She wouldn't be little forever. Maybe it'd get better.
He had sat outside the birthing room and listened to the screams of the woman who was not his mother.
"Aye, she's got the Tully hair," he'd heard one of the septas say fondly to another, as the women left the birthing room.
Robb had the Tully hair. Jon did not. He was just old enough to know that he hated the Tully hair, nearly as much as he hated his own hair. Not old enough to know why. He was just old enough to know that the woman who was not his mother hated his hair too. Not old enough to know why.
The squalling infant had red hair, redder than her blotchy, ruddy skin, slick with birth and blood. Robb had been allowed to hold her. Jon stood behind the door. Through the crack he could see his half-brother holding his new half-sister. He was obscured from Catelyn Stark's view by the door, so he could stare freely.
"Wha's her name?" Robb had asked in his musical child's voice, looking terrified and delighted at the bundle of cloth he now held in his stubby arms.
"Sansa," Catelyn had declared wearily, lovingly, and reached a pale, tired hand out to caress Robb's Tully hair.
"San-sa," Robb had pronounced carefully. He'd turned his shining face toward the door. "Jon, come see our sister!"
Jon already was old enough to know not to go inside that room. Not old enough to know why.
He hid behind the door, and wished that San-sa, barely five minutes old and already more than him, did not exist.
Jon Snow was less like a Stark wolf, and more like a forgotten dog.
He'd sit in the corner, hackles raised, just waiting for any sign of a threat—and the minute you smiled at him, he'd raise those big eyes to you and come to you, tail between his legs, desperate for any scrap of love.
Sansa was not old enough or insightful enough to have such thoughts, but she knew that she felt the same mix of pity and disgust for Jon Snow as she did for the pathetic hounds who mooned about the Hall, begging for scraps.
"Don't feed them, Sansa, they'll only keep begging for more," Septa Mordane had chided her as a black shaggy mutt had whimpered at her skirts.
One day she emerged from Septa Mordane's rooms, intent on running off to Mother's rooms to show off her new dress. It was the Southern style, and her cheeks were flushed with pleasure as she gathered her skirts—how they swished like a maiden's in the songs!—and she decided to try pinning up her hair like a Southern lady, to show her mother the full effect.
In the sunlight, the warmth of it on her bare shoulders, she'd danced along the corridor next to the courtyard. Jon Snow was shedding the bow he'd been using for target practice as she'd hastened by. She'd averted her eyes because she didn't like to look at him.
"What, another dress?" He was trying too hard to be like Robb. His voice was too light. Jon Snow didn't make jokes, Jon Snow didn't tease. He only did when he was trying to be Jon Stark.
Sansa reflexively glanced at him; she'd been raised to be a lady, perhaps even a Great Lady, after all, and it was difficult to truly ignore someone if you were well-bred. She had manners. Their eyes met. She could still remember the sun caressing her skin, the sun gilding the edge of Jon's training armor. For a moment, he'd looked like a knight.
Later she'd think of that day, filled with shame towards her actions. For now, in this moment, all she felt was revulsion. That round, hopeful face; that dark, wild hair; and the way his dark, sad eyes pleaded with her... Had she really, for that brief flash, thought him like a knight?
It was, she felt in that moment, the greatest kindness to remind him he was not Jon Stark. He was Jon Snow.
If you fed them, they'd only come back for more.
She said nothing as they regarded each other for that blistering moment. If it had been Robb, he'd make some stupid remark, and she'd shout and stamp her feet, all the while enjoying the drama of it, and then they'd be scolded by Sir Rodrik or Septa Mordane...
Since it was Jon Snow, and since she was to be a Great Lady and Great Ladies were good and well-mannered, she cast her eyes from him, dropped her skirts, and walked very slowly away from him.
Her back, held painfully straight, had burned with that gaze the whole time.
The years passed.
"All you bloody hear is Joffrey, Joffrey, Joffrey," Robb was going on as he casually defended a blow from Theon Greyjoy. "Gods, she's mad for him, and she's never even met him. I just want to get this stupid visit over with already, so I don't have to bloody hear about him anymore."
"Bet she's already wet for him," Theon joked slyly.
Abruptly they stopped. Robb and Jon stared at Theon.
"That is my sister," Robb said, his normally warm voice colder than the chill running through them in the courtyard. Winter was coming. They were wearing their heavier tunics.
"Yeah," Jon had added uselessly.
Theon's clever, sly eyes rested on Jon a shade too long. Jon shifted. He felt like a scroll that had been unfurled.
"Come off it," Theon said quietly. "It was only a joke."
"A joke about my sister," Robb reiterated, his face flushing now. The way Theon rolled his eyes was barely perceptible, and was directed at Jon... Like Theon knew Jon would side with him, like Jon would know what Theon had meant. Like Jon wasn't Sansa's brother. Half-brother.
Jon could not put into words why this bothered him. He and Theon were both outsiders, so it was within decorum for Theon to act this way—not to mention Jon was usually grateful, relieved even, when Theon was siding with him and not with Robb.
"You're right, she's probably not even got hair yet," Theon dismissed casually, quite suddenly. The way he said it—always quick to make Robb laugh—cut through the tension, and Robb was guffawing and hitting Theon with the flat of his blade, yelling at Theon for saying such things.
Jon said nothing. There was something dark, uneasy, shameful, squirming in his chest. "Not clever, Greyjoy," Jon added now. He'd finally found his words. Why did he always find them so late? Why were they always the wrong ones?
Theon's smile was sly; Robb's blue eyes, so like Sansa's, were, for the briefest flicker, questioning.
But then they were called in to have their hair cut for the arrival of the Baratheons, and the moment passed. All the while, that strange darkness squirmed inside Jon. Every time he thought he'd hidden from it, he felt it at his back.
Later, at the feast, made to sit apart from the Starks—of course—he caught that Tully hair, gleaming like copper. Sansa was looking at Prince Joffrey. She's probably not even got hair yet.
He gripped the table tightly. He wondered if he could steal some ale. Robb wasn't thinking these thoughts. Robb had probably completely forgotten that his sister even existed, as he often seemed to unless directly confronted with her...or directly confronted with the opportunity to demonstrate his prowess with a sword, supposedly in her honor.
Robb was not thinking about his sister.
Across the Hall, those striking blue-green eyes met his, just briefly. Just as fast, Sansa turned away.
"She'll be a pretty one, give her a few years," he heard one of the Lannister men say.
"I'd fuck her now."
"You would not. She's a child!"
"Give me a few coppers and I'll try. That tight cunt is all mine."
Their laughter dissolved. Jon's grip tightened on the table.
She probably doesn't even have hair yet.
He risked another helpless glance at Sansa. Her hair was in elaborate braids, like the queen's. She'd be more beautiful than the queen, someday. Someday soon. By the appraising look in the queen's striking green eyes, he thought the queen was thinking that too.
And then he began to realize just how many eyes were on Sansa Stark. They were all just salivating, just waiting, for her to open up and bloom. She was as pure and untouched as the stories the songs told.
He felt sick.
"Aye, that Stark girl—she's like Catelyn was, in her day. She'll be even prettier," she heard one of his father's bannermen saying.
He couldn't get away from it.
Catelyn had never cared for him, either.
He thought, drinking mead and watching his half-sister, that he barely knew his half-sister's face. He only ever saw that soon-to-be-lovely porcelain neck as she turned away from him, the Tully red hair splaying in a curtain swinging as she turned. She never looked at him unless she had to. She was not even generous enough to look at him. There was nothing good about his half-sister, he thought.
The only good thing about his half-sister, he realized, was her beauty.
Robb was not thinking these things about his sister.
That secret, dark, twisted, shameful thing began to take root.
They were all leaving, but it hadn't occurred to her until now that Jon Snow wouldn't be going with them. Robb had mentioned something of Jon Snow taking the Black, and Sansa felt a creeping relief that she knew was wrong, even though her disdain for Jon Snow was acceptable, given how his existence hurt Mother so deeply.
They passed in the hall. He was carrying his things—all of his things he'd managed to accumulate could fit in one large bundle—from his room. She was carrying a few things, a few pieces of embroidery that she had nearly forgotten. It had taken two Septas and two of Father's bannermen to pack all of her things, to load all of her trunks into the wagon. The difference was a little shameful in this moment, and she disliked him for bringing it up just by existing.
They hesitated, so briefly. The bursts of ecstasy that Sansa had been feeling all day—finally, finally she was going to be where she belonged, at court with her prince—left her feeling more generous than usual. She smiled at him.
Jon Snow nearly dropped the bundle in his shock.
"I-I'm leaving too, you know" he confessed in a rush as they brushed past each other. Her smile had given him permission to speak. "I'm not going with you all to King's Landing. I'm taking the Black."
She knew he wasn't going to King's Landing. The idea of Jon Snow—his mournful mouth, his sullen silences, his untamable dark hair, his atrocious table manners—in King's Landing was laughable. And so she laughed.
The sound bounced off the corridor walls and she wondered, in a fresh burst of joy, if Joffrey might think her laugh pretty. She looked back at Jon Snow. His obvious distress was like a foul, rotting carcass in a summer garden. Soon she'd be rid of him. It was only this thought that kept her from wrinkling her nose in disgust, from simply walking on right in that moment. Knowing she'd soon have things just as she'd always wanted them gave her permission to be kinder than she was.
"You're making the honorable choice, Jon," she'd said generously. "I hope you find a family with the Night's Watch."
He had pressed his lips together. She'd expected him to stammer, to blush, to in some way beg some morsel of kindness and kinship from her. After all, he was a dog, and when you scratched his ear he crept closer for more, and when you kicked him he whimpered.
This time, he didn't.
"I hope that King's Landing is just like you imagined it," he said levelly. "I hope you get every bit of joy that the songs always promise to pretty maidens."
The sun went behind a cloud and for a moment the hall was strangely dark. The hairs raised along her skin. She was just old enough to know that he was, in some grown-up and unreachable way, making a joke of her.
"Of course it will be," she shot back, hating the heat in her voice. "I'm betrothed to Prince Joffrey Baratheon, and the queen thinks I'm too lovely for the north! King's Landing is where I belong, obviously, so of course I'll be happy there!" She stopped just short of stamping her foot. She hated the petulance in her voice. Hated it even more that it was Jon Snow who'd brought it out. He didn't recoil, didn't retract what he'd said.
She could see he wanted to say more. Could see him pressing his lips together again, like he was physically stopping himself from speaking, like no force of mind could be adequate. He was clenching his fists, like he was physically stopping himself from...hurting her? From touching her? The fact that she did not know would haunt her later, years later—that she had ever really been so cruel, so misguided, to think Jon Snow would ever hurt her. Years later she'd wonder at the arrogance of her thoughts in this moment: that she really thought Jon would hurt her merely because of his birth. She'd gotten it so wrong.
"Of course it will, Sansa," he finally agreed, his voice a soft rush. Her skin prickled more. Sometimes she thought Jon Snow had a nice voice, soft as a Direwolf pup's fur, just as warm. There was something shameful about that thought. She was just old enough to know she couldn't tell anyone...and almost old enough to know why.
Well, she had thought generously then, no one, even Jon Snow, was completely horrible. Everyone had to have at least one good thing about them. In this moment she had admired her own wisdom. She thought of repeating this thought to Jeyne Poole later. Inevitably her friend, less clever and less pretty, would be impressed with her, as usual.
Jon Snow bent to pick up his few things. There was a wooden toy that Arya had carved, and a knife, and other odds and ends. Years later this too would haunt her: they had been summer children, sentimental and selfish in their own ways. "Goodbye, sister."
The audacity of these words had outraged her, but Jon Snow was already turned away from her, walking to the stables where his horse was saddled. The sun came out again. Too angry to speak, she turned swiftly and hastened away, mentally rehearsing the whole story so that she could tell it to Jeyne Poole in its fullest effect.
The funny thing was, she had been right about one thing: Jon Snow had made the honorable choice. She just hadn't known then that there was honor in choosing not to be unkind, when it would have been so easy, and, in her case, so deserved. Years later, after being passed between men who would always hurt when it was easy, who would wield their cheap power like a cruel child who has caught a wounded animal, she would see the honor in it. Years later, she would see that Jon Snow had stopped himself from breaking her young heart, by withholding from her what he, in his painful and restricted life, had already learned even at such a young age.
Life was nothing like songs, and that was why people wrote songs.
The years passed. Lord Eddard Stark died a traitor's death, and Jon thought of Sansa, a traitor's daughter and a rejected betrothed, trapped in King's Landing. He thought of her pretty Tully hair and pretty Tully eyes, and felt a bubble of resentment burst. He thought of the sword in his hand, of the snow crunching beneath his feet. He was free, but he was old enough to know that Sansa, a pretty girl, hadn't been free before, and she never would be free.
He heard things, now and then. He heard she was passed to Tyrion Lannister. He'd liked the Dwarf. She'd be safe with the Dwarf. Of course, the irony of Sansa being matched with Tyrion Lannister was the best joke he'd heard in years, a joke he longed to tell Robb or Theon or Arya, but no one who would understand the joke was alive anymore. Then he heard she was passed on to Ramsay Bolton, and the joke wasn't funny anymore.
He thought that, for every moment he had ever felt hopeless or powerless, Sansa was that and more. She was the pretty and childish daughter of an executed traitor, a lone wolf in a court of lions. She was powerless, helpless. His sword heavy in his hand, he was more aware than ever of how much control he had over his fate, how much control he had always had of his fate, even as an unloved bastard at Winterfell. He carved his destiny with as much mastery as anyone could. Sansa was carried along the river inexorably toward a destiny, and there was little she could do: she might dodge a rock here and there, but in the end she'd go over the waterfall all the same.
He met Ygritte. Copper hair on snow. Lazily, dazed, one morning, he told her, speaking into her warm, roughened skin. "You've got Tully hair."
"I don't give a fuck about Tullys or Starks, Jon Snow."
He'd known she'd say that. It was one of the things he loved about her. And soon, her hair stopped being Tully hair, and just became Ygritte's hair. And soon, Jon could no longer quite picture Sansa's face. Had her skin truly been that soft, that pale? Had she really been that lovely?
In the blackest night, he told himself it didn't matter. Sansa's face wouldn't look like that anymore anyway. He wondered what his own face might look like, if he had been passed from Joffrey to Tyrion to Ramsay.
The irony of Jon Snow being her last hope was not lost on Sansa. Every fiber of her being convulsed at the idea of running to him now, but it was not out of disdain for him. She was older now. She knew better. She was old enough to be ashamed.
But her body hurt inside, and she had nowhere else to go, and the only thing keeping her upright on the horse was her hatred. It was a dark, squirming disease spreading through her. She was an apple rotting from within: an apple that is still lush and ripe, its skin rosy, taut, and gleaming...as long as no one plucked her and took a bite, no one would know the blackened, maggot-infested rot inside her.
So perhaps it was appropriate that she go back to Jon Snow like this: rotten, haggard, bloodstained and raw. She hadn't looked in a mirror in too long. Perhaps he might not even know her now.
Brother, she tested out the word in her mind, over and over again, as they rode toward the Wall. Brother. My brother, Jon.
The words were alien. He had never been her brother.
She rode, thinking just how much like her mother she was turning out to be. A thought that had once warmed her with pride now felt like stones in the lining of her dress, pulling her under. She was just like Catelyn Stark: beautiful and petty, as shallow and sparkling and empty as a spring pool.
Time and pain had turned her childhood into dark, shadowy memories. Had they ever really been so happy? Had she ever really believed in Florian and Jonquil? And as she rode toward Jon Snow, her last hope, she thought of those pathetic, hopeful brown eyes. She thought of how her mother had looked at Jon Snow—when she had dared to look at him.
She had looked at Jon Snow the same way. She hadn't known any better.
She had thought she was being a great lady.
Survive survive survive. Her selfishness had kept her cruel to Jon Snow and now her selfishness was the only thing keeping her upright. She laughed at herself sometimes as she rode. Some might call it strength but she knew better: perhaps even after all this time, after all this pain, I still think myself special.
The Wall loomed up ahead, grey and inconceivable in the mist and snow.
Could she face Jon Snow?
"My brother, Jon," she said now, under her breath.
It still didn't sound right.
The look that Sam gave Jon was a little too knowing, when that head of copper hair—just like Ygritte's, he thought, and yet, once Ygritte's was just like Sansa's to me—rode into the confines of Castle Black.
Sam didn't need to say anything. Jon knew perfectly well that the two women had the same hair color.
He stood there on the breezeway, and his half-sister looked up at him.
He had thought that dying might be the thing that finally killed that secret demon within him: the thing that had lived inside him all along, the monster he tread around so carefully within himself that he had almost forgotten its existence, for it had become a part of him. That snarling beast, hideous and dripping with malice, salivating at thoughts of his own half-sister, green with envy and red with lust. It had taken time and pain to come to terms with the fact that this was not a thing that had taken root within him, but rather had been a thing within him all along. This beast was him.
He had thought that dying might kill it.
But evidently when the Red Woman had brought him back to life, she'd brought that back, too. We were all fools to think that Death cleansed us.
Even if part of him still wandered that in-between world, that shadowed wasteland, even if he often woke up gasping and shaking, horrified, knowing he did not belong in this world, that beastly part of him, forged by contempt and desire, was here, all of it, alive as ever.
Perhaps it was the worst of us that kept us going.
Even Tormund was looking at him a little too pointedly.
"My half-sister," Jon explained. "Sansa Stark."
Tormund made a noise.
"Huh. Looks just like Ygritte, if she'd been a lady," he said casually.
At least Sam had the kindness to not say it.
Jon walked down the steps slowly. He didn't run. The air was too thick. Ever since he'd come back, breathing didn't feel quite right, and now his half-sister was here. All of it was here, and it was too much to fit in the courtyard of Castle Black: all the insecurity, all the shame, all the desperation and hope, all of the pain, all of the years.
His half-sister's face was different. He could see Joffrey Baratheon in the way her eyes lowered, reflexively. He could see Tyrion Lannister in the set of her slim shoulders beneath the rough cloak, hunched forward. He could see Ramsay Bolton in every line of her body, in the way her hair had thinned and dulled and grown tangled, in the way her body trembled finely with the effort of staying upright.
But how was it, even now, that all eyes were on Sansa Stark like she was an untouched flower, like she was a song, like she was a feast about to be had? Perhaps he was the only one who could see these things.
"Sansa," he greeted, because it was all he could think to say. He'd always been slow to find his words, and slower still round Sansa. She took his words away.
"Oh, Jon," she said, and nearly fell off her horse. A tall woman in armor rushed to help her, and Sansa was weak as she straightened.
She had given him a gift in that, and he wasn't so raised up, so different now, that he couldn't see it. She hadn't called him Jon Snow. She'd just called him Jon.
Years ago it would have been a gift, but today it was a poison.
They embraced because neither knew what else to do; because they were the last Starks left probably. Sansa's embrace was restrained and forced; he swallowed as the beast within him snarled. She would not have embraced a brother like this. Even if she tried to name him as her brother, this was the way she touched men now: filled with fear, bound by pain. She had named him as her brother but touched him as a man.
My half-sister, Sansa Stark.
The words were coppery on his tongue, like blood, like Tully hair.
For a moment she had heard the old songs in her head, coming back to her like perfume, when she'd set eyes on Jon Snow.
He was so much taller, so much broader, than she remembered. He was not the soft sweet pup that she had parted ways with, all those years ago. Armor-laden and scarred, with his mournful face and solemn, handsome eyes, he was a man. The dark hair was pulled back, showing bones and shape that his round, soft face had never even hinted at. When they had last spoken, he had had a shadow of hair on his upper lip that she and Jeyne Poole had mercilessly laughed at.
"Sansa," he said, and there was a rush of pathetic relief: his voice might be deeper, but it was still just as soft. She thought she might cry and it felt like breathing after being held under water. She breached the surface and felt air and sunlight for one burning moment.
"Oh, Jon," she whimpered, and nearly fell off her horse.
She wanted nothing more than to embrace him, wanted nothing more than to feel the safety of his arms. Jon Snow was honorable, a true knight, she thought, almost pleadingly, in a rush. She wanted to know that something could still be pure, could still be like the songs in this world. She wanted to believe in something. Seeing him standing there, seeing the way his men looked at him, like he was one of the gods, made her think of maidens and heroes and music.
It was brash. She knew it was foolish to touch him. They had never once touched each other before, never in their lives. She knew it was foolish because she knew that men never touched to be kind. Men touched to hurt, to own, to kill. She wanted to believe that there was a man left in this world that did not want to hurt or own or kill her.
They embraced and she inhaled deeply, still feeling like she was finally breathing again after a very long time. He smelled like clean sweat and snow and blood and, beneath that, she recognized the scent of his skin, and the idea that she had ever known the scent of Jon Snow's skin made her freeze, hold her breath.
Jon Snow did not embrace her like he wanted to hurt or own or kill her. He embraced her like he had wanted merely to embrace her.
In the songs, the knights did things for love, for justice, for honor. They slayed dragons because the dragons were terrorizing people, and rescued maidens because the maidens needed rescuing, and ruled kingdoms because they were asked to rule kingdoms. They did things simply because they had been asked, simply because no one else would do those things. They did those things and they meant them.
She was too rotten to be near something so pure. The same burning shame for herself that she had felt for years now when she heard the song of Florian and Jonquil made her cringe from Jon Snow. Even that minor movement made her insides writhe with pain. She thought of that apple, shiny and taut; thought of Jon Snow's strong, scarred hand grasping it, pulling it from the branch. If he grasped it too hard, the skin would break, and blackened rot, like tar, would ooze from it, spilling down his hand, covering him in diseased, deadly rot.
She stepped back. For a flash he was that pathetic mutt again, and she'd kicked him.
It's for your own good, she wanted to tell him. I'll ruin you. I'm ugly inside.
Don't feed them, Sansa. They'll only keep begging for more.
His mind was different now. Fractured, fragmented. When he looked at fire, he saw things, things that didn't make any sense. He had less power over his mind, now. When part of you walked in shadow and part of you seemed to breathe fire, you didn't have much control.
That night he stared into the fire, absorbed by what he saw, desperate to put the beast inside him to sleep, just for a little bit.
But the beast is me, he remembered.
When would he stop trying to pretend it was separate?
In death, the parts of him had been briefly unified. Floating above himself he had seen all of him, his dark and light, his fire and ice, and even that blackened beast within him, the very worst and most human of him, deepest within his soul. He had looked upon himself freely, and had been unafraid of that beast, because he had been unafraid of himself. He had walked barefoot toward that chained demon, touched its scales, felt its heat.
The heat from the fire made him sleepy. Jon thought of that beast, thought of how its manacles had rattled. He'd forged those manacles all his life. In death he had knelt before its manacles and looked up, fearless, into its glowing, feral, yet familiar blue-green eyes.
"I forgive you," he murmured to the beast now.
He jolted awake. He was in his rooms, and Ghost was curled at his feet, and his half-sister was standing before him. She was smiling sadly at him, her heavy cloak still clutched round her tightly. This was a detail that could not escape him. The girl who had gleefully gathered her skirts and rushed through the sunlit courtyard, her pale shoulders touched by the sun, was gone.
"S-sansa," he stammered, sitting up hastily and running a hand over his face. He'd been sitting too close to the fire, too bundled up, and his temples were damp with sweat. He cleared his throat. "Please, sit," he added, gesturing haplessly to the wooden chair beside him. Her skin was bone-white, her eyes green as envy, green as leaves. For a moment he saw her as others did, saw her without the ghosts of the men who had possessed her lurking about her. They still saw the maiden, still saw the untouched lily blooming white and fresh. For a moment he saw it too and it repulsed him. It was an illusion borne of lust. It was not really her, not anymore.
"I wasn't going to come," she confessed, staring into the fire. Ghost was undisturbed by her presence. He remembered her too. Remembered her scent, Jon supposed. He remembered Sansa's scent too. The beast's chains rattled. "I was never very kind to you," she admitted now, tossing her hair back. Jon could not find words. "But you were always the best of us. Of course you'd welcome me back, no questions asked," she said now bitterly. "I could be a spy, you know—a spy for Ramsay, for anyone, really."
"You couldn't." He knew this much, at least.
"No. I suppose I couldn't," she agreed. "No one thinks I could be. I've never once been truly suspected of anything other than being just as pretty and stupid as I seem."
He thought of how often he had thought of the weight of the sword in his hand, of the endless snow under his feet. He had always known that Sansa was chained. Perhaps that was why he had always forgiven her. A chained wolf wasn't necessarily a tamed one. He knew that better than anyone.
"Everyone looks at you when you walk into a room, and they love you just as fast," he blurted out now. "I hated you for it."
"And I hated you because I was supposed to," Sansa said wryly. "I've always been good at doing what I'm supposed to. If nothing else, I can say that I have that."
"You've always been beautiful. You have that."
"I am not beautiful anymore," she told him, through teeth clenched. "It is ugly inside my heart. I am ruined."
He thought once again of what his own face might look like, if he had been passed from Joffrey to Tyrion to Ramsay. He saw these men in her face and in her body. Men carved women as they carved their destinies, as they carved wood. He wondered what Sansa might look like if he had ever carved into her as others had, but the thought was unbearable.
Men needed songs, he thought, because they needed to know that things could be pure and untouched. It wasn't Sansa's purity that he wanted, it was that he needed to know that some things could be unchanged by time and pain; needed to know that Sansa could still be that same cruel, beautiful, selfish, idealistic little girl. He needed to know that Sansa could wield her own knife, could carve her own fate.
"I'm going to teach you how to hold a sword, and how to use it, too," he said suddenly. The words had found him, for once. "You're not ruined. You're hurt. It's not the same thing."
She was still so foolish, still a stupid girl, really. It was so foolish that being told she was beautiful could make her so happy. She had to hide her face from Jon Snow. He had meant it. He meant things he said, meant things he did. He really was just like a dog, only the thought brought no contempt, only relief. There were still things that could be pure and untouched, no matter the scars or the years or the distance. He was music. Beauty could still endure.
"Arya was always the one who could hold a sword," she said, her throat tight. She still couldn't look at him. She didn't deserve to look at something so pure. But knowing it was there, so close to her... You're not ruined. You're hurt. He was still so foolish, too, but it made her happy that he was, in some ways, still such a hopeful, naive fool.
"You need to know how to defend yourself," Jon pressed on. "No one has to hurt you again if you don't want them to. I'll show you."
Anger bubbled up inside her, boiling and poisonous. Black tar seeping from shiny red skin.
"Why are you being so kind to me?" She needed to know. "Why do you trust me? Why do you still-"
Why do you still love me?
They looked at each other for a long moment. Too long of a moment. Jon's face darkened; she could tell he was remembering something bad. She was afraid to know what it might be. The fire edged his dark hair and eyes in gold. He looked like a man, looked like a man in the way that Joffrey, Loras, the Kingslayer, Tyrion, Ramsay, and Lord Baelish could never look like a man. They were snakes and boars, stupid or scheming, sometimes both.
"We're family, Sansa," he said, a beat too late. He'd taken too long to find the words again.
He avoided Sansa from then on. He ordered one of his men to teach her how to use a sword. From his window, he watched her struggle with a blade that would have been too lightweight for him by his sixth name day, but he didn't think she was weak at all. The swords clanged clumsily, her Tully hair swinging with every desperate parry and jab.
At first, she was too self-conscious. She was wearing pants for the first time, borrowed from a Wildling woman, and she looked as uncomfortable as Ygritte would have looked in a silk dress.
Tormund took it upon himself to train her, after a time. He watched the flame-haired man say something to Sansa. Jon would never know what it was, but everything changed after that.
She was wild and uncontrolled; she'd never be good with a sword but at least she was so wild that Tormund could hardly get a jab in. He gave the girl a wide berth as they sparred. Jon watched as Sansa fought whatever it was inside her that was causing her so much pain. He thought that perhaps she had that demon inside her too. Gods knew he'd fought it often enough, even if a real, flesh-and-blood enemy was before him.
The thing was, Sansa's demon was not part of her. It did not belong there. And it was still alive, ravaging the North even as they dallied in Castle Black.
He'd never seen Ramsay Snow face to face, but he saw Ramsay now, before him, a ghost in the courtyard as Sansa swung and slashed until her slender arms shook and she dropped to her knees, gasping, her face flushed and wet.
If men did not exist, Jon thought, the world might be beautiful as the songs. After all, men wrote songs about maidens. They didn't write songs about men.
He would destroy Ramsay.
She knew he watched her. Sansa wondered if Jon still thought her beautiful even when she was dressed like a man and as sweaty as one.
When he announced they would take back Winterfell, he'd been looking at her. He didn't look like a kicked dog, or a knight, or even a man, in that moment.
He had looked like a god of sunlight and snow, the god who brought summer and winter alike.
And she had felt less like an apple, rotting on the branch, and more like a tree, its branches withered but its trunk strong and its roots deep, deeper than could be touched by the fairest summer or cruelest winter. You're not ruined. You're hurt.
He had almost been able to look at his half-sister again, but after he beats Ramsay to a bloody, unrecognizable pulp, he can't look at her again.
In the snow-covered courtyard of Winterfell, he stands at the center, Ramsay's bent, bloodied form at his feet, and he knows that she can see all of him: all of his fire and ice and the blackened beast within him, that most human part of him. He must look away from her. Her gaze is a glancing blow. He turns away, thinking of all the times she turned from him, and he was left with nothing but a cascade of copper hair and her slender, lovely profile. He wonders what it's like for her to only see his profile. He only realizes in this burning moment, with the blood and sweat dripping down his temples and jaw, and his desperate, ragged breath clouding in the air before him, that his demon has her eyes.
He cannot look at her. She can see all of him now.
He was never her half-brother, anyway. He was always something else: a dog, then a knight, then a man, then a god. Now she does not know what he is.
Ramsay lays at his feet, writhing and bloodied.
This thing Jon Snow has done: this is not honorable, but it is pure. He has done it because he meant to, he has done it because he must. The battle was noble, the fighting was noble, but this is utterly raw and savage. This is madness, and it is a madness that Sansa knows too well. This is the madness that felt like black rot, thick as tar, and then, after that, felt like a disease thinning her branches but worthless against her roots.
"Oh, Jon," she says softly.
He still does not look at her. Not even when she undermines him in front of their followers. He cannot bear to look at her.
The heads of the Direwolves have been cut off, the crypt has been plundered and ravaged, and the sun has been put out, and Jon cannot look at her.
She follows him, towards the ravaged crypt. She never could go down here. She does not know what she plans, but she knows she must make him look at her. Her palms sweat and her heart shakes. He must look at her, and though she can hardly bear it, she must look at him. She waits, paces, trying to find her words.
And then she hears Littlefinger's voice. The words are muffled, but she hears her name.
"Touch my sister and I'll kill you myself."
Jon Snow's words are not muffled, and it does not take him any time to find the words.
"Yes, your sister. It would be foolish to forget she is your sister." Littlefinger's voice is sly, diaphanous and cool as silk.
Who would it be foolish for?
Littlefinger leaves the crypt, and Sansa dissolves into shadow. She knows how to make herself disappear before the eyes of powerful men now, even men with such vision as Littlefinger. She waits, and then she enters the crypt.
She hates it here. She hates the darkness and death. Hates her father's statue.
Jon hates it here too. He hears footsteps, light and soft, and knows that Sansa is here.
There is a rattling, unbearable, in his head. His mouth is dry. He does not turn around.
"Jon," she says, her voice warm and demanding. It's the voice she uses when she shames him, argues with him, in front of their people. It is the voice that cows him, blinds him, makes him stupid and useless. As long as he doesn't look at her, he tells himself, it will be safe. "Why won't you look at me?"
It's a childish though, he knows: like the child who hides beneath his covers in his bed, thinking that if he cannot see the night monsters, they cannot see him.
Sansa watches his strong back tense. He is all things, dog, man, knight, god.
"You don't want me to do that, Sansa," he says. "We both know that."
"I want you to look at me." She wields her power like a blade, just like he wanted her to.
He turns, because he has always been at her mercy. He could die a thousand deaths, fight a thousand battles, and he would still be this useless, helpless, worthless bastard before her.
The victory that Sansa feels when he finally looks at her is fleeting. He is dog, man, knight, and god. But the eyes that meet hers are something else: something demon, something shadow, something other. They are ravenous and feral and filled with a senseless longing.
Don't feed them, Sansa. They'll only keep begging for more.