When Jon said goodbye to Sansa, there had been sunlight in her hair and tears in her eyes, the smell of the ocean clinging to them even when Jon buried his nose into her hair. He’d memorized every detail of her, from the sharp edge of her necklace digging into his chest to the rise and fall of her breathing under his hands as she struggled not to cry. He’d been sure, then, that he wouldn’t see his family again, not for a long time. Jon had still been wracked with guilt, but he knew to savor these last moments. They would keep him warm, when he was at the Wall.
He’d watched his sisters— cousins— as his ship pulled out of harbor, though the salt in the air stang his eyes. Arya was leaning forward, arms braced against Bran’s wheelchair, face in shadow to hide her tears. Jon already felt her absence like a gaping wound in his side. Behind them, Sansa stood, pale and alone, her body turned towards the sea, and though Jon could no longer see her eyes, he imagined them watching him disappear into the horizon. The loss of her would become a dull, throbbing ache over the coming weeks—less present than the pain of missing Arya, almost quiet enough that Jon could forget it, if he tried.
He didn’t try.
Rebuilding the Wall gave him all the distraction he needed, of course, to forget his heartache and grief. He held the pain close, though, replayed his memories until he could barely breathe some nights for the weight of their ghosts on him. He stoked the flames of it, until it was a tender old friend, until thinking of Sansa and Arya and Bran no longer hurt the way it had before. Perhaps one day he would be able to think of King’s Landing and Daenerys and the dreams that had died with her without the crushing weight he’d felt ever since driving that dagger home.
It takes a year before Jon feels the muscles in his back begin to unknot, before he can laugh around a cup of ale with Tormund and look at the Wall without feeling it as the cage it is. It is only a bit of time after that when he finds himself smiling absently at a little wildling girl pull at Ghost’s tail, the first time a smile has felt real in ages, since before the war began. Jon had no idea how heavy his burdens were until they lift, one by one, slowly and quietly.
The changes are so slight that Jon barely notices at first, and then when he does the guilt redoubles.
I have no right to happiness, not with all my broken vows, the crime I’ve committed.
Because not only is he the Queenslayer now, a name whispered reverently behind his back by the Northmen that have begun come to the Wall to establish trade with the Free Folk—he’s a kinslayer as well, and it is that which keeps him awake late into the night, paralyzed on his pallet, eyes open and restless. Family has been everything to Jon since he was a child, and even on the Wall, he’d never truly been able to rid himself of it the way he was supposed to. To have killed family, to have killed Daenerys when she trusted him so, more than anyone in the world…
If Jon hadn’t already been cursed by the gods, he must be now, for the atrocities he’s committed.
He has no right to happiness.
What an utterly foolish notion, Sansa writes him, after he decided to painstakingly pour his fears and feelings onto paper and send it to the only person he knows will answer. You, of all of us, deserve happiness. Was it not you who saved us all, time and time again, before anyone truly even knew of the danger? Jon, you must learn to forgive yourself.
Have you? Jon writes back angrily, once the quill in his hands has stopped shaking. He wants so badly to listen to her, the way he’s always wanted to. He wants so badly to ignore her, and wallow in his misery. It’s easier, he thinks, than learning to forgive himself.
Jon usually gets a letter from Sansa once every fortnight. Her letters are longer than his, long and winding and heartfelt, and if Jon were to guess, Sansa is pouring her feelings into the paper the way he does. There’s no one left for either of them to trust or talk to, not truly, not the way they could with one another, and so they write. They truly feel like the last of the Starks, now that Arya is away and Bran cannot be counted upon for consistent correspondence.
This time, it is nearly a moon before Sansa’s next letter reaches him. This time, there are only two words.
This new Night’s Watch has no official vow-taking, not as of yet, and so there is no one to stop Jon from planning a trip to Winterfell, no promises but his own to break when he bids Tormund farewell. He’s coming back, he knows that, but now that Daenerys’s supporters have left Westeros there is technically no one keeping him at the Wall, nothing but his vow and his guilt, eating away at his soul.
He goes alone, save Ghost and the garron he’d taken— borrowed— from the Watch. He is coming back after all. He’ll ask Sansa to grant him more horses to bring back, as if that will lessen his broken word in leaving. Their uncle Benjen had come down to Winterfell as often as he could, in service of the Watch. Perhaps Jon can extend his home a few visits under the same guise.
The journey is long, but Jon doesn't mind the solitude as he once might have. His intrusive thoughts are no longer his enemies, and their sting in the night feels almost like that of an old friend, or a scorned lover. He recognizes them well enough, when they come, that they are not even unwelcome at this point.
Ghost feels them too, the shifts in Jon’s mood. At first, Jon thought it was merely a coincidence that Ghost would reappear besides him when the dark memories clouded his mind, but then one day his wolf nudged under Jon’s hand with his nose until he lifted it to give him a scratch behind his good ear, and Jon thought, oh.
He cries the first time he realizes. His connection with the North hasn’t died as he thought. At the edge of his mind he can feel Ghost, their connection that he hasn’t felt since leaving for Dragonstone. For the first time, it feels right, to be here, on the road to Winterfell with a direwolf by his side. He’s going home.
The lines of the castle are different, when Jon first sees them through Ghost’s eyes. Sansa has been hard at work with the rebuilding, and even a year and a half after the Long Night, there is much work to be done. The next day, when he finally crests the last hill and sees it with his own eyes, Jon has to get off his horse, fall to his knees and grasp snow and dirt beneath his hands just to ground himself. For a minute, or an hour, or half a day, the only sound Jon can hear is his own ragged breathing, the roar of blood in his ears.
I’m home. I’m home, one part of his mind whispers.
The other, louder part shouts, You have no right to be here, kinslayer.
It takes time, but Jon gets his breathing under control. He lets Ghost nudge him to his feet. He cleans the dirt and snowmelt from his hands and knees. One step at a time, the way he’s learning to do things now.
Sansa’s smile when she sees Jon flickers over her face before she allows it to spread. Jon has seen this before, the push and pull of Sansa warring to keep her emotions in check in front of others. He’s glad her smile won out, glad that he can still bring that out in a person. Her crown is delicate and silver, two wolves entwined, and her dress is red and white. The colors of a weirwood, and Ghost’s colors—the look of the true North. It hits him harder than he’d thought, seeing her again, but he’s glad for that as well, for the break in his chest is sweet.
The room is full of petitioning lords, but Jon can’t even see them. He only has eyes for Sansa, atop the weirwood throne. The sea of men before him part, and Jon comes to a knee before her. “The Queen in the North,” he intones, solemn as he can, but fighting a smile. “It suits you far better than it ever did me.”
Sansa’s lower lip quivers, but Jon only sees it because he knows her so well. He aches to embrace her, smooth out the crease in her brow with his thumb.
As if she can hear his thoughts, Sansa pushes herself out of her throne, and in a few long steps she is before him. This close, he can see the red leaves embroidered into her gown, the rustling skirts. He feels her hand on his hair like a burning brand. “Rise up off your knees, Jon,” she says, and perhaps now everyone else can see the wetness in her eyes, the quivering of her chin, but it doesn’t matter because she’s in his arms again and this is what coming home feels like.
It’s harder to be back here than Jon thought. There are ghosts at every turn, and every night of the first week he wakes in a cold sweat, scratching at his own throat, trying to pull away dead hands that exist only in his memory. He dreams of Daenerys, her blood under his fingers, of falling off Rhaegal, of the Night King’s blue eyes—so cold that they burn. Ygritte dies again and again in the cage of his mind, Arya and Bran disappear into dragonfire, or are torn apart by the dead. Sometimes Sam is there as well, being ripped limb from limb as Jon struggles to run to him. Waking is hardly better, when he opens his eyes in terror, unable to move or speak until his breath rushes back and he’s left shaking.
The fourth night, Sansa is there when he wakes, standing at the edge of his bed in her dressing gown with a bottle and two goblets in hand. She sets them on the floor and sits by his side until the shudders subside. She strokes his forehead while his gasping breaths slow, murmurs that he’s safe.
His eyes close against her palm for a moment. Jon has seen Catelyn Stark do this to her children, after a bad dream, but no one has touched him like this before.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Sansa asks, when Jon has the presence of mind to sit up and accept the wine. Her hands fall away from him, and Jon feels the loss.
“The dreams?” Jon scoffs. He doesn’t have the words to explain them. He doesn’t want Sansa to hear his fears. “No.”
Sansa rises and walks to the hearth. It’s blazing. Jon must not have been asleep for long. “I have them too, you know.”
“Dreams?” Jon asks, taking a gulp. The wine is chilled. It slides down his throat, cold. He’s glad for the distraction of his senses.
Jon gets out of bed slowly. When he joins Sansa by the fire, he sits heavily. “Our enemies are dead or vanquished,” he says bitterly, “and here we gather in the dark, scared by the memory of them.”
Sansa snorts. “We are our own worst enemies, Jon. The scars will never leave us.” She reaches out to hold his hand. “The best we can hope for is that they fade with time.”
Silence settles between them, broken only by the cackle of the fire or their swallows of wine.
“I’m glad you came home,” she whispers, after some time. “I wish...I wish you could stay. Things are better when you’re here with me. When the two of us work together.”
Jon pulls his hand away. “I can’t stay.”
Sansa swallows, shadows moving across her throat. “Not yet, you can’t. But you can keep visiting, and in a few years, the rest of the realm will have forgotten and you can come h-”
“Sansa,” Jon interrupts. “I can’t—I just can’t.”
“Because you think you don’t deserve to be happy?” Sansa scoffs. “Jon. Please. I love you, but don’t be an idiot. ”
Jon’s lips feel cold, but he can’t force the words out.
Sansa continues, “You’re a Stark, no matter what name you were born with. You belong here.”
“Arya and Bran aren’t here,” Jon points out, childishly.
The barb hurts. He can see the moment the words land.
Sansa’s eyes blaze, when he meets them. Her face is stone, flickering in the firelight. “Arya will come home,” she says, with a conviction that Jon hasn’t been able to feel. “One day, when Bran is old and his work is done, maybe he will as well. That doesn’t change that you belong here too. What’s keeping you at the Wall, now that the Unsullied have left? You’ve taken no vows, there are no White Walkers to protect the realm for. I myself have been encouraging the trade routes between the free folk and the Northerners, so there will be no more wildling raiding parties to fear. There is nothing keeping you there, nothing that we cannot face together.”
“The Southron lords—”
Sansa cuts him off. “The Southron lords cheered you on when you killed Daenerys,” Jon flinches at her name, “and those that didn’t were few and have little power. A few more years at the Wall, and then you can come home when everything has calmed down. No one will give a damn whether or not you’re serving out your exile, not now that the North is a free and independent kingdom. Not with Bran on the throne.” Her eyes are steel when she leans forward, her knuckles white, gripping the sides of her chair. “And if they do, I will protect you.”
Jon knew this conversation was coming far before he even set foot from Castle Black. They’d skirted the topic in their letters, but Jon had read between the lines when Sansa updated him on the last of the Unsullied and Dothraki leaving, her talks of fortifying the borders and Northern shores against Ironborn and Southron raiders. He’d prepared counterpoints, recited them to Ghost as they rode south, gone over this conversation in his mind over and over.
Nothing prepared him for the desperation in Sansa’s voice. His argument flies out the window. Instead he realizes, “You’re blaming yourself.”
Sansa takes a deep breath and leans back. Her eyes flutter shut for a moment, and when she speaks, her voice is softer. “No. I blame Daenerys. For what she’s done. I did what I did to save you. I’m sorry it wasn’t enough.”
Jon lets the silence fill the air between them. When he opens his mouth, words just seem to spill out, words he hadn’t meant to say.
“She had this way,” Jon tries to explain. “When you were around her, you wanted to follow her.” He’s quiet for a moment, and when he speaks, there’s a knot in his throat. “She was so sure of her path. So sure of where she had to go, and how she had to do it. I have never been that sure of anything. Every step I took, I doubted myself. She never did. I think I loved her for that. For pointing me in a direction and making me believe it was the right way to go.”
Sansa says nothing for a long moment, but her eyes open to meet his. There’s sympathy in there, and sadness when she asks, “Do you regret it?”
Meeting her eyes when she’s looking at him like this is too painful. Jon turns to the fire. “I regret a lot of things. I regret that it came to the point where I had to do that. I regret not speaking to her before the Sack of King’s Landing, of not making her feel as though I was by her side before allowed loneliness and anger to rule her. I regret not listening to your counsel when you told us to wait.” He clears his throat. “Perhaps I could have prevented it all, saved all those lives. That is what I regret. But all of that happened. And I saw no other way to keep our family, the North, Westeros safe. So no...I don’t regret that I killed her. Only that I had to.”
Jon feels Sansa’s fingers, cool and long, curl about his wrist. “I’m sorry you had to do it, too,” she says. “But not that it is done. She killed thousands , Jon. Children. Men. Women. Innocents with no power to fight her, who’d surrendered to her. Perhaps if you’d spoken to Daenerys beforehand, taken her to bed, accepted her advances even though you knew who she was to you, she’d have listened. But she burned them, not you. The choice was hers.”
Jon says nothing. He doesn’t think he could speak if he tried, so he folds into himself, brings his hands up to his face so Sansa doesn’t see him cry.
“It’s not your fault, Jon,” she tells him, her voice soft as a summer’s breeze. “You need to forgive yourself.”
He doesn’t know how.
Jon throws himself into the reconstruction of the east wing. He’s planned on being in Winterfell for a moon, and with Sansa busy running the North, he feels the itch to be useful overcome him. The keep is under extensive repairs, beginning with the living quarters and battlements. It will take years before the construction is fully done, but Jon can see the progress already. For now, he lets the head builder direct him to a pile of rocks and hauls them into place. It’s busywork, the kind that doesn’t allow Jon to think, which is exactly what he needs right now. Too many of the Northmen still call him “Your Grace” out of habit, but when he’s working no one talks to him too much, which suits him fine.
He thinks he sees Sansa’s bright hair out of the corner of his eyes one day on the parapets, and when he glances up, she and her attendants have stopped on the bridge above the yard he’s working in. Jon is sweaty and dirty, and the white rock dust coats him like a fine layer of ash, but Sansa simply smiles at him, as though none of that matters.
They speak every night, in a way they never have before. When Sansa had first shown up at Castle Black years ago, they had spent many firelit nights talking about what had happened since they first left Winterfell. They’d spared nothing. Sansa had told him, then, in excruciating detail, what Joffrey, Petyr and Ramsay had done to her. Jon had told him about betraying his men, killing Olly, being murdered. Back then the words had hurt, but they’d helped too, to say it all aloud and feel safe.
It’s similar, now, but different. They are not preparing for war. There is no urgency to their confessions, no mounting sense of dread of what is to come. Jon feels, during these talks, that the worst is behind them. And in a way, it must be. The North is free. The Night King is dead. His family is safe. There is nothing over the horizon that Jon has to fight, and so he is content to stay awake with Sansa in the firelight, just talking. It’s like their letters. Jon feels brave enough to spread his heart open before Sansa, because he trusts her in a way he hasn’t trusted anyone since he died.
When she looks at him, Ghost curled around her feet, looser than he’s seen her in years, a warm longing unfurls in his chest.
He wants to stay.
Kinslayer. Queenslayer. Oathbreaker.
Despite Sansa’s assurances, Jon is scared. He can’t be the reason Yara Greyjoy unleashes her wrath upon the North, or the reason Grey Worm returns to Westeros demanding his head. He’s already cost his family so much. He doesn’t want anyone else, least of all Sansa, hurt trying to protect him.
But gods, he wants to stay. He’s forgotten just how much he’s always belonged in Winterfell, after so long away. He likes the smell of the Wolfswood, and how he can almost feel Robb sometimes, when he crosses the training yard. If he doesn’t look up during his morning drills, he can convince himself Ned Stark smiling down at him from the landing above. It’s a sweet sort of pain, to feel them so close and yet out of his reach, but he’d rather this than the anguish he’d felt at Castle Black.
He thinks it would be comforting to stay here, with the ghosts of the past lovingly wrapped around him. He doesn’t hurt the way he does anywhere else—in part because Sansa is here with him.
She’s the other reason Jon wants to stay. Another reason why he absolutely cannot.
There has been something between them—no matter how Jon buried it—since she’d first come to the Wall on a dying horse. A warmth, a fondness. The desperate heat of her gaze on his when they fight. The hitch in her chest when she’s exasperated, laughing, just looking at him. It’s something Jon could always see, always wanted to linger on and draw out of her again and again. It’s a thing he’s never allowed himself to admit in words or even think about, not even to himself.
She deserves better than him, better than a kinslayer and an exile. Sansa has always deserved better than Jon could give her.
He cannot stay. Not now, and not in the future.
Near the end of Jon’s time back, Sansa finds him in the godswood, sitting in a hollow under the heart tree. Jon hears the crunch of snow beneath her feet long before he sees her, though he cannot tell if he heard it himself or through Ghost. When Sansa comes into his line of sight, Ghost bounds over, nudges at her hand until she gives him a scratch.
She has laughter on her face when she looks up. Jon finds himself smiling back. Dropping her hand, Sansa makes for Jon, gathers her skirts as well as she can before sitting next to him.
“My two boys,” she says, her tone unbearably fond, and despite the cold a curl of warmth opens in Jon’s chest. Ghost trots back again and lays his head on her lap, unwilling to part with Sansa’s soft attentions. “What a nice thing to see, after a long day of petitions.”
“You’re in a good mood,” Jon observes.
“I’ve had a raven,” she says. “From Bran. He says he saw Arya through the eyes of a bird the other day, on a small island. Her crew pulled ashore to avoid storms, but she seems well, and happy.” Sansa takes his hand, leans her head back against the white bark and closes her eyes, laughing. “He says she shot the bird down with an arrow for dinner.”
Without her looking at him, Jon can study Sansa’s face from up close. He rarely lets himself do this for too long, but she looks so peaceful here. In moments like these she looks like she belongs in the North, more than anyone.
This close, he can see every freckle, every eyelash. Her hair is dark red against the weirwood, and her skin is pale, almost as if she’s a part of it. When her eyes open, Jon doesn’t look away, or feel any shame at being caught staring.
He feels the air between them change slowly, then all at once, as if someone has struck a flint, and a spark has finally caught fire. Carefully, Sansa lifts her hand from Ghost’s head and towards Jon’s face. Her fingers trail down the line of his jaw just barely , touch lighter than air. His cheek tingles in the wake of her, his skin coming alive.
With a shuddering breath, Jon lifts his hand to her wrist, turns his head until he can rest his lips against her palm. They stay like that awhile, with nothing between them but air and no sound but their breathing, louder than the wind.
When Jon finally looks into Sansa’s eyes again, he’s not quite sure how to read the complicated look in them.
“Jon,” she breathes, and he’s never been so affected by his own name before.
Jon stays utterly still when Sansa leans in. He doesn’t want to move, or shatter the spell around them. Somehow he knows that he must let her control this.
Slowly, so slow and soft that it is the most exquisite of torture, her lips touch his.
It’s just that, a touch, and yet all of Jon’s nerves are on fire.
She moves her lips against his, breathes his name against his mouth. Her hand moves down from his cheek to clutch at the fur of his cloak, and presses closer.
Jon’s careful control flies away when she tilts her head, and suddenly his hands are in her hair. It’s softer than he ever imagined, unbound and loose around her shoulders. Their knees are pressed together, and Jon is peripherally aware of Ghost at their feet, of the fact that anyone could come to pray at any point and see them.
He breaks the kiss immediately, turning his head away. Sansa lets out a soft noise of protest, merely lets her head drop to Jon’s shoulder. They both breathe heavily for a long moment, before Sansa says, into the safety of his neck, “I’ve never known how to do that. I’ve only—Joffrey kissed me once, and Ramsay would—so I’ve never really...”
Jon’s throat has gone dry. He strokes her hair, even though he knows he shouldn’t, he has no right to. He must get up, take the first horse he sees and leave this place. This thing between them...it will only make it harder for him to go and stay at the Wall. “Sansa,” he says finally, “we shouldn’t have done that.”
In response, Sansa just tips forward and presses her lips to his jaw. Jon can feel the fluttering of her eyelashes against his cheek. He wants so badly to lean back into her, kiss a path down her throat, hold her in his arms and never let go.
“I know,” she murmurs. “I just wanted to do it at least once, is all.”
With that, Sansa disentangles herself from him, not meeting his eyes. Jon mourns the loss of her against him immediately, but he holds himself back. He has to be strong.
“You know,” Sansa says, after a pause. Her voice is thick with tears, and Jon aches to brush them away. “I used to dream of you, when you first went to Dragonstone. I’d dream that it was just the two of us, here.” She looks around the godswood, at everything but Jon, blinking quickly so the tears don’t fall. “I missed you so terribly, and even then, I...I loved you more than a sister should. I thought it was wrong, and base, and that my time with Ramsay had made me perverse. The only place I had any peace was in my dreams. We would stand below these leaves, the two of us together, and I didn’t understand why we were here until you would say ‘Who comes before the gods?’” A sob escapes Sansa’s throat, and Jon can’t help it anymore, he gathers her against him. In his arms, she shakes. “In my dreams, we were man and wife, and it didn’t matter who we were to one another because we had each other. And then you came back, and suddenly you weren’t my brother anymore. And now that I can love you the way I have been...I can’t. You won’t stay.”
Now that the words have been said, there is a terrible space between Jon and Sansa that has never before existed, a wall of ice separating them. It is as much for Sansa’s protection as Jon’s—and it’s the worst kind of torture, for Jon to see her every day following their time in the godswood but be unable to touch or talk to her, the way they have been. Not since before their reunion at Castle Black has there been such a distance between them, not even when they had fought about Ramsay, or when Jon had brought Daenerys to Winterfell. It feels unnatural to not confide in Sansa, to sit with her every night before retiring for bed and share a cup of wine, to not see a smile on her face and feel the warm sensation that he put it there.
It’s for the best, Jon has to remind himself. They cannot be.
The worst of it all is that in public, they are civil, cordial. They speak in the mildest of tones, talk about the rebuilding and the winter storm that’s blown in. Only Jon can see the regret in her eyes when they sup in the great hall, before she turns her face away from his. Only Sansa can see his fingers twitch in his lap when he wants to take her hand, or place a wayward strand of hair back behind her ear. They are stuck in a cruel dance, circling but never daring to touch.
He aches to speak with her, to ask her if they can return to the way it was, but Jon knows that if they were to open that bridge, Sansa would ask him to stay again, and it would be harder and harder to deny her.
As he begins preparations to leave, it seems to Jon as if they will never cross this gulf between them. Sansa will marry, have heirs to the North, and move on from him, she must, and Jon will remain in exile for all his sins and broken vows, as his sentence dictates. He must not allow the temptation of home, of remaining with Sansa for the rest of his days, override his judgement. He does not deserve the happiness and the peace she offers him. He can never deserve it after all he’s done.
It ends, as it began, with a letter.
Jon finds it besides his bed as he’s preparing to set off. The paper is cream colored, some of Winterfell’s finest, sealed in grey wax with the seal of a direwolf pressed into it. To Jon, the front reads, in Sansa’s flawless lettering. To be read upon your ride to the Wall.
The night before, Jon had said all his goodbyes. Sansa had insisted on a feast for him, honoring him for his part in the Northern independence. At the end of it, he had bid goodbye to Sansa as well, standing in her beautiful white dress, embroidered weirwood leaves sewn into the sleeves. Jon had studied her face openly, for the first time in a week, memorizing it.
“I’m to leave before dawn, before you even wake,” he’d told her. It was hard to speak around the lump in his throat. “So this is goodbye.”
Their embrace was not that of siblings. Jon knows he should never have done it so publicly, hugged her so desperate and long before her subjects, drunk and bawdy as they were, but he could not help it. For her part, Sansa did not object to his touch, held on just as desperately, her breath hot against his ear. The eyes around them faded, until there was only them, clinging to one another in the warmth of their ancestral home, the home they’d fought so hard to have.
It was a lover’s embrace. A lover’s goodbye.
And now, perhaps, a lover’s letter farewell?
Jon means to wait before opening it. He means to be out of Winterfell’s sight before he does, be in the open air with Ghost, to clear his head of her before he allows her words to tear his heart apart again. But then his eyes catch on the smudge of ink around his name, as if a tear had fallen and been wiped away, and suddenly he’s torn through the seal and is sitting besides a candle, hands shaking as he opens the paper.
We have been many things to one another. Brother and Sister. Right hands. Cousins. For these past few years, you have been my heart, as well, carried it with you to Dragonstone and King’s Landing, to beyond the Wall and then back to me. I have loved you before I knew that it was even love. You have brought me safety when I had none, family when I was alone, and hope when I thought it was all lost. It is because of you that I am alive today, and I have tried, in everything I have done, to keep you alive as well.
I realized I loved you more than I should have the night before the Battle of the Bastards. I saw you struggle with it too, the weight of the connection between us, when it seemed wrong. We were still brother and sister then, and about to die. I prayed that night, truly prayed, for the first time in years, that our gods would save you and deliver you back to me.
I have never stopped praying for you.
Even if you decide to never come back home, Jon, I will pray for your safety. Your happiness. Your forgiveness. If I could have you by my side always, I would pray for that as well, but that is up to you to decide. For now, I let you go in the hope that you will return. Know that my heart does, as it always has, go with you in your travels.
You deserve the world, Jon. You deserve to grow old and happy in your home. You deserve to forgive yourself.
I know it’s hard, after everything that’s happened, to let go of the blame. I stay awake half the night, thinking of what I could have done differently, of how we could have changed the outcome of our actions. What’s done is done. We have to live with the consequences, as you’ve said to me before. But the operative word is live, Jon. We have to live. I, for one, want to live, and I want to do it with you by my side.
You needn’t reply to this letter. I understand if you don’t. We need not ever speak of this again, if you wish. But I could never forgive myself for not telling you how I love you. I love you, I love you.
Jon traces the letters of Sansa’s name once, twice, memorizing the curve of the S, and then he is on his feet. The predawn light outside his window is weak, but he doesn’t pick up the candle before he is out the door and running down the hall. He is at Sansa’s door before he understands where his feet have brought him.
She’s standing at the window when he arrives, turned towards the north gate, watching for Jon’s departure. Jon feels his heart break, and marvels at the feeling. He’d thought there was nothing left to break, that he’s been splintered into a million pieces already, and yet.
Here he is. And here she is.
“Sansa,” he says hoarsely, and then she’s spinning around and he’s moving towards her and they meet halfway—
Their kiss burns hotter than anything Jon has ever felt. It is rough, and desperate, and Jon’s hands are tugging in her hair, and her nails are against his scalp and there is just so much of her against him that he can barely breathe. He doesn’t need to breathe, not ever again, would rather die than drag his mouth from hers.
Somehow they are pressed against a wall, and Jon rocks into her, tears a noise from her throat that drives him mad. When she tears her mouth away for a ragged gasp, Jon rocks his hips against hers once more, to draw the noise out again.
“Jon,” she pants into his cheek, more air than sound.
“I love you,” he says. “Sansa. I love you.”
She kisses his jaw, his throat, lays her lips over his pulse. Her hands are shaking where they’re clutching at his shoulders. “You weren’t supposed to read it till you left,” she admonishes, but her heart isn’t in it. Jon can feel her smile on his neck.
“You know me better than that,” Jon replies, kissing the crown of her head. “Gods, Sansa. I don’t know how I’m going to leave after reading your letter.”
This time Sansa pulls him closer by the hips, pulls the groan out of him until Jon has to lay his forehead against the cool stone of the wall behind her and breathe.
“You’re going to leave knowing that you’re coming back,” she tells him. “And that you’ll keep coming back to me. And one day soon, you’ll stay for real.”
“Forever,” Jon tells her. “I’ll stay forever.”
Jon leaves at noon. The sun is shining, and there’s fresh snow on the ground. He rides out ahead of the carts and men Sansa has sent with him, with fresh fruit and meat for the Wall. The cold air stings his lungs but Jon rides fast and hard, if only to feel it all. He’s alive, and he’s going to live.
Somehow, Jon knows there will be no more winter storms. He can taste spring in the air, or perhaps Ghost can. The difference matters less to him now than it used to.
When Jon reaches the top of the hill, he turns to look back. Leaving Winterfell has always been hard for him. It’s still hard, after all these years, to leave behind the memories--chasing Robb and Bran down the halls, hiding from Septa Mordane with Arya, sneaking Rickon sweets under the table. His father’s warm voice, guiding his hands as he learned his letters, how to swing a sword. Sansa’s smile when he handed her a direwolf pup. Her smile this morning, after their final kiss, the promises made between them. It’s a smile that warms his chest, and when he places his fingers against his lips he can still taste that smile.
There’s still a voice at the back of his head, calling him a kinslayer, but the voice is softer now, and even if Jon can't quite ignore it yet, it’s easier to think of other things. To look ahead, and not behind. He doesn’t know if it will ever go away, the guilt, the fear, but gods know that he will try to chase it off, every hour of every day if need be. It will not drag him under anymore.
“I’ll be back,” he says aloud. The horse beneath him shifts at his voice, as if his excitement is catching. The grin that splits his face is joyful and fierce, and he feels like himself again, the Jon he used to be before his childhood and innocence were ripped away. He feels like a boy, with all the world stretched before him.