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It comes and goes in waves

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The day was cold, as every day before that had been since she could remember. The image of Winterfell during summertime had started to fade from her memory and she had begun to wonder if it was a memory at all, or rather a remnant from her dreams. As beautiful as that image was, Sansa had to admit the snow kind of suited the old castle: it made it appear as if it were frozen in time, immutable and inaccessible; everlasting.

But it wasn’t. And now it was her job to make sure it would keep standing. She looked at the parchments spread on the desk in front of her: numbers on numbers of supplies, weapons, men and whatever they might need to survive. It was not the kind of activity she had thought she would be doing when she dreamt of being a queen as a child; but then, her childhood fantasies had turned out to be quite far from the realm of possibility.

There was a knock on the door and Sansa called the visitor in, welcoming the distraction from her dull task. Lord Gendry Baratheon stepped into the room, shifting his eyes from the floor to her face and back to the floor again; Sansa invited him to sit in front of her, watching him closely as he approached the chair: he was visibly uncomfortable as he always was in the presence of a Lord or a Lady, but that really wasn’t surprising given his upbringing. Except it was different when he was around Arya; and in turn, Arya seemed to be different when she was around him.

To say Arya had changed since the last time Sansa had seen her in King’s Landing was an understatement at best. She supposed her younger self would have sighed in relief to see that her sister was no longer the rebellious, loud and insolent child she used to be; but her current self could not take pleasure in her sister’s calm demeanour and improved manners, since she knew they sprang from coldness and lack of emotion. Arya was now very closed-off and, like with Bran, Sansa felt she could not reach through to her: it was as if they all live on parallel planes of reality, never really interacting with one another. It was somewhat ironic that the sibling she felt being closer to at the moment was Jon, with whom she couldn’t avoid fighting every other day.

Despite her impenetrability, sometimes Arya’s cold exterior would melt just a little and her features would soften into a resemblance of warmth; in those moments, which occurred mostly when she was with Jon, the expression on her face was the exact same Sansa remembered so clearly seeing on their father’s: loving and infinitely sad. Nonetheless she could not spy on it any trace of the Arya she once knew.

Until Gendry Baratheon. From the moment the newly appointed Lord of Storm’s End had entered Winterfell, accompanying Jon, there had been a change in Arya, almost imperceptible at first, just a slight crack in the facade, a hint of uncertainty in her demeanour; Sansa had barely registered it. Then the two had started spending more and more time together, and Sansa could no longer ignore it: not the rumours that had started spreading in the courtyard – if Gendry’s size wasn’t enough to quiet them, Arya’s death glare would certainly suffice –, but the look on Arya’s face, the glint in her eyes, it was like someone stoking dying embers, causing brief but bright sparks to fly from it. In those sparks, which usually resulted from Arya and Gendry fighting over something or other, Sansa had seen the fire that once ran through her sister.

­­­­­It was dangerous. To have such an effect on Arya, it meant having power over her, and Sansa didn’t trust it; she didn’t trust Gendry Baratheon to have it and she needed to know what he was planning to do with it.

Sansa looked at him from across the table, amazed at how remarkably similar he looked to Robert, and yet how different he was at the same time. she studied him for a brief moment and the decided to go straight to the point, not bothering with preambles or courtesies; she doubted that would impress Lord Baratheon.

“What are your intentions with my sister?” she asked, staring intently into his eyes.

He held her gaze, despite looking genuinely surprised and confused by her question. Was he really this naïve?

“My Lady, I do not know your meaning.” he replied, cautiously; and there was a rasp to his voice that made him sound like he was nervous.

“I’ve noticed you two spend a lot of time together,” she said matter-of-factly. “Jon told me about your history with her and it’s evident that you are fond of each other. So I wonder, Lord Baratheon, what are your intentions with Arya?”

From the way he pursed his lips and inhaled sharply, it was clear that he was angry, even though he tried to conceal it, and Sansa wondered how could her words offend him; he must have inherited from his father more than just his looks, she thought recalling Robert’s quick temper.

“Don’t worry, My Lady. I haven’t forgotten my place in the world,” he replied mechanically, yet resentment seeped through every word. “I wouldn’t dream of considering myself worthy of being kin to your lady sister.”

“Do you think your status would be a concern in such matter? You are the Lord of Storm’s End.”

“I’m a bastard.”

“You’ve been legitimized…”

“Still a bastard,” he interrupted her, sharply. “And a lowborn one at that. And this whole thing about being legitimized is just a farce, it was a strategic move to get men and resources from the Stormlands, nothing more. I’m happy to do my part in the war to come, but I never fancied myself to be a lord.”

“You sell yourself short, My Lord; Jon and Ser Davos tell me you’ve managed quite well in your new position and you’ve already gained the respect of many of your bannermen. Bastard or not, you’re still the son of a king. By the gods, you could even claim the throne for yourself after this war is over.”

“I’m sure Daenerys Targaryen would be thrilled.”

“But would you like to?”

He regarded her with a look of utter disbelief.

“Of course not! I never wanted this, I never wanted anything to do with lords and highborns,” he uttered heatedly, evidently frustrated by her line of questioning. “Why would I want to be part of something I despise?”

He froze and uncertainty painted his features as he realized what he just said; then he sighed, slouching his shoulders and bending his head slightly forward, and all the agitation seemed to have abandoned him. He resumed speaking, his voice calm.

“Forgive me, My Lady, I didn’t mean…”

“Yes, you did.” Sansa interrupted him abruptly; she hadn’t taken offence at his words, but she was well aware he meant what he had said and the apology would have offended her more than his statement had: she didn’t want to be thought of as a delicate thing whose sensibilities were easily hurt and whose ears ought to be shielded from unpleasant thoughts.

“Don’t apologize for speaking your mind; I assure you that is a courtesy I’d rather be spared. And to answer your question, one reason would be envy” she added, as an image of Littlefinger suddenly appeared in her mind: yes, envy was a powerful motivator indeed. But she doubted that would apply to Gendry Baratheon, too.

She studied him, noticing her remark hadn’t raised any reaction from him. He seemed to simply waiting for her to speak and to be addressed directly before talking again.

“Many would consider themselves lucky to be in your place, to have gained what you have. Is your aversion so strong that you can’t acknowledge your fortunes?”

He scoffed at her words and stated, tiredly: “You wouldn’t understand, you can’t”.

“I’ve been told I’m smarter than I let on” she retorted, her mouth hinting at a smirk; and if the comment made him uncomfortable, all the better.

Indeed, he looked uneasy at first; but when he started talking, there was also a hint of annoyance in his voice. Was it because of her retort, or because of having to explain himself, Sansa couldn’t tell.

“For better part of my life I’ve been at the mercy of the wills and whims of highborns; I begged from them when I had nothing to eat, I served them when I was strong enough to work. I’ve been handed over, sold, I’ve spent months in Harrenhal praying that my work would be good enough to keep me alive. Even after finding out about my… my lineage, it didn’t matter at all, I was no more valuable than a charm to be burned at the stake for good luck. And that’s the same for all the smallfolk: you’re accustomed to respect and regard, for people to consider your needs and will, but lowborns can never know such thing. We are not people in the eyes of highborns, we are tools, useful when we are able to benefit their purposes and readily expendables for their wars. Even when they are benevolent, they’re so quick to pat themselves on the back for it, as if life and wellness were not our natural rights, but instead a kindness they gift us with.”

As he spoke, Sansa felt a cold rage spreading through her chest, sending shivers through her body and stiffening her limbs. A part of her understood his meaning and recognized the truth behind his words, but she felt hurt by them, insulted even: how dared him saying she wouldn’t be able to understand? He must have known, at least a part of it, what she’d been through, her marriage to Ramsay was no secret, nor was her captivity in King’s Landing: how could he belittle her sufferings in such a way? She’d never wanted anyone’s pity, but may be damned whoever thought her pain had not been enough.

She stared into distance, her eyes fixed on a point just beside his head, letting her anger fill her head and her thoughts float adrift in it for a moment. When she finally spoke, her voice was cold as ice and firm as steel.

“Funny: I would say the same thing about men.” And the last word was a dagger, slicing the air, sharp and straight. She revert her gaze to the man in front of her; he flinched under her glare, sinking slightly into his chair, and looked somewhat wary, but he held her gaze nonetheless.

“You argue I can’t understand what it’s like to have my life be in the hands of strangers, to depend on them for survival?” she continued, letting part of her anger flow through her words. “Well, let me assure you, I have a vast experience in being powerless and with no control over your own life. My life may have been a sheltered one, when I was still a child, but there’s a difference between care and respect and one does not entail the other: I might have known the first, but the second I’ve encountered much less often in my life. Like you, I’ve been at the mercy of merciless men: I’ve been held hostage, sold and handed around from husband to husband, in much the same way an ownership parchment would from owner to owner. And even when I finally returned home, there were only nightmares awaiting me; every dawn I woke up wondering what kind of horror my husband had in store for me. To most men I have encountered in my life I’ve been nothing more than a prized possession, the key to their ambitions, at best, a play-toy for their entertainment at worst.”

She was calmer now, but she had yet to forgive him for his words. For his part, he seemed to have sunken deeper into his chair while she was speaking, as if feeling her anger weighing on him, although his face betrayed nothing but sympathy and compassion.

For a moment, he seemed he was about to say something, his mouth opening and closing again, but no words came out; he sighed then, finding his resolve to talk again, and his voice was soft, sweet even, the kind of tone one would use when voicing a sad truth to a child.

“Yet, in the end, thousands gathered behind you to avenge your miseries. Because you matter.”

Sansa hadn’t expect that, for him to stand his ground and openly defy her anger; he was stubborn, Arya was right about that.

“They followed Jon,” she said, softly. She stood then and moved toward the window, feeling somewhat worn out now that her anger had deflated. “They would have offered me shelter and protection, maybe, if compassion were stronger than fear, but you really think they would have gone to battle if it were just me? I would’ve had to appeal to their mercy, not their honour.”

Gendry remained silent; she would’ve taken it as a sign of victory, if there could really be a winner in such conversation. She looked down at the courtyard, which was buzzing with activity: all kind of sounds filled the air and formed a comforting background accompanying the flow of life, sounds of men working, sounds of men joking and laughing, sounds of men bickering; despite the bitter cold of winter, despite the impending threat of war, the courtyard was filled with the promise of tomorrow. It was such a stark contrast with what it had been just a few weeks before, when Ramsay was the lord of Winterfell: nothing but the sound of silence then, to isolate them in their own solitude made of fear and hopelessness. She remembered the last time she had stood in that same courtyard at Ramsay’s side.

Sansa knew Gendry was right.

“We may have more in common than I ever thought possible.” Gendry’s voice broke her from her contemplation and she turned to face him: he was smiling, not broadly, just a faint, sluggish smile, out of the corner of his mouth, like it was an old joke they shared; though his eyes were sad.

Sad for her, Sansa thought.

“There was a woman,” she blurted out; “here, when I first arrived with Lord Baelish.” She paused unsure of whether she wanted to keep talking and of the reason she talked in the first place; but she already started, she might as well finish.

“She was an old maid, had served under my father and mother. ‘The North remembers’ she told me that very first night; she offered help and I took it; after the wedding, after… I couldn’t take it anymore. The next day Ramsay took me to the courtyard to show her to me: she was nailed to a board, she had been flayed, from neck to toe, when she was still alive. I remember I cried later.”

Sansa locked her eyes with his; the next part was important, she didn’t want to hide. She resumed talking and her voice didn’t falter.

“I was crying, but my tears weren’t for her, they were for me. I felt my last hope shatter, the walls of my own home closing down on me, trapping me inside with a monster, but I didn’t think about her, that she gave her life to help me. ”

Gendry had been watching her the whole time she was speaking, never betraying any particular emotion, but nonetheless attentive and absorbed by her unexpected monologue.

“Why are you telling me this?”

Sansa’s lips parted but she felt like a boulder blocking the words inside her throat. She started fidgeting with the fabric of her dress, frustrated with herself for being distressed and for letting it show. She just poured out her soul in front of him, like a faithful to his septon, only the Gods knew why, and now she couldn’t articulate three words.

She couldn’t admit aloud she was just like them.

“It wasn’t your fault.” There wasn’t pity in his voice, it wasn’t an attempt at comforting her; it was a simple statement. It was a sentence passed by an unwilling judge, a truth.

It was meant to relieve her from her guilt, but her guilt was irrelevant now. She felt angry at him, annoyed at herself, ashamed of her feelings, she felt a lot of things.

It had been a moment of weakness. She needed to regain control of this conversation: she wasn’t there to have a heart-to-heart with him, they needed to talk about Arya. She walked back to the table, buying some time to recover her composure, and resumed speaking only when she was settled again in her chair.

“For all your disdain of highborns, you seem to like Arya well enough.”

“It’s not… like that.” He managed, squirming in his chair.

She played dumb: “Like what?”

He glared at her, not dignifying her question with a response.

“She saved my life.”

“So, it’s just gratitude? You spend time with her because you feel you are in debt?”

“No. Well, yes… but no.” He took a breath, leaning forward in his chair, and his features took on an earnest expression. “Arya, she’s different. Good different.” He added then, sheepishly.

Sansa couldn’t help but smile: she noticed how much younger he looked when he wasn’t frowning; his blue eyes were clear like the summer sky and betrayed nothing but openness and candour.

“Do you know my mother used to pray for Arya?” She didn’t really wait for his reply, as she was sure not even Arya knew about this. “When we were children, Arya and I didn’t get along particularly well. I remember this one time I was especially angry at her, I don’t even remember for what reason; so I went to mother and I told her what had happened and then I asked her why she insisted on praying for Arya; ‘It’s pointless, she’s never going to change’, I said. She looked at me with a sad smile, then she took me in her arms and said: ‘Oh, Sansa. I don’t pray for Arya to change, I never do. The world can be unkind to those who stray from the expected path. What I pray for is for Arya to find a place in this world and within it her happiness’.”

Gendry was looking at her expectantly, with a confused expression on his face.

“I think in a way the Gods answered her prayers”, she paused; she felt tired and the words suddenly seemed to be out of her reach. So she said simply: “You are good for her.”

She wasn’t expecting him to reply nor she wanted him to, and she had no desired to continue the conversation. So she switch back to her usual tone of voice, commanding and pragmatic.

“You can go now Lord Baratheon.”

It took him a moment to register her words and get up from the chair. Sansa turned her attention back to the parchments waiting on her desk; she heard him walking towards the door and then stopping in front of it.

“You are, too.”

She raised her head and she saw him standing there, a hand already on the door handle, his eyes trained on her.

“Arya looks up to you. And she needs you, even if she’ll never admit it, or doesn’t even know it herself. You make her feel… safe, in a way.”

He paused as if to gauge her reaction.

“You should talk to her.”

And then he was gone.

Sansa slumped back in her chair, looking at the window: from where she was sitting she could only see the sky. They hadn’t truly had a day of sun in what seemed like years, but the weather finally seemed to have taken mercy of them, as a few, faint, rays of sunshine managed to breach through the thick layer of could. Even the room seemed a little warmer; maybe they had lit the fires in the kitchens downstairs.

She thought back to the conversation they just had and realised she had trouble piecing it together. She had learnt a long time ago to be calculated in every interaction she had, to be the one guiding it where it would be of most use to her. Yet this one had slipped from her control without her even noticing. It did bother her and she briefly wondered if she should be more weary of Gendry Baratheon in the future; but she knew that was not what had happened. Mostly she felt confused; she also felt a little less alone.