In some other world, Gendry is a blacksmith’s apprentice, all shoulders and no inner turmoil and a niggling feeling that as much as he tries to stay out of trouble, it will find him. He drinks mead heartily after long days of smithing, he cannot swing a sword, he avoids redheads.
In this world, he is standing half in shadows while Sansa Stark is swaying on her knees, track marks of furious tears cascading down her cheeks, clutching her gown together with shaking hands as the cruel-faced knight raises his hand for another blow – and Robert Baratheon’s flinty eyes are fixed upon him.
In this world, Robert Baratheon enjoys his wine but does not let it cripple him, passes his eyes along the ladies but does not stray from his wife, sighs her name and her name alone into her neck.
Cersei, raised by an unforgiving father and an absent mother, stumbles headfirst into caring for her husband before she has had a moment to blink, to orient herself to the heavy crown on her brow. Into loving him, even, perhaps.
(She will always love her brother more).
Not long after their wedding, her stomach starts to swell and while Robert is thrilled, the depths of Jaime’s despair nearly drive her to madness. By the end, the child kicks and she recoils from his energy. She is afraid; her brother had once been a good man, but maybe their love had been toxic, or maybe he’d been heartless and careless all along and she’d never noticed because he’d been all she thought she had.
“I hope you lose this babe so I can give you a thousand more, ours,” he’d whispered against her throat the morning she’d told him she was with child, leaving her to shudder alone on the tower, arms braced around her stomach like her own armor. She wonders if there is too much fear in her, to grow a healthy babe, but grow he does, and in the glow of the waning moon, she delivers a healthy baby boy, clutching him to her breast for an impossible moment so that he does not wail.
Her heart breaks, but she hands him to the midwife, trades for another babe, so new and so lifeless, cradled in her arms.
When Robert comes into the birthing chamber, she does not have to feign the grief; she wears it like a shroud, looking half a moment to the grave herself. Golden hair dull, listless, and her eyes fill with tears over and over again.
When her brother enters, Jaime kisses her forehead tenderly, mistaking her grief for relief. “Ours next,” he murmurs, brushing her golden hair from where it has clung to her graceful neck. She offers him a weak smile, and notes that he does not feel her pain the way he used to.
(The babe was meant to be killed, to be drowned in the water that surrounds, quietly and without a word.
Cersei, though she is a woman changed by love, is not entirely changed – and cannot bear the thought of someone else loving her son, someone else caring for him, if it cannot be her.
But Robert is not as stupid as he seems, and the midwife brings the babe directly to him. The hulking man cradles the boy tenderly in his arms for one heartbeat, two, stroking the dark hair from his forehead and watching as those blue eyes disappear behind sleepy eyelids, and hands him back.
She turns and disappears into the night; she knows her orders.
The babe has been passed off to yet another set of arms before the sun has risen the next morn. Only the gods keep secrets, and Robert intends to keep this one, as an ace up his sleeve, as a card to be played at the moment he wishes, and not a moment before.
Cersei drinks tea, now, the mornings after they lay together; her emerald eyes follow his with a mixture of longing and loathing. He says nothing of the three golden-haired babes she grants him, does not comment on the lightness of their brows, on the flickering ocean depths of their eyes. He grants her these children, loves them as best as he is able, and pretends not to notice the way Jaime Lannister lingers, always, in the halls around his wife.
In this world, Jaime Lannister wears no white cloak around his shoulders, but is sent to oversee recruitment and training of soldiers across the kingdom, and Robert’s shrewd eyes watch the gradual lowering of his wife’s shoulders, the broad smile that spreads across her face as they walk together in the gardens, the way she outshines every jewel he presents to her. Her beauty is like a knife, and grows ever sharper as she grows happier.
In this world, Cersei is not the only one keeping secrets.
Gendry is raised underfoot in the kitchens – constantly passed around from woman to woman, falling asleep in their arms as another stirs the stew, or kneads the bread, or sneaks him bites of apple filling from the morning’s fritters, but each night he goes home with the woman he knows as his mother, Mathilde. She is kind, and soft, and much older than the other mothers he meets.
She dies from a fever when Gendry is 7, and he is sent into the bowels of the castle, to learn to care for the horses. He is scrappy, and defensive, and his long dark hair is constantly in his eyes.
The years pass, and Gendry leaves the castle with his friends, but always returns: a stable boy, a squire, a young knight. He keeps company with the boys his age, the girls who catcall him from street corners, the gutter cats and the little mice scurrying around the castle. He laughs heartily and goes to bed with a full belly and has no cause to hope for anything except glory on the battlefield, except a chance to kiss the pretty girl with the auburn-hair who sometimes works at the tavern nearby, except to live and die with his friends, his brothers in arms.
If he bears a certain resemblance to a certain monarch, well, they’d never heard of the king having a bastard, but he was a king, wasn’t he? He would have been well within his rights to father as many bastards as he wanted.
But really, they would mutter to themselves, they’d heard the king never looked away from his glowing golden wife – and why would he – so the resemblance was, clearly, purely coincidental.
When the Starks enter the Keep, Gendry is perched atop a lower wall, peeling an apple with his knife and letting the sun warm his brow in the early spring. Nearly a man grown, scruff upon his cheeks and the roguish look of invincibility on every gesture.
The first time he sees Arya, he thinks of a lesson he overheard, wandering past the smithy: like calls to like, and it’s true. There is a wildness to her, a look in her pale grey eyes that reminds him of the woods in the early morning, of the fletched arrow, of the moment just before a wolf howls. He wants to run with her.
Later, he will teach her to spar, to hold a dagger, to use her size as a tool against her opponents. He will teach her to sneak out of the castle, to find the best apple pastries in the city, to charm their way into the castle kitchens in the middle of the night.
(He will remind her so much of Robb that sometimes she will rub away a spare tear from her cheek with the edge of her tunic after he drops her back in her chambers).
The first time he sees Sansa, willowy and with red hair glinting in the afternoon sun, he sees a silly, romantic girl, humming softly under her breath – and looks no further.
He avoids her, does not speak to her, and does not notice the way her spine slowly wilts, like a dying flower in the springtime, or the way her blue eyes dull as Cersei keeps her close under her wing, close to the boy who could have been kind, could have been righteous – but Joffrey, in all worlds, is the same.
Gendry runs into her, one night, as he patrols the castle, as all new recruits of the guard must do – stumbling back to her chambers, alone and clutching her gown across her shoulders.
He thinks it a tryst, snorts at the way she holds herself, and does not watch the light in her eyes fade, the hope quiver and curl up, as he brushes past her.
He does not see her wince.
In this world, Joffrey does not execute Lord Stark, but King Robert sees the thread that the man is unraveling, the secrets he is about to uncover, and sends him home with a letter tucked securely in his pocket.
Some secrets are only shared between brothers.
Robert knows Ned, once knew him like the back of his hand, and has faith in his silence.
It was hard to convince him to leave his daughters, harder still to convince him they’d be safe.
Pretty promises, pretty lies.
(Robert is still king, still busy, and even his little spies cannot be everywhere).
Cersei has kindness in her hands, now, but is bewildered and caught off guards by the cruelty dripping from her eldest’s mouth – the boy she sacrificed for, he does not know, will not appreciate what she has done.
Each time Joffrey speaks, she thinks herself a failure, she thinks this to be her punishment for the multitude of sins she has committed, and she curls in on herself. She avoids him and dotes on him in equal turns, and it only spoils his temperament further.
The cruelty to Sansa Stark continues.
If someone asked Sansa Stark why the blond prince tormented her so, she would have answers at the ready, ready to fall like pearls from her lips.
But they do not ask, and she does not tell.
Who could she trust? The sister who runs off like a wild thing at every moment with that group of vagabonds with ridiculous names from the castle? Her father, who has retreated to the North? The king, who does not look her in the eyes? The queen, who shrinks from her gaze as if ashamed?
The knights know.
But they are the ones who strike her, so she supposes they do not care.
She resolutely sets herself against hope, but the songs spill from her lips in the night, when no one is around to hear, to listen, to wonder at the quaver in her once-steady voice as it climbs, climbs, climbs into nothingness.
The first time Gendry hears the voice, he is sneaking back through the castle, coins jangling in his pockets from the card game he had quickly learned, and it is so lovely that he stands, stock still, in the shadows, as if moving will cause the voice to stop.
Lovely, and clear, and achingly, unbearably sad.
He thinks he might recognize the voice, but shakes his head as the song ends, as he sneaks back to his bed. Surely he would have remembered such dulcet tones.
He doesn’t mean to, it’s all purely happenstance – but he’s under the window every night to listen to the enchantress weave her web. His friends tease him about the mystery lady keeping his attentions in the night, but he merely sits, and whittles wooden wolves, and listens as she sings of true love and knights and tells stories he’d thought he had completely forgotten.
It is by accident that he happens upon Sansa Stark in the gardens, tucked away behind the roses, wiping tears from her eyes – he can see her, but she cannot see him, and though he means to retreat immediately, she starts humming and then singing softly as she looks up at the blue sky through the roses.
Gendry’s blue eyes widen as he recognizes – as the puzzle pieces come together – as he listens to the way she sobs her way through the song about flowers blooming in the Northern sunlight.
He doesn’t want to step forward, but he cannot help himself. “Lady Sansa?” he asks, voice low, as if trying not to draw more attention to the two of them, ensconced within the blooms.
Sansa’s spine straightens and her face is blank, all of a sudden. Gaze mercurial as it settles on his tall frame approaching her haven. “Ser… Gendry, is it?”
(In this world – Sansa noticed the handsome knight with dark hair and bright, laughing eyes from the moment she entered the Red Keep. Her eyes tracked his across the hall, she had memorized the hollow of his throat, the line of his shoulders, the pace of his steps in the corridors.
She hadn’t mean to cross paths with him, that night, on the way back – the first night Joffrey had someone else hit her for some perceived slight or another – she had hoped to get back to her rooms without anyone noticing. But worse than ignoring her, he had laughed.
Arya is furious at her, at the way she frostily ignores the knight, after that. Arya does not know, will never know why).
“Are you…” Gendry knows what he means to ask, but she is so clearly not alright – he can see the bruises around her upper arms, across her cheekbone, and he wonders who could possibly hurt this Northern princess. “Are you the one who sings at night, from the North tower?”
This startles her from her mask, and her eyes widen. It is confirmation enough for him.
“It is lovely,” he admits, tilting his head as he considers her. “I’ve never heard tales like those, here.”
“They’re Northern,” she whispers, brows still raised as she appraises him.
He walks closer, carefully, slowly, as if approaching a skittish deer. “May I sit, my lady?”
Sansa pauses a moment – weighing decorum and threat, danger and the rules of the court – before nodding briefly.
Gendry settles himself next to her on the narrow bench and asks her to sing once more.
It becomes a tradition, of sorts.
He finds her in the gardens after his work is complete, as the golden hours of the afternoon are fading into dusk, and she sings, voice gaining strength day by day. He learns about weirwoods, about magic, about the beauty of a blue winter rose; he marvels at what it must be like to have wolves that stand as tall as your shoulder, snow drifts that can keep you in the keep for weeks or months.
(Lady did not accompany her mistress, staying home to be trained and kept safe; the capital is no place for wolves, her father had said, forgetting it was no place for Sansa or Arya, either).
She sings the songs of desperate, heart-wrenching love – of love that demands you throw yourself from a cliff rather than be alone, of a love that is fierce as a winter's storm, of a love that is constructed entirely of passion and longing and secret looks.
(This is not the love of her parents, but they weren’t supposed to get married in the first place, and though they have built something nice, something strong, she has wondered what it would have been like for them if they had married their loves, the ones their hearts were meant for – if there wouldn’t be this distance between them, space enough for a secret.
Space enough for Jon.
Maybe, if her father had been truly in love with her mother, he would not have strayed. Would have kept his promises, kept his honor.
Maybe if he had truly loved her mother, he would have loved her and Arya more, and he would not have left them here.
Silly dreams of a silly girl, she chides herself).
Gendry knows nothing of love – nothing more than tumbles in the hay, than hurried kisses and what it was like to lay with someone for fun but not desperately, not like you will die without them – and yet he listens to her tales.
He wonders what it would be like, to love someone so much that you would do anything for them.
His thigh presses against her own, and they both pretend not to notice.
King Robert does not intend to rule forever, neither does he intend Joffrey to rule. He is less afraid of Jaime Lannister's brash impulsivity and obsession with his sister now that he is far away, now that he has been far away for years and years.
So he keeps the secret for as long as he thinks prudent, then calls Gendry to his solar – ostensibly about some guard business or another, some inspection that is a good enough reason to meet with a bulk of the newest knights.
The lad does not take the news well.
(This is an understatement).
He bows, sharply, and strides from the room as if he is running away.
The king sighs and rubs his temples against the headaches that seem to daily plague him, at this point. The inheritance is his, he need only claim it. And as the betrothal contract is between Sansa Stark, daughter of Eddard Stark, and the eldest son of the king - she is his as well.
He has seen the way Joffrey treats her - and more importantly, while Robert is a man of action, he is a man afraid of his wife's devotion to her eldest son. The despair in her eyes is not undone by the love in them, and as much as he has tried to shape the boy, to bring him up into a boy who could be a decent man, let alone rule a kingdom, there is no softness in Joffrey, no kindness. Tommen, Myrcella - they're lovely children, and he tries to love them as his own - but Joffrey, he doesn't know what to do about the lad.
And the king is tired - nearly two decades of machinations and political maneuvering and the ever-present Targaryen threat to the East - and in this one thing, this one time, he decides to let the boy decide his own fate.
The boy does not have to claim his inheritance - he can live his life as a knight, as a normal man, and marry whomever he wishes.
The boy does not have to do anything.
(But Robert is neither blind nor stupid enough to miss the way Gendry looks at Sansa Stark).
Sansa stumbles upon him this time, earlier than usual to the overgrown roses. He is panting, eyes wild as he looks up at her, fingers combing through his hair, before he stands, abruptly, and begins to pace.
There is a jagged energy to his movements, and Sansa notes, quietly, in the back of her mind, that she is not afraid of him, not afraid of what Gendry looks like when he loses control.
It is a new feeling; she hides it away behind her breastbone, to protect herself.
Being unafraid is its own weakness.
She does not ask him if he is alright – but only if he would like to sit in front of her while she sings, rather than next to her. He acquiesces with a sigh, and she begins to sing, quietly, a song he’d never heard before from her lips: a Northern lullaby, one she had sung to Arya, to Bran, to baby Rickon. One meant to soothe impossible aches.
His head tilts back onto her skirts, and she tentatively begins to card her fingers through his hair.
Sansa can feel every spot that his body is pressed against hers, his back against her shins, his head against her knees, and feels something alight in her, a distinct pleasure – for there is no other word – at his closeness.
So focused is she on keeping her breath steady, on letting the comforting words of the song fall from her lips, that she does not notice that he has fallen asleep until he lets out a soft snore, and settles himself closer to her.
He wakes when the stars are emerging in the twilight sky, bleary eyes half-convinced it had all been a dream, but the truth rushing back to him in a shock: the king's son, trueborn son, the heir, he could be a fucking king someday. A sideways glance at the lady behind him causes him to flush and push the images conjured quickly in his mind of what it would be like with Sansa as his bride.
Gendry stretches as he stands – unaware that Sansa’s gaze tracks the quick glimpse of skin revealed as he does so – and offers his arm to her with his sincere apologies. “I’ll walk you back, my lady,” he murmurs, “as it is my fault you were kept here so late.”
She smiles, almost shyly, as she tucks her delicate hand into the crook of his arm. “We missed dinner,” she says, and the relief in her voice is unmistakable.
He swallows heavily, reading between the lines of what she cannot, will not say, and aches for her. To be a lady here under Joffrey’s attentions is to be powerless, how many times had he seen that before? How many times had he pretended to ignore the lady’s suffering? (What did it say about him, that he would let it continue?)
He offers her a tentative grin. “I can get us into the kitchens, if you want.”
Her brows arch up in surprise.
“Unless,” he continues, “you’re not hungry?”
“Famished,” she says, teasingly, as they begin walking.
He savors the feel of her next to him, and wonders when he become so aware of her every step.
Gendry begins to trade shifts with his friends, to better observe the Lady Sansa.
He doesn't like what he sees.
For all that her spine is steel in the gardens, for all that her voice is soft but lovely as it climbs - in the castle, in the presence of the blond brat prince, she is a shadow of herself. Her shoulders are perpetually sloped forward, as if to shelter her wan face from view. Her hands wind around themselves again and again, though she tries to hide them in her skirts.
For all that she is kind and gentle, it is as though she would give anything to fade into the stonework when Joffrey saunters into the room, lips curled cruely into a fascimile of a smile.
One month passes, then two, and though he has not seen Joffrey raise a hand to his betrothed, he has seen the way she wears light silks over her shoulders to cover bruises and scrapes. He can't help but notice the way she curves into herself at loud voices, at raised hands, even if they come from her coltish (and frequently disappearing to god knows where) little sister.
The rage in him grows and grows until it is bursting from his fingertips, until he is spending his time in the training ring exerting his violence in the form of wide swings of a practice sword, thoughtless fighting and hand-to-hand training, as if he is hoping to get a set of matching bruises. He simply wants to burn off the anger before he sees her in the gardens at night.
(He sees what her life here in King's Landing has become, and refuses to be another loud voice that she flinches away from).
The fury wins him attention from the king, from the knights, and he is advancing far more quickly in the ranks than he'd ever planned. He had quite enjoyed his easy climb, keeping casual pace with his companions - but he finds that his trembling anger is fueled by a protectiveness, the likes of which he'd never known before sitting at the feet of a lady with flaming hair, listening to the stories she weaves beneath the stars. And this protectiveness is more potent than the drive for an easy life, for a life of simple pleasures.
(And still - and still - he is not able to intervene, to protect her from the bruises and the voices and the litany of abuse she's suffered since her father left).
Wanting to protect her is not love, he knows that, he isn't an idiot, but as the weeks fade into months, a tentative friendship builds between them, made more intimate by the way they sit together, tucked in the back recesses of the expansive garden, her delicate hands in his too-long hair.
Her soft voice telling the tales of a land he's never seen, but feels he is beginning to know.
(The North is as beguiling as its auburn-haired princess, and he finds himself longing for a home he's never seen).
Sansa trusts this knight, this muscular man of a boy, broad shoulders and twinkling blue eyes and perpetually mussed dark hair - and that worries her.
For her trust has often (always) been misplaced.
She trusted her father to deal in her happiness, and instead he sold her to the crown and left her here. (She would feel worse about her uncharitable thoughts if she did not receive regular letters from Robb, letters detailing that everything was as it should be, in the North, though, of course, they missed her terribly).
She trusted her betrothed and his mother to treat her, if not with kindness, with civility. There is nothing more to even think on that matter and she refuses to entertain another world where Joffrey's smile is kind and Cersei brushes her hair back from her face with a mother's tenderness because even the possibility of how it should have been is enough to break her spirit, at last.
She trusted Arya to stay by her side, as two Stark princesses are surely a more formidable foe than one - but her little sister disappears into the shadows more often than not, returning with the reek of sweat on her brow and a proud smile across her tired lips and Sansa doesn't say a word because she's glad that one of them is finding a morsel of happiness in this wretched place.
But Gendry, she trusts.
Not with her secrets, her hopes, her tender emotions and the way she dreams of him each night, now, dreams of him sweeping into her chamber and taking her into his arms and kissing her soundly and -
She doesn't tell him everything, but she finds in him a true friend, and tells herself that is enough.
(It is both more than enough and leaves her longing, almost desperately, for more).
Cersei finds her gaze lingering on one of the newer knights. There are several with dark hair, quite a few with bright eyes, but there's something about him that seems... familiar. That reminds her of Robert, in his youth.
She'd accuse him of fathering a bastard off some poor kitchen girl, but she knows the truth: his eyes have never strayed from her form, even as it swelled and her breasts became heavy and she carried her brother's children. Robert still looked on her as if she was the brightest jewel in the kingdom, and it gave her a vindictive satisfaction, a cruel thrill. She feels kinder under his attentions, softer, even, but her pride is still as much a part of her as her name.
She didn't waste more than a moment remembering the dark-haired baby she'd handed off in the night, or what he would look like now, because she knows the truth: that boy was drowned, long ago, and to think on him any further will only bring her pain.
(She'd almost drowned in her grief, immediately after, but not regret, no. Jaime would have killed him, anyway, someday, despite his love for her. Perhaps because of it).
(Cersei loves Jaime still, but in this world, she is happier to love him from a distance).
(He has not answered her letters in months. She's not sure if he's dead or with another woman and she's not sure which feels worse. She watches the skies obsessively for a time, but Robert, as he always has, tries to draw her out of her melancholy with flowers, gemstones, long walks along the walls and sitting together in the mornings. It works, mostly, but makes her feel worse for the devotion she still holds for her brother in her heart - and she lashes out at her children, at poor Sansa Stark, at anyone who is near).
She has no time for wild paranoia, now.
He finds himself wanting to steal her away. In the night, at daybreak. On a horse, on a ship.
Gendry turns the possibilities round and round in his head even as his friends tease him for losing his head over some girl. They rib him and nudge him in the ribs and elbow him sharply in the gut to make him 'fess up who it is - Beth, from the tavern, or Lottie, from the kitchens? Gendry just rolls his eyes and grins and shoves them back, denying everything.
His mind is consumed with Sansa, and the way she seems to have more bruises each time he sees her in the gardens.
Joffrey treats the girl with the same cruel disdain he's treated everything his entire life - he is universally loathed in the stables, in the mews, in the kitchens, in the halls - but though Cersei had tried to stop him, or at least mute his effects with the others, she seems powerless in the face of Sansa Stark. Desolate, hopeless, she watches her son order the girl to be struck down and says not a word in protest.
Gendry watches the queen surreptitiously from the corridors and thinks, with enough contempt and venom in his mind to kill a viper, that this woman is no more his mother than he is a prince. He can see himself in her eyes, the set of her nose, the proud tilt of her chin - but in the face of Joffrey's cruelty, he wants nothing to do with her.
(He will contemplate, much later, what it means to truly fear something, what it means to be so consumed by grief and loss that it overtakes you completely).
Gendry considers each possibility he can think of, but in the end, it boils down rather simply: Sansa should have a choice.
If he is going to whisk her away to Essos, as he sometimes dreams, she should get to decide.
If he rides North with her as fast as he possibly can on a stolen horse from the stables, she would know the way better than anyone.
If he claims his birthright - his shoulders roll back and his cheeks flush at the thought - she is part of that inheritance, Robert had made that very clear. Claim your title, claim the bride, the country gets a prince they can depend on and a future queen that they can adore and the country is united once more and - he'd stopped listening at that point. He'd heard enough.
But it makes him wary in her presence, where mere days before he'd never felt so relaxed as he did at her feet, listening to her sing a song as she pushes her fingers through his too-long hair.
Sansa notices, of course she does, but merely asks, quietly, if he'd like to talk about whatever is bothering him. When he hesitates, but ultimately shakes his head, she goes on singing as if they'd never spoken, though he knows the offer remains.
To know that the one man she trusts in all of King's Landing is keeping secrets from her is disconcerting. He fidgets, he twitches, he alternates between looking her in the eyes intently and then refusing to meet her gaze, rubbing his fingers together.
But - she trusts him.
And so, she waits.
(She doesn't have to wait long).
The moonlight shines into her room in the North tower, and Sansa Stark should be asleep.
Instead, Sansa is brushing her long, unbound hair with the hairbrush her mother sent, sitting at her vanity and wondering where Arya has disappeared to now. Little Arya Underfoot has grown into a girl Sansa doesn't quite recognize, even when she deigns to grace them with her presence. She is thinking about singing, wondering when this too-hot summer will fade into autumn, musing how anyone sleeps when the very air itself seems heavy, when a gentle knock echoes on her door.
She does not move, does not glide to the door and open it immediately, but sits and waits, frozen as a deer, listening, for it is the middle of the night, and the castle should be asleep.
(And if it were Arya, she would not knock but merely barge in).
"Sansa?" A low voice reaches her, a familiar one. Her heart thrums and hums in pleasure at the sound. "It's Gendry, I know it's late - I don't even know if you're awake - gods, you're probably sleeping. I just... I need to talk to you."
She stands, as if in a trance, delicately placing the hairbrush down, smoothing down her long hair and ignoring the dressing robe hanging on the wall as she carefully unlocks her door and retreats.
Gendry slips in like a secret, eyes behind him to make sure no one notices him invading her bedchamber in the wee hours of the morning, for it would harm her reputation irreparably if they were caught, and would almost certainly get him exiled from King's Landing, and he can't afford either of those things, not when he's so close to winning her freedom, one way or another.
Satisfied that they are alone and hidden, he closes the door, turns to face her, and is completely gob-smacked by the sight of her.
Pale shift draped over moonlit skin, curves apparent even in this candlelit room. Her auburn locks tumble free and he is seized by the urge to run his fingers through them, to tangle himself in her irrevocably. She seems a creature of the night, a star-dusted dream that would dissipate once he blinked and he'd wake, gasping, in his own bed off the kitchens.
Once his greedy gaze has consumed the glimpse of her ankles, the slope of her hips leading to the intake of her waist, the treacherous boundaries of her breasts underneath the fabric, the careful line of her collarbone, he finally reaches her face and snaps his mouth closed at the quiet, kittenish smile on her rosy lips, the bright laughter in her eyes.
He's not sure if she intended to destroy him, but he feels wrecked no matter her intention.
(She didn't want to destroy him, to seduce him, or to draw him into her spell - but she feels like an enchantress anyway, with the way he is looking at her. It has set her heart aflame. It would be a lie to say she didn't consider what it would seem like, for her to invite him into her bedchamber when she was hardly clothed - her mother would be aghast at the mere thought - but he'd never looked at her like that before. Never stepped closer to her as if in a trance, eyes wide and enraptured with every inch of her.
He'd seemed to consider her a friend and nothing more and she'd heard the other knights teasing him about his girl, about Lottie or some other girl in the kitchens or the tavern. She ought to want to grab her dressing gown, to dive under the covers and not come up for air until he's long gone, but she feels a triumphant spark, low and deep in her belly, and it traverses up her spine until it comes to light in her eyes, in her lips.
She smiles and it feels like a victory, to see him linger on her lips as if he can't help himself, as if he is a man bewitched).
"You wanted to talk to me?" she asks, hesitant to break this lingering tension between them, this moment of what feels like want.
The moment stretches like molasses, as he nods, slowly, stepping towards her until he is close enough to touch.
"I - I did, I mean, I do."
He reaches out a hand to trace the line of her wrist, and only seems to come back to his senses once she shivers delicately.
Gendry looks directly at her and asks, "If there was a way out, would you take it?"
He doesn't need to clarify what or who she needs to escape from, for it is all too clear, and she is nodding, clasping her hands together under her chin before he finishes the question, blue eyes wide with hope tinged with inevitable disappointment.
"If it meant running away, would you want it?"
Here, she hesitates.
If she didn't feel abandoned by her father and her sister and her mother and her brother and even her lonely half-brother up at the Wall who hasn't written her once, if she didn't feel less like a Stark every day, here in this castle that felt more like a prison, if she weren't unsure of her value except for what she could give to others in the marriage bed, perhaps she would have held tighter to her name, to her family.
But though she is hanging on with trembling fingers, dangling from a precipice, her grasp is tight and her hands are sure. She is a Stark, after all, even in this wretched place and under the thumb of the worst boy she's ever known, and she has always known her duty, and who she is raised to be. A lady, a queen, a shepherdess for the people, to guide the man of the house with love and care and a firm voice of dissent, when necessary.
So, she shakes her head, slowly, even as she says, "I don't know," in a quiet voice, one that means she knows the truth but doesn't want to admit it.
Gendry accepts this as easily as any story she's ever told him, rearranging plans and ideas in his head, not quite ready to come to terms with his fate, with the choice he will make for the sake of the happiness of this girl in front of him.
"Will you tell me what's been bothering you, now?" She talks as though she means to demand answers from his lips, and he can see a glimpse of the girl she'd been, once, innocent and petulant and used to all of her whims and wishes coming true. A half-smile flashes onto his face and disappears just as quickly. That girl is long gone.
"Could you love me, someday?" The question spills from his lips before he's thought about it, but it's the only question he can possibly ask, the only one he desperately needs answered, as though matters of the heart could be addressed in such a simple way.
"What?" She steps back, hand on her heart and eyes wide, but retreats no further. Her calves tremble as they hit the end of the bed behind her. She has nowhere to go, but her mind is racing, her heart is ker-thumping an unsteady rhythm and she still does not feel afraid.
He strides towards her, and as though he cannot resist the idea for a moment longer, places his calloused hands on her freckle-dusted cheeks. He leans in, and repeats the question in a low murmur. "Could you love me someday?" His voice is plaintive, hushed, it belongs to the night and the shadows between them. Not the voice of a knight, of a man, of a future heir - but of a boy whose mother abandoned him, whose mother believed death was safer than life, a boy who had been looking for love and belonging ever since. A man who sat at the feet of a lady and allowed her to give him comfort, who made him laugh and entranced him and made him feel, somehow, as if he'd move mountains for her, for the girl who showed him kindness when no one showed her any, who was beautiful and kind and so, so strong.
The proper thing, Sansa knows, would be to push him away, to deny the tenuous bond between them, to claim her loyalty is to Joffrey and Joffrey alone and -
But she is tired of acting a proper lady. It's done nothing for her, has only brought her hurt.
And this man in front of her, so close she can smell him, can feel his heart racing in his palms, can see that his eyes are even more of a brilliant blue than she'd ever thought, he is asking her a question.
He deserves a true answer, if nothing else.
Sansa looks up at him through her lashes, raises trembling hands to cover his own, and whispers, "yes."
Gendry grins, blindingly bright, and leans his forehead against hers for just a moment - a perfect, fragile, remember-this-forever moment - before stepping away, and striding out of her bedchamber.
Sansa slips into her bed, at last, sliding under the covers and waiting for her pulse to calm.
She falls asleep just before the dawn.
It is mid-week, on an unbearably warm day, when Gendry walks into the back of the crowded hall to observe the grievances brought before the court, as he has done for weeks, now, trying to learn what it means to be king. To listen, to problem-solve, to understand and learn about the people under his rule. To watch the king and queen as they confer, make judgments, and show their people that they can lead. He's not sure he can do that, not sure he knows enough about politics.
(But the common people? He knows them. He is them. He understands their worries, their complaints).
It is mid-week when he walks in and immediately feels a tension in the air, as hears the distinct sound of fabric being torn apart, of Joffrey's cruel voice inventing lies of one sort or another, of the rough smack of a fist on flesh.
He can hear a woman sobbing and knows, instinctively, with an immediacy that feels like he's fallen from his horse and all the breath in his lung has gone, that it is Sansa.
Gendry makes his way through the crowd as quickly as he can, fists clenched and jaw tight, eyes searching for the red hair he knows so well.
He's never seen this before. For all his shift-trading and observation and careful listening to the rumors and half-truths, he's never seen it actually happen, before.
It's so much worse than he ever imagined.
He reels back onto his heels as he catches a glimpse of her, fallen onto her knees and holding her dress tightly closed over her breasts, ribbons of blood streaming down her back, hair loose from its intricate braids, and furious tears on her face. The knight - thank all the gods it is one he doesn't know well, for he will have to kill him, later, for this - raises his armored fist once more.
(It is time to make a decision).
Gendry can no more restrain himself than stop breathing. He walks from the shadowy corners into the middle of the hall, letting his strides draw the attention of the lords and ladies still gathered in the hall, allowing his chin to lift and shoulders to draw down and suddenly he looks like a lord in knight’s clothing. One swift movement releases the dark cloak from his shoulders and he wraps it around Sansa Stark’s bleeding back – not looking at her, he cannot look at her, not with the fury burning in his eyes.
Gendry stands, and for all that the hall is staring at him, he only has eyes for the king, whose expression is hidden behind his beard. He refuses to look at the woman seated next to him, green eyes wide and confused, or the pale prince glaring at him with pure venom.
“I claim my inheritance,” he says, quietly. “And I claim Sansa Stark as my bride, as is my birthright.”
Robert Baratheon’s eyes narrow for several long seconds, long enough that he can hear the catch in Sansa’s ragged breathing as she processes his words, can feel her gaze heavy upon him. It seems everyone in the hall is looking at him, but he cannot break his gaze, not until he knows, not until -
The king nods in approval.
The crowd goes into an uproar.
Cersei is the loudest of them all, green eyes desperate and disbelieving, but Gendry has already knelt by Sansa's side, pulled his cloak around her shoulders, and ushered her from the hall.
Sansa is surprised when, instead of escorting her to his chambers, or up in the tower to her chambers, he veers a different direction and guides them to a room she's never seen. It is opulent, and the main feature is a large table covered in papers and quills and scrolls and an empty raven's cage at the corner. The bookshelves line two walls of the room, and a third wall has a boar's head preserved and hung like some dismally grotesque trophy.
Gendry reluctantly releases her hand from his own as she steps inside the king's study. "I thought it might be safest for us here," he says, lifting his shoulders in a far too casual way for a man who just revealed himself to be a prince. She turns to face him, drawing his cloak tighter around her shoulders against the chill of the room, the shiver that runs down her spine as everything he quickly explained to her on the way to the study begins to sink in.
She feels unbearably stupid for not seeing what was right before her eyes. Dark hair, bright blue eyes, shoulders born from lifting a sword and training, day in and day out, to be the strongest, the best. Not Ser Gendry, the knight, but Prince Gendry Baratheon, the true-born heir of Robert Baratheon and Cersei Lannister.
(It is enough to make her feel faint, though perhaps that's the blood loss).
"It's true, isn't it?" she asks, slumping into a chair at the table and gazing up at him, slowly coming to grips with the fact that this man in front of her had not made up some elaborate ruse to get her out of the hall, as she's first thought. Nor was it some strange claim to the throne by winning her affections, as she'd considered next.
No, this boy is a prince and an heir and her betrothed.
(It reminds her of a song, though she can't quite put the words to the tune, not yet).
He nods, solemn and uncomfortable, before dropping into the chair besides hers and raking his hands through his hair. "I'm sorry."
"I - "
A booming voice interrupts them as the king himself sweeps into the room, closing the door and locking it firmly behind him. "Gendry!"
Sansa stands, sweeping her skirts to the side as she sinks into a deep curtsy, as Gendry bows haltingly alongside her.
"Your Grace," she murmurs, eyes darting between father and son, noting the similarities, the differences. The king, in any universe, is a broad man - but he has not dulled his senses so much, in this one. He can still move, still fight, still ride with a ferocity that surprises the greenest knights. The impressive figure he cuts is no less intimidating in this context. He pulls out a chair from across the table from them, and sits down.
Robert begins by turning to Sansa and asking, gruffly, "are you alright, Lady Sansa?"
Sansa tilts her head as she looks at the man, the man who never once interfered, the man who never once stopped his son from ordering others to toss her around like a doll, the man who looked entertained by the spectacle in the hall. Her chin dips, and it is less of a nod than an acknowledgement that he spoke, her gaze chilled and unforgiving.
He drops his gaze briefly to the table between them, as if glad to have a barrier between them, then looks to his son.
"You've made your decision, then?"
"I have," Gendry says, firmly, though Sansa can see the bounce of his knee, the slow straightening of his spine as he takes on a role he never thought he'd have.
Why? What reason could he have to want to be king? Power?
Sansa listens to the conversation between the men with only half an ear, half her mind otherwise occupied as she studies the man on her right. The man she'd thought she knew, the unlikely friend who saw her and accepted every piece of herself that she offered.
But for all the times they sat together, for all the afternoons he listened to her sing and they talked about the stories of the North, her family, her life, she couldn't have imagined anything but an ill-advised friendship. She was still betrothed to Joffrey, after all, and all of her perfect behavior had rewarded her with bruises, with scars on her milk-white back, so she could only imagine what the hint of infidelity would promise her. Death, most likely. Exile, at best, to Essos or somewhere no one had ever seen.
Then - just the week before, Gendry snuck into her rooms and held her face in his palms as if she were the most precious jewel in the kingdom, as if she were warm and special and worth adoring for who she is, and asked her if she could love him. Love. It was so preposterous she almost laughed, recalling it now. A fanciful notion, but it wasn't -
She lifts her gaze from her intertwined hands to see him looking at her, the corner of his lips quirked up in a smile, before he returns to his discussion with his father.
With great effort, Sansa does not bring her hands to her mouth, does not gasp, does not indulge in theatrics.
(The song she'd thought of earlier echoes its refrain in her head, a tale about a hidden love, a secrecy, a longing. She'd sang it for Gendry a few weeks prior and thought nothing more of it).
Could you love me, someday?
She understands now, with startling clarity, what he was asking. Why he was asking it.
To offer her a choice in an impossible situation, and a hope to fall in love, someday.
"Why did you say you were sorry?" she asks, once the king has left them alone once more with a twinkle in his eye. She's not sure she will ever understand why the man could not intervene, if he knew that Gendry was the heir, why he could not prevent Joffrey from his cruelties - and even if she understands, she is certain she will not forgive.
Gendry's gaze darts to the door, then back to her curious gaze. "I was trying to figure out another way to get you out of here, a way that would give you more freedom."
Sansa lifts a gentle hand to push his hair back from his forehead, very aware that his cloak is still wrapped around her shoulders, that her dress is in shreds underneath, that his eyes have not strayed from her visage.
"If you don't want to be queen," he says, hesitant in the wake of her silence, "I could talk to the King. It's not as though anything is truly permanent, and -"
"Gendry," she stops him by taking his hands in her own. "I'll be queen, if you want me."
His blue eyes flare brightly, and he offers her a half-smile. "I could imagine no one better."
He lifts her hands to his mouth and presses a kiss to her palms.
The curve of her lips blossom into outright beaming as they sit together, in the wake of the mid-morning sun shining through the windows, his dark cloak wrapped around her shoulders and their fingers intertwined.
It is rather romantic, she will think later.
Like a song.
In some other world, Sansa is passed from husband to husband, becoming queen but never knowing love, embracing loneliness and ruling as a lone sovereign, content to name Lyanna Mormont her successor and pretend that she has no need of another husband, another man to disappoint her.
She does not sing.
In this world, Robert dies from an aneurysm less than two years after Gendry's confession. (Cersei nearly loses herself in the grief of it, and would have disappeared completely if it were not for Sansa's steadfast insistence that she stay present, that she assist her son). It is almost enough time for Gendry to learn the ropes, to understand the politics, to begin to come to an understanding with the woman he calls mother, who gave him his nose and sharp smile and pride. Joffrey is sent to train with his uncle, in the hopes that he, at least, will learn something - or freeze in the northern winds. Tommen and Myrcella bloom without his presence, and Gendry treats them as true siblings, giving them easily the kindness they craved.
The knights still tease and rib their king as much as they did when he slept in the kitchens with them. The common people listen to the way he speaks and some detest him and some love him and some never think of him at all, as long as there is food on their tables.
Sansa still sings in the gardens, and Gendry still sits at her feet on hazy, golden afternoons.
In this world, it is easy for them to fall in love, and they are married in the godswood, clad in black and grey, with matching gold circlets on their brows and beaming smiles on their faces. They have children, they provide for their people, they have a long and happy reign.
In this world, there is happiness for them both.