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Your Ballad of Dissatisfaction

Chapter Text

Jon’s desk phone buzzes. Hanging his head, he tosses his pen down on the blotter to run both hands through his hair. He told his secretary absolutely no interruptions. He can’t very well concentrate on this pitch with the phone ringing or people dropping by his office to shoot the shit the way they do when it gets late in the day and people are looking for something to do. Jon has plenty to do, he doesn't need to look busy, because he is.

The phone buzzes again, the white light flashing impatiently, as he glares at it. He flexes his hand and presses the speaker button. “Gilly.”

“Sorry, Mr. Snow.”

Jon raises his brows, silently wishing she’d hurry. His secretary—the third one in as many months—was Sam’s hire. Nice girl. But obviously not very good at running interference for him. That should be the first thing they select for in the secretarial pool.

“I know you said you weren’t taking calls, and I promise I told her that, but she said it was important and that you’d want to speak with her. I thought I should tell you just in case.”

“Who, Gilly?”

“Oh! I thought I said. It’s Miss Stone for you.”

“Miss Stone?” There's a rustle of papers on the line. “I don’t know a Miss Stone, Gilly. Is it a sales girl? I don’t handle supply orders. Didn’t Val tell you that?”

If Val was his secretary, he'd be working right now, blissfully undisturbed. 

“Yes, she did. It’s a Miss Alayne Stone, sir. She did say it was an emergency.”

He crosses his arms over his chest. The name rings no bells. But it’s taking longer to argue with Gilly about it than to deal with the issue himself. “Put her through.”

Jon pushes back in his chair and stands to pour himself a glass of water. He wouldn't mind a whiskey, but he has a lot more work to do before he goes home to his tiny apartment. Better save the drinks for later.

The speaker comes to life again with a soft crackle, as he lifts the water pitcher. A familiar soprano voice says his first name like it’s a question.

He freezes, water unpoured. “Sansa?”

“Yes, it’s me. Do you have me on speakerphone, Jon? Would you mind taking me off?”

He lunges for the phone receiver, and water sloshes over the side of the pitcher onto the top of his desk. They just replaced all the office furniture. Someone will be irritated with him if his new desk has a water stain.

“You’re off. Sorry.” He brushes the water off with the palm of his hand. “My girl said it was a Miss Stone calling. Don’t know how she managed to get that wrong.”

“Oh, be nice. She sounded lovely.” Jon eases back down in his chair. “And she wasn’t wrong: I did fib and say my name was Stone. I’d rather my brother not know I called if you don’t mind terribly keeping this call between us.”

He looks out the window that faces into the offices. Robb’s office is opposite his. Bigger. With the better view. But then, he’s more important to the firm, so it only stands to reason. Jon doesn’t care about those things anyway. Not really.

“Jon?” she presses.

His chair creaks, as he straightens up. “Yes. Certainly, if that’s what you want.”

“I need a favor of you, Jon.”

He’s sure Sansa has never needed anything from him throughout the duration of their lengthy acquaintance. Not once. He’s always been Robb’s friend. Arya’s too perhaps, though that’s been awkward of late, since someone asked him whether he was going to get up the nerve to ask out the youngest Miss Stark. With no plans to do anything of the sort, he wonders whether he's given her the wrong idea and not just nosy women at the Winterfell Tennis Club.

“I’m happy to be of assistance.”

“You’re a dear. I knew you’d help. Listen, I’m coming into the city tomorrow. Just for the day. Could we meet to discuss it? This little favor I need?”

He narrows his eyes at the shut door across the office floor. “Without Robb.”

“Yes, but only if you have the time. Short notice, I know.”

He actually has no idea whether there's enough time tomorrow: he doesn’t keep an agenda. His girl does that for him.

But it's Sansa. She reminds him of home and childhood. “I’ll make time.”

“Oh, good. It is rather pressing, and I know it sounds awfully covert and if you’d rather not, I understand. But you know how brothers can be. Or… you can imagine. Can’t you? You remember how he was at Easter.”

He doesn’t actually recall anything specific about Robb’s behavior at Easter. But her voice is light and airy, quick and assured. She sounds like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth.

What Jon remembers is Sansa's previous boyfriend, Joffrey, acting insufferable. Maybe Robb didn't do the best job of hiding the fact that they all wished him a million miles away. Her new one, Harry? Not much better.

Harry Hardying would hate it if he knew his girlfriend was meeting her childhood friend for lunch in the city.

“Should we make it lunch?” he asks, toe tapping against the carpeted floor.

“Lunch, yes. Where shall I meet you?”

He has no idea where to take a girl like Sansa. The diner he often stops at on late-nights won’t do.

“Can you wait a minute, while I have my girl check my schedule? There’s a big meeting tomorrow and I want us to have enough time. I haven’t seen you since the summer.”

“The fourth,” she supplies. “When Theon Greyjoy made a fool of himself.”

“Yes.” Too many cocktails. Club staff discretely led him away: not a good look.

That was four months ago, but he can conjure up exactly how she looked, all in white ruffles like a confection they sell at the soda counter.

“Just don’t have her put it in there as a lunch with me, mind you. Mum’s the word.”

“Yes. No, I mean, I won’t. Lunch with Miss Stone.”

Already coming to his feet, he presses the hold button. Two strides to the door and he cracks it open, standing there staring at Gilly’s mustard yellow cardigan until she turns, fingers curling back from her typewriter. She’s terrible at running interference, but her typing is much better than the last girl’s.

“Sir?”

“I need you to schedule a lunch for me tomorrow with Miss Stone. What time’s my meeting?”

“With Mormont Industries?” she asks, already reaching for his open appointment book. Her finger skims down the page. “Three-thirty, Mr. Snow.”

“Schedule my lunch for noon then.”

“Noon,” she says, reaching for a pencil. “Shall I make a reservation?”

“Yes.” He drums his fingers against the door. “I need a suggestion. Where would you like to go if you didn’t live in the city?”

Gilly’s eyes go wide. “Me?”

“Yes, Gilly,” he says drumming his fingers again. “Somewhere nice. I can’t take her to Manderly on the corner.”

“No!” Gilly shakes her head so sharply he’s worried her dark hair will come free of her short ponytail. “I won’t even eat there.”

He raises his brows, and Gilly fidgets in her chair. “Satin’s is nice, sir.”

The name draws a frown from Jon. It doesn’t sound respectable. He wouldn’t want to take Sansa someplace Ned Stark wouldn’t want his daughters to be seen. Someplace slick, someplace dark.

Gilly presses her lips together. “Or Baratheon’s Steakhouse?”

It’s far enough away that he wouldn’t expect to run into anyone from the office and staid enough that no one could object to his meeting her there.

He slaps his hand against the door. “Yes, that’ll work. Thank you, Miss Craster.”

He shuts the door and leans over the desk to grab for the black receiver, taking Sansa off hold with a press of the blinking button. “Sansa? Noon work for you?”

“Yes, that’ll be just perfect.”

“Good. Noon at Baratheon’s Steakhouse.”

“Let me jot that down. Baratheon’s, you said? With a b?”

“Yes. Reservation will be under Snow,” he says, immediately rolling his eyes at himself. What else would they be under? He’s not the one with Cold War spy delusions.

Robb’s sister has always been a little theatrical, but he’s never been sought out as a player in one of her fanciful notions. It shouldn’t, but his heart skips a little at the prospect.

“I so look forward to it, Jon.”

Chapter Text

Jon scans the room with its white table cloths, red booths along the paneled walls, tables for two down the center, and exposed beams. It’s never hard to spot Sansa: either because she’s tall for a woman or because of that red hair of hers. From the corner booth, where they’ve seated her, facing out into the dining room, she sits with downcast eyes. She’s not as modern looking as the girls at the office in her circle skirt in an exuberant blue and yellow print nipped in waist. He likes the way the girls in the city dress, but it's hard to find fault with Sansa's appearance: she's undeniably beautiful.

Shoulders slightly sloped and feet crossed at the ankle, she looks inexplicably fragile all alone. He's on time, but she must have been early. If he'd left a few minutes earlier, he might have spared her waiting like this alone in the mostly empty dining room.

When she raises watery eyes to him, he jostles his hands in his pockets.

The nerves are back. The ones he's been fighting since he nicked himself shaving this morning, while trying not to rehearse what he'd say to her.

“Sansa.” He bends to kiss her cheek. She’s a little pale. More so than usual. The navy of her sweater contrasts sharply with her ivory skin, giving her a doll-like appearance. The only real color in her face is her lips. They look like a drop of strawberry jam in a glass of milk. “It’s good to see you.”

“Yes, so good to see you, Jon,” she says, a veil dropping over smoothly over whatever sadness he thought he saw in her face. “Thank you for agreeing to this top secret rendezvous.”

He moves to take his seat to cover for how off-balance her teasing makes him feel, but she stops him with a hand to the knot of his tie. His throat bobs as she works it to the left.

“There. Very handsome.”

He straightens, inhaling deeply to make up for how he was holding his breath.

“You must have been working frightfully hard, all askew like that.”

He took the time outside Baratheon's to straighten his tie and adjust his coat. He thought he looked fairly presentable. Apparently not, but Sansa is something of a perfectionist.

Unbuttoning his suit coat, he slides in opposite her. “I walked.”

In the hopes that the November chill would steel his nerves.

“You’re a proper city man, aren’t you? Is this where you bring all your clients?”

He stretches a leg out under the table to the right of her so they don't bump feet accidentally. “I’ve never been here before.”

Her mouth quirks in amusement, as an elderly waiter with slicked back hair approaches. He hands Jon a heavy leather menu and offers to get them something from the bar while Jon looks at the lunch selection.

Though he wants a scotch on the rocks, he orders a dry martini, and then gestures to Sansa, so she can add her order. He should have asked her what she'd like first. Or known what she drinks, so he could order for her.

He sucks his lower lip, as she looks up sweetly at the waiter, no sign of his misstep affecting her grace.

“A seltzer, please.”

“Wait,” Jon says, holding up one finger to stop the man. He frowns, closing the menu. “Don’t go just yet, we’ll order.”

He must be accustomed to dealing with busy patrons: he has suggestions at the ready. Which is good, because Jon can't focus enough to read through the menu. The words dance before him, as he keeps looking over it at Sansa and her expectant little smile.

She’s still got that amused look, making her lips pout in a distracting fashion, when the waiter takes the menu, promises to return with their drinks, and walks away, leaving them alone in the halo of the booth’s wall fixture.

Jon tilts his head down to finger his hairline. “I hope that sounds all right to you.”

At Manderly’s she could have ordered for herself: maybe that would have been the safer choice after all. Less opportunities for him to expose his inadequacies and a less intimate setting.

“It’s like a proper date. Special restaurant in the city, my handsome escort orders for me. I had no idea you'd go to all this trouble.”

He breathes out heavily.

“Don’t panic: I’m only teasing you. That’s what dear friends do.”

He smiles tightly. “You do eat filet, don't you?”

“It's always a good choice, and anyway, I’m not terribly hungry,” she says, adjusting her hands in her lap. “And you’re in a hurry. Understandably. The big meeting is this afternoon. Tell me about, why don’t you?”

Misstep number two: he’s given the impression he wants to rush her through lunch, when he specifically had Gilly clear his schedule. Fantastic. If he's this useless this afternoon, Mance will have his head.

“The Mormont meeting? I wouldn’t want to bore you.”

“Try me.”

“I’m taking lead on the pitch. It could be a big account if we land it.”

“You’re the lead? Not Robb?”

Jon clears his throat. Of course she's surprised by that. Still, it would be nice if someone believed in him as much as people do Robb with his easy smiles and air of confidence.

“Not on this one. Jeor Mormont preferred my style in our earlier meeting.”

“Must be a smart man,” she says.

He's struck dumb for a moment, which makes the waiter's return with a tray balancing two drinks especially timely.

Sansa isn’t much of a drinker, but her seltzer makes him suspect she’s the one that wouldn’t mind getting through this lunch in a timely fashion. She presumably would prefer to secure her favor and skip back to Long Island as quickly and politely as possible.

He nods his thanks at the waiter and takes a drink. By the time he's swallowed, he's fixed on what he hopes is the right thing to say in the face of her wide-eyed praise.

“Well, we all know Robb is a star. Mr. Mormont is just a straight-shooter. He prefers a blunt style. Most of our clients are bowled over by what Robb brings to the table.”

“Yes, Robb’s all endless potential, but you shouldn't sell yourself short. People like a man who knows his worth. You have a great deal to offer if you'd get over thinking you're a second choice.”

Whether she knows it or not, it's a rather painfully acute reading of the situation at Rayder & Tormund.

She narrows her eyes at him, playfully lowering her voice. “Don’t you scowl at me, Jon Snow. I have faith in you, and I’m an excellent judge of character.”

If she does believe in him, which he supposes he must to some degree for her to ask for his help, it's unexpected. They've never been the dear friends she claims. In each other's orbit, certainly, but whatever feelings he's entertained about Sansa, they were relegated to a closed-off corner of his mind. He gave her very little thought in general. No one needs to spend a great deal of time contemplating beautiful girls beyond their reach.

She takes a sip of her seltzer and speaks before setting the glass down. “You're short on time, so I'll come to the point. Harry proposed. I said yes.”

It's a jarring confession on the heels of her assertion of being an excellent judge of character. Calls into question her confidence in him at the very least. Harry is a totally unsuitable husband for Sansa Stark or any nice girl. How Ned Stark ever agreed to it, he doesn't know. Surely Robb would have spoken up and saved his sister from this match if their father wasn't entirely aware of what Harry is.

But if they've kept silent on Harry's lack of decency, what is Jon supposed to do?

His Adam’s apple rolls under his close-fitting collar, as he tucks one hand beneath the table and squeezes his thigh. His chest feels tight and he doesn't know how what to do with his face. It sounds as if his heart is thudding in his ears and everything he knows about Harry is playing out like a movie reel on the inside of his skull.

Her pleasant fixed look conveys no shock at his strangled reaction. “Well, I can see you weren't expecting me to say that. I suppose you're put off by Harry's boundless ego.”

He works his jaw, forcing himself to speak at what he hopes is a normal level. “Robb didn’t… he didn’t mention you were engaged.”

“No, he wouldn't have: it’s very new. I trust you won’t spoil the surprise.”

His stomach lurches. This isn’t a surprise he wants a part of. “You’ve told me before your brother?”

“Harry hasn't actually asked permission as of yet.” She holds up her hand, the back turned toward him to show her bare finger. “See? No ring. You're the first to be in on the secret.”

He slips his hand inside his jacket, pulls out a pack of Marlboros, and flips it open. It's not their account and Mance wants him to switch to Chesterfields, which is. He's refused so far. As far as being a company man, you have to draw the line somewhere.

Her eyes are on him, as he fumbles to free a cigarette from the almost full pack with thick feeling fingers. A second one comes partially free, and he tilts the pack her way, as he places his between his teeth. She shakes her head no, lips pressed together in a thin line. A tap of the box and they line back up inside neatly.

“Harry doesn’t like his fiancée to smoke?” he asks around the cigarette.

She blinks at him slowly. “I’m afraid I can’t stomach it.”

A lie: he’s sure he’s seen her smoke before.

There’s a stack of matchbooks—black boxes with a gold stag head—on the table. She grabs for one before he can. He can’t look away from the curve of her fingers as she slides the box open and plucks a match from the regimented stock. Her nails are varnished in a glossy coral a shade lighter than her lipstick.

She strikes the match against the side, it flames to life, and she extends it towards him. Leaning forward with a cupped hand, he inhales until the cigarette's tip glows.

He catches the scent of her perfume, as he sits back. Doesn't know what it is she wears—wouldn't know Pavlova from No.5. But he'd recognize it anywhere. Once, he was crammed in the backseat of Mr. Stark's car, Sansa's skirts overlapping his thigh and her perfume in his lungs for the longest joy ride of his life with Robb at the wheel. It was only his grip on the door handle that kept him from cranking down the window and sticking his head out in desperation to un-fog his teenage brain.

He turns his head to the side to exhale the smoke away from her.

“When’s the wedding?” he asks. Not out of any genuine desire to know, but because the strain of saying nothing weighs too heavy.

He’ll be invited. Of course, he will—close family friend. There will be a heavy white invitation, envelope carefully addressed in curling black ink. There will be the expectation he attend, shift his schedule and appear in his finest suit. Most probably it will be at the club. A fine array of flowers and enough shrimp cocktail that everyone will be suitably impressed. And he’ll be forced to sit there watching one of the loveliest girls he knows marry Harry Hardyng.

He doesn't deserve her.

“Before Christmas.”

“Next year?”

“No, this year. It'll be small with so little time but all you need is a bride and a groom.”

Thanksgiving is a week away.

“In less than a month?” He takes a long draw, exhales, and scratches his eyebrow with his index finger. “Congratulations.”

She flinches, nostrils flaring. “What do you mean?”

“I mean… ” he gestures with the lit cigarette. “You must be very happy. You’ll be settled before the holidays.”

Her shoulders relax an inch. “Thank you. That will be nice.”

None of the possibilities he ran through for why she wanted to meet with him involved her wanting to announce her engagement. He should be very far down that list. Preferably the very bottom.

Harry has a girl. A girl that isn’t Sansa. Or he did this summer. Robb damn well knows about it too.

“You look as if you’re worried I’m here to ask you to stand up with Harry, Jon. I can assure you, I’m not.”

He taps ash into the crystal ashtray to the left of the table setting. “Good.”

She tucks her hair behind one ear and reaches down to lift her purse into her lap. “There’s no way to ask you this without sounding positively insane.” The kiss lock  opens with a snick. “As it happens, I have a few things I imagine are somewhat valuable, but I wouldn’t begin to know how to sell them.” She pulls out a long narrow jewelry box and sets it beside her seltzer. “And it would look funny if someone recognized me, selling them,” she says, placing two smaller boxes alongside the first. All three are green leather with brass snap closures, purchased from the same store. If the embossed letter in the corner is a B, it's probably Baelish Jewelers from back home. “Gifts from my parents, you understand. That’s why I could use your help.”

She pushes the longest box across the table towards him with her manicured fingers, face composed despite the troubling nature of her request.

He looks from it to her and back. “You want me to hawk your jewelry?”

“Heavens, that sounds so seedy. I kept my pearls,” she says, hands going to her clavicle, “for the wedding.”

Some guys are leg men, he supposes, or what have you, but Jon always thought Sansa had a very pretty neck. Kissable. It's one of those things it doesn't do to dwell on.

“I don’t want you to think I’m not grateful. That I’m simply counting on whatever Harry will buy me instead. They're just the only things of worth I own. A girl likes to have her own money is all. In case.”

He picks up the box and taps it against the table. “In case of what?”

“In case things don’t work out,” she says with a little shake of her head that frees the curl from behind her ear.

It’s awfully pessimistic of her to be concocting an exit plan. Especially for a naïve romantic like Sansa. She’s supposed to believe in happily ever after, not be imagining a situation where she’d require cash on hand on the eve of a wedding she apparently can’t wait six months to celebrate. Nice girls don't get divorced, much less plan for one.

He flips open the box. Light catches the line of diamonds so they twinkle against the blue velvet. It’s her tennis bracelet. Given to her on her eighteenth birthday. He snaps it shut.

“Sansa… Your parents will always be there for you. I don’t think this is necessary.”

“Mama isn’t exactly happy with me right now. You never know is all I’m saying.”

She reaches across the table and covers his hand with her own. It’s cold. His heart climbs in his throat. It's a strain to keep his hand flat against the table.

“Could you sell them? Please, Jon.”

Her tender please makes his chest ache. “I’ll help you if that’s what you want, but why don’t you think about it for a while? Let it digest.”

He knows how it looks dangling from her fine boned wrist. It would be a shame for her not to have it.

“They’re just things.” She gives his hand a squeeze, and he turns his hand over, giving in to the pull of having her hand in his. “I need the money. And I’d rather not have to stash it under the mattress. Seems bad luck to be hiding an emergency fund in my house as a newlywed.”

Bad luck to have it in the house, but not bad luck to have secretly accrued it. It’s an interesting distinction.

“If Harry were to find it, he wouldn’t be happy,” she adds, releasing his hand to smooth back her flipped bob even though there’s not a hair out of place.

Jon flattens his empty hand on the table. “Does he have a temper?”

“All men have tempers, Jon.”

He shifts on the booth’s bench and taps his cigarette once more against the ashtray. He'd rather not know why she's come to that conclusion, but she sounds so wearily assured of it that he can't refuse. “I’ll find someone who’ll give me a good price for them. After you announce your engagement.”

Hopefully she'll be talked out of it in the meantime. Surely Ned won't agree to it.

“Best get on with it if you don't mind. I know you're busy and it's an imposition.”

“Not too busy for you.”

Her mouth twitches, as she looks down to finger one of the ring boxes, turning the closed box left and right. “You're very good. I'm sorry if I haven't always been as good a friend to you.”

He frowns. “That's not necessary.”

She reaches across the table to hand him the ring boxes and he tucks them inside his jacket, the way you would if you were going to ask a girl to marry you at a place like this.

“If you don't want to have the money in the house, what would you have me do with it?”

“Would you open an account for me? In your name of course. Whatever bank you do business with. Our secret.”

He stubs his cigarette out. “You’re worrying me.”

“Nonsense. That’s the last thing I want to do before your important meeting. You’ll be the big man at the agency before you know it. They’ll have to give you the best office.”

“You don’t really think that.”

“I do actually. I think a great deal of you, Jon.”

Chapter Text

It’s a Tuesday. Catelyn Stark should be at the club, playing bridge; Ned Stark at his office. If Jon’s lucky, Sansa will be the one to answer the phone.

He leans against the wooden headboard of his twin bed, the one he’s slept on his whole life. A full would be nice, but he didn’t see the need to buy new, when he moved to the city, since it was still perfectly serviceable. Propping his feet up on the green comforter he's had for almost as long, he hefts the phone from the bedside table into his lap, lifts the receiver, and dials. With each ticking spin of the yellowing dial, his heart rate increases in sickening anticipation. There are too many nines in the Stark’s phone number, he has cause to think for the first time in over a decade of calling it.

With the receiver pressed to his shoulder, he rubs his forehead, fumbling for what to say, when the Stark's housekeeper picks up and asks who’s calling.

Panic induces a response he wishes immediately he could recall. “Harry Hardyng.”

It’s the last person he wants to be mistaken for. Moreover, he doesn’t sound anything like Harry. Harry has one of those big booming voices that you can’t mistake. Apparently, the housekeeper isn't all that acquainted with the man, however, because she doesn’t call Jon on his fraud, when he asks for Sansa.

The sweet sing-song voice that replaces the older woman's doubles his regret.

“Harry? You didn’t say you were going to call. What a lovely surprise.”

Knowing what Jon does about Harry makes it that much worse to hear the little twinkle of pleasure in her voice. He should have pretended to be someone else. Anyone else.

“It’s Jon Snow actually.”

“Why, yes, of course,” she replies without pause. “One moment.”

There’s a rustling on the other end before she speaks as if through a tin can, requesting a few minutes of privacy to 'talk romantic nonsense.' He can’t make out the housekeeper’s reply, but then Sansa’s thanking her and promising to make it up to the woman, so she must not have refused.

Her sigh coming through the receiver raises the hairs on his arms. It's practically like being breathed on. He wonders if she looks as delicate, standing by the green wall phone in the Stark’s kitchen, as she did when first he saw her at Baratheon’s.

“We can speak freely now,” she says in a different voice than when she thought it was Harry. That syrupy lilt is reserved for someone wholly undeserving. 

“Sorry about the deception. That was awkwardly done, I think.”

“Never mind. Only means you're not accustomed to lying. I'd hardly apologize for that. Tell me though, is everything all right?”

No. “I did what you asked.”

Well, not precisely. The jewelry is in his safety deposit box, rather than displayed beneath glass at a pawnshop.

But he did have it appraised and deposited nearly a half that amount in a new account he opened. Left work early to do it, which wouldn’t have been the smart move on the eve of a holiday, but he had some goodwill to burn after securing the Mormont account last week.

Without resorting to selling her possessions, the money had to come out of Jon's savings. He lives simply and had some put away. The rest he’ll have to add to the account by and by. It means he won’t be able to move into a better apartment any time soon, but there was no way he could sell the gifts Mr. and Mrs. Stark had given their daughter, on account of her feeling uneasy about getting married. He never even considered it. She’d regret it someday and he wanted to spare her that.

Not that she's wrong to have reservations. He can’t stop thinking about that watery eyed look she gave him, when he arrived at lunch. How not right she looked—like someone had drained all the color out of her. Even without knowing the truth about Harry, she isn’t the picture of a happy bride.

That's where his confusion stems. While it stands to reason that she wants to be married, there should be no pressing need to accept any man without being over the moon about it.

“Thank you, Jon. I can’t tell you what it means to me that I could depend on you. Anyone else might have gone running off to tattle,” she says, sounding as breezy as she did at lunch.

He twists, setting the phone back on his nightstand. “It was nothing.”

“I would have tattled,” she says, lowering her voice conspiratorially. “You know I would have.”

“Well, I don’t have any state secrets to protect,” he says, trying to go along with her charade, though he’s had a headache all day and skipped dinner to make this call.

“And you haven’t breathed a word of the engagement to Robb or anyone?”

“Not a word.”

“Good. Thank you for that too. I don’t know how I’d explain away you knowing before anyone else.”

At this point, he could say goodbye and be done with Sansa’s little drama. He should ignore the fact that a week later, he is still the only person in the world to be aware of Sansa’s engagement. Congratulate himself that he’s already doing more than his part to help her if the need arises for her to leave her marriage. It's more than enough.

However, his stomach is in knots, knowing he'd like to spare her pain and has no reasonable way to do so. She either marries a man, who is bound to hurt her, or she doesn’t go through with it, because he's told her about Harry.

He flexes his left hand against his thigh. “Harry still hasn’t asked your father?”

“No, he wants to tell everyone at dinner. A great big announcement for Thanksgiving. Can you imagine? Oh well, it's not what I'd prefer, but he does love being at the center of things.”

Hard to back out of an engagement after a dramatic reveal if you’re at all concerned about what people think, which Sansa certainly is. She’s as proper a girl as a man could want in a prospective wife.

On the other hand, as long as no one knows about the engagement, she could end it cleanly. Wanting to avoid personal embarrassment, Harry would probably keep his ugly mouth shut about a broken engagement.

Jon’s talked himself out of giving her a reason to break it off with Harry more than once today. Odds are, she won’t thank him for telling her about Saffron, the girl from two towns over, whose father owns a car dealership. She might even hate him for spoiling her plans, for forcing her to confront the truth.

Still, a true friend wouldn’t remain silent, and that’s what she keeps saying they are.

The truth is Harry’s still seeing the girl. Jon couldn't tell Robb Sansa's secret, but he could check on Harry. That was harder than the task Sansa actually set before him, since he didn’t even know the girl's last name. It took some regular detective work on his part.

“Lucky you, you'll probably get to see the big event yourself. You’ll be at dinner, won’t you? Did Robb tell you to come?”

He looks up at the ceiling. The water stain above the foot of the bed resembles Australia. Further evidence that this place isn’t nice enough to bring a girl for a night, much less a wife. Though on his salary, that’s out of the cards.

“Yes, I should be there.”

For years, Jon has a standing invitation to Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter too. Which means he’ll have a front row seat for Harry’s announcement. The thought of toasting their happiness makes him pinch the bridge of his nose to stem the dull ache behind his eyes.

“It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without you. Bring your mother as well. You know Mama likes a crowd to ooh and ahh over the turkey.”

Yes, even his mother, who raised him alone with a story of a dead husband most people don't believe, gets an invitation, because there’s always a good crowd at the Stark’s. Little chance Ned Stark will forbid his daughter from marrying Harry with everyone looking on. Robb won’t bring up Saffron in front of his mother’s turkey. Jon certainly doesn’t have the nerve to interrupt the Stark’s dinner with accusations of infidelity. Sansa will be irrevocably headed down the aisle before the pumpkin pie is served.

Harry likes being the center of attention, but it seems like he’s not a complete idiot. He'll get the job done with as little interference as possible. Smooth sailing—just like a rowing team asshole.

“Now quick, tell me about the meeting. Mormont was it? I’ve been just dying to hear how it turned out. Did you land the account?”

Jon shifts against the headboard and the line crackles. His phone cord is twisted in several places—the black GE model that came with the apartment has seen better days, and he needs to contact the phone company to request a new rental. It keeps slipping his mind, however, since he rarely uses the thing.

“Yes, we got the account.”

You did, you mean. Well done,” she says so brightly, he swears he can hear her smile. “I knew you would. Hero of the day for the agency and for me.”

“Hardly.” His mouth has gone dry and he coughs, forgetting to turn his head away from the receiver. “Sorry about that.”

There’s silence on the other end, and for a second he wonders whether the line dropped.

“It feel like you're using the bad news tone on me. Shouldn’t you still be celebrating your victory? Mr. Rayder must have been pleased.”

He covers his eyes, as if not seeing the world around him will make it easier to say it out straight. Like ripping off a band-aid. Although, with a woman, a little gentle cushioning might be the more appropriate approach.

“Jon, is there a problem? Something go wrong with what you helped me with? You should come out with it before Mrs. Mordane comes back in.”

“Maybe,” he says, pressing on his eyelids with his thumb and forefinger hard enough to see stars. “No, I mean, not the jewelry. I don't want you to worry about that. It's that there’s another girl. Harry, I mean, has a girl.”

He braces himself. If she starts to cry, he's the right person to comfort her, but all she says is oh.

“I wish I had something else to report.”

He knows he sounds mechanical and unsympathetic. What should he say? The other things that come to mind are much too intimate. Even sharing this information with her, he's certainly over-stepped.

Wringing Harry’s neck for making her feel like this, would be a satisfying solution, but that right doesn't belong to him either.

“Should I let you go?”

She sniffs audibly. “No, wait. Tell me one thing: does everyone know about Cissy and the baby?”

His hand drops into his lap. “Who?”

“That’s the other girl’s name. I found out, when she wrote me a letter that Mama thankfully didn’t open. It was delivered the other day.”

She's speaking so fast, he feels like he has to squint to follow. “Wait,” he says, as she continues talking over him.

“I was hoping no one else knew, since she doesn't live around here.”

People knew about Saffron: she was the one Harry paraded around this summer at places nice girls don't get invited. “Is that a nickname? Cissy?”

“Oh for goodness sake, what does it matter?”

She sniffs again, louder, and Jon apologies once more. “Sorry. It doesn't.”

“Well, if you found out, other people are bound to as well. That’s why I called you to ask for your help, you know. Harry being what he is.”

Jon blinks, staring forward. “You knew, when you came to the city.”

“Yes, but I’d rather not everyone know he has a child. It makes my situation all the more obvious, I think. I'd rather not be a laughingstock.”

“Christ,” he curses before he can stop himself. “Then don’t marry him, Sansa. For God’s sake, he’s not good enough for you.”

Her voice is flat. “He'll do.”

How little does she think of herself that she imagines this is all she can expect? A life tied to a man, who has already been unfaithful twice over and fathered a child with another woman?

He's tempted to tell her some of his more private recollections on her worth, but the best he can safely do is repeat his advice: “Break it off.”

“I know you're trying to be a friend, and I'll always thank you for it privately, but I have to know you're not going to interfere, Jon. You'll see: this is important. I have to marry him immediately. Promise me you won't say anything, when he asks. Or give him that horrible look of yours. It would scare anyone off.”

“I won't,” he says, hunching forward. The promise makes him want to scream into the receiver, and he grits his teeth together to keep his voice level. “But, no one even knows you're engaged yet. There's no reason to go through with it.”

“Jon,” she says with exaggerated slowness, “there is. I’m pregnant.”

Chapter Text

It takes him four tries. Sansa only opens the door on the fourth attempt, because he pounded on it like a mad man. Loud enough that neighbors might hear if she doesn’t put a stop to it. That kind of thing matters to her, which is evident in the way she scans the quiet street lined with one shingled colonial after another.

A visitor who draws unwanted attention is bad enough. Suffering through Harry as a husband would be a source of endless embarrassments to hastily smooth over. It’s almost as if that’s what girls like Sansa are raised to do: cover for and endure terrible husbands.

“The family is out, Jon.”

“I know.”

“I’m alone,” she clarifies.

“Right,” he says, knowing he’s already off to a terrible start. He tugs at the knot of his tie. “Robb mentioned you were sick.”

He had a plan of how to put it to her. Knew just what he was going to say. And then Robb said she’d stayed home, because she wasn’t feeling well, while everyone else was gathered at the club, catching up with people in town for Thanksgiving. It was an opportunity, but a rushed one. He’s completely lost his line of thought.

Her eyes dart over his shoulder again. “I really can’t afford to have my brother’s friends dropping by. Please, go home. Give my best to your mother.”

He's thought more about his mother over the last few hours than he does normally. His mother is sad, always; he knows how it’s been for her—alone, struggling, and the subject of nasty gossip.

Even though Sansa has a fiancé, a wealthy one, he's bound to make her unhappy. After all, he's been unpardonably careless already. He deserves to eat his damn teeth for what he's done. Terrible things happen to girls in Sansa’s condition.

Her slim arm holding open the door for him endlessly like this seems like bad manners. But if he reaches for the door, it’ll seem like he’s trying to force his way in, so he jams his hands in his pockets instead. That's the sort of circular thinking he's been doing for hours, never quite landing on what he ought to do.

“No one’s seen me. I’d like to speak with you.”

With a shake of her head, she urges him to hurry up, opening the black eight-paneled door enough for him to slip by her.

“What in heaven’s name are you doing here?” she asks, as she closes it behind him and he moves into the entryway. “Didn’t you think how this would look?”

Her canary yellow skirt flattens as she leans against the door, hands tucked behind her. She's just as pale as last he saw her with her brows arched high, waiting. Despite her impeccable manners, an invitation to sit doesn’t follow. She must intend to usher him back outside as quickly as possible.

Staring down at his feet, he jostles his hands in in his pockets. The oak parquet flooring that stretches from the entryway down the hall shines—freshly waxed for the holidays by their housekeeper.

“I thought I’d check on you,” he finally says, freeing a hand from his pocket to scratch his temple.

Something softens in her face, but it leaves her only looking more tired.

“Oh, Jon.”

“I’m sorry. I can go,” he says, jerking his thumb towards the street. “If you need to rest, I’ll come back later.”

Her left hand, still bare of a ring, floats up to her cheek. She presses the back of it there, fingers curved, and sighs. “Morning sickness, I'm realizing, is an all-day affair.”

His eyes want to drift below her face to the narrow little belt around her waist. The force of keeping his gaze where it belongs somehow leaves him incapable of speech, and he dumbly frowns at her.

She rocks away from the door with a weak smile. “Be a dear and forget I said that.”

“Sorry. Sorry,” he says, apologizing for her lack of delicacy or his stupidity, as if he’s developed a stutter.

“I don't want it to be awkward between us, and I appreciate your concern, but, one of the ladies on the street will tell Mama about your car and it could get back to Harry too, I imagine.”

Harry and his temper. “So, hurry it up,” he supplies.

She shrugs one delicate shoulder. “If you don’t mind.”

He straightens the cuff peeking out from the right sleeve of his suit coat, fidgeting. He should have had a drink, a bracer, at the club before he made his excuses and disappeared. But he was in such a damn rush. If not a drink, he could use a cigarette.

He pinches the bridge of his nose, gestures, and then forces himself to speak. “I know you’re… in trouble. But you shouldn't marry Harry.”

“Is that so?”

“I'm afraid he'll make you unhappy.”

“Too late,” she says unbearably softly, lips twitching up and then down.

He breathes in slowly through his nose, trying to slow the increasing pace of his heartbeat.

He'll break Harry's face.

“What do you suggest I do instead?” she asks, crossing her arms over her chest. “Raise a child alone? Work as a seamstress to pay the bills? I’m sorry, Jon. I don’t mean to be unkind in saying that won’t do.”

She's apologizing for her assertion, which might easily be taken as a slight. But then, that's why he's been thinking so much about his mother. He doesn’t want that life for Sansa: he doesn’t want her to suffer as Harry’s put-upon wife or an unwed mother. Doesn't want that for the child either, since he keenly knows what that's like.

“I have to marry him and as quickly as possible. I could hold up under it, I think, but for my family’s sake, I have to do what’s right. To spare them.”

“Listen,” he says, fumbling. This is the part he practiced in the medicine cabinet mirror, but his best arguments seem insufficient in the face of her standing before him, so open and fragile. “Your father likes me well enough, and I know your mother isn’t of the same mind, but if she’s already angry with you…” He knits his brows. He shouldn’t have led with how much Mrs. Stark has always eyed him with suspicion. “We can get married, is what I’m trying to say or ask you.”

Her lips part; without lipstick, they're almost bluish. “He’s the father, Jon.”

“Does he know you’re… in a family way?”

A crease forms between her brows. “Of course. It took a great deal of effort to convince him he had to marry me. If it wasn’t so patently humiliating, I might even be proud of my persuasive abilities.”

“He didn’t marry Cissy.”

She looks away, biting her lower lip. “She isn’t Ned Stark’s daughter. I’ll get my father involved if I have to.”

“That’s the kind of man you think will make a good father?”

One that has to be bullied into doing the right thing.

He grinds his jaw from left to right.

That’s what people say happened with his mother—that his father ran out on her the way Harry did this other poor girl. His mother says his father died. She’s always said that, but whether he died or left, their life has been hard.

What Harry’s done feels personal. Very personal. It burns from his diaphragm and rises into his throat like a strangling sensation.

“No, of course not,” she says, stepping towards the entryway’s teak console, a new piece among the more traditional décor of the Stark house. She brushes her fingers over the shafts of wheat spilling out of the cornucopia set on top, meant to celebrate the season. They make a dry, whispery sound at her touch. “He’ll be your average rotten husband and father. But what I’m really afraid of is that he can’t be counted on at all and he’ll walk out as soon as he’s tired of us. Why do you think I had you sell my jewelry? Harry’s not a steady, reliable man.”

“You can count on me.” He tilts his head, trying to get her to look at him. “You already have.”

“For a distasteful errand,” she says, tracing the ridges of the decorative horn. “That’s hardly a life’s commitment. What, are you going to raise Harry’s baby?”

She says it so lightly it sounds as if she might laugh.

He hand flexes at his side.

He pictured it: not just being married to Sansa, but married with a new baby. A family as convenient and instant as anything they market to housewives in supermarket ads. Pictured coming home to them both. Pictured Sunday afternoon drives and dinner with the Starks. Captain Kangaroo on the television, while he reads the morning newspaper. They just got the Life cereal account. Supposedly kids like it.

His heart hammers. “It wouldn’t be his baby. I’ll take care of you and the baby.”

She looks up, blue eyes wide. “You’d resent me for it.”

“No.” He wouldn’t offer if that was the case.

“Any man would.”

“I wouldn’t. And Harry might be happy to have someone else step in.”

“That’s comforting,” she sniffs with a heavenward look. “What would we say? That we’ve been in love for years?”

“I thought I’d leave those details up to you.”

“The superior liar.” She gives a shaky sigh. “Jon, I believe you’ve lost your mind.”

Possibly, but he couldn’t sleep last night, alternating between thinking about taking the morning train to murder Harry and revisiting the contents of his stomach.

He’s known Sansa since she was a girl. He’s Robb’s best friend. Robb would be ready to kill Harry if he knew too.

The only thing that steeled his nerves was the thought of asking her to marry him, doing the right thing by offering her an alternative.

“Why in heaven’s would you saddle yourself with someone else’s responsibility?”

She purses her lips together, watching him with bald appraisal, as he lowers his chin and tries to work out how to answer her.

Because I can't stand the thought of you married to him.

He shifts on his feet, the floor creaking beneath him. “They promote married men, men with families first. I’d be up for promotion much faster. Then we can afford a smaller house here. So, you can be close to your mother.”

It’s not ideal to propose marriage to Sansa Stark and have next to nothing to offer her, but he sketched out a plan in the kitchenette on a legal pad, running numbers until he came up with something he thought she could live with and he might actually afford, so long as his salary was increased.

“I won’t expect anything from you,” he adds, clearing his throat, as his neck heats, “if you’re worried about that.”

Since she'd never have him under normal circumstances, he doesn't want her to think he's hoping to capitalize on her situation. Use it as an opportunity to satisfy some latent desire. He tries not to ever think about her like that—in terms of wanting.

Of course, she'd be his wife if she says yes. But that's what separate bedrooms are for.

She turns to the side, chest rising in slow inhalation. “That’s your aim in marrying me? A promotion?”

They move family men up the ladder, since they’re perceived as steadier, reliable, and more in need of the money. More grateful to get it too. Everyone at the agency is aware of how single men are treated differently, of course, but knowing that and having that be his goal in asking her to marry him are two different things.

He swallows hard. “I deserve one.”

He’d never be her first choice for a husband. A mutually beneficial arrangement might be easier for her to stomach than his attempt to rescue her and end this gnawing agony he’s felt since she confessed to him over the phone.

“What do you imagine?” she asks, threading her fingers together before her. “I’ll look pretty, when Mr. Rayder comes over for dinner? I don’t know how to cook properly at all.”

“You can do whatever you like. I’ll be in the city most nights until late. Out of your way.”

He won’t interfere with whatever makes her happy.

She looks down at her clasped hands. “Two souls making the best of it. Sounds very cozy.”

“You can think about it,” he says, but before he’s finished, their heads turn drawn by the sound.

They both hear it: wheels pulling into their curving pebble driveway.

“My parents. Jon,” she fiercely whispers, looking at him like he ought to do the right thing and evaporate on the spot.

Panic scoops out his stomach.

This hinged on being able to speak with her privately. As concerned as she was about someone noticing he was here, he was fixated on trying to do the honorable thing, since there was no one else to play the part.

The Chrysler engine dies and doors close in canon, as she turns on her black heels in a half circle. “You can’t even slip out the kitchen door. They’ll have seen your car.”

He raises his hands in surrender. “I’ll say I came to see Arya.”

“Don’t you say anything,” she says, sweeping her hands before her. “Let me do the talking.” Jon swears he can hear heels on the stone walk, as she covers her face before pointing at the blue velvet sofa in the living room just beyond them. “Sit down. We look as if we’re in the middle of some sort of ugly row.”

Though his heart has crawled into his throat, composure settles over Sansa, shoulders lowering as she smooths back her hair and faces the door.

Mr. and Mrs. Stark don’t make it through before she hurries into their arms, hugging them in turn and kissing her father on the cheek.

“Feeling better?” Mr. Stark asks, as Mrs. Stark glances over at Jon perched awkwardly on her sofa.

“Much, thank you.” She links arms with her father. “Did you see who’s here?” she asks in a breathy kind of excitement.

“Yes, isn’t this a surprise,” Mrs. Stark says, hand still on her daughter’s shoulder. “We weren’t expecting you until tomorrow, Jon.”

“We couldn’t wait,” Sansa says, looking from her parents to smile radiantly at him.

It isn’t real. She’s a drugstore ad of feminine delight meant to sell perfume, but it skewers him. Square in the chest.

“Daddy, Jon has something he’d like to ask you.”

Chapter Text

It’s exactly a week until the wedding. Seven days until he marries Sansa Stark. Jon has been told where to be, at what time, and what to wear, and that’s the extent of how much this marriage has impinged on him thus far. Save for a few brief phone calls to check up on her. Seemed like the right thing to do, and he couldn’t stop thinking about her anyway. How fragile she looked. How sad and lonely. How desperate she must be to have fixed upon his solution in a split second.

Strictly speaking, he didn’t need to come back home this weekend, but the phone conversations they’ve had have been so strained, he thought he’d better try to shake some of the rust off and take her out to dinner. It might make the actual wedding day a hair less uncomfortable if they have a normal evening alone together to build upon. They’re about to be spending a lot of time together. Can’t hurt to get used to it.

And he wants to see her. If only to make sure she’s all right—as right as she can be.

Coming home means enduring the Stark’s displeasure. Her parents pretend to be happy enough to see him, especially with Sansa’s arm draped through his, but the act is pretty thin. They’ll put more enthusiasm into the spectacle at the wedding and afterward, selling the idea that these two young people have been entirely carried away by their love for each other. Something fit for a pastel scalloped greeting card heralding congratulations upon your wedding. Won’t stop the whispers, but it’s better than the alternative.

“I’m sorry. That was awkward,” she says, playing with the kiss-lock on her purse, as he closes his car door and wraps his hands around the wheel. “You probably didn't count on being treated like that.” 

“It’s all right.” He lets go to dig in his pocket for his keys. “It’ll be better after the wedding.”

She doesn’t respond, not even to murmur agreement.

The bench springs creak, as he turns to her. The sun has set, but the circles under her eyes stand out in the murky light from the Stark’s porch. It has to have been difficult for her at home too. That on top of the morning sickness.

He feels himself starting to blush and clears his throat, facing back to the wheel. Hopefully the dark hides his embarrassment.q vb

Of course, it might not measurably improve after the wedding. Maybe the baby will alter the landscape a little, but for the time being, with the family, things are bound to be thorny at best. From their point of view, he’s brought a hint of scandal down on their family and overstepped with their sister or daughter. Some of them might always dislike him because of it; he’ll have to take it like a man.

Robb ignores him at the agency, Arya probably has no interest in speaking to him, but the worst of it is Mr. Stark’s gruff terseness. An engagement this short isn’t a father’s dream come true. Whatever fondness he felt for Jon, what he thinks of him now is obvious behind his tight grimaces.

His opinion matters to Jon. Always has, since he didn’t have a father at home. A decent man like Mr. Stark was someone he hoped to impress. Knocking up his daughter has not impressed him.

Mrs. Stark’s opinion would matter too, except she’s always looked at him like an interloper. She had some choice words for him, while Sansa got her coat, which he won’t share with her over dinner in the village. No point in spoiling her dinner. But her mother definitely believes he did this intentionally—with gross calculation for his own benefit.

Makes his blood boil.

Depressing the clutch, he fits the key in the ignition. It turns with an unhealthy sound. His car isn’t even good enough for Sansa. He’s painfully aware of having a car that’s not long for the boneyard and a grungy apartment, but he would never marry her for handouts—offers of a house, a car, things to make him acceptable for their daughter—or for social elevation. But that’s what Mrs. Stark always suspected he was up to: trying to gain advantage from a relationship with Robb. From the outside, it looks like she was right all along.

The metal steering wheel slides through his hands, as he backs out of their driveway, wheels crunching on the pebbles.

“We’ll forget about it at dinner,” she says, resting her hand between them on the bench.

It’s a prophetic move: as they go over the curb, his shocks fail to absorb much, but her hand steadies her from careening into the passenger window.

He and his car might be from the wrong side of town, but he’s not a goddamn creep.

Even Harry didn’t do this with any real intent.

Doesn’t make seeing his face any less of a blight on their evening, however, when Jon pulls into the parking lot beside the restaurant and spots a sandy haired drunk, stumbling towards a car with his keys already held out in front of him. A much nicer car than the one Jon and Sansa are in.

She sees him too from the way she tucks her purse in closer to her middle.

Pulling into a space, he grabs the gearshift, ready to throw the car in reverse. “You want me to turn around? Drive around the block?”

There’s too long a pause before she says, “Maybe he won’t see us,” for him to believe she’s okay.

He puts it in park more forcefully than necessary.

He’s imagined meeting him like this. Someplace dark. Just not with Sansa along.

Son of a bitch.

She hasn’t said how it went, telling him things were off and she was going to marry someone else. He’d like to know, but he’s not sure he has a right to inquire. They were the genuine article, even if Harry is a lying cheater. What Jon and Sansa are is a solution to a problem, which isn’t quite the same thing.

If Jon finds out he gave her a hard time…

Harry and his temper.

He follows Harry’s weaving path with narrowed eyes. “Is he usually as drunk as this?”

“No.”

He's either really enjoying being newly single or he has taken it poorly.

“You sure you don’t want to leave?” he asks, drumming his fingers against the wheel.

“We shouldn’t let him spoil our evening. You made reservations.”

Harry stops, leans forward with his hands at his hips, as if he’s trying to see at a long distance, and straightens back up.

“He's seen us,” Jon says pointlessly.

“We're bound to run into him sometime, I suppose,” she says with an admirable amount of spirit just as Harry grins at them.

He grins that handsome grin of his that makes twin dimples form in his cheeks. And flips them the bird.

Jon’s already got his hand on the door handle to wrench it open before Harry takes a step towards their car. Already slammed it behind him, as Harry shouts, “Jon Snow. The man himself.”

Another car door closes and Jon throws a look over his shoulder to see Sansa, standing beside his car, two white hands clutching her purse before her with wide eyes. She hasn’t felt well, and now she’s forced to confront this man, whose carelessness will expose her to public censure no matter how well she plays the part, how happy she manages to look on her wedding day.

She’s wearing the prettiest pale blue dress, as old-fashioned as the rest of her wardrobe but perfectly her, perfectly of this world. For all his breeding, it’s Harry Hardyng who’s proved he doesn’t belong.

“Get back in the car,” he calls to her, pointing.

His hand shakes with a tremor and he balls it up, letting it drop stiffly to his side.

“Hey, sweetheart,” Harry slurs, and Jon swings back around on him.

“You apologize for what you just did or you don’t speak to her all.”

“That little gesture of appreciation was for you, not her. So, I'm not going to be apologizing to anyone. Hey, sweetheart,” he repeats again, louder, as if everyone within a block couldn’t hear him already.

His khaki pants with deep pleats and slim fitted sweater are trademarks of his society, but his shirt underneath is half-untucked, protruding from his sweater in a crooked rumple. Like he took a leak and couldn’t manage to tuck himself back in.

He takes another staggering step. “Looks like your new man drives a used car. Doesn’t mind used, does he?”

Two angry strides and they're toe to toe.

“Get in the car, Sansa,” he says without looking away from Harry's flushed face.

This time she complies, and the sound of the door shutting echoes in the parking lot, as Harry pretends to check his watch, feigning that he’s unbothered by Jon’s invasion of his personal space.

He stinks of alcohol. “You’re drunk or I’d rearrange your face for speaking to her like that. Next time I will.”

He looks up from his wrist. “How long is this going to take?”

He pokes him in the chest, hard enough that in his state of inebriation Harry rocks on his heels. “You’re going to leave her alone.”

Widening his stance, Harrys smirks crookedly down at him. Such an ugly, handsome face, full of contempt underneath the red flush of alcohol. Just waiting for someone to remove that smile.

“You’ve always been a real drag, Snow.”

“I sure as shit don’t like you either. But don’t speak to her if you can’t manage your disappointment.”

He bends enough at the waist that their noses almost touch. “She’s choice, but last thing I wanted was to get married. Saved me a lot of trouble. Thanks, buddy.”

Jon breathes out slowly, the burn of anger spreading from his chest down his limbs, consuming him like a gasoline fire. Makes the words hard to bite out. “Good. Then don’t cause trouble for her. About anything. Understand?”

Harry claps him on the shoulder. His hand feels hot even through his suit coat. He squeezes—too hard to be friendly. “You were so damn desperate to be a Stark. Always skulking around like you might get the scraps if you were patient enough. Got your chance now, huh? What a goddamn price though.”

Jon bats his arm away with a sharp swat. “Take your hand off me.”

“Sure,” he says, delivering two solid pounds on the back, equally unfriendly as his heavy-handed squeeze. “No offense. Just calling it like I see it.”

The man has giant hands. He’s good looking and charming enough when he wants to be. It’s why all the girls are crazy about him. But the thought of his big paws on Sansa makes a muscle in Jon’s jaw jump.

“When’s the big day?”

“None of your business.”

He gives a dumb two-finger salute and nods towards his car. “Excellent. This has been a blast.”

Hands patting and fumbling, he searches for the keys he must have put away, when he spotted Jon’s car. Twice he misses the right pocket, hand sliding over his pants, as Jon watches him, scowling.

“You should walk home tonight. You’ll kill someone in this condition.”

“That’s none of your business. We done?”

He scrubs his mouth, teeth gritted together. His skin feels tight. His hands itch. He can feel Sansa’s presence at his back, watching. He exhales hard.

“So long as I have your word.”

Harry squints one bloodshot blue eye at him. It might be a wink. “Whatever you say. And congratulations.”

A loping stagger to the left puts his back to Jon, as he stumbles towards his car. That’s the end of it. They can pretend he doesn’t exist, once they’re in the city, where he’s unlikely to turn up unexpectedly like this. It’s done.

“Hey,” he says, tripping over his own foot, as he looks back. “Enjoy the used merchandise.”

It snaps—the fine thread holding him snaps.

Grabbing him by the shoulder, he jerks him around and makes contact. There's a sharp clack of teeth as he shoves his lower jaw upward. A satisfying feeling winds in his chest, as time speeds up, the world goes orange around the edges, and he pulls back again. Harry grunts, doubles up without a struggle. For all his superior size, Harry’s drunk. Reactions are all slowed down.

Fucking asshole.

Two quick thrusts. Harry’s perfectly white teeth split his knuckle, when his head snaps back, mouth ajar.

Again. Again.

Harry has his hands up in a useless defense and mumbles something. Jon barely hears the pop of Harry's nose over the pounding in his head. Like a twig snapping, as bright red floods down his lips and chin.

He lurches forward and falls on one knee. “You broke my fucking nose,” he chokes, spitting pink onto the pavement.

“Stay down,” Jon barks.

He does, he kneels there, looking up at Jon. Nose looking wrong and blood smearing his face. No fight in him.

Piece of shit.

The screaming in his head doesn’t stop.

He scuffs his foot on the concrete. He’s going to kick him in the chest, in the gut, until he curls in like a shrimp.

Headlights flood the scene. He freezes, as awareness bleeds into his body along with the yellow light framing the scene. He straightens up, pants, pivots. Caught there in the bright beam, he stares unseeing. Adrenaline drips off him. He feels the sting in his hand for the first time, as Harry scrambles to stand back up.

He closes his eyes, as the headlights cut off, opens them again, and he can finally make out Sansa’s silhouette through the windshield.

Jon wipes snot from under his nose with the back of his hand. “Walk.” His throat feels raw and he vainly tries to clear it before he repeats himself. “Walk your ass home or I’ll call the cops.”

He doesn’t wait to see whether Harry gets to his feet, when he turns back to the car. He gives his suit coat a shake, as he walks, and flexes his hand that won’t stop stinging now that he feels it again. Can’t stop the sting or the shame flooding his gut, threatening to make him vomit, at the thought of Sansa watching him unravel like that. Like an animal.

He grabs the door with his injured hand and pulls hard, slides into the seat and slams the door shut.

She sits there as primly as ever—hair perfect, skirts spread in a quarter circle, feet crossed at the ankle. He can’t bear to look at her. He covers his face. The shame on the back of his tongue is thick and bitter. Behind his shaking hand, he can't stop his heaving breath, which sounds unbearably loud in the closed space of his car.

She says his name, so gently it's like a caress on his burning skin. “We should go, Jon.”

He nods, squinting hard behind his hand.

Every muscle in his body is strung tight, but when he feels her cool fingertips wrap around his wrist, the strings are cut. She gentles his hand away from his face and straightens the fingers slowly. He watches her ministrations with a strange detachment, as if the hand belongs to someone else.

“You’ll have to keep your hand in your pocket, when you get back to the house” she says, running her thumb over the split in his knuckle. The whole hand is angry looking, swollen and red. “Is it broken?”

Possibly. Testing, he curls his fingers in and straightens them out, as she cradles his wrist. “No.”

“Do you need me to drive?”

“Just give me a sec. I’ll be fine.” He swallows hard, forcing down the bile that threatens to rise up. “He’s going to be in rough shape though.”

He chances a look at her, steeling himself for the condemnation he’ll see in her eyes. Or worse, fear.

With her lower lip caught between her teeth and her brows pulled down, tears shimmer at the corners of her eyes, conveying a vulnerability at odds with the fierceness of her reply: “Good.”

Chapter Text

Newlyweds.

That’s the word on everyone’s lips at the Christmas party. Sometimes said with a saucy smile. It implies something that couldn’t be further from their reality.

They are newlyweds—married less than two weeks. But Jon sleeps on the sofa, while Sansa sleeps in his twin bed. The only time he kissed her was in front of the congregation of St. Paul’s and he didn’t know where to put his hands. Their wedding night, he heard her throwing up in the bathroom from morning sickness or the horror of having just married someone for convenience’ sake. Either way, there’s none of the newlywed hanky-panky people are happy to imply.

Even with a room booked upstairs, there is nothing like that awaiting them at the conclusion of the agency party. In years past, they held the drunken get-together in the office itself, but with several new major accounts, there was more to celebrate than usual. More funds at the ready too. So, Mr. Rayder moved the affair to a high-end hotel.

Checking into the hotel for the night seemed an inspired decision. Convenient, yes. A touch of escapism too, since Jon has never felt as bad about his apartment, until he faced bringing the new Mrs. Snow home there. It’s the type of everyday fantasy they peddle to the public, a life just out of reach, more perfectly arranged, all the difficulties buffed out. That included telling her to buy herself something to new wear for the occasion. They live at a questionable address, but he can afford for her to look as nice as the other wives and girlfriends in attendance.

Better.

Mance Rayder’s wife might be better cook, might not scorch Mance's good shirt with an iron, so he has to keep his suit coat on, and she might not flood the bathroom after forgetting about running a bath, but none of that really bothers Jon. Sansa doesn't have to play homemaker, that wasn’t part of the deal, wasn't in the fine-print. But she's trying. And while she’s not winning any home economics awards, no one is as beautiful. Jon is pressingly aware, with his hand in the small of her back, that the most beautiful woman in the room tonight is his wife. No more so than when the evening winds down and his brilliant idea of booking a room means they need to retire there alone together.

He grabs another coupe of champagne, as a girl goes by with a tray, and nods at Sansa to see if she wants another glass. She declines.

She’s been sipping on one glass most of the evening, dangling from her cupped fingers like an elegant accessory, while he took one glass after another. She doesn’t require intoxication to shine in a setting like this. He’s watched how she shines, fascinated by how she asks the right questions and delivers the most well-received compliments and laughs just gaily enough and smiles and smiles and smiles.

For all the skill of her performance, he knows she's tired; she has an uncanny ability to sleep anywhere at present. So while he might be dreading the refuge of the hotel room with its crisp linens and paneled walls and twinkling view of the city, she'd rather be asleep. Freshly bubbling glass in hand, he suggests they thank Mr. Rayder and turn in for the evening. She looks relieved for the barest of moments. Easy enough to miss if she wasn't his sole focus.

He can see Dalla and Mance Rayder are charmed by her, as she says their goodbyes. Of course they are with her eagerness and way of putting people at ease. She's everyone's favorite guest, as much as she's his new favorite person to sit across from at the dinner table.

And then, with a flippant, “One thing before we go,” her whole aspect changes.

She runs her hand down Jon's lapel, shifting seamlessly from warmth to playfulness. The actresses they cast in television spots aren't this smooth, and their hosts' faces perk, ready to buy what she's selling.

“I think my Jon works through all his lunches. He'd never admit it to me, but he eats my burned pot roast so gamely that I can’t think of any other explanation.”

Dalla looks up into her husband’s astonished face, he looks back, and then they laugh together. Mr. Rayder’s laugh dissolves into a full belly laugh, as Sansa continues, “I can do a passable pastel portrait from my sketching classes, but my cooking is hopeless.”

There's a glimmer of triumph in her quick glance at Jon before she bends towards their hosts, hand still wrapped around his suit coat. “Look at him: he can’t afford to skip lunches and subsist on my cooking.”

“Mance, she’s right. He'll waste away,” Dalla says with a wink for Sansa. “Handsome though.”

“Very,” Sansa agrees, smoothing his coat down. Jon watches her hand’s movements, his heart beating in his ears. “But I wanted you to be aware of this dire situation. It’s practically a health crisis.”

“Oh, I’m aware, my dear,” Mance says, extending his hand to Jon. It’s a friendly shake, not the bone-crushing grip he levels at new hires and competitors. “Jon’s one of our hardest workers. We won't let that go unrewarded. You work on his waistline and I’ll work on the rest.”

Jon lifts his champagne. “I think you should hire my wife.”

Sansa’s eyes go wide. “Jon, I can’t type.”

“Not for the secretarial pool. To write copy. You’d be better at it than I am.”

She rolls her eyes at him, all playful exasperation, as Dalla takes her hand in hers—the one graced by a gigantic cocktail ring on top, the other on the bottom. Dalla is very pregnant underneath her blue lace dress and the gesture strikes Jon as decidedly motherly.

Jon gives a fleeting look at where Sansa’s gown folds upward in a series of geometric pleats at the waist. There's nothing to hide there yet.

Fitting his finger into his collar, he strains his neck under its tightness. He’s uncomfortably warm, and the smell of pine from the flocked trees in the corners is almost oppressive.

“Mance can tell you, all I could manage was fudge and popcorn when we were first married. You'll learn a thing or two along the way.” She pats Sansa's hand with a nod. “Now, I’ll send Mance with an invitation to dinner soon. Promise you’ll say yes.”

“We would love that,” Sansa says, thanking them again before steering them adeptly away with her arm through his.

“You’ll have that promotion soon,” she whispers, drawing him in closer with a bend of her elbow.

“You didn’t have to do that.”

“What? Accuse you of being skinny?” she teases with a nudge.

“About gave me a heart attack.” Either her angling for the raise itself or her hand trailing over him. “You could have warned me.”

“You wouldn't have let me do it if I told you, and now we only have to find Robb and the evening will be a real success.”

Jon would rather not. The only thing he hates the idea of more than asking for a raise is finding Robb and attempting to talk to him.

The wedding was a one-off, a short reprieve from the cloud of Stark condemnation that hangs over him. Back at the office the following Monday—no time for a honeymoon on short notice leading up to Christmas—his best friend turned brother in law was back to ignoring him. Just as he has avoided them tonight.

“There he is. Over by the coats. Come on,” she says, as his feet threaten to root to the floor. “I’ll make it right.”

With cheerful grace, she conspires on Jon's behalf and wins over the boss’ wife, but family politics are trickier than even Manhattan business. Robb's face is proof of that, when they approach him and his date, and he hardly acknowledges them, as the girls embrace.

“Jeyne, don’t you look lovely?” Sansa says, leaning back to admire Robb’s girlfriend. “Robb, you lucky thing, you.”

The kiss she gives her brother on the cheek is received with a flat grimace.

“I’ve been wanting to chat with you,” Jeyne says with a shyly awkward touch of her hair. “We never seemed to get around to where you were.”

That was purposeful. Jon knows it, Sansa knows it, but Jeyne appears unaware of her date's reluctance to speak to them.

Jon takes a sizable swallow of champagne that burns from the roof of his mouth to the back of his throat.

Jeyne is pretty—dark hair, dark eyes, heart shaped face. Not exactly Robb’s type, but for reasons Jon can only guess at, she’s stuck longer than any of his previous girlfriends.

“Oh, these office things,” Sansa says with a little shake of her head. “They’re terrible for getting a chance to properly catch up.”

“You’ll have to tell me where you got your dress,” Jeyne says, nodding at Sansa’s satin evening gown.

Sansa looks every bit the blushing bride. Her ivory column dress, beaded in silver, could pass for one of the modern wedding dresses in Manhattan bridal salon advertisements. With her hair pulled back in a French twist, it’s as if she’s recast herself—modern city woman, wife of an ad man on the make.

Newlyweds.

She's even got color in her cheeks again the past couple of days, making her look less like a girl whose father required a shotgun for the wedding.

He pulls at his bow tie without gaining any relief.

“We’ll go shopping. A partner in crime is exactly what I need. Although,” she says, looking pointedly at her brother, “I wouldn’t want to involve Jeyne in your displeasure. Your date is angry with me. Did he tell you that, Jeyne?”

The girl’s eyes dart from brother to sister.

“I didn’t tell him that I was madly in love with Jon,” Sansa says, splaying her hand over Jon’s chest. “We took him entirely by surprise by announcing our engagement, and he doesn’t like it.”

“That’s not the issue,” Robb says, goaded into speech by his sister’s inaccurate assessment of the family situation.

“Robb,” Jon says, as a means to an opening without knowing what else to say to his friend.

He can’t tell him the truth, and Sansa’s hand on him is the worst kind of distraction. His friend is furious about what he thinks has been done to his sister, and there he stands, stupefied by her touch. She can probably feel it—the way his heart is skipping against his ribs.

“But I didn’t tell anyone about us,” Sansa says, bubbling over with fictitious confessions, “because I knew they’d all be silly about it. It’s so much better just jumping into being family, the way we should have always been. Jon’s practically always been family, hasn’t he, Robb?”

Robb slides his hand into his coat, retrieving a pack of Luckies without breaking eye contact with Jon. “Practically.”

“And now that he really is, it’ll be the most brilliant Christmas ever. Jon and I are so looking forward to it. Aren’t we, dear?”

Looking at him expectantly, she pats Jon’s chest—thump, thump. “Yes,” he agrees lamely. “Can’t wait.”

Robb’s brows reach for his hairline. “Sounds like it,” he says, placing a cigarette between his teeth.

“You need to stop punishing Jon,” she says, reaching over to pluck a cigarette from the pack. “I’m desperately happy and want everyone else to be too. Don’t you agree, Jeyne? It’s better when we’re all merry.”

“Well, I’m terribly happy for you,” Jeyne says.

“Thank you,” Sansa says, unlit cigarette pinched between her fingers, as she touches Jeyne’s arm. “Maybe there’ll be another wedding soon. Hmm?”

The girls give each other that female arched conspiratorial look that makes Jon feel like he’s been dropped into a client meeting wholly unprepared, and he jams his free hand in his pocket.

The hotel key his fingers encounter makes him chance another look at the white expanse of Sansa’s neck and shoulder exposed by the wide-set straps of her gown. He doesn't even know what she sleeps in at night: she emerges in the morning dressed for the day. Although, he supposes he's about to find out.

Robb claps him on the shoulder, jarring him back to the present. “They’ll have both our futures planned out for us if we let the pair of them talk for too long.”

It’s the most his friend has said to him in weeks. This is the very opening Sansa was hoping to create for them. Jon squints, working out what the right response is. “No doubt.”

“Good thing the night is over,” Robb says, raising a finger, as the girl from earlier goes by with an empty tray. “Hold on, we’ve got one for you,” he says to her as she stops.

Robb means Jon’s glass, which he hasn’t quite finished though its mostly gone flat. He tips the glass, draining the last spider. The side-glance Sansa gives him, when he places it on the tray, is the sort of appraising look wives give husbands. It makes him wonder if feigning irritation is part of the public game they're playing.

“We can share a cab,” Robb offers, pulling a lighter from his pocket.

“Another time. We’re um… staying here.”

“Oh.” Robb flicks the silver lighter open . “It’ll take me a while to get used to that. It's a little strange. You two never particularly hit it off as far as I knew.”

Inhaling as he holds the lighter, he gives Jon a look that he can’t read over the cigarette, puffs, and then sniffs. “Did you manage to speak to anyone tonight? The partners? Our colleagues?”

Jon clears his throat and frowns, glancing over at Sansa’s continued whispered intimacies with Jeyne and then back at Robb.

“What’s that?” Jon asks, when his friend’s eyes crinkle at the corners in the beginning of a grin.

“You’ve been staring at my sister all night. Doesn’t look like you opened your mouth more than once or twice.”

Panic tightens the muscles in his gut, but Sansa saves him a response. “Don’t be jealous,” she says, sliding her hand down Jon’s arm until her hand fits around his, unlit cigarette still balanced between her fingers. “I know what you’re worried about, and I swear I’ll share him with you.”

“Are we sharing a cab?” Jeyne asks.

“Not tonight,” Robb says, putting his hand out to shake Jon's. “Another time.”

They say their goodnights in the lobby, promise to see each other in a couple of days, and leave them with Robb helping Jeyne into her coat. Sansa might be right: this night might actually count as a success if Robb can picture ever sharing a cab with them. It's more than Jon expected out of her sales pitch to her brother. Jon could use someone in his corner at Christmas other than the wife he is still nervous around. Regardless, he's going to watch how much he has to drink no matter how his nerves get to him.

Jon exhales, as the moving arrow above the lobby elevator points to the second floor and then the first. Sansa must have pressed the button.

“You’re welcome,” she says, as the door slides open and the operator greets them.

“Thank you,” Jon says, both to her and the uniformed gentleman, who selects their floor with a pull of the lever.

She must have told him the floor too.

With the man’s back to them, Jon looks over at her. A red curl has escaped her updo. He wouldn’t mind tucking it behind her ear. Or pulling the pins out to watch the rest of it fall free.

She’s wearing her pearl earrings and necklace too. Just like she did on the day of the wedding. It was her mother’s dress, altered hastily, according to Sansa. Cut in a v at the neck, slim through the hips, and pooling at her feet, it was decidedly old-fashioned. Under different circumstances, she would have chosen something else for herself, but that would have been a shame, since she reminded him of a starlet from another era. She has that kind of face—timeless.

She lifts their clasped hands up between them and scrunches her nose at the cigarette. “Still smells awful to me. Maybe I’ll quit.”

He takes it and slides it behind his ear. She smiles—not the bright one from downstairs. This is his smile, the one she gives him over the dinner table in his kitchenette. It’s real, free of affectation. He loves that damn smile.

“And the rest of them will come around too,” she says, leaning into him to rest her head on his shoulder.

His chest feels like an inflating balloon, as he pulls her body against his, fingers following the curve of her waist.

“Well, maybe not my mother,” she amends.

The elevator pings, and he laughs. “Maybe not your mother.”

They thank the operator, when the door opens, and he wishes them a good evening, as Sansa picks her way over the gap.

Jon doesn’t recall what their room number is, but follows Sansa’s pull to the right. The red carpeted hallway is quiet, absorbing the sound of her heels, the walls bright white. He should remember the way, they dropped by the room before the party began to deposit their things. Jon sat in the room's armchair, waiting while she performed mysterious female preparations behind the bathroom door.

“Anyway, every man of substance has an adversarial mother in law,” she says, wheeling them around. Room 410's brass numbers greet them. “It’s how they cut their teeth for greater contests.”

With his left hand, he digs for the key. “Is that right?”

“You’ll profit from the practice at the agency.”

He squeezes her hip. She’s amusing. If he’s not mistaken, she’s trying to be amusing, dangerously so with her pursed lips and fluttering lashes. It’s working all too well: he’d like to flatten her against the door, explore her mouth. But that's exactly what he promised her she didn't have to worry about with him. Wandering hands and greedy assumptions.

“You’ve had a lot of champagne tonight,” she says with a quirk of her red lips.

She takes the dangling key from his loose grip.

“I’m fine,” he says, leaning into the doorjamb, as she jiggles the key in the lock. “Are you all right?”

“I only had one glass.” He lets the wall hold him up, as she walks through the door. “And if you’re asking how I’m feeling, past few days, much better. Mother says it sometimes goes away about now. The morning sickness,” she clarifies, as she removes a heel. “You coming in?”

He steps through the door. When he closes one eye, she comes into better focus. “Your mother knows?”

She raises her brows at him. “Of course, she knows. She suspected before you asked Daddy. You were the part that surprised her.”

“Right. She loved that.”

“Yes,” she says, flashing him a toothy smile.

He closes the door with the weight of his body and watches, as she grabs the back of her second heel and pulls. She doesn’t ever undress like this in front of him. Not even her shoes. It could be the champagne or the hour or being in this space that isn’t really theirs.

No, Robb was right: he can’t stop staring at his wife. He should. He absolutely should, but then she goes and points her stockinged foot and flexes, and he can’t look away.

He pulls his lower lip through his teeth. Hard enough and his lip doesn't register as numb.

“You look like you feel better.”

“Is that a compliment?” she asks, fingers working at the screw backs on her earrings.

He bends to undo the laces on his shoes and kick them off, giving himself something to do so he doesn’t tell her she’s beautiful. So damn beautiful.

“You picked out a nice dress,” he says to his feet.

When he straightens up, the set of her mouth is either coy or flirtatious. Or he’s drunk. The blood rushing from his head seems to confirm he’d be better off not standing.

“I know I have some competition. Mrs. Rayder thinks you’re handsome.”

“You were masterful with them. Could teach a class,” he says, collapsing on the bed.

The world spins. He closes his eyes, but everything still spins behind his lids.

“Tonight was nice. I felt normal.”

Extraordinary.

“You still have your clothes on, sleepyhead.”

The bed dips, and he opens it eyes. She leans forward over him, two pearls cradled in her hand.

“I’ll get up. Give me a second,” he says, as she leans further, depositing her earrings on the nightstand.

She sits back and reaches for his bow tie. “And sleep where?”

“Chair.”

She tugs on the knot. “Don’t be silly. It’s a double bed. Plenty of room for two.”

His tie comes free, and he moves to undo his shirt’s top button. Their fingers brush. It's almost electric the feeling that shoots up his spine, making his nostrils flare.

Their eyes meet.

“There,” she says softly. “She's not wrong, you know.”

He exhales, as she twists away and slides from the bed.

“Were you teasing earlier?” she asks.

“About what?” Jon asks, scrubbing his face and letting his eyes drift closed.

Through his drowsy intoxication, he can make out her soft footfalls, moving around the bed, fingers trailing over the comforter in a raspy drag. His head lolls to the side, and he cracks his eyes open to watch her.

She sits on the far side of the bed, back to him, still in her gown, hair still up. The only thing she removes is her necklace, fingers swirling the latch behind her neck and then pooling the pearls in a coil that tip taps against the nightstand as she lets it pool.

Scooting towards him, until they’re on the same pillow, she rests her head on hands pressed together as if in a schoolgirl prayer. This close, their bodies touch in a long line—her breasts against his bicep, her stomach just above his hip, thighs—all the way down to her feet, which nudge his calf. One strap of her gown slips free of her shoulder with the inward curve of her body.

It's torture. He scrubs his face again more forcefully and rolls on his side to face her. It puts a couple of inches of buffer between them that his fuzzy brain appreciates.

“Were you teasing about writing copy?”

He sniffs. “No. You’re very persuasive. That’s what it is, getting someone to buy something. Persuasion.”

“You want a wife who works?”

“My mother worked.”

This close, he can count the fading freckles from summer dusting the tip of her nose. He’d like to kiss her there. Run his hand up her arm, put that strap back in place, and just kiss her. Softly.

He's safer on the couch at home in his grimy apartment.

“You can do whatever you want.”

“I think you might actually mean that.” She reaches out to cup his cheek, thumb arcing over his skin. Her fingertips reach, stretching into his hairline, and the scratch of her fingernails raises goosebumps that he closes his eyes against. “You probably wouldn’t miss my attempts at homemaking.”

It’s only been a handful of days, but he’d miss her more than he can say. Having her waiting for him at home is awkward at the outset every night; it’s also a distinct pleasure, having her show interest in his day and listening to her talk about hers.

“I always wanted to be a wife, a mother. Check and check. Or almost.” She presses her lips together and withdraws her hand. “Why did you hit Harry?”

“He didn’t treat you right. Things he did, said weren't right.” His coat is tight around his biceps in this position, and he sits up to shoulder it off and toss it on the ground. He eases back down alongside her. “It made me angry.”

“Thank you. For standing up for me.”

“I don't know whether you should thank me.” It's continued to bother him, though she hasn't mentioned it since. He doesn't want her to see him in that light again. “I lost it there.”

Her lips lift and fall.

All men have tempers.

“Sansa,” he says and swallows hard against the shame that wells up like bile. “I wouldn't hurt you.”

Her eyes flick down to his mouth and back, and he's ready to swear it again, ready to offer to sleep on the chair, anything to chase down this feeling, when she pulls him down with a hand to his cheek. Noses bumping, he's not sure if she closes the small remaining sliver of space or if he does. Every thought is scattered. Lost to the gentle give of her mouth, the taste of her lipstick, the crunch of the feathers in the pillow, as he slides his hand around her waist and pulls her closer. Fits her to him. She's warm and pliant and her head tips under the soft, gentle brush of his mouth. It's all promising gasps and aching restraint, because he wants to roll her under him and rock into her.

And then as unexpectedly as it began, it's over. Save for their shared breath, ghosting over wet mouths.

“I’ll be back,” she murmurs with one last stroke of her fingers on his face.

She rolls away. The bathroom door closes behind her. He flops on his back, covers his eyes, as the sound of water running echos beyond the door.

Chapter Text

The Starks have the sort of Christmas Jon didn’t know existed as a child. Their tree is the aluminum kind—too expensive for the Snow household—lit by the color wheel that turns its silver branches from pink to blue to green and back again. There's one of those Italian crèches on the fireplace hearth, the kind they sell in Bergdorf Goodman in the imported Christmas displays. Their red-striped stockings are stretched from over-stuffing. Everyone gets exactly what they wanted and then some. And the food is rich—prime rib, very rare, trays of oysters, amaretto carrots, asparagus roll-ups, cheese soufflé, and drinks stiff enough to put you under the table. Think the new Alka-Seltzer ad-campaign but skewing to the niche Mayflower market.

Everything is perfect. It even snowed last night to complete the picture-perfect scene. Not too much—too much would have made travel from the city impossible. Just enough to hide the brown grass and dust the leafless trees. The Starks wield enough sway that you might even believe they ordered it up from the weatherman, the same way they ordered breakfast from the club to serve after the midnight lessons and carols service.

Unfortunately, he’s an inkblot on this scene of Christmastime perfection. Being the thorn in the side of your wife's family makes for a long day. Of course, it's not all bad. Sansa stays resolutely by his side, which is its own kind of pleasant torment, seeing how he's made a mess of things between them. Robb is decent and Arya warmed up some as the day went by.

They are the exception, however. Bran and Rickon are a little wary of him, as if they have some vague sense that he's done something wrong without knowing what. Mr. Stark ignores Jon's presence like he's a moving blank spot in the room. The most conspicuous of the bunch is Mrs. Stark, which is no surprise given he's never been her favorite. But he's gone from overlooked to her ever-present focus. It’s a wonder she manages to play her part as organizer of this flawless holiday tableau, while also watching him like a hawk.

He can’t even help her without earning her disapproval. It seems like the right thing to do, when Mrs. Stark and Sansa stand to clear the dining room table for him to pitch in. That's how he was raised. Mrs. Stark already did all the hard work and Sansa grew quiet as the meal went on, sitting with her hands folded in her lap. So, he suspects both of them are tired. Never mind that many hands make quick work.

But he’s misjudged the situation: Sansa’s mother looks at him like he’s grown a second head, when he stands up and begins to collect one plate after another. It would be awkward to put them back, so he continues with his misstep, while feeling several sets of eyes on him.

Following behind the pair of them, after they’ve disappeared into the kitchen, his hands and arms burdened with dirty dishes, he finds them side by side at the sink. Mrs. Stark isn't wearing her rubber gloves, she's not yet begun to wash up, but they're clearly in the midst of something from their stiff posture and hushed voices. Possibly talking about him, which is what he expects everyone will do once he and Sansa leave for the evening.

“He was trying to be helpful,” his wife says, as she hands her mother a plate.

Mrs. Stark turns off the faucet and grabs the checkered towel hanging on the wall. Her head swivels towards him, acknowledging his presence. Sansa's mirrors her mother's movement, so they both stare at him with his tower of unwanted assistance.  

“You didn’t have to do that. Sansa and I have it under control.”

“Arya could have helped too,” Sansa says, as she unties the half-apron she put on to help her mother plate dinner.

It’s embroidered with holly along the bottom edge and in the off-set pocket. She probably did the embellishment herself. She can’t cook, but she undersells her domestic abilities, joking about pastel painting. When she moved into the apartment, she brought with her several sets of new towels too nice for their bathroom adorned with crocheted roses and daisies that she'd done herself. Maybe for her wedding to Harry. Maybe long before that for an blank-faced groom she never expected to be her brother's friend. Then she set to work going through his closet and dresser to pull out everything she determined in need of mending. Her stitches are so small and even, you'd never know she'd done a repair.

“I think you’re aware that sometimes, when it comes to your sister,” Mrs. Stark says, crossing the linoleum floor and holding out her hands for his dishes, “the path of least resistance is the best. But there was no need for you to get up, Jon.”

“I’m used to helping my mother,” he says, transferring the too-tall stack he’s collected into her arms.

Her mouth tips down before turning back for the sink.

“I was just telling Mama that I’m a little tired,” Sansa says, folding the apron. “I wouldn’t mind going home if you’re ready.”

He breathes out in a rush of relief that immediately sours, as he notes the bluish circles under Sansa's eyes. Playing quiet protector of her new husband on Christmas day has no doubt been as difficult for her as the day has been for him.

“Too tired for cake?” Mrs. Stark glances over her shoulder at Jon. “Do you like lemon chiffon cake? It’s Sansa’s favorite. I also made chocolate if you prefer. Ned does.”

Jon's brows twitch, thrown by the show of regard for his preference. It's seemingly at war with her observation of him today. He's not sure how to respond and fumbles. “I’m sure it’s delicious, but if Sansa needs me to drive her home... ”

It wouldn’t have been the polite thing to interrupt dinner to ask Sansa if she wanted to leave, but he knew she was tired. He could absolutely tell from the shift from holiday cheer she exuded, covering for his silences, to shrinking silence at the dinner table. He should have said something. If he hadn’t been consumed with self-doubt over how to walk the line of attentive husband without veering into undesirably attentive husband of convenience, he might have done the right thing.

While drunk, he overstepped the other night. It's unforgivable. And yet, he can't stop obsessing over how Sansa’s lips felt under his.

He's got to stop thinking about kissing her. For his sake as much as hers.

Difficult, when the doorway into the dining room features a plastic mistletoe ball with a flocked elf perched on top that they had to pass under on their way into dinner. Walking with his hand on the small of her back, upon Catelyn's invitation to sit down, he steadfastly ignored the red elf's presence. Sansa did not, pausing to glance up. Robb insisted they go ahead and get it over with. Arya laughed and called him stupid, when he stood there, trying not to look at his wife's lips. To put an end to the teasing, he relented with a kiss not quite on the cheek, but missing the fullness of her lips.

Or maybe he couldn't help himself. Her skin is so soft. He just wants to trail his fingers over her cheeks and thread them into her hair and kiss her for hours.

Goddamn it.

Only a couple of weeks into the marriage, and he's acting like he's forgotten what he promised her he'd keep his damn hands to himself without any expectations.

Not that she’s said anything about it. She hasn’t mentioned the kiss or how she must have found him passed out when she came back to bed or that he ended up taking up more than his share of the bed, so that they woke up entangled with each other, the smell of her perfume on his suit and her head a pleasant weight against his chest.

Not a word.

“Yes, I think I might turn into a pumpkin if we stay much longer. Thank you for a lovely meal, Mama. You outdid yourself,” Sansa says, rocking forward to kiss her mother’s cheek. “I do hate to miss the cake. Cut me a piece to go?” she asks, pressing the apron into her mother’s hand.

“Only if you promise to come next Sunday for dinner,” Mrs. Stark says, as Sansa weaves around the counter towards him.

“Promise,” she vows with mock-seriousness, as she stops to touch his arm, varnished nails wrapping around his forearm, where he's rolled up his sleeves from the heat of the fireplace. “I’ll go get our things together.”

She looks up at him with those soft, dewy eyes, like the ones that looked across a pillow at him before they kissed, and there it is again, the thirty second spot that plays in his mind at every opportunity. Her hand on his cheek, the taste of her lipstick, the warm puff of her breath. That tight coil in his gut, formed from wanting and restraint.

Thirty seconds and cut. Back to reality and his wife staring up at him with a half-smile lifting her lips, those circles bruising her eyes doing nothing to diminish how beautiful she is.

Her skirts brush his legs with a crinkling rustle, as she leaves him standing inconveniently alone with the person least happy to have him here.

Mrs. Stark looks him up and down, as he fights the urge to rub the back of his neck. He probably should have begged to be excused five minutes ago.

“Does she feed you?”

“Yes,” he says, sliding his hands in his pockets. “Why does everyone keep asking me that?”

He grimaces at himself, saving her the trouble. He'll blame the childish show of peevishness on shot nerves, because usually, he's very good at avoiding unnecessarily aggravating Robb's mother.

“Because you’re lean and I'm aware my daughter never learned. Do you know how to heat something up?” she asks, lifting the plates to lower them into the sink full of suds.

“Yes, I can manage.”

“Good. I remember how tired I’d get. Especially with Robb.” She dries her hand on the towel again and turns towards him. “If you’re used to helping, I can wrap up enough for another dinner, and you can heat it up for the two of you.”

Her alluding to Sansa’s still officially unannounced pregnancy makes Jon’s cheeks hot.

Looking down at his shoes, he clears his throat. “Thank you.”

“Have a seat there while I do, hmm? We’ll give Sansa some time to get herself together.”

He lowers himself onto the vinyl chair that faces the cabinets and sink, as she busies herself with opening the refrigerator to pull out whatever she’s already put away. The Stark’s kitchen table is white and yellow, the same bright color as the walls, and its starburst atomic design is set with sparkles. He traces the line of one with his middle finger.

“I hate bringing this up,” she says, setting a heavy bowl on the counter, alongside two long casserole dishes, “but I found something, while I was cleaning out Sansa’s room. A letter. Do you know someone named Cissy?”

Panic races up his spine like an electric shock.

She glances over his shoulder, at the sound of a boisterous laugh in the dining room behind him. It’s Arya.

He wets his lips and tries for disinterest. “Why do you ask?”

Catelyn spins on the balls of her black heels towards a high cabinet, opens it, pulls out a long box of tin foil, and closes it again.

Placing the box on the Formica counter, she fixes him with a look different from the one he's labored under all day. What he's felt all day was the weight of her appraisal, while she sized him up, not blatantly judgmental but intense enough that even with his back turned he knew he was being observed. The deep line forming between her blue eyes and slightly parted lips make him feel seen in a different way.

“So, you do know her.”

He taps his middle finger on the table. “Not personally.”

“The baby is Harry’s.”

He flattens both hands on the cool table top. “No, I’m her husband. I’m the father.”

“Jon,” she says, ripping a length of foil with exaggerated force.

He curls his fingers in until his hands are fists. “New York doesn’t have a legal definition for paternity, but in most states, that’s enough.”

“You checked.” She breathes out and her shoulders, narrow like her eldest daughter’s, lower.

He gives a jerky nod and she nods back.

She bends to open a lower cabinet, and he lifts a hand to drag his thumb and forefinger along the length of his brows, pressing hard. This is what he wanted to avoid—forever, so it would just be his and Sansa’s secret. Until it was so long in the past, it didn’t even seem real anymore.

“Will he give you trouble?”

Her question is almost obscured by the sound of bumping bowls and pans.

“No,” he says, fingers squeezing his temples.

She stands, green Tupperware in assorted sizes perched on her hip. “Mr. Stark could apply some pressure to assure he doesn’t.”

There's a fierceness to her hushed assertion that makes him drop his hand into his lap.

“Mr. Stark knows about this?”

“No,” she says, placing the Tupperware on the counter. She reaches for a casserole dish with one hand and opens a drawer with another to retrieve a serving spoon. “I thought it might complicate Christmas further if I told him now.”

“Could I ask you... not to?”

“Ever?” She scoops one heaping spoonful into the Tupperware and then another, stopping to tap the edge of the spoon on the corner. “That’s a tall order, don’t you think?”

The same nauseated helplessness he felt, when Sansa told him the news, twists his gut. He was supposed to protect her from anyone knowing the truth. Protect her and the baby.

“Even as a kid, you know when people have doubts about you.”

Spoon held aloft, she freezes and blinks back at him.

Jon is not in the habit of bringing up his issues of questionable paternity. If anything, mentioning it now, when he’s supposedly knocked up their daughter, is the worst thing he could do. Of course, the kid with a mysteriously absent, supposedly deceased father from the wrong side of town couldn’t keep it in his pants: they’re all the same. Apple and the tree if you will.

Except it's hard to get anything by Catelyn Stark, always figured out what they were up to as teenagers before they were halfway finished causing the trouble. She knows the truth about who is to blame here, which is why she’s been staring at him all day. Probably trying to figure out why he married her daughter.

“In my case,” he continues, “it could be passed off as speculation, and this time, it could become a fact.”

She makes a noise in the back of her throat and reaches for the next dish. “Ned knowing wouldn't end in the village knowing.”

“No, but people who don't know, won't have a reason to doubt whether I love them the way I ought to.”

She stops in her scooping and tilts her head. “I think some men would find the prospect unnatural. That it would prove to be a challenge. And I think some people would question your motives.”

He leans back in the kitchen chair. “I would have given anything for a father.”

She taps the spoon again and sighs. “But that’s not all it is, is it? Are you a good actor, Jon?”

He frowns. He wasn't involved in theater at school, much too guarded for that kind of display. Athletics were his thing.

“I don't think so.”

“Well, either you have a real untapped talent or there’s a reason Robb and Arya seem to have forgiven you already for how they think you've misused their sister.”

Robb’s only speaking to him because Sansa paved the way. And Arya… That he can't explain. She holds a grudge better than anyone, and she and Sansa aren’t the best of friends, so he's not sure why she switched from snapping at him to teasing over the course of the day. He's relieved, but it's a mystery to him.

“I suppose Sansa’s father will do the same even if I don’t tell him.”

“You won't tell him?” Jon asks, half-certain he's misunderstand her.

“No, I won't say anything. Unless you need our help. Then you'll tell me.”

“Of course.”

Rubbing his hands down the fronts of his pants to grip his knees under the table, he exhales. It'll end here. Having closed the loop with a unexpected co-conspirator, not much has changed. Maybe Catelyn believes his motives for marrying her daughter, maybe she doesn't, but she's protective of her family: she'll keep their secret for Sansa's sake.

“You certainly lend credence to the little farce you two have spun. Harry was the better catch, but she lost her head with the boy who was in love with her since they were children. Do I have the gist of it?” She lifts the tin foil and settles it over the top of the first casserole dish. Pinching the edges down, she glances up at him. “That’s what you were hoping people would assume?”

Those were the details he left to Sansa. All he knew was he was offering her an out if she wanted one. An offer with no strings attached.

She hums. “Well, we need to get you in a better place before the baby comes. You know Ned is going to tell you that soon. The apartment you have won't do.”

He swallows. “I expect I’ll be getting a raise soon.”

“Good. I’ll have this ready to go for you in a minute. In the meantime,” she glances at the door, “go find your wife. I’ll cut cake for you both. Chocolate or lemon? You never said.”

“Lemon.”

He prefers chocolate; he’ll give the extra piece to Sansa, since it’s her favorite.

Chapter Text

It’s freezing out. Not just in a manner of speaking, but actually freezing out. Jon is frozen or near enough to it, when he attempts to unlock the apartment door. Sleet coats the shoulders and collar of his coat and crusts in his hair, and his bluish fingers fumble with the keys, until the knob turns for him with the key still half sticking out. Given how cold he is, it's like a Christmas miracle, except there's been no real supernatural intervention: only the effect of having someone waiting for you on the other side of the door. He had no notion how good that would feel.

With a shuffle-stomp of his feet, he looks up, as Sansa appears behind the slowly widening door. A welcome gust of warmth hits in the face.

“Thank you for that. My hands won’t hardly work.”

“Well, I figured no one else would be so crazy as to be out today.” Her eyes drift upward. “Oh heavens, Jon. You forgot your hat.”

“Yes.”

He reaches up to test the effect the ice has had. It’s not good.

She puts her hand out for his briefcase with a frown; he doesn’t take it amiss. She worries in a pleasantly female way he’s unaccustomed to, but finds himself warming to. This is what he likes: coming home to someone that seems happy to see him, who asks him things and fills his silences with the details of her day.

Of course, it admittedly makes him happier than it probably should. But that's his problem, not hers.

“And your gloves.”

He flexes his hands. They're stiff with the cold. “No, I remembered those and then left them in the office or possibly the bank.”

The office isn’t officially open between Christmas and New Year’s, but Jon had some work to do on an account. It could have waited, but he had an errand he wanted to run as well and thought Sansa might appreciate having the apartment to herself, since he’s been under foot for the past few days. A weekend is one thing, but the holiday stretch is quite a bit more: he didn’t want to wear out his welcome by overextending the intimacy of close quarters.

“They’re new,” she scolds, heels clicking on the uneven kitchen floor.

“I’ll get them back,” he says, shutting the door behind him by collapsing against it.

His cheeks feel chapped, when he brings his hands up to rub them.

“And until then?”

“Pockets,” he says, shoving his hands in his coat pockets in demonstration.

She sets the briefcase down beside the kitchen table and crosses her arms over her chest. It reminds him fleetingly of Arya. “You’ll catch your death with that brilliant plan.”

Shouldering out of the heavy grey topcoat, he sighs as more heat from the apartment reaches his limbs. “It should warm up by tomorrow. Isn't that what the weatherman said?”

“You know I fell asleep during the news,” she says to his back, when he twists to hang the coat on the beat-up coat rack.

Of late, she's spent less time hung over a toilet bowl but  still demonstrates an impressive ability to fall asleep anywhere. Not that he minds sitting on the sofa beside her, with her head slowly slipping towards his shoulder. He'd never wake her if he didn't think the bed was a better place for her to get a good night's rest. He'd just indulge the closeness and the sound of her breathing.

In the tightness of their space, he almost brushes her arm, as he reaches past her to grab the back of one of the Hitchcock chairs he uses in the kitchen. He drags it over by the door and drops into it to remove his shoes. They’re going to need some work after the soaking they got. He’ll probably need to stuff them with paper and place them before the radiator as soon as possible. Hopefully a good polish will cover any resulting sins. Coat smells like wet dog too, hanging behind him.

Two good pulls and accompanying thuds, and his shoulders slouch, as he sinks properly into the Hitchcock chair.

“Did you get finished what you needed to get finished?” she asks, moving around the remaining chair with a swing of her circle skirt to the small counter space in their kitchenette. She pulls the glass pot from the Mr. Coffee they received as a wedding gift and gestures with it. “Coffee? I brewed a fresh pot in case. Or would you rather have a cocktail?”

They received a crystal decanter too, which sits on the dresser in the bedroom. They don't even have so much as bar cart to place it on. Sansa's friends probably can't imagine something so low-rent.

“Coffee, please.”

Her answering smile is the one he waits for every night. The soft one that she flashes him over the table, when he tells her the dinner is good or he relays some episode from the office.

He watches her with his heart climbing in his throat, as she stands on her toes to retrieve his mug from the highest shelf in the cabinet. While she pours his coffee, things bounce around in his head, which he can't say to her. Things he'll have to get used to keeping to himself, no matter how they niggle the back of his skull. And maybe that will be enough.

The corners of her mouth are still angled up, when she hands him the warm cup. He attempts to smile back, as their fingers brush, but he can’t feel his face. It would be a relief to dump this entire mug on his icy feet, but she’s worked on getting the proportion of water and coffee grounds right, so their coffee happily exists somewhere between dirty water and a bitter sludge. Can't waste all that effort.

She stands before him, hands clasped over her apron, brows raised in anticipation. There's a daily test of the coffee. This will be the second test of the day.

He takes a searing swallow, grimaces, and nods. “S’good, thank you.”

She twists to pull out the other chair and smooths the back of her skirt under her to sit. “I used just a touch more grounds this time. I think I’ve got it right.”

“It’s perfect.”

It might be, might not be, but running the flat of his tongue against the roof of his mouth, he knows he burned it. That’s the only thing he can truly attest to.

With his free hand, he fingers his hair again: it's an increasingly soggy mess of waves usually fixed in place by Groom & Clean and a drag of his comb. It's water activated, as the copy he wrote boasts, so the ice is doing its best work.

“Don’t worry about your hair, Cary Grant. Tell me about your day. Did you get your work done at the office?”

“Work. Yes.” He slouches further in the chair, extending his legs out in front of him. “No one was there. A little eerie, but I was able to get some things really done without all the interruptions.”

Getting ahead will help prove his worth, bolster that image of hardworking Jon Snow, newly minted family man, deserving of a raise.

A mortgage payment looms ahead. As Catelyn warned, that little sit-down with Ned is approaching, and he'd like to be ready with a solid plan backed up by real, not hoped for salary numbers.

“Good. Maybe you won’t have to go in tomorrow then.”

“There’s always something I can do. Stay out of your hair,” he says, avoiding the urge to touch his.

She's liable to tease him again if he does. He likes her teasing. That Cary Grant jab made his gut tug, which makes it a perilous thing to encourage.

“If you want,” she says with a lift of her shoulders.

There’s a soft ticking coming from the corner. His gaze follows the noise. It’s the Robin’s egg blue kitchen timer, counting down to something. There’s nothing on either of the two burners, so she must have something in the oven. Can’t really smell it. Maybe his nose is too frozen. But at least with a timer set, there’s less chance of them eating something encased in carbon.

Or it won't matter with his scorched tongue.

“Hungry?” she asks, sitting forward to perch on the edge of her chair.

His stomach started growling an hour ago, but he wanted to get to the bank before it closed for the day.

“Uh, yeah. I forgot to grab lunch.”

“I told you not to do that.”

“I know.” He stretches out a hand to her, fingers splayed like a traffic cop. “Don’t jump up just yet though. I have to defrost anyway.”

“Fine, but I’m going to end up having to come by to make sure you eat, aren’t I?”

“You know I wouldn’t mind that.”

“Sure,” she says, sounding unconvinced. “Just what every man wants. His wife unexpectedly turning up.”

“Not every man dreads being around his wife.”

“No?” she prods, as he points towards her feet.

She glances down at the briefcase

“There’s uh, something in my briefcase for you if you want to take a look.”

“A present?”

Her question tightens that feeling that’s taken residence in his chest, since she gave him that hopeful look about the coffee. He shouldn’t have phrased it that way and gotten her expectations up. Their very pragmatic arrangement must be disappointment enough for a romantic girl like Sansa without making pretense towards romantic gestures and letting her down.

“No, not exactly,” he says over the rim of the mug, before taking a more cautious sip. “But I thought you might want these for the party on Thursday.”

Lifting his Tourister briefcase by its metal handle, she sets it on its side on the table and moves the two sliding latches towards the outer edges. It opens a sliver with a soft pop. She glances over her shoulder at him and he nods again.

“Nothing top secret in there.”

“I’m sure there’s some unspoken rule about rooting around in a husband’s…”

She trails off, as she props the briefcase open wide. Three red boxes sit atop the handful of papers tucked in the file he brought home with him—copy he’s working on editing. Her hands retreat from the case, fingers curling in until they're balled up and she sits back, staring.

He’s not sure what he was expecting from her in terms of a reaction to the return of her jewelry, but it wasn’t this.

His fingers tense around the handle of his mug—a brand new Fire King mug stamped with an orange flower. It's part of a set that accompanied their coffee pot wedding present. He’d been using mismatched glassware, scavenged from the remains of broken sets his mother had over the years, but when he brought Sansa home, he also brought home a collection of fashionable home goods from guests, who were summoned for their sham of a wedding.

“You can wear them on New Year’s at the country club,” he says, as if she doesn’t understand the import of his previous statement. “If you want,” he adds, so they're not sitting there in total silence.

“You bought them back? Wasn't that expensive?”

“No, uh...” He pauses to balance the mug on his thigh, clears his throat, and continues, “I didn’t actually sell them.”

Looking down at her lap, she picks with her thumb at something invisible on her left hand. “You told me you sold them for me.”

“Right. Well, I had them appraised and then put them in a safety deposit box. I dropped by the bank to pick them up today, but if you think they’re safer there, I’ll take them back after the party. You probably didn't worry about that kind of thing at your house. Sorry.”

He's babbling.

“Why?”

He adjusts his seat, rocking on his tailbone. “What’s that?”

“Why did you say you'd sold them, when you hadn’t?”

“I couldn’t. Your parents gave them to you as gifts and I know they're important to you.” This is going wrong. It feels like the oxygen has been sucked from the room, and even when he draws a deep breath, it doesn’t help with the clamp around his chest. “But I opened an account for you like you asked and there’s money in it,” he scrambles to explain, speaking with increasing speed, while left hand restlessly moves over his leg. “Not the full amount they were appraised for, but I intended on putting more in by and by, so it would be there for you.”

The ticking of the timer sounds louder with every passing second.

“I still can,” he finishes.

It's dawning on him that what he thought would be a nice gesture for the upcoming new year is quite possibly a crushing setback. The money was an escape plan, should Harry fail her like she feared he would. Then she traded one groom for another. When she agreed to that alteration, the funds from the sale of her jewelry might have turned into an escape plan for their marriage.

One which has just evaporated with the snick of a suitcase latch, leaving her without a backup plan.

Imagining it hollows him out: he could come home and instead of the knob turning for him, she could be gone. Red jewelry cases, milk glass mugs, and those pretty hand towels all gone with nothing but the lingering scent of her perfume proving she’d ever graced this shabby space.

“Where did the money come from?” she asks, finally lifting her eyes to him. “That you put in the account?”

He taps his middle finger against the body of the mug. “Savings.”

Your savings, you mean.”

He tests the fullest part of his lower lip with his tongue. He tastes iron: it’s split from the cold. “Yes. I had some. I know it doesn't look like it.”

“Now stop that. You put away your own money, so I could marry someone totally unsuitable.” She tips her head towards the briefcase. “Were you going to gift these back to me on the anniversary of my wedding in ten years’ time?” she asks, voice wavering.

He hadn’t really worked out how he would manage to give the jewelry back to her without thoroughly embarrassing them both. He usually operates by going forward with what he thinks is right and then tries to paper over the cracks later as best he can. It’s gotten him this far at least.

“Well, you didn’t marry him.”

She huffs on a gaspy little laugh and shakes her head at him. “No, I didn’t, thank God. You saved me from selling my jewelry apparently and from marrying Harry, and all you seem to have gotten for your trouble is bad coffee and irritated in-laws. I like to think I’m good at figuring people out, but I own it’s a little puzzling, Jon.”

“You forgot the coffee mugs,” he says with a flat smile. The stretch of his mouth makes the split sting.

With his heart beating erratically, he brings the cup up to his mouth. Just what he needs: caffeine to help with this mounting anxiety.

If their house manages somehow to be enough—close enough to her family, not too embarrassing a place to bring her girlfriends, big enough for the baby—and he doesn’t press too hard, impose too much, she won’t need an escape plan.

Just because he’s realized he wants more, doesn’t mean his wife does. It’s his job to give her what he promised, nothing more, and then he can content himself with what they do have. Which is a lot. Which makes this sad ache so unreasonable and so pitifully human. 

Eyes narrowing with a shimmer of amusement, she sniffs. “Yes, very nice mugs. I don’t mind saying I’d have preferred the blue flower though.”

“It would match the décor better,” he says with a glance at the yellowing paint, which may have started out white or some shade of ivory before it turned.

“Yes,” she agrees with an unladylike noise approaching a snort.

His mouth twitches. He's not sure he's ever made her laugh before. Not properly. It eases something inside him just enough that he can swallow around the lump in his throat.

“Thoughtless of the Karstarks not to realize,” she says, pressing her hand to her chest. “They might have asked about our color-scheme.”

“How would you describe it?”

“Bohemian,” she says without missing a beat. “Very chic.”

She turns back to the open briefcase and traces the top of the narrow box, the one that holds the tennis bracelet, with the tip of her index finger.

“I thought unsuitable might be more apt,” he says, following the play of her finger with his gaze.

“You know when you're selling something, you can fix anything up with the right language.” She shakes her head, picking up the box. “Are you going to tell me why you did it? You didn’t know you’d be receiving mugs, when you decided to ignore my request and put yourself in financial ruin.”

“Not ruin.”

Giving him a sidelong glance, she hums and sets the box back inside his briefcase.

“Well, I thought you’d regret it someday.”

At the time, he thought he knew what motivated him, but he’s realized that he hasn’t been honest with himself, when it came to Sansa Stark, in a long time. Except now, she's Sansa Snow, his wife and his responsibility, which should be the happily ever after to his story. It's not, precisely.

“Would have been terribly uncomfortable, when Mama asked what became of them, hmm?” she says, sniffing again, as she rests her hand on the table and stands.

“Probably.”

She arches one brow. “And you two were almost chummy when we were leaving on Christmas. Remarkable.”

She takes one and a half steps to stand before him and bends at the waist. He lifts his chin, as her hands cup his face, looking up into her face of soft confusion and hesitancy, crinkling the skin at the corners of her eyes and pulling her pretty mouth down. If she doesn't know how to act, they're lost.

Maybe it was too much, the jewelry, the gesture. He doesn't know anymore. How does a man act with the woman he's in love with in a situation like this?

“Thank you, Jon.”

At the brush of her thumbs over his cheekbones, his breath catches. The gentle kiss she presses to his forehead is part warm lips, part cold tip of her nose. She lingers for a moment, hands framing his face, breath ghosting over him, and he could pull her down into his lap and kiss her properly. But he doesn't.