He has never seen her smile before—not truly.
They are at a feast when that realisation comes to him. It is a small, inexpensive affair to celebrate the defeat of the Boltons and the reuniting of the North. Petyr is certain his attendance is unwanted but considering that they are all alive by his good graces, an invite is his by right.
He watches Sansa throughout the festivities, hoping to grab a moment alone with her but she and the Bastard cannot be parted. When one stands, so does the other. When one sits, it is beside the other. When one greets a fat, loud Northern lord, they both listen and laugh politely.
It makes Petyr’s stomach roil at how much like his father the Bastard does look. Broad shouldered, sullen mouthed and dim eyed---and Sansa. Dear Sansa is Catelyn come to life, but not the Catelyn he remembers. Not the Cat from his youth. With her winter furs, fiery Northern braids and her seat beside the Bastard, Sansa is the image of Catelyn Stark. Everything Tully about her is drowned out by snow.
He knows that Sansa thinks she doesn’t completely trust her bastard half brother but Petyr can remember the initial uneasiness between Catelyn and the dullest Stark he had ever met. He can also remember the familiarity that resulted.
He knows that given time and space and left to their own devices, Sansa and the Bastard will only cling more tightly to each other. Even now, he has seen how the burden on her shoulders ease in his presence even if the coldness in her expression does not.
He has watched as Sansa manages to coax smiles, without even trying, from a dullard to whom laughter and mirth seem as foreign as Bravosi gold.
He has seen how they unconsciously lean into each other, no matter how ill-tempered their manner or how many whispers come from the servants about raised voices between them.
If there is space in the room, they will both find the appropriate level of proximity and secure it. Sometimes it is not appropriate at all and he wonders if the Northerners are just too drunk or dim-witted to see it or if they ignore it as a concession for the stability of the region.
The North is strengthened by their shared fear of the army that threatens from beyond the wall. The war council grows as more heed the call. Wyman Manderley, Lord Glover, little Lady Mormont, Howland Reed, Lord Cerwyn, ---they all come, offering up their knowledge and assistance long after Petyr pulled their glorified King in the North from a sure defeat and a surer death.
The Bastard will often take her hand and cling to her like the motherless runt that he is, by the gods, and Sansa will let him! Just as she lets him place his brotherly kisses upon the crown of her hair and keens into his touch like a kitten while he keeps his hand at her cheek a moment too long.
The wolf-- a great, hulking albino—tells its own story. Ned Stark gifted each of his precious children with a bloodthirsty and vicious beast of their very own. The direwolves are notoriously loyal to their masters and each wolf has a particularly special bond with their adopted Stark. Perhaps the stories are wrong or the Bastard’s wolf is ill informed for it can often be found at Sansa’s side, brushing its tail across her legs as she walks and curling up to sleep at her feet; just like it does with Snow. The wolf doesn’t seem to know where one begins and the other ends.
Petyr petitions for Sansa’s hand once more and once more she refuses. She is too traumatised, she says. She vows never to marry again, never to leave Winterfell. So he takes his petitions to her bastard half-brother instead. If the boy wants the crown of King, then Petyr will use it, and his devotion to his sister, to his advantage.
“I swear never to harm her, to devote my life to making her happy. I will protect her with every breath I have. I will endure to give her the world. I know I have made terrible mistakes but I vow to you, by the old gods and the new, she will live a long and happy life beside me.”
To beg favour from a boy who only exists because Ned Stark was too slow to pull out of a tavern slut is a humiliation that even Petyr with all his practiced ministrations finds difficult to bear. He almost chokes on the words but delivers them smoothly.
“What does Sansa say?” The Bastard King asks him, and once again, Petyr is refused with enough grace and politeness so as not to upset the Vale.
Weeks come and go and winter sets in.
“You should return to the Vale,” Sansa tells him politely. “We appreciate everything you’ve done for us but we feel awful for keeping you here.”
He wants to ask her who is we? Who is us? Instead, he politely refuses her manipulations.
“We are all a part of this war, my dear. I will stay with you to the very end.”
He means to inspire worry, fear, maybe a flicker of dreams and desires that died long ago at the hands of an inbred boy king. Instead, she nods and smiles sweetly.
They are at a stalemate. Petyr is not foolish enough to dismiss the Bastard’s claims that the Others aim to descend upon Westeros. As much as he desires the Iron Throne, he has no aspirations to rule a kingdom of the dead. He needs more information and more time---but time is perhaps a more fickle mistress than red-haired whores who spend too much time with their brothers
As he waits, the Northern army grows bigger, gains more support and boys come of an age to fight. There are even rumours of communication between the Bastard and Theon Greyjoy. Petyr is both smart and patient enough to wait but he can’t help his frustrations. This is where he would have benefitted from placing Sansa in a position of power. He would be dealing in facts instead of rumours and had a guaranteed place at the table.
He needs Sansa back. He needs her beside him, but the Sullen Faced King has a steady grip on her now. If they were close before, now they are inseparable. They break fast together, dine together, take long, boring walks through the Godswood together. Petyr was convinced at one point that they even slumbered together but while they spend far too long in each others chambers gossiping and twittering like maids, they always take to bed in their own.
“You have become very close to your brother,” Petyr tells her on a rare occasion where he manages to free her from the fortress that the Bastard has built around her. If she is not by his side, then she is shadowed by the Lady of Tarth or on the arm of the Onion Knight. On occasion, he will even find her in conversation with Snow’s wildling friend, giggling behind her hand as the savage shares tales not fit for a Lady’s ears.
“Half brother,” Sansa replies and where that once would have made Petyr delight; now it makes him suspicious. “But yes, we are the only ones of our family left. We need each other.”
Her gaze lands on Howland Reed, who has convened along with the other Lords for yet another useless war council. Petyr wonders if she is recalling some sad story about her dead, dullard father. Ned and Howland Reed remained close friends until Stark’s head was separated from his body. No doubt he has filled Sansa’s pretty little head with tall tales about how heroic and not at all dull her father really was.
He leads her into the Godswood and links her arm through his, praying to the gods above that the Bastard will look out of a window and spot them. If the gods be good, he will throw himself out of it in a fit of rage and despair that his precious sister has deigned to spend a moment with someone other than himself.
“It’s not healthy to need one person so much,” he says, gently. He has long decided that if she wishes to act like a child, he will treat her like one but he still has to be careful for Sansa is smarter than most think and she has more of Catelyn’s temper than people realise. For a moment, he is transported back to his youth, remembering the fiery haired girl who took root and stood firmer the more you pushed at her.
“Maybe it isn’t,” she concedes. “But sometimes, it is hard to deny what one needs.”
There are perhaps many ways her words could be interpreted but the one Petyr latches onto makes him sick to his stomach. “Hmm, I remember another noble lady saying the same thing to me once.”
Sansa waits a pause before saying “Who?” He wonders if she truly cares to know but he has taught her better regardless. A person can catch more flies with honey than vinegar.
She stops dead in her tracks, arm falling from his. He has to turn back to face her and when he does, her mask of politeness has been replaced by ice. “I don’t know what you mean to imply, Lord Baelish, but Jon and I are not Lannisters.”
“My apologies, my lady,” he says, taking her arm again though it is stiffer in his own this time. “I simply worry what people might think. You know how dangerous gossip can be.”
She offers a nod in acceptance of his apologies and they make small talk until she is recaptured by Ser Davos for some important need or another.
It isn’t until the youngest Stark girl finds her way home that Petyr’s darkest suspicions are finally confirmed. At first, he thinks his luck has changed. He can remember hearing stories of Winterfell back when it was full to the brim with Starks, direwolves and their bastard. He recalls learning of Catelyn’s unhappiness and disappointment over how easily some of her children accepted Ned’s bastard amongst them.
The Bastard was never half of anything to Arya Stark and when their reunion has them both clutching each other and mumbling nonsense until they can’t breathe, a space suddenly opens up on the chessboard.
Sansa and Arya’s reunion is perhaps even sweeter. They both choke on tears and apologies, hugging each other so tightly that they fall to their knees in the snow and pepper kisses into each other hair. He wonders how welcoming Sansa will feel when she finds herself displaced in her half brother’s affections. She will need Petyr then and he will wait for her to come.
But she does not come. Instead, things only become clearer to Petyr.
He watches the Bastard with his littlest sister. He waits for him wet the crown of her head with lingering kisses, to stand or sit beside her so close that their shoulder and knee touches. He waits for her to take his hand like Sansa often does or nestle her nose into his furs when he takes her up into his arms for a hug, but she does none of those things. He does none of those things.
And like always, the wolf tells it all. He is affectionate towards his Master’s littermate but he doesn’t cling to her the way he does to Jon and Sansa, and the more Petyr thinks on it, the more he realises just how much the very idea of Jon and Sansa already permeates the walls of Winterfell.
Jon and Sansa side by side. How easily the Northerners accept it. How little people talk about just Jon or just Sansa. The idea of them, we, us—it has leeched its ways down to the very foundation of Winterfell as though they returned to an empty land and built it anew, stone by stone with their own bare hands.
The wolves will come again, they say about the Starks, and what does a wolf care about fucking its own sibling if it will ensure survival. Wolves are instinctual creatures, just like Starks. Just like stupid Ned Stark trying to protect his family and a sense of honour as old as the Wall. Maybe Sansa has always been a wolf hidden in doves feathers.
We, us---and when even Arya starts saying them, Petyr rages.
He petitions for her hand one last time.
The North is stronger. Sansa is stronger. His time wasted here has weakened his influence on Robin Arryn. He knows her answer already. Perhaps it is a confrontation Petyr was seeking in the first place.
“Tell me why and I want the truth this time.” He doesn’t even attempt to hide his anger.
He asks for the truth and she delivers it.
Sansa shrugs. “I just don’t want to wed.”
It seems like an accusation. She doesn’t want to wed him. Why would she? He remembers Catelyn pulling a knife on him, realising that he had lost her the second she exchanged vows with Eddard Stark. He knew then that Ned would never be dead enough for Petyr to win her back. He could love her forever and lay with her a thousand times and he would only ever be a replacement for the husband she had lost.
He moves towards her and cups her face. “Oh sweet Sansa, I could make you so happy.”
He could and he would. He knows the value of a pretty, happy wife. A wife so happy that she would desire to make him happy in return, whatever she must do in order to achieve it. He wants it. No, he needs it.
She takes his hand and lowers it from her face. It takes him a moment to decipher the look she gives him, he is out of practice when it comes to reading her, but it raises his hackles when he realises that she pities him. Just like her mother. Always like her mother.
He steps back and straightens his expression out as he smoothes his tunic, fingers lancing over embroidered mockingbirds. They mock him now. He thinks upon the direwolves that are sewn into Winterfell’s banners, into the Bastard’s cloaks and tunics. All in Sansa’s fine stitch. Maybe they even decorate the inside of his breeches; a small, lascivious joke shared between him and his sister.
“Is it that you don’t want me?” he sneers, “Or is it only your brother who can get your cunt wet?”
She flinches but recovers quickly. Oh the winter has taken her as well, just as it did Cat. She has become steel, his Sansa.
It is the initial shock that surprises him though. Maybe he has gotten it all wrong. The Bastard’s perversions need not be Sansa’s. She has been through so much that little wonder she thinks a half bastard King is all that can protect her. Petyr knew that life as a Bolton would be no treat for Sansa but perhaps he overestimated just how much damage would be done.
He takes her face in both hands this time. “My poor Sansa. Look what he did to you, that bastard Bolton. What he did to your poor mind. You can’t see your brother’s twisted affections for what they truly are.”
She tries to pull back but he holds her in place. He needs to make her understand that he is the only person she can depend upon. “Oh sweet girl, You’ve seen men for what they are. You know he gets hard from thoughts of you; that he takes himself in hand thinking of you, you know it. It’s not how a brother should behave.”
Sansa nods. “It’s not, but he is all I have, and he is King. They fight for him. Not me.”
Petyr’s heart bursts with joy and long buried hope. Even now, she can still surprise him. What a fool he was for thinking that Cat’s most precious child would debase herself with her bastard born kin.
“You have me,” he tells her. “I will protect you.”
“How?” she asks.
He tells her and leaves her with promises and a kiss upon her cheek. When Petyr lays down to sleep that night, he dreams of himself taking his seat on the Iron Throne, his red-haired doll beside him.
Finally, all the pieces have fallen back into place.
A horn wakes him from his sleep and then a shout. They are to gather in the great hall within the hour for an announcement. Likely for another long council that achieves nothing.
Yet the hall is brimming when Petyr arrives. The North has assembled and some seem more confused than others. The heads of the Northern houses form a supportive crescent around the King’s table. He catches Sansa’s eye for answers but she only smiles at him and he notices a slight of cunning. His heart leaps. She is his most precious student.
Perhaps their talk last night has emboldened her. Would it be too much to dream that she has used her charm to convince the Bastard to unseat himself from the Northern throne and put the rightful heir in place.
It is Ser Davos, the King’s Hand, who stands to make the announcement. “Lords and ladies,” he begins. Petyr drowns out the pleasantries of introductions. Ser Davos is not a noble by birth and he is unpractised and rough in his duties. It is no surprise that a baseborn king would raise the Onion Knight to such a station.
“Some news reached us a short while back about the King. We wanted to wait until we had proof before we announced it. I’m pleased to say, we have finally received confirmation from the Dragon Queen herself.”
Petyr’s heart leaps again but it is not a pleasant feeling this time. He looks towards Sansa but her eyes are turned to the Bastard, who looks more troubled and solemn than usual. She takes his hand in hers and rests them both on the table for the whole of Winterfell to see.
He listens as Davos twists a tall tale that simply cannot be true. Jon Snow is not Ned Stark’s bastard but the son of his sister Lyanna and the fallen Dragon Prince, Rhaegar Targaryen. Ser Davos further explains how claim was raised by Howland Reed, evidenced by letters between Rhaegar and Lyanna, and his script and seal confirmed by Daenerys Targaryen.
Jon Snow is the son of a Targaryen prince. The nephew of Ned Stark. The cousin of the Stark children.
Petyr’s heart reaches the pit of his stomach. It is an unusual feeling to not know things beforehand. What a rare taste of how it must feel for the people around him. Blood rushes in his ears, pounding out the din of a room in uproar. A room that only quiets when the King stands to answer questions set before him about the stability of the North.
“I’ve assured my Aunt that I have no desire for the Iron Throne. She is welcome to it. She has vowed to aid us in the war against the Others but the North will stand as it is. I have no intention of leaving for Kings Landing or wedding my own Aunt.”
“But what of your own sister?” Petyr asks, unable to help himself. It is all he can think to do in that moment. Cast him as more Targaryen than Stark. Highlight the perverted practices of his bloodline; practices that the North will surely not accept.
Sansa catches his eye once more and smiles but Petyr is unable to find the deeper meaning. It suggests nothing.
“Lord Baelish offers a good point.” She tells the room. “Admittedly, it is something that the King and I have already discussed; what we would be willing to do to secure the North if the rumours were found to be true and we were, in fact, proved cousins.”
He remembers teaching her this trick. Let them think it was their idea.
“It is true that Jon and I were never close as children but what matters most is that the North is secure and stable and that we remain so and thrive once the war is won.”
It raises a cheer. Nothing better to get a bunch of drunken fools cheering than the confident boast of winning a war before it is even fought. She employs his name over his title, cementing the closeness and familiarity already between them. Petyr can see the set up. How it has been set up from the start. They are all so used to Jon and Sansa that they will barely batter an eyelid when in a few weeks, another announcement is made. His outburst has only made it easier for them; putting the suggestion in people’s minds for it to fester.
When Sansa smiles at him again, the meaning is clear enough. She leans towards the King and whispers in his ear, lips brushing his cheek as she pulls away. They are both looking at him now.
Petyr is already half packed when Sansa appears at his chamber doors, the white beast beside her.
“Where will you go?” she asks though her voice is laced with triumph instead of concern.
“To the Vale,” he replies his own answer an implication of threat.
She laughs, melodic and scornful. “I think you’ll find Robin a little less sweet to you after you left him to Lord Royce’s good advice.” After a moment, she shrugs. “Though it doesn’t matter anyway. Daenerys brings an army the size of the Vale times three. You have very little to threaten with.”
Petyr wants to dash her head off the wall in this moment but the direwolf’s eyes are set upon him. He wonders if the beast can read minds. “The North will not accept your marriage to a man who was raised as your brother.”
“Oh they already have.” Sansa says sweetly. “Do you really think we would bring it before the room without the blessings of the Northern Lords? They not only accepted it, they practically demanded it which suited Jon and I just fine. Arya gave her blessing long ago and so have the Free folk. You are the only one concerned by the notion. ”
“How long?” His voice sounds strained and choked to his own ears. He’s not even sure why it is important to know, only that it is.
“Not long after Howland Reed told us. We had to consider the implications of the truth, the solutions to it. We managed to reach Daenerys by way of Theon. She confirmed the letters a sennight ago. Her fleet should arrive in Westeros very soon. I would reconsider my aspiration about the Iron Throne if I were you.” She smiles conspiratorially.
Petyr grasps at his last straw. “And what of your King; the man who is soon to be your husband? What would he say if he knew of our secret talks; of the plans we made last night?”
Sansa sighs impatiently. “Your plans to kill the King and run away with his sister, you mean.” Her expression is almost disappointed. “None of our talks were secret, Petyr. Not from Jon. He knows everything, word for word. You’re the one who knows nothing. Do you really think the Vale will stand behind you when they learn how you confessed your plans to commit treason and Kingslaying to the King’s wife? If they don’t care that you’re a traitor then they will care that you’re an idiot. “
“He is not my king!”
“You have been living under our roof and taking advantage of our hospitalities for almost half of the year. Even if you use that excuse, they will want to know why you remained here for so long. The truth would only strengthen my claim that you wanted to steal me for yourself.”
Petyr pushes past her and the wolf snarls at him until Sansa is at a safe enough distance. “There’s no where you can go, Petyr. You’ll be arrested before you reach the gate. You’ll be trialled and then Jon will take your head.”
“Why this cruelty?” he asks, even as he thinks up a way to escape from the situation he has found himself in.
Sansa is leaning against the mortared wall, her expression as stony. “Perhaps you’re right. Maybe it would have been kinder of me to warn you beforehand that you could not trust me.”
“You know?” He affords himself a laugh though joy is the last thing in his heart right now. How long ago that was. He would have almost forgotten if it wasn’t for the pleasure he took in seeing that dumb confusion on Ned Stark’s face.
He sees her father in her right now, for the first time ever. His look is right there in the blank, unfaltering expression on her face. “I haven’t known for long but I heard a whisper. Theon is not the only one who found his way to Daenerys.” She looks pained for a moment before her expression turns to mischief and she is her mother all over again. “I expect Jon won’t be too gentle when he introduces your neck to Longclaw.”
She pushes away from the wall, faithful beast still at her side. “The raven has already been sent to Sweet Robin. You’ll be kept alive long enough for him to make an appeal if he wishes, as a courtesy to him, but I’m telling you now it won’t matter. Either way you’re set to die. The good news is that you’ll likely still be alive by the time Jon and I are officially betrothed. Perhaps you’ll last until the wedding.
In a moment of madness, he moves to wrap his hands around her neck but the wolf pulls back its jaw and sinks its teeth into his arm and drags him to the floor. It lets go at Sansa’s call, just in time for him to look up as she steps over him. Her muddy skirts even trail his face.
“You should have been happy with what you had, Lord Baelish,” she says as a last parting wisdom. “You played the game and now you will have to pay the price for losing.”
“I was always willing to pay the price,” he says, gritting his teeth against the pain of his savaged arm. The beast eyes him still, ready to take the other.
“Do you know what the funny thing is?” Sansa asks without even sparing him a glance. “Once I stopped playing, once I saw my dreams for the selfish desires they were, once I stopped wanting them to come true, I got everything I ever wanted. Family, Lord Baelish, is the only true power. It is the only thing worth dying and fighting for.” Then she leaves, skirts swishing around her ankles and the white beast trotting along at her side.
She was right. He doesn’t make it to the gate.