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Alone, Together

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“She could’ve made you happy, for a little while,” she told him as she sat down across from him, trying to fight back the triumphant smile that threatened to take over her face when she thought of how just he’d sent away a  pretty and willing girl.

Grey eyes looked up at her, a flicker of surprise before he quickly looked away.  “There’s only one thing  that will make me happy.”

Killing your brother, Sansa thought.  But she played along.  “What’s that?”

She expected him to snarl something about the Mountain, something about how killing a knight would make him happy, but instead he suddenly looked on edge rather than bored and irritated.  His eyes went to his drink and his brow furrowed.

If Sansa hadn’t known him better, she might have left it alone.  Sandor had always given off a don’t-poke-the-bear energy, but she was not afraid of him.

“Sandor?” She said expectantly, tilting her head to try and meet his eyes.

His eyes flitted back to hers and he gave her an appraising look, then promptly tried to change the subject.  “Used to be you couldn’t look at me.”

“That was a long time ago.  I’ve seen much worse than you since then,” she felt a smile pulling at her mouth.  

Sandor wasn’t smiling though.  His mood seemed to darken and there was murder in his eyes.

“Tell me your brother killed him slowly,” he growled.  “Tell me that Bolton bastard died screaming.”

“He died screaming,” Sansa confirmed.  “But not at Jon’s hand.”

He gave her a questioning look, but Sansa just stared him down, the answer clear without her saying a word.

“You,” he said, and it wasn’t a question.  “How?”

She bared her teeth in a vicious smile, “Perhaps I’ll tell you if you agree to answer my question.”

His eyes softened and the corner of his mouth twitched.  “Aye, alright, little bird.  So how did you do it?”

She frowned at him.  “I asked my question first, ser,” she fought another smile when he scowled at the title.  “How do I know that you will keep your word to answer my question if I answer yours first?”

He cocked his head to the side.  “Have I ever lied to you?”

She was silent for a moment, knowing that he had her there.  “No,” she huffed.  “But you may decide to start now.”

His eyes twinkled.  “A hound will die for you, but never lie to you.”

She rolled her eyes, which was the epitome of unladylike behavior, but then, when had Sandor ever cared about that?

She took a breath and met his eyes again.  “Hounds,” she told him, managing to keep a straight face.

Sandor didn’t.

He huffed a life and she felt a little lightheaded when he smiled at her.

“You’ve changed, little bird.”

“Your turn,” she reminded him.

He sat back in his chair and took another swig from his large cup, his eyes suddenly anywhere but her.  It occurred to her that he was nervous about answering her.

“Sandor,” her voice carried a hint of playful warning.

He exhaled heavily and stared down at the table.  “You, Sansa,” he said to his lap, seemingly unable to meet her gaze now.  “You’re it.”

Her hands tightened around her wine glass and she gasped noisily, her eyes widening as she stared at him.

He snorted as he examined the contents of his cup.  “I even told the wolf-bitch as much the last time I saw her before she fucked off and left me to die.”

Sansa released her glass and her hand shot across the table, curling around the back of his, causing him to finally look up at her.

“That,” Sansa told him, her voice trembling, “is something I can give you.”

*

She is daydreaming again, or rather, remembering , and once she realizes that Maester Wolkan is looking at her expectantly, she gives her head a minute shake, asks him to repeat the question, and then promptly answers him.

It is not normal for Sansa to get lost in her thoughts when she is busy with her duties, but the anniversary of his death is near, and she supposes it is only normal to be distracted when coming up on the five year anniversary of losing the love of your life.

Sometimes she thinks that she should be over it by now.  Other times she knows that the pain will never completely go away.

But it is no longer an open wound.  It is a scar, like so many others she has had - a mark of survival even while it is still sensitive.  She reminds herself that scars are indicative of healing, and she carries on.

*

He was gentle with her, which surprised her.

She had taken abuse at the hands of Ramsay, and knew that she could handle anything so long as she was a willing participant.

She had fantasized about him in the years since she’d seen him and always imagined that he’d be rough, if in a passionate sort of way.

But his calloused hands were gentle and he kissed her slowly, held her gingerly in his arms as though she were some porcelain doll he had to handle with care.

“I will not break,” she told him.

“No,” he agreed in a whisper against her lips, “you’re too strong for that.”

*

Despite the tragedy her life has been thus far, Sansa finds it in herself to believe that there is hope for the future.

She likely shouldn’t be so optimistic.  Objectively, her life has been one nightmare after the next - her Father’s execution, her captivity in King’s Landing, her marriage to a Lannister, her marriage to a monster who abused her in the worst ways possible, the death of her baby brother, the death of the man she loved, the feelings of abandonment when her siblings were once again scattered all over the world - and so maybe she should not be so hopeful.

Still, she awakens everyday with hope that happiness and love is a possibility for her.

*

“Lady Sansa,” Sansa looked down to see Tyrion approaching her, a good-natured smile on his face.

She arched a brow at the title and he froze, an apologetic look twisting his features . “Ah, I mean, Your Grace, of course…”

She smirked at him and shook her head.  “How are you, Lord Hand?”

“Busy as ever,” he answered jovially.

“I imagine ruling alongside Bran can be...tedious.”

“Nonsense, he’s a delight,” Tyrion said, though Sansa can see the secret smirk pulling at his mouth.

“I’m surprised you’re here,” Sansa commented.  “I never took you for one who would enjoy tourneys.”

“His Grace insisted,” Tyrion informed her.  “I haven’t been to one since His Grace’s coronation, but he thought the kingdom would keep for a few days so that I could accompany him.”

“The city looks far better than the last time I visited,” Sansa commented.  It had been three years since Daenerys Targaryen had taken King’s Landing, and it seemed it had taken that much time to repair all the damage she had left in her wake.  This was the first tournament held in the capital since the Baratheons’ reign.

“Yes, well, don’t ask me how our Master of Coin managed to fund all the repairs.  I’d rather not know.”  Tyrion sighed dramatically, and then looked back to Sansa’s face, another one of those knowing smiles taking shape.

Sansa gave him an exasperated look.  “What?”

His heavy brow knitted together as he studied her.  “Nothing, Your Grace.  You just seem...happy.”

Sansa should have taken it as a compliment, thanked him, and went on her way.  Instead, her eyes widened and she just stared at him.

Tyrion stood there, looking at her expectantly.

“What?” She asked again, a touch of frustration in her voice.  “I am happy.  It’s nothing that should arouse suspicion.”

Tyrion smiled at her then - not a smirk, but a genuine smile that reached his eyes.  “Good.  You deserve all the happiness in the world, Your Grace.”

*

 

The next day, Sansa receives a formal invitation to yet another tourney.  The latest one is being held in Old Town in two months’ time.

Though the North is no longer part of the other kingdoms that comprise Westeros, Sansa often attends functions such as this one.  If anyone finds it odd, she reminds them that it is a chance to see her brother.  

The fact that this is only part of the reason she attends is her own business.

She smiles as she thinks of Bran - not King Brandon, to be sure - but her brother Bran.  She remembers the boy that he was before the fall, recalls that he wanted to be a knight, though that title was rare among the warriors of the North.

Sansa thinks that perhaps there is a bit of that boy left, considering his tourney attendance in the last few years.  He hasn’t missed many.  It is one of the ways she comforts herself - a bit of a reassurance that there is still some of the old Bran there - when she worries that she has lost her little brother forever.

“Do you plan to attend, Your Grace?” Maester Wolkan asks, clearly wondering if he should send an answer to Lord Hightower confirming her attendance.

“I’ll think about it,” she tells him, already knowing that she will go.  

Much like Bran, Sansa has not missed very many tournaments over the last five years.  

Sansa thinks back to that first tournament she attended after Bran’s coronation.  She had not wanted to attend.  She had been resistant to any kind of enjoyment after all the heartbreak.  If not for her Jon, she might still be lonely and bitter, refusing any joy that life had to offer her.

*

The tournament was to be held at Riverrun, as the capital was still rebuilding, though the tournament had been Bran’s idea.

Their Uncle Edmure had agreed to host the tourney and Brienne had written Sansa numerous letters, begging her to attend.

Even months after losing Sandor, Sansa was still heartsick and lonely.  She had no interest in attending, but her stern older brother clearly had plans to coax her into it.

Jon ventured down to Winterfell every few months, despite his supposed exile.  Sansa was endlessly grateful for this - he was the only sibling that hadn’t completely abandoned her.

“You should go,” he told her as they sat near the fire in her solar.

“I don’t want to,” she’d said back, her tone petulant.

“Sansa,” he was exasperated, and when she looked at his face he was giving her that look.  The look only an older brother could muster for a childish younger sibling.

She squared her shoulders and lifted her chin.  “The North is autonomous .  I am not expected to attend a tournament, of all things.”

“No,” he said, “You’re not expected to.  But you should go.”

“Why is that?” She sipped at her wine, her tone imperious as she narrowed her eyes over the top of her cup.

He lifted a brow at her attitude.  “Might be entertaining.”  He shrugged his shoulders.  

“I have better things to do than entertain myself.”

“Sansa.”  That tone again.  He reached over and squeezed her hand, albeit awkwardly because honestly, Jon was not exactly practiced in offering comfort.  “You’re still young.  The North will keep while you’re gone.  The Sansa from my childhood loved the idea of tournaments.”

“That Sansa is dead,” she said quietly.

He gave a heavy, long-suffering sigh.  Then, “Even if she is, you should go in remembrance of her.  Nothing wrong with holding onto a little bit of that girl.”

“That girl was stupid,” Sansa said, her voice barely above a whisper now.  “That girl believed in day dreams, and true love, and happily ever after.  That girl was hurt time and again because she was too naive to learn.”

Jon moved his hand away from her shoulder.  “You’re wrong,” he disagreed gently.  “That girl was strong.  That girl is now the backbone of the North.”  She turned her face to him, a question in her eyes.  He gave her a small smile.  “That girl deserves to find some happiness, in whatever she can.”

*

Sansa does not often hear from Arya.  The ravens she receives are few and far between, with never enough detail in them for Sansa’s liking.

Sansa always responds with questions - when are you coming home?  Are you ever coming home?  Where are you exactly?

Arya never truly responds to the questions, too long going between messages for the sisters to keep up a steady correspondence.

A few days after Sansa receives the invitation, she receives a message, presumably from Arya.  She wastes no time in tearing at the seal, reading it as she sits in the Great Hall, just finished with her mid-day meal.

Her eyes fly over the short message and her stomach turns.

*

Sansa had not known that Arya had a lover before she left Westeros.

In fact, she didn’t find out until the man himself confessed it to her.

She knew that Arya was friends with Lord Baratheon,  and knew that they had traveled together at some point after Father was executed.

But Sansa had never put together that they were lovers.  

Once she wrote to Arya, Will you return one day for Gendry, if not for me?

The question, as usual, went unanswered.

*

Sansa’s hand trembles as she rereads the missive that was delivered to her mere moments before.  She is vaguely aware of activity around her, of people moving about the Great Hall, but to her, the world has stopped.  She reads it a third time, just to be sure that one of her nightmares hasn’t decided to haunt her in the middle of the day.

I am sleeping , she tells herself.  This is just a dream.  A terrible dream.

She reaches over and pinches her left wrist absently, watches her skin turn pink from the assault.  Now both hands tremble and her lip quivers as she reads the message a fourth time.

“Lady Arya Stark has passed from an unknown illness contracted while exploring the Far West Lands.  We await your instruction regarding how to handle the Lady’s body.”

Sansa knows that there had been no time for condolences and soft words from Arya’s crew, but the strict manner with which the information has been relayed to her feels like a dagger to the heart.  She lifts her right hand to her chest, feels the steady thumping against her ribcage.  Still alive.  Such an odd feeling to know that, while her heart lies in tatters, she goes on living.

How many times in her life has she experienced this phenomenon?  

*

“You don’t have to go,” her voice was small, quiet, muffled as she stared down at her hands, clutched against the furs of her bed.

”I do,” his answer was a deep rumble.

“Your hate for him is stronger than your love for me?” Her voice broke at the end, despite the strong words.

“If you insist on looking at it that way, then aye,” he growled at her as his temper flared.

“If you go there,” she told him, finally lifting her head to give him a serious look, “the chances of you returning are slim.”

“I know.”

*

Too many, too often .

She stands quickly from her chair, holds out the message for Maester Wolkan.

“I am retiring to my room for the day.  I am not to be disturbed,” she tells him, knowing that he will understand once he reads the words scrawled on the parchment.

She collapses in her bed, fully dressed, and pours out all her anger and tears into her pillow until there is nothing left inside her.  

It is not the first time she has done this.  She is surprised there is anything left in her.  How many times has she found herself in a tragedy that left her feeling like her insides have been carved out?

*

She had been in King’s Landing for three whole days before she mustered up the courage to ask about Sandor.

“I need you to tell me what happened to him,” she cornered Arya in the corridor between their rooms, circling her fingers around Arya’s skinny little wrist.

She watched as her sister’s shoulders slumped, as her head dropped.  “You don’t need me to tell you, Sansa.”

She bit into her bottom lip to stop the wail clawing its way up her throat.  Her fingers squeezed Arya’s wrist without her realizing what she was doing.  Her sister said nothing – just let Sansa’s delicate fingers squeeze until bruises bloomed on her skin.  What was a bit of physical pain in the face of this?

*

The next morning, she wakes with the sun and allows her ladies inside to assist her with bathing and dressing.  Afterward, she meets with Maestar Wolkan in her solar to make arrangements.

“Jon needs to be informed,” she tells him.  “A raven needs to be sent to Hardhome with instructions that it be delivered to Jon Snow immediately.”  Hardhome had been resettled by the Wildlings shortly after the Long Night and she knows that getting a message to the village is the easiest way to reach Jon. 

“I need a message to be sent to Arya’s crew to set sail for Old Town.  Let the captain know that I plan to meet them there to recover Arya’s body.  Lord Hightower is holding a tournament there in six weeks’ time.”

Someone will need to tell Gendry in person.  He does not deserve to find out as I had to .

Sansa clears her throat and presses on.  “I do not want this information to get out.  There are people that Arya was close to that deserve better than to find out by gossips.”  

He should not have to wonder whether he is hearing the truth or a nasty rumor.

Sansa spends the whole week making preparations for her departure.  She does not tell the household that the She-wolf of Winterfell has died while exploring across the sea.  The servants know that Sansa had planned to attend the tournament, so she does not tell them that the tournament is now the secondary reason for her travels.

 She waits for a response from Jon, wondering if the news will break him.  Jon has always loved Arya more than any of their other siblings, and the same was true for Arya.  If Sansa feels like a large part of her is dying, she can only imagine how Jon must feel.

Then, two days before her departure, Jon rides through the gates of Winterfell, accompanied by some of his Wildlings.

She meets him in the courtyard and they collapse into one another.

“What happened?” He implores Sansa, his voice thick with emotion.  His lips are trembling with the effort of holding in a sob.  His face is wet with tears.  “What happened to her?”

“I told you all I know,” she tells him quietly.  

“I can’t believe it,” his voice breaks at the end of his sentence and he takes a shuddering breath.  “It doesn’t seem real.”

“I know,” hot tears stream down her face, surprising her.  

I thought I was empty.  I thought I had no more tears to give you, Arya, but seeing Jon’s grief has proven me wrong .

Jon’s arms tighten around her rib cage and she can scarcely breathe, but then, she supposes it is not too different from how she’s felt since she heard the news.  Curious, that the end of Arya’s life could steal the breath from Sansa’s lungs.

Sansa thinks of Gendry, remembers all the broken pieces of him that Arya left behind.  She remembers their shared grief at Arya’s decision to leave.  

She remembers how broken she was when she found that Sandor had died.  How those broken pieces never quite fit back together the same way.

One more time, Gendry, Sansa thinks sadly.  She’s going to break your heart one more time.