The curve of Theon Greyjoy's spine matched the odd piece of driftwood hanging above the counter of Iron Ink as he sat, stooped over uncomfortably, on the stool that was unequivocally his, no matter what his sister had to say about it. Theon didn't have the first idea why the driftwood was a part of the shop, or what it meant, but when he had questioned Yara, she had glared, and insisted it was art in that haughty voice of hers that meant she didn't have a fucking clue, but she was damned if she'd let Theon point that out. Which really meant it was probably the result of their uncle, and fuck him, but also fuck Theon for bringing it up, and forcing Yara to pretend she liked it, rather than admit she might be wrong, or not have all the answers. It was abstract , she sniffed instead, and Theon rolled his eyes.
Yeah, fuck Theon.
It was a wry thought, and one that flitted through his mind fairly often. It joined with the dim buzzing of needles that Theon was constantly surrounded by, the distant sound of waves lapping at the shoreline that he could hear, if he strained his ears. He had removed the bell in the shop, to his sister's chagrin, because before it had been too loud, and Theon hated hearing the door open, getting that brief sound of the ocean's roar, only for it to be drowned out by an obnoxious trill. Yara had grumbled and complained, but their customers were usually too obnoxious to be missed, and Theon knew she craved the ocean's call as much as he did.
Besides, Theon was usually perched on the stool in what passed for a lobby. His head would snap up whenever the door opened, his eyes just as ready to appraise as they were to seek beyond the threshold of the little shop. Theon was good at reading people. Yara often complained it was the only thing he was good at. His careful eyes noticed the way her face softened, almost imperceptibly, whenever she let that admission slip past her lips. It was as much self-recrimination as it was a playful jape. Theon didn't bother wasting his time trying to convince her it was for naught. He knew a fair amount about penance given to oneself.
There was nothing unusual about today. It bled into all of the other days. Theon was stooped over the counter, his spine curving from where he sat on his stool, bringing his face closer to the magazine he was reading, hidden underneath the paperwork he was supposed to be doing. The distant buzz of needles made up the background noise, coming from the back of the shop, which was really not a back at all, but rather the entire shop, sectioned off poorly to give some semblance of privacy. It was a bit of a pointless attempt too. Customers of Iron Ink were rarely looking for privacy. Theon didn't claim to know what they were looking for, but he wasn't really paid to know that.
Whether Yara did or didn't, few - if any - actually left the shop unsatisfied. Even fewer left sober, but that was neither here nor there.
But today was a wholly ordinary day, except for the moment the most extraordinary girl stepped into the dingy tattoo shop on Pyke Pier.
Theon immediately straightened, and regretted the action nearly as quickly. Theon wasn't what anyone would call old. Twenty-eight was a perfectly respectable year of youth, and he was only just that. But what he lacked in age, he more than made up for in life experience. That was precisely the reason his back cracked so painfully in his effort to sit up straighter. But Theon was well practiced in keeping his facial expressions on a meticulous rotation of smug, disinterested, and completely apathetic. There was no room for anything in between.
The same could not be said for the woman who had walked through the door. Woman, because that's what she was now. Theon remembered when Sansa Stark had barely come up to his knee. She had been sitting down, it was true, but she had still been a young child that was rather cute, but terribly annoying. But those memories were scant in comparison to the dozens of others Theon had of the redheaded sister to the best man he had ever known. The Starks were a special sort, and their family was something to be treasured. Theon still didn't know what he had done right in his life to have been welcomed into the fold, but he had been. And through his friendship with Robb Stark, he had grown close to each of the Starks in turn. Sansa though, had always been special.
She was different from the rest of the Starks, it was something they all admitted easily enough. Once it had been a source of constant tension. God Theon had hated that time. Half of the Stark children - and himself - caught in the midst of puberty and hormones, and everyone else caught in the midst of their carnage. It had been a difficult time for a young girl - turning into a young woman - to feel so different. Theon had watched Sansa cry more than once during that dark period. Perhaps the greatest difference was that Sansa Stark had a heart made for forgiveness. The same could not be said of the other Starks. Robb still glared at Theon any time the jellyfish incident was brought up. In Theon's defense, Robb was one of the smartest people he knew, and he really thought the other man had enough sense not to believe anything Theon said when he was taking the (nearly literal) piss. Even Ned Stark - a fair and just man - didn't seem quite as quick to forgive as his daughter.
Maybe it was Sansa's willingness to set aside hurts that made her special. Theon had - fuck, he had made a right mess of things, more than once. It was no small miracle the Starks still welcomed him, let alone saw them as one of their own. Theon had no doubt Sansa played some part in that. Jon would never forgive him of his crimes, that much Theon knew. It was almost relieving. Not that Theon would admit it aloud. Robb would look at him with pity, and Jon would probably stop interacting with him altogether. Sansa though, she'd look at him with those large blue eyes, as if Theon had broken her fucking heart with his inability to love himself a tenth as much as he loved -
Theon couldn't even lie to himself for more than a fucking minute. Sansa Stark was special for a million and one reasons, but she would always be special to him because he was so fucking gone on her, he was convinced he was no longer present at all.
Theon didn't waste his time with the stupid questions. Not from himself, nor anyone else. Yara had once asked when he had fallen in love with Sansa. He hadn't bothered denying it. What was the fucking point? Yara and he - they had been - not cut from the same cloth, no, that sounded too gentle, too romantic for the fucked up childhood they'd shared. But the two of them, they were made of the same piece of driftwood, mangled and strange, washed up on the beach, and turned into something - abstract. Something rough and confusing, made by equally rough hands. The two of them were like that. It didn't make sense to anyone, least of all Theon. But Yara had always made a little more sense to Theon than himself.
She was also fucking Daenerys Targaryen, so clearly she was doing something right.
But Theon hadn't answered her. He didn't entertain stupid questions, and he didn't waste his time with pointless answers. Yara's question wasn't stupid, but the question itself was somewhere in the small infinity between stupid and not-so-stupid. When had Theon learned how to breathe? When had he learned how to swim without letting his body sink to the bottom of the ocean like he sometimes dreamed? When had he learned to smell the sea salt in the air? There had been a specific point in time, of course, but what was the fucking point in pinning it down to a specific moment? His love for Sansa simply was and it had begun at some point . The when wasn't important. None of the questions were all that important.
Missandei had suggested perhaps Theon had always been a little bit in love with Sansa. He had blanched at that. Not only because he had met her as a child but because there was something viscerally wrong with that. Theon had simply taken another swig of his beer, and shrugged his shoulders. Missandei was a romantic. She and Grey - fuck, that was love. She was a young woman who had been through much - ilk found ilk - but god, she was still so innocent and eager about the world. Theon thought she'd get on with Sansa. They just hadn't the chance to meet.
Sansa had been away for years. King's Landing, some fancy university there. That's what Theon would say, whenever his regular drinking buddies gathered. And fuck, his crew of drinking buddies consisted of his sister-boss, his sister-boss' hot as fuck (literally, Yara had almost not hired her due to Dany's criminal conviction record of fucking arson ) girlfriend, said girlfriend's best friend, and said girlfriend's best friend's devoted life partner. Theon needed to meet some new fucking people. Or just reconnect with old ones.
But Sansa was standing here . In front of him. She had been away at university. The University of Westeros, to be precise. Casual as Theon might try to act around his motley crew of drinking companions, he treasured every fact he learned about Sansa Stark, as if it was precious sea stone.
She had always wanted to go South. Anyone who knew Sansa Stark knew that much about her. People would look at her, and shake their heads. "That's a summer child there," they would say. "The North is no place for a girl like that." Theon had always disagreed. Sansa had winter in her bones as surely as any of her Stark siblings. He had seen the chill in her eyes, and it had made him shiver, the way he once had when he was twelve and fucking stupid , and jumped into the water just because Robb had dared him to do it, one cold, January night. That was the first night Theon had thought Ned Stark capable of murder. Not just murder, but murdering his own blood. The only other time Theon had seen such a rage had been when Sansa -
Even though Theon knew Sansa belonged to the North, he had been certain she would thrive in the South. Her dreams of glittering gold and gilded knights seemed more suited for the foreign land, packaged as better and more civilized . Theon didn't understand the appeal. But he supposed the sun shined more in the South, and god, if anything Sansa deserved the sun.
Instead she had returned with pale skin, made paler by the streaks of purple, black, and blue.
Theon had only caught a glimpse of the bruises - just once. It had been two winters ago when Sansa had returned. Not to Winterfell, but to Pyke. The Starks spent their summers in Pyke, but their home was Winterfell. There always needed to be a Stark in Winterfell. Theon had heard the adage often enough. He had watched Robb get those very words inked into his skin. That same winter. Days later, Sansa had appeared, her hair wild and untamed, her eyes terrified and so fucking angry , that for a moment, Theon had thought he was staring into a mirror. She had been looking for Robb. She had come back, but she wasn't ready to face her home. Not yet.
Theon hadn't seen her after that night. He heard the bits and pieces from Robb. He heard enough about what happened in the South, his fingers biting painfully into the skin of his palms, already littered with half-moon scars. Theon didn't know who the fuck Ramsey Bolton was. He had heard of Joffrey Lannister, but fuck, neither of them were worthy of his thoughts. They certainly weren't worthy to exist on the same continent as Sansa Stark. Robb didn't tell him much, and Theon didn't ask. He didn't want to. Not because he didn't want to know, but because he recognized the look in Sansa's eyes, brief though it had been. It was a storm, a fury that would never be quelled. It was the sort of pain that was more painful to put to words. But Theon understood it all the same.
Sansa hadn't returned home since that night. Theon knew that much. It had broken her parents' hearts. Oh she had seen them of course. Theon knew that much. Those Starks, they were wholly unique. They weren't split from the same piece of ugly driftwood, not the way he and Yara had been formed. But they were packmates. Wolves indeed, and they kept to their own. Ned and Cat had struggled enough with Sansa's infrequent visits home when she had been in the South. Even if Winterfell no longer called to her, Sansa remained a Stark.
She had drifted. Theon knew that. She had spent some time with Jon, even further North than the rest of the Starks. Jon had found some sort of peace for his weary soul - far too young to be quite so old - and the rest of the Starks had hoped Sansa might as well. She hadn't, and Theon was a fucking monster for being glad that she hadn't, because she had again returned South. She had visited Pyke the summer before, but that visit was brief. She had the look in her eyes that Theon recognized - this one making his heart clench with fear. It hadn't been the storm, no, Theon recognized Sansa's look as the one he saw so often. The bird-gaze, was what Yara called it. Her tone was always derisive, it always sounded as if she was practically snorting the word out. It was the look most people got, that separated them from the people of Pyke. There were those that made their livelihood here, day in and day out. Theon and Yara were as much a part of Pyke as they were from the same piece of mangled wood. The frozen winds of winter was a part of their blood, as much as the icy waters of the sea. They weren't here only for the balmy summer days. But that was the case for only a small handful of people.
The Starks had always been something of an in-between. There must always be one of them in Winterfell, it was true, but they belonged up here as much as any of the ironborn, as the Pyke residents fondly called themselves. It helped that Benjen Stark was one of them. Everyone knew Benjen, and the only grocery store on the island. The Starks stayed with him every summer. They came and went, but they didn't migrate the same way other visitors did, never to return. They were a part of Pyke, even if they were only part of it part of the time.
Last summer though, Theon was certain he had seen the last of Sansa. He recognized the look in her eyes, saw the restless movement of something underneath her skin. She hadn't stood still the entire time she was there - all of five days. The next he had heard, she had taken off for Skagos. Something about some adventure with Rickon. Catelyn Stark had pursed her lips in disapproval, but her eyes had looked suspiciously shiny, three weeks later, when she received a postcard in the mail, complete with a picture of her dirty, weary, unbelievably proud children, standing on top of a mountain.
Theon hadn't heard much else about Sansa's adventures since then. He knew she had spent some time with each of her siblings. She and Bran met up every few months. They told Ned and Cat that they were attending these silent retreats, dedicated to finding peace and unity with the old gods, but Robb had confided in Theon that the two of them just gathered as much alcohol and weed as they could manage, and spent a couple of days in the woods, drinking and getting high, and talking about how they would change the world.
Robb had sounded so fucking miffed that Theon had almost fallen out of his stool laughing. Tears had sprung up in the corners of his eyes, and he told himself it was only because he was laughing so hard at Robb’s annoyance at being left out. It had nothing to do with the thought of Sansa Stark changing the world, because goddamn if the world wouldn’t be more beautiful because of it.
She spent some time with Arya. Literally no one knew how the fuck Arya had wound up working on a cruise ship, or why, but Sansa was the only one who hadn't questioned it. Theon wondered if she recognized something in Arya, the way he had recognized something in her. He didn't think Arya was running - not the way that Sansa was - but he didn't think he would ever wake up one day to find his phone blowing up, informing him that the youngest Stark sister had fucked off to join some sort of pirate themed ship, where she dressed up in an eyepatch, and flung a play sword around all day.
Or something like that. Theon knew fuck all about what Arya Stark actually did on the ship, but it was weird and not Arya, and he didn't actually care.
The point was, Sansa had been with her. She'd been with Robb too, and her parents. Not in Winterfell, never in Winterfell, but she had come close. Robb had admitted it to Theon once, during one of their late night phone calls. During the witching hour, when the candle had grown small - more melted wax than solid, threatening to drown the flickering flame - those were the moments when Theon felt like he could lay himself bare. Only in the near darkness, with the waves roaring in the distance, and Robb speaking quietly in his ear, did Theon feel like he could crack open his chest to allow the swell of emotions to surge forth. Theon didn't ever say as much, but he thought Robb knew. They had always been close. Robb could hear the small hitch of Theon's breath, over the distance of thousands of miles and Theon's shitty cell reception. He could hear the unspoken soliloquies in the silence, just as Theon could read the rough scratch to Robb's voice, that certainly meant he was scrubbing at his face, not trying to hold back tears, because he had grown up in a household where it was okay to cry.
Theon might have seen parts of himself in others, but Robb was the only one who knew him . It was why he had never once tried to keep the fact that he was so fucking in love with Sansa, a secret. It would have been an exercise in futility, and frankly, Robb would have loved him less for it. They never spoke of it, but there was no need. Not when Robb would gently offer Theon information about his redheaded sister, and Theon would listen with an intensity Robb could feel all the way in Wintertown. Robb always kept Theon up to date on what Sansa was doing. But he hadn't said a single fucking thing about Sansa returning to Pyke this summer. Which meant he didn't know.
Robb didn't know that Sansa was back in Pyke, which meant none of the Starks probably knew. Or all of them. Robb was somehow the smartest Stark, and not at all, all at once. It was a paradox that had baffled them all for years. But it didn't matter who knew, because now Theon knew. Sansa Stark was standing in his sister's tattoo shop, in front of Theon, with her ocean storm eyes, a smile that could make the sun weep, and an expectant expression on her face.
"Looking for a tattoo, love?" Theon drawled, because he was Theon Greyjoy, and he was well-practiced at being in love with Sansa Stark. "I reckon we could squeeze you in." He gave Sansa a long look, up and down her body, and sure enough, she let out a delighted laugh, which turned the the lecherous grin on his lips into something far more innocent and true. Theon had been making a pass at Sansa for as long as he could remember. As long as he'd been in love with her, certainly, perhaps even longer. He had stopped, for a time. She had returned with those hurt, storm eyes, and Theon's mouth had clamped shut, his jaw locked together, to keep the devotion and righteous fury at bay, and out of his mouth. But Sansa had looked at him with such anger, her eyes flashing like lightning, and Theon had slowly picked the practice up again. Everyone thought he was just trying to make Sansa feel normal again, but Theon was far too intimate with her kind of pain, to live under any delusions that such a thing was possible. And too selfish. He just wanted to make her laugh. It was the only sound Theon cherished, more than the crash of the waves against the shores.
"Classy as ever, Theon," Sansa replied, and pushed a strand of hair out of her eyes. Theon took a moment to assess the young woman before her. She was as tall as ever, with most of her long red hair tossed over one shoulder, fashioned into a messy braid that looked impossibly beautiful. Her clothing was the simple fare of island visitors, casual and airy, but a quick glance at the pattern of wolves dancing across her light gray shirt confirmed what Theon had suspected. Sansa had made them herself.
Theon shot her his cocky grin. "Can't spell class without an ass," he said with a wink. Sansa let out another delighted laugh, and his grin only widened. Fuck but it sounded beautiful. "Really though, what are you doing here love?"
Sansa's grin didn't waver in the slightest.
"I came to see you, didn't I?"
The simplicity of the statement just about knocked Theon off of his stool. It wouldn't be the first time he fell out of it. Fuck, it wouldn't even be the first time that day that he fell off of the stool, but it would be the first time it wasn't a result of his own clumsiness. Sansa had asked a question, but it hadn't even really been a question. It was a statement of fact, as simple as reciting all of the high houses of Westeros, or which fabrics had been used in the Silvario Pendaerys spring/summer collection - facts that Sansa could easily do at the drop of a hat. It was a natural, carefree sort of statement, and Theon knew she didn't have a fucking clue that with seven words, more promise than question, she had reached in between bones that formed his ribcage, and split his heart with a smile, leaving Theon feeling raw and breathless.
"I dunno, did you?"
The smile never left Sansa's face, and Theon's breath stuttered in his chest. He - fuck, he didn't know what to do with this. Honesty had never been his strong point. He danced around, made japes, spoke in funny riddles. He had never been cut out for the Starks' rare brand of honesty, as heady and inescapable as it was. Sansa had always seemed a bit more Theon's speed, expertly weaving her words, and engaging in dances of wit and wordplay with Theon, never quite saying what she meant. Theon wasn't prepared for this. It was a bit like suddenly being in love with Robb, in all of his earnest goodness. Sure he was a little bit in love with Robb, but so was everyone else. It was fucking Robb.
"Well I'm honored," Theon said, managing to hide his struggle to make the words sound as light and carefree as he normally did. "I'm surprised you came here. I'd have thought you needed to scour the whole island to find me."
Sansa shrugged easily, her eyes sparkling a little when she did.
"This actually isn't my first stop," she confessed. Her tone was light, but Theon couldn't shake the feeling that she was sharing something deeply personal and intimate. His curiosity was piqued, and he raised his eyebrows.
"Really? Where else did you look?"
"The marine sanctuary," Sansa admitted. Once again, Theon felt a bit like she had taken some sort of instrument, and cored his insides, leaving him hollow and breathless. It shouldn't have been that important. Just about everyone on Pyke knew how much Theon loved the sea, and the creatures in it. The marine sanctuary of Pyke was one of the best in Westeros, and certainly in the North. It wasn't a stretch of the imagination to think that Theon might have been there. But just the fact that Sansa might have been thinking of him at all...
"Nah, I work, Thursdays through Tuesdays."
Sansa frowned at that.
"You only have Wednesdays off?"
Theon shook his head. "I've got every other Monday off. Sometimes I still come in. It's nice to get the hours, and I could always use more practice." His spine still straightened to its normal position, after all. Theon was hard at work, making sure it stayed a 'c' shape permanently.
Sansa's entire countenance seemed to brighten.
"I have Mondays off too! I'll come over this week."
Theon just blinked up at her. "Y-you're working? Here in Pyke?"
Sansa bobbed her head up and down in response. Theon noticed the way some tendrils of red hair seemed to escape her braid when she did so, but she seemed unbothered. He was finding it rather difficult to breathe, but of course, Sansa seemed as relaxed and collected as ever.
"I'm working for Uncle Benjen, in his shop. He needed someone in the floral department. Speaking of which..." Sansa's lips twitched in a small smirk, and it was then that Theon took notice of what she was carrying in her hands. A lovely looking bouquet of flowers. Theon didn't know much about flowers - or anything that wasn't the sea - but he could appreciate what Sansa had brought. It wasn't an explosion of spring, like he might have expected, rather it was an assortment of odd, spiky looking plants, with only one traditional flower. It looked unique and potentially lethal. There was a chance Yara might actually let the flowers be displayed in her shop now.
"The flower is a gardenia,” Sansa explained. “It serves as both a warning and a welcome. A welcoming sign for visitors with good intentions, but a warning for those who would wish you ill.”
Theon had never heard of a gardenia before. He didn't really care. He found flowers pretty strange, frankly. They were plants that were cut from the earth, and then thrust at other people as signs of affection. Theon's dislike of flowers may or may not have stemmed from the one time in grade school, when he had tried to give Loras Tyrell some wildflowers, only to have the other boy turn up his nose, and insist they were weeds not flowers. Theon hadn't felt so bad for making the five year old cry, after that.
"Thanks Sansa," Theon said sincerely, taking the bouquet from her. "I'll try to convince Yara not to toss them in the garbage or something."
Sansa's lips quirked into a smile. He thought she might find it amusing, even if his sister were to do exactly that. Nearly a decade ago, Sansa might have been horrified at the thought, and stamped her foot. That phase of Sansa's life had been brief, but sometimes Theon still found himself thinking back, and comparing the woman who stood in front of him today, with the recollection he had of the past.
"So, does that mean you'll be hanging around for the summer then?" Theon asked, trying to keep his tone as casual as he could. He refused to let his heart tumble out in front of Sansa. He rather thought parading around the shop naked would have him feeling less exposed than that. "Are you staying with the rest of your family?"
In the five minutes that Sansa had been standing in Iron Ink, her smile had never really disappeared. It had twisted and widened and brightened, but it stayed on her lips. Theon didn't detect any movement, but there was something different about her smile now. It was in her ocean storm eyes. There was something knowing, something secretive. Theon could have sworn that he was staring straight into the sea, instead of Sansa's eyes. He wanted to know whatever secret it was that she held close to her chest. He wanted to sink to his knees and beg. He wanted - fuck. He just wanted .
"The rest of my family isn't in Pyke," Sansa informed him. Theon knew that. He had spoken to Robb only the night before. Robb had volunteered to be the one to stay behind at Winterfell this year, since his wedding would be at the end of the summer, and he planned on coming to Pyke for his honeymoon. Theon had scoffed, and called Robb a bloody fool for picking such a terrible location, when he could easily take Jeyne to Lys, or Pentos instead, but Robb had insisted. The rest of the Starks wouldn't be coming to Pyke for another two weeks, and they'd only be staying a few days this time. Older Starks meant more clubs and commitments, and romantic entanglements. Robb had complained that Rickon and Lyanna were absolutely unbearable together, and could use some separation. Theon thought Robb was just annoyed because Lyanna acted like she was better than just about everyone. Or maybe he was annoyed because he knew she was better than just about everyone. The Starks were older now though, some of them already grown and moved on. Gone were the days when the island could look forward to the Warden of the North bringing his family to Pyke for the entire summer at a time.
But Sansa wasn't with her family, and she was working for her uncle Benjen. Surely that meant she planned to stay at least the summer?
"I'm staying in the flat above the shop," Sansa continued. "My friend Margaery Tyrell is spending the summer here as well. It's a bit cramped, but it will do for now. Until I move home, that is."
Theon's heart gave a painful lurch in his chest. It was a wholly unpleasant feeling, not unlike the time when he was eight, and had been running to jump off the pier into the cold, dark water, when his body had simultaneously decided to jump, and dig his feet in at the exact same moment. He had wound up falling gracelessly into the water below, and painfully twisting his ankle in the process.
On one hand, Sansa was leaving. She was always leaving. Theon had accepted that as a part of his life, a part of loving Sansa Stark. She would come, and then she would just as certainly leave. She wasn't of Pyke, after all. Each time she left, Theon felt certain his heart couldn't last again. But he was born of salt and iron, and his heart was as reliable as the waves that crashed violently against the rocks scattered along the shoreline. It beat on. She would be leaving Theon again.
But she would be going home . He couldn't explain the sense of happiness, the sense of relief. As a child (and still as an adult, if he were truly honest, something he rarely was) he and Robb would try to see who could hold their breaths under the water for the longest stretch of time. Theon always won, and he always pushed himself, long after he knew that Robb had conceded. And every time Theon broke through the surface of the water, he would gasp in a breath, and let his lungs inflate with air and relief. It was a dizzying sensation, and akin to what Theon felt now.
Sansa Stark was leaving him. Theon had long ago accepted that was a part of his life, the way he accepted rising tides and the waning moon. But she was going home . Sansa Stark, more than anyone Theon knew, deserved to go home.
So he smiled brilliantly at her, knowing that his teeth were gleaming white, and not stained with red, because choking on his own bloodied heart was just a metaphor, and he drew her in for a hug. He allowed his large hands to stretch across her back, his thumb moving ever so slightly, back and forth across the fabric of her shirt, barely brushing against her skin.
"I'm happy for you Sansa," Theon murmured into the crook of her slender neck.
He couldn't see her expression, but he knew she was smiling.
"You will be."