’ve barely recovered from the Great War--nor all the wars before that. If a dent in our honor is the price to pay to spare our men and women another war--a war we most likely would have lost--then I gladly pay it.”

Lord Glover nods. “She would’ve burned us, just like she burned the Tarlys. Now my granddaughter will live under Stark rule--because that is what you are, Your Grace, is it not?” When Lord Glover narrows his eyes at Jon, Sansa strides to her husband’s side and loops her arm through his. “A Stark ruler.”

“Of course, he is,” she says. “Jon is my husband. He is a Stark.”

“He did offer to leave with Daenerys Targaryen,” Lady Mormont says.

“Aye, I did. Because I didn’t want her to burn anyone.”

“With respect, Your Grace,” Lord Royce says, “there have been rumors. Rumors that the marriage to your cousin will be annulled. That your heart belonged to the Dragon Queen. Do we have reason to worry?”

Sansa pulls Jon even closer, her head held high. “I should hope we are all above listening to castle gossip.”

Davos clears his throat. “And I should hope no one who’s seen the way our King looks at his Queen can doubt to whom his heart belongs.”

When people murmur their agreement, some even chuckling heartily, Sansa can’t stop a bashful smile from blooming on her lips. She lets her hand glide down Jon’s arm until she finds his hand. Still too shy about her feelings to look at him, she keeps her eyes on their people, but as her fingers entwine with his, the hope that took root in her heart before the battle now starts to grow anew.

“My lords and ladies,” Jon says, “I know you have many questions still, and I promise you, I’ll give as many answers as I can once we return to Winterfell. But tonight I’d like us to sup together and drink together and then get a good night’s sleep.”

“Together?” Tormund shouts to the crowd’s delight.

Joffrey would’ve demanded punishments for such a joke, but Jon only shakes his head fondly at the laughter filling the room. Then he searches the room with his eyes for the innkeeper, who lights up and already starts bowing with heart-warming enthusiasm.

“We’d like food and drink, if you have enough, that is. I know these are hard times.”

“Your Grace, I most certainly do! The Dornish woman brought quite a lot of it, she did. She said I had Your Grace to thank. Thank you, Your Grace. Thank you.”

“I believe it’s my wife you should thank,” Jon says, smiling so warmly at Sansa her cheeks heat up and she has to duck her head before she does something foolish.

Davos raises his cup in a toast, to her, to Jon, and everyone joins in, pushing away the tense residues of worry and confusion with their cheerful approval of their King and Queen. Jon turns to her with a smile, but as his eyes land on the dragonfly pendant, the smile slips. His eyebrows tug together and he looks adorably bewildered, and she wants to tell him with her eyes that yes, Jon, yes, it means what you think it means, but he’s already looking ahead as he leads her to ser Davos’ table. Once they’ve settled down, Jon whispers in her ear that while everyone now knows Rhaegal is under their control, Arya explained her long absence with a story about returning to Braavos where she hired a Faceless Man to take care of both Cersei and Daenerys.

“She thinks it’s best they don’t know exactly what she’s capable of,” he whispers, sending gooseflesh across Sansa’s body with every brush of his lips against her skin. “I’m not sure they believed her explanation, but at least they accepted it.”

Although all Sansa wants is leading Jon back to their bedchamber where his lips could brush over more than just her ear, it’s clear their people need to see them and sup with them, and she is rather famished. So she smiles and converses and consumes thick slices of leg of lamb along with olives and roasted onions and watered down Dornish red. Davos tells them between bites of honeyed duck that Ellaria Sand came with the first shipment of food from Dorne, which is on its way to Winterfell.

“And,” he says with twinkling eyes once their plates are cleared, “I believe they have a surprise for you. Your sister made sure of it.”

“Surprise?”

Davos gestures at one of the serving-maids, who nods and scurries toward the kitchen--and soon Sansa’s nose is filled with the mouthwatering scent of lemon and sugar as the serving-maid returns with a tray of lemon cakes.

Sansa gasps and clasps her hand in delight, devouring the cakes with her eyes.

“I hope it will please Your Grace,” the serving-maid says with a shy smile, voice trembling with nervousness. “I’m sure our recipe isn’t as good as at Winterfell but…”

“They look divine. Thank you.”

“They do look divine.” Ser Davos aims a bright smile at the serving-maid. “And I’m sure they’ll taste as good as they look.”

Ignoring the fork offered her, Sansa plucks one with her fingers so she can relish in the spongy feel of cake baked with choice ingredients. The serving-maid lingers by the table, worrying her apron as she watches Sansa with bated breath, so Sansa hums loudly with satisfaction as she bites into the cake. After weeks of dense bark bread and meager stews it’s a positively sinful treat and hardly an exaggerated reaction. As the serving-maid walks away beaming, Jon chuckles quietly and looks at Sansa with so much love she feels silly for ever doubting his affections. For thinking he was only ever pretending. His eyes drop to her lips and for a heart-stopping moment, she thinks he’ll kiss her, but he only brushes away powdered sugar from the corner of her mouth with the pad of his thumb.

“Take one,” she says. “I can’t eat this whole tray by myself.”

“Are you sure? I once knew a little girl who ate so many lemon cakes she couldn’t sleep because her tummy ached so badly.”

That’s not the reason why I don’t want to sleep tonight, she thinks, but she’s still not bold enough to say it.

“I want to share them with you,” she says instead. “And anyone else who wants one.”

Jon grabs one for himself and then lets the tray wander the room until it returns to their table empty. Not even a crumb remains. When she can’t hide her disappointment, he only laughs at her and moves his cup of ale aside, revealing his still-untouched lemon cake hidden behind it.

“You want it?” he asks.

“You should take it.”

“You want it more than I do.”

Smiling, she nudges him with her shoulder. “We’ll share.”

She takes a large bite for herself before bringing the cake to his lips. Jon’s eyes widen but he opens up and lets her pop the cake into his mouth. But then Tormund breaks the tension before it even had a chance to rise by dropping a crude joke about Sansa offering Jon her sweetness to kiss. With burning cheeks, she stares into her lap as she wipes her fingers on her napkin instead of licking them clean like she’d intended. Jon doesn’t talk much after that, but whenever their eyes meet, he smiles softly at her and in moments where a husband might kiss his wife, he does kiss her--albeit chastely, on her cheek or temple. She closes her eyes each time, hoping for a braver mouth, one that will confess by pressing against hers own once they’re alone.

The people around them watch their act with affectionate eyes and sentimental smiles, but Sansa knows in her heart it no longer is one. This pretending they do isn’t pretending at all. Perhaps it never was. Not even Jon’s happy expression turning troubled the moment they leave to retire to their chamber can convince her otherwise. Perhaps tonight is too soon, perhaps his mind is too plagued with guilt and worry, but tomorrow they’ll return to Winterfell, to their normal lives, and the next time they wake up entangled, bodies trembling with need, they’ll no longer have a reason to resist.

With the sunny taste of lemon cakes lingering on her tongue and the warm comfort of Jon’s calloused hand in hers, winter no longer seems a bleak thing. They’ll live through it together, rebuild the North together, and once spring comes, they’ll fill Winterfell with laughing children together. A boy who looks like Robb and a girl who looks like Arya, with skinned knees and pine needles in their hair, who’ll play with Ghost and their uncle the dragon and peer at aunt Arya through their fingers when she tells scary stories about the ghosts of Harrenhal.

“Why are you smiling?”

Jon’s voice pulls Sansa out of her thoughts and she finds him standing outside the door to their chamber, watching her curiously.

“I was thinking of spring,” she says, smile growing wider. “Let’s go to bed.”

Chapter Text

Besides the hearth, the only light in the room comes from the chunky candles placed on a shelf above the bed, and from a sconce by the door. The single window could use a good wash. There’s no dressing-screen or looking-glass, and the only decor in the room--a threadbare tapestry depicting nothing Sansa remembers from any song--should’ve been mended or replaced years ago. Calling their room at the Black Axe plain is generous, and yet, as she gets ready for bed, Jon finds everything in the room absolutely fascinating. Everything but her. He doesn’t turn around until she’s in bed, clad in a nightgown and safely tucked under the coverlet--and even then he doesn’t actually look at her.

“How’s your shoulder?” she asks, fluffing up the pillow so that she can sit up with her back against the headboard.

Jon rolls said shoulder and gives a nonchalant shrug. “It’s fine. Must’ve looked worse than it was.”

“Your wrist?”

“It’s fine.” He stares at the floor as though it’s affronted him. “I’ll take her remains tomorrow. To Drogon. If Bran helps me, it shouldn’t take too long.”

“I’m sorry you lost her.”

His eyes flicker to her. “You are?”

“She was your only link to your real-- Not real. I’m sorry. Father was your…” Sansa sighs and smooths out the wrinkles in the coverlet. “I’m sorry things turned out this way.”

“When I was at Castle Black, the Maester there, Maester Aemon…” Jon sticks his hand into the pocket of his breeches, finds nothing, pulls his hand back out, and balls it into a fist. After a tired exhale, he walks over to the bed and gestures at the empty spot beside her. “May I?”

“It’s our bed, Jon.”

“I didn’t want to presume.”

He settles down facing the headboard, both feet still on the floor. His hand rests between them, but she ignores the impulse to take it. Whatever’s eating at him also ate the comfortable ease with which they’ve interacted, and now tension has seeped into the empty space it left behind. So Sansa folds her hands in her lap and listens.

“Maester Aemon was a Targaryen. He must’ve been my great-great uncle or something, and I had no idea. He was a good man. He taught me things, guided me, helped me. I wish I’d known. I wish he had known. He told me once that a Targaryen alone in the world is a terrible thing, and I thought, when I learned who I was, I thought…” Jon shrugs and pulls his mouth into a non-smile. “I wish things had been different. She was terrible. Not all the time, but… I think she must’ve been good, once. But she would’ve hurt you. She would've hurt all of us. And still, I wish things had been different.”

He keeps his eyes on the pillow where he should be resting his head. While Longclaw has been removed and now leans against the wall, Jon still wears his cloak. It smells of lemon cakes, a streak of powdered sugar dusting the fur like tiny little snowflakes. It smells of winter too, as though he belongs out there, belongs to the cold winter's night. As though he’ll sweep out of the room any moment now and wander back to the forest and fade into the shadows.

“I cried when we killed Littlefinger,” Sansa hears herself say.

Her confession deepens Jon’s concerned expression, shadows filling in the lines of his face like water fills in trenches, but it also draws his gaze to her, finally, and she smiles gently at him when their eyes meet.

“He was terrible as well,” she says, softly. “And yet I--perhaps not loved him--but he was the only person I could rely on for a very long time. I was forced to rely on him. He protected me, helped me, taught me things, valuable things, and then he betrayed me. Over and over. And he used me as well. And despite all that, in his own horrible way, he loved me. He did love me. And when we killed him, I cried. I tricked him and I felt guilty, ungrateful. Sometimes I still do.”

Jon nods slowly, gaze drifting back to the pillow as he speaks. “I feel like I created this. That she died because of me. My own kin. If only I hadn’t lain with her.” A shudder travels through him. “I thought it was needed. I thought I had to make her love me to get her armies, her dragons, but it only complicated things. I lied and I lied, and everyone else had to lie as well, and now… We cornered her, made her feel unsafe. We made her lash out. She didn’t come here with the intention to burn us all. We provoked her and then we punished her for it. That’s not right, Sansa. It’s not.”

“No, it’s not. But she would’ve snapped sooner or later, you know that, don’t you?”

Jon heaves a sigh. “Aye.”

Sansa does take his hand then, pulls it to her lap. “Come to bed, Jon. Get some sleep. You’ll feel better tomorrow.”

“I don’t know.” He pulls back his hand and flexes it, as if her touch made him feel trapped. “I was thinking I might head back out. Talk to Tormund and Davos. Haven’t spoken to them in a while. For how long was I…?”

“Days. I don’t know. Four? Maybe more. The sun never rose and I lost count.”

“Was I “--the color of his cheeks deepens--”naked the whole time?”

“Yes.”

“Did I do”--he swallows--”did I do anything inappropriate? In my sleep or…?”

“No, not at all.”

He breathes out in relief. “I don’t want to make you uncomfortable, Sansa. I don’t ever want that.”

“You’re not. Come to bed. Tormund and Davos will still be here tomorrow.” She ducks her head and looks up at him through her lashes. “You’re not letting me stay in here all alone, are you?”

Jon shakes his head at her, admonishing her dirty trick, and yet he unfastens his cloak and hangs it over the only chair in the room. Then he blows out all the candles and, in the gentle light of the hearth, takes his time undressing, folding each garment neatly, until he stands by the wash-basin in only his smallclothes. She looks away then, out the grimy window that blurs the world outside into a mass of deepest, darkest blue. The water sloshes and splashes. Cloth moves over skin. Jon groans, yawns, as if he’s stretching out his body. Then she hears him by the trunk, and when she looks back at him, he’s in the sleep-tunic she packed for him, his hair tumbling over the collar.

He’s so handsome her heart flutters in her chest. Her husband. Hers. Why did it take her so long to see that he’s everything she’s always wanted?

Eager to curl up in his embrace, she turns to him as he lies down; however, he settles down on the edge of the bed, creating ample space between them. He’s facing her, though, so she scoots down under the coverlet and mirrors his pose. It makes her feel little, like they’re huddling together, long past bedtime, sharing secrets under the safety of the covers. Something her mother never would’ve allowed. Back then, Sansa could barely even look at Jon without attracting her mother’s disapproving glare. But now she can look her fill--while Jon looks lost in thought, eyes trained somewhere on the shadows below her chin.

While waiting for him to break the silence and share his troubles with her, she falls into the rhythm of his slow and steady breathing. Outside, the wildlings still sing, and from the common room come the soft tones of the lutist. The sound’s too faint for her to pick out the melody, but she imagines it’s The Night That Ended. She’s comfortably warm and so very safe, and when her eyelids feel heavy, she closes them for a moment of rest.

Jon’s voice wakes her. She can’t remember falling asleep, but asleep she must’ve been for the meaning of his words is lost to her. Only the vaguest echo of it lingers in her mind. Something about Arya? Neither of them has moved, and the sounds around them remain the same, so she can’t have slept for long. She yawns and rubs her eyes and mumbles out a, “What?”

“Arya was right. About a lot of things.”

His voice is so low it nearly gets lost in the background noises and she moves infinitesimally closer to better hear him without scaring him away.

“She was right about my being relieved. I am. I couldn’t have pretended for much longer. Daenerys would’ve seen how I truly felt. She would’ve known I pretended all along. And I don’t want to know what would’ve happened then. Arya was right about my being relieved someone else killed Daenerys. That I didn’t have to do it. Sometimes I thought it would come to that. That the day would come when I couldn’t talk her out of doing something horrible. When a sword would be the only solution. Arya was right about my making a mess. And…”

He rubs at the scar above his eye, works his throat, and when he speaks again, his voice is hoarse.

“She was right when she said my actions forced you to marry me. I’m supposed to be your brother. Your big brother. That’s all Father wanted me to be. It’s my responsibility to protect you and instead I’ve bound you to me, forced you to pretend for me, and now you have to pretend for even longer, because I made our bannermen doubt my loyalty. I know you said you’re good at it--and you are, you really are--but you must be exhausted. Uncomfortable. When this is all over, if you detest me then, if you never want to see me again, I won’t blame you. I'll leave, if that's what you want.”

She’s so stunned by his heartfelt outpour, at how wrong he’s gotten everything, she finds herself gaping at him, the words of comfort he so desperately needs flown away, unspoken.

“As soon as things have calmed down,” he says, mouth curved in an unconvincing smile, “we’ll get that annulment. We’ll move on, live our lives. I promise you. You’ll be free.”

Sansa has to close and open her mouth a couple of times before she finds her voice. “But that’s not what I want. I want to stay married.”

“Sansa, we’ve discussed this.”

“If you tell me one more time you want something better for me, I’ll scream. I want to stay married! But if you don’t want that, if you don’t want to be my husband, if all you want to be is my brother, then tell me so instead of pretending you’re doing this for me, because you’re clearly not. I don’t want the annulment!”

“You would. If you knew what it meant, if you knew what you’re giving up, you would want it. You’ve never been with someone you want, who wants you back, but I have. And it’s what you should have. It’s what you deserve.”

Uncertainty reaches into her chest and burrows its sharp claws into her heart. He can’t have been pretending all night, can he? No, he loves her; she knows it. Doesn’t he? But then she is repulsive: a living painting of another man’s cruelty. How could he ever be with her when every touch must remind him of the man who murdered Rickon? The man he nearly beat to death with his own hands.

“Is it- is it the scars?” She presses her lips together to fight the pathetic tremble that threatens to seize her bottom lip. “Is that why you don’t want me? I know I look horrible but--”

“No! No. You don’t. I promise you, you don’t. You’re beautiful, Sansa.”

“Then why?”

“I can’t--” Jon closes his eyes with a defeated groan and then the words rush out of him, sweeping over her like a flood: “I can’t take what I want from you while you’re lying there with your eyes squeezed shut, waiting for it to be over! Do you think I’m Ramsay?” He looks at her then, eyes wide under a furrowed brow. “Do you think I could enjoy that? That morning, when we almost did it, I looked down at you and you looked as if I were about to--” He scrunches up his face and swallows down the awful word. “I felt sick. There’s nothing arousing about that! Nothing at all! I can’t do that to you, Sansa. I can’t. Even when we kissed, you couldn’t pull away fast enough! Every time I get close to you, you can’t pull away fast enough. Do you think I didn’t notice you’ve used Ghost as a shield? You don’t want me.”

He’s panting, glaring at her, and he looks so tense the slightest touch will make him spring up and away. But I do, she wants to say. The words are right there, on her tongue, ready to spill from her lips, and yet she can’t speak, can’t tell him how wrong he is. Can’t ask him why he still thinks so little of himself. This man people knelt in front of willingly, thrust their swords in the air for while chanting the title they chose to give him. This man, who’s the best man she’s ever known and everything she dreamed of as a little girl. Does he still view himself as Ned Stark’s inconvenient bastard? Is he still, deep down, the sullen boy who gathered every slight and insult and wore it around his throat like a millstone?

She’d laugh at how broken they both are had anxiety not stolen her voice--but at least her lips don’t need a voice to confess.

Cupping his cheek, she moves so close to him their noses bump. Then she angles her head and presses her mouth against his, softly, tenderly, with all the love she feels for him--but he only jerks his head away.

“Don’t,” he says. “Please don’t.”

There is so much pain in his voice, she knows she has to find her own voice or he’ll never believe her.

“Will you look at me?” she whispers, skimming the tips of her fingers through his beard. “Please?”

Jon turns his head slowly, the light of the hearth gleaming in his wary eyes.

“I want you to be my husband.” Sansa’s heart beats so quickly it feels as if it’s flying, like a bird pushed out of the nest, trying its wings for the first time, both in awe and utterly terrified at how it soars. “I want you to be mine.”

Jon’s eyes widen and in their dark depths hope glimmers, urges her to be bolder. So she moves closer still and cups his cheek again, strokes her thumb down his cheekbone, to the corner of his mouth.

“Be mine, Jon. Let me be yours.” Her eyes flit between his; he looks dumb-struck, mouth agape, as full of disbelief as on the gray winter’s day they reunited. She ghosts the pad of her thumb over his bottom lip and it twitches beneath her touch. “I was never pretending.”

Jon sucks in an uneven breath, his glossy eyes dropping to her mouth as her tongue darts out to wet her lips.

“Kiss me,” she breathes out, leaning in. “Please. I won’t pull away this time.”

His lips are eager, desperate, feverish. She’s never been kissed like this before. Never with parted lips and tongue, with a hunger that would scare her had the same kind of hunger not driven her own greedy mouth to kiss and suck and nip. And yet she knows, that even if she’d kissed a thousand men a thousand times, nothing would ever compare to this. Jon’s kisses melt the last of the ice she so carefully sculpted around her heart to seal herself in, to prevent anyone from stealing the part of her that still remained. But Jon is different, has always been different, and to him she gives it willingly, lays it in his mouth and in his hands. Hands that are calloused and large and warm and so very gentle as they find their way under her nightgown. They skim over her thigh and hip, caress the sensitive skin of her waist, ghost over the swell of her breasts. And all the while he kisses her so deeply, so passionately that when he finally pulls away, to tug the nightgown over her head, she feels bereft, as though her lips were created to move against his, as though her mouth was created to welcome his tongue, and they’ve now lost their purpose.

The nightgown flutters to the floor or floats away or something else she doesn’t notice because he’s rolled her over on her back and is kissing her again and she’s moaning into his mouth like something depraved and wanton. She never knew a kiss could be so much more than just the sweetness of lips and tongue, never knew it could wake her body from the self-imposed slumber in which she’s hidden for so long, and make her crave things she only ever dared imagining in her dreams. She fumbles with his sleep-tunic, grabs fistfuls of it, and tugs and tugs and discards to find the smooth, warm skin beneath. The muscles of his back move under her palms as he nestles himself between her thighs, and then she feels him hard against her most intimate parts. Only the thin fabric of their smallclothes separates them.

Fear strikes deep in her belly like a lance of ice, slaking the fire burning within.

“Stop.” She pushes him away with her hands against his shoulders. “Stop-stop-stop.”

“What?” Arousal fogs his eyes; he’s drunk on it. His lips are wet--wet, swollen, and red from her bruising kisses. “Did I hurt you?”

Her chest jolts with too-quick breaths, voice once more fled. All she can do is shake her head.

Jon gives her a comforting smile and strokes back her hair with a gentle hand. “We don’t have to do this. We’ll sleep, all right? Just sleep.”

“I want to,” she says but it comes out as a weak whisper.

“Sansa… We’ll wait. If you don’t want this, I don’t want it.”

She clears her throat and takes a deep, steeling breath. “You lay naked in our bed for days, Jon, I do want it. Want you. Believe me. Yes, I did use Ghost as a shield, but not for the reason you assumed.”

Jon’s eyebrows fly high on his forehead and a smirk tugs at his lips, a smirk he does his best to fight, but he loses the struggle spectacularly and beams with such pure delight she can’t help but giggle.

“Drove you mad with my nakedness, did I, lady Sansa?”

“Yes,” she hisses and gives him a swat on his good shoulder. It only makes him laugh, but she soaks up that laughter, lets it loosen the tension in her limbs until she’s relaxed in his embrace. “For the longest time, I thought this could never be anything but awful and painful. I thought it would be something to endure, not enjoy. But I want you to prove me wrong, Jon. I need you to prove me wrong.”

“If you’re sure…”

“I am. This is what I want.”

Jon nods, stroking her hair again. “We’ll go slow. I’ll make sure you’re ready. And if you change your mind, if I do something you don’t like, if… anything, tell me to stop and I’ll stop. I promise.”

Then he kisses her again and this time it’s slow and good, like the sticky-sweet filling of honey cakes. She sucks the taste of ale, lemon, and sugar from his tongue and she thinks she could lie like this forever, kissing him, twirling his hair around her fingers. But then he returns the favor and the pull of his mouth coaxes back the heat to her core. She’s too shy to tell him to undress, but her hands have no sense of propriety and moves down his chest, his scars rippling beneath her fingers, to the waistband of his smallclothes. His hip-bones are sharp beneath her fingers and his hair tickles her skin. She could easily shift her hand and cup him, but she’s not brave enough yet. Instead she pushes down his smallclothes, and when he slips out of them, she shimmies out of hers, kicking them to the floor.

They’re naked. This is when he enters her, isn’t it? It’s how it goes. She’s brave. She can be brave. She does want it, want him. But Jon doesn't enter her at all. No, his lips find hers again and he kisses her and kisses her until her fears fade away. And then his lips move to her jawline, ghost down her neck, trailing hot kisses along the way that send gooseflesh all over her body. He follows the line of her clavicle, drops a kiss to the hollow of her throat, noses her dragonfly pendant aside to drop a kiss to her breastbone too. Then he cups her breast with one hand and moves his mouth to the other, licks a line up to the peak that springs to life, eager to meet his tongue. His mouth, hot and wet, closes around her breast and sucks--and she sucks in a sharp breath, eyes darting down to see what he’s doing. Jon’s watching her with a wicked grin, tongue swirling around her taut nipple.

“Good?” he murmurs against her skin.

Words escape her. Her mouth is too dry, her mind too drunk on arousal, to form any. She can only swallow and hum and fist her hands in the linen when his lips close around her nipple again and lavishes it with so much attention she feels it all the way down to her core. She doesn’t understand how it can make her want him somewhere else, how it can make her muscles clench and clench as though her body begs to be filled, but it does. His tongue swirls around the puckered tip, plays with it, and the longer he licks and sucks, the harder it becomes to keep her hips still. When he finally releases her nipple, she almost breathes out in relief, but he only moves to her other breast and sucks and licks and even bites, just a little. It’s so good it leaves her whimpering, and when his hand move down her body she spreads her legs readily, like the basest of girls.

But her infuriating husband only massages her hip, smooths his hand along her thigh in calm strokes, so close but never close enough.

“Please, Jon,” she murmurs, rolling her hips. “Please.”

Jon chuckles and kisses his way down her stomach, his beard scratching her skin. She knows his lips must pass her many scars, but he never pays attention to them, and she couldn’t be more grateful. She doesn’t want to think about them now; she wants to get lost in the fog of pleasure, the past forgotten, insignificant. He massages her hips with both hands now, kneading her flesh, while showering the insides of her thighs with wet kisses, moving higher and higher and higher. Sansa holds her breath. In the junction where leg and hip meet, he pauses and tickles her skin with his tongue and she’s so frustrated she doesn’t know what to do. She doesn’t want him there. She wants him… Somewhere else. Sansa fists the linen again, bucks her hips, wills him to move his damn hands to where she’s throbbing and needy so he can do something she’s not done herself in much too long. But he keeps dropping kisses to the inside of her thighs, some wet, others as light as snowflakes, and she’s reduced to a whimpering, needy mess.

“Where do you want me, Sansa?” He nips at her hip-bone. “Hm? Where do you want my mouth?”

With a hot surge of shame she remembers the joke about Jon kissing her sweetness, but men don’t do that, do they? And yet she can easily picture Jon down there, his dark curls spilling over her thighs--and the thought of it makes her tingle in the most exhilarating way. Jon takes her hands and cups them over the back of his head, and her fingers tangle in his hair instinctively.

“Where do you want me? Show me.”

Of all the things she’s had to do in her life, this intimidates her most of all: showing him how much she wants something no lady should ever want. But her body’s throbbing and she needs him, so much, and she squeezes her eyes shut and moves his head between her legs until she feels his face brushing against the soft hair there.

Jon groans. “Gods, you’re soaked.”

Her hands flutter away like nervous birds. “I’m sorry?”

“No.” Jon brings her hands back to his head. “It’s good, love. It’s perfect. You're perfect.”

His fingers spread her open and she can’t decide whether she wants to watch him or hide her face under the pillow and ends up just staring at the ceiling, raking her fingers through his hair as she waits for his kiss. Sansa can’t stop a surprised little cry from escaping her when he licks along her slit; can’t stop her hips from shooting up to chase his mouth. He sucks on her folds, explores her with his tongue, tastes every bit of her, and it’s good, it is, but still so incredibly frustrating. Why won’t he just… She gathers her courage, tightens her hands in his hair, and shifts him to where she wants him, keeps him there, her hands firmly cupped over his head. He moans his approval and then his tongue moves, slow and steady, like ocean waves lapping the shore, and now she can’t resist taking a peek. He’s watching her with burning eyes, how her flushed chest heaves with breaths, how her breasts jiggle every time her hips twitch, how she bites her lip to stop herself from moaning. He’s enjoying it, she realizes with a thrill; and she enjoys watching him. The sight of him trapped between her thighs and how, each time he takes another lick, she sees a flash of pink before his tongue flattens against her, mesmerize her.

He snakes his hands under her bum, lifting her even closer to his mouth, and his tongue moves so fast she drops back down and succumbs to pleasure. Everything else falls away. Everything but the feel of his hair in her hands, his beard rasping against her skin, his fingers digging into her flesh, and the delicious sinful pleasure of his mouth where no mouth has ever been before; everything but his appreciative moans, and the wet noises as he feasts on her, and something keening she knows must be her, but she’s lost herself in the bliss of it, and she can’t find it in herself to care. She lets herself float higher and higher while her body takes over. Her hips buck, urging him to follow her rhythm while she presses his mouth closer to her cunt because she needs more, just a little bit more, just a little bit harder, she’s so close, and then he sucks at her, tongue fluttering over that sweet swell, and the blood rushes in her ears and a moan is ripped from her throat and she feels her body convulsing. Her hands slam into the bed as the crescendo of pleasure lifts her body into an arc, and then she’s floating, drifting down from her peak, guided back to her body by the slow and light licks of Jon’s tongue until she’s boneless beneath him.

Jon slips his hands from under her and rest his head on her thigh, peering up at her with the most self-satisfied smirk she’s ever seen him wear.

“Did you like it?” he says with such smugness she’d kick him had her legs still worked.

Instead she throws her arms over her head, catching her breath. “It was all right.”

Jon laughs and climbs up her body, spreading kisses on her damp skin. Then he kisses her mouth and he tastes of her, of her cunt. Now that the arousal has dispersed, even thinking the word heats up her cheeks. But she can think that word now, can’t she? Now that he’s supped on hers. On her cunt. His hips are once more nestled between her thighs and when she feels him, his cock, hard against her, she’s still too relaxed to feel anything but contentment. Still kissing her, he reaches down between them and soon she feels the tip of him nudging her opening and a thrill shoots through her, terrifying and exhilarating all at once. She reaches down between them and finds his length, explores it with trembling fingers, learns its shape. The skin is so, so soft, like silk, and she loves how it moves under her touch, loves the way his breathing shakes when she strokes him. 

“If you keep doing that,” he mumbles.

She hums her understanding and lines him up. “I’m ready.”

He captures her lips and pushes forward, but as he begins to fill her up, panic rushes back, chases away that satiated bonelessness. Fear sends her stomach and chest quaking, her breaths coming short and fast, mind flooded with gruesome flashes of the past. Jon stops, halfway inside her, but if she lets him pull out now, she’s not sure she can let him in again. So she wraps her legs around his waist to keep him there, still inside her.

“I need to see you,” she whispers, cupping his cheeks to hold his face out in front of her. “I need to see it’s you.”

Her eyes drink him in: the slope of his nose; the swell of his lips, still wet and swollen; the flush of his cheeks; the crease of worry for her between his eyebrows. The love shining in his eyes. Gazes locked, she nods and focuses on him as he pushes all the way in until they’re completely joined. He’s trembling from holding back, from holding still, but he does keep still, letting her adjust, grow comfortable, and she’s never loved him more. It’s Jon, only Jon, her Jon. Her breathing evens out, body relaxing again, and she rocks against him to show him she’s ready. At first, his strokes are slow, careful, measured, and his eyes never leaves her face. So she smiles at him, wraps her arms around him, and clings to the only man in all the realm she trusts completely.

She never thought she’d enjoy this, the feeling of someone inside her, and yet her body responds, each stroke relighting the heat until it simmers deep in her belly. As he starts thrusting in earnest, Jon drops his forehead to her shoulder, grunting in her ear, and she hears herself moan along with him. She even shifts her hips so that he hits her just right, his pubic bone rubbing against the spot he kissed so fervently earlier as his cock brushes an equally sweet spot inside her cunt. She’s impossibly growing closer to another peak. She just needs a little… Her hand moves on its own, down to where they’re joined, where she’s swollen and slippery, and she rubs herself, quick and light.

Fuck.” Jon nips at her throat and each time his teeth rasp against her skin, sparks of pleasure shoot through her body. “Gods, you feel good.”

Chasing the sweet rush of relief, she works her fingers harder, ruts against him, sucks on the salty-sweet skin of his throat. Something inside her tightens--and then another wave of pleasure washes over her, pulling such a loud moan from her it should leave her ashamed, but she doesn’t care. It’s so good, too good, his cock plunging into her as she clenches around him, and she draws it out for as long as she can. Then Jon’s strokes become erratic, and he murmurs, over and over, that he loves her, loves her, loves her as he spills his seed inside her.

When he collapses atop her, head pillowed on her shoulder, she smiles up at the ceiling, fingers trailing lazily over his sweat-slicked back. He loves her. He loves her. He loves her for her, not her claim. For her.

“Mm.” Jon presses a kiss against her neck. “Are you all right?”

Sansa can’t help but laugh, and it’s the wonderful, free laugh of a young woman without a care in the world. It’s bright and sparkling and free, the kind of laugh that hasn’t bubbled out of her since before King’s Landing. Jon lifts himself up to kiss her and she feels him shrinking, slipping out of her, but she’s not ready for him to move away. She likes the weight of him: it makes her feel safe and loved, as though she still matters, even though he's taken his pleasure. So, before he’s had a chance to roll off her, she hugs him close, keeps him where he is. She could fall asleep like this: sticky and sweaty and so utterly satisfied.

“I love you,” he murmurs, nosing at her jawline, and she smiles so hard her cheeks ache.

“That’s good, because you can’t annul the marriage now.”

“Can’t I?” He props himself up on his hands, grinning down at her. “I’m king. I can do whatever I want.”

“Don’t you dare.” She locks her legs at the ankles, anchoring him to her. “You’re mine now. And I’m yours. From this day until the end of my days.”

Her tone is teasing and her mouth smiles, but her words seem to wash away his grin until he’s gazing down at her with so much love her stomach swoops. He dips down and moves his lips gently over her face, dropping the lightest kisses to her forehead, temples, cheekbones, jawline, chin, and lastly the tip of her nose.

“I’m yours, Sansa,” he murmurs against her lips. “From this day until the end of my days.”

He seals his vow with a kiss, one that's slow and deep and leaves her wanting him all over again. The thought lifts up the corners of her mouth, and he kisses them both, kisses her smile, her neck, her collarbone, her breast, and as she feels him grow hard once more she knows, with a breathtaking certainty and more than a little excitement, that they won't get much sleep tonight, after all. Outside, the wildings still brawl and she thinks she hears the lutist play, but she no longer cares about what song he's playing. She no longer cares about all the people gathered in and around the inn, people who'll want their attention tomorrow, who'll need them to solve everything. Because Jon's in her bed, murmuring sweet nothings into her skin, and tonight, she allows herself to care about nothing but him.

Chapter Text

Ghost’s impossible presence pulls Jon from sleep. The direwolf is intelligent, yes, but he can’t open locked doors--and yet there he stands, by the bed, red eyes glowing. The Free Folk no longer celebrate, the lutist no longer plays, and the fire no longer pops and crackles. Now only embers smolder among the ashes, their wan light painting the room a deep gold. Sansa sighs in her sleep, in his arms, nose pressed against his throat, and his heart feels too large, too full, to fit in his chest. When he closes his eyes, he still sees her writhing beneath him, all pink and amber and peach like a sunrise.

Ghost nudges him with his nose and bounds over to the door, scratching at it. Gently, Jon rolls Sansa over on her back, drops a kiss to her temple, and sneaks out of bed. His feet have barely hit the floor before Ghost bounds back and takes his place, stretched out on the coverlet. Dressing hastily, Jon glances at Sansa every now and then. She sleeps on, safe next to the direwolf who must’ve lain by her side, just like this, all those weeks when Jon was trapped on an island of jagged, black rocks and tried to yearn for home instead of for her.

He throws a few more logs in the hearth, stoking the fire until it crackles, and takes one last, lingering look at her before he leaves.

 

Outside the chamber he finds two guards Davos must’ve posted before turning in, and his little sister, who stands straight as a lance with her arms folded behind her back.

“Took you long enough,” she says. “I let Ghost in ages ago.”

They head down the quiet hallway into the even quieter common room. It’s empty, dark, and scrubbed clean, smelling of pine soap, and the tables and floor gleam in the moonlight slanting through the windows. Only a handful hours ago, he sat right there and allowed himself to drown in pale blue eyes, to drown in pretending, even though he knew it would only make it hurt even more when he had to drag himself back to the surface and suck in the cold, harsh air of the real world where Sansa didn’t love him.

Jon ducks his head to hide a smile. He couldn’t be more grateful for how well she proved him wrong.

When he opens the door to step outside, a gust of winter wind bites at his cheeks and nose, and he burrows deeper into the fur of his cloak. It smells of lemon cakes. He breathes in deeply and walks through the snow in a haze, as though part of him floats back to that room, to that bed, where he learned that everything he always wanted, everything he thought he could never have, was already his.

In the clearing wait Bran, Missandei, Grey Worm, and a pair of shovels--and it knocks that warm, fuzzy feeling from Jon’s body, knocks the smile off his face. Missandei keeps her head high and her eyes downcast, hands clasped before her, while Grey Worm carries a long bundle wrapped in beautiful silk printed with a scale pattern in blue and gold. Jon tries not to picture what she looks like, the faceless woman hidden beneath the fabric. He tries not to picture his little sister hunched over a lifeless body, carving knife in hand.

Despite trembling with fear, despite struggling to find purchase, Missandei refuses any help as she climbs atop Bran. She keeps her gaze averted and her mouth set in a thin line, and everyone else takes their cue from her. They fly in silence, beneath a black sky sprinkled with twinkling stars, above a white world littered with heaps of bones. Bones of wights; bones of men, women, boys, and girls. The snow hides their state, but they must be picked clean by now. Jon wonders briefly how many they lost, but it’s a useless thought and he shakes it off. He’ll never know.

Now that Bran is strong again the ride is smooth and quick; soon the shape of Drogon rises from the pale ground like a small craggy mountain dusted with snow. The winter cold has preserved him perfectly and, as though the odor of sulphur always clinging to the dragons or the magic of their flesh deter, no scavengers have touched him. He looks as if he’s sleeping, tucked beneath a white blanket.

Bran lands next to Drogon and, once they’ve climbed off, curls up next to the fallen dragon, the snow melting beneath him. He sniffs at him, bumps him with his snout. How much of him is Bran; how much is Rhaegal? Does seeing Drogon’s body pain him? Jon scratches his brother’s scales. He’ll never know that either, will he?

While Bran thaws the ground enough for them to be able to dig, Missandei and Grey Worm leave in search of stones, leather sacks slung over their shoulders. In Naath, Arya tells Jon, they bury their dead and, to mark the grave, build small cairns of stones and pebbles which they decorate with flowers and greenery.

“But the Targaryens”--Arya hands him a shovel--“they cremate their dead. She’s still impervious to fire, though--I checked--so we had to do something else. Reckoned Missandei could decide.”

Jon hums and starts digging a shallow grave with his sister. Her boots are stained with something dark that could be grease or wine but probably is blood. He has no idea whose, though, or whether they’re old stains or new--and that thought sends a shiver down his spine.

She was so little, once, his Arya. Bright-eyed, headstrong, full of life and adventure and kindness. A girl who made friends with anyone. And now she’s a killer, as hard and cold as the ground beneath their feet. Someone who mocks and sneers, drinking her victim’s humiliation and pain like wine, before slitting their throat without hesitation. It never affected Arya at all, did it? Not once did her cruel Cersei-shaped mask slip, while guilt clawed at him--and does still when he thinks of Daenerys’ eyes, wide and pleading. Jon, please do something. The sharp glint of a dagger catching the dying sunlight. Her lifesblood melting the snow. While he did nothing. Not until Cersei--not until Arya--walked up to Sansa, dagger in hand and triumph glittering in her green eyes. Triumph. Glee. Not even a hint of guilt.

Jon’s eyes sting and he can’t make sense of his feelings or thoughts, so he tries to push it all away and focus on the steady movement of the shovel and the scrape of metal against soil. But Arya won’t have it.

“You’re wondering whether I feel guilty,” she says as though the Faceless Men taught her to read minds--and perhaps they did.

He sighs and shoves the shovel into the ground, leaning on it with his hands folded over the handle. “Do you?”

Her no is perfectly timed, the tone even and casual. The Faceless Men taught her how to scrub herself free of any sign of weakness too. Every lie is as smooth as summer silk, flows as easily as spring brooks. Because it is a lie; it has to be. She let Missandei decide for a reason. The guilt is there, he knows, even if Arya has to tuck it away to make room for whomever she impersonates.

Perhaps he should ask himself not only how much of Bran remains when he lives in another’s body, but how much of Arya remains when she lives in another’s skin.

“Will you tell me someday? About the House of Black and White. About the Faceless Men. Will you tell me what really happened?”

“Yeah. I’ll tell you when I get back.”

“Perhaps I should come with you. I want to. You shouldn’t go alone.”

“I won’t be alone. I’ll have Bran. And I can take care of myself.”

“I know that. But it’s still dange--”

“You should stay. With Sansa.” Arya shoots him a pointed look. “Now that you’re actually wedded and bedded.”

It sounds almost like a question, like an invitation to talk about all the things that happened between Sansa and him while Arya was away. But Daenerys’ bundled up form lies only a couple of feet away. He treated her badly enough when she was alive; the least he can do is respect her now. So instead of gushing about the woman he loves by the grave of the woman he betrayed, he proceeds to dig and dig and ignore how working up a sweat stirs the scent of Sansa lingering on his skin. Every so often, he feels Arya’s eyes on him, but he ignores that too.

-----

 

Once Daenerys is laid to rest and the ground is smooth again, Missandei sinks to her knees and stacks stones into a miniature tower that makes Jon think of windmills and arrows and Ygritte dying in his arms--of Daenerys dying in Missandei’s. She suffered a horrible death, but at least she didn’t have to descend into that dark nothingness completely abandoned.

Grey Worm pulls twigs of evergreen from his sack and Missandei weaves them into a simple wreath. As she lays it down before the cairn, dawn breaks over the world. Slowly, she rises to her feet and blinks at the first rosy band of light peeking out from behind the horizon. On her cheeks, tears shimmer like pearls.

Jon feels Missandei’s cold hand closing around his.

“This is only for you and me,” she says and shoots Grey Worm a hard look. “Not her murderers.”

Jaw clenched, she stays still and silent until Grey Worm and Arya have wandered off to give them a moment alone.

“It feels strange,” Missandei says, “burying her without ser Jorah. He should’ve been here.”

“Aye. He should’ve, but after what happened, he can’t be trusted.”

"He can't be trusted?" She tightens her hand around Jon’s. “Why did you do it?” she asks, sharp nails digging into his skin, sharp voice digging into his conscience.

He sighs deeply. “Do what?”

“Fool her. You loved Sansa all along, didn’t you? Even when you came to Dragonstone.”

“Is this really the right time for this?”

“This is the perfect time for this. This is your chance to confess to her.” Missandei adjusts her posture and tilts her chin up slightly. “In Naath, it is customary to do so.”

He knows she’s lying, but she keeps his hand firmly in hers and he also knows she won’t let go of this small power she has until he complies. And he will. This poor woman, born on an island of sunlight and peace and butterflies, dragged through the world on a quest of fire and blood, only to be dumped in a strange place full of killers she cannot trust. How can he judge her for wanting answers?

“All right. You win.” He gives a quick, tired smile. “I did love her then, but I didn’t know it until I returned home.”

Missandei shifts to look at him properly, but he keeps his eyes on the pink horizon, resting in the murky space between night and morning, and truth and lie. He went South with hope in his sails. Hope for an alliance that would save the world, yes, but also hope that he’d learn how distance making the heart grow fonder was nothing but lies. Each night as he lay in bed, staring at the ceiling and waiting for sleep, he told himself the strange infatuation that had taken root in his heart was created by an emotional reunion and a desperate need for home. When he dreamed of red hair and woke up with desire burning deep in his belly, he told himself it was Ygritte, Ros, even Melisandre, refusing to indulge in the fantasies that plagued him before he left the North.

But then they sailed back home and everything became so much worse.

“Did it even matter to you that Daenerys loved you?”

“She didn’t love me. She didn’t even know me.”

“Because you didn’t let her.” Missandei drops his hand and tucks hers into her sleeves. “Instead you used her, seduced her, and what for? She would have sa--”

“It wasn’t like that!” He turns his head from her to hide his scowl. “She wanted me, and I wanted to save the world, so I let her have me. I didn’t seduce her.”

“She would have saved the world regardless.”

“You believe that?”

“I know it," she says all too fiercely.

Jon laughs darkly, shaking his head. “No, you don’t. I think that’s why you’re angry. Not with me but with yourself. Because, deep down, you know what she was. You know it better than anyone. You’re too clever and perceptive to have missed it. You’re too clever and perceptive to have missed how I felt, how Sansa felt, and yet you told Daenerys nothing. Why is that?”

Missandei’s lips are pale, pursed, and she stares down at the cairn with wide eyes.

“She would’ve hurt us,” Jon says. “Or she would’ve left us to die, or both. That’s what you know. You lied to protect us. You lied to make her stay. We all played our parts in this, Missandei, even you. You can tell yourself you’re innocent, if that makes you feel better, but you know it’s not true.”

A tremor travels through her lips and when she speaks, her voice is shaky. “She feared betrayal more than anything. You must’ve known that. You could’ve found another way. You should’ve found another way. A kinder way.”

“Aye. Maybe that’s true. Maybe a smarter man would’ve found another way. Maybe a better man would’ve found another way. But I didn’t. I did what I had to, to keep everyone safe. If that makes me a bad man, then maybe I am one. I feel guilty, I do, but I can live with that. I’ve done far worse things to protect the realm.”

Missandei inhales deeply, returns her gaze to the sunrise, and drifts off in thought, her breath turning misty white as she exhales. The horizon has cut the sun in half, rays of light spilling out over sky and snow. Farther down the field, too far for his eyes to see, lies Winterfell. Soon the courtyard will fill with golden light warming the people already milling about. People who’ll today learn all the threats are gone and that, while winter might be here, they’ll live through it together, helping one another instead of fighting another war or choosing between subjugation or fire. He’s done plenty wrong, he has, but at least he can find some solace in that.

“Your Grace,” Missandei says, slipping back into her subservient demeanor, soft and quiet with her head bowed. “You were right. I did play my part, and that is my guilt to bear. But...”

She pulls her hands out of her sleeves and removes the Targaryen silver brooch from her coat, running her fingers over the three dragons as she speaks.

“When Varys came to us, Daenerys asked him to swear, that if he ever felt that she was failing the people, he’d tell her to her face in what way she was failing them, instead of conspiring behind her back. And he did--he did swear it--and yet he betrayed her. I know why he did so. He was so convinced she’d never listen, that she would do something reckless and impulsive, that he thought it safer to conspire.” She bows her head deeper, and when she speaks again her voice is barely above a whisper. “I thought it too.”

She looks so vulnerable and dejected, so guilty, he wants to reach out, to comfort, but he doubts his touch would be welcome. “We all did,” he says instead, voice low and warm.

“When your brother didn’t share what he’d learned, I knew something bad would happen. He refrained from telling us she had to kill Drogon, because he thought she’d leave, didn’t he? But he never gave her a chance. He never gave her a choice. None of us did. We assumed she couldn’t be reasoned with and we conspired and lied and betrayed. I thought it better to play my role, like Lady Sansa did. I thought that was the best way to serve My Queen. To show her I was her loyal servant. To show her I loved her--and I did; I truly did. I thought that would quell her fears, keep her calm. I thought once the war was over, once she had you and the Iron Throne, everything would be well once more.”

“And now?”

Missandei sighs, shaking her head. “I no longer know what I believe. But I do know I don’t want to repeat that mistake. Will you allow me to tell you something to your face, Your Grace? Something I believe you need to hear.”

“Aye.”

Missandei turns her whole body until her feet point at him, so he turns too so that they stand face-to-face. The sun bathes half of her in light, her skin shining like polished bronze, while the other half is cast in shade.

“When we came to Westeros, everyone told us the Starks were an honorable family. A good family, raised by a good man. I believed them--we all did--but now I know better. You lie and manipulate and murder and betray. You, your wife, your sister, even your brother. If this is how you’ll rule, with lies and deceit and blood, you’ll take your father’s good name and twist it into something ugly. You’ll fail your people. Please, Your Grace, don’t let that happen. For the sake of your people, your father’s memory, and the children Lady Sansa will bear you, don’t let that happen.”

When Jon tries to speak, his voice breaks, so he clears his throat and tries again: “I won’t let that happen. I promise.”

Missandei holds his gaze, but this time he’s not lying and he meets it without wavering. Content, she nods slowly, turns her attention back to the grave, and speaks softly to Daenerys in her own tongue. A confession, a prayer, a goodbye--whatever it is, it’s beautiful, and Jon closes his eyes to enjoy the lulling of Missandei’s language and the delicate warmth of the winter sun on his face.

He thinks of Winterfell as it once was, bursting with life and happiness and laughter. He thinks of climbing with Bran, of sparring with Robb and Theon, of hoisting little Rickon up on his shoulders so he could pick an apple high up on a branch. He thinks of teaching Arya how to swim, her skinny little arms and legs covered with the scrapes and bruises of summer’s play, and of letting her play knight when her mother was too busy to notice. He thinks of Sansa tying a silk ribbon around the handle of a basket full of preserves, loaves of bread, and cheese, sunlight dancing in her hair as she skipped off to Wintertown with Jeyne and Septa Mordane to visit the poor.

They never should’ve left. Everything would’ve been different if only they’d stayed.

Aye, you would’ve all died, a gruff voice he can’t place whispers in the back of his mind. You wouldn’t have been prepared for the war.

Then Missandei quiets, and he opens his eyes and sees her kneeling by the grave. She’s placing the brooch like a crown on the cairn, sunlight bouncing off it, and he searches his pockets for something to offer too. He finds nothing but lint. So, he kneels as well, touching the soft, cold soil covering Daenerys’ grave, and offers only regret.

 

-----

 

Frost clings to the grass covering Bran’s favorite spot. It glitters like a thousand tiny jewels in the morning light. He lands with a soft swoop, and a flurry of frightened birds lifts from their branches, the clapping of wings filling the clearing. Bran extends his wing, letting them all climb off, and then he flies off as well. Shadowing his face with his hand, Jon marvels at his brother’s soaring across the gold-streaked clouds until he reaches blue winter sky, his shape shrinking with each beat of his wings. Another beautiful day, it seems. Had Jon been a bolder man, he would’ve said winter shaped up to be milder than anticipated. White and cold, yes, but clear and forgiving. Perhaps even short. But behind the line of trees stands an inn, and inside that inn is a room that has a bed that holds his wife. Expecting more luck than that is nothing but brazen.

“Are you thinking about Sansa?”

Jon tears his eyes off the sky and finds himself alone in the clearing with his little sister. She’s watching him with a mocking smile and he realizes he’s smiling too, ear-to-ear like a fool in love.

He clears his throat and wipes the grin off his face. “Does that bother you?”

She shrugs. “I like seeing you happy. And if you have to be disgusting to be happy…”

Her tone is flippant, a sister’s teasing tone, and yet it stings. Sansa is his now and he refuses to feel dirty and wrong for loving her. He’s wasted too much time on it already.

“She never felt like a sister to me. She was just a pretty girl I wasn’t allowed to talk to. If your mother caught me as much as looking at Sansa-- As if my being a bastard meant…” He trails off, staring at the ground. “I suppose she wasn’t all wrong about that.”

“Did you--” Arya steps closer, mouth curled in distaste. “How long have you been in love with her?”

She waits for a reply, but all Jon has to give is a shrug.

“I asked you that once before, and you didn’t answer me then, either. Don’t you know, or don’t you want to tell me? Did it start when we were children? Is that why you won’t tell me? Did you do something to her?”

“Of course not!”

“Did you want to?”

“Arya--”

“Just tell me. I want to know.”

He’s avoided pondering it, because he’s not sure he wants to know. Thinking being brought back to life and pulling some of that darkness with him, letting it taint his soul, was so much easier. But what does it matter now? Sansa is his wife for true.

He conjures an image of her the way she was back then, all silk ribbons and pastel dresses and pretty smiles. No. He didn’t love her. Barely even as a brother. He didn’t dare. She was always too beautiful, too precious, too pure--and a part of him resented her for it. This beloved child, the proof of her parents’ love. Robb was a child of duty, but Sansa… Sansa was Lady Catelyn’s pride and joy she wouldn’t let the bastard besmirch with his presence. Sansa remembers it all wrong. She thinks she was haughty, but she was only ever polite. Too polite. Polite in a way that made him feel like one of those Wintertown beggars she graced with baskets of food and comforting prayers. He grew to hate that--not her, never her--but what she represented. Those willowy noble girls with their shining hair and prim mouths and soft hands that never would touch something as coarse and base as himself. Every time she tried to bridge the distance between them, he took her lady’s armor as a sword and cut himself with it, used every excuse to be slighted, and let her know it too, so he could push her away and feel it was in his control. That he chose to not have a relationship with the pretty red-headed girl who happened to live in the same castle.

Oh, he’s always been quite the fool, hasn’t he?

“After we took back Winterfell,” he says and thinks about delicate snowflakes caught in red hair and pale blue eyes searching his and that pull he could no longer deny. The ache in his chest whenever she wasn’t near. How it only grew worse when she was, for he could never be as close to her as he craved. “That’s when it started.”

No, that’s when it hit him like a dagger to the heart. That’s when he knew he needed to create distance between them or he’d slip up sooner or later--and Sansa would learn his shameful secret. He rubs at his chest, at the scar, and knows he can never lie like Arya does.

“Still too early, I know that.” He lets his hand drop. “I tried to stop. I did. I couldn’t.”

“It’s all right, Jon,” Arya says. “I didn’t mean what I said yesterday. I was just angry with you. You’ll be a good husband to her. I can’t think of anyone better. I don’t think Father could’ve found anyone better.”

“I don’t know.” Jon scuffs the ground with the toe of his boot. “You think he would’ve approved?”

“After Joffrey and Tyrion and Littlefinger and Ramsay? Yeah, I think he would’ve.”

“Yeah, well…” Jon squints up at the sky. “After those monsters anyone would do.”

“Don’t do that. You’re not anyone. You’re Jon and she loves you. Not because you’re not Joffrey, but because you’re you.”

Jon says nothing. This skill of Arya’s, to always know what he’s thinking, might be a relief, because he rarely has the ability to put feelings into words, but it’s also severely unsettling. He can’t make sense of the woman she’s become. Still kind and fiercely loyal, someone who comforts and reassures, and yet callous and sadistic. That last word fills him with shame, as though even thinking it is a betrayal, but it doesn’t make it less true. He’s killed a lot of people--some of them he even wanted to kill; sometimes he felt justified in killing them--but he didn’t enjoy it. He doesn’t enjoy it. Not the way Arya seems to find pleasure in someone else’s pain.

“When you were Cersei,” he says. “What did it feel like?”

The warmth leaves Arya’s face, and as though the world is tied to her emotions, a cloud drifts over the sun and casts them in cold, blue-tinted shadow. “It didn’t feel like anything.”

“You felt different.”

“Good. I was playing a part, Jon.”

“No. That’s not what I mean. You enjoyed it. Didn’t you? I understand killing, I do. But revelling in someone else’s pain? That sounds like Cersei, not you. Like she poisoned you. You wore her face for a long time…”

Arya huffs out a sharp laugh. “Oh, I see. You’re so appalled by who I am you have to blame Cersei?” She walks closer, casually, a swagger in her step, a cruel glint in her eyes. “Do you know what I did to Walder Frey? I killed two of his sons first. Carved them up really nice. Baked them into a pie. Then I served it to him before I killed him.”

Jon inhales sharply and takes a step back, but Arya stalks forward, eyes locked with his. “You ask me to accept you and Sansa and the disgusting things you do, fucking her all night for all the inn to hear. You ask me to accept it and I do. I even comfort you, poor little bastard Jon who thinks he’ll never be good enough for Lady Sansa, but you can’t accept me for who I am?”

“Is this who you are, though? Is this really who you are? It can’t be. The Arya I know wouldn’t--”

“Knew. The Arya you knew. I don’t feel guilt. I don’t feel regret. No, you know what? I do. I do regret something. I regret not pulling off Cersei’s face before I killed Daenerys so she'd know who really held the dagger, so my smiling face would be the last thing she saw before she died. That’s what I regret.” She shakes her head at him, eyes full of contempt. “I’m not your little Arya anymore, Jon. I haven’t been in a long time.”

She turns around, then, to walk away with her head held high, but he grabs her arm and pulls her back, pulls her into a hug. Her arms hang stiffly by her sides, but she tucks her head under his chin and leans against him, allows the embrace, so he caresses her back in long, slow strokes until he feels the tension leave her shoulders.

“You’ll always be my little Arya,” he whispers. “Always. Even when you’re old and gray and have fifteen grandchildren and complain about your joints. Even if you kill a thousand people. You’ll still be my little sister.”

Arya wraps her arms around him and gives him a squeeze. “You should go back to Sansa,” she says, pulling away. “Don’t let her wake up to you gone. She’ll worry you’re having regrets.”

As he watches her leave, an uneasy feeling coils around his heart. It did yesterday too, after they hugged, all four of them. Even when she shrugs off her new sardonic personality, and jokes and cries and acts like his sister, he can’t shake the feeling that something’s wrong.

 

-----

 

When Jon pulls open the door to their room, Ghost flies off the bed and darts outside. The guards gasp and press up against the wall, and Jon gives them an apologetic smile before closing the door behind him. Sansa still lies on her back, her cheeks flushed with sleep, her hair fanned out over the pillow, and her rosy lips curled into a smile. She still looks like a sunrise.

When she walked through the godswood in her wedding dress, he thought she’d never looked more beautiful, that she never could, but he was wrong. She was unattainable, then, and he took comfort in that. He would love her from a distance, his bride of winter. Sometimes he thought it was the only way he could love her. Nay, that it was his reason for loving her. It’s so terribly easy to love someone you can’t have, after all, and so terribly safe. But he was wrong about that too.

She’s never been more beautiful than this, soft and radiant and his. He should wake her, break fast with her in the common room, pack up everything and go home, and yet his fingers find the straps and laces of his clothes.

Even in sleep, she seeks him out and molds her warm body around him, one leg slung over his thigh, one arm hugging his waist, breasts pressed against his side, and head burrowed into the crook of his neck. He buries his nose in her hair and breathes in her scent, his fingers trailing lazily over her back. The birds have returned and now trill outside their window, accompanied by the homey noises of Free Folk breaking their fast. His stomach rumbles, and Sansa stirs in his arms.

“You’re cold,” she murmurs.

“I was out.”

She nods and takes a deep breath, stretches out her body with a content moan before curling around him again. “Did you sleep well?”

Jon chuckles. “I barely slept at all.” He shifts so that he can look at her. She blinks sleepily up at him, squinting against the hazy light spilling through the window. “You kept me up.” He brushes a kiss to her lips. “Remember?”

He rolls her over on her back and kisses her again, but when he tries to deepen the kiss, she tenses up beneath him. Propped up on his hands, he pulls back to look at her. Her cheeks are reddened and while she does look at him, there’s something guarded in her eyes, as though she’s forcing herself to meet his. His stomach tightens. She wasn’t in her cups last night, was she? She didn’t seem like it. But her hands press against his chest like a shield and there’s regret in her eyes. That’s what that look is. He feels sick.

“I’m- I’m a bit…” Sansa smiles weakly. “It feels as if I’ve trained with Arya. My whole body aches.”

His breath rushes out of him with a whoosh. Jon slumps down next to her and rests his head on her shoulder, smiling with relief--and the smile only widens when he remembers all the things they did last night. She’s a lady, one who doesn’t enjoy riding or climbing or fighting. She must’ve used muscles she never knew she had.

“Sansa, I told you: if you don’t want to, I don’t want to. I’ll always respect your no.”

“Then: no,” she says, but it sounds as if she’s smiling. “I’d like to cuddle, though?”

“Then we’ll cuddle,” he murmurs and rests his arm over her stomach. “Can I still kiss you?”

When she hums, he drops a kiss to her shoulder, her jawline, her cheekbone. Whenever he pulls away his lips, he finds another spot he’s desperate to kiss. Her earlobe, her temple, the apple of her cheek when the happiness with which she shines pulls her mouth into a smile. The beauty mark on her neck, the hollow of her throat, the… He pauses when he sees the dragonfly pendant resting between her breasts.

“You told me." He runs his fingertips over its opal eyes and down its slender body. “You told me how you felt and I was feeling too sorry for myself to understand.”

“I thought you knew.”

Jon shakes his head. “Sometimes I thought… But then you--” He swallows and tries to find the right words to convey what he’s feeling. “It’s all I’ve ever wanted. Being lord of Winterfell. Being married to a good woman. Having children. And I thought I could never have it. I thought I was insolent for even dreaming about it. It seemed too impossible to be true. I thought you wanted to stay married because you knew, because I was bad at hiding it, or because you heard Tyrion and Varys and--”

“Tyrion and Varys?”

“They were talking about us. That day, in the hollow tree. You didn’t hear them?”

Sansa blushes prettily, eyelashes fluttering as she averts her eyes. “No, I was distracted.”

“By what?”

“By you, you idiot.”

Jon can’t help but laugh and he kisses her again, slow and light, her lips pliant against his. “I didn’t know. I thought you pitied me. That you thought being married to me would be good enough, because at least I loved you.”

“I thought you pitied me!”

“We really are fools, aren’t we?”

“When--” Sansa bites her lip and looks up at him through her lashes. “So you… Before the wedding?”

“Aye. Long before that,” he says and her eyes widen, but in a good way and it encourages him to tell the truth for once. “At Castle Black. That’s when it started. I thought I was confused at first, that it would go away. But then we traveled and we argued, and you were so strong, so clever, and every night, when I went to bed alone in my tent...”

He hears his voice growing hoarse, feels his heart beating too fast, but he has to say this, needs to own his shameful secret, needs to give it to her and let her acceptance silence the power it has over him.

“I thought of you. I took myself in hand and thought of you and I hated myself for it. I thought something got left behind when the Red Woman resurrected me. Some part of me forgotten in the black. After everything you’d been through, I still… I wanted you. I’m sorry.”

Sansa tilts her head like a wolf, regarding him with gentle eyes. “All that time, and you did nothing. You didn’t push me or force me. You didn’t use me. Not even when I…” Her gaze drops to his lips and she pulls him closer by cupping his cheek. Another sweet kiss, tender and languid. “You have nothing to feel sorry for, Jon,” she whispers against his mouth. “Nothing. You deserve all of it. Winterfell, marriage, children. A good life.” She ghosts her fingers over his cheek, down his shoulder, his forearm, to his hand, which she brings to her stomach. “Perhaps we’ve made a babe already.”

He doesn’t know whether he can have them. He died. But his heart beats and his blood flows; he bruises and bleeds and aches. Perhaps he can. Perhaps the old gods will allow him that joy. If he was brought back for a reason, perhaps that reason wasn’t to kill the Night King but to make things right.

“If we have them, if we have children, promise me something. We won’t let them leave Winterfell until they’re grown. When we left, that's when everything went to shit. Because we all went our separate ways instead of sticking together. We can’t let that happen again. We won’t send them away to be raised as wards. No betrothals until they’re grown and know themselves and what they want.”

“No betrothals unless they want to.”

“Aye. Only if they want to. Especially the girls. And you and I will stay at Winterfell. Together. Where we belong.”

Sansa weaves their fingers together over her stomach. “The lone wolf dies, but the pack survives.”

“Aye.” He rests his forehead against her temple. He can already see them, their children, a whole litter of them, dashing through the godswood with Ghost. “The pack survives.”

Chapter Text

He’s spent many moons thinking about undressing her. Sometimes slowly, reverently, intent on worshipping every inch of her body; sometimes hurriedly, feverishly, desperate to bury himself inside her. He never imagined watching her getting dressed, though; never imagined how breathtaking it would be. And now here he sits, one leg in his breeches, the other bare, mesmerized by his wife rolling on her stockings, stepping into her dress, slipping her arms into the sleeves. She’s shot him a chiding look or two, but he knows from the languid way she moves, from how she drapes her unbound hair over her shoulder, from how her eyes trail over his half-hard cock, that she doesn’t mind at all.

Then she turns her back to him and asks, very sweetly, “Would you help me?”

He fumbles his leg into the breeches and gets up. The bodice is gaping open, revealing an intricate pattern of pale scars framed by untied laces. It always twists something inside him, seeing the evidence of her days as Ramsay's prisoner. But, Jon tells himself as he spreads kisses along her spine, it’s the evidence of her resilience too. She hums when he reaches the nape of her neck, where he breathes her in deeply. She smells like fresh linen and warm skin, like staying in bed all day and letting the world turn on its own.

“Once everything’s sorted,” he murmurs, winding his arms around her waist, “we’re spending all day in bed.”

After weeks of holding her as they sleep, he’s comfortable with her body--and she seems to be comfortable with his. Feelings, however, are another matter entirely. Laying his feelings bare like this still fills his stomach with dread, as though she’ll take back the confessions whispered in the dark, and his heart beats wildly as he waits for her response. The space of a breath feels like an eternity.

“That sounds lovely,” she says and he exhales his relief into her hair.

“There’s something you should know. Before we head out there.”

Sansa turns in his arms, standing so close he has to tilt his face up slightly to meet her eyes.

“Arya mentioned that we were… loud.”

Sansa’s eyelashes flutter. “Loud?”

“Aye. But I don’t think we were that loud.”

“No, but all it takes is one person hearing us, and then the whole inn knows.”

He tucks her hair behind her ear. “Does it bother you? I can get us something to eat in here, if you like. We don’t have to break fast with the others.”

“No. Ever since I left Winterfell, people have tried to shame me. My traitor’s blood. The men I’ve been forced to marry. The names I’ve been forced to take.” Her bottom lip trembles and she presses her lips together, shaking her head. “I refuse to feel ashamed about this. I refuse to feel ashamed about being happy for once. Does it- does it bother you?”

“No. Never.”

He stretches himself up and kisses her until his cock stirs, and when he pulls away for air, she’s looking down at him with hooded eyes and wet lips and he wonders whether she’d say yes after all, despite her sore muscles. But when he moves in for another kiss, she evades him with a coy sort of smile he’s never before seen gracing her lips--one he knows she’ll learn how to use to drive him mad all too soon--and starts twisting her hair into a braid.

“I’m hungry,” she says, moving for the door, and he swears her hips sway more than usual and he has no idea how he’ll make it through the day.

The clamor of the common room reaches them before they’ve even descended the stairs. There’s something coarse about it, and as they move closer, Jon recognizes it as the boisterous laughter of a score of men reacting to a ribald joke. The din dies the instant he and Sansa step through the door, only to be replaced by the scraping of chairs as everyone gathered there rises to their feet, head bowed. Well, everyone except Tormund, who’s grinning at them like a loon. Jon glances at Sansa, but she’s already striding through the room like the queen she is, her armor of ice in place, sleek enough that any leering slides right off. She sits down by Brienne, who shares a table with Davos and, unfortunately, Tormund. Jon winces but follows, and when he settles down, the room comes alive again with the homey noise of murmuring voices and clinking cutlery.

“About time.” Tormund leans in closer to Sansa, one eyebrow arched and mouth set in a crooked grin. “I taught him everything he knows. You’re welcome.”

“I doubt it,” Sansa says. “I’m not a bear.”

Davos coughs into his cup of watered-down wine, while Tormund’s eyes widen with delight and he exchanges a look of approval with Jon before winking at Sansa. “No, you’re a she-wolf. Even better. This one”--he nods at Brienne--”wanted to rush into your chambers, but I told her they were screams of passion not--”

“Disrespect the Queen again,” Brienne says through gritted teeth, “and I’ll knock your teeth out.”

Tormund’s grin widens with a thrilled grunt. “Don’t give me promises you have no intention on keeping, my beauty.” His gaze wanders to Jon and suddenly he looks awfully serious, eyes sharp beneath bushy brows. “Your sister-wife makes you happy, eh? Don’t think I’ve ever seen you smile this much. She’s good for you. Don’t fuck it up, King Snow.”

Jon laughs. “I won’t.”

Tormund nods. “Good.” He grabs his cup of ale and stands, looking down at a scowling Brienne. “If you ever grow tired of that golden-handed Southerner not giving you what you deserve, you know where to find me.”

Then he swans off. Sansa follows him with her eyes, mask in place, but Jon feels her arm moving slightly and he knows she’s massaging her palm under the table. He reaches out for her, to close his hand around hers in a supportive gesture, but she pulls her hands away and adjusts the braid resting on her shoulder--and that horrible feeling returns to his gut.

“How’s ser Jaime?” Sansa asks.

Brienne stares down at the tabletop as she replies. “Hungover, I assume. He and his brother got in their cups last night.”

“Did you talk at all?”

“A little but…”

Brienne glances at Jon, who understands the hint. He tries to kiss his wife before leaving them alone to chat, but Sansa turns her cool cheek to him and he feels like a bastard boy again whose lips aren’t good enough for Lady Sansa.

She’s uncomfortable with them not with you, he tells himself as he pushes Davos' wheeled chair in front of him to Lord Glover’s table. Stop being an idiot.

Lord Glover might not be his favorite person, but if there’s anyone in that room who’s bound to cause trouble regarding the Southerners still visiting the North, it’s him. Jon knows the man needs to feel important, and he does look pleased when the King in the North chooses his table. While striking up a conversation never was Jon’s forte, Davos rarely fails to keep the small talk going and the two older men chat easily about weather, winter, and war while Jon eats a plate of bread and fish cooked with lemon and salt. He tries focusing on them, he really does try, and yet his eyes can’t help but wander back to Sansa. The kitchen has baked new lemon cakes for her and she shares them with Brienne as they talk. Their voices get lost in the din, but now that the attention is no longer on her, there’s an easiness in Sansa’s smile and a sparkle in her eyes that quell the worry in his gut, for he knows they’re there, lighting up her features, because of him.

That knowledge sends his heart soaring--and his mouth stretching into a soppy smile he’s unaware of wearing until Davos clears his throat and nods at Jon’s forgotten plate.

Jon clears his throat too and moves the fork dutifully between plate and mouth (but he can’t quite wipe off the smile).

Jon’s almost done when he notices Varys appearing in the doorway. The eunuch tilts his head back, gesturing for Jon to join him, and turns to head down the hallway. Jon wipes his mouth and hands before following. They meet in a small study with a single desk, a couple of armchairs, and a tapestry of the wolfswood at winter, with four wolves stalking among the oaks and spruces whose roots stretch deep into the ground. Tyrion sits by the desk, fiddling with his Hand pin, and he looks up at Jon with a polite smile that can mean no good.

“Ah, the King in the North. How good of Your Grace to join us.”

Jon frowns. “What’s this?”

“Oh, nothing, Your Grace,” Varys says. “We have a suggestion, that is all. The Seven Kingdoms are in disarray. There’s no ruler on the Iron Throne. Three, possibly more, of the kingdoms want their independence… The remaining Sand Snakes have taken control over Dorne, which is ruled by Elia, the eldest living daughter of Prince Oberyn and Ellaria Sand, who is here as Elia’s representative. Yara Greyjoy is, as you know, Queen of the Iron Islands. You’re King in the North. It seems to me we should all gather and discuss the future of the realm. Now that we’re all here.”

“Perhaps tomorrow. Once”--Tyrion waves vaguely with the brooch--“'Daenerys' has left with her armies. We’ll stay here until then, but we’d like your word that we will be guests in your home. With all that it entails.”

“You think I’d disrespect guest right?”

“No, not you. We’re worried about your bannermen. Lord Glover in particular. And… your sister, once she returns.”

“I’ll deal with them. And Arya won’t kill anyone under our roof. I promise.”

“She killed Lord Baelish under your roof,” Varys says. “Is that really a promise you can make?”

“Are you planning on betraying us?”

“Not at all, My King.”

“I'm not your king."

Varys shrugs. "Not yet."

"You’re all welcome at Winterfell tomorrow. Bread and salt will be offered. Good enough?”

Tyrion delivers a defusing grin. “Quite.”

-----

Jon has just helped Sansa into the carriage when something silver-gold catches his eye. His heart does a strange tumble, up into his throat, strangling him, before he remembers. Arya’s striding toward the carriages, Daenerys’ long braids coiling down her back like snakes. The furrowed white coat must be ruined from all the blood; she’s wearing a black-and-red coat trimmed with fur.

Everyone around them stops what they’re doing to watch the Dragon Queen and her reduced retinue: a red-eyed, red-nosed Missandei; a stony-faced Grey Worm; and a pallid, unarmed ser Jorah. His eyes are dull and hollow, staring at nothing. Once upon a time, he was a slaver, sentenced to be executed by Lord Eddard Stark, only to flee to the Free Cities. Ser Jorah is a man of the North. Jon’s subject. Jon knows his duty. He knows what it demands.

Longclaw feels too heavy at his hip, as though someone stole it and filled the scabbard with lead.

“Ser Jorah will join us when we leave for Essos,” Arya says with Daenerys’ mouth. She walks closer to Jon and speaks only for his ears. “I have to bring him or it’ll rouse suspicion among the Dothraki and the Unsullied.”

“What if he tries to hurt you?” Jon whispers.

Arya raises Daenerys’ eyebrow. “Honestly, Jon. I could take him blindfolded.”

Then she steps into the carriage, her retinue following. Qyburn isn’t with them this time. In fact, Jon hasn’t seen him or the Mountain all morning. Perhaps they’ve already left for King’s Landing, but Jon knows the truth usually is more gruesome than that.

Jon remembers the bloodstains on Arya’s boots.

-----

While Sansa is more relaxed behind the walls of the carriage, the glum-faced, wine-reeking ser Jaime puts quite the hamper on the mood. He shuts down any attempt at conversation with acerbic retorts, and whenever Jon brushes his fingers over Sansa’s cheek or kisses her hair or even looks at her, ser Jaime sighs and glares and rolls his eyes. When they stop for a midday meal and to stretch their legs, Jaime shoots out of the carriage as though it were on fire, and once it’s time to travel again, Jon overhears him telling Brienne that he’d rather take his chances with the “mad she-wolf” than spend another hour in the company of the nauseating Jon and Sansa. Then he slams open the door to Daenerys’ carriage and gets inside. For some reason, possibly because neither Brienne nor Davos particularly want to spend another hour in the company of the nauseating Jon or Sansa either, they join Jaime, and Jon finds himself blessedly alone with his wife.

Although three people would fit quite comfortably on the seat, he sits down so close to her their thighs press together. Then he knocks on the ceiling and the carriage starts moving. She’s so warm and soft and he leans into her, breathes in her scent, cranes his neck so that he can press his lips against her throat. But the lack of sleep and the subtle rocking of the carriage pull a yawn from him instead. Sansa smiles, loosens the leather string keeping his hair in a bun, helps him remove Longclaw, and guides him to lie down on the seat with his head in her lap.

“I need to write letters when we come home,” she says, running her fingers through his hair. “The realm needs to know the Night King is gone. I should’ve done it sooner.”

“You were busy.”

“It’s not an excuse. Should I tell them about Cersei and Daenerys as well?”

“I don’t know.” Jon yawns again. “Perhaps we should all discuss that. Tomorrow. Varys and the others…” Another yawn. “I invited--”

“Hush. You need to rest. We’ll talk when we get home.”

Jon nods, closes his eyes, and allows himself a kip.

Once they’d taken back Winterfell, they spent many evenings in her solar. She at her desk, composing letters. He in a chair, whetting his sword while doing a bad job at hiding how he really only was drinking in the sight of her, the copper shine of her hair, the inky shadows of her eyelashes cast on pink cheeks, and the way she bit her lip when she focused. Staying soft in his breeches always proved quite the task, then. But in his dreams, when he sees her there, quill in hand, teeth sinking into her lip, he does what he never dared doing then. He drops the sword, pulls her into his arms, wipes the parchment off her desk and...

When he comes to, he’s achingly hard and ready. But Sansa’s hands have stilled and she’s resting, now, too. The dim light of twilight spills through the tiny jalousied windows, playing over her lax features. He watches her for a moment--the calm rise and fall of her chest, her parted lips--and lets himself soften. How did someone like him deserve all this happiness? He brushes his fingers over her stomach. The odds that a babe has already taken root are slim, but if she lets him, he’ll do his best to increase those odds. As often as possible.

Sansa’s hand closes around his, presses it flat against her stomach. “How many do you want?” she asks, blinking her eyes open.

He remember servants whispering about his father and Lady Catelyn, and how their many children told you they loved one another for true. That’s what he wants. Children born from love not duty--and lots of them. He presses a kiss to her flat stomach and imagines what it will look like round with child. How it will feel when the babe kicks against the palm of his hand.

“I don’t know,” he murmurs. “As many as we can. With leaves in their hair.”

“What?”

“That’s what you said.” He reaches up and curls the end of her braid around his fingers. “When you very drunkenly tried to seduce me with your lacy smallclothes and talk about babes.”

Sansa hides her face in her hands. “Don’t remind me. That was mortifying.”

“It was adorable.”

It was adorable--and utterly heartbreaking--and he wants to kick himself for being so consumed with guilt and self-pity that he couldn’t understand how she kept telling him she was choosing him and their life together because she wanted it.

He sits up and gently lifts her hands from her face, holding them in his as he speaks. “I’m sorry for rejecting you. I’m sorry I made you feel… I don’t know. Undesirable. You’re not.” He laughs, shaking his head. “You’re really not. I thought I was doing the right thing.”

“You were.” Her eyes are soft and her lips curved into a loving smile. “Gilly told me… She said it can be lovely. But it’s so much more than that. Isn’t it? Lovely’s not enough.”

“No, it’s not.”

“I’m glad we waited. I’m grateful you rejected me. I used to think, if a man wants you, he’ll take what he wants, whenever he wants it--even you. But I was wrong. And, yes, it hurt me, but now... I’m very happy I was wrong, Jon. You’re a good man.”

“Am I?” He drags a hand over his beard. “Missandei told me a thing or two.”

“About us?”

Jon shakes his head and tells Sansa about the burial and all the things Missandei and himself talked about. As Sansa listens, the crinkles between her eyebrows grow deeper and deeper. Once he’s finished, her jaw is set and eyes fierce.

“She never even met Father,” Sansa says. “She's never met us when we weren’t being invaded. Daenerys was our enemy. I know it’s easy to forget--I forgot it myself sometimes--but she was always our enemy. If reasoning with her had been possible, she could’ve been an ally, but…” Sansa sighs and brushes away a lock of hair that shadows his eye. “I know she was your aunt, and that complicated everything. But she wouldn’t have let the North remain independent without a fight. We did what we had to to survive. We did what we had to to protect our people. Isn’t that what good rulers do?”

Jon nods slowly. He’s still not certain what he believes, but if he keeps ruminating on the things he cannot change it’ll only drive him mad. All he can do now is making better choices in the future. And his future, the future he’s always dreamed of, sits in front of him, playing with his hair and looking at him with so much love it makes him dizzy.

“You are a good man, Jon,” Sansa says, leaning in so close he can smell the lemon of her breath. “Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

Her lips are dry and warm, kissing the corners of his mouth, his bottom lip, his top lip. Then they part. A jolt shoots through him when their tongues meet. He groans into her mouth and shifts to move closer, needing to feel her body against his own. Her tongue moves slowly, in the sated, languid sort of way they kissed last night after making love, but he’s hungered for her all day, even in his dreams, and presses forward until she’s leaning against the wall, covered by his body. He sucks on her lips, her tongue, cups her breast over her dress, coaxes the nipple hard through the fabric. Sansa’s breathing quickens and now she’s hungry too, fingers tugging at his clothes to find skin. His fingers fumble with her skirts, finding their way to the soft wool of her stockings, to the warm and smooth skin of her thighs which spread under his touch.

He releases her lips to look at her, to see consent in her eyes, to see want in them. Her head is leaned back against the corner of the wall. She’s panting, one hand working the laces of his breeches, the other clutching the hem of her skirts, which she’s pulled up to her thigh. His eyes fall to the exposed skin. Sansa pulls up her skirts farther, the white ruffles of her smallclothes peeking out. His cock's throbbing and he palms himself as he watches her shimmying out of her smallclothes and kicking them to the floor.

He skims the soft hair covering her mound, and parts her lips to find the wet heat at the apex of her thighs. She hooks a leg over his knee and opens up for him, presses against his fingers as they find the spot that gives her pleasure. Though her own hand moves over him as well, it’s without rhythm, barely conscious. She’s too wrapped up in how he teases her cunt with his fingers to have any control over her own movements, and he pulls back just so he can watch her once she falls apart. Her eyes are squeezed shut, eyebrows tugged together, lips parted, tongue darting out now and then to wet them, and it’s glorious. She’s radiant.

“I want to taste you,” he whispers and Sansa whimpers, spreading her legs even more.

He scoots down on the floor of the carriage, positions himself between her legs, leans in… and then the carriage stops. Sansa’s eyes fly open. She’s breathing as though she’s run for miles. They hear people outside, dismounting, exiting carriages, their chatter muffled by the walls. Sansa scrambles away from him, arranges her skirts, smooths them out. Her cheeks are crimson and her eyes wide-open instead of hooded and needy.

He’s rutted under sleepskins while other wildlings slept (or fucked) only a few feet away. He’s stolen moments behind trees and bushes and rocks no larger than a giant’s hand. No one’s going to open the door to their carriage and he doesn’t care about the people outside, but his wife looks stressed, her hands fluttering over her hair and her garments to ensure she’s presentable, so Jon sucks her taste off his fingers, puts on his gloves to conceal whatever remains of it, and waits until his cock has softened before putting on Longclaw and leading her outside. Out of habit, he takes one last look into the carriage before closing the door, and notices the white silk garment on the floor. Quickly, he snatches it up, shoves it into the pocket of his breeches, and walks out into the night.

People stare at them. He remembers he forgot to tie back his hair. Hers is tousled too with several strands having escaped her braid, and her lips are swollen from his kisses. Someone whispers something he can’t discern. Someone giggles. Someone else joins in, then more and more. He could not care less about their ogling or giggling, but Sansa cares, so he shuts them up with a burning glare and leads his wife into the castle.

 

Supper’s come and gone, so they have their evening meal in one of the smaller audience chambers with their advisers and some of their bannermen. People try to converse with him, but Sansa’s damp smallclothes still lie in his pocket and every time he moves the fork to his mouth he smells her on his fingers and he wants to scream at his guests to eat their bloody supper already and make themselves scarce. It’s pure and utter torment.

Afterwards, once everyone’s filled their bellies and left for bed, he and Sansa head to her solar to write those blasted letters and he stares at her swaying hips and feels like a bowstring pulled too taut. As if a mere brush of her fingers over his cock would make him snap and peak in his smallclothes like a green boy.

Thoughts like that do him no good. Discreetly, he slips his hand into his breeches and adjusts himself to hide his erection. Soon they’ll be in her solar, though, soon he’ll be able to--

Daenerys--Arya--stands before them in the hallway, Gendry behind her. “Gendry thought we should spend some time together, since I leave tomorrow.”

Jon shoots Gendry a look that must be withering, because the poor man shrinks beneath his stare. Averting his eyes, Jon balls his hands into fists, breathes out slowly, relaxes his hands, and looks back up at Gendry with a friendly smile he knows is too tight to be convincing. Gendry watches him carefully, moves his gaze to Sansa, to her still-tousled hair--and then back to Jon. A grin spreads on his face.

“Yeah,” he says. “We should stay up all night and just talk. All of us. All night.” He nods at the door to Sansa’s solar. “In there. I’m in quite the chatty mood. Aren’t you?”

“What?” Arya asks and scrunches up her nose in a way Jon’s never seen Daenerys do and it’s nothing but disconcerting.

It’s his sister, he knows it is, and yet the effect is so creepy, his instincts tell him to be wary, to move his hand to the hilt of Longclaw. Gendry, however, seems unperturbed. He laughs, slings his arm around Arya’s shoulders, and follows Sansa into the solar. Once the door is closed, Arya removes Daenerys’ face but stays in her black-and-red dress. She’s soon sprawled comfortably in the loveseat by the window, legs slung over Gendry’s while she tells them of her plan. She’ll lead the armies back to Essos, where the Dothraki will return to the Great Grass Sea, and Grey Worm and Missandei will return to Meereen with the Unsullied.

“Then I’ll come back home,” she says, toying with the dragon ring on her finger.

“I wish I could come with you,” Gendry says, prodding absentmindedly at the stitches on his face.

“You have to rest.” She looks up at him through her lashes and brushes her fingers over his short hair, so tenderly. “I’ll be back before you know it.”

Arya’s different around him. More gentle, sometimes even shy. She laughs and flirts and looks like any other young lady in love, while Gendry’s looking at her with so much longing it makes Jon want to act the big brother and forbid them from spending time together alone until they’ve walked down to the heart-tree and made their vows before the gods.

But it’s not his place, is it? Instead he smiles at them and hopes that everything will turn out well, that Arya will return unharmed from Essos, and live a long and happy life with her blue-eyed bastard blacksmith. Perhaps they’ll have children too, once they're wed. Children who’ll grow up right here at Winterfell and play with their little cousins. He looks at Sansa, then, and when she smiles warmly at him, he knows the same thoughts fill her mind.

When he looks back at his sister and Gendry, their heads are so close together their noses brush and he clears his throat loudly. They spring apart and stares at him, wide-eyed.

“Perhaps you should retire,” he says with a pointed look and it’s not at all because he wants time alone with his wife. Not even a little bit. “We’ll see you off tomorrow, Arya.”

The door has barely closed behind them before Jon scrambles over to Sansa so quickly his chair falls over. She laughs as he kisses her, sighs with pleasure when he moves his lips to her neck, and it takes him no time at all to grow hard yet again. But when he grinds against her, she pushes him away and he can’t help the sinking feeling in his stomach. He knows she wants him--he knows it--and yet all those years of rejection still have their hold on him. For how long will he feel like this? For how long will he fear that she’ll wake up one day, realize he’s not good enough for her, and ask for that annulment after all?

Stop being an idiot, he tells himself. Stop it.

“I still have those letters to write,” Sansa says as she sits down by her desk. “I can’t neglect it any longer. I want Maester Wolkan to send them out tonight.”

Jon nods and wanders over to the fireplace, where he leans against the mantelpiece, waiting for his cock to soften. Again. A carved wolf stands there, between fat block candles and ornate trinkets. He picks it up and rubs his thumb over the smooth wood as he listens to his wife speaking.

“We should have a feast as well. We haven’t celebrated winning the battle. And, I imagine, once everyone learns all the threats are gone, they’ll demand a feast. We have food now as well.”

“Aye. It’s a good idea.” Jon puts back the carved wolf. “I need a word with Davos. I’ll be back later.”

 

-----

 

Jon finds Davos is in his chambers, sitting in the wheeled chair in front of the fire, staring into the flames, a book forgotten in his lap. His eyes are glossy and a bit red. An empty wine cup stands on the table next to him. They’ve not talked about his disability--not talked at all, really--but Jon doesn’t know what to say. So he just grabs the only other chair in the room, places it opposite Davos, and sits down.

“Your Grace”--Davos turns up the corners of his mouth--“to what do I--”

“Don’t,” Jon says with a grimace. “Not when we’re alone. I came to say thank you.” He hands Davos Shireen’s burned stag. “This helped. It really did. But I don’t need it anymore. Thought maybe you wanted it back.”

Davos cradles the stag in his hand, smiling wistfully. “No, I suppose you don’t.” He turns the stag in his hands, runs the stubs of his fingers across its back, and when he looks back at Jon, his smile softens into something fatherly. “She’s hard to figure out, your wife. Plays the game too well.” He tucks the stag into an inner pocket of his tunic. “She’s a good woman, and I like her, but you know me. I won’t lie to you. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it, this marriage of yours. I didn’t know whether you would use her or she you, but Tormund was right. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you this happy. And, more importantly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen her smile this much.” He pulls an amused face. “At least not genuinely. I’m happy for you. Both of you.”

Jon ducks his head, beaming. “And what about you?” he says to his lap, voice a bit hoarse. “What about your family? The wars are over. Would you like to return to them?”

“No. With your permission, I’d like to bring them here. I know we don’t always agree. You don’t always listen to me. Sometimes I think you’re making mistakes--and I tell you so.”

“You do.”

“But it doesn’t change the fact that I couldn’t imagine a king more worthy of serving. So I’d like to keep serving you as your Hand--if a King in the North has a Hand?”

“I don’t know. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to figure out? How to proceed. How to build this new world.”

“Aye. And…” There’s a rare vulnerability in Davos' eyes; a tension in his shoulders. “I’d like to be by your side as you do it.”

“Good. Because I’ll need you,” Jon says and Davos relaxes visibly. “Varys wants to hold a meeting tomorrow, with Yara Greyjoy and Ellaria Sand.”

“What do you think of them? Do you trust them?”

“I don’t know.” Jon scratches his beard, shaking his head slowly. “But I don’t want more enemies. All I want now is peace, and I do trust that if we let them be, they’ll let us be.”

“Peace does sound good. It’s time for that, isn’t it?”

“Aye.”

“Now, run along. It’s late. You shouldn’t keep your wife waiting. I’m sure she longs for…” Davos lifts his eyebrows. “Your company.”

I hope you’re right, Jon thinks, cheeks heating up.

He says good night and rushes back to Sansa’s solar, nearly bumping into Maester Wolkan in his haste. The man stumbles back, clutching scrolls against his chest.

“Your Grace,” he says with a bow.

Jon mumbles something and keeps moving. Those scrolls mean Sansa’s done with her letters, mean Sansa’s available, and knowing that is enough to make his blood run hotter and his legs run faster. He imagines her sitting there by her desk, bare beneath her skirts, rubbing her thighs together as she waits for him. By the time he’s slipped into her solar, he’s half hard again and panting. He slumps back against the door to catch his breath.

“Jon?” Sansa says, looking up at him from her work.

A tome lies before her, but a tome can wait. Without a word, he stalks up to her, pulls her out of her chair, and catches her lips with his own. A surprised noise escapes her, but she kisses him back and there’s none of that bloody languidness any longer. Her breaths are already ragged, her tongue eager, and her hands are clutching at his back to pull him closer to her. Usually, he takes his time kissing her mouth, her neck, her breasts properly before doing anything else, but he can’t take the wait any longer. He lifts her up by the waist and sets her down on the desk, dropping to his knees before her.

“What, here?” she says, looking positively scandalized.

Jon pushes up her skirts to her thighs. “Yes, here.” He kisses the inside of first one knee and then the other while his hands move beneath her skirts to push her legs farther apart. “All right?”

Her only reply is lifting her skirts higher while gazing down at him with breathless anticipation. He keeps their eyes locked as he kisses his way up her thigh, as he grabs her hips and pulls her closer to him.

“Lady Sansa,” he breathes out as she’s laid bare before him. “No smallclothes?” He tuts at her, shaking his head. “Scandalous. What will people say?”

Sansa opens her mouth to reply, but her retort turns into a strangled moan when he takes a long lick along her slit. He groans with satisfaction at the taste of her, and takes another lick, coating his tongue with her flavors. Then he pulls back his mouth and parts her lips with his fingers. The pearl nestled between her folds is already swollen, deep pink, and shining. Inviting. Telling him she’s dreamed of this all day, just like he has. The tip of his tongue dances over it and Sansa’s breath hitches. She wraps her legs over his shoulders and grabs the edge of the desk, pressing closer to him. He prods at her opening with two fingers. She’s slick with her own juices, and he slips into her easily. A soft moan leaves her. Then another as his fingers start pumping. Gentle and steady at first, almost slow, but she’s bucking her hips, urging him to move faster. Jon buries his head between her thighs and sucks on that bud while working his fingers in her cunt, hitting the rippled spot inside her he’s learned drives her wild. She’s whimpering, lifting her hips closer, her soles pressing against his back. His blood rushes in his vein, flooding to his cock, filling it every time she makes another delicious whimper until he’s so hard he’s straining against his breeches.

When she winds a hand into his hair, spins locks around her fingers and steers him, holds him in place, he knows she’s close. He knows to keep licking swiftly, firmly, holding that steady rhythm that pushes her closer and closer--and then a high-pitched moan fills the solar and she quakes beneath his mouth, thighs trembling against his ears. He fucks her hard with his fingers, sucks at her clit, laps up the juices gushing out of her, as she rides the waves of pleasure until she’s so spent she pushes away his head. Her cunt still has his fingers in a tight grip, and his cock twitches with the need to plunge into her. He can’t get out of his clothes fast enough, can’t get inside her fast enough. His breeches and smallclothes fall to floor, his cock springing free, stiff and swollen. She winds her legs around his waist and pulls him closer and the head of his cock noses at her folds. Her hands find his cheeks and she holds his face in her palms as though she owns him--and she does. She’d never demand it, but she does, he wants her to, and he tells her with his eyes that he is hers in every way as he pushes inside her.

It’s so good, so warm and tight and wet. She blinks slowly, eyes dazed, lips curved into the softest of smiles, and then she leans closer and brushes her nose against his before kissing him lazily, deeply, lovingly, her hands sliding into his hair he still hasn’t bound, maybe never will again. His fingers toy with the laces of her bodice, pulls at them until her back is bare and he tugs down her sleeves, her bodice, so that her breasts are bare too. The nipples are puckered, pink, calling to him, begging for his mouth. His eyes flicker up to Sansa’s, asking for permission, and she nudges down his head to her breasts. He licks, kisses, sucks, sloppily, messily, as her tits bounce against his face every time he thrusts into her. Her body clings to him, heels digging into his arse, spurring him on, and he fucks her so hard he feels the desk moving beneath her, but she’s panting his name, arching so that he can still tease her tits with his mouth and she’s reaching down between them to play with herself and his whole body is tingling, the pressure building in his cock so overwhelming that he needs her to come now before he explodes.

The desk hits the wall. Flesh slaps against flesh. Their grunts mingle with the wet noises of his cock plunging into her. Sansa whimpers again, licks her bottom lip, bites down on it, rubs her clit harder, and then her eyebrows tug together and her head lolls back with a drawn-out moan. He feels her clamping down on him, clenching around his cock, and falls forward with relief as he can finally let go. A wave of heat crashes through him, pulsates in his cock as his seed spills inside her, and he collapses on top of her, his head nestled in the valley between her breasts, the dragonfly pendant warm against his cheek. His whole body feels lax, legs wobbly, eyelids heavy, and he doubts he can ever push himself to stand properly. Perhaps he can spend the rest of his days right here, inside her, atop her, surrounded by her scent.

But Sansa pushes him gently away and it feels like a loss. He still needs the feel of her silky skin beneath his fingers. Her dress has fallen to her lap--her chest is flushed and her left breast trembles from the rushed beating of her heart--and she swiftly slips it back on.

“Sansa…”

She hops off the desk and turns her back to him and it feels wrong, too sober, too controlled. But then she lets out a laugh and it warms him like sunshine.

“Jon. We moved the desk all the way to the wall.”

“I noticed,” he says, lacing up her dress rather carelessly because he's too sated to focus.

“But it’s heavy. The guards must’ve heard us.”

“Aye, they probably did.” He lets his hands drop to her waist. “Sansa, we promised we’d talk. If we ever made each other uncomfortable, we’d talk.”

“I know. I’m sorry.” She sighs and turns around. “I do feel uncomfortable. Not with you! With them. They’re all so interested in us. What we do. They’re all whispering about us. Already.”

“Well, we are their king and queen.”

“I know,” she says and plucks at the straps of his jerkin. “And I know I said I refuse to feel ashamed, but I can’t help it. I suppose it’ll take me a while, to get used to it. People hearing us. But I must.” She nods determinedly. “And I will. Because...”

She bites her lip, ducks her head, and looks up at him with that new smile of hers, the coy one that fills his stomach with butterflies.

“What?” he whispers.

“My husband is very hard to resist.”

He knows he’s grinning like a fool, know he looks like one too, with his breeches at his ankles and his arse bare and his cock soft and sticky. But Sansa loves him and Sansa wants him and his heart is full and the desk hit the wall and now they’ll walk to their chambers and fuck the bed into the wall as well and fall asleep in each other’s arms, satisfied and sweaty. And he knows this is what it’ll be like for them now. Fucking in her solar between meetings. Ducking into a closet on their way to the Great Hall so he can sup on her cunt. Sneaking off to the godswood to make love beneath the heart-tree. And then her hesitations and rejections and strangely sober behavior won’t fill him with doubts any longer, for that mean voice inside him that tells him he’ll never be good enough for her, loses its power each time she looks at him the way she does now. Each time she smiles and kisses him softly on the lips and writhes against his body the way she does now, even though she just had him.

“Let’s go to bed,” she whispers against his lips. “Teach me how to pleasure you with my mouth.”

Sansa bending over him in bed. Red hair spilling over his thighs, silky and cool. Pink lips sliding down his cock.

Jon shakes his head to clear it from the tantalizing images her demand conjured, and swallows. Hard.

“You want to do that?” he manages to get out, still a bit dazed, and she nods eagerly.

As they dart through the hallways, hand-in-hand, he’s doubts they’re very presentable. Her hair’s a mess, he can’t remember whether he laced up his breeches properly, knows he didn't lace up her dress as well as he should've, and everyone they meet either fights a smile or averts their eyes. But he doesn’t care.

The castle gossip has been bleak for far too long. Let them see how much their King loves his Queen. Let them see how much he wants her. And let them whisper about it for all the North to hear so that everyone knows that when the first little prince or princess is born, they’ll be born from love not duty.

Chapter Text

In her sleep, Arya murmurs commands in Dothraki. Earlier this evening, when she practiced Daenerys’ voice and manners, the words were harsh and loud, but now they’re soft and hushed and almost melodic. Missandei has been teaching her, and they’ve brushed up on Arya’s Valyrian pronunciation as well. The dialect she learned in Braavos is all wrong. He doesn’t understand how she remembers it all, but she was always as sharp as Needle while he's blunt as a hammer.

She’ll be gone for weeks this time. Weeks of worrying and waiting. Weeks of wondering whether she’s safe.

Gendry nestles closer and drops a kiss to her very clever head, praying for dawn to stay far away and give him another night in her bed. Dawn does not listen, however, and soon it’s nosing at the horizon. He wakes Arya with sweet kisses to her neck and brow and lips. They can’t say goodbye properly out in the courtyard, where she’ll wear Daenerys’ face, but they do in here, in the best sort of way. A way that leaves them sweaty and smiling.

Then Arya sneaks out of her own chambers, to sneak into someone else’s and get dressed, and the next time he sees her, she’s silver-blond and wearing black-and-red as she says goodbye to the King and Queen in the North. Daenerys’ armies are lined up outside the walls of Winterfell with Bran, and ser Jorah’s already trussed up in a winter carriage he’ll share with Missandei and Grey Worm.

From what Gendry’s seen of Mormont, he’s too deep in grief to understand much of what’s going on around him, but he’ll shake out of that haze soon enough and once he does…

Arya will fly on Bran’s back, though, and Grey Worm’s promised to keep an eye on ser Jorah--and yet Gendry can’t shrug off the worry weighing on his shoulders like a yoke. His thoughts must be written plainly on his face for Grey Worm walks up to him with a sympathetic expression.

“I will not let ser Jorah harm her,” he says, quietly. “You have my word.”

Gendry nods. “Will be quiet without you lot. Will you ever come back to visit?”

“I would like to visit, but…”

Grey Worm glances at Missandei, who stands next to the carriage with her eyes locked on the castle walls and her head held high. Despite the warm brown of her skin and eyes, she looks frostier than even Queen Sansa when she slips into her icy armor, and refuses to say goodbye to anyone. Not that Gendry can blame her, really.

“Goodbye, friend.” Grey Worm claps Gendry on his good shoulder. “Look after my brothers for me.”

Not every Unsullied is leaving for Essos. Most of them don’t remember the families they were taken from, and now after spending months in the North, they’ve found new families to love. Like Swift Spear, who fell for a wildling widow whose two children are young enough to soon forget their father and call Swift Spear father instead. Or Black Roach, who’s always seen with a wildling man Gendry suspects has become his lover. And then there’s Strong Shield who, on the night Winterfell was attacked, protected a gaggle of orphans who’ve followed him around like goslings ever since. Not that he seems to mind, what with his moving into an empty house in Wintertown with his motley little family and all. There are others too, at least twenty or more.

Not a single Dothraki, though, but Gendry can’t say he’s upset about that. He never did take a liking to them.

As Gendry watches Arya and Bran grow small against the gray morning sky, Elner, the Wintertown bard who never seems to leave Winterfell any longer, sings first The Queen of Winter, and then The Dragon Queen’s Sacrifice. Both songs have become popular, especially among the smallfolk, who often hum them as they work.

There’s no song about the Faceless Woman who saved the world, however, even though she did. His Arya. Anyone who was there that night in the Wolfswood knows the Night King would’ve won had it not been for her. And now she’s rid the realm of both the Mad Queen Cersei, and the Dragon Queen who threatened to burn anyone who refused to fall to their knees, and the world will never know to whom they owe their thanks.

But then she never did it for the praise, did she, so perhaps it doesn’t matter in the end.

 

“Hungry?”

Gendry shakes himself out of his thoughts and meets Jon’s friendly eyes.

“Come, break fast with us and our bannermen. Sansa and I would like your company.”

As they enter the Great Hall together, Jon even tells Gendry to sit close to the head table, but that doesn’t feel right at all. So he settles down in the back of the room with his bowl of porridge, heel of bread, and cup of water. The bannermen are an angry lot this morning. Yara Greyjoy, Ellaria Sand, Tyrion Lannister, and Varys are expected at noon and that’s enough to get them all riled up like spooked pigeons.

Lord Glover shoots to his feet, face red like a boiled lobster. “Her head! I want her head!”

“My lord,” Jon says, “Yara Greyjoy is our ally. She helped in--”

“The Ironborn attacked my home!” He glares at Jon. “They attacked my family.”

“And they attacked ours.” The Queen’s voice is as cool as her features are calm. “But then Theon Greyjoy helped me escape Winterfell.”

She doesn’t point out how none of the people gathered helped her, even though they knew what Ramsay was, but she does pause for long enough that they all hear it nonetheless. They even squirm uncomfortably in their seats and avert their eyes.

“He died protecting me and my brother,” she continues. “Yara Greyjoy brought her forces here to protect our families from the dead when she could’ve gone back to the Iron Islands to wait out the war. And now, thanks to her ships, you’re eating well in winter. We’re no longer enemies. We’re no longer at war. So, what do you value more, my lord, peace and food on your plate--or vengeance?”

“It’s not vengeance; it’s justice. But perhaps you’re not interested in justice anymore now that your enemies are gone.”

“You’re right,” Jon says. “Our enemies are gone--and I’m not looking to make new ones. Because enemies are what I’d make. I’m not the king of Dorne. I’m not the king of the Iron Islands. They’re not my people to punish.”

“And why should that stop you?” Glover says. “It wouldn’t stop Lady Arya.”

“All right.” Jon’s mouth smiles, but his eyes narrow into slits. “If it’s justice my people want… I’ll behead Queen Yara for attacking Lord Glover’s family. And I’ll behead Ellaria Sand for… What has she done?”

“She murdered my daughter,” ser Jaime mutters, still as gloriously grumpy as he was when they returned from the inn last night.

“And you tried to murder my little brother,” Jon says. “Your son murdered my father, your father arranged the murder of my brother, his wife, their unborn child, and Lady Catelyn--and yet I’ve invited you into my home, let you sup at my table. As I’ve invited your brother, despite his killing ser Davos’ sons with wildfire on the Blackwater. And I’ve invited you, Lord Glover, and forgiven you for breaking faith with House Stark when we needed your help to win back Winterfell. And now here you sit, in my home, threatening my allies. What will you have me do? Forgive or punish?” Jon closes his hand around the pommel of Longclaw. “Because if you insist…”

He pauses to let Lord Glover speak, but the man only sits back down, fuming. Gendry tears off a chunk of bread with his teeth and grins as he chews.

“My lords,” Jon addresses the room, “we have bled enough. We have lost enough. The day we banded together to fight the dead, we made a decision. And that decision was to help one another no matter…”

As Jon keeps talking about old wars not mattering anymore and choosing the living and working together and whatnot, Gendry scoops up the last of his porridge and leaves the highborns to quarrel in peace.

While his wounds still forbid it, both mind and body long for a day of hard work at the forge, so that’s where he goes. Gorm’s out there as well, seated on a stool, crutches leaning against the wall. He’s not working either, what with being one-legged and all, but he is sketching on some bronze leg he wants Gendry to make him once Maester Wolkan says he’s healed enough.

“Aren’t you cold?” Gendry asks.

Gorm shrugs. “Think better out here.”

As does Gendry, so he settles down next to him and chats about the bronze leg while watching people scurrying about the courtyard. Scullery maids getting water from the well. The kennel master gathering the hounds for a hunt. The stable boy whistling as he mucks out the stables. Children throwing snowballs and building snow knights like children should, instead of practicing bow and arrows and spears. A chambermaid who seems to pass the forge more often than necessary and keeps looking at him through her lashes.

“She likes you,” Gorm says. “When I was your age, I was already married with two children. Roona, her name is. You should talk to her.”

“I have Arya.”

Lady Arya. You’re just a bastard.”

“She don’t care about that.”

Gorm mumbles something non-committal--and then he nudges Gendry in the side with his elbow and nods at the doors to the Great Hall. “There they go again. They redecorated her solar last night, if you catch my meaning. Poor woman.” He chuckles heartily. “The King should give her some rest!”

But as Gendry watches Jon and his wife running hand-in-hand toward the Keep, he knows rest is the last thing on the Queen’s mind. Those flushed cheeks and sparkling eyes, that breathless smile, reveal she’s quite happy about sneaking off for a mid-morning fuck--and from how everyone in the courtyard exchanges looks and giggles, he knows they don’t feel sorry for her either. Elner even gets a musing look in his eyes, fingers plucking at the strings of his harp, and Gendry knows it won’t take long before the smallfolk hums on a new song--about the insatiable King and Queen in the North.

He doesn’t see them again until midday, when he finds himself being invited to the meeting with Queen Yara and the rest. There’s not one fibre of his being that wants to go, but he doesn’t really know how to say no. If your King wants you to sit in a small audience chamber and eat with royalty and other highborn, then you plonk your arse down in the small audience chamber and eat no matter how awkward it is. Especially when that King’s related to the woman you love.

Jon’s all right, though. Castle-bred he may be, but there’s something casual about his manners that puts Gendry at ease. The Queen, however… Now, she’s always nice to him, sometimes even warm, but her every graceful movement seems designed to make people like him feel like an aurochs thundering through a palace. So, Gendry finds a secluded corner and hunches over his rack of lamb that’s cooked in a much too fancy way for his liking. Sometimes, no matter how strange it would sound to these fine folk, he longs for a good old bowl of brown. But he scarfs down the lamb nonetheless while the highborn chew primly and talk between bites. Well, except Queen Yara who eats like a proper sailor and talks around her food. She’s all right too.

“Your Grace,” Varys says to Jon. “Now that Cersei Lannister and the Usurper Daenerys Stormborn are dead, we have a chance to heal Westeros. With the right ruler on the Iron Throne”--he sweeps his eyes over the room, inviting them to agree with him--”with a Stark on the Iron Throne--we can rebuild the Seven Kingdoms and make them prosper again.”

Jon shakes his head. “I don’t want to be king over the Seven Kingdoms.”

Varys gives an almost condescending smile. “Your Grace, you are the rightful heir to the Iron Throne.”

“No, I’m not. My father helped in overthrowing the Mad King. The Targaryens have lost their right to the throne. Now, I used to be a man of the Night’s Watch, and at the Wall the next Lord Commander was chosen by voting and perhaps--”

“Voting?” Tyrion almost laughs. “In the midst of winter, after years of war, we’re supposed to scrounge up a few candidates and make people vote? That’s not reasonable.”

“Your Grace,” Lord Royce says, “what the Seven Kingdoms need now, more than ever, is stability. Something safe and familiar. A just and fair king from an old, respected family.”

Then they argue back and forth. It reminds Gendry of the mummer’s farces he sometimes watched at King’s Landing, only not as bawdy or colorful or, frankly, as entertaining. Jon doesn’t want to leave Winterfell. Tyrion says they can’t very well move the capital to the North. Queen Yara points out the Iron Islands are independent now. Jon asks who Cersei’s heir is--perhaps Jaime? Ser Jaime balks. No? Tyrion, then? But Tyrion says that while he doesn’t mind being Hand, he doesn’t want to be king. And Jon lets it spill he barely even wants to be king in the North, which makes Lord Royce sigh and do a fancy lord’s version of an exasperated eye roll.

“We don’t have many people to choose from,” Varys says. “We can’t pick just anyone. And Your Grace being both Stark and Targaryen makes you our best choice. With Jaime Lannister’s support--if you would be so kind as to talk to your bannermen, ser Jaime--I think we could get the lords and ladies of Westeros to agree to your rule.”

Jon takes his wife’s hand. “I’m not leaving Winterfell!”

Tyrion frowns. “And we’re not moving the capital!”

“Maybe you should,” the Queen says. “You’ve mentioned the caches of wildfire beneath the city, lord Tyrion. What would happen if one of them exploded?”

Tyrion pulls a face. “Nothing good.”

“Can you move them?”

“Not safely,” Tyrion says and then explains how wildfire works and how volatile it is while Gendry  looks out the window and thinks of something else. Of Arya. Where she is now. Whether she’s safe.

Yes, all right, all these issues about ruling and wildfire are important--they are--but he doesn’t understand why he has to sit here for it. He’s not one of them. Give him a hammer and he’ll fight. Give him a smithy and he’ll forge weapons. Tell him how to move those bloody caches and he’ll do that too, if they need a volunteer. But politics? He exhales and gnaws distractedly on his food, listening with only one ear--until he realizes everyone’s staring at him.

Do I have something on my face?

He lays down the food on his plate and quickly wipes his mouth with his hand. “What?”

Varys smiles sweetly. “Well, we wondered whether we should move the capital to Storm’s End. It’s a strong fortress by the coast. It’s not far from King’s Landing. Say…” His smile grows. “Have you ever considered being legitimized? I’m sure the people of Westeros would accept Robert Baratheon’s handsome and strong son as their king, even if you were born a bastard. You could rule from Storm’s End while we rebuild King’s Landing.”

“No. Absolutely not.” Gendry folds his arms over his chest. “I’m not becoming a king, I’m not.”

“How about a lord, then?” the Queen asks and he hears, loud and clear, what she’s really asking.

If he ever gets Arya to marry him, will her children grow up Waters or Baratheons? Will they run through a castle in fine garments, or through the dirty back alleys of King’s Landing in rags?

Does he want to be a lord? He barely knows what it means. Someone would have to teach him all about manners and etiquette and how to walk about all pompous, while Arya would laugh so hard at him she’d fall to the ground.

Is that what I want?

He opens his mouth in hopes of an answer tumbling out, but before a sound has left his lips, Tyrion brings back the discussion to the topic at hand.

“Storm’s End is rather, well, stormy. Wouldn’t Harrenhal be a better capital if we have to evacuate King’s Landing? Who is in charge of King’s Landing now?” Tyrion looks at Gendry again. “Did Arya leave someone in charge?”

“Uh, someone called Bronn, she said.”

Tyrion and Jaime look at one another, gaping and wide-eyed, shocked into silence--and then they burst out laughing. As though Gendry’s news unclogged the mess keeping ser Jaime all bottled up, he even laughs so hard tears stream down his face and he nearly topples over in his chair. Finally, he calms himself, wiping at his eyes, only for his brother to say, “I suppose he finally got his castle after all,” and it sets ser Jaime off again.

While everyone’s distracted by their laughter, Gendry sneaks out of the chamber unnoticed. His feet move out of habit and soon he finds himself in the spot where he and Podrick so often sparred. No one spars there now. There’s even a thick layer of snow on the ground, with neat trails trampled by the inhabitants of the castle as opposed to the muck created by people fighting. His eyes sting and he presses his thumbs against the corners of them.

“I miss him too.”

Turning around, he finds Brienne behind him. She’s smiling wistfully, staring at the sparring spot as though old memories flash before her mind’s eye.

“I keep turning to him to tell him something and every time I realize he’s not there, why he’s not there... “ She shakes her head and swallows, blinking away tears. “It hurts just as much, every time.”

“He fought well.”

“He did.” Brienne nods at his wounds. “When will you be able to start training?”

“Training, m’lady?”

“The hammer is useful, I’ll give you that, but you should learn how to use a sword. And a dagger. It might come in handy one day.”

“You want to train me?”

“Unless you have something better to do while you wait for lady Arya to return. You seem like you could use the distraction.”

He does. But so does Brienne, it seems. Distraction from losing Podrick. Distraction from whatever’s going on between her and ser Jaime--or perhaps whatever’s not going on...

 

As the days pass, days of sorting out how the kingdoms should be ruled in meetings Gendry’s still inexplicably invited to, he watches Brienne and ser Jaime dance around one another. They do seem to gravitate toward each other--never seated together but close by; never exchanging looks but stealing glances--but there’s this tension between them, an awkwardness that’s new, and they both cast envious looks after Jon and Sansa who are blatantly struggling to keep their hands off one another.

To be completely honest, Gendry’s rather envious as well. Every time he has Arya back, she has to leave again and it doesn’t feel fair at all. Jon’s not making it easy on him, either. No, he insists on Gendry following him around all day, as though he's giving him lessons in how to be a lord of a castle, only he's also giving Gendry a first row seat to the play that is Sansa constantly seeking out her husband, claiming she has important papers in her solar for him to sign or whatnot, when the whole castle knows the real reason for their frequent absence.

One day, they don’t even come out of their chambers. The official reason is the awfully vague indisposed, but when Gendry returns to Arya’s room after a whole evening of training with Brienne, he runs into a rather glowing King in the North who’s carrying a tray of food and wearing a sheepish look on his face.

“All right?” Gendry asks.

“You know,” Jon says with a shrug that would’ve been casual had he managed to suppress the smirk tugging at his lips. Then he nods at Gendry and keeps moving to return to his warm bed, while Gendry returns to Arya’s chambers where he crawls into a cold bed that no longer smells of her, his only company an uncomfortable knot of worrying and longing in his stomach.

-----

Every day, Gendry asks Maester Wolkan whether any couriers or ravens have delivered a message from Arya. Every day Maester Wolkan tells him no. It doesn’t take long before the Maester greets him with a simple, “Still no word,” and shuffles on before Gendry’s been able to even open his mouth.

The knot in his stomach grows.

By the time Winterfell comes alive with the cheers and songs of people celebrating their freedom in the largest feast the North has seen in years, the knot is so huge he struggles to get down even a bite of the fine food prepared by the kitchens. He’s not spoiled enough to have ever picked at his food, but, he supposes, there’s a first time for everything. For here he sits, picking at the roasted swan and the cinnamon-baked apple and the venison soup. He even turns down the Dornish snake dish everyone’s so intrigued by. The peppery mustard sauce it’s drenched in is so hot the wildlings compete in who can eat the most of it without drinking any fermented milk or ale, and soon a crowd gathers around Tormund and a squat wildling called Hilding as they stuff their mouths, faces growing more and more red.

Gendry gives up on eating and takes a turn about the Great Hall. Queen Sansa is seated with Queen Yara, talking about Theon and how he saved both her and Bran. Tyrion is entertaining a group of Northerners with tales of traveling to Essos in a crate, and while Gendry usually would’ve stayed to listen to the entertaining man, now Essos only makes him think of Arya and he moves past their table. Sam, Gilly, Brienne, and ser Davos still discuss how to get the Citadel to allow women to study there, something Gilly brought up at today’s meeting. Only Jon’s sitting alone for the moment, his back to the table, nursing a tankard of ale while his twinkling eyes never leave his wife. He’s not a chatty man, thankfully, so Gendry settles down next to him, facing the hall as well.

By now, most of Westeros knows he’s King in the North again. Ravens have flown across the realm, carrying news. And here, in the North, word of mouth has let the smallfolk know they have a king again. Soon they’ll learn that their king will be the King, even, of all the Seven Kingdoms. It was Jon’s idea, believe it or not. He solved it one snowy afternoon when he said he’d accept the title if it were mostly decorative, and if he could stay at Winterfell while a council of seven ruled in his stead from Harrenhal or whatever else place they chose. One representative from each kingdom. According to Tyrion, they’ll also need Masters of this and that. Coin and ships and whisperers and whatever else he was on about. Gendry didn’t really listen to that either. Nowadays, almost every word someone says makes him think of Arya. Coin. The iron coin she got from Jaqen. Ships. Titan’s Daughter, the ship that took her to Braavos. Whisperers. The whispers she gathered for her sister whenever she snuck around Winterfell to eavesdrop...

“Are you worried about Arya?” Jon asks. He’s blinking slowly, smiling over the rim of his tankard, and his face is flushed from ale.

“Aren’t you?”

“Aye. Ghost would know, though, if she were…” He clears his throat and swallows down some more ale. “She’ll come back--and when she does…” Jon glances at him through the corner of his eye. “Will you marry her?”

“If she lets me.”

Jon laughs. “I hope she does.” Then his eyes light up and he reaches behind him to put down the tankard. “Here’s my wife.” He grabs Queen Sansa by the waist and pulls her onto his lap, where she settles in, arms around his shoulders. “I missed you,” he murmurs into her collarbone.

“You’re in your cups,” she says, looking just as tipsy as her husband, eyes glossy and cheeks a deep pink. “I was barely gone a moment.”

“Still. Missed my wife.”

Then he tilts his head up and kisses her full on the mouth, properly, with tongue and all, something they’ve managed to avoid in public so far. The Queen pulls away with a gasp and swats Jon playfully on the chest.

“Jon! Not in here!”

They share that look of theirs--the one where she bites her lip and gazes down at him with hooded eyes, while he looks as if he’s drowning and couldn’t be more happy about it--and then she slides off his lap and tugs him along behind her, once again off to fuck in the nearest room with no care in the world.

With a deep sigh, Gendry looks around the Great Hall. Ellaria and Yara are snogging, oblivious to their audience of shocked (and somewhat intrigued) Northern lords. Sam and Gilly are now huddled together, caressing her burgeoning belly as they talk. Tyrion is shoving his tongue down the throat of the pretty brunette serving maid he always seeks out. Even Tormund’s found himself a spearwife to warm his bed for the night.

Everywhere Gendry looks, he sees people in love, or at least in lust, and he hates them a little bit for it. Only Brienne sits alone, like him. Alone and forlorn. Their eyes meet. Gendry mimics parrying a sword, and she nods at him with a small, grateful smile.

 

The courtyard lies empty beneath a clear black sky sprinkled with bright stars and a crescent moon sharp enough to gut something with. She doesn’t ask him about Arya; he doesn’t ask her about ser Jaime. Instead they train until Gendry’s so sleepy he almost falls asleep where he stands.

That night he dreams of Arya removing face after face after face until her own gets lost in the pile of skin dropped at her feet, and he wakes up soaked with sweat.

He’s halfway to Bran’s chambers to ask whether he’s seen anything before Gendry remembers the boy’s now a dragon, far far away.

On his way back to Arya’s chambers, Gendry runs into Ghost. He’d know, Jon said. So Gendry leans down a smidge, staring into those glowing, red eyes, but he sees no answers in them at all.

-----

Gorm sits on the stool by the forge, watching Gendry work while chatting about his wife and children. Gendry mostly hums and nods in response, but the company is nice and he’s glad he now can go back to work instead of following Jon around. He’s made a crown for Jon, the leg for Gorm, and now he’s creating a sword for himself. That chambermaid, Roona, who’s been eyeing him for a few weeks, keeps passing the forge as though he’ll forget all about Arya and be interested in her instead if only she bats her eyelashes enough times. Gorm grins at him and waggles his eyebrows, but Gendry only shakes his head and focuses on his work.

“She’s pretty enough,” Gorm says.

“I don’t care. I’m with Arya.”

And as though his words summoned her from the very skies, a dragon screech pierces the air.

Bran’s hurtling toward the courtyard, his enormous body blotting out the sun and casting them in shadow. Shrieking from fear, people flee to make room for him as he drops down too carelessly, his wings scraping against walls in a way that has Gendry terrified. He darts across the courtyard and scrambles up Bran’s extended wing. There, on his back, lies Arya in a flowy Essosi dress that’s ripped and bloodied and far too thin for this weather. Shouting for someone to get the Maester, he scoops her up and slides down Bran’s wing as though it were made of ice.

He carries her to her chambers, the King, the Queen, and the Maester in tow. While Maester Wolkan examines her, they’re not allowed in there, and Jon paces the hallways while his wife worries her hands and stares blankly ahead.

Gendry sags against the wall with his eyes closed and waits.

 

-----

 

Only a handful candles are lit in Arya’s chambers. She’s asleep, cleaned up and stitched and bandaged. And bruised. One eye’s swollen shut. Her lip is split. Splotches as dark as thunderclouds spot her arms and jawline. Ghost jumps up in her bed and curls up by her feet, nose resting on her shins as he watches her with concern in his red eyes.

“Was she…” Sansa’s eyelashes flutter. She swallows. Her hands tighten into fists. “Did they…?”

“No, My Queen,” Maester Wolkan says. “Thank the gods, no, they did not. She’s been beaten and stabbed, that’s all.”

“That’s all,” mutters Jon, but Sansa’s eyes drift closed and she exhales in relief before asking whether Arya will be all right.

“Yes. Given rest and time to heal, she’ll be fine.”

Sansa’s legs give way and she stumbles to the bed, where she sinks down on the mattress and takes Arya’s hand, bringing it to her lips for a kiss. “Oh, little sister. You’re home now. You’re safe.”

Gendry wants to kiss Arya as well, to hold her and whisper in her ear that everything will be all right, that he’s got her and will protect her, but as long as Jon and Sansa remain in her chambers, he feels almost like an intruder. But he can’t very well throw the King and the Queen out of their sister’s chambers, can he? So he pulls up a chair to Arya’s bed and just sits, while Jon fusses over her and Sansa talks to Maester Wolkan in hushed tones about Arya’s injuries and how they can help her in recovering.

Once the Maester leaves, Sansa sits back down on the bed and strokes Arya’s hair lightly. “Was it ser Jorah, you think? Or did Grey Worm and Missandei--”

“No,” Gendry says. “Grey Worm promised he’d protect her, and I trust him.”

Sansa nods. A tear trickles down her cheek, lingers at her jaw, falls to the furs. “I suppose we’ll have to wait.”

And wait they do. All day, all night, with Gendry sleeping in bed next to Arya, Ghost by her feet, and Sansa and Jon side-by-side in chairs, leaning against one another. Arya doesn’t wake up until the following day, when Sansa is quick to usher out Jon and Gendry both, so she can help her sister to the chamber pot. She doesn’t let them back in until Arya’s back in bed, clad in a fresh nightgown, and with spoonfuls of barley soup in her belly. After that Maester Wolkan tends to Arya’s wounds and gives her more dreamwine, and she’s off to sleep again while they’re left without any answers.

Another day passes, of Sansa sewing quietly by the fireplace, Jon reading through documents, and Gendry… Well, he still mostly just sits.

 

-----

 

“She had a lover,” Arya says one day, in a frail voice, smiling weakly at them. “He saw right through me. Knew all about they Faceless Men.” Then her eyes glide to the hearth, the light of the fire reflecting in them, her skin looking like wax. “I’m done with the faces. I’m done.”

Her statement has Jon and Sansa so relieved they don’t seem to notice what Gendry so clearly sees: Arya isn’t telling them everything. But he keeps his mouth shut and waits until they’re alone before prompting her to talk. Arya lies quiet for a long while, absentmindedly combing her fingers through Ghost’s fur while staring into nothing.

“She wasn’t well-liked,” Arya says, eventually. “No one wanted her back. Not her. Not her dragons. Slaves, masters, didn’t matter. No one wanted her back. They wanted to hurt her, drive her off, and her lover helped them. Daario. Because he knew. He knew I wasn't her.” She grimaces and touches her side, where Wolkan sewed a nasty stab wound shut. “He was a better fighter than me.”

She gestures for the cup of water on her nightstand, and Gendry helps her drink before she continues.

“I wanted to give Missandei and Grey Worm her throne. To make them the new rulers of Meereen. That’s all I wanted to do. Reckoned they’d be good at it. I don’t know. Suppose I felt bad. I should’ve just left. I should’ve never got down from Bran’s back. I was stupid.”

“No, you were kind.”

“No.” Arya’s nostrils flare, eyes shining with unshed tears. “No, I was not. They lured Grey Worm away and I was surrounded and Daario… And then Bran came and I…” She draws a shuddering breath, staring unblinkingly at the hearth, and the tears spill over. “It just slipped out of me. It wasn’t conscious; I swear it wasn’t.” Her bottom lip trembles and he’s never seen anyone look more ashamed. “I opened my mouth and it just slipped out. I wanted to burn them all.”

He takes her hand, but she pulls away and wipes her nose with the back of her hand.

“I didn’t feel like me. I felt… mad. Angry. Justified. As if it was my right to burn the world, if I wanted it. And I did.” She shakes her head, brow furrowed. “But Bran didn’t burn them. He only picked me up with his talons and flew away. All those people… Jaqen told me once that to someone, the faces are as good as poison. I understand what he meant now. I’m not no one. I never was. I’m not fresh parchment, and you have to be to wear those faces or they poison you. They take over.” She looks at him then and when he tries taking her hand again, she lets him. “You can’t tell Jon. Or Sansa. Promise.”

“I won’t,” he says, slipping out of his boots, and crawls into bed with her, under the furs. “I won’t tell anyone.”

“I’m horrible,” she whispers.

“No, you’re not.” He holds her as close as he dares, careful not to crush her injured little body. “You’re wonderful. You’re wonderful, Arya Stark, and I love you. I love you more than summer sun. I love you more than a really good ale after a day of hard work. I love you more than beating steel into a sword. I love you more than--”

Arya sniffles, and when he glances down at her, she’s crying. Properly crying. “Do you want me to shut up?” he murmurs, brushing the tears off her cheek.

“No.” She snuggles closer. “Keep going.”

“All right. I love you more than a hot bath when you’re really dirty and tired and cold. I love you more than… uh, making water when you really have to.”

Arya laughs and it’s the best sound in the whole world.

“I love you more than those honey cakes we get sometimes.”

“Those are really good, though.”

“I know.” He kisses her red-tipped nose. “That’s how much I love you.”

“Keep going,” she says and he does, talking about all the good things he loves and how he loves her even more, until she’s snoring in his arms.

 

-----

 

“I want to leave,” she says one day as they break fast on Bran’s hill, the sky still the hazy pale blues and yellows of early morning. “I want to see the world. And so does Bran. Don’t you, Bran?”

Bran flicks his tail happily.

Gendry nods to himself and licks jam off the corners of his mouth. He’s expected this. Now that her list is done and her family is safe and there are no wars to be won or enemies to kill, she’s growing restless.

“When are you leaving, then?” he asks as casually as he can.

“When are we leaving. You, me, and Bran. Unless you want to stay here and make swords for the rest of your life.”

His lips quirk in a lopsided smile. “When are we leaving?”

“Soon.” She squints up at the sky and takes another bite of bread spread with preserves. “Before Jon leaves for King’s Landing, or Sansa will flutter her pretty lashes and make us stay.”

-----

They stay for another fortnight before packing a light bag each and grabbing their weapons. Jon urges them to come back home soon, but Sansa only hugs them and wishes them well. Watching them from afar, Brienne nods at Gendry and he lifts his hand for a wave. In the days since ser Jaime left for King’s Landing with Tyrion and Varys to prepare the capital for the arrival of their new king, she’s looked morose. Today’s no different, and he feels bad for being yet another person to leave her.

“Don’t worry,” Arya says, taking his hand as they exit the East gate. “Their story isn’t over yet. They love each other too much.”

Last time Gendry flew, an undead bear had torn deep furrows in his cheek and shoulder, leaving him barely conscious. Now, though, that pain no longer fogs his mind, he can fully experience the thrill of flying. It’s better than running and riding and swimming and fighting all combined. It’s a biting wind against his cheeks and cozy warmth against his backside and the woman he loves in his arms. Sometimes she turns to look at him over her shoulder, her smile so wide crinkles form around her sparkling eyes, and he thinks he must be the luckiest man in all the realm.

Far below runs the Trident, fat and slow and cornered by ice, and he thinks he spies the craggy black shape of Harrenhal in the distance. Which means the Inn at the Crossroads must be close.

As though Arya can read his mind, she twists in his embrace so she can see his face as she says, “Hot Pie still works at the inn. Do you think he’ll piss himself if we land Bran right outside?”

Gendry grins. “I suppose there’s only one way to find out,” he says and grabs ahold of Bran’s ridges as the dragon descends.

 

-----

 

Hot Pie does not piss himself. No, he’s beaming with pride because, despite standing in the evidence of his initial fear (a dropped tray of food), he quickly realizes who they are and tells the alarmed patrons not to worry because those two dragonriders are his good old friends. And after they’ve settled down for a drink, his eyes keep moving over the room to make sure everyone’s properly impressed by his connections.

One by one, though, the patrons either leave or retire to their rooms. But Gendry and Arya stay, emptying tankard after tankard and feasting on hearty pies and soft, spongy bread as the sun dips low in the sky and the moon rises. They tell him about the Night King--well, some of it, anyway--and Hot Pie tells them all about his new life as though it’s just as exciting as saving the world. He talks about the recipes he’s created, the girl he’s married (the inn keeper’s daughter, wouldn’t you know), and the babe growing in her belly.

“And what about you?” he says. “Have you married yet?”

“Us?” Gendry grins. “Me, a bastard, married to the daughter of a lord and sister to a king? Are you mad?”

Arya takes a gulp of ale and wipes her mouth with her sleeve. “I don’t care about that.”

“Then why aren’t you married already?” Hot Pie asks, very reasonably.

“Yeah.” Gendry turns in his seat to face Arya fully. “Why aren’t we married already?”

Arya lifts her chin, eyes narrowed. “Get a septon and I’ll marry you right now.”

“You’re drunk.”

“So are you.”

“Yeah, but you might regret it tomorrow. But I won't.”

She tugs down the corners of her mouth with a shrug, her hand moving to the now-healed stab wound in her side. “I won’t regret it.” Then she shoots to her feet and speaks loud and clear into the empty room, swaying only a little. “We’re getting married, and I know just where to do it. Hot Pie! Fancy riding a dragon?”

Hot Pie’s eyes flit between them, his mouth catching flies. He closes it, swallows, and stammers out something that’s neither yes or no.

“We need a witness. Are you coming or not? It’s perfectly safe. I promise. Come on. For old times’ sake?”

He stares at them for a moment longer before nodding so emphatically his cheeks jiggle. It takes him even longer to approach Bran, and longer still to climb him, but then they’re taking to the skies and after a prayer to the Seven, mumbled regrets, and a shaky, “If I fall to my death, tell my wife I love her,” Hot Pie relaxes and soon even whoops his joy over flying.

 

Dawn breaks over God’s Eye, painting the mist curling over the surface a pale gold, and Bran dives into the fog to land on the Isle of Faces. And so, in the early hours of morning, Gendry and Arya kneel before a weirwood tree with a face carved into its trunk and give their vows. They both laugh throughout, his mouth tastes like old cheese, she’s slurring her words, Hot Pie still has streaks of flour in his hair and gravy on his tunic, Bran’s singing his strange dragonsong, and Gendry could swear something green and antlered is peering at them from behind a mossy rock. And yet, as Arya unhooks her cloak, tosses it over his shoulder so that it drapes messily down his left arm, and tugs him down for a kiss by the wool of his tunic, he knows his wedding couldn’t be more perfect.

They’re wed, now. A lady and a bastard. Arya of Winterhell and the Bull. She’s his wife and he's her husband, and he whispers it into the chilly air, just to hear how it sounds, his breath freezing into pretty clouds.

“I’m not gonna cook and sew for your,” she says, face scrunched up in the most adorable way. “Just wanted to make that clear. And no babies.”

Gendry blinks. “None at all?”

“Well”--she swivels on the spot and bumps her hip into him--”not yet, anyway.”

Hot Pie, old and wise and married for four whole months, now, shakes his head at them. “Maybe you should’ve talked about that before you made your vows.”

Gendry only laughs and pulls his wife close. “Never expected you to cook and sew, m’lady. And babies can wait until we’ve seen the world.”

“Where are you going?” Hot Pie asks. “Will you be back?”

“We’ll be back.” Arya tilts her head up and shares a smile with Gendry. “But first we’re going to see what’s west of Westeros.”

Chapter Text

“You think I can’t become a Maester?”

Gilly levels her husband with a glare and Brienne turns her head to hide a smile.

“You’re a mother,” Sam says. “And soon we’re having another baby. They need you.”

“They need you too. That doesn’t stop you.”

“I’m a man, Gilly.”

Brienne’s eyes move to ser Jaime out of habit, to see his reaction, to share a smile. But he’s staring out the window with a faraway look in his eyes. The meeting is coming to an end, and he’s not the only one losing focus. Tyrion’s fidgeting with his Hand pin, which he now keeps in the pocket of his trousers, while glancing at the now-empty cups on the tables. Jon’s gazing at his wife, while Sansa does her best to pretend she doesn’t notice, even though anyone can see she’s reaching out to hold his hand beneath the table. Gendry’s absentmindedly picking at his scars. Only Ellaria and Yara are watching Gilly and Sam with the interest of a paying audience.

Brienne returns her gaze to Jaime to see whether he’s looking at her yet, but he’s unmoving. He’s yet to repeat the wish he uttered under the effects of milk of the poppy, about babies and how to raise them. A wish she’s done her best not to dwell on much. Motherhood never seemed a possibility for her, and when she tended to him when he was in recovery, not one bit of it felt as natural as swinging a sword. She’s a fighter not a coddler.

Gilly is showing, now. A swell underneath her dress. Sometimes she rests her hand there and smiles to herself. Everyone who passes her smiles too, saying there’s nothing more beautiful than a pregnant woman. Sam dotes on her to the point of being overbearing. Brienne tries to imagine herself round with child, and Jaime giving her the choice bits of food, massaging her feet and back, cooing at her stomach.

She wouldn’t be beautiful while pregnant, though; she’d be a great, swollen beast.

When the meeting ends, and the people gathered move out of the small audience chamber, Brienne touches Jaime’s arm to keep him there. Sansa glances at them with a supportive smile before leaving, and then they’re alone, behind a closed door. A rare thing nowadays. Jaime wanders back to the window instead of facing her.

“I assume you won’t attend the feast tonight,” Brienne says.

Jaime’s shoulders move as he huffs a breath. “The feast celebrating the death of my sister? No. I will not. My brother will be there, though, if you want to toast with a Lannister.”

“Of course I don’t.” She sighs and steps closer. “I don’t think you should be alone tonight, and I’m certain Queen Sansa wouldn’t demand my presence at--”

“Oh?” Jaime turns around and stares at her with hard eyes. “So I should spend tonight with you? I thought you didn’t want that.”

She tries containing the hurt, but it must be seeping into her features for his eyes soften instantly.

“I’m sorry, Brienne. I didn’t mean--”

“I’ll leave you alone.”

She flees the room, flees the memories his remark conjured. But no matter how determinedly she moves through the hallways, no matter how firmly she shuts the door to her chamber behind her, they still catch up on her.

That desperate look in his hooded eyes. A warm hand grabbing her waist. Warmer lips crashing to hers. Breath reeking of wine and ale and heartbreak. He wasn’t her Jaime then, but a man looking to drown in another woman’s warmth to forget the one he lost. How could she do anything but shove him away?

His apology was heartfelt and sincere, and she foolishly thought they could return to the comfortable relationship they had before the trial. But now everything feels strange, like fighting a dummy with someone else’s sword. The weight is wrong and the hilt unfamiliar in your hand and the dummy just stands there, offering neither encouragement nor a challenge.

She slips out of her clothes to dress in the blue tunic Sansa’s sewed for her, but ends up standing naked in her chamber, staring down at her body. Her breasts sag now. There are new dimples in her thighs. Her bottom doesn’t feel as firm any longer. Even her belly has softened and gathers fat more easily, despite her training.

She’s getting old. Closer to forty than thirty.

Walder Frey still produced children in his nineties. Men can do that. Women, though…

She sighs and gets dressed.

 

-----

 

When Gendry signs at her he’d like to train, she couldn’t be more grateful. Attending the feast is horrible . So while the celebrators dance beneath chandeliers to the happy notes of troubadours, Gendry and her dance beneath the stars to the clashing of steel against steel until he looks so tired he’s about to collapse. Then she gives a few encouraging words before telling him to get some rest. Sansa’s expressed approval over Brienne’s taking him under her wing, and as Brienne watches him stagger back to the Keep, she can’t help but wonder whether this is a form of mothering. This guidance she gives, to him, to Podrick… Her stomach twists. Podrick died. He was under her care and he died and she didn’t even notice.

No, motherhood is not for her.

The sept hasn’t felt right in a long time. Since the war, Davos has come more and more often, and while she likes the man, he’s far too chatty to be tolerated when she’s in a mood. But it’s the walls too that keep her away. The ceiling. The confinement. At Winterfell, only the godswood is the right kind of silent, the right kind of space. For years, the road was her home, as were the woods and the streams and the open sky, and it’s in the simple sounds and smells of nature she finds solace.

Tonight, though, she finds she’s not alone.

Jaime’s sitting by the roots of the heart-tree, cradling a wineskin as if he were a scared child and it were a doll. When he looks up at her, it’s with a smile that’s neither genuine nor sober.

“I don’t mean to intrude. If you’d rather be alone…”

Jaime bends his mouth in a downward curve and shrugs.

“Good night, ser Jaime,” she says and bows, turns to walk away.

“Ser Jaime,” he mutters. “Lady Brienne, you are most welcome to take a seat.”

When she hesitates, he pats the empty spot beside him with a pointed look. It’s the exact spot where she and Sansa sat, many nights ago now, and talked about Jon and Jaime--and about Arya and the secret Brienne had to keep. It’s rather fitting, she supposes, and so she settles down.

“You look nice,” he says. “Blue was always your color.”

She looks down at the blue woolen tunic she wears beneath a thick cloak. It’s simple and practical and soft, without any frills and embellishments save the discreet sun-and-stars embroidery on the collar Brienne knows her father would appreciate. Her father would also appreciate grandchildren. Heirs. He must’ve given up long ago on Brienne the Beauty ever attracting a husband. At least not one who would treat her well. At least not one who would love her.

She glances at Jaime through the corner of her eye.

What would a baby feel like in her arms? A pink, soft little thing with Jaime’s eyes and-- No. Arms like hers, hands like hers, were meant to carry swords. To punch and thrust and fight. Not hold babies. She can’t remember ever holding a baby.

“I loved Cersei for forty years,” Jaime says, slurring his words. “My whole life. I came into this world holding her foot.” He lifts his golden hand and stares at it with watery eyes. “And now she’s gone. All our children--gone. Four children, Brienne, and I never got to be a father.” He takes a swig from the wineskin and keeps his chin high as he speaks, “This time, she was going to tell everyone I was the father.

“The gods were cruel to make me love her. But then my father always said the gods were a cruel, merciless lot. He never liked them very much.” Jaime shakes the wineskin, listening to the sloshing therein, and tips his head back to empty it. Then he goes back to clutching it like a doll. “I know I’ve been a miserable old sod lately, but please, Brienne”--he leans his head on her shoulder--”don’t ever think I’ve stopped loving you.”

Brienne can’t help the swooping sensation in her stomach, or the silly way she sucks in a shuddering breath. A drunken confession, yes, but a confession nonetheless and she soaks it all up.

“But you were right to reject me,” he continues, dissipating her small moment of joy. “I can’t be with someone else now. I need to mourn her. Properly. Respectfully. She deserves that. Our children deserve that. And...” His chest heaves with a deep breath and he looks out over the godswood. “I don’t belong here, and you want to serve Lady Sa-- My apologies.” He flourishes his golden hand and mocks a bow, still seated. “Queen Sansa.” He shakes his head and mutters, “I’m a Lannister. The Kingslayer. I’ll never be good enough for the oh-so-honorable Starks.”

“If you want to stay, I can speak with the Queen--”

He cuts her off with a grunt and gets up, leaning against the tree to steady himself, his hand splayed over its carved face. And then he leaves her without a word.

Days pass, the silence remains, and then one day, he’s packing his things to leave with Tyrion and Varys. Her few efforts to see him before he leaves have been unsuccessful. He’s made his choice, it seems.

From the walkway, she watches him readying his horse, and thinks that, perhaps, it’s for the best. She’s not what the heir to Casterly Rock needs. He mounts the horse and she holds her breath, hoping he’ll at least turn around, to see her one last time, before he rides through the gates. He adjusts the reins in his hand. She swallows and tightens her grip on the railing. It’s a fine beast, that horse: shiny white coat, silky mane, graceful build. A horse befitting a knight from all those songs the Queen so loves. That’s what he looks like, ser Jaime. A heroic knight who slays monsters and saves princesses. He’ll easily find himself someone pretty and delicate who’s young and fertile. Someone who’ll give him all those babies of which he dreams. Someone who’ll make him happy.

Then he turns around. Brienne gives him a small smile, a wave. His eyes linger on her for a moment, but he returns neither smile nor wave before riding off without a promise they’ll see each other again.

It’s for the best.

 

-----

 

The past few moons, Winterfell has been crowded. Then the Essosi armies left, followed by most of the Knights of the Vale. Then both smallfolk and highborn returned to their homes. Then the wildlings, who now inhabit the Gift and man the castles sprinkled along the Wall. Not to keep wildlings from entering the Seven Kingdoms, but to ensure no one ever again ventures into the lands beyond the Wall. “The far North does not belong to men,” Jon said. “If we leave the creatures beyond the Wall be, perhaps they’ll leave us be.”

Then Ellaria, Yara, Lord Royce, Tyrion, Varys, and Jaime left. Arya, Gendry, and Bran. Even Sam and his little family, off to his mother and sister so that the baby could be born in Sam’s ancestral home.

And now Jon and ser Davos will leave as well, as soon as their bellies are full. Sansa’s picking at her breakfast, face wan and sullen. “Someone needs to stay here and rule,” she said when Jon asked her to follow him to King’s Landing. “I can’t abandon our people now that we’re rebuilding and healing. What message would that send?”

Now she says nothing at all. Jon’s sighing and gazing at her and sighing some more.

When they walk into the courtyard to say goodbye, everyone working there stops what they’re doing to watch their King and Queen. Perhaps that’s why their goodbye is very proper and dignified. They’re not discreet about loving one another, but they’re never indecent in front of others either. (The only exception was the passionate kiss at the feast, when they were both in their cups.) So perhaps one shouldn’t be surprised to see only a chaste kiss on the lips followed by a lingering hug, but Brienne can’t help but be surprised. He’ll be gone for months.

Jon pulls off his glove and, cradling Sansa’s cheek, looks deeply into her eyes and tells her he loves her. Then he slips the glove back on, nods, and walks away.

Sansa’s bottom lip trembles. She’s wringing her hands. She takes a shaky breath and forms words without a voice, and after another shaky breath, with her hand pressed against her chest, she whispers his name like a plea. Jon’s already by his horse, one foot in the stirrup, but as though he can feel her distress, he puts his foot back down and turns to her, brow furrowed.

They both move at the same time, cloaks billowing around them as they run.

While they cling to one another, Brienne thinks back on that dreary day, so long ago, when she finally managed to bring Lady Sansa to safety. She worried sometimes that the brooding, hot headed man Sansa then called brother would only lead her into more trouble. Even after they took back Winterfell, Brienne worried. About Littlefinger, then about Daenerys, and Cersei. And she worried about Sansa’s heart. But now she’s wed, happily wed, and safe in her home. Now she’s a Queen surrounded by people who respect her.

“Catelyn Stark would be proud,” Podrick whispers in her head and Brienne closes her eyes for a moment and sees his freckled face smiling at her. “You kept your vow.”

When Brienne opens her eyes again, Jon and Sansa have pulled apart. His arms are still around her, while her hands rest on his shoulders.

“Promise me you’ll come home.” Her eyes are imploring; her cheeks are wet. “Promise me, Jon.”

“I promise,” he says with a fond smile, wiping away her tears. “I’ll be safe, Sansa. I’m getting crowned. I’m not going off to war.”

“And Father left to be Hand to the King. How well did that turn out?”

“Sansa.”

“Please take Ghost.”

“No. I’ve told him to watch over you.”

Please. I can’t lose you. I can’t.” She leans her forehead against his, body trembling with unsteady breaths. “I love you,” she whispers against his lips. “I love you.”

Jon sucks in a breath and pulls back, just a little, just enough to meet her eyes. His are wide, glossy, unblinking, as though his wife never before has told him those words. As though he never thought he’d hear them. And then they’re kissing, slow and deep and lovely, and Brienne averts her eyes and tries her very best to ignore the pang in her chest and the fact that she’s never told Jaime either.

 

-----

 

Brienne can’t remember a milder winter. While there’s snow aplenty, it’s wet enough to build snow knights and snow forts and snowballs. Every time she accompanies Sansa to Wintertown to visit the sick and the poor, she catches herself smiling at the children tumbling about in a world of white, their cheeks red from the cold and round from all the laughing. One morning, one of those children slips on a patch of ice, hits her little head, and lets out a loud wail. Tears spurt from her blue eyes, snot runs from her pink little nose, and she’s rubbing the back of her blond head--and it feels as though someone reached into Brienne’s chest and grabbed her heart.

A woman with a long braid and tired eyes scoops up the child, places her on her hip, and heads into their squat house, leaving Brienne staring at their door, feeling strangely bereft.

That evening, during supper, as a plate of glazed ribs is placed before the Queen, Sansa’s skin yellows. Her eyes widen. A small noise escapes her. She slaps a hand over her mouth and scrambles to get out of the chair, but her skirts and the armrests do their best to hinder her. Panicked, she grabs a tankard and into it empties the contents of her stomach. All eyes turn to her. Panting, she stares into the tankard before looking out over her guests as though they can provide her with answers.

For once, there’s a lot of them. Whenever a new shipment arrives from Dorne, Sansa opens up the Great Hall and invites anyone--lowborn and highborn, wildlings and Unsullied--to sup if they want. Other days, they mostly eat in a smaller hall where she invites only one or two families to share a meal. Brienne quite likes that tradition, one Sansa learned from her father it seems. It’s brought her close to her people, and she knows their joys and their struggles well.

A Wintertown man, who recently supped with them and shared that he and his pregnant wife had decided on either Sansa or Jonnel for the babe, shoots to his feet.

“The Queen is pregnant!” he shouts, thrusting his cup into the air.

Someone in the Great Hall cheers, another joins in, and soon people are banging their cups against the tables and stomping their feet against the floor while Brienne wraps an arm around the Queen’s back and ushers her to the Maester.

When Sansa exits his chambers, she’s beaming.

 

-----

 

Because of the nausea the smell of meat stirs in Sansa, she now takes her meals in her solar with Brienne, Maester Wolkan, and Lyra for company. Sansa wants mostly white fish cooked with garlic, lemon, and basil, so it’s what they eat, day after day. Brienne doesn’t mind it much. She does mind wondering whether she could stomach meat, if she were pregnant. She does mind wondering whether she would crave purple olives and applecakes, like Sansa does, or whether she would crave something else entirely. Brienne does mind, and yet she can’t stop herself. Tonight it’s especially hard, because Sansa’s reading a letter from Jon she received as they sat down, while Lyra is in bed with a cold, and the Maester is busy with a birth of all things, leaving Brienne alone with her useless thoughts.

How can there be babies everywhere? She’s never paid much attention to them before, but now they’re all she sees. The other day they even got a letter from the Tarlys. A couple of weeks early, but otherwise in good health, little baby Shireen arrived. And whenever the Queen has a moment to herself, she sews and knits and embroiders while talking about (and often to) the life growing in her belly.

“Oh!” Sansa licks butter off her thumb and holds the letter in both hands, skimming it through. “You’ll never guess what’s happened.”

“What, did someone else have a baby?”

It comes out too sharp and Brienne closes her mouth, lips pressed together, when the Queen raises her eyes from the letter and gives her a surprised look.

“No, Missandei and Grey Worm are coming to King’s Landing. They fled Meereen with a group of Unsullied. Essos isn’t safe for them, they claim, and they’re seeking shelter with Tyrion and Varys.”

“I’m glad to hear they’re alive.”

“Yes. So am I.”

“Ser Jorah?”

“No mention.”

“Do you think Arya…?”

Sansa shakes her head and rolls up the scroll, laying it on the table. “It doesn’t matter. She’s done with that life and I don’t need to know.”

“Brienne?” Sansa pushes the food around on her plate so very casually, expression casual too, head tilted a tad to the side. “Did you and ser Jaime ever finish discussing… things?”

“No, Your Grace.”

She smiles kindly at Brienne. “I’ve been very focused on my pregnancy lately. If it bores you, I wouldn’t blame you. We’ll talk about other things.”

“It doesn’t bother me.”

“But you don’t want them, do you?”

Brienne swallows and looks down at her lap. “I’ve never given it any thought.”

She feels Sansa’s eyes on her and wills her cheek not to flush.

“Well, not everyone needs or wants children,” Sansa says and then she quickly changes the subject.

There’s a peculiar feeling inside Brienne that reminds her of disappointment. But it can’t be. She’s relieved. She doesn’t want to talk about babies. Her hands are clammy and her chest feels tight. It’s awfully warm in the solar, isn’t it? Did her collar always fit this snugly around her neck? Was this chair always so uncomfortable? She murmurs an excuse, somehow remembers to bow, and moves for the door. But as she reaches for the handle, the Queen speaks again.

“After Jon and I got married,” Sansa says to Brienne’s back, her words slow and measured, “I felt lost. I didn’t know what to expect. Mother told me a little when I was young, but not enough. And now I had no mother to ask. So I asked Gilly. I asked her what it’s like, being with a man, and I’m very grateful to her for listening and sharing. I hope that, one day, I can help someone else like she helped me. Regardless of whether it’s regarding the marital bed or pregnancy or anything else. It would make me very happy.”

Brienne clenches her hands, takes a steeling, quiet breath, and turns around. “I hope so as well. Good night, Your Grace.”

Then she flees.

 

-----

 

The people spoil their Queen. She’s barely allowed to lift a finger. Lyra encourages her to sleep in every morning and take many kips during the day. Cook is strict about who may enter the kitchens, and insists on a cupbearer tasting everything before the Queen eats and drinks. Guards follow her around. Anyone seeking audience with the Queen is carefully searched and vetted--and encouraged to keep their distance.

Around the Queen, no one mentions King Robb, his wife, and the little prince who never was, but they don’t mind their tongues as much around Brienne. She knows why they’re so overprotective of Sansa. This little prince will live, they all swear.

In secret, Brienne hopes it’s a princess. A little princess who’ll grow up to rule the North. Perhaps a Lyanna, or a Catelyn, with her mother’s hair and her father’s eyes. But when Brienne closes her eyes to picture little Catelyn toddling around Winterfell, the Tully-red hair and brown eyes become blond and blue. And when the child stumbles, it’s into the arms of someone wearing a golden hand and a father’s proud smile.

 

-----

 

A storm is rolling over the North, drowning them in a flurry of white. Brienne’s hands are wrapped around a cup of hot wine seasoned with cinnamon, honey, and cloves. Sansa’s hands hold knitting needles, creating one gray or black or white square after another she will sew into a checkered baby blanket. There’s something rather calming about it, that clicking of her needles. Brienne sips her wine and feels the warmth spread inside her body.

She pictures a young Lady Catelyn sitting right there, in Sansa’s armchair, knitting for her own children. Brienne pictures her passing on her knowledge to little Sansa. Not just about knitting and sewing, but about running a castle and rearing children. She’ll be a good mother, Sansa. A proper mother. One who will stand on the solid foundation of a good and loving upbringing, with her own mother’s lessons in the back of her head. One who will know how to tend to both skinned knees after a stumble and broken hearts after a fall.

Brienne doesn’t even remember her mother.

She takes another sip.

 

-----

 

Besides food, the ships from Dorne now also carries exquisite fabrics and lace. Sansa spent a whole afternoon perusing a selection before picking a lavender fabric with a discreet ogee pattern. For days, she’s sewed and sewed, and now she stands in the courtyard and waits for her husband to return with his retinue, and ser Davos’ wife and youngest son. Brienne quite looks forward to the addition, for Davos wants her to teach Steffon how to fight.

Sansa adjusts the fit of the silver-gray belt, which she’s braided from three silk ribbons and tied beneath her breasts. She smooths the fabric of the dress over her round belly, and shakes out her cloak so that it frames her perfectly--all meticulously designed to show off the life growing inside her.

When the horns sound, Brienne feels Sansa fumbling after her hand and she’s grateful to take it. No one’s mentioned ser Jaime, but tonight she dreamed that he rode through those gates and even though she doesn’t believe that dreams foretell the future, she allows herself to hope.

Jon’s horse appears. Its rider moves his eyes over the people lined up in the courtyard and settles on his wife. Brienne cranes her neck to get a good look of those riding behind him. The winter carriage carries the Seaworths, she knows. Perhaps ser Jaime’s in there.

Jon stands before them now. He’s gaunt with a beard that could use a trim and dark circles under his eyes, but those eyes refuse to leave Sansa’s face and they shine with so much love that he’s never looked better. Arms stretched out, he moves to pull her into a hug--only to spring back the moment her belly connects with his. His gaze drops, and then his gloves, hastily removed to land on the snowy ground. He reaches out with shaky hands, painfully slowly, as though he’s afraid the swell will deflate the moment he touches it. Sansa lays her hands on his and brings them to her stomach. Not one person speaks as their King marvels over the Queen’s belly, stroking it, learning its shape. Not one eye is dry.

All those letters she’s sent him and she never told him. Wanted to see his face when he found out, she once shared with Brienne, and looking at her radiantly happy face now it must’ve been worth it.

As the King cups his wife's cheeks and brings his lips to hers, Brienne returns her attention to the retinue.

Ser Jaime isn’t there.

 

-----

 

“We’ll start holding elections, once spring comes. Each kingdom will choose their representative.” Jon props a purple olive into his mouth with one hand, while he rests the other on the curve of Sansa’s stomach. “Tyrion fought it. For now, each Warden will choose and he’d like to keep it that way, but Varys didn’t agree and, well, I agreed with Varys.” Jon’s eyes widen. “It kicks! Did you feel that?”

Sansa laughs at him. “Of course I did.”

“Does it kick a lot?”

She grins, nodding, and Jon bends his head down, presses his cheek and ear to her belly with an awestruck expression, begging for another kick. Brienne curls her hands around the armrests in frustration. She’s sat through an hour of news by a very distracted Jon--and a helpful ser Davos--and she knows Gendry and Arya are married, because the King stayed at the Inn at the Crossroads and met that Hot Pie Arya sometimes mentions. She knows Missandei and Grey Worm stay at Darry for now, until Harrenhal is restored to house the Council, and that she’ll have a place at court if she wants. Her knowledge of languages and cultures would make her an invaluable liaison, while Grey Worm and the Unsullied can work for the Master of War. She knows half the capital collapsed as the wildfire ignited after the evacuation, and that it will take a long, long time to rebuild. She knows the Red Keep is completely gone, the Iron Throne is melted down, and that Tyrion is now lord of Casterly Rock, not Jaime. But she doesn’t know why for the infuriating Jon hasn’t said a word about him.

“Jon,” Sansa says, but she looks at Brienne because she knows her much too well by now. “How was ser Jaime?”

“He’s fine.”

“Yes, but how is he doing? Considering.”

Jon scrunches up his face in confusion. “Considering what?”

Sansa shakes her head with a heavy sigh. “You are such an idiot. Don’t men speak about… things?”

“We do,” ser Davos says, amused. “But His Grace isn’t very good at it. My lady”--he smiles at Brienne--”he misses you. I’d even go so far as to say he’s miserable without you. And, as far as I noticed, he didn’t seek comfort elsewhere.”

Brienne tampers down the smile trying its best to light up her face, pressing her lips together so hard they ache. Sansa’s quick to shoo the men out of her solar, and the moment the door closes behind them, Brienne closes her eyes and lets herself feel joy and relief and yearning.

A chair creaks. Hands move over yarn. Knitting needles click and clack along with the cozy crackles and pops of the fireplace, and Brienne is filled with a golden kind of warmth. She hopes with all her heart that he’ll find someone eventually, have a family, and be happy, but for now she will selfishly revel in the news that he misses her as much as she misses him.

“Jon’s home,” Sansa says in a gentle voice. “If you want to go to ser Jaime--”

“No.” Brienne blinks her eyes open and she feels at peace. “I do love ser Jaime, but the gods have put us on different paths. He says he doesn’t belong at Winterfell, but this is where I want to be. I will be happy here, serving you and your family. Your child. And once he finds someone to love, to bear him children, I’ll be happy for him. I was never meant to be a mother, Your Grace. I don’t possess the required traits.”

A wrinkle of concern appears between Sansa’s eyebrows. “If you’re avoiding ser Jaime because you don’t want children, then I’ll respect that. But, Brienne, if you’re avoiding him because you believe you wouldn’t be a good mother...“

Sansa lays down her knitting, pushes herself out of her chair, waddles to the one next to Brienne, and sits down with a tired exhale before laying a soft hand on Brienne’s forearm.

“You’re kind but firm when needed. You’re understanding and protective. You’re loyal and loving. You’d make a wonderful mother. I know you would.”

“It’s very kind of Your Grace to say so.”

Sansa watches her for several heartbeats, the wrinkle in her brow deepening, and Brienne schools her features to hide the turmoil within her. Then Sansa’s expression shifts into a polite smile and she pats Brienne on the arm.

“You know your own heart best. I won’t mention it again.”

With a soft sigh and quiet moan, Sansa leans back in the chair and clasps both hands over her belly, eyes drifting closed.

Sometimes Brienne wonders what it would feel like to place her hand there as well, to feel a little foot against her palm, to feel the strength of something so tiny.

Sometimes she thinks she doesn’t know her own heart at all.

 

-----

 

One quiet night when the moon is like a silver smudge behind feathery clouds, an agonizing wail pulls Brienne from sleep. She throws on her bedrobe, tying a hasty knot, grabs Oathkeeper, and runs. Lyra stands outside the King and Queen’s chambers, her wheat-blond hair a messy halo around her face, illuminated by the torches on the wall. She looks calm, though. As do the guards posted there.

“The Queen’s in labor,” Lyra whispers. “Been for a few hours. The King’s in there. And the Maester.”

Much later, when Brienne’s waited for so long she’s sunk down on the floor, back against the wall, and nodded off, she’s once more pulled from sleep by a cry. Only this time it’s the delicate, vibrating little cry of a newborn child. She rubs sleep from her eyes and nudges Lyra, who’s snoring beside her. Lyra mumbles something and wipes drool from the corners of her mouth, smacking her lips. Brienne pushes herself to stand and helps the girl to her feet as well. The guards perk up too and they stand there, all four of them, watching the door in anticipation.

Ages pass before it creaks open and a wild-haired, beaming Jon appears. “A girl! It’s a girl!”

“And the Queen?” Brienne asks.

“She’s well.” His smile grows impossibly wider. “They’re both well.”

 

-----

 

The little princess is three days old when Brienne’s summoned to the King and Queen’s chambers. They sit in bed, both of them, dressed in sleep-tunics and bedrobes, glowing with joy. And in Sansa’s arms lies a small bundle, with a mop of auburn hair sticking out from the folds of a soft blanket.

Brienne inches closer to the bed. The princess’ cheeks are pink and smooth, and her eyes are squeezed shut, a crinkle running across the bridge of her tiny nose. Sansa looks up at Brienne expectantly, and for the briefest moment, Brienne fears that she wants her to hold the princess.

What if she drops her? What if she drops that delicate thing who’s supposed to grow up and rule all the Seven Kingdoms? Brienne’s arms feel heavy. She folds them behind her back and takes a step back--only to realize the Queen most likely wants a compliment.

“She’s beautiful, Your Grace,” Brienne says, feeling rather sheepish. “You did well.”

Sansa breathes out a smile. “It was horrible. And wonderful.”

Jon looks at her as though she hung the moon and the stars and the sun, and presses a kiss to her temple.

“What will you call her?” Brienne asks.

“Well”--Sansa exchanges a secretive smile with her husband--”I suggested Lyanna, but Jon had a different suggestion. So we compromised.” Sansa gazes up at Brienne and there’s something in her Tully-blue eyes that makes Brienne’s heart flutter. “Would you like to hold her?”

Brienne shakes her head to clear it from confusion. “I’m sorry, what?”

“I’d like to change into a dress and I’ll need Jon’s help, so…”

Brienne tries to protest, to tell them they should find the wet-nurse, but Jon says Sansa doesn’t want one, and leads her to the chairs by the fireplace, pushes her to sit, and places the world’s most precious little girl in her arms.

“She’s called Bryanna,” Jon says, softly. “For my mother, and for you. Because you brought Sansa to me.”

A swell of emotions washes over Brienne and she stares down at Bryanna, at her dark lashes resting against pudgy cheeks, at her tiny pink fingernails. The skin of her hands is a bit wrinkly, and she has a rash on her forehead, and she’s utterly, utterly perfect. Brienne can’t stop looking at her, and whenever she blinks, she feels tears sliding down her cheeks. On an impulse, she leans down and breathes in the scent of her, the downy hair of her head soft against Brienne’s skin.

“I’ll protect you, little one,” she whispers. “I’ll protect you.”

When she looks back up, Sansa’s watching her carefully, thoughtfully. She’s dressed again, face washed and hair neatly braided. Brienne must’ve sat there for ages, and yet it feels as though no time passed at all.

Bryanna moves her little head, mouth opening and closing.

“She’s hungry,” Sansa says, smiling, and lifts up her child.

Brienne’s arms have never felt more empty.

 

-----

 

A few days later, she’s summoned again for tea and lemon cakes in the Queen’s solar. Jon’s made an awkward attempt at conversation while Sansa’s fed their child, but now, finally, Sansa tucks her breast back into her dress and places a feather-light kiss on Bryanna’s brow before handing the sleeping baby to her father. Whenever he gazes down at his child, he looks young and carefree, like a man who’s ever only known joys in life, and Brienne tries very hard not to wonder whether Jaime would as well.

Sansa moves to her drawer and pulls out a sealed letter which she hands to Brienne. “I need you to deliver this letter to ser Jaime. In person. Its contents are much too important to send by raven. I believe he’s staying with his brother, at the moment.”

Brienne’s stomach swoops uncomfortably. “What’s happened?”

Sansa glances at Jon, whose daughter holds his full attention. “You’ll find out soon enough. For now, all you need to know is that this is very important. I trust only you to deliver this.”

 

-----

 

The journey to Casterly Rock takes Brienne almost four weeks of riding through snow and sleet and, once, an hour of rain that made the roads slippery once the cold came back. Almost four weeks of being alone with her useless thoughts and memories and an ever-growing longing to see the man she still loves. The closer she comes, the more she rehearses the words she’ll tell him to explain her suddenly appearing at his brother’s home, uninvited.

“I bring a letter from the Queen,” she mumbles to herself. “The Queen has sent me to-- No. Good afternoon, ser Jaime. Queen Sansa asked me to deliver this to you. No. Good afternoon, ser Jaime. I hope you are well. Our Queen...”

It’s all sufficient, she supposes, but nothing feels right. And once those sand-white walls appear before her, her heart thumps so hard in her chest she has to dismount the horse.

“I am come to deliver a letter to ser Jaime, from the Queen,” she tells the guards. And, when one of them holds out his hand, adds, “In person. She forbade me to give it to anyone other than him.”

They let her into the courtyard, but one guard stays with her while the other fetches ser Jaime. Brienne keeps her eyes on the pale sky, follows the swooping motions of a flock of birds. The air is different down here, but the sounds are mostly the same. People bustling about, tending to their work, chopping wood and bringing water from the well and shooting bows and arrows and, there, ser Jaime’s footsteps.

She still knows them by heart.

“Brienne?”

She breathes in deeply through her nose, exhales through her mouth, and turns to him with her head held high. He’s looking at her as though he’s never seen anything more wonderful in his life, and it’s absolutely his fault that her stupid mouth says, “I love you, ser Jaime,” instead of the carefully rehearsed speech she’s prepared.

He stares at her in astonishment. His lips twitch, eyes blink, and then he’s laughing and laughing and she’s frowning, hand gripping the hilt of Oathkeeper, chin tilted even higher than before.

“The guard told me you had a message for me,” he says, grinning widely. “Was that it?”

“Don’t be stupid.” She pulls out Sansa’s letter and hands it to him. “This is from our Queen.”

As he reads, she can’t tear her eyes off his face. Something awful must’ve happened. Something regarding the safety of the realm or the safety of either the Lannisters or the Starks. But Jaime doesn’t look distressed at all. No, a gentle smile plays on his lips, he even chuckles once or twice, and when he looks back at her, his eyes are misty.

“If I know you--and I do--you’ve not sneaked a peek at this.”

“No, of course not. I only know its contents are very important.”

“Yes. Very important.” Nodding, he tucks the letter inside his doublet and takes a step closer to her. “Brienne, I--”

He’s interrupted by a loud oi! They both take a look at their busy surroundings. Two men are arguing, a wheelbarrow tipped over by their feet. But the rest of the people working in the courtyard must be eager for gossip, for they’re all are stealing glances at Brienne and Jaime while whispering amongst themselves.

Jaime grabs her hand and pulls her into a an archway leading into a nook where spears and shields lean against the walls. It’s dim in here, dark enough to hide them from view, but light enough that she can see his face. He’s gazing up at her with so much love she aches, and when he takes her hand, her heart starts beating like mad again.

“Brienne of Tarth,” he says. “It’s come to my attention that I’ve never properly asked for your hand. Will you allow me to--”

“I want to serve the Queen," she says before he says too much. "That hasn’t changed.”

“I know. I’ll follow wherever you lead. I’ll give you children, if you want them. And if they have to grow up at Winterfell, playing with little Bryanna Stark and all the brothers and sisters I’m sure she’ll have, then I suppose I can live with that. So, Brienne.” He tugs her a touch closer. “Will you allow me to ask for your hand?”

A lump forms in her throat, stealing her voice. Her eyes fall to his chest, where he hid the letter.

Sometimes Brienne thinks she doesn’t know her own heart at all, but perhaps Sansa does.

Jaime’s hand is warm, his eyes loving, hopeful, telling her that she can have it all if only she says yes. So she does.

Chapter Text

When he was a person, Uncle Bran used to climb. He climbed and climbed and then he fell and never climbed again. Now, though, he’s a dragon. Now he flies.

She looks like him, they say: the same long, freckled nose and the same sparkling, brown eyes and the same ever-smiling mouth. (The hair is Uncle Robb’s, though, all auburn and curly and wild.) And now she’s the one climbing, always scaling walls or trees--like she did just now, to perch on the thick branch of an old oak in the godswood and look down at her family, who’s gathered around the pond to cool off from the heat of the summer sun.

But Bryanna flies as well.

(Well, all right. She flew once, but she’s determined she will again.)

Aunt Arya, Gendry, and Uncle Bran only visit a few times per year, around Bryanna’s and Aemon’s namedays. The rest of the year they fly all over the world to protect those who need protecting and do other extraordinary things Bryanna dreams of doing herself one day. But on her fifth nameday, when Mother and Father were distracted, she sneaked off and climbed atop Uncle Bran and flew! She flew for ages!

She flew over the Wolfswood, where the enormous bones of Drogon lie. She flew over Bear Island, and the Bay of Ice, and even saw the Wall and waved at the wildling children playing there before returning to Winterfell. Her family waited for them on Bran’s Hill, and after she climbed down to the ground, Father hugged her so hard she had to wriggle out of his arms so she could breathe, while Mother scolded Bran for so long he curled into a ball and hid his face beneath his wing. Aemon, who was only a toddler then (and was guarded by Ghost, as if to make sure he wouldn’t take off as well), sat very very still, watching the spectacle with wide, lavender eyes and a quiet mouth.

His mouth is always quiet. No one knows why. Well, not always. Mostly. Aemon’s mostly quiet. Bryanna’s heard him say things like Mother and Father and help and no. And sometimes he whispers with his best friend Lynne and giggles. Sometimes he rides on Ghost’s back and laughs and whoops.

Sometimes Bryanna finds it annoying.

His hearing is fine! He can talk with his mouth! But you shouldn’t force someone to talk, Mother says. You shouldn’t force someone to do anything. So Aemon talks with his hands instead, and he likes it when others talk with their hands as well. That was Aunt Arya’s idea; she learned it on her travels. She’s great at it, Arya is. Mother and Father are all right, Lyra is decent, and most of the people at Winterfell know at least a few signs. But Aemon and Bryanna and Lynne are all fantastic hand-talkers--and so will the twins be, once Mother gets to push them out.

She’s been round as the moon for ages.

Bryanna swings down from the tree and lands on the soft grass with a thud. Tomorrow’s her nameday--she’ll be eight!--and she’s going to ask the gods to give her at least one baby sister. One she’ll be as good friends with as Mother is with Arya. One she’ll teach how to climb trees and ride horses and run as fast as the wind.

Bryanna would rather have direwolf puppies, of course, but that’s apparently not how it works. Sometimes when she’s jealous of the bond Ghost and Aemon share, she prays that Nymeria will return to Winterfell and be all hers. She knows in her heart that Nymeria would love her.

(Sometimes she prays that Bran would lay her an egg so she could have a dragon all of her own.)

Mother sits on a slab of stone by the heart-tree, cooling off her swollen feet in the pond. She’s wearing a sleeveless gown in the loveliest shade of river blue, with a silk ribbon tied beneath the breast and fish embroidered on the skirts with silver thread. On her pale arms run a thousand scars. Perhaps even a million. She was once married to a bad man she never ever mentions in front of the children, but Bryanna is very good at making herself small and invisible. She’s very good at hearing things not meant for her ears. (Which is how she knows that once upon a time Aunt Arya was even better at it, and could even wear other people’s faces, but she never does that any more.)

As Bryanna kneels by the tree, Mother smiles at her but leaves her be to pray. Praying is hard, though, with so many people around on whom Bryanna likes to keep an eye and ear. Father and ser Jaime sit on the other side of the pond, as always talking about something very important with ser Davos, while watching chubby little Selwyn, Lynne’s baby brother, who splashes his feet delightedly in the cold water. The tone of their voices tells her they’re discussing the realm, and that’s boring. She likes it better when they talk about the past and all the wars they fought, or when they talk about Mother and lady Brienne.

Lady Brienne’s out in the courtyard, sparring with Steffon, and she's the fiercest warrior in all the Seven Kingdoms. Probably the tallest and strongest as well. She’s even stronger than Father, and he’s incredibly strong. Bryanna is named for her, because she saved Mother from that bad man. She and someone called Theon and someone called Pod. They’re both dead, now, but Theon’s sister and her Dornish paramour visit now and then, and last time Bryanna got to stay up late and taste a spicy snake dish and listen to all the stories about Theon. In some stories he was terrible, in others he was sweet. Mother only cried at the sweet ones.

With a sigh, Bryanna gives up on praying and settles down next to Mother, who wraps her arm around her shoulders and tugs her close. While Mother picks leaves and twigs (and an acorn or two) out of Bryanna’s hair, she watches her brother and Lynne binding a garland of flowers and twigs by the hollowed tree.

They’re always doing something boring like that, something that requires sitting still: binding wreaths or practicing stitches or sketching charcoal drawings. Elner, the bard, is even teaching them how to play the harp, and says Aemon’s a rare talent. And he’s not saying so because Aemon’s a prince; Bryanna can tell the difference between truth and flattery. He’s good at his letters too, her brother. Better than Bryanna. Better than Shireen and even Little Sam, they realized last time the Tarlys visited, even though Aemon is so much younger. Lynne is good at numbers and knitting and other boring things, and sometimes Bryanna wants to put her hands on her hips and scream so that the walls of Winterfell rumble, because why don’t they ever want to do something fun?

Sometimes she feels just like that tree, gaping and hollow, and then she likes to hide in its maw and sulk and sulk until Father finds her and pulls her out and hugs her until it feels better.

Well, unless she finds that the tree is already occupied, that is. Not by sulkers but by kissers. If you step into that hollow with the one you love, you’ll be together forever, they say. So, servants and Wintertown folk sneak in there for a kiss, and those who are wed by the heart-tree like to pop inside first, for good luck. There’s even a song called The Gaping Tree, and Bryanna knows it’s about Mother and Father, who once stood in there in the midst of winter and fell in love.

Ser Jaime nudges Father in the side and nods at Aemon and Lynne, who are trying to attach the garland so that it hangs across the entrance to the hollow. He grins widely, but Father only shakes his head in exasperation while ser Davos chuckles to himself.

Lynne’s not even seven and Aemon’s only a touch older than six, and yet everyone already thinks they’ll marry one day. At least once every moon, ser Jaime asks Mother and Father to just arrange the betrothal already and announce to the world that Lady Catelyn Tarth and Prince Aemon Stark are intended to marry once they’re grown, but Mother and Father only laugh and refuse while lady Brienne frowns at her husband.

It’s stupid. Aemon wants to be a Maester, not a husband, just like that great great granduncle whose name he shares. But then Sam Tarly’s a Maester, and he has a wife and three children. And Aemon does go very still and very quiet--even his hands still--whenever someone mentions that Lynne one day will have to leave them, for her grandfather won’t live forever and one day she’ll be Lady of Evenfall.

That’s not yet, though. Not yet for years, if the gods are good, and Bryanna reckons they are.

(And she’s not just thinking that because she wants a baby sister. Honestly, she’s not.)

“What did you pray for?” Mother asks, absentmindedly stroking her belly.

“A sister. If I get one, can I name her?”

“I suppose that depends on what you’d name her.”

Humming thoughtfully, Bryanna looks at their surroundings for inspiration, looks at the dragonflies darting across the pond, quick and light.

“I like Jenny,” she says. “From the song.”

Mother smiles and brings her fingers to the dragonfly pendant around her neck. She’s worn it for as long as Bryanna can remember. When she was little, whenever she sat in Mother’s lap, she used to fidget with it and watch the sunlight gleam in its pretty eyes. Sometimes, after Father kisses Mother, his eyes drop to the pendant, and then they share a look, one Bryanna doesn’t understand. She just knows it means luck, that pendant. That it protects you. She knows she’s wanted one just like it all her life.

“Jenny is nice,“ Mother says. “Or perhaps Jeyne…”

She smiles, but it’s one those sad smiles that means she’s thinking about all the people she’s lost, people Bryanna never got to meet. She hates it when Mother is sad. It makes her chest ache and eyes burn, so she jumps to her feet and cartwheels around the pond so that Mother’s laughing and clapping her hands.

The horns sound. Arya’s here! Bryanna puts her foot down all wrong and stumbles. Mother gasps, but Father catches Bryanna easily before she falls into the water, and puts her back on the ground, dry and safe.

“There you go,” he says and kisses the top of her head. “All right?”

A curtain of locks has fallen over her eyes, and she combs it back and gives him a wide grin. Smiling, Father strokes his knuckles over her cheek before moving over to Mother and pulling her to her feet. It’s quite the chore. She pants and huffs and groans and mutters under her breath that those bleeding babies should come already and how terrible it is to be pregnant during summer and she feels as if she’s boiling and why won’t winter just come? Father only strokes her belly and kisses her lips and her cheeks and her nose, too, which has freckled under the sun, until she’s smiling again. That’s what he does. He makes her smile, just like Bryanna does, only in a different way.

“I’m never letting you near me again.” Mother narrows her eyes at him. “Ever.”

“You say that every time, Sansa, and yet…”

He gives her a weird look that makes Mother giggle and swat at his chest. They’re so strange sometimes, but it doesn’t matter. Aunt Arya’s coming!

Whenever she visits, she’s wearing something new, something she bought in a faraway place, and Bryanna always makes Mother sew something similar for her. Last time it was knee breeches with a leather vest over a beautiful tunic with puffy sleeves and floral embroidery on the chest, and it’s what Bryanna is wearing today. When Arya sees her clothes, she’ll beam and say, “Look at you!” because she always does, and Bryanna will feel like she could be a hero one day too, one who rides dragons and saves the smallfolk from bandits and swings her very own Needle.

“I hope they’ll stay for a long while this time. I hope they stay forever and ever.”

“As do I,” Mother says.

Father hums in agreement and offers her his arm to lean on, but Mother doesn’t notice. She’s gaping at something farther ahead, and they all follow her eyes to see what’s surprising her so.

Aunt Arya and Gendry are already in the godswood! Bryanna runs forward, two, three steps, before she notices the babe in Arya’s arms.

Aunt Arya has a babe. A babe! Now everyone’s gaping. And everyone’s talking all at once--even lady Brienne is there, all red and sweaty from sparring--and they’re showering the new parents with so many questions Arya finally barks at them to calm down. She settles down in the dappled shade of the heart-tree and, with Father’s help, Mother sinks down next to her. And there they sit, looking as different as the sun and the moon, grinning at one another like two children.

Bryanna sneaks closer to get a good look at the babe.

It’s a boy with black hair and blue eyes, all small and wrinkly. Three days old, born on a ship right as it arrived at White Harbor. Arya’s mad for traveling while pregnant, everyone says, but she only laughs at them and tells them she at least travelled by boat and carriage. She’s not been able to ride on Bran’s back for ages.

“His name is Robb,” Arya says, carefully, and looks at Mother with worried eyes. “You don’t mind, do you?”

“Of course not.”

Mother smiles that sad smile again. She rarely talks about the baby they lost. He was born a moon before Bryanna’s fifth nameday and they called him Robb. He was barely a day old when he stopped breathing. Bryanna never even got to see him. Father never talks about him at all and if someone else mentions him, he leaves the room.

Maester Wolkan says it happens in all families, and Bryanna knows ser Jaime and lady Brienne lost one in the womb before they had Selwyn, but for some reason Father blames himself. Bryanna has no idea why. She asked Mother, once, and she just said Father’s a brooding sort of man, which made little sense. Father’s the happiest person Bryanna knows.

But then everyone says Bryanna is the happiest little girl, and sometimes she’s not happy at all. Sometimes she feels like that tree.

(Perhaps she gets that from him.)

There’s pain in his eyes now, too. But he smiles through that pain and, with his finger, lifts baby Robb’s tiny hand and gives it a kiss.

“A beautiful name for a beautiful boy,” he says and Arya breathes out in relief.

“How long will you stay, this time?” Mother asks. “Please tell me you’ll at least stay for a moon.”

“Well”--Arya glances at Gendry--”we were hoping we could stay for even longer. Now that Robb’s here… We want to be around family. If you have room for us.”

Mother nods, her eyes filled with happy tears, and they share an awkward hug around her huge belly and the bundle of baby Robb in Arya’s arms.

Bryanna’s prayers already got answered--they’ll stay!--and yet she feels oddly disappointed. Everyone has eyes only for baby Robb--even little Selwyn has toddled close to see what all the hubbub’s about--while Bryanna and the pretty clothes she took such care in choosing this morning are all forgotten.

But then she feels a warm little hand in hers. Aemon. He looks up at her with wide eyes beneath a mop of thick almost-black hair, and tugs her with him to the hollowed tree where he sits down on the mossy ground. A pile of flowers lies by his left knee, a pile of twigs by his right, and he hands Bryanna a bunch from each.

She’s not good at this. Her fingers are too clumsy and it’s hard to sit still and focus when her legs tell her to run and climb. But she tries, and when she struggles, Aemon leans in close and guides her stupid fingers.

Most of the time her little brother is annoying and strange, but sometimes he’s all right.

 

-----

 

After a good night’s sleep, Bryanna feels a bit better. Today is her day. She skips out of her chambers, her pretty emerald-green dress swishing so satisfyingly with each step, and follows her family to the godswood. There, by the pond, beneath a ceiling of garlands running between the trees, stands a table full of all her favorite foods! Applecakes and honey-glazed rabbit and buttered carrots and boiled eggs and purple olives and crumbled cheese and oatbread baked with plums. She eats and eats until she fears the seams of her dress will burst.

Aunt Arya’s barely touched her food. Robb’s a fussy baby who wants the breast all the time. But Aemon was fussy too, and Mother learned a trick from the Free Folk, who use a sort of sling tied around the chest where the baby can lie. It’ll free Arya’s arms. So now Mother’s sitting beside her sister, curled over a swath of linen, weaving a needle through the fabric while Arya watches.

She’s not even given Bryanna a nameday gift.

Bryanna can’t help but stare grumpily at them and the stupid baby.

Father catches her eye across the table and smiles warmly at her. He leaves his seat and picks her up off the chair, as if she were a small child when she’s eight, but it’s all right. Just this once, it’s all right, and she snuggles her face into the crook of his neck.

“Babies are so boring,” Father says and yawns widely.

“They don’t even do anything,” Bryanna mutters.

“No, they really don’t. You know what’s not boring?”

“What?”

“Flying.”

 

-----

 

Clad in breeches and a tunic, now, she climbs up Bran’s Hill with Father trailing behind her. Bran lifts his head when Bryanna approaches and does a little bow that means hello. She bows her head too and does her best to hug his enormous body. He’s always so warm, Uncle Bran, like sitting by the hearth or lying on a sun-baked cliff or jumping into the hot springs. She likes that.

She looks at Father to ask him whether Bran can lay eggs, but finds him watching her with his eyebrows tugged together, like when something’s troubling him, and she thinks about the story of the Night King, when Father fell and fell and fell.

“I won’t fall,” she says, scratching Bran’s scales. “I promise.”

“I know.” Father drops to his haunches in front of her and strokes her hair tenderly. “You’re a good girl, Bryanna. You’ll be a good queen, one day.”

“I don’t know if I want to be queen,” she murmurs, looking at him through her lashes, because she’s never before said it out loud. “Perhaps I want to do something else.”

To her relief, Father only smiles. “Then you’ll do something else.” Patting Uncle Bran, he looks up at the dragon. “Can I fly with you? I only did fly that once. Well, twice but...”

“Of course you can, Father!”

“Not just yet,” someone pants behind them.

It’s a very winded Mother, her cheeks deep pink and glowing from sweat. Father rushes to her side and winds an arm around her back, gently chiding her for making the climb, but she dismisses him with a wave of her hand.

“I wanted to give you something, sweetling.” Mother removes her dragonfly pendant and hangs it around Bryanna’s neck. “This pendant is lucky. It will protect you and make sure you come back to me.”

“It’s only flying, Mother. Honestly,” Bryanna says, all but rolling her eyes, but she does tuck the pendant underneath the tunic before thanking her mother with a kiss on the cheek.

And once she and Father are seated, his strong arm around her waist, she does close her eyes and touch the pendant for luck. But then Bran starts moving, and clutching his ridges with both hands, she leans forward and shouts her joy into the the wind as they take off.

 

-----

 

When they return, the sun stands high in the sky and Mother has left, but Arya and Gendry waits for them instead. Baby Robb lies in his sling, but it’s tied around Gendry, and Arya’s empty arms are stretched out and welcoming. Bryanna scrambles down to the ground and runs and runs and throws herself into Arya’s embrace.

“Look at you!” Arya spins her around and it’s almost as good as flying. Almost. “My little dragon-riding princess. I have a gift for you.”

“You do?”

“What, did you think I’d forgotten?”

“No, of course not,” Bryanna says, casually, but she can tell by the quirk of Arya’s mouth that she sees through the lie.

(She always does.)

Aunt Arya lifts a roll of fabric from the grass behind her and Bryanna’s heart sinks in her chest. Fabric.

It’s pretty, granted, and Father always gives Mother fabric and she loves it. Whenever he leaves Winterfell to do whatever it is kings do (even though he once swore he’d never leave again, which Mother reminds him of each time before kissing him for so long it’s embarrassing), he returns with silks and lace and ribbons and buttons and pearls and whatever else Mother wants. Then she spends a week or two sewing something for herself, and once it’s done and she swans around Winterfell in a dreamy creation in rosy pink or ocean blue or periwinkle purple, Father looks at her as if she’s the most beautiful star in all the sky.

Bryanna can’t sew, though. But she can pout. She’s terrific at pouting.

When Aunt Arya sees her expression she laughs and opens the fabric to reveal a skinny little scabbard. Out of it, she pulls an ever skinnier sword. At first Bryanna thinks it’s Needle, but then she sees that the hilt is different. The grip is wrapped with black leather, not brown, and the pommel is carved from weirwood.

“A quick sword for a quick girl,” she says and offers it gingerly to Bryanna. “Gendry made it for you.”

Bryanna glances at Father, who nods, and she takes the sword from her aunt’s hands. Sunlight bounces off the blade, dazzling her; it’s the most beautiful thing Bryanna’s ever seen.

“What’s its name?” she whispers.

“You decide.” Arya smiles at her. “And then, when Robb gets a little older, I’ll train with you. I’ll teach you how to water dance. Would you like that?”

Bryanna’s so happy her eyes sting. All she can do is nod and beam and blink away the tears.

“Jon,” Arya says, looking up at Father. “Sansa’s water broke. She’s at...”

But Father doesn’t hear the rest of that sentence. He’s already rushing down the hill as though she told him Winterfell was on fire.

 

-----

 

That night, when Bryanna lies down to sleep, she puts the sword on her nightstand so that she can admire it in the soft candlelight. Direwolves run along the length of scabbard, and she counts them until her eyelids feel heavy. The next day, after she’s dressed in knee breeches and a simple tunic, she ties it to her hip immediately and marches about in her room to feel its weight, to get used to it. She’s admiring herself in the looking glass when someone knocks on the door. Father peers inside. From the proud and tired look on his face, she already knows what he’s going to say.

“The twins are here?”

He nods. “The twins are here. Would you like to meet them?”

Mother and Father’s chambers are dimly lit. She lies in bed, a babe on each arm, completely still and pale like death. Her white lips are slightly parted and Lyra’s dabbing her forehead with a damp cloth. Bryanna can’t breathe. Her hand moves to the pendant still hanging around her neck. She forgot to give it back and now...

But Father looks so calm. He wouldn’t look calm if-- Bryanna can’t even think it. But, just to be safe, she removes the dragonfly pendant and lays it on Mother’s chest. Her eyes flutter open and she breathes in deeply through her nose, focusing her gaze on Bryanna.

“Hi, sweetling,” she says, voice as frail as butterfly wings.

“Mother, are you all right?”

“Yes, I’m tired, that’s all. It was…” She sighs, but it’s through gently curved lips. “The toughest one yet. You got your wish, though. A brother and a sister.”

“A sister?” Bryanna peers at the babies. Their eyes are closed, but one is silver-blond of hair and the other is as dark as Father and Aemon. “Which one?”

Mother nods at the black-haired baby, and then she notices the pendant lying on her breast and tugs her eyebrows together. “I thought you wanted that?”

“You should keep your dragonfly,” Bryanna says. “I have my own.”

When Mother looks at her with a puzzled expression, Bryanna pulls the sword from the scabbard at her hip and holds it out in front of her. The candlelight catches in its slender blade. She can so easily picture it dancing before her, sunlight bouncing off the steel as the blade darts to and fro, quick and light, and she knows she’s found its name.

“Aunt Arya gave me this sword. I’ve named it Dragonfly. It will keep me safe.”

Part of her expects Mother to laugh, they way she does sometimes when Bryanna’s being very serious, but now Mother only gives a solemn nod and says, “A good name. Do you have names for your sister and brother as well?”

“Honestly, Mother. I can’t name everything.”

Mother does laugh then, a small laugh behind closed lips, eyes already drifting shut. Bryanna feels Father’s warm hands on her shoulders. She sheaths the sword and lets him usher her out of the chambers so that Mother can get her rest.

 

-----

 

When she was a little girl, Aunt Arya was fierce and headstrong and full of adventure. She was swift as a deer and quiet as a shadow and learned how to fight from the First Sword of Braavos.

Bryanna’s just like her, they say, and now she’s the one balancing on a thick oak branch, practicing her water dancing, Dragonfly whipping through the air just like its namesakes who are hovering over the godswood pond, where her family has gathered to cool off from the heat of the summer sun.

Aemon and Lynne play hand-clapping games, while Selwyn naps between his parents on a blanket in the shade of the heart-tree. Mother’s there as well, on her favorite slab of stone, reading important documents, while Father’s keeping an eye on the twins. Eddara and Calen have just learned how to crawl and they’re always off in opposite directions, as if they're intent on driving Father mad. Plump little Robb, though, merely gnaws contentedly on his fingers without caring in the least that he’s five days older and should crawl as well. At least if you ask his impatient mother.

“Enjoy it while it lasts,” Father says and turns Eddara around before she tumbles into the pond. “Once he starts moving, you won’t get a moment of rest.”

“Good!” Arya folds her arms across her chest with a grumpy frown. “I don’t want rest! It’s boring.”

Gendry laughs at his wife and kisses her hair. He always does that when she’s angry, as though he loves her a little bit more than usual when she scowls and snaps. Ser Jaime only ever kisses lady Brienne when they think no one’s watching, because Brienne likes that best, while Father kisses Mother as often as he can.

No one has a happier marriage than the King and Queen in the North, they say, and joke about how the King’s lips rarely go an hour without touching the Queen’s skin. But Bryanna knows other marriages are equally happy, even if they look a bit different. She knows it because of Aunt Arya and Gendry, who even though they tease each other and argue all the time, still make each other laugh the way no one else can. And she knows it because of Lady Brienne and ser Jaime.

He gave up Casterly Rock, they say, because he was hoping she’d one day whisk him away to Tarth and make him hers. She did, in a way. She whisked him away to Winterfell, so that their children could grow up with Bryanna and her siblings and finally heal the wounds between the Starks and the Lannisters.

They say Mother asked them to in a letter once.

The end.