“Because I believed I’d never be the man you need or want!”
“You’re wrong about that, Jon.”
Was he? He wanted to believe that. He wanted to be worthy of her.
“You don’t want to be married to me,” she’d said, the tears coating her cheeks.
Had he made her feel that way? And why would she weep to say it?
Because she loves you, you fool.
He’d known his feelings for her for a long while. And once he let go of his insecurities, it was simple really. He could see all the ways she’d shown him her love even when he’d been denying the possibility. Not just during that one night he’d held her in his arms but every single day they’d been together. From the moment she’d ridden through the gates at Castle Black, she’d become his focal point, his center and his measure.
It may had started out as two people finding comfort and strength in each other during difficult times but it had grown into more for them both. They loved each other. They’d just failed to admit it.
He thought back over their conversation from earlier after she’d stopped pretending to be asleep on his pallet. She knew he had learned she was with child, something he had not known when they’d spoken earlier. Did she think that was what had brought about his change in demeanor towards her? Did she think his concern was merely due to the babe?
It did concern him but not the way she thought. He had decided to go after her before she’d fainted but she did not know that. He would tell her.
And what if she’d never come up here to find you?
He shuddered at the mere thought. She would’ve been forced to raise their child alone as rumors swirled and whispers followed her. Who’s child was it? Was their marriage ever consummated? Had Jon Snow fathered the child and then abandoned her or had she taken a lover and borne a bastard?
Sansa would’ve been left to endure those things as he whiled away his lonely existence, nursing his belief that she’d played him false and feeling sorry for himself, completely ignorant of what he’d condemned his own child to after knowing what it was like to grow up a bastard.
He had to prove that he was returning because of her and not just because she was with child.
And how will you convince of her that?
He needed to tell her…everything. He had left her in doubt about his feelings for her for far too long. He’d cruelly cast aside his oath, the oath he’d sworn before the heart tree to be her husband, to shield her and shelter her for all his days, after she’d come all this way to bring him home.
Can she ever forgive me?
That he did not know but there was only one way to find out. He would gladly spend his life making amends for his earlier coldness if she’d allow him the chance to love her as she deserved.
But now that the men had left, despite that being what he’d wanted, he found himself puzzled as to how to proceed. He might be a renowned swordsmen. He knew how to lead others and also how to follow when necessary but he felt miserably out of his depths when it came to this.
Could you possibly ruin things more than you already have?
He hoped not.
Sansa stood straight and tall with her hands clasped before her, the picture of serene ladylike composure even though he suspected she was feeling much like he was. He kept clenching and unclenching his hand, a nervous habit he’d developed after it had been burnt all those years ago.
He wanted to pick the thread back up of their earlier discussion. Unfortunately, he couldn’t think of a graceful way to do so. Perhaps she knew better than to expect grace from him at this point. He smiled ruefully to himself at the thought.
She was watching, her brows knitted together as if she were trying to decipher what his smile might mean.
“Would you care to sit?” he asked, indicating the chair by the fire. It was as good a start as any.
A mutinous look of refusal for half a second and then she sighed and sat. He knelt on the other side of Ghost who was between them at the hearth, not wishing to crowd her.
What would please Sansa? He was no poet or singer. Pretty words did not fall easily from his tongue. He could not give her jewels or lace or even pick her flowers here beyond the Wall. He did not wish to offer her some empty gesture either. He wanted to tell her what was in his heart.
But how might he begin?
Be yourself…just don’t act like an arse.
Oh, that’s likely.
The winds howled outside his hovel and it brought to mind cold nights in Winterfell when they’d all be gathered around the fire as Old Nan or even Father might tell them a story. Jon would often sit apart from the others, feeling the difference of his birth so keenly in those days. He’d be close but not amongst them whilst yearning to belong.
He remembered how Sansa had loved those evenings and the stories as a child. He recalled the way her hair would shine like copper in the firelight. He could almost hear the quiet gasps she’d utter when the story was frightening or her dreamy sighs when the story was the sort she liked best, a tale of knightly valor, fair maidens and true love. He’d liked those stories as well.
And for one who was always such a perfect little lady, her posture would suffer those nights as she’d lounge against Robb or have her back up against Arya’s while she’d be hanging on every word. He loved his lady wife and her ladylike ways but there was something magical about those nights before the fire if they could make even Sansa relax her usual decorum and just be for a time.
I’m no storyteller like Nan. Sam could tell stories and so can Sansa. Even Tormund can tell a good yarn but that’s not me.
You can try for her, can’t you?
He cleared his throat to garner her attention. “Since we’re stuck here alone together for the night at least, I was contemplating a pleasant way we might pass the time.” Her eyes grew wide with alarm and he scrambled to explain himself. “Seven hells. I didn’t mean…much as I might…” He huffed a laugh and started over. “I meant talking, Sansa.”
“Oh. Talking is good.”
“Yes, like you said earlier, it’s something we need to work on with one another but I was thinking of something a bit different. May I tell you a story?”
“A story?” There was a spark in those blues eyes for a second, quickly replaced by suspicion. He supposed he deserved that. As children, the others had teased Sansa some over the stories she loved best. He had as well a time or two. “I never knew you to be a storyteller.”
“That’s because I’ve never tried to be but I’d like to for you if you’ll permit me.”
“Alright then.” She was still perched on the edge of the chair with her hands laced together but she was listening.
“Once, there was a boy who dreamed of being a great hero.”
“This sounds like the dreams of many boys.”
“I suppose it is. Do girls dream of being heroes?”
“Yes, though perhaps in quieter ways than boys. No shouting or brandishing of magical swords.”
He snickered and nodded, remembering his and Robb’s antics from boyhood. “That is good because it suits my story.” She opened her mouth to inquire but he continued. He would get to that. “Despite this boy’s very common dreams of accomplishing heroic deeds, vanquishing evil men and rescuing lovely maidens, there were two things he wanted even more.”
“What were they?”
“For one, he wanted a place to belong.”
“Was he an orphan?”
She smiled at his curious reply. “And what was the other thing?”
“Something he desired with all his heart though he feared he would never have.”
“I’ll get to that.” She harrumphed at his evasion, making him chuckle. “So, the boy left his childhood home because he felt he’d have no place there once he reached manhood.”
“That is a shame.”
“It was but he was in too much of a hurry to seek his adventures and prove himself at the time, heedless of all he was leaving behind.”
“Children can be headstrong that way.”
“They can. Sadly, it wasn’t long after he left that he realized all his boyish dreams were just dreams, dreams that seemed foolish once he became better acquainted with the realities of the world.”
“The broken dreams of childhood,” she whispered sadly.
His heart ached, knowing she spoke from experiences as bitter and horrid as his own. He wished to take her into his arms but he would not, not yet anyway. “Yes. Despite that, the young man did find a place to belong though it did not resemble the hallowed order he’d imagined he’d be joining.”
“Did he become a knight?”
“No, he became a man of the Nights Watch.”
“Oh, I see,” she smirked knowingly. “He sounds heroic.”
“He thought he was at the time. Anyway, the young man had to learn more than a few things but he did learn. He wound up spending many days of his life fighting. Whether it was wildlings, his own brothers or even worse things, he did not balk from his duty and tried very hard to uphold his vows.”
“To guard the realms of men.”
“Aye. He did wind up forsaking his vows more than once but he did not desert the Watch. He remained a man of the Nights Watch until his death. He became very good at fighting. It was probably the thing he was best at though he did not like it. He longed for peace but he had found a place to belong and he figured that would be enough.”
“What about that other thing he wanted?”
“It was never meant to be his…at least, he never imagined it could be.”
She was leaning forward now, no longer sitting straight and tall, completely absorbed in his story. “Is there a maiden in this tale?”
“There is, the fairest maiden the man ever saw.”
She smiled brightly at those words before she could help herself and his heart beat harder at the sight. She had schooled her features back into polite interest when she asked, “And was the maiden running from a wicked man and his designs? Was she seeking something she’d lost when she met…or perhaps was reunited with the man?”
“She was indeed. Have you heard this story perhaps?”
She giggled and shook her head. “And did this young man save her?”
“No. Well, perhaps he did a little but mostly you’ve got it wrong.”
Her brow became furrowed. “How so?”
“The maiden’s the hero of this story, Sansa.” Her brow was smooth once more as her sweet lips parted in surprise. “May I continue?”
The hitch in her voice and her dreamy sigh made it hard to keep any distance between them. He scooted around Ghost to sit at her knee. “He tried to do what was right but failed more than once. They made him the lord commander and his life became much more complicated. It was quite annoying at times.”
She was biting her lip now, amused at his piqued tone. “Did he find it a great headache?”
“A very great headache.”
“Being in charge is not easy…especially alone,” she said in a sadder tone.
“You’re right. It is,” he replied, feeling another wave of guilt at all he’d left her to deal with these past several months. He lifted his eyes to meet hers, wanting to apologize but she gave him a tap on the shoulder, his signal to keep going. “Even when he did what he thought was right, he was always left feeling that he was letting someone down. A visiting king and queen, his brothers or the Freefolk, he could not seem to please any of them at times.”
“It would be difficult to keep such different groups appeased.”
“Aye and he was not the best at communicating with others. Actually, he’s rather abysmal at it.” Her laughter made him want to laugh as well. “He failed to make himself understood and he underestimated the anger some of his decisions had created. His brothers stabbed him to death one night.”
“This is a sad story,” she said solemnly, taking him by the hand. His pulse thrummed at her touch.
“It was…but then it wasn’t, you see. This is where the maiden, his hero, came along to save him the first time.”
“The first time?”
“Oh, yes. She’s saved him more than once.” He kissed her hand. She was so absorbed by his words she barely noticed. He kissed it again. “The maiden of this tale, she’s the bravest person the man has ever known.”
She swallowed hard and shook her head. “She’s not. Heroes are brave. She’s…”
“She is. There are many forms of bravery and not all of them involve storming into battle with a sword in hand, Sansa. Bravery is standing back up after you’ve been knocked down when you hold no sword at all. Bravery is choosing to do what is right especially when it is not easy. Bravery is remaining kind at heart when the rest of the world shows you nothing but cruelty. Bravery is continuing to fight for your loved ones even when they’ve given up or let you down. That’s the kind of brave she is.”
“Without you, I would’ve given up, Sansa. When you came to Castle Black after what happened, it was the first time I’d felt anything resembling joy in a long while. I was lost, ready to ride south and ignore the threat that I knew in my heart could not be ignored forever.”
“And then after I learned the truth about Father…my uncle…it was…my whole world was turned on its head. I was lost all over again and again you came to me and gave me the strength to pick myself back up and keep going.”
He felt her squeezing his hand now, the soft touch of her small hand in his larger, rougher one giving comfort. Did she know he drew courage from it?
“Twice I was ready to give up, to retreat from everyone and everything. Twice you saved me from myself.”
“And then you came here to bring me home after I’d retreated from you in such a callous manner. It must’ve been an arduous journey to get here in your condition.”
She opened her mouth perhaps to utter a denial but then closed it again.
“That boy who wanted a place to belong was me of course. All my life I wanted to be a Stark, to feel like I belonged and you did everything you could to make me feel like one.”
“And what was the other thing that boy wanted?”
“He dreamed of being a lord with a highborn lady, kind and caring, to love who would love him in return. He wanted a wife to give him a family of his own someday.”
“Oh. And you thought you could never have those things.”
“Aye but then I did and it seemed too good to be true. Sansa, I’m sorry for hurting you earlier. I will not make excuses for my behavior especially once I learned the truth of the matter with Lord Baelish. I can only say I deeply regret it, more than anything. After you left, I was at war with myself. I know you think I had a change of heart upon learning of your condition but that is not the case. My heart has known itself for some time. It was my self-doubt that stood in the way but I had resolved to chase after you and apologize...only the guard was carrying you to my door before I could do so.”
“You were going to come for me?”
Her hopeful expression was enough to give him all the courage he needed to confess the rest. “I was though I cannot prove it to you. I can only hope to prove it by my actions and devotion from this day forward if you’ll allow. I’m sorry for everything I’ve done to make you feel as if I didn’t care or didn’t want you when I should’ve been telling you from the very start…I love you. I’ve been in love with you for many, many moons.”
Her smile in response to those words rivaled the rising sun and his heart beat all the faster.
“I did not plan to fall in love with you obviously. I’m ashamed to admit that it began before we learned the truth. But I fell in love with you while we traveled the North, looking for aid and longing for home, arguing one minute and confiding in each other the next as we struggled to put the painful parts of our pasts behind us.”
“It was the beginning of our story in a way.”
“It was. Maybe I started falling in love with you from the moment I laid eyes on you again as you stood uncertainly in the yard at Castle Black.”
“Why were you so reluctant to wed then?”
He grimaced to think of her asking and him demurring. The lady was the one who was supposed to be asked. “When they made me king over Ned Stark’s trueborn daughter, I didn’t feel worthy of it. Once we learned of my parentage, I felt even less so. Robb’s will aside, I worried I’d stolen your birthright and then you offered a marriage. You had already been forced to marry against your will once. When you spoke of security and duty in terms of us marrying, I believed…”
“That I only saw it as a political marriage?”
“No, don’t say sorry. I’m sorry. I wanted you to find happiness and not feel bound by duty if I wasn’t what you wanted. But in my selfish heart, I also wanted you. I wanted your love.”
“And you didn’t think those things could align?”
“I was a fool.”
“If you were a fool, then so was I.”
“I’m going to disagree with you there. I am blind to my hero’s faults if she possesses any.” She was laughing again which he took as a good sign. “Sansa, I want to come home with you. I want to be your husband and spend my life showing you how much you mean to me. I want to be a father to our child. I want to help you rule if you’ll allow. I want…you.”
“I want those things, too. I love you.”
He knew it in his heart but hearing the words was better than any song. He leaned forward. She met him half-way and their lips met, a soft kiss, the first of many to come, he hoped. “Can you forgive me, wife?”
“Husband…” He loved hearing her call him that. “I already have.”
They continued to talk and to kiss until it was quite late and her head began to bob. She did not wish to sleep. What if she awoke and it had all been a dream?
“To bed, wife,” he said gently. “We will talk again tomorrow. We will talk tomorrow and the next day and the day after that.”
“I promise. We will talk until you bid me to shut up.”
She relented at that and readied for bed. As she removed her gown, Jon stared intently at the fire, clenching and unclenching his hand. Once, she might have misinterpreted that. She understood him better now. It was not lack of desire but rather he would not expect anything from her after their separation until she indicated it would be welcome.
“I am very tired tonight.”
His eyes met hers as he nervously licked his lips. “Or course, you are. You are swaying where you stand. My pallet is not much but it is comfortable enough.”
“I thought so earlier when I laid there but I should like to be held tonight.”
His chest heaved and his eyes were so soft. It filled her with affection for him. “I should love to hold you.”
“And in the morning, I hope that I will not wake alone.”
“You’ll not wake alone.”
A few hours of talking could not mend everything but it was a start. A strong marriage required much effort from both parties in addition to patience, trust and understanding.
Theirs had had a rather rocky start, she knew, but then so had other couples who had ultimately found much happiness together. Hadn’t that been the case with her parents after all? There was no bastard child between them though, only the whispers of a malicious little man who was already dead and their own doubts and insecurities. Those things could be overcome. Sansa was certain of it. And their labors would be well rewarded in the end.
The hovel was not dark with the fire kept burning against the cold. It was not quiet either between the howling winds outside and the direwolf snoring within. But Sansa fought sleep, a superstitious part of her still fretting over what the morning might bring.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he whispered. “Rest, my love.”
“You should rest, too.”
“I will. I’ll dream of you.”
She felt her eyes drifting closed even as she struggled to stay awake just a bit longer, to relish the way it felt to be held in his arms and the way he looked at her.
“Oh!” she yelped just as she’d started to nod off.
“What is it?”
“Just a hearty kick.” His eyes widened, the earlier look of love and desire replaced by wonder and no small amount of concern. “Do you wish to feel it?”
He gulped and nodded so she placed his hand upon her belly where the kick had been felt. In no time, there was another, several actually.
“Our child thinks it is time to be up and playing, I’m afraid.”
Jon said nothing at first. The awe and adoration in his eyes said it all. But when she yawned, he tilted his head downward and spoke to the gentle swell of her belly. “Let your mother sleep, sweet babe. She has been very busy saving your father yet again today and needs her rest.”
She laughed softly and let him pull her closer. The babe’s movements quieted and she found sleep at last, enjoying that feeling she’d experienced the first night they’d laid together, the feeling of being loved.
When her eyes fluttered open the next morning, he was studying her face. He had not left her side.
“It was not a dream,” she sighed.
“It was not a dream.”
She rolled to face him, her hand idly tracing his chest. She did not miss the way his eyes darkened as she did so. “Why did you leave that first morning? Were you hungry?”
“Aye, very hungry…but not for food.”
Her heart flipped at his words and the heated way he stared at her. “What were you hungry for, husband?”
“And why did you not…indulge your hunger then?”
“I was afraid of what you’d think of your husband and his lust so soon after he’d taken your maidenhead the night before.”
“Sounds like you did too much thinking and not enough acting.”
“Obviously. And I could kick myself for ever leaving that morning. If I hadn’t…”
She pressed her finger to his lips, quieting his regrets. That was in the past. Instead, her hand roamed from his chest down to his belly…and further. “Are you hungry this morning, husband?” she asked boldly despite the color that was certainly blooming on her cheeks.
“Famished. What of my wife?” he asked huskily.
His mouth closed over hers the next instant. Her skin felt flushed and tingled everywhere he touched her, the hard lines of his body against her softer one. Their kiss went on until they were breathless. One deep breath and they were kissing again whilst tugging off what clothing they wore.
“Gods,” Jon groaned just as Ghost let out a whine. “Don’t go anywhere,” he begged her before he hopped out of bed.
He led the direwolf to the door. Their connection still amazed her. She thought of Lady and wondered if she might’ve shared something like it with her.
Before melancholy could consume her though, a blast of cold air hit her. She squealed and pulled the covers up around her and ignored Jon’s chuckling. She hoped her men had reached Whitetree safely but loved the layer of freshly fallen snow that met her eye. She enjoyed the sight of her husband without a stitch of clothing on, shivering as he hurriedly closed the door and stoked the fire before joining her again.
“Ghost can let us know if the others are alright. We can join them in a couple of days.”
“A couple of days? Is it as bad as that?”
“No, but my wife needs to rest herself. I’m sure the maester would agree,” he said with feigned innocence. She smirked at him. “Now, where was I?”
“About to indulge our appetite, I believe.”
“Oh, yes.” He tugged the covers over them both and then slithered downward, his beard lightly pricking her skin as his mouth kissed and licked and suckled every inch of her it met.
Life is not a song so much as it is a story, Sansa decided but that morning she sang. She sang his name more than once as they loved each other well into the morning.
And she sang a song for him as he stirred their porridge over the fire later on.
“Are you singing about Bael the Bard?” he asked with a sly grin.
“Yes.” She was wrapped in his furs and snug on the pallet, waiting for him to join her with their very late breakfast.
“The wildling king beyond the Wall who stole a Stark daughter.”
“It’s a good song though a sad one.”
“It is. Perhaps we’ll sing a happier song.”
“Would you truly sing a song for me, Jon?”
“If you ask it, wife, I’ll sing though your ears may regret it as much as your tongue may regret my cooking.”
She giggled as he handed her a bowl of the porridge. “It looks…filling.”
“Thank you, my lady,” he snorted.
“I am determined that I will regret nothing now that we are together again and you are not to brood over past mistakes either.”
“As you command, sweet wife. So, shall I sing you a song?”
He'd already given her one. “No, husband. Tell me a story instead.”