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It had become Sansa’s daily habit, walking the perimeter along the battlements. She enjoyed the view, the feeling of security that seeing the Stark banners on the walls gave her, and the fresh clean air. But most of all, she enjoyed being alone. In the weeks since they’d reclaimed the castle, Littlefinger had become her shadow, and even when he wasn’t at her side she felt that he was watching her, somehow. She’d found him uncomfortably familiar when she was at the Vale, but now he seemed far more serious in his intentions, even after she’d dismissed them in the godswood. Or perhaps she was simply more sensitive to male attention, since Ramsay.  

The cold did not agree with Littlefinger, she knew, and he stayed inside the warmth of the castle if he could help it. The winters had never been as bad as this one when she was a child, but as it was a cheap price to pay for solitude she found she could weather it quite easily.

It was midday on one of these walks, the frosty winter sun at its warmest, when she heard the guards sound an alarm from the south gate. Sansa sped her steps, weaving around the battlements with practised ease, until she could see the road. In the distance she saw a group of men, maybe a hundred, approaching.

By the time Jon had made his way to the gate - he still didn’t understand that being king in the north meant that he didn’t have to oversee everything - the group of men were visible enough to see that they flew no colours, held no banners.

Archers had lined up, arrows nocked and ready. Jon moved to her side, the lines of his body tense but confident.

“You’d best go inside, Sansa. It could get...dangerous out here soon.”

He was trying to protect her from seeing more violence, more death. Jon’s attempts to shield her often only served to irritate her, even though she knew he was trying his best to protect her. Too little, too late, she thought unfairly.

“I’ll go soon,” she said, dismissive, without turning her gaze from the approaching strangers. She heard him sigh behind her, and then his footsteps headed away to join Sir Davos on the ramparts closer to the gate.

“He’s only looking out for you, lady,” Tormund’s strangely accented voice said from the other side of her, making her jump. The huge man could move with a silence that was unnerving, but she wasn’t actually ever scared of him. In fact, she quite liked him - his size and crudeness reminded her of someone else she used to know, when she was of a mind to let it.

“I know. But I’m not a child, and he treats me like one, sometimes.”

“He treats you like a woman,” Tormund said, grinning. “A southern woman, anyway. You know, freefolk women are warriors just like the men. You join the freefolk, become a spearwife, fight your own battles.”

Sansa turned an incredulous look on him, and it made him roar with laughter. She laughed too, unable to help herself. “Somehow I don’t think I’d make a very good warrior.”

“Everyone who survives in this world is a warrior, in one way or another,” Tormund said, and then followed after Jon on soft feet.

The approaching group had now stopped a half mile from the gate, and Sansa could see that two men had broken away and were approaching the gate, their horses at an easy trot. They were within spitting distance - and point-blank arrow range - when they stopped, seemingly unconcerned at the weapons aimed at them from above.

“Good day to you,” one of them called out. He wore an eyepatch and was travel-stained and weary looking. “I am Beric Dondarrion. My men and I have travelled from the Riverlands to join Jon Snow’s army, if he’ll take us.”

Sansa almost gasped aloud at his name - she knew it. Her father had ordered Ser Beric Dondarrion to find and kill the Mountain. She remembered wondering how he would accomplish such a feat, even back then when her head was filled only with pretty lies and fancies. She looked at Beric with new eyes, and even with the eyepatch, she found that she recognised him.

“Indeed?” Davos called out, sounding skeptical. “And what would make men from the Riverlands want to travel to the cold North?”

Beric smiled. “We know of what is coming. Of the troubles beyond the wall.”  

“How do you know about that?” Jon spoke up, sounding surprised.

Beric indicated the man beside him, who wore a dirty, rust-coloured cloak. “This man is Thoros of Myr. The Lord of Light has seen fit to give him visions.”

Thoros made a florid half-bow in his saddle. “Your Grace.”

Beric’s eyebrows rose as he looked back at Jon. “Your Grace,” he echoed. “Forgive me. I’ve never met a king who guards his own gates.”

Jon ignored the comment and said, “How do I know you’re not lying? You could be stray Bolton men, or Lannister loyalists.”

“Years ago when your father was Hand of the King, he tasked me with killing the Mountain, who at that time was raping and murdering his way through the lands. Most of my men were killed and the battle lost, however. When I heard tell of your noble father’s death, I chose not to return to King’s Landing. Instead, we formed the Brotherhood Without Banners, and have spent the years since protecting the smallfolk of the Riverlands.”

“It’s a pretty tale,” Davos said, “but there is no way to prove your story. And we’ve had enough of the bloody Lord of Light to see us through this winter and the next.”

“Yes, you have, haven’t you,” Thoros said, squinting up at Davos with strangely knowing eyes.

“Lord Beric telling the truth,” Sansa called to Jon, surprising herself. “I remember him at King’s Landing. Father really did send him to fight the Mountain.”

Jon nodded his thanks to her, then turned back to Beric. “And what of your men? Are they trustworthy?”

“The untrustworthy ones don’t last very long,” Beric said. “They’re all good fighters, and good men. They’ll die for the cause.”

“The cause,” Davos repeated, sounding sour. “Would that cause be to serve King Jon, or is it whatever fable your red god has cooked up?”

Thoros grinned. “And why can’t it be both, then?”

Sansa could hear Davos muttering under his breath from where she stood on the battlements, but couldn’t quite make out the words.

“And if I turn you away, what will you do?” Jon said to them, ignoring Davos.

“Head to the Wall. I’m sure they’re in need of the living, up there,” Thoros said. The way he phrased it chilled Sansa’s bones. She’d heard Jon tell of what was happening beyond the Wall, and even though she knew he spoke true it was difficult to believe such things could exist.

“That they are,” Jon said, and there was less suspicion in his voice now. “As it so happens, we recently sent a contingent of men to reinforce the Black Brothers and as such, there is room enough for you and your men. Rest here tonight, and on the morrow I will decide whether to send you on or not.”

“Thank you, Your Grace,” Beric said, bowing. “We are much appreciative. We’ll go and tell our men.” The two men wheeled their horses around and cantered back down the road.

Davos said, “Your Grace, I beg you to reconsider-” but Jon held up a hand to cut him off.

“I’ve made my decision, Lord Davos. I’ll not refuse fighting men when they’re offered to me. We’re going to need them.”

 ***

 Sansa was making her way down the battlements, having seen her fill of Beric’s men filing through the gates under the watchful and armed gazes of the Stark soldiers. By that time she was quite chilled, and even though she was still interested in the goings-on, she rather thought it was time to go inside and warm up.

When she reached the courtyard, she heard a sudden shout go up.

“That’s a Lannister man! That’s the bloody Hound!”

Sansa’s heart gave a painful twist at the name. No, it couldn’t be. Surely he was dead by now. She had hoped once upon a time, that he was out there somewhere, but had long since given up those hopes just as she’d given up her love of stories about noble knights and beautiful maidens. She refused to let her silly, childish hopes be rekindled. It couldn’t be him.

But still she moved quickly through the covered walkway, her heart beating furiously, and peered out into the main courtyard where the men were amassing. Half a dozen soldiers - Vale knights by the looks of them - had surrounded one of Beric’s men, swords drawn. His back was to her, so she couldn’t tell if it really was the Hound or not. He was very large, though.

Jon had marched over to them, surprise on his face. He looked at the man for a moment and then said, “The Hound himself. What’s the Lannister’s dog doing this far north?”

The man in question spat before answering. “The Hound’s dead. I’m just a man like any other.”

Sansa would know that rasping voice anywhere. It made tears prick at the corners of her eyes. Hope welled unrestrained in her breast now. She’d thought about him so often, and now he was here, alive and well. It was like a gift from the old gods.

Jon shook his head, clearly disbelieving, and said, “Put him in the dungeon.”

Sansa shouted “No!” before she could stop herself - the word had left her body before she was aware of it on her tongue. The entire courtyard turned to look at her, and her body was trembling as she made her way towards Jon, not from their gazes but from his . Even without looking at him, she knew he was staring at her, the feel of it heavy, both comforting and nerve-wracking. She remembered it well from her time in King’s Landing, and from her dreams since.

She made herself meet his eyes when she neared the group. “Hello,” she said to him simply, because he couldn’t think of anything else to say to him.

“Hello, little bird,” he replied, and his words broke open something inside her that she’d kept locked tight for a long time. She stared at him openly, hungrily, taking in all the differences since she’d seen him last. His beard was fuller, and his hair lighter somehow, perhaps faded by the sun. His armour was different. He looked...less mean, somehow. Or perhaps she knew what mean really was now. She realised he was staring back at her, his eyes dark and intent just as she’d remembered they were.

“Sansa,” Jon said uncertainly. “Sansa, you should go inside.”

Sansa’s face felt wet, and she realised tears were falling down her cheeks. She wiped at them, embarrassed that he would think her the weak child he once knew, and turned to Jon. “Don’t arrest him. He’s...he helped me in King’s Landing. He saved my life, more than once, and he tried to take me away from it all. Please, Jon. I trust him.”

It felt odd, to have a man’s freedom rely solely on her words. It was weighty, but she bore it gladly. It was the least she could do for him. She could see Jon’s expression change from confused to surprised, and he glanced back at the Hound before looking at her again. “That doesn’t mean he’s a good man, Sansa. He’s done terrible things.”

“So have you,” Sansa said, bluntly. “But you’re still good.”

Jon looked hurt for a moment, and then shook his head. “That’s different.”

“No it isn’t. If you put him in the dungeon, you can put me there too.”

“Sansa!” Jon said, clearly astonished at her stubbornness.

“If I may interject, Your Grace,” said Beric, appearing beside them. “Sandor Clegane has been with us for a long time. He’s saved many smallfolk from marauders in that time. I vouch for him as I would for any of my Brotherhood. As he said, the Hound is dead. Only the man remains.”

“Please, Jon. You don’t have to trust him. You just have to trust me, remember?” Sansa wondered if Jon was going to betray his own words to her, but then he seemed to soften and relent. Perhaps he did mean what he’d said, after all.

“Very well,” he said, albeit reluctantly. “Stand down.” The guards did so, sheathing their weapons and stepping back. Jon sighed, and then announced, “Sandor Clegane is to be treated the same as any man in the Brotherhood.”

Beric bowed. “Thank you, Your Grace.”

Then, quietly, Jon said “Sansa, come with me.”

His tone brooked no more argument, so Sansa followed him into the castle, casting a last look behind her. Sandor Clegane was still watching her.

Chapter Text

It was when she noticed the servants’ curious looks as she followed Jon through the pleasantly warm halls that she realised she’d made a public spectacle of herself. She could not help flushing, even as she told herself she didn’t care. Her insides felt like jelly, and her thoughts were still outside with the man formerly known as the Hound. Sandor Clegane, it was now. She didn’t regret her actions, however. He had been in her thoughts for so long now - often as a sad regret, but sometimes as a secure dream she could visit when things got too bad to withstand. There were so many ‘if onlys’ in her past, and he was one of them. If only I’d been a better daughter and sister; if only I hadn’t trusted Littlefinger; if only I had run away with the Hound…

Jon led her upstairs into the solar she used most often, near her mother’s sept. He closed the door, and then turned towards her wearily. “You know you shouldn’t argue with me in front of the men, Sansa. I’m supposed to be their bloody king . I can’t have my orders undermined by you.”

“I know, I’m sorry,” Sansa said, “But I wasn’t undermining. I was...informing.” Sansa sat down on an embroidered sofa near the hearth. Her feet were still cold and her insides felt wrung out. “I shouldn't have yelled like that. I was...taken by surprise. But I’m your sister, and the lady of the castle. You should trust my opinion.”

“I do.” He sat next to her and clasped her cold hands with his own big warm ones. “Sorry. I know I need to learn to listen to you, and Davos, and even Tormund occasionally. I’m just not used to...any of this.  Especially all the bowing and Your Graces .” He shuddered theatrically.

Sansa giggled before she could stop herself. “It is very odd, isn’t it? Think what Arya would say.”

Jon snorted. “She’d probably tell me my head’s gotten too big and then kick me in the shins.”

“Yes, that sounds about right.” They were silent for a moment, connected by duel thoughts of their little sister, and where she might be. It was almost enough, for now, to know she was alive, thanks to Brienne’s information.

"Who is he to you, then?” Jon said suddenly, jarring Sansa out of her reflections. “The Hound. Clegane, I mean. I’ve only heard that he was more beast than man, and saw nothing to the contrary when he was last at Winterfell. I thought he was still a Lannister man, but then we don’t get a lot of news at the Wall.”

Sansa sighed, not knowing where to begin. Her feelings about him were so jumbled and confused, but again she felt the need to stand up for the man. She never heard anybody else do so, in all the time she had know him. So she began, “He did what they told him to do, but he also didn’t sometimes, when it came to me. Joffrey would order the kingsguard to beat me, but never the Hound. I think sometimes he even ignored orders, as if he hadn’t heard them. Joffrey was in awe of him, a bit, so he got away with it. When they stripped me in front of the whole court, the Hound covered me with his cloak. He saved me from rioting smallfolk. He kept trying to... educate me, I suppose, not to be so naive and gullible. I didn’t really listen, at the time, but he was always right. During the Blackwater he came to my room and tried to take me away from them, said he’d take me home, but I refused. He could have done anything to me, but he just left. I’ve...regretted not going with him ever since.”

Jon’s eyes had widened during her story. He said “You would have run off with a man like that? Alone? Was it really that bad, down there?”

Sansa blushed, even though she tried not to. She had nothing to be ashamed about, in that regard. “It was bad. He...wouldn’t have hurt me. I would have been safe with him. I knew it then, and I know it now. I think there’s a scale, with men. Ramsay’s at one end, the worst of them. Sandor Clegane is at the other.”

Jon was staring at her now, his eyebrows raised. He seemed to turn over what she’d said, before saying gently, “I’m glad he’s come to Winterfell, then.”

Sansa felt her eyes pricking again. “So am I.”

***

Not long after Jon left her, a knock sounded at the solar door. It was Littlefinger. Sansa should have been expecting it, but her head was too full of everything that had happened. She was even momentarily contented with her conversation with Jon, something that she hadn’t felt in a long time. But it all vanished under the crawling gaze and saccharine smiles of Petyr Baelish.

“Lady Sansa.” He bowed ingratiatingly. “How was your walk today? I must commend you for keeping up your daily constitutional now that winter has arrived.”

So he was going to pretend nothing unusual had happened, even though he certainly knew by now that the Hound was here. And that she had made a fool of herself to speak for him, Sansa thought. She knew he had his own eyes and ears all over the castle. Well, she’d play the only game she had a chance succeeding at: avoidance and deflection. It had the added benefit of irritating him, no matter that he tried to hide it.

“I suppose it must be my northern blood keeping me warm, Lord Baelish,” she said, and then affected weariness and continued, “but it has tired me out, and I find that I would like to retire to my chambers. Would you be so kind as to escort me?”

“Certainly,” he said, and offered her his arm. She took it, forcing a smile on her face. Together they made their way through the corridors. Sansa deliberately made no conversation, mostly because she had nothing she wanted to say to him.

Littlefinger indulged her in her silence until they reached the door to her parents’ bedchamber, which was now hers thanks to Jon’s refusal to take it for himself. “You should consider my proposal, my lady. Other outcomes may not be as palatable. Your brother the king is already wondering which northern lord is to become your next husband.”

Sansa turned to look at him, unable to disguise her shock. Littlefinger’s smug expression told her it was exactly the reaction he was trying to provoke. She tried to control her emotions, even though her stomach was twisting at the thought of another marriage. Jon wouldn’t do that to her, after all that Ramsay had done, surely? He knew she wasn’t ready. She didn’t think she’d ever be ready. “I don’t believe you.”

Littlefinger shrugged elegantly. “Whether you believe it or not, it’s the truth. King Jon is juggling more alliances than he knows what to do with. Some are not so loyal as others, but a prize such as yourself would easily win one of them over. So, my Lady Sansa, consider my offer. You’ll be giving yourself to someone who you know, someone who cares for you with all his heart, instead of some rough northman who’ll spare no thought to your comfort or your desires - especially in the bedchamber.”

Sickened, Sansa could no longer look at him. She entered her room, slammed and locked the door on him, and then leaned her back against the heavy oak and tried not to sob. He was right, probably. That was his power - he’d tell unpleasant truths and sweet lies, twist her up inside until she bent in his direction.

Even if Jon really wasn’t considering betrothal alliances right now, he would eventually, she knew. Jon might not think marrying her off would be such a betrayal, but it was. She couldn’t, she wouldn’t ever be in a man’s power like that again. She’d rather be dead. None of the eligible northern lords were as bad as Ramsay, of course, but she didn’t think any of them would respect her wishes if she refused their husbandly rights to the marital bed.

But Littlefinger was no option, either. He may be gentler, but she knew he wanted her too badly for him to keep his distance, if they were married. For all his charm and poise, he was a greedy little man. He would neither honour her wishes nor accept her refusal, in the end.

As she crawled into the large bed, she felt like a child. She used to do this, back then - climb into her parents’ bed when she was scared in the middle of the night. All it took was her father’s warm arms enfolding her, her mother’s kisses on her forehead, to make her feel safe and right again. How she longed for them, alone in their bed.

Chapter Text

Sansa didn’t particularly want to go down to dinner after her nap, mostly because she wanted to avoid Littlefinger. She was sorely tempted to request her handmaiden to bring her meal to her room, but she made herself get up and dressed. She would go, and ask Jon how Beric’s men were, make sure they were being treated properly and fed well. If one man in particular was at the forefront of her mind in this regard, well, that was simply because she still so surprised to see him again. She wondered if she’d get the chance to actually speak with the Hound -- no, Sandor Clegane -- tonight. If Jon really did send them away on the morrow, it might be her only chance.

So she sat, in her dark blue dress with its freshly embroidered silver wolf sigil, next to Jon at the high table. Littlefinger lingered somewhere at the back of the room as usual, even though he could have easily made a case for a more prominent position due to his status as Lord of the Vale. But he always did prefer not to be noticed, Sansa thought sourly. Until he wanted to be, at least.

Sansa’s eyes kept falling on Ser Beric Dondarrion and the red priest Thoros, who had been invited by Jon to join the lords and commanders in the great hall, while the rest of their men ate dinner in the barracks. Dondarrion had refused at first, Jon told Sansa, because the Brotherhood did not distinguish rank as such, but Thoros had apparently made Beric change his mind.

“I think they want to marvel at me like I’m a curiosity,” Jon said, wryly.

Sansa, surprised at this, turned to look at him and asked quietly, “They know? About you...dying?”

“They do. We spoke for a bit, earlier, and Beric told me he’d been through it himself. Thoros brought him back, and more than once.” Jon looked disturbed at that, but also there seemed to be sense of relief at not being alone in his situation. Sansa knew he didn’t much like to speak of what had happened to him. She could certainly empathise. Jon continued, “Beric knows what it’s like as no one else possibly can, and for that I’m glad he and his men have come.”

“Does that mean you will keep them at Winterfell, and not send them to the Wall?” she asked, and tried to pretend her own interests didn’t hinge on the question as well.

Jon eyed her curiously, perhaps gleaning more from her question than she had intended. “Do you want them to stay here?”

Sansa swallowed, her mouth suddenly dry. She hadn’t realised it until that very moment how badly she really did want them to stay -- want him to stay. She tried to be diplomatic and aloof, because she didn’t want Jon to suspect anything more about her feelings than he already did, but what came out was a simple, “Yes.”

He nodded at her with a small smile. “So do I. I’ll tell them on the morrow.”

She happened to glance over to where Littlefinger sat in the Hall, then, and noticed that a Vale knight had entered and was leaning down to speak in his ear. Littlefinger stood up immediately and approached the high table.

“Your Grace,” he said, in a voice not meant for privacy, even over the din of the hall. “It has been brought to my attention that one of the Brotherhood has just viciously attacked one of my men. I ask to have him punished accordingly.”

Sansa saw Beric stand up, having overheard, and he watched both Littlefinger and Jon with wary eyes. The room had hushed somewhat, but not completely. Too many of the lords had already partaken in the sturdy Northron ale for that.

Jon’s expression was weary as he said, “Bring him in then.”

The Vale man behind Littlefinger left, and returned almost immediately, followed by five of his fellows. They all had swords drawn, poking into the back of Sandor Clegane. Trailing behind them was Tormund.

When they came close enough, Sansa saw that Sandor’s face was bloody. Tormund, too, had a bloody nose.

“Go on, tell me what happened,” Jon said, indicating one of the armed knights.

“This man scum, Your Grace. He nearly killed Evyn - our maester’s seeing to him now. Started hitting him with no provocation, we had to pull him off. And then this one here joined in -” the knight glared at Tormund, who grinned back at him menacingly.

“You done, you lying southern fuck?” Tormund said, and then turned to Jon. “I don’t like these shiny metal men, Snow. They complain about the cold too much, throw punches like women, and tell lies like children.”

“Tormund, what happened?” Jon said impatiently.

Tormund nodded at Sandor. “You tell it, burnt man.”

Sandor wiped at his brow, and seemed irritated by the blood that came away on his hand. “Fucking cunt opened his mouth. I closed it for him.”

One of the Vale knights prodded his sword into Sandor’s back. “Address him as Your Grace , dog.”

Sandor just stood there, looking angrily at the floor. Tormund gave an exaggerated sigh, and then said, “The metal cunt was saying some shit about your lady sister. If burnt man here hadn’t shut him up, I would’ve. Then all these cunts started in, so I tried to help him out.”

Sansa heard the words, but it took a moment for her brain to sort out their meaning. The Vale man had been talking about her ...and Sandor Clegane had beaten him for it. She felt her face burn hot, wondering what had been said about her. She’d overheard things before, people whispering and gossiping about what Ramsay had done to her, and seen curious, pitying, and judgemental eyes turned her way, so she had some idea. She felt sickened and ashamed.

“Sheathe your swords and return to your barracks.” All of a sudden Jon’s voice had turned to steel, hard and cold. “Now.”

“But Your Grace, one of my men was gravely injured. The criminal should be arrested -” Littlefinger protested.

“The only thing Clegane has done is teach your men some manners, it seems to me, Lord Baelish.”

“You trust a wildling’s word over a knight of the Vale?” Littlefinger asked cooly.

“I do in this case. There is nothing more to be said on the matter. You and your men can go,” Jon said, with finality.

Sansa managed to lift her eyes from the table, even though she was still mortified by events that she had inadvertently been the cause of. She watched Littlefinger’s face set into a placid smile that she recognised all too well, and she knew it didn’t bode well for the future. It would not be wise for Jon to make an enemy of Littlefinger, but he was their enemy all the same. Littlefinger may have sided with House Stark and declared it to the four winds, but his pledges were as twisting and changeable as smoke.

“Very well, Your Grace,” Littlefinger said with perfect false courtesy. He bowed and left, taking the disgruntled Vale knights with him out of the hall.

“Clegane, this is the second time today I’ve kept you out of the dungeons. Try not to make it a habit,” Jon said, and then eyed the man’s bloodied face, which clearly showed how the Vale knights had gone about subduing him. “Do you need a maester?”

“No, Your Grace,” Sandor said, his voice low and rough. His eyes were still fixed on the floor.

“Very well. Both you and Tormund go and clean yourselves up, and then come join my table for a drink,” Jon said, clearly wanting to move on from the whole affair. He nodded over at Beric, who was still standing silent witness to the events that involved one of his men. Beric dipped his head at Jon, satisfied, and resumed his seat.

“Yes, Your Grace ,” Tormund said, and exaggeratedly imitated Littlefinger’s bow. Jon snorted and shooed him away. Tormund left, with Sandor following him out of the hall. He hadn’t looked Sansa’s way at all, and she felt the meaning of that hit her at once. He hadn’t stopped looking at her out in the courtyard that afternoon. And now he couldn’t meet her eyes. Now that he knew about Ramsay. Whatever gossip he had heard had most likely lessened her in his eyes, and it didn’t help that there was a small Ramsay-shaped part of her - the worm in an apple - that did not blame him for it.

“Well, he certainly doesn’t say much.” Jon eyed her and then said softly, “Sansa, are you alright?”

“I’m fine, Jon,” she said automatically, and sent him a smile similar to the one Littlefinger had given Jon moments before. She had learnt it from him, after all.

“You can retire to your room, if you like,” Jon said, sounding honestly concerned and somewhat confused over her changeable moods.

She was tempted. It was always the easier option. But the urge she felt to be in proximity with Sandor Clegane after all this time drove her to persevere, even if he did think her to be a silly girl and now a ruined one. Maybe she could show him how much tougher she had grown, even though it had taken her longer than most to get there.

“Not yet,” she replied. “I’d like to stay for dessert.”

Jon smiled at her. “I still can’t believe Baelish brought lemons all the way north with him. He must really have loved your mother, to do so much for you.”

Sansa had let Jon believe that this was all that was behind Littlefinger’s actions, including helping them win the battle against the Boltons. She didn’t want him to know the truth, because she thought he might react with his heart instead of his brain - like he had with Rickon - and try to protect her from Littlefinger’s advances. They could not afford to lose the allegiance of the Vale, so Sansa continued to endure Littlefinger’s desires and expectations as much as she refused them. Littlefinger thought that he could work on her, wear her down, and perhaps he could have, before Ramsay. Now these particular machinations of his glanced off her, like she was made from Valyrian steel. She would never be his wife. Unfortunately for her, he was yet to realise it.

“Yes, he must have,” was her only response.

She was in the midst of eating her lemon cakes when Tormund and Sandor returned. Jon waved them over to his table. Tormund sat with Jon and Davos at one end, but Sandor took a seat right beside Sansa. It made her heart start beating so hard she could feel it in her limbs, feel it climbing up her throat. She put down the remaining lemon cake, suddenly unable to eat it.

A serving girl set out tankards of ale for the new additions, and as Jon, Tormund, and Davos discussed the news from the Wall and the management of their men, Sansa watched out of the corner of her eye as Sandor drank heavily from his tankard. She waited for him to say something, but he only sat, and drank.

“You shouldn’t have hit that man,” she said finally, her nervous impatience getting the better of her. She immediately wished she hadn’t spoken - she truly wanted to forget the whole thing and wanted him to forget too, but it was too late to take the words back.

“Aye, you think so?” he rasped to her, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand. “It’s over and done now.”

Sansa tried again, wanting to make up for the unpleasant night he’d had if she could. “I’m sorry,” she said, but found that the words contained more weight than the night’s altercation warranted.

Sandor leaned forward, setting one large arm on the table. His body was half turned her way, and his voice was low as he said, “What are you sorry for, little bird?”

For causing you trouble tonight , Sansa wanted to say. For being scared of you at King’s Landing instead of the real monsters. For not leaving with you the night of the Blackwater. But all she managed was, “I should have trusted you.”

He looked at her and she looked at him. She felt, or maybe only hoped, that he saw all that she intended with the words anyway. Eventually he shrugged and said, “That’s over and done now too.”

“Yes, it is,” she said sadly.

“And you’re Queen Stark, so it’s not all bad,” he said, and there was a small grin pulling up at the sides of his ruined face.

She gave him a small smile. “I’m not a queen. I don’t want to be queen.”

“You eat lemon cakes like a queen.”

At that, a sudden laugh burst out of her before she could contain it. The candlelight gleamed in his dark eyes as he watched her, grinning. There was a small cut above his eye, and his jaw looked slightly bruised, and there were also a few older scars that she didn’t remember seeing before. It struck Sansa then that, even with these fresh scars on top of his old ones, he didn’t look at all monstrous or ugly to her anymore. In fact, looking at him lent her heart a lightness that was new and strange.

“I travelled some with your sister. Been wanting to tell you,” he said suddenly, looking down at his now-empty tankard.

“Arya?” Sansa said, startled. “When? Where?”

“It was many months ago. Down in the riverlands. I went with her to the Eyrie to hand her over, but your aunt had already offed herself. And then after that, well. Me and the little she-wolf parted on...bad terms.” He laughed, and it sounded harsh and bitter. “But she was alive, last time I saw her. She’s a fucking survivor, that one.”

Jon had overheard some of their conversation, and had turned towards them at the mention of Arya’s name. “Do you know where she’d have gone?” he asked, and there was even more need in his voice than Sansa herself felt. She well knew how much Jon had loved Arya.

Sandor shrugged. “My best guess would be Braavos. She had a Braavosi coin that meant something to her, never stopped playing with the bloody thing. Fuck knows where she got it.”

“What did she talk about? Did...did she know about Robb, and our mother?” Sansa asked, because she needed to know even if it pained her.

“Aye, she knew all right. She was right there at the Twins when it happened. I had to smuggle her out before the fucking Frey soldiers got to her.”

Jon looked horrified, and Sansa gasped, feeling sick. “You saved her,” she whispered.

He looked at her, and there was familiar kind of scorn in his eyes. “It wasn’t for some horseshit noble reason, little bird. I did it for the coin. She was worth something to certain people, I needed gold.”

“And yet you took her to the Vale, you said. To one of the only people who would have protected her. You could have sold her to the Boltons,” Sansa said, feeling warmed inside at this act of selflessness from him.

Sandor snorted. “The Boltons were as likely to kill me as her. Don’t make me out to be one of the pretty knights in those tales you like.”

Sansa felt all the sting of his barb, bursting her warm bubble. It made her feel ashamed of her past stupidity yet again, and reminded her of how hateful he could be. There was an emptiness to her voice as she said, “I don’t believe in those stories anymore. I don’t believe in anything anymore.”

He looked like she’d just slapped him, which was not a reaction she was expecting. Why would he care what she’d said, after being deliberately cruel to her?  She was frustrated at her inability to understand him, and to understand her own feelings for him. How could he make her feel so happy in one moment, and so worthless in the next?

She fell into silence after that. Jon was once again drawn into conversation with Davos and Tormund, although he did send her a few concerned looks.

Sandor was silent as well, but too close for her to forget his presence. He drank from his tankard, which had been refilled by an obliging servant, and sat straight and rigid in his seat.

She knew she was being silly and childish, but she couldn’t help it. With him here, unpleasant memories were bubbling to the surface, and past regrets and self-reproaches harder to tamp down. Her emotions felt like exposed nerves that were already rubbed raw. None of this was his fault, of course. She had not expected to have such a reaction to his presence. Her past thoughts of meeting him again were like all imaginings: unreal and insubstantial and conformed to fit the imaginer.

She pushed back her chair and stood, and said quietly to Jon, “I’d like to retire now, Jon.”

Jon said, with soft concern, “Alright. I’ll escort you.”

“No, stay. I’ll be fine. May I take Ghost with me?”

“Of course.” Jon turned to the dozing form of Ghost, who was laying in one corner behind the high table. “Ghost, keep Sansa company tonight.”

Ghost hauled himself up immediately, tongue lolling and tail wagging. Sansa kissed Jon’s cheek and left the hall with Ghost’s huge form tagging at her heels. She did not look back at Sandor Clegane.

Once in the safety and solitude of her chamber, she regretted her hasty departure. She realised that being overly sensitive to every offhand slight he made wasn’t going to prove to him how much she had changed. She had always been so offended by his awful comments when they were at King’s Landing, but what were they to her now? And what did he truly mean by them? He always was a contradiction: scornful of the weak, yet constantly saving and helping her when she was at her weakest. She knew by now that his actions spoke his true worth, and that he hid that worth behind hurtful words and denials. She had realised, long ago but still much too late, that there was a good man in him, buried under layers of pain and hate. She wished she hadn’t taken such a long time to see it.

Chapter Text

Sansa set out for her walk as usual the next morning, with Ghost eager to get outside to relieve himself and beg for scraps in the kitchens. She didn’t like to ask Jon for Ghost very often, because she knew the wolf preferred to be with his master, but she could not help herself sometimes. She was always comforted by his presence at night and found that she slept better with him in the room. Although she had been restless last night, even with Ghost there, wishing she hadn’t let her emotions get the better of her at dinner, wishing that she’d stayed.

She had put on many thick layers, but the still morning bit at her with cold teeth as she went out into the courtyard. There weren’t many people about yet, either sleeping or at breakfast.

She was still trying to get used to living in Winterfell again as her home, instead of her prison. The minutia of reclaiming the castle and getting it back to functioning order to prepare for the winter that was already upon them was a difficult task, especially shorthanded as they were. The Boltons had killed every loyal Stark servant they’d had, servants that had been there since before Sansa was born, that she had known her whole life. The smallfolk, too, must be moved into the winter town. They would die in their frozen little farms - unless Ramsay had sacked and burned them all already.

Ghost whined at her side, which shook her from her ponderings. “Go on, then,” she said to him. He gave her hand a lick and raced off in the direction of the godswood.

The sky was still greyish, the sun taking longer and longer to rise each morning. She thought of King’s Landing, and wondered if any of the pampered nobles down there had ever felt such coldness. Well, one day they might , she thought, spitefully, though in truth what was coming was not fate she could ever wish for the world.

“Lady Sansa,” a voice called, disturbing her from her thoughts. Littlefinger stepped out of the grey gloom of the covered walkway. “I thought I might join you on your walk this morning.”

“Lord Baelish,” Sansa said, surprised to see him, her heart sinking at the prospect of having to spend time with him yet again. “You’re up early. I didn’t think you enjoyed walking in such weather.”

“It’s not my preferred clime, certainly,” he said, as they fell into step. “But your company is worth any amount of discomfort.”

She sighed, immediately knowing the game he was playing and thoroughly weary of it. She decided to circumvent any more tiresome pleasantries on his part by saying, “You cannot change my mind, Lord Baelish. You will not win my hand by attempting to wear me down.”

Littlefinger looked fractionally annoyed at being pipped in his own game, but the emotion was quickly smoothed away under a pleasant facade. “You know in your heart I’m the best option for your future wellbeing.”

“I don’t need you to tell me what is best for me, thank you.”

He pulled her to a halt, his hand on her arm. “Sansa, my love, listen. You cannot refuse me forever. We will be so good together, in every possible way, you must see that. We will rule the seven kingdoms between us, king and queen.”

Sansa laughed. Littlefinger suddenly seemed such a ridiculous figure, nothing but a greedy, self-important little man. “If you think I want to be a queen, you don’t know me very well. When I was a girl, all I wanted was to marry a handsome prince and be a princess. I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t even know what a princess or a queen was, not really. Do you know what a queen is, Lord Baelish? Temporary . I’m not going to climb a ladder so high that I fall off it. We’ve gotten Winterfell back; that was all I wanted.”

Littlefinger looked vaguely taken aback at this speech, and before he could regain his faculties, she said, “Good day to you, Lord Baelish,” and tried to pull away from him. He gripped her arm, tight enough to hurt.

“I saved you,” Littlefinger murmured, never one to shout. “Without the knights of the Vale, you would be back to being fucked by Ramsay Bolton and your bastard brother would be dead, not crowned king.”

“Let me go,” Sansa said, recoiling from both his words and the possessive hunger in his eyes.

It shook her to see such a display of genuine emotion from him, as she had only ever seen him affect it before. Had her steady refusals and avoidance agitated him enough to forget himself for a moment? Perhaps she was seeing a glimpse of the true Littlefinger.

“Yes, better let her go,” came a rough voice from behind them, “if you want to keep your arm.”

Littlefinger turned, took one look at the hulking form of Sandor Clegane, and released Sansa’s arm instantly. He backed away, stumbling slightly, as Sandor stepped closer and started to unsheath his sword.

“Please, don’t kill him.” Sansa said quickly, afraid that he really was going to run Littlefinger through right there in front of her. The idea didn’t totally repel her - she had in fact imagined similar scenarios in the past - but she knew the repercussions it would have. For one, Sandor Clegane would most likely be hanged, and she couldn’t have that. “Lord Baelish, leave now.”

Littlefinger took her advice for once, and fled without another word, his face pale. Sandor Clegane laughed as he watched him go, resheathing his half-drawn sword with a snick . “I wasn’t going to kill him, little bird. Although he would look better with his guts on the floor.”

It was such a horrible thing to say, but so awfully wonderfully him that it prompted a burst of near hysterical laughter out of her. He looked at her, somewhat startled. Perhaps he was wondering if her experiences since he’d last known her had left her a bit touched in the head, she thought. He made no comment on it however, to her relief, nor on what he had likely overheard of the things Littlefinger had just said to her. Then she found that once again, they were simply staring at each other. It was almost as if they were trying to catch up for lost time. At least, that was why she was doing it - marveling at him actually being whole and real in front of her. What he thought when he looked at her was a puzzle she had yet to unravel, if that was even at all possible.

“Would you like to join me for a walk?” she asked suddenly, and then thought to wonder what she should be addressing him as. She had avoided any sers around him, because she knew well he would react badly to them. She understood that sentiment now, at least.

“You’ve forgiven me then. For last night.” He didn’t say it like a question, but there was an expectant, wary look to him.

It took her a moment to recall what he meant, as she had forgotten her affront from the previous night, even though it had cost her a few sleepless hours. The regret and embarrassment she had felt over her reaction to something so trivial returned full force, and that he still quite clearly remembered it made it all the worse. “There’s nothing to forgive. I was being silly.”

He said nothing, so she repeated, “So, will you join me?”

He quirked a mangled grin at her. “Aye. No one else will give you bother with me around. Go on,” he said, and indicated the path ahead.

He means to follow me , she thought with sudden realisation. Like he did with Joffrey. When he was thought of as nothing but a dog . “No...no. I mean, walk with me,” she said carefully, and curled her hand into the crook of his arm.

His posture went rigid for a moment at her touch, but then he seemed to understand and moved them along the path.

“Littlefinger will remember that, you know. And he’ll remember last night. He’s not someone you want to be on the bad side of,” she said, as they made their way down one of the covered walkways that encircled the courtyard.

“Littlefinger doesn’t scare me.”

“Well, he scares me,” Sansa said softly. “He’s a man who somehow always manages to get what he wants.”

“And he wants you, is that right?”

“Yes, he wants me. And no matter how many times I refuse him, he still believes he can have me.”

“Still think a sword in his belly is a bad idea?”

Sansa gave him a small, amused smile. “Not if you value your life. Jon would have to hang you if you did that, if he didn’t want a war with the Vale.”

He only grunted, but there was a slight uptick to his mouth.

“May I call you Sandor?” she asked, feeling rather awkward. It somehow seemed ridiculously intimate to say his name, but she wanted to all the same.

“You can call me anything you like, little bird,” he replied, kicking a pile of snow out of her path.

“Anything at all?” she said, smiling again. “That’s a lot of power you’ve given me.”

He laughed at that, harder than she thought it warranted. As they continued on, she noticed that his gait was uneven.

“You’re limping - are you injured from last night?” she said, concerned.

“Don’t fret, it’s an old wound. I’ll be limping ‘til the end of my days.”

“What happened?”

“Got it trying to protect your sister from some big Lannister bitch. Brienne of bloody Tarth. She knocked me off a cliff. Nearly killed me, if it hadn’t been for...ah, it doesn’t fucking matter now.”

Sansa gasped. “You fought Brienne? She saved me from Ramsay’s men after Theon and I escaped. She’s...she’s my sworn protector.”

Sandor laughed, bitterly this time. “She doesn’t seem to be protecting you from anything now.”

“No, I sent her to get reinforcements before we fought the Boltons, from my great uncle in the Riverlands. It went badly apparently, and she hasn’t returned yet.”

He didn’t say anything, so she continued, “I didn’t trust her, at first. If I had, I would never...never have gone on to marry Ramsay.” The agony of this particular regret was still acute.

“And if I had trusted her, I wouldn’t be limping right now. We both fucked up, little bird, and now have to live with it.”

“Yes, we do.”

They reached the steps leading up to the ramparts, and at that point he did fall in behind her to climb them. At the top, she went to look out over the parapets.The world was so white out there, nothing but snow as far as the eye could see.

They were silent for a time, until he came to stand right beside her. ”Are you all right, little bird?”

She didn’t know if it was the soft way he said it, the bluntness of the question, or simply because it was him asking it, but she started to cry with a jarring, unexpected suddenness. She hadn’t cried this hard in a long time, maybe not even when she had first been reunited with Jon at the Wall. Her insides had been turning more and more to ice every day, since she’d watched Ramsay get ripped to pieces by his own hounds. Until this moment, at least, standing beside Sandor Clegane.

She didn’t realise she had moved until she found herself clutching at his neck, her wet face buried in the hard leather of his shoulder, sobs wracking uncontrollably through her body. As she gave in to the weeping, she felt him awkwardly pat at her back, and even that just made her sob more. It was long moments before she could get control of herself enough to whisper, “Sorry, I’m sorry,” in a voice that sounded thick and watery. She didn’t truly know what she was apologising for, perhaps just for crying in front of him, on him. Her mind was oddly empty by the end of it, and her body felt limp and exhausted, as if she had expelled something she hadn’t known was inside her. Her arms were still clasped about his neck, and she self-consciously released him and stepped away, wiping her face on her sleeve. “I’m sorry,” she said again, unable to think properly and feeling utterly foolish.

“Don’t be sorry,” he said, but his voice sounded strangely uncertain. She chanced a glance up at him, and saw that he looked quite rattled. Or perhaps her outburst had just made him uncomfortable. He probably didn’t console weeping women very often.

She drew a handkerchief from an inner pocket of her cloak and blew her nose in a very unladylike manner. But she didn’t care. He’d already seen the worst of her.

“You probably think I haven’t changed at all, since we were in King’s Landing, that I’m still just a stupid little girl who cries all the time.”

“You have changed, little bird. You’re not afraid to look at me now.” He grinned, but it seemed bitter. “And you’re taller.”

She gave him a dim smile, but she didn’t feel like smiling. “No, I’m not afraid of you now.”

He didn’t looked particularly pleased at that, but she couldn’t tell why. He still seemed rather agitated, even angry, but she didn’t think it was entirely directed at her.

She realised that he deserved an explanation from her, after crying all over him, or at least as much of one as she could manage. She began, with nervous abruptness, “I know what the men say about me. I’ve heard what the servants gossip about. I see the looks they all give me.” She spoke quickly, wanting it out before she lost her nerve. “I know you must have heard some of it last night, about what Ramsay did to me. I wish I could hit them as well, for the things they say about me.”

“I’ve never liked talkers, little bird. You shouldn’t let them bother you.”

The need for him to know the truth - or part of it - and not an exaggerated account cooked up by others drove her to continue, “Some of what they say isn’t true. He didn’t let his men have me. Or his dogs.” She saw him twitch at that, and wondered if that was pretty near what he’d heard from the Vale men the previous night. She went on, relentless, “He didn’t cut pieces off me - I was too important for that. But he played games. He liked games. My pain always made him smile. He wasn’t like Joffrey though - Joffrey was just a boy, and an idiot. Ramsay was clever. He always knew exactly what to do to me. I thought I was prepared for anything. I thought I was strong enough to handle him. But I wasn’t.”

“You survived. That makes you strong.” He was staring at her, tense, his hand unconsciously gripping his sword hilt.

She wanted to tell him what she’d done to Ramsay, in the end, how she’d watched him die. She thought it might please him to know, but it could equally disappoint him. She’d lost a part of herself, her old self, in that moment, a part that would never return. The Hound had once told her that he had killed more men than he could count, and she knew he enjoyed killing more than anything else in the world. Was Sandor Clegane still that man? If she told him, would it make him look at her differently? She didn’t think she could bear that, not just then.

So she said nothing more, and instead gingerly took his arm again. She felt like she had imposed herself too much on him already, but there was also a desperate need for his contact, his ever-present strength. He made no protest, and they resumed their walk in heart-heavy silence.

Eventually Sansa was pulled from her self-reflection by the realisation that although she was protected from the frigid wind by all her thick layers, he was only wearing a very worn, southern-style cloak, totally unsuitable for the northern climate. His mis-matched leather jerkin beneath also probably did little to retain warmth, in this weather. It bothered her that she had taken so long to notice, so absorbed in her own troubles as she was. Looking at him, it was a miracle he hadn’t frozen to death on the journey north, wearing such clothing. She knew, though, that commenting on it would most likely just annoy him, so she only said, “I’d like to go back now.”

He made a gruff noise of agreement, and they made their way down to the yard near the east gate. It was much busier than before, the castle in serious preparation for the winter that was already upon them.

“Would you walk me to my solar?” she asked. “It won’t take long, and then you’ll be free of me, I promise. I know I’ve already taken up a lot of your time this morning.”

He snorted. “What else do you think I have to spend my time on, little bird?”

“I don’t know. But I’m sure it has to be better than being cried on by me,” she said, trying for playfulness but falling flat, her embarrassment once again taking hold.

He didn’t respond to that, and they continued on, heading into the castle and through the narrow corridors that Sansa knew so well. Once they reached the solar door, she had a sudden idea that impelled her to say to him, “Will you wait here? I’ll just be a moment.”

He nodded, and turned his back to the wall. She’d seen him do the same thing many times at King’s Landing, when he guarded Joffrey’s rooms. Perhaps he thought she wanted him to guard her? But she didn’t. Or at least, that wasn’t her intention at that moment. She ducked inside the room, went straight to her sewing basket, and plucked out her measuring tape.

When she returned to him, feeling somewhat breathless, he eyed her suspiciously.

“What’s that?” he said.

“Stand still,” she commanded, and held the tape up against him, from one shoulder to the other.

“What the bloody hell are you doing, little bird?” he said, but he did as he was told and remained still.

“I have a cloak that I’ve been mending, and I was going to give it to Sir Davos when it’s fixed, but I think it would be a better fit for you. It’s very long, and I won’t have to take it up at the bottom now because you’re a lot taller than he is.” She spoke in steady, nervous stream as she dropped the end of the tape and measured his height from floor to shoulder, memorising the results. She brought the tape around his neck and as she read it, she realised all at once just how close they were. He was watching her, a bemused look on his scarred face.

She stepped back, flustered, and distracted herself by trying to keep all the measurements right in her head. “That’s all I need. I should have it ready by tomorrow; would you walk with me again in the morning?”

“I may not be here tomorrow, if your brother decides to make us all take the black.”

“Oh! I meant to tell you - Jon has decided to keep the Brotherhood here at Winterfell for the time being. He’s going to tell Ser Beric today. You won’t be leaving for the Wall just yet.”

He raised a considering eyebrow as he took in her information. “Does that please or disappoint you, little bird?”

She frowned at him. “Why would it disappoint me? Why would I want you to leave? Are we not friends?”

He gave a sudden laugh. “You tell me. Are we friends?”

“Of course we are. I’ve thought of you often since King’s Landing. Have...have you never thought of me?”

“Oh, I’ve thought of you. I didn’t know that made us friends.”

“Well, I say we are,” she said, feeling indignant.

“Then I suppose we are,” he said, a small smile playing at the corners of his mouth.

“So will you walk with me again tomorrow?”

“I’d like that, little bird.”

Chapter Text

Spending the afternoon in solitude as she worked on Sandor’s cloak gave her time for reflection. Unfortunately, her mind kept replaying Littlefinger’s horrible words to her that morning, as well as his implications the previous day about Jon choosing a Northern lord for her to marry.

She couldn’t tell if Littlefinger had been lying -- it was equally likely he was using the truth against her. If it was true, she trusted that Jon wouldn’t force her to marry, but it still made her very uneasy. No, Jon wouldn’t force her, but he would most likely be disappointed in her refusal, and he would be confused by it. He wouldn’t -- couldn’t -- understand.

But perhaps she was borrowing trouble. Littlefinger was a purveyor of trouble, after all. Perhaps Jon wouldn’t hear of a political marriage for her. He hated Ramsay so much for what he had done to her, and he knew how much pain she was still in.

She had unpicked the neckline of the cloak to make it wider to fit Sandor’s broad shoulders and bulky armour, and mended a small tear at the bottom hem. It was a very plain cloak, which was why she had originally considered it for Ser Davos, but it was of a very thick, dark grey Northern wool, and it was in good condition. Far better than the tattered, thin thing Sandor wore at present. A spool of fine black wool in her basket caught her eye then, and without overthinking it, she picked it up, along with her embroidery needle, and set to work on a task rather different from mending.

She did request dinner in her room that evening, and spent a quiet night finishing the cloak. By the time she climbed into bed she felt quite peaceful and satisfied with her accomplishment.

***

Sansa woke gasping and crying, Ramsay’s white-toothed grin still dancing in her mind along with ghost-like echoes of pain, and very real fear. She sat up in bed and lit a candle quickly, trying reassure herself that she was safe. But she could still feel him, as if her nightmare had put him in the room with her, as if somehow pulled from her dreamstate into physical being. Her skin was crawling, her gut knotted. She got up and stoked the fire into life, and then sat on the edge of her chaise, twisting the hem of her nightgown in her hands and trying to stop from trembling.

Her eyes fell on the neatly folded cloak beside her on the seat. She had tied it up with a bit of plaited wool, and now it only waited to be given to its new owner. With shaking hands, Sansa loosed it and unfolded the cloak. She ran unsteady fingers over the black direwolf’s head she had embroidered on the inner left side, right near the neckline, small enough and positioned so that it would only be noticeable to the wearer. She shook the cloak out and wrapped it around herself, still shaking, and then sank back into the chaise and stared into the fire.

***

She had dressed and plaited her hair very quickly that morning, wanting to be out of a room still tainted by her nightmare. It wasn’t her parents’ room anymore, it wasn’t her room anymore; Ramsay filled it, even though he was dead, just as he sometimes still filled every inch of the castle. All it took was her nightmares to resurrect him.

She was no longer reliant on a handmaiden to help her anymore -- she had learnt a measure of self-sufficiency when she had been a prisoner, when her comfort was not a priority. There was simplicity in being alone, she had found, even though sometimes the solitude weighed heavily on her. There was also privacy. She did not want to add to the rumours about her, and she didn’t want her inability to sleep and her nightmares to be common knowledge. She wanted to be seen as strong by everyone, even Jon -- especially Jon. He already treated her as if she was some kind of invalid, and also had enough to worry about as it was.

She clutched the retied cloak tightly to her chest as she left her chamber and walked through the corridors, feeling convinced that Littlefinger would accost her once again. It wasn’t only her dislike of Littlefinger that made her want to avoid him that morning, especially after the way he had behaved yesterday, but because she didn’t want to miss Sandor. She was very eager to see him again -- to give him the cloak, she told herself, although a part of her wondered if perhaps it was her bad night that quickened her steps as well.

But she needn’t have worried, as the halls were quiet except for a few servants. She retraced her route from the previous day and found herself stepping out of the castle proper into same covered walkway again. It was snowing heavily, and the courtyard was covered with a thick blanket of white.

It definitely wasn’t Littlefinger in the grey morning shadows this time, but Sandor Clegane, leaning back against the stone wall. He didn’t notice her at first, and she paused for a moment, taking him in. He was a brute of a man, in looks and in nature, and yet she found herself once again feeling comforted at the sight of him. She had been tense all morning, after waking curled up on her chaise still wrapped in the cloak, and with him nearby she felt she could suddenly breathe again.

The very last memory she had of him before he had left King's Landing, he’d been in heavy, dented armour that was covered in blood and worse. Her room there, usually scented with lavender or rose, had been thick with the smell of the blood on him. She’d recognised that smell again, after the dogs had torn into Ramsay. She could not quite make sense of why a man such as Sandor Clegane now soothed her nerves, rather than shaking them, but perhaps it was because she understood him a little better than she had long ago. She understood what he had been trying to teach her back then.

He turned then, and saw her. His posture straightened and his eyes flickered with warmth as he looked at her, which she thought was the equivalent of a smile from him. He saved his grins for when he wanted to threaten or mock.

“Good morning, S-Sandor,” she said, suddenly somewhat shy. It still felt odd to address him by name.

And that did make him grin. “Still chirping your manners, little bird?”

She resisted an odd urge to poke her tongue out at him -- something she recalled Arya doing a lot to her , long ago. She tried to imagine how he would react to that, and the thought rid her of any bashfulness, as she tried not to laugh. “You have so few, I thought I’d try to make up for it.”

He seemed amused at that, but his dark eyes narrowed after a moment. “You’re pale this morning.”

“Oh,” she said, taken aback by the sudden change of mood. “Yes, I...I had trouble sleeping.”

“Ah,” was all his response, and there was an apprehensive twist to his mouth.

The last thing Sansa wanted then was pity, however that may look from him, so she quickly held out the cloak. “This is for you. It will keep you much warmer, I hope.”

He took it from her, rubbing the fabric in his fingers and grunting with what she thought was approval.

“Can you put it on? I want to see if it fits properly,” she prompted, when he looked as if he wasn’t going to untie it.

“Very well, little bird.” He unlaced his old cloak and let it fall. Sansa had another sudden memory, of him doing the very same in the throne room in King’s Landing. It felt so long ago, since Joffrey had her beaten and stripped before the court, but she still remembered the heavy, warm weight of the Hound’s stained kingsguard cloak as he had dropped it around her naked shoulders.

She shook herself out of the recollection, and watched as he unfolded the cloak and wrapped it around himself. Her seamstress eye noted that it fit his shoulders well, and it skimmed the ground just enough to not get too dirty at the hem. And the dark grey suited him far better than the drab brown of his old one. As he secured the tie, he paused and squinted at the inner side of the collar. His good eyebrow raised in question at her, clearly telling her that he had noticed the embroidered wolf. She reddened, instantly and inexplicably, and found that she could no longer meet his eyes.

“You’re a Stark man now,” she finally managed to say, staring at the snowy cobblestones at her feet.

For a moment he made no response. “Aye,” he said quietly. “Aye, I am.”

“You gave me a cloak once,” she said, suddenly desirous to know if he ever thought of that moment, as she did. She made herself look at him. “Do you remember?”

He let out a breath of a laugh, which billowed in the cold air. “I remember well enough. You never did give me it back, little bird.”

No , she thought, I kept it. I put it around me when I felt scared, back then, and now too with your new cloak even before you touched it. The memory of what she had done in the past and again that very morning made her stomach flutter. Even back when she was still scared of him, some part of her had trusted him at least. She trusted him now without question, but she also felt other, more complex feelings for him that defied her understanding and gave rise to her pulse.

Not wanting him to mock her, she didn’t tell him about the fate of his kingsguard cloak. Instead she said, “Well, now I’ve returned the favour, haven’t I?”

“You have. Next we’ll be exchanging marriage vows.”

He was clearly jesting, the self-deprecation clear on his face, but Sansa immediately felt her cheeks burn. Horrified at not being able to control her reaction, she turned away from him. She could hear him shuffle his feet behind her as the silence fell heavily between them.

“Forgive me, little bird,” he said eventually, gruff and reluctant. “I didn’t mean anything by it.”

Did he think she was sensitive to any talk of marriage, after her experiences with it? Or did he think he had overstepped, mentioning marriage between them , even if it had been a joke? She herself could not explain her embarrassment, nor the nervous fluttering in her belly at his words.

Sansa realised then, rather belatedly, that she had never heard him apologise before, and yet he had done so to her twice in as many days. He had always been so rude and uncaring of any insult he made, to her and everyone else. She hoped it wasn’t out of pity for her, although she hadn’t thought him the pitying kind either. Perhaps the Hound really was dead after all, and this new man stood in his place. She didn’t know if that idea pleased or saddened her.

“I’m being stupid again, that’s all. Please forget it,” she said, turning back to him, even though she was sure her cheeks were still pink. He looked halfway between angered and uncertain, but his expression changed when she braved a step closer to him and fixed the crooked neckline of the cloak. “It suits you very well.”

He took her lead and sidestepped her overreaction to his words, and said, “It suits me not to freeze my arse off. Never felt cold like this before in my life.” His eyes bore into hers, dark and intense, but again there was that warmth to them that quieted her discomposure.

She smiled, amused at his rather petulant complaint. “You spent too long in King’s Landing. You’ll get used to it.”

“So says the little wolf. Aye, no doubt I will, now that winter’s upon us.” He bent then, and picked up his old discarded cloak, shaking the snow off it before slinging it over one arm. “Are we still walking today, little bird?”

“Yes, but I don’t think we should go as far. The weather looks like it’s getting worse.”

But before they could start off, they were interrupted by a call from behind them. “Clegane!”

Both Sansa and Sandor turned to see Ser Beric and the red priest Thoros approaching them.

Thoros cast a very curious eye over them both, his eyebrows raised. An odd smirk crept across his face that Sansa found quite impertinent. Sandor seemed to think so as well, as he glared daggers at the man.

Ser Beric bowed gracefully to Sansa in greeting. “My Lady. I hope you are well this morning.” He too looked at them with interest, although it was somewhat more polite.

“I am very well, Ser Beric, thank you,” she said, remembering her manners and returning his bow with a curtsey.

“If I may, My Lady,” Beric said, “I wanted to thank you for vouching for us with the king, upon our arrival to Winterfell. I truly had great respect for your father. He was a good and honorable man, and I’m sure he would be proud of all that you and your brother have accomplished here.”

“Thank you, Ser.” Sansa said with genuine warmth, touched at hearing her father spoken of so highly.

“Is that a new cloak, Clegane?” Thoros interrupted, looking Sandor up and down.

“Aye,” Sandor said, and it sounded like he was gritting his teeth. “What’s it to you?”

“Nothing,” Thoros replied, although the amusement in his eyes said otherwise.

“Are you and your men settling in well, Ser Beric?” Sansa asked him, trying to sound like the lady of the castle even though it made her feel like a child trying on her mother’s shoes.

“Indeed we are, my lady. We certainly have no complaints. Better than we’ve seen in months, to be quite honest.”

“Some are having it better than others, it seems,” Thoros said pointedly, his eyes still on Sandor.

Sandor twitched slightly, but said nothing. Sansa was busy looking at Ser Beric, taking in his many visible scars. Since Jon had told her Beric had been brought back to life -- by the unlikely Thoros, no less, who was certainly no Melisandre -- she had been rather intrigued by him.  It had certainly changed her view of him, at any rate. More than once , Jon had said.

Ser Beric seemed to notice her interest, much to her mortification. But he didn’t seem offended. “I’m quite a mess to behold, my lady,” he said, with good humour.

“Oh, no! Please don’t think that.”

“Not so bad as Clegane, I reckon,” Thoros winked at her. “Beric here has died and come back so many times that I lose count. Probably be about ten by now, wouldn’t it?”

“About there,” Beric said, a strange wistfulness in his voice. “The Lord of Light still has use for me yet.”

“The lady Melisandre brought my brother back,” Sansa said in hushed tones. It seemed blasphemous to speak of such things, even though she had long since lost faith in her own gods. “She...I didn’t like her much, but I’ll be forever thankful to her for giving Jon his life back.”

“It wasn’t her who gave him his life, child. Only the Lord of Light can do such things,” Thoros said, his glib manner turning serious. “And, indeed, we met the red lady on our travels north. It seems your brother banished her.”

“Yes, he did,” Sansa said, wondering if he would take offence on the behalf of his religion. But he seemed unbothered by it. “She did terrible things. I don’t really know the particulars,” Sansa said, feeling conflicted.

“She did what the Lord told her,” Thoros said. “As do I. Without Him, Beric wouldn’t be here, either. I too am thankful, my lady.”

“Have you heard about…” Sansa glanced nervously at Sandor before saying, “about Ser Gregor? He was brought back as well, and guards Queen Cersei. He’s unkillable now, they say.”

Sandor snorted. “No one’s unkillable, little bird, even my bloody brother.”

“We heard of that,” Beric said grimly. “But the red god had no hand it in, my lady, never fear.”

“The Mountain was and is an abomination,” Thoros said with conviction. “The Lord of Light only brings back those who are worthy.”

“Enough with your bloody god, Thoros,” Sandor interrupted, looking irritated. “First Beric, then Gregor, and now a Stark. Doesn’t anyone fucking die anymore?”

Thoros grinned. “Maybe one day I’ll bring you back, Clegane.”

“Don’t you fucking dare. I’ve got enough scars.” Sandor glared at them. “Shouldn’t you be on your way?”

Beric and Thoros both laughed, and Thoros said, “Yes, we were off to find some breakfast, I believe.”

“Indeed we were,” Beric said, and then looked at Sandor with his single, assessing eye. “Clegane, give me that old cloak of yours, will you? Fimonn has been freezing his balls off without one for weeks.”

“He shouldn’t have given his to that peasant girl, then,” Sandor grated out, clearly still annoyed.

“That peasant girl warmed him up better than his cloak ever did,” Thoros said with a smirk, and then glanced at Sansa, seeming vaguely contrite, “My apologies, my lady. We’ve been on the road a long time, and have forgotten our manners.”

“You never had manners, Thoros,” Sandor said, but he still handed over his old cloak.

“Perhaps I can see about getting some more winter clothing for your men? I’ll talk to Ser Davos,” Sansa offered, realising that the rest of the Brotherhood were probably just as badly equipped as Sandor had been. It was something she could do that would make her feel useful, or at the very least distract her from her thoughts.

“That would be most welcome, my lady.” Beric bowed to her.

“Farewell, my lady,” Thoros said, also bowing. He sent Sandor another smirk, and then headed off with Beric in the direction of the great hall.

Sandor was still scowling when Sansa took his arm. “Let’s start walking, shall we? I’m getting cold,” Sansa said. It occurred to her then that in giving Sandor a new cloak, it showed a very blatant favouritism. Not to mention that rumours of them walking together would no doubt start, if they hadn’t already. It should make her feel indecent, but she didn’t in the least. She did care what Sandor might think about it, however. She didn’t think he put much stock in rumours, but what about the cloak itself? And she had embroidered it with her house sigil, no less. But perhaps he would assume she had originally done it for Ser Davos, and think nothing of it. That thought soothed her worries somewhat.

They moved on down the walkway, silent until they passed by the same place Littlefinger had emerged from yesterday. It worked as a reminder for Sansa, and she said, “May I ask a favour of you?”

“Ask away, little bird.”

“Will you please not tell anyone about what...what Littlefinger said to me yesterday? I don’t want anyone to know that he thinks of me like that. We need Littlefinger’s help too much, and I’m afraid of what Jon will do if he finds out.”

Sandor snorted derisively. “Your brother is a blind fool if he can’t see that already. Littlefinger is supposed to be the master of lies, but his desires are clearer than piss where you’re concerned. But aye, I’ll keep your secret if that’s what you want. And just tell me when, little bird, I’ll kill him for you too.”

Sansa was both disturbed and oddly comforted by his words, but she was getting used to those particular feelings where he was concerned. She didn’t want to linger any longer on the subject of Littlefinger, so she said, “Have you heard everything that happened down in King’s Landing?”

“Aye, some. Bits and pieces on the road, but I don’t put much stock in what scared peasants have to say.”

“Well. King Tommen is dead. Cersei sits on the Iron Throne.” She looked to see his response, but he gave none so she assumed he had heard this news already. “She blew up the Sept of Baelor with wildfire. Margaery and Loras Tyrell died there...they were always kind to me.” She was still shocked by this, although it all seemed so very far away now and almost as difficult to accept as Jon’s stories from beyond the Wall.

Sandor huffed. “I bet the smallfolk aren’t happy about that.”

Sansa honestly hadn’t thought about the smallfolk, which immediately made her feel very selfish. “No, they loved Margaery. And they don’t like Cersei at all. Do you think she’ll be queen for long?” Sansa couldn’t imagine what King’s Landing would be like with Cersei as ruler. It was a horrifying prospect.

Sandor snorted. “I don’t know, little bird. Someone will probably kill her, soon enough. She’s not clever enough to stay at the top for long.”

“No, I don’t think she is,” Sansa agreed. “But she’s got your brother…”

“Don’t talk about him, little bird,” Sandor said, but he didn’t sound angry, just grim. “Don’t think about him.”

“Alright,” she said, softly. “It just scares me, to think that Jon might have come back...wrong, too.”

He stopped then, and turned to face her. “Listen. There’s nothing wrong with your brother. Beric and Thoros are bloody annoying, but know what they’re talking about.”

“I thought you didn’t believe in their red god?”

“I don’t. I believe in what my own two eyes show me. I’ve seen Beric brought back to life after I cut him nearly in twain, and thrice more since then. He comes back a good man, every time. Your brother is the same.”

Sansa smiled at him then, fairly beamed at him. A brute of a man, indeed, but one who kept trying to make her feel better in his own rough, sensible way. He looked quite thrown by her reaction, however. “Thank you,” she said softly, and tightened her grip on his arm.

“Don’t thank me,” he said gruffly, as they started up their walk again.

“You killed Beric?” she asked, curiously.

“It’s a long story, little bird.”

“Tell it to me.”

Chapter Text

Sandor deposited Sansa in her solar later that morning and had then gone to train with the men. Her head was full of all he had told her about fighting Beric -- no wonder it had left such an impression on him, having had to fight a man wielding a flaming sword. She well knew of his aversion to fire. It had been what made him flee during the Blackwater, after all. She didn’t blame him for it, knowing what his brother had done to him. But hearing that Arya had been party to the whole ordeal was quite shocking to her, even though Sandor surprisingly enough didn’t resent her sister for it. In fact, he seemed almost begrudgingly proud of her. He and Arya had travelled together for a long time, she knew now. Perhaps they had become friends. Sansa wondered, had she left with the Hound on that fateful night of the Blackwater, if she would have met with Arya too. The thought made her feel immeasurably sad, as her regrets always did.

She hadn’t been in her solar long when Jon knocked and entered, Ghost tagging at his heels. She was glad to see them both, feeling unequal to being alone with her thoughts. Sansa had her hand dutifully licked by the giant wolf, and she ran her fingers blissfully through his white fur for a few moments before he wandered off to lay in front of the fire. For an animal who was meant to live in a cold climate, he was easily won over by a roaring fire, Sansa thought fondly.

Jon was eyeing her with curious concern as he removed his cloak, which Sansa didn’t quite like. “You’ve been spending a lot of time with Clegane since he arrived.”

Sansa sighed. She had suspected he might bring it up, although she didn’t know if Jon had been keeping an eye on her, or if he had simply heard talk of it. People always talked. “I’ve done nothing wrong, and neither has he. We are just renewing our acquaintance, that’s all. Do you object to it?” she asked, wondering what she would do if Jon did object. She didn’t think she would be able to give Sandor up, especially now that they had become true friends. He had only been in Winterfell a few days, but already his company felt necessary to her.

Jon looked surprised. “I don’t, if you don’t. I’ve heard several differing accounts of him from people, including you. I do believe that any connection he had to the Lannisters is severed, and if he is not quite a good man, he is at least a reasonable one. He certainly seems to be protective of you which I am well in favour of. And if the rumours are even half true, he’s one of the best fighters in Westeros. If you like, I could make him your official guard.”

“Oh,” Sansa said, surprised and relieved. Her heart made a familiar little flutter at the proposition, much to her confusion. Why would she feel this way simply at the idea of Sandor guarding her? It pleased her more than it should. But regardless of her odd feelings, the idea had merit, and was one that she had idly considered before as a practical solution to several of her problems. It would put a stop to some of the malicious rumours, and perhaps deter Littlefinger from cornering her as often as he had of late. And she would feel safe again, wherever she went, or as safe as it was possible for her to feel these days. “I would like that,” she admitted. “His presence is...comforting.”

Jon snorted. “Sansa, that man scares me , and I’ve fought white walkers.”

Sansa couldn’t help but giggle at that. “Well, he’ll make me a good guard then.”

“I hope he will.” Jon shifted then, seemingly suddenly acutely awkward. Sansa noted the change in atmosphere with apprehension.

“There’s a small council meeting this afternoon,”  Jon said, abruptly. He didn’t seem to want to look her in the eyes, which made Sansa even more apprehensive. “Will you attend, Sansa?”

She hadn’t, the last meeting that was called. She’d let Littlefinger’s presence put her off, which was a dangerous thing to do. But she was feeling braver today -- or perhaps just determined to be brave -- so she nodded at Jon. “Yes, I’ll come. I wanted to speak to Ser Davos about something anyway.”

“Good,” Jon said, although his expression somehow said otherwise. He moved to sit beside her, huffed a breath, and then pulled some crumpled parchments from inside his tunic and handed them to her quickly, as if they might catch fire. Sansa looked down at them, baffled. “These are the reason I want you to come. We...we’ll be discussing them.”

“What are they?” she asked, unfolding one of them. Letters, two of them. The broken seal on the first one looked familiar -- whitecap waves below a pair of eyes, not a very pretty or imposing sigil. House Flint , her mind supplied her. She knew that the Flints were one of several houses still reluctant to bend the knee to Jon.

The other letter’s seal was a bunch of grapes, which surprised Sansa even more. “House Redwyne? Why are we getting a letter from the Reach?”

“Please, just read them,” Jon said, standing again but only to start pacing the length of the room, which didn’t bode well for what the letters contained.

She smoothed out the House Flint one first, and read as Jon continued to pace. By the end of the letter, Sansa knew exactly why he was so anxious. “Lord Flint will accept you as King in the North if I marry him,” Sansa said, and even to her own ears her voice sounded hollow.

So Littlefinger had been right. Perhaps he had gotten the information from his spies in Winterfell -- not exactly a difficult task for one used to the cutthroat machinations of King’s Landing. Or maybe Littlefinger had even persuaded Lord Flint to make the offer, to make her feel cornered and push her into seeing himself as her best option? It seemed far-fetched, but Sansa wouldn’t put anything past the man, or his power and connections. The Flints were a minor house, and in her father’s time a marriage between a Stark and a Flint would have been laughable. But, as it had been so tactlessly put in the letter, Sansa Stark’s reputation had been sullied by Lannisters and Boltons alike. Apparently this was enough for Lord Flint to believe himself a worthy suitor.

“Yes,” Jon said, having stopped pacing only to worry at his hair with his hand. He could do with another haircut, Sansa thought absently. “Read the other.”

She did, and while the Redwyne letter was worded far more genteely than the Flint one -- no mention of her being the used discards of a Bolton bastard, at least -- the premise was the same: Lord Redwyne was soliciting her hand in marriage for his son, Horas. It didn’t escape her notice that both letters had been addressed to Jon. Of course, because Jon was the one with the control over her future, as her brother and now her king. It was how the world worked. Her heart was sinking, but there was also a spark of fury inside her too, which made it easier to steel herself. She was no longer a naive child alone in King’s Landing. She would not allow herself to be used, yet again, as a piece on someone’s political scoreboard -- even if that someone was her own kin.

“The Reach would be a very powerful ally,” she said coolly, assessing.

“I know.” Jon looked anguished, his dark eyes wide and pained as he stared at her. He was feeling guilty, she realised. He wanted her to take the Redwyne offer, desperately so. It would be the answer to a lot of his -- their -- problems. The Reach was food-rich and men-rich, and now that the Tyrells had cut ties with the Lannisters, the Redwynes were free to ally themselves with former enemies if they chose. And apparently they’d chosen the North.

“I won’t marry either of them, Jon.”

Jon let out a long breath, and then said, “Can you at least consider it, Sansa? The Redwynes, I mean -- the Flints have got no leg to stand on. Consider it for yourself. You would go to live in the Reach, where you would be safe , away from...all this. I want you to be happy and protected for the rest of your life. The right marriage could do that for you.”

“You want me to leave Winterfell, after all we went through to get it back? It’s my home , Jon.” Sansa was trying to keep control of her anger, but the more she looked at Jon’s uncomprehending face, the more it grew, until it came boiling up out of her. “It’s very lucky it also happens to be an alliance that benefits you, isn’t it? You don’t know, Jon. You can’t know what it has been like for me. In King’s Landing, I was given to whomever was deemed appropriate by Tywin Lannister. And to the Boltons I was nothing more than a name they could rally around, a piece of meat for them to chew on. Sold off like one of Littlefinger’s…” she made herself stop, and attempted to compose herself a moment before continuing, “No, Jon. I’ll not have another political marriage. I’ll not have another man -- even you -- decide my fate.”

“Not even if it costs us the war?” Jon said softly. His eyes were so warm, filled to the brim with compassion and sorrow. But it didn’t make any difference, it didn’t stop him from asking still, and Sansa hated him for a hot, burning second. “You’re right, I don’t know what it was like for you. But we need help, Sansa, and I don’t know where else we can get it from. The only thing that is keeping Winterfell in food right now is Littlefinger, and you say yourself that he can’t be trusted. How long will his allegiance to the North last for? And even with his help, it’s not enough. It would benefit us all, and you could live a better life. The Redwynes are a respectable, honourable family -- they are nothing like the Boltons. You may, in time, even come to love him, Sansa,” Jon said, and his earnestness only served to fuel Sansa’s anger.

“Love? What is that to me now? Nothing but a child’s fantasy,” Sansa said, and her voice was as cold as the bitter winds outside. Her words shocked her as much as they did Jon. They were true. She no longer believed in noble knights and fair maidens thanks to Joffrey, and Ramsay had taken away her ability to love -- and even her faith that it existed.

Sadness was etched on Jon’s face, and he seemed less confident as he said, “I know it’s a lot to ask of you--”

“It’s too much, Jon,” Sansa said, her voice louder than she intended, cutting him off abruptly. Her next words were quieter. “I don’t ever want to be that helpless again. I can’t . It doesn’t even matter if the lord isn’t as bad as Ramsay. Whomever he is, he’ll still demand his rights on our wedding night, won’t he? I’ll have no say, and in that regard it’ll be just like Ramsay all over again. You may as well kill me now.”

“Sansa!” Jon protested, sounding horrified. But still he gave no indication of relenting, nor agreeing with her. She knew he’d made his choice: her or the North. Apparently he had chosen the North. She couldn’t even entirely blame him for it -- but she could hate him, just a little.

She was shaking, she found, the enormity of what was happening truly sinking in. “How can you ask this of me?” she said, and her voice shook too. “How dare you ask this? You want me to leave the home I’ve fought so long for, and sell me just like everyone else has?”

“Sansa, no. Please.” Jon said. His face was deathly pale. He tried to take her hand, but she snatched it away from him.

“This will be brought before the small council today?” Sansa asked coldly, already knowing the answer.

“Yes. They’ll...they’ll push for the alliance with the Reach. They’ll question my authority, my ability to rule, if we don’t take it.”

“There’s no ‘we’ here, Jon. It’s a political marriage, for me . I’ve already had two of them, I won’t have another. And you know I won’t leave Winterfell. You’ll have to find another way to make an alliance with the Reach.” Sansa paused, taking in her brother. Jon seemed so helpless as he looked back at her, so weighed down by his responsibilities, that Sansa found her own roiling emotions subside somewhat. What good would it do either of them, to be at odds? Wasn’t that exactly what Littlefinger wanted? Impulsively, she said, “Why must it be me? Why don’t you marry?”

Jon looked startled, as if the idea hadn’t even crossed his mind. “Me? I...I can’t. I’m not a true Stark.”

“The whole of the North, or close enough, has declared you king. You being bastard born no longer matters,” she said impatiently, and then added, “How can you ask something of me that you won’t do yourself?”

Jon looked even more acutely guilty, and his eyes seemed suddenly shadowed and haunted. “I..I’m not right, Sansa. I don’t even know what I am, now. I...I died, I was dead , for two days. I can’t inflict myself on someone, on a woman, when I don’t even know if I’m still the same man I was.”

Sansa remembered what Sandor had said to her, how sure he had been that Jon, like Beric, had come back true and good -- if not completely whole. She took Jon’s hand in hers. “Jon, what I know is that you’re still a good man. And that’s all you need to make someone a worthy husband.” Sansa gave him a brittle smile. “You have too much of Father in you to do otherwise.”

Jon stared at her, a mix of anguish and denial on his face. “I’m sorry Sansa, I...just can’t. Not yet, at least.” He stood and paced the room agitatedly. After a long moment, he said, “You’re right -- I shouldn’t ask something of you I’m not willing to do myself. We will find another way, as you said. Only we, and Ser Davos, know of the letters. We can keep them from the council for now.”

Some of the weight left Sansa’s heart, and she breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank you, Jon,” she said softly, with as much sincerity as she could muster. He wouldn’t go as far to force her to do anything she didn’t want to, even as king. Jon wasn’t Joffrey, or Ramsay.

His overwhelmed, weary expression told her exactly how much he wasn’t.