He wanders into the castle on his way north - wanders into it, as if he’d got lost in the snowstorms that have risen over the past few days, as if he hasn’t seen the gates, or the guards at the gates or the soldiers and servants and small folk mulling in the courtyard.
Maybe he really didn’t see a thing. After all, the guards didn’t see him, either, or they’d have halted him. Maybe he really did stray into Winterfell by mistake, looking for a battle to fight - Jon’s battle, which is the only battle that matters, or so Sansa keeps telling herself. There will be time, later, to pry the North from Daenerys’s hands. To try and remind Jon, of all people, of his duties to the North and the Starks.
In the meantime she must trust in absence and find strength in strength, in her siblings’ newfound hardness rather than in comforting touches and her memories of childish glee.
And so when Theon Greyjoy walks through the gates of Winterfell, head wrapped in a thick scarf that conceals his features but not the kraken on his breastplate, Sansa rushes to him with little thought but that at last, at last she might drop the mask.
With Theon she can be vulnerable - they can be vulnerable with each other. In fact, she’s not sure they can be anything else. Perhaps he’ll always see the distress behind her haughty gaze. And no matter how straight he tries to stand, she’ll notice the strain and the tremors, the slight jittery twitch of his hands.
She embraces him and he cradles her head, letting her hide her tears in his neck. The snow keeps falling, and despite the curiosity of onlookers, they won't notice how she's breaking down in his arms. They'll notice the spectacle - they'll infer things from it, not necessarily the right ones. Desire and a foolish inclination, rather than trust.
He doesn't stay long. He pulls down the scarf, allows her a glimpse of his tired face; but he won’t follow her inside. The Ironborn are wanted farther up north, beyond that ocean of jagged debris that used to be the Wall. Theon shouldn't have come to Winterfell, but he readily admits that he wanted to see her. Needed to see her.
"Remember what I’m fighting for," he says, with a fleeting grin. A twitch of the mouth and flash of teeth, a glimpse of a younger Theon.
"You have to come back," Sansa tells him, with as much authority as she can. And she's been honing it, this authoritative tone, sharpening it on the stony back of many a northern lord.
Theon snorts. It's softer than it would have been, years and years ago. Everything about this Theon is softer. It spurs Sansa to circle his neck again, her gloves scrabbling on leather as she rubs her nose against his hair, where it curls sandy and soft under his ear.
"Come back," she murmurs, and lets the murmur turn to a mumble, so that she can pretend, later, that she didn't quite say it, that the words got tangled on her tongue. "Come back before I have to marry someone else."
He startles easily, these days, and his blue eyes go wide, searching her face, mouth in a firm line - because he expects it to be a game, a trick; this is what he has become used to.
Is it a trick? Sansa wonders. It very well could be. It would be worth a try; to see how far it might take him, this belief that she'll renew his ties to the Starks, make them more binding than they used to be.
It could be, but it isn't, and when Theon cocks his head in a silent question, the tips of his fingers touching her jaw, she accepts the kiss - welcomes it, even, although it takes some effort to let herself be touched, and she has to remember how, tilting her chin so her mouth will chase his after the first cautious press of lips on lips, and then letting her mouth fall open under the careful probe of his tongue.
This isn't a kiss fit for a lady, not even in the swirling snow, with what little concealment it provides. Maybe it's the Greyjoy in him. Burning tar in the belly and sea water on my lips and down my throat.
Theon wipes her eyes with his thumb, his glove rough against her snowy cheek.
"Might be you’ll never marry,” he says. “You won’t have to if you don’t want to and... We don't... You don't have to make promises to me. I know I'm not..."
At last, she pulls herself together. Taking a staggering step back, she puts some distance between them and lets her arms fall from his shoulders.
How sweet it was, even if it didn’t last. To let the ice melt, and to get a glimpse of the grass and sprigs beneath.
A whirlwind of war, and the war ends.
The next time he steps through the gates, she isn't here to welcome him.
She has to oversee the execution of a thief, a stable hand who slit a guard's throat for a handful of grain. And Jon was brought in the day before, wounded but alive, and she spent part of the night at his bedside, listening to his delirious talk. Arya took over when morning came. She offered to take Sansa's place for the execution as well, but Sansa refused. If this is one murder that she can take off her sister's hands, take it off her hands she will.
She'd used the most blatant of tricks.
Jon is unwell. He needs you.
Arya gave her a clearly unimpressed look.
All he does is mumble nonsense. If I hear Daenerys's name again I might kill him myself.
They let her know Theon's returned nearly a day after the fact. This is how she understands it - Theon's returned. What she's told is, Theon Greyjoy is here, with enough distaste that she's reminded at once that there might not be anyone else in the castle who will want to see him, and that it might cause him not to linger.
He could have gone straight back to Pyke; his sister must have pressed for it. But instead he chose to lengthen the journey, veering so far off-course that there can be little doubt why this visit came about.
He must have wanted to see her, at least for a moment, before he went home.
She wastes precious time lingering by the door of the armoury, trying to tighten her braid and pinching her cheeks to bring a bloom upon them, watching her distorted reflexion in the shining metal of a gorget. It's just as well that she can't quite see her features. The long night spent watching over Jon is bound to have made her pale and drawn, and she's reluctant to meet her own eyes, because then she'd have to wonder why she suddenly cares about her looks.
The reports are contradictory, and for a harrowing moment she even thinks that she's missed him and that having failed to find her, he kept going, on and on through the snow and towards his ship.
The truth that eventually emerges, however, is that though he isn't gone, the steward refused to house him in the guest house, or in one of the rare rooms that they've kept free for visiting lords.
And it's only after what seems like hours on end of fruitless searching, Sansa growing increasingly desperate and angry - at herself, at the steward, at Jon and his fever and her lack of sleep - that she stumbles upon her maid, or that the girl finds her, and draws her into a corner, and says, "I let Lord Greyjoy into your chambers, my lady."
Sansa’s first thought is that she must have let something slip, at some point over the course of this strange war. A whisper of regret, a passing mention that betrayed her because of the longing in her voice.
Her second thought is that it’s strange to hear him called so, Lord Greyjoy, and she’d feel guilty if it meant that she was siding with everyone else, reducing him to a shade, but that’s not what it is.
She’s been thinking about the man rather than the title. The flesh and bones.
His flesh was cold and clammy, on the day they held each other in the woods, and his bones jutted slightly under her gloved hands. Even through the coarse wool of their tattered rags, she could feel his shoulder blades under her palms.
When she enters the room, she finds him asleep in front of the fire.
As he came in he discarded most of his armour, and he's left it like an offering at her door. Boiled leather and the crude kraken sigil like a warning on the breastplate.
Tread with caution, there are sea monsters under your feet, tentacles stroking your heels.
He stirs almost as soon as she takes the chair opposite him, but it's a quiet awakening, his eyes fluttering open and giving her a glimpse of cold blue.
His mouth quirks, by instinct it seems, as if his body had recognized her before his mind could. And when he speaks, it's with the thickness of speech of one who hasn’t quite woken yet.
"You look well," he says. Coughs and tries to sit up, palms sliding along the armrests. "You look beautiful," he tries again, his voice slightly firmer than its earlier croak.
She smiles. "And you're a ghastly sight. Are you aware that there's blood on your face?"
And so it is that instead of the reunion she was expecting, she finds herself wringing a piece of cloth over a basin and then washing his face, as slowly as she can, because it means he'll close his eyes a while longer and she'll be able to think.
Does she want him to stay, and if so, how should she go about obtaining that?
Meanwhile, as he surrenders himself to the steady stroke of the rag wiping the blood and grime from his cheeks, she can watch him, and it's far from being as painful as it used to be. He doesn't look half as dead as the last time, and that time, he’d already looked livelier than the time before that. They have been rebuilding themselves much like she set about rebuilding Winterfell, brick by brick but with the threat of winter upon them, forcing them to work faster than they otherwise would have.
"You won't come with me," Theon says, without opening his eyes.
"Is this why you came?" Sansa asks, and she surprises herself by smiling again. "To take me away? To steal me?"
"You wouldn’t let me.”
"Why did you come, then?"
"It's a long way home," he shrugs.
"It would have been, even without that detour," Sansa notes sternly.
"You did say I could come back.” And then he adds, a little hesitantly, "I won't hold you to it."
"You did say I could come back.” And then he adds, a little hesitantly, "I won't hold you to it."
"Hold me to what?" Sansa asks, though she has an inkling about what he might mean.
"What you said. Last time I was here... Before I left for the North."
"Oh. When I said that you should come back, before I married someone else?" She sets down the rag, and kneels by his chair, carefully smoothing her dress under her knees before she crosses her hands over the armrest. "Well, you did come back, didn't you?"
"I'd take you back to Pyke, if you were so inclined. But I know... I know you'll never leave Winterfell," he says, his smile turning wistful. "And Pyke's not such a nice place, anyways. Not for Catelyn Stark's daughter, it isn't."
"I'd be glad if you stayed," she says, letting her voice vibrate, only just, so that he'll be able to tell how much she means it.
She can't quite say, I'd be happy. It wouldn't be true. But he's alive and close at hand again, and Jon's returned too, and no matter how strange they've become, Arya and Bran will remain by her side. It's as good as it gets, and she'll fight to keep what she has, no matter what it takes.
"You know I can't." He lets his shoulders slump, hands dangling between his knees. The fire plays upon his face and it sends a shiver down her spine, because all of a sudden she's remembering another Winterfell, strange and haunted and echoing with the howling of dogs and her own strangled screams.
But though the horror of her wedding clings to Theon, she can’t look at him and not remember the tenuous flutter of hope of their escape. She knows he feels the same. Just as he’ll never be able to look at her without guilt, he’ll also keep circling back to her, like one must return to the well or die of thirst.
“But we love each other, don’t we?” she whispers, clutching his sleeve.
She couldn’t say if what she’s asking for is reassurance. Maybe she’s alluding to older memories and to the children they once were. Maybe it’s something else, that kiss he gave her before going off to war, as if he had suddenly transformed into the knight in one of her songs. Certainly the pile of armour at her door would confirm this; but it isn’t a warrior she needs. War turns knights into dust and songs and it’s still the flesh she wants, the quick jump of his pulse under her fingers.
“If you want,” he murmurs, head tilted slightly towards her. The firelight isn’t kind to his face, hollowing out his cheeks, digging trenches under his pale eyes, but it only makes her want to hold on tighter, make sure he doesn’t wither away completely.
“If I want?” she repeats, with a shaky little laugh. “You’ll love me if I want you to?”
“Of course I love you,” Theon says, letting the words shudder and die on his tongue. “But you know I’m not...”
This time again, he doesn’t finish the sentence.
“Whatever you’re not, I’m not either,” she whispers back. “It doesn’t matter, does it? What other people think. Together we can behave however we please.”
And so he stays.
For the night at least, though she half expects him to have left by morning. In the meantime, she tugs off her dress and lies sideways on her bed and folds her legs between them, and she lets his hand curl around her knee, pulling her closer.
She sleeps, and it’s not her frightened whimpers that she hears or even the clashing of swords, which her mind has so often recreated of late, trying to fill the void of a war that she did not witness.
She dreams of the sea where it meets the shore, the waves breaking over the sand and falling silent. Things dying in a murmur, except that there’s never been any less doubt that she’s alive, and when she opens her eyes she can see the rise and fall of his chest. Even asleep, they did not let go of each other.
Light as a bird, keeping her hand steady and still within his grip, she brushes her lips against his. Theon stirs, and when his eyes open it feels like she’s looking at her reflection, doubt and pleasure mingled in pale blue eyes.
Around him she might be fragile, skin exposed to the bite of the northern winds, but outside this room she is still the Lady of Winterfell, and in Jon’s absence, her authority has done nothing but grow, one reluctant ally at a time.
“I’ll have you stay,” she decides. “Everyone will just have to accept it. I made you a promise, and you know we Starks don’t give our word lightly.” Now, at last, her nerves betray her, and she adds in a trembling voice, “You’ll stay, won’t you?”
Theon smiles, one of these mocking smiles that could be meant for her or for himself. “Aye, I’ll stay.”
Sansa smiles in return, so hard that it makes her cheeks hurt.
“I’ll have word sent to your sister,” she says.
“Don’t bother,” Theon snorts, laying his head back upon the furs, eyes already drifting shut. “She sailed off two days ago.”
There will be time in the morning, she decides, should she still wish to smother his smug grin.
In the meantime, his arrogance makes her blood sing. It’s a whiff of the past, salted and strong, and if he weren’t asleep she’d lick it off his lips.
Then she remembers that they’re alone, and safe, and surprisingly alive - and so she leans in, and does it anyway.