Margaery is safe inside the walls of Highgarden when the dragons come.
It doesn't feel safe, though. Margaery is there when the message arrives: the Lannister forces are overwhelming them. Margaery's warning, the warning that she had risked life and limb after escaping the Sept to deliver, was for nothing.
And then there is a gale of wind out of nowhere, and when Margaery looks up she feels as though maybe she died in the Sept after all. Because this surely can't be real.
Margaery sprints up the stairs to the top of the ramparts on the outer wall, heedless of the cries of her ladies in waiting and her guards behind her. She leans over and watches, terrified and spellbound.
Three dragons are decimating the Lannister forces encroaching on the walls. Margaery can feel the heat on her face even from where she's standing, and she abruptly feels paralyzed. She's taken back to the Great Sept of Baelor, the whoosh of flames that had pursued her down the steps and laid her flat.
"It's the Dragon Queen!" One of the archers shouts in awe. Margaery looks up. So the rumours are true. Astride the biggest dragon, a great black beast, is a woman with silver hair.
They receive her in the training yard, afterwards, in full view of her three beasts. There is only one person in her retinue, a dark-haired, bearded man who introduces himself as Jon Snow, Lord Commander of the Night's Watch. Sansa's brother, Margaery thinks, her head spinning. I suppose when you have three dragons, you don't need much of a personal guard. Margaery shudders and wishes for Loras, as she so often does. But she hasn't seen her brother since he departed for the siege of Dragonstone. He had disappeared after his ill-fated attack on its walls. Only Margaery knows for sure the reason why. Because the Faith Militant was after him. Because I sent him a message warning him.
"Lady Margaery," Daenerys greets her. "I've heard you made a good Queen."
Margaery inclines her head humbly. She knows which way the wind is blowing. Highgarden would have been decimated without the Dragon Queen's aid. "I had that honour. It looks to me as though that honour belongs to another, now."
To Daenerys's credit, her smile is grim rather than gloating. "I'm happy to hear that we can be allies without any... complications. Unfortunately, Cersei is not the only threat to peaceful rule in Westeros."
Jon Snow clears his throat. "I know this will be impossible to believe, but there is an army waiting beyond the Wall. An army of the dead. I - well, perhaps it's better for you to hear it from someone you trust." He hands Willas a letter.
Willas opens it. Stares.
"It's from Loras."
Margaery directs her handmaidens in throwing clothes into trunks, marching around her chambers and impatiently supervising. Loras is alive. It's all she can think about.
Well, not all she can think about.
"So it really is her?" Grandmother had asked Lord Snow once Daenerys had left to tend to her dragons. "Sansa Stark is the Queen in the North?" They had assumed it had to be some stand-in, a grab for power. Margaery had never allowed herself to believe that Sansa was truly alive and home in Winterfell. She'd had to harden her heart to hope, between Sansa and Loras.
"It's her," Jon had confirmed. "My sister took back the North with the aid of the Knights of the Vale and the Night's Watch."
"And does she truly rule?" Olenna asked shrewdly. "Or does a certain Lord Baelish whisper in her ear?"
"Littlefinger is dead," Jon says, with no small amount of satisfaction. "Executed by my sisters for his part in my Lord father's death." He gives Olenna an unreadable look. "It has been a very long time since my sister the Queen has let anyone tell her what to do."
Margaery's heart constricts again just thinking about it. Sansa. Sansa is alive. And Loras is alive. And is succeeding in protecting his secret, even though the Faith Militant have no sway in the North.
A servant knocks on the door and tells her that her brother is ready to see her. Margaery gets up quickly and strides down the hall to Willas's solar. It had been her father's solar, mere months ago. Margaery squeezes her eyes shut as she waits for the door to open. She remembers the flames, the screams, and the certain knowledge that her father must be dead.
"Margaery," Willas greets her, smiling tiredly. "This time yesterday, I didn't honestly expect to be alive to receive you. Things have a funny way of working out."
Margaery smiles. "You know why I'm here."
"You want to go North," Willas says, leaning back in his chair. "I don't have to tell you that Mother and Garlan are opposed to it." Margaery sighs heavily. "You can't blame them, Margaery. They've only just gotten you back, and a trip to the North will be dangerous indeed, especially if what Loras says about this Night King is true."
Margaery meets his gaze steadily and says nothing. When her father had been lord of Highgarden, it had been best to sway him with sweet words. With Willas, it's better to wait and let him think aloud.
"But you are thrice widowed, and have spent your life in the service of our family's ambitions. It's a difficult thing indeed for me to deny you anything you want, especially something as simple as seeing your brother - and the Queen, of course." Margaery starts. Willas smiles. "I haven't forgotten how hard you tried to get Sansa Stark married off to me," he says. "None of us ever expected that she would be wed to Loras instead."
Margaery is annoyed to find herself blushing under his gaze. She's never made much of a secret of her preference for women among her family - it's hardly something that matters, in the grand scheme of things. But she doesn't like that Willas knows more than she had intended for him to know of her motives. She's been trying to think most of Loras, so that she doesn't have to contend with the ache when she thinks of Sansa's smiles, her kisses, her fathomless eyes. She hasn't spoken to anyone about Sansa, other than Loras. I haven't exactly been able to confide in Grandmother, nevermind that she doubtless knows everything. Her grandmother has never really been one for matters of the heart. How is she to tell her that the possession she regrets leaving most in King's Landing is the pressed rose Sansa had left on her pillow in lieu of a goodbye?
Willas scrubs his hands over his face. It's probably been days since he slept, Margaery thinks. "Luckily, in this case, I don't have to try to reconcile what's best for the family with what you want. It behooves us to send an envoy to the Queen in the North, and I can't spare Garlan with Cersei hammering at our gates. Luckily for us, all Queen Daenerys wants is grain, not men."
Margaery tries to contain her smile.
"And maybe with you going, Grandmother will stop insisting that she wants to."
Olenna does not stop insisting.
So Margaery finds herself, after a long voyage over land and sea, standing at the gates of Winterfell with her grandmother. She looks up at the castle in awe. She has seen castles far grander than Winterfell - Highgarden, for one - but she has never seen one quite as imposing. This is where Sansa grew up. It's hard to believe that her soft Sansa had been raised in a place so harsh.
Jon Snow greets them, along with a dark, very Northern-looking woman he introduces as the Steward, Jeyne Poole. Sansa's best friend, Margaery remembers. A retinue of servants begins to take their things.
"My apologies that the Queen cannot be here in person," Jon says. "She's attending to an important matter in the yard. A man is to be executed. She asked me to make sure you were well taken care of if you arrived while it was happening." Margaery looks at Snow, trying not to show how jealous she is of his rested, clean appearance. Maybe I should try travelling by dragon sometime.
"I need to stretch my legs," Olenna says, although she had been complaining just moments ago that all she wanted was a hot bath and a bed. "Shall we see what's happening, Margaery?" Shall we see what this new Queen is made of? Margaery knows that's what her grandmother is really thinking.
Margaery dutifully follows her grandmother and Jeyne Poole through to the east yard, where a crowd of people is gathered and restlessly craning their necks. Poole leads them up a small set of stairs to a gallery, where they have a view over the crowd. Daenerys is there, and greets them warmly. A man is in shackles, and is snarling at the people gathered, clearly despised by them.
"One of Bolton's men?" Daenerys inquires.
Jeyne Poole nods grimly. "Among the worst, your Grace. One of the ones who took his master's sigil to heart. He'd eluded us for a while, but made the mistake of trying to run towards the Wall. Karstark brought him in for justice."
Margaery's stomach turns. The flayed man. She doesn't want to know the specifics of this man's crimes. "Why not just kill him there, if he's a known criminal?"
She's surprised when it's Daenerys who answers. "These people deserve to see. They deserve closure." Margaery is a little unsettled by the rapt look on the Queen's face. Then she imagines Cersei in the blocks instead, and thinks she understands.
Margaery is saved from responding by the arrival of another party. She immediately grips the railing of the gallery, her knuckles turning white, her breath short.
There, striding into the yard with all the presence of... well, a Queen, is Sansa Stark.
She wears a dress with a leather bodice that looks more like armour than a gown, and a weirwood crown atop her head of vivid red hair. It is her presence that is truly different, though. Where is the shy little bird from King's Landing? Margaery thinks. This Sansa is every inch a Queen, her calm confidence emanating from her, her chin held high. People part deferentially as she passes. But she doesn't move through them like Cersei, Margaery thinks, like they're just vermin she needs to tolerate or ignore. Sansa is making eye contact with her subjects, nodding as they let her through, steadying a woman who stumbles as she steps back. They love her, Margaery thinks.
And then she loses her breath again, because two steps behind her Loras emerges from the crowd.
It's true, Margaery thinks, suddenly dizzy. He's alive. He's here. He's...
"The consort to the Queen in the North," her grandmother muses, speaking for the first time. "My, my. Well, he could certainly do much worse."
Loras is wearing Stark colours, a cloak of grey and white over his dark tunic. It looks odd on him - Margaery is used to seeing him in deep Tyrell green and gold, setting off his chestnut hair and laughing eyes. His drab colours make him look severe. But it is still unmistakably him, her brother and closest friend. The most startling thing about him are his scars. The boiling oil that was poured on him from the ramparts of Dragonstone has left him with raised skin from his jaw down his neck, disappearing into his doublet. Margaery touches her own scars where they are hidden by her hair. Even in this, we are the same. I spent two years wondering whether he was dead or alive. It doesn't matter what colours he's wearing.
Sansa stands in the centre of the circle of people, Loras at her elbow. On her other side is a tall woman that Margaery recognizes with a start as Brienne of Tarth. So that's what became of her.
"This man has been judged guilty of offenses against the North," Sansa says. Margaery closes her eyes for a moment, savouring the sound of that surprisingly and pleasantly low voice. "His crimes are more than simply a betrayal of a ruling house. They are a crime against humanity and against all the people of the North." There is a murmur of approval from the audience. "For the people he has harmed - the men, the women, and the children - and the people he has left bereft of mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, I sentence him to death."
The man strains against his shackles and tries to spit at Sansa. Two men wrestle his head down to the block. Margaery masks her unease with years of long practice. How many beheadings had she endured as Joffrey's betrothed?
"Brienne," Sansa says softly. Brienne draws her sword, and Margaery expects her to do the deed.
Instead, she kneels and hands the sword hilt first to her queen.
"She's not going to do it herself?" Margaery asks softly. Her grandmother is just watching in intense fascination.
"The Northerners believe that whoever passes the sentence should swing the sword," Daenerys replies, watching Sansa with something approaching grudging admiration.
Sansa approaches the man, who is still struggling against the men who hold him. She lifts the sword and swings it down without hesitation. Blood sprays her gown and her impassive face. She isn't strong enough to do the job in one swing. Margaery watches, unable to look away, as Sansa carefully takes aim at the man's half-severed neck and brings the sword down again. This time there is a sick thud as the head hits the ground, and the people gathered cheer. Sansa holds her hand out for a cloth, and cleans first the sword, then her face.
"I know many of you traveled far to see this man face justice," Sansa says. "You are welcome in our hall and by our hearths, to our bread and our salt."
She walks back through the crowd, Loras parting the way for her and Brienne bringing up the rear.
"The Queen in the North," Olenna says thoughtfully, breaking through Margaery's frozen horror. "Now I believe it."
"You did well out there," Arya says, holding Sansa's hair back as she's sick into a chamber pot. Sansa straightens and Loras presses a cup of water into her hand. She takes it gratefully and rinses out her mouth. "You kept it together as well as Dad. Stark stoicism." Arya makes her face long and furrows her brow like their father. Sansa laughs despite herself.
"Training is paying off, see? Two whacks is a new record," Loras says.
Sansa grunts and begins unlacing her bodice. She doesn't like physical training anymore than she did when she was a child. "Can't I just practice the beheading part? I have you all for the rest of it," she says, waving vaguely at the door where Brienne is standing guard.
Loras laughs from behind her where he's making quicker work of her laces than she could. "If all you did in the practice yard was swing a sword at the chopping block, you'd look as mad as the Bolton bastard."
Sansa rolls her eyes and crosses the room to where a steaming bath is waiting. She sinks in and sighs. At least I didn't have to travel anywhere for this one. The benefit of performing an execution at Winterfell is that it's a minimal amount of time before she can bathe and rid herself of the stench of blood.
"Oh, Loras - I made you a new tunic. Have a look." It's dark green with grey trim at the sleeves, collar, and hem. Loras's sigil is on the breast - a Stark direwolf on a field of flowers. Loras holds it up admiringly. "I thought I'd try to sneak a little more Tyrell into your wardrobe," Sansa says.
Arya clears her throat. "Speaking of Tyrells..." Loras looks over, still holding up the garment. "We should be getting word from a servant at any moment, but I noticed them at the execution. The envoys from Highgarden have arrived. They've sent your grandmother and your sister Margaery."
Sansa drops her brush with a gasp. Loras stares at Arya, agape.
"Margaery? Here?" Loras walks across the room, realizes he's still holding the tunic, walks back, then freezes, seemingly unsure what even to do. There's a knock on the door, and Arya converses briefly with a maid.
"They're here and await your majesty's pleasure," she confirms. "Will you see them?" The maid - Barra - waits just inside the door.
Sansa's mind is whirling, but she realizes that she's speaking. "Have lunch prepared in the Great Hall, and flowers brought from the glass gardens. We'll be there in an hour. Come back and help me with my hair when you're done, please, Barra - I got blood in it and I'll be hard pressed to be ready by lunch without help."
She turns to Loras, who appears to have rifled through all his emotions and settled on joy for now. "You can go to them now, if you like," she says softly. She remembers the broken man who had arrived just in time to help the Knights of the Vale take back Winterfell. He had known that his chances of seeing his family again were slim, even if he came out of hiding. Sansa has watched that knowledge crush his spirit a little more with each day that passes, just as he has watched her grieve for her parents and her brother. We have both had to come to terms with a life that wasn't meant to be. But maybe now he can have some of that old life back.
Maybe I can too. Sansa barely allows the thought voice in her own mind before thrusting it back.
Loras looks torn for a moment, but then returns to her side. "No," he says. He smiles at her softly, so much more himself than the perfect knight she'd thought she was in love with. "We've been through everything together, you and I. I want to see them desperately. But we should greet them as a family." His expression turns serious. "Are you ready to see my sister?"
Sansa's heart drops into her toes. "I don't know. It doesn't matter - it's been three years. We aren't who we were. I will... greet her fondly, as an old friend."
Loras looks like he wants to say something else, but bites his tongue. He's interrupted in any case by Barra coming back in.
"Perhaps my queen could wear the blue cloak? The one that brings out her eyes. I'm sure she'll want to look beautiful to greet her guests," Loras suggests. Sansa narrows her eyes at him and splashes water in his direction.
She wears the blue cloak.
Margaery waits in the Great Hall beside her grandmother and Daenerys. The Dragon Queen and the Queen of Thorns. Who would have thought? The two of them are getting along tremendously, chatting about everything from the flower arrangements on the table to the servants bustling around preparing the hall for the evening meal below them.
"It's very practical, but a little uncouth," Olenna observes. "Entertaining noble guests and readying for an influx of lowborn guests at the same time."
"Queen Sansa won't put her people's needs below anything - not even the arrival of noble guests," Daenerys adds wryly. "I can't find it in me to be offended, though. Am I not the same in my own priorities?"
Margaery smiles for the first time since the execution. If I am ever Queen, I will make them love me, she recalls Sansa saying.
And she has.
The doors open and Brienne comes in, followed by a woman with a distinctly Stark look - Arya - and a man in a wheelchair that Margaery knows must be Bran. A wild-looking boy with auburn hair follows with Theon Greyjoy by his side, and he looks enough like Bran for Margaery to assume he is Rickon. Sansa follows next, resplendent in dark blue and rich brown, and they all stand. But what follows is almost enough to make Margaery fall back into her chair.
Loras is beside her. And he's carrying a child.
Of course, Margaery thinks numbly, looking at the child's head of chestnut curls. Why else take a consort, if not to produce an heir?
Margaery is aware that she's been smiling and saying the appropriate courtesies, but then Loras approaches her, a look of such vulnerable happiness on his face that she can't spiral into her mind anymore. She throws herself into his arms and sobs. She hears her grandmother sniff contemptuously at her display, but can't bring herself to care.
"Margaery," Loras says, his voice breaking. They stand there holding one another for a long moment. Finally Loras becomes aware of some sense of propriety and steps back, his hand still on her arm. And then Sansa is there.
The other woman embraces her without hesitation, and for a moment Margaery is taken back to her chambers in the Red Keep, to waking up with her arms around Sansa, her nose in the taller girl's neck. And then, all too soon, it's over, and Sansa is stepping back after the carefully calculated appropriate amount of time to hug an old friend. Margaery stares into her eyes and sees that behind them are walls as strong as the ones that surround Winterfell. Her heart aches.
Loras has taken the child back, and now he hands it to Olenna. "Your great-granddaughter," he says. "Her name is Alarra."
Margaery stares down at the girl in wonder. Alarra. Her curls are the same rich brown as Margaery's own, and even on the babe's tiny face she can tell that they have the same nose. But her eyes are a startling blue. I wonder if Sansa thinks of me when she looks upon her. What she thinks of her own eyes staring out from my face.
Olenna appears miffed at the Dragon Queen for the first time. "Your Grace. You didn't think it... prudent to mention the existence of a child?"
Daenerys clears her throat. "We need no more complications to our situation with Cersei. Alarra is as much a secret as we can make her, at least as far as Southroners are concerned."
Two generations of Stark heirs, Margaery thinks, still not taking her eyes off her niece. And an heir that ties Great Houses of the North and the South together, the way Joffrey and Sansa were supposed to. A Stark-Tyrell child would be a powerful and dangerous weapon in Cersei's eyes.
"Well," Olenna says, surveying Loras critically. "I have planned and plotted to have my great-grandchildren be princes and princesses for half my life. I just never thought you would be the one to provide them."
Sansa laughs long and loud. It is a sound Margaery has lain awake at night thinking about for three long years, and to hear it almost undoes her.
I have known Loras my whole life. He has never loved women, never wanted for one moment to have the kind of life where he would have to do his duty in the marriage bed. But here he is. With a child unmistakably his.
Margaery looks up in time to see Sansa and Loras exchanging a warm look over their daughter's head.
Her stomach turns, and she knows that whatever is between them - she's jealous.
Margaery stares at herself in the mirror as the maid brushes her hair, hating herself for the way she feels. She had always hoped against hope for Loras to find happiness. She just hadn't expected him to find it in the woman that she loved.
"Alys?" Margaery says with a smile at the girl in the mirror. "Forgive me for being indelicate, but it's not a matter I could bring up with everyone at the table. What do the Northerners think of... men laying with men?"
Alys puts the brush down and looks at Margaery carefully. "It is cold enough in the North that we care perhaps less than most about who keeps you warm in bed at night. And there are men enough who take the black to avoid marriage." Margaery hums her understanding, hoping the girl will keep talking. Alys hesitates.
"I have heard what they say about Ser Loras... but he and the Queen seem so fond of one another I would never guess it."
There it is. Margaery sighs inwardly. Loras is hotheaded and not nearly as good an actor as could be wished for with a secret as damning as his. And Margaery cannot deny the way he looks at Sansa. It is a way she has never seen him look at another woman - there is none of the disinterest masked by empty chivalry. There is instead a genuine affection that makes Margaery's stomach twist to think of it.
She is not such a fool as to think Loras has actually changed his stripes for Sansa. Nor, she thinks, unless things have very much changed, can Sansa be getting much pleasure out of their marital duty. The match is one she herself might have suggested had Willas been attached, and had it been appropriate in any case to suggest Sansa marry a third son. So why is she so confoundedly jealous?
Because Loras looks at Sansa the way he used to look at Margaery, when the two of them were thick as thieves, when they knew each other better than they knew themselves.
I'm jealous of both of them, Margaery thinks numbly. Jealous of Loras for outwardly, at least, being Sansa's lover. And jealous of Sansa for being Loras's best friend. The two of them went through hell and despite it all found a kind of happiness and comfort in one another. Margaery has survived her own ordeal against all odds, returned to her beloved Highgarden, been reunited with her family. But she still feels hollow. And the two people she loves most in the world - the only people, other than Grandmother, that she's ever really trusted - have a life with each other. And she's not sure where she fits in. Or if she fits in at all.
Alys leaves, happily taking the comb that Margaery gifts her. Margaery taps her fingers on the vanity and stares at nothing for a long time. Then she gets up, restless, and throws on the fur cloak she's been lent. It's a bit long, and she realizes that it must be Sansa's own. She breathes in deeply and feels tears burning at the back of her eyes. She blinks them away, irritated with herself.
She opens her door and peers down the corridors of the Keep. This part of the castle is well-lit with torches in sconces, but it still looks forbidding next to Highgarden or even the Red Keep. The castle is built to keep people alive, and there are few resources to spare for artifice.
Margaery walks down the hall and upstairs, with the vague intention of finding somewhere with a good view of the stars. Sansa had often spoken wistfully about the beautiful emptiness of the North, and lamented not appreciating it more. Since all she's seen so far has been a lot of grey, Margaery is eager to see for herself what could have provoked such tender nostalgia.
It's late, but not so late that there aren't a few servants rushing along. It's odd - she's a stranger in a strange land, but she feels safer walking these halls at night than she ever did in the Red Keep. It took more of a toll on me than I like to admit, being there, Margaery reflects. Especially once Loras and Grandmother left. Loras had been the only one to console her when Sansa fled, the only one who had known of their affair in the first place. Margaery wishes bitterly that she didn't have to wait till morning to speak to him.
Her train of thought is interrupted by music coming from down the hall. She follows the mournful tune to a pair of heavy double doors that open onto a balcony, shivering at the sudden chill that takes the air right out of her lungs.
Sansa is sitting on a bench precariously close to the ramparts and looking out across the winter town, idly plucking at the strings of an odd triangular instrument. She looks over when Margaery approaches and smiles. Margaery is glad to see that it's marginally less contrived than the ones she'd graced her with earlier.
"I seem to remember you being quite hopeless at the high harp, your Grace" Margaery ribs gently, trying to break the ice.
Sansa raises an eyebrow. "That's the trick, see. I was playing with too many strings." She holds up the instrument. To Margaery's amusement, there are only three strings across a narrow fret board.
"Don't let me stop you," Margaery says, trying to keep this blessed familiarity going. "What you were playing before was quite beautiful, if a bit sad."
Sansa hums and turns her attention back to the night sky. But she plays the song again, each note like an icy finger on Margaery's spine. Sansa's face looks like it's been carved from stone, and Margaery, for perhaps the first time in her life, has no idea where to begin.
So she says "I've missed you."
Sansa stiffens. She steadfastly avoids Margaery's eyes. "You miss the girl you once knew. I'm not that girl anymore."
Margaery tries to breathe past the sudden lump in her throat and to understand where Sansa is coming from. It's true that she was more a girl than I was when we were in King's Landing together, and she is the one is more changed. And I stayed in King's Landing, and played the game as I always had, while she transformed herself into the Queen she needed to be.
"That may be true," Margaery starts, trying to find the words, "but I have become more and more alone in the time we've been apart. And you coming into my life again is something that I can only welcome, no matter how much you've changed."
Sansa finally turns to her. Her eyes are like chips of ice, her face impassive. "I have had my share of people returned to me. And when they came back, they were almost unrecognizable. My sister became a person feared by the strongest and most skilled men, a person with no compunctions about murder. Bran is someone else entirely. He spends more time in the minds of animals or trees than in his own. Rickon is half Wildling, half wolf. People change so much that they cease to be the people you once loved. And I..." Sansa closes her eyes for a moment. "My skin has turned from porcelain, to ivory, to steel."
She turns to leave, but Margaery puts a hand on her arm. "But you love them. You love your siblings still. I see it in your face, in everything you do. Love is not something that just goes away, not a love like that." Not a love like ours.
Sansa stands in the threshold for a moment, then walks away. Margaery moves to where she was sitting and looks over the dark landscape, the stars shining brighter than they ever do in the city.
Sansa was right. It is beautiful.
Margaery and Loras walk at a leisurely pace along the gallery that overlooks the training yard. Margaery revels in walking next to her brother, something she never dared to hope she would do again. Below them, hundreds of people are drilling in the yard. Brienne is supervising men sparring, stopping and starting matches as she notices faults in their form. To Margaery's surprise, there are dozens of women and girls being led in a waterdancing form by Arya Stark.
"The women in the North fight, too?"
"Not until recently, unless you count the Wildlings," Loras says. "But we need every sword we can get now, and Arya is a terrifying combatant. People who don't have the build to train with Brienne train with Arya."
"And the Queen?" Margaery says delicately, remembering the calm way Sansa had wielded Brienne's sword. "Who does she train with?"
Loras smirks at her. "Brienne - and me. She's too tall to be a waterdancer. Though I think she'd prefer it. Heavy lifting is not our Sansa's strong suit, not in the physical sense at least."
Margaery sighs a little at our Sansa. "Loras, I - "
"- want an explanation. Of course. I wanted to explain. First chance I got, even with Grandmother there."
"But the Dragon Queen was there."
"Yes. And she's an ally, it's true. But we are not such friends that I wanted to air the details of what happens in my bedchamber."
Margaery stops and leans over the ledge. A girl of twelve or thirteen is bravely taking on Jon Snow, who is giving perhaps more ground than he expected to. He finally knocks her to her bum in the snow and helps her up before demonstrating some kind of footwork to her. Rickon Stark has been relegated to one of the training dummies, which he hacks at with perhaps more enthusiasm than skill. Loras looks at him and sighs.
"He's strong as an ox and can swing a sword for hours, but I think he may end up better suited to the axe or the hammer."
They watch for a little while. Margaery finds herself mesmerized by the fluid motions of the water dancers. Arya Stark is truly a wonder to behold. She hops from post to post of the fence between the training grounds and the archery range, never losing her balance once.
"I got your message when I was still recovering outside Dragonstone," Loras begins abruptly. "I was angry. I didn't want to run from a siege that I'd already dishonoured myself at. But almost being melted alive by burning pitch gives you a bit of perspective. So as soon as I could walk on my own, I fled. The Faith Militant wasn't far behind me, but I hid myself well."
"You chose a good time to learn discretion, I suppose."
Loras chuckles. "Yes and no. I didn't flee North to avoid recognition. I came here because I heard that Stannis had come North. I wanted revenge for Renly. In King's Landing... it was easier to focus on my duty. But as soon as I was alone, vengeance was all I could think about."
Margaery leans into him, sharing that old pain. He puts an arm around her. Sansa arrives on the training yard in that moment, dressed in boots and breaches that Margaery somehow finds just as distracting as her ensemble from the day before. A few of the men training stop and greet her deferentially, but she waves them off. Activity continues around her. This is clearly routine.
"I came North just as the whole huge ruckus was beginning. Stannis was waiting for the fallout of the battle between the Stark Loyalists and the Bolton forces. I arrived at the Stark camp the night before the Knights of the Vale and the Night's Watch took back Winterfell. Sansa recognized me right away - I can't say the same for her. I thought I was looking at you in a different body, the way she was playing every lord and general there. But she was so happy to see me, and the way she treated me... she treated me like a knight. Like I was worth respect. Like I was worth more than what I was doing. So I fought in the battle. We took back Winterfell and I finally felt like myself again. Better than myself - better than the man who tried to take Dragonstone."
"But Harry died."
"Harry died," Loras said seriously. "He was a bit of an arrogant prick, and that's coming from me. But he was a good enough man. He was terribly in love with Sansa - perhaps more than she even would have liked him to be, given her own inclinations. But he hadn't given her a child. Arya, Bran, and Rickon were still missing when we took back Winterfell. Sansa needed an heir, and I needed, as always, an alibi. So... we helped each other."
"Which I'm sure was pleasant for both of you," Margaery says dryly.
Loras gives her a wry smile. "Indeed. We... manage. The Night's Watch has a maester who just completed his training at the Citadel. He learned that there are times during the moon's cycle when women are fertile and times when they are not. We do our marital duty... when necessary. And I love Alarra. I never wanted a wife or children. But Sansa and I have become friends - something both of us had needed for a very long time. And I find that I... look forward to watching my child grow up. Not least because she looks so much like you." He smiles. "Sansa and I were both overjoyed when we saw how much of you there is in her."
Margaery watches Sansa move fluidly through footwork drills, wielding a heavy practice sword. Her movements are more basic than anyone's in the yard, with the notable exception of Rickon, but she is undertaking them skillfully.
"We spoke last night. She was... not receptive to my advances of friendship."
Loras grimaces and raises his eyebrows. "Friendship?"
"We didn't get past that point," Margaery says miserably.
Loras sighs. "Sansa has been through much. She watched her father die, was a captive in King's Landing, and her only ally for a long time was Littlefinger. But he was the one keeping her alive, even though she knew he was dangerous. She had to learn, all within a few short years, how to outsmart the smartest man in Westeros."
Margaery half smiles in admiration. Her eyes haven't left Sansa, who is taking a rest with her brother Jon and laughing at something he's saying.
"And then... she finally got back to her home and what remains of her family, and nothing and no one were the way they were supposed to be. And she realized how much she herself had changed. She's worked hard to make a new life and a new home. And now you've come."
"And I don't fit in with her new life," Margaery whispers.
Loras nudges her in irritation. "Gods, Margaery, you're smarter than this. She's afraid you won't love the person she's become. And most of all, she's afraid you're going to leave."
Margaery turns that over in her mind. "Does she talk about me?" She finally asks.
Loras smiles sadly. "All the time. And," he adds after a moment's thought, looking at her sideways. "It's not my name she says when she finds her pleasure."
Sansa is reading in her solar when Loras comes in. He's been out with Margaery again. They've been going for a ride almost every day, as long as Loras's duties don't interfere. For Loras, it's been a month of reconnecting with his sister. For Sansa, it's been a month of steadfastly avoiding being alone with her.
"Your sister said you wanted to see me?" Loras asks, sprawling out on the chair next to her. He's been very good about not pushing, even though Sansa can see the hurt in Margaery's eyes with every bland courtesy Sansa extends her. Sansa's resolve to maintain her distance has been eroded with every look, every brush in the corridor, every accidental meeting of their gaze.
If it had only been those things, she may have been able to keep her strength. But a mere five days after arriving, Margaery had begun worming her way under Sansa's skin. Sansa had been training in the yard when Margaery had appeared, dressed plainly in men's clothes. After a brief conversation with Brienne, she'd hefted a practice sword and begun cutting and thrusting at the straw training dummy next to Sansa.
Sansa had tried to focus on her own training, but after only a few minutes couldn't stop herself. "What are you doing here?"
Margaery had stopped, wiping her glistening forehead with one gloved hand. Sansa gulped and willed herself not to be distracted. "Loras said that almost everyone at Winterfell trains. And I'm here now, so - here I am." She had shrugged, smiling. "Loras taught a me a few things yesterday so I wouldn't take up too much of Brienne's time."
Sansa had simply nodded and gone back to her own training. Here now? What does that mean?
She gives Loras a look when he starts to rest his boots on the table. He moves his feet to the floor. "It's your sister."
Loras smiles. Sansa knows he's been waiting for this conversation. "What about her?"
Sansa glowers at him. "She's been... training in the yard every day. And she's been helping Sam and Gilly prepare medical supplies. She's ordered three gowns and a cloak made."
"It's almost like she's intending on staying here."
Loras runs a hand through his hair. "We were going to speak to you about it soon. Margaery wants to stay. We've missed each other for so long, we don't want to be parted again. And it's safer for her here than in the South, from Cersei anyway."
"Safer from Cersei. Not safer from the army of the dead we're contending with!" Sansa gets up and begins to pace. "It's not safe. She can't stay."
Loras sets his jaw. "Sansa. If the Night King gets past Winterfell, everyone in Westeros will be dead anyway. Margaery escaped an exploding Sept. You don't think she has the right to choose her own destiny for once?"
"This isn't Highgarden, Loras. Even if she's safe, do you really think she'll like it here?" She won't, Sansa thinks.
"Well, she's certainly trying, isn't she? All she wants is for you to have a real conversation with her. Why can't you give her a chance?"
"Because I know how this will go!" Sansa says finally, throwing her hands up. "A woman like Margaery doesn't belong in the North. She won't grow to love it. And she won't grow to love me. I'm too different from who I was. And once she realizes that, she'll be packing her bags for Highgarden."
It's the first time Sansa has spoken her fears aloud. It takes the strength out of her. She sits down heavily. Loras comes to sit next to her. Sansa realizes with a start that she's crying.
Margaery's secret smile just for her on their walks through the gardens of the Red Keep with her ladies. The scent of her hair on Sansa's pillow. Her earnestness when she talked about how much she cared about the smallfolk. Being in stitches together over one of her grandmother's more bawdy anecdotes. Her soft skin against Sansa's. Her peaceful breathing and lineless face when Sansa had crept out of her room for the very last time.
She's been separating these memories from the Margaery who appeared at Winterfell last month. Because to have Margaery and to lose her again would be too much to bear.
"I think about that with Renly sometimes," Loras says, stroking Sansa's hair. "I am... so different than I was. I am a man who would scoff at holding tournaments while the fate of the realm was at stake. Who thinks valour is so much more than rushing blindly into battle - I learned that at Dragonstone. And yet. I would do anything for him to be here. I don't know if he would love who I've become. But I would take that chance."
Sansa looks into Loras's eyes and abruptly feels selfish. What had he said to her once? When the sun has set, no candle can replace it.
Margaery is surprised, to say the least, when a servant knocks on the door and tells her that the Queen is riding out to check the progress on a new mill being built and requests her company. But she's not one to waste an opportunity, particularly after weeks of the silent treatment. She swiftly changes into her riding clothes and passes a message onto Gilly that she won't be able to help in the infirmary today.
The stables are a bustle of activity when she gets there, and Sansa is already mounted and holding the reins of a beautiful mare.
"Your Grace," Margaery greets her. It's getting less and less strange to be on the other side of that.
"Lady Margaery." Sansa hold the reins out to her delicately. Margaery mounts up and they set off, accompanied by a score of guards led by Theon Greyjoy, his bow slung across his back. They set off south, leaving the winter town quickly and turning onto a narrow road through dense forest. Where before Margaery could only see a monochrome of grey, now she can tell the difference between the firs and the spruces, see the quick white hares darting through the underbrush. The sky is all the more beautiful for its contrast against the white of the world below.
They ride in silence that is more companionable than awkward, a first for them since Margaery arrived. But she's acutely aware of Sansa watching her, following her eyes to small animals, her lips tilting up when Margaery slows to run her hand along the branch of a rowan tree.
"It's not a walk in the gardens," Sansa says after almost an hour of riding. Margaery looks up at her and smiles. It's the first time she's alluded to their time in King's Landing together.
"No," Margaery agrees, looking at Sansa sitting comfortably atop her horse, at ease in her domain, snow lightly dusting her crown of hair. "It's something altogether better."
Sansa glances at her with the first genuine smile she's worn in Margaery's presence since she arrived.
The mill has been completed ahead of schedule, which is rare good news in the land of winter. Sansa and Margaery walk through with the builders as they explain how their design works better in cold temperatures, and how the efficiency has been improved. Margaery understands immediately why she is there. This is Sansa's life. These are her duties and the things she attends to. Margaery is being given a window into the Queen's day to day. It's a test, of sorts. She remembers Loras's words. She's afraid you'll leave.
Margaery listens attentively to what the tradesmen are saying. As they're walking back through the town, Sansa says, "This could be a boon for our food supply. At present, with Highgarden's aid, we are not so much short of grain as we are on time to process it. Ramsey Bolton had a habit of burning towns and mills to the ground when they didn't surrender all they had."
"With so many soldiers to feed, we'll need every advantage we can get," muses Margaery, not even noticing her use of "we."
"The Vale is too far south to be able to spare many fighting men," Sansa says as they pick their way through to the main square. "The last thing we need is the Night King at our front and Cersei on our flank. But they may be able to send us labourers. I'll send a raven when we get back to the keep."
They meet with the alderman and Sansa listens patiently to his concerns. She agrees to station some men in town for added protection now that the mill is built. Margaery follows along approvingly. Loras had told her that it was Sansa's way of training enough soldiers and making the smallfolk feel protected. Small garrisons of soldiers - men and women - were popping up all around the North, full of soldiers still in training. A few senior officers oversee them, and ready them to be reabsorbed back into the army when it was time to fight.
They see to the smallfolk next, and here Margaery is in her element. The small knives and fabric and bowstrings are far from the toys that she used to press into the hands of children in King's Landing, but in essence it's the same. She speaks to overwrought mothers and to the elderly and reassures children about the coming winter. When she looks up to find Sansa again, she smiles to see the other woman doing much the same. Sansa hugs children and shakes hands with a comfort that she never had the times that she accompanied Margaery to Flea Bottom.
"You're good at that," Margaery says as they get ready for their return to Winterfell. Sansa gives her a long look, those eyes once again unnerving in a way that is new to Sansa the Queen.
"I learned it from you," she admits finally. Margaery smiles, full and genuine, and a memory suddenly pops into her mind. I was too distracted by the execution to remember that Sansa was wearing her hair in a style of the Reach that day.
Theon arrives with a group of six children, whom he helps up to sit behind some of the men. Sansa notices Margaery's curious look.
"Orphans," she explains. "We take them to Winterfell or to the Wall, where we find uses for them. Most of them will probably be in the kitchens," she says, looking thoughtfully at the group. "The boy there who can ride on his own might help in the stables. The older girl will train with Arya, if she wishes, and if she has the aptitude."
Margaery nods admiringly. It was something she would have loved to do in King's Landing, but there had been too many people in the Red Keep as it was.
They ride on, going back through the deep forest. This time, Margaery notices witch hazel growing along the road, and slows to pick some off a branch. "Gilly and Maester Samwell have need of this for poultices," Margaery explains, rubbing the orange blooms between her fingers. To her surprise, Sansa orders a stop, and soon half the party is scouring the area.
Margaery looks up from where she's stowing away a handful of blooms when Sansa appears in front of her, a hellebore flower in her hand. She meets Sansa's eyes and her stomach almost drops out at the half-serious, half-mischievous gleam in them. It's not a look the old Sansa sported often. This is something that Sansa has grown into.
"I would like," she says, handing the flower to a breathless Margaery, "for us to be friends."
With the awkwardness diminished between Sansa and Margaery, the two of them begin spending time with Loras together, which clearly delights him. Margaery smiles to see them together - two dreamers who found out that life was not a song, but who kept going regardless. Margaery loves to sit by the fire with them, holding her niece, laughing into the night. They're on the cusp of the end of the world, but Margaery feels safer and happier than she ever has, even when she was ruling a kingdom.
She begins joining Sansa in her solar in the afternoons, and helps her with her workload. The sheer number of decisions Sansa must make every day is mind boggling, and she does all that while keeping another queen and all of her Northern Lords happy. The amount of practical work involved in Sansa's life is vastly more than Margaery's had been when she had been queen. But on the other hand - no Cersei. When Margaery brings up that she would rather deal with the entire infrastructure of the North every day than with Cersei, Sansa laughs that full-throated laugh that Margaery adores.
There are little things. Fingers grazing when they pass a sheet of parchment over. Eyes that follow her wine glass to her lips. The maddeningly soft brush of Sansa's hair on her arm as she leans close to read over her shoulder.
But they keep their slow pace, this new getting to know each other. But it's becoming harder and harder to ignore how much she does know Sansa. Knows that her ears are still sensitive, because of the small shiver when she whispers in her ear. Is intimately acquainted with the way Sansa bites her lip. Knows what her long legs feel like around her waist.
But still. Margaery takes care to let Sansa set the pace. She shows her commitment to the North. Continues her training and her help in the infirmary. Rides out with Sansa to various other Keeps and towns. Let's Sansa know that she'll be in the North, even if there may not be a North - or a Westeros - to be in much longer.
When Loras retires to Sansa's chambers with her one night after their fireside chats, Margaery feels the familiar jealousy gnawing at her belly. She wonders if it's for show, or if it's that time of the moon's cycle, then hates herself for wondering.
She paces around her own chambers, getting more agitated with every moment. This is how it must be, she reminds herself. Sansa will need more children. She had always known that she and Loras might end up sharing, in one way or another. But maybe that's not what Sansa wants at all. Rare doubt seeps into Margaery's mind, and she sighs heavily.
Then the Queen in the North steps out from behind a tapestry, coughing.
"The passage is rather dusty," Sansa says, as though it's the most normal thing in the world for her to appear Margaery's bedroom. She brushes off her skirt, and Margaery notices distractedly that she's wearing only her night gown and a cloak. It leaves very little to the imagination. Sansa sits on the bed and motions for Margaery to join her.
"Did you know that this room had a passageway from yours when you gave it to me?" Margaery says, finally finding her voice. Sansa frowns in annoyance.am
"I didn't assign you this room. Loras did. And he did know, of course. But," Sansa adds hurriedly. "I glad for it."
Margaery looks at Sansa from beneath her lashes. Sansa bits her lip. Her heart thuds. This, finally, is familiar. She leans in closer.
"It's suspect for you to stay here," Sansa says, her hand pressed lightly against Margaery's shoulder to hold her back. Margaery closes her eyes, her frustration reaching a breaking point.
"I'm not leaving," she bites out, opening her eyes to stare into Sansa's her cheeks a livid red. "I don't know how else to convince you that I'm not going but I'm not. I am staying -"
She is interrupted by Sansa's hand over her mouth, an indignity she has never suffered, and her eyes widen with absolute fury before noting Sansa's look of amusement, and the way her thumb moves to stroke her bottom lip.
"So I was thinking," Sansa continues gently, moving her hand into Margaery's hair, "that you should marry Bran."
Margaery blinks. "Oh."
"Yes. He'll always be at Winterfell because of his connection to the godswood."
"Right, of course."
"He's told me in as many words that he's not overly interested in the marriage bed, so that's a boon for women like us."
"It would be hard to find Bran a wife anyway, since he's third born and spends most of his time communing with a tree. And, you know, then you won't be bothered about remarrying or anything like that, and no one will ever wonder."
"It does make perfect sense."
The two women look at each other. Sansa grins a bit. "I was interested in how far you would go with your little tirade."
"No one has ever called one of my tirades little," Margaery huffs.
Sansa grins, then her face softens. She drags her fingers from Margaery's hair down to her neck, and then pushes Margaery down onto the bed. Margaery's breath hitches as Sansa follows her down, her legs on either side of her hips. And then Sansa kisses her and Margaery feels like she's dreaming and drowning at the same time.
Sansa pulls back, looking down at Margaery with so much naked love that Margaery feels tears prick the back of her eyes. Sansa rolls off of her so that they can lay sideways, pressed flush against each other, breathing onto each other's lips. Sansa's hand moves lower, and Margaery gasps into Sansa's mouth before pulling away to look into her eyes. There's a confidence and intensity there that Margaery has never seen, and as she wraps her leg around Sansa's hip, she reflects that she likes this new dynamic.
Margaery wakes alone, and thinks for a heart-rending moment that she dreamed it all. But when she rolls over, she sees that there's a fresh winter rose on the pillow next to her. She brings it up to her nose and smiles.
It feels like a beginning.