The tent was well over a hundred miles away, and already Sansa's pulse was out of control. If her heart kept thundering like this, she was likely to get dirty looks from the other passengers in the quiet coach of the train. Clasping her locket in one hand, she took a deep breath. Her phone chimed with a text—which did, in fact, earn her a glare or two, even though another woman was noisily eating a tuna and sweetcorn sandwich. Sansa's crime was minor in comparison. Meals involving fish had no place on public transport. Switching her phone to silent, she smiled at the message.
Gilly: Are you there yet? Have you seen Tormund and Varys and Davos?
Sansa: Still on the train, so no. And what about Cersei?
Gilly: You know she's dead to me after what she said about sweet little Shireen's FLAWLESS opera cake in the last series. She is so obvious about preferring certain bakers
Sansa bit back a laugh. After Dickon died, one of the only things to brighten her days during that first, dark year had been watching Bake Off with Gilly and Sam. Gilly tended to get very worked up about her favourites. It had become an annual event for them, with Gilly and Sam both trying to convince Sansa to apply at the close of every series, just like Dickon used to do.
Gilly: Don't let her smell your fear. You're going to be amazing, I just know it. Dickon would be so proud of you xx
Gilly: But don't forget to turn on your oven
Thanking Gilly and promising to give a full report after she spotted the judges and presenters who hadn't committed the crime of being harsh to Shireen, Sansa tugged one of Cersei Lannister's books out of her bag and started reading. She had all of them—Varys's, too. Her hope was that they would pick from their own recipes for the technical challenge at least a few times. Whether Sansa would remember anything she'd read once she was in the tent and the pressure was on was another matter entirely.
As Sansa stared and stared at the method for making baba au rhum, she felt someone's gaze on her. The man across the aisle looked away when she made eye contact, but she caught the searching expression on his face—like he knew her from somewhere and was trying to remember her name. There was something about his dark hair, handsome face, and the solemn line of his mouth that struck a chord in Sansa's memory as well. Her phone vibrated again, providing a distraction from the maybe-stranger.
Arya: just fyi, if Cersei and Varys are mean to you, I can add them to my list
Sansa: What list? Are you going to need an alibi if I get sent home in week one?
Arya: don't worry about it. Gendry knows a guy
Arya: if something actually does happen to either of them and these messages end up as Exhibit A, IT WAS A JOKE. the only guys Gendry knows would need a For Dummies guide to commit any sort of crime
Sansa: Not sure the jury will buy that. I promise to sneak you cake in prison
Arya: not sure I want it if you get sent home in week 1
Sansa covered her mouth to hold in her chuckle. Gods, she wished she could bring her loved ones into the tent with her. She wouldn't be anywhere near as nervous if she had them nearby to cheer her on and take the piss out of her.
Immersing herself back in Cersei's recipes, Sansa let the rest of the world fade away. By the time she looked up again, they were pulling into Highgarden. The station hadn't changed since the last time Sansa had been there, nearly four years ago. As she descended the ornate stairs to Platform 6 to wait for the slow, local stopping service that would take her to Newbury, she noticed the maybe-stranger heading the same way. They stood on opposite ends of the platform and pretended to be engrossed in their phones.
The train that rattled up to the platform was still an ancient, two carriage thing that made Sansa think of a tin can. On all of her previous journeys, she had gone past Newbury, all the way to the end of the line: Horn Hill. Those trips had always been made with Dickon. He had held her hand and grinned that lazy grin of his and suggested ways to keep themselves sane if his dad went off on one of his rants during their visit.
Sansa boarded the train alone. Part of her was tempted to sit in the same carriage as the maybe-stranger—to place herself within easy sight of him and try to untangle that puzzle—but instead, she settled down near the front to watch the familiar, golden fields of the Reach fly past.
Lyanna was clearly going to be Twitter's favourite baker. She was a petite seventeen-year-old who looked like she would punch anyone who dared to suggest she might ever cry over cake. Had Sansa been watching the show from home, she would have started cheering for Lyanna at first sight.
Sansa and her fellow contestants had been instructed to gather in one of the hotel's stuffy conference rooms on their first evening in Newbury. She assumed they were being encouraged to mingle so they could start to bond, since a big selling point of the show was how kind the bakers were to each other.
Sipping her cup of tea, Sansa looked around at the nametags, trying to memorise the faces that went with each one. Melisandre, Shae, Brienne, Stannis, Podrick, Oberyn, Margaery, Edd, Nan. It was a lot to take in. When she watched at home, she and Gilly usually referred to people by nicknames like "manbun" or "purple hair" until at least the third week, as they couldn't remember their names.
The final contestant to make up their group opened the heavy door and walked into the room. The dark haired, solemn faced contestant. While Sansa gaped at him, the maybe-stranger, definitely-baker approached the production assistant, Alys, for his nametag.
Jon. Sansa squinted. The answer to how she knew him was right there, just out of her grasp. Maybe they'd passed each other in the corridors of the studio headquarters during the endless pre-show interviews and screen tests?
Upon noticing Sansa, Jon's eyebrows flew up. He approached her with a cautious smile.
"Hi," he said. "Err, I didn't want to ask you on the train, because it sounds like the worst sort of chat up line, but do we know each other?"
"Maybe? I'm not sure how, though. What's your surname?"
"Hmm. I'm Sansa Tarly, but my maiden name was Stark."
His mouth fell open. "You're Dickon's wife, aren't you? I'm one of Sam Tarly's old uni friends. We must have met at Sam and Gilly's wedding, what, eight or nine years ago?"
"Oh. I think you're right. You helped me get Dickon back to our room when he got the bright idea to try to match Gilly's sisters shot for shot, didn't you?"
"I did." His laughter at the memory faded as quickly as it came. With a soft, sympathetic expression, he said, "I was so sorry to hear about him and Randyl."
Sansa gave a quick nod. "Thank you."
Had Jon Snow been at the funerals? In all honesty, Cersei Lannister herself could have turned up, and Sansa wouldn't have noticed through the numbing haze of grief.
"I wonder if this is a Bake Off first," she said. "Two contestants who aren't complete strangers. Sam and Gilly never said a word about you being on the show."
"Ah. Well, they don't know. I decided not to tell anyone but my mum unless I made it past the first week."
She chuckled. "I wish I would have thought of that."
"You two," Oberyn called out, pausing to read their nametags. "Sansa and Jon. Come over here. We're playing Never Have I Ever."
"With tea and coffee?" Sansa asked. And with a seventeen-year-old?
Oberyn shrugged. "We're playing with points instead of drinks. Now, if either of you have ever won a swordfight, you're going to need to give yourselves a point."
Jon and Sansa stared at each other, then back at the group.
"Has anyone actually been in a swordfight?" Jon asked.
Both Brienne and Lyanna raised their hands. Sansa grinned.
Alys had been present for the entire interview, but she couldn't say how, exactly, it had come to this point. One minute, she had been asking Brienne about her hobbies outside of baking. The next, Brienne was teaching Podrick the basics of swordfighting (with the aid of a couple of tree branches) while Lyanna looked on. Alys wondered if she should stop them. As great as the footage might be, the production company would likely be liable if they got hurt.
"That was less terrible," Lyanna said. "Here, Pod, try it against me."
Podrick shuffled back a few steps. "I can't fight you."
"Why the hell not?" Lyanna swished her branch through the air. "Because I'm smaller than you? I'm from Bear Island; we fight with the strength of ten mainlanders."
Yeah, stopping them was definitely a good idea.
Sansa touched her locket and tried to remember how to breathe. She had spent months imagining this moment: walking into the tent for the first time. Now that it was finally here, it didn't seem real.
Don't forget to turn on your oven, she thought. Don't forget to turn on your oven. Don't forget to turn on your oven.
She had been warned about the 5:00 AM wake up calls, the thirteen hour days of filming, and the endless interviews. She thought she was prepared for standing beneath a tree and doing multiple takes in which she talked about how excited she was to be there. But her hands had trembled the whole time, and her shaking only got worse once she stood behind one of the pastel workstations. Jon was at the bench in front of her. Looking back over his shoulder, he gave her a smile.
Tormund and Davos strolled into the tent, followed by Varys and Cersei. To Sansa's left, Shae bounced on the balls of her feet.
"Welcome, bakers, to The Great Westerosi Bake Off," Tormund said.
"This week is cake week," Davos said, "and for your signature bake, Varys and Cersei would like you to make a chocolate cake."
"It can have whatever other flavours you like," Tormund said, "but it must be at least three layers, and it must be decorated with at least two types of chocolate. And now, for the first time, on your marks…"
"BAKE!" they said together.
To make Gilly proud, the first thing Sansa did was preheat her oven. She even opened it and felt the heat, just to be sure. Behind her, she heard Oberyn switch on his mixer. There were cameras on nearly every baker at all times, ready to catch any mistakes. Everyone had to announce when they were putting something in or taking something out of the oven, so the crew could be right there to film it.
Tormund wandered by while Sansa was weighing her flour. Taking one look at her, he placed his hands on her shoulders.
"Relax," he said. "You have an advantage in this competition."
She let out a weak laugh. "I do?"
"Aye. In the Far North, they used to call hair like yours and mine kissed by fire, did you know? It means we're lucky." He eyed her huge bars of dark chocolate. "Do you need all of that?"
"Err, probably not? If I run out, there's more."
"Good." He patted her back. "You'll be fine."
It wasn't until Tormund moved up to Jon's bench that Sansa realised a big square of the dark chocolate had disappeared from her supplies andTormund had a suspicious bulge in one cheek. She had been warned about his tendency to eat surplus ingredients, too. Chuckling, she got back to work. The lucky hair might be a myth, but she could do this.
"It's going to have a hazelnut liqueur buttercream between the layers and a dark chocolate mirror glaze over the top," Sansa said to Cersei and Varys. "And then there will be feathers made from white and dark chocolate that will hopefully look like they're sort of floating on the mirror glaze."
Cersei hummed. "Sounds like it will be quite simple."
Simple. Sansa's stomach dropped. That was almost as bad as Cersei saying rustic or homemade.
"Well, simple can be elegant, if it's done right," Varys said, casting a pointed glance at Cersei's elaborately beaded top.
"Yes, but if you're playing it safe, it has to be absolutely perfect."
Grimacing, Sansa added a few more chunks of chocolate to her bowl. "No pressure, then."
Cersei's smile was a false, thin thing that didn't reach her eyes. "Good luck, Sansa."
Sansa managed to make the curved chocolate feathers look somewhat delicate, in spite of her hands still being far from steady. Definitely less delicate than the feathers she'd made at home, but there wasn't much she could do about that. A smear of crumbs stuck to the tester when she prodded at her cake; it needed a bit longer. Without anything else to do until the cake was ready, she sat on the floor to watch it bake.
"I swore I wouldn't be one of those people who stares at my oven," Jon said, sitting next to her with a timer in one hand.
"So you're going to stare at mine instead?"
Plopping down on Sansa's other side, Shae looked at the oven as if riveted by the view. After a few moments, she giggled and said, "We are so sad."
Jon nodded. "We really are."
Shae had a Lorathi accent and kind, brown eyes. Leaning closer, she touched a fingertip to Sansa's locket.
"That's pretty," she said. "Is there a picture inside?"
Sansa clicked open the small silver oval. "My late husband," she said, hyper-aware of the cameraman looming over them. "It was the first present he ever gave me."
Instead of making the usual comments about how Sansa was so young to be a widow, Shae said, "Ooh, he was handsome."
"Did Sam ever tell you about the first time I met Dickon?" Jon asked. The fact that Jon and Sansa were sort of acquaintances had already come out at the gathering the night before and in their interviews that morning.
"No," Sansa said. "What happened?"
"He showed up at Castle Black to visit Sam when we were at uni. I didn't know Dickon was coming, and from behind, he looked remarkably like a friend of ours who had moved to King's Landing the year before. So, when I saw him talking to Sam, I ran at him and jumped onto his back. You know, like a completely sane person. I guess I didn't seem like much of a threat, because Dickon just said, Erm, can I help you?"
Sansa could picture the exact expression Dickon must have had on his face: one unimpressed eyebrow raised. That, combined with the mental image of Jon clinging to him made it impossible for Sansa to hold in her laughter. It was surprisingly nice to talk about Dickon with someone other than her family or her in-laws. Most people hesitated to bring him up in conversation, like they thought she was some fragile thing, made of porcelain.
Jon's timer interrupted their oven-watching, sending them back to their own benches. Transferring her cake to the freezer, Sansa started work on her mirror glaze.
Edd held his hands up for the camera and grinned at Alys.
"I still have a few left intact," he said, wiggling his fingers. "I don't think I've ever cut myself so much when chopping anything. Nerves, I guess. It happened to Pod, too, so at least I'm not alone in my clumsiness. I managed to not get any blood into my cake, but I don't know, maybe it would have worked to my advantage if I had. Cersei and Varys both have those piercing, malevolent glares." He put two blue-bandaged fingers in front of his eyes to illustrate. "They look like they might actually enjoy drinking the blood of the innocent."
Alys wished she could be present if Cersei ever saw this clip.
Placing her finished cake at the end of her station, Sansa looked around at everyone else's creations.
"Margaery," she said with a gasp. "That is amazing."
Margaery had wrapped her cake in thorny brambles made from dark chocolate, dotted here and there with white chocolate roses. It looked like something out of Sleeping Beauty's castle.
"She's right, love, it really is stunning," Oberyn said, frowning at his own cake. Oberyn's lopsided tower had an intricate white chocolate sun and a dark chocolate spear on top of seven layers of sponge. Doing so many layers meant that some of them hadn't been cool enough; his buttercream had melted and trickled down the sides to pool on the plate.
Sansa's cake was one of the last to be judged. She picked up snippets of what they said to everyone else, though it was harder to hear when they were on the other side of the tent. Melisandre's was too dark and rich; Varys said he wouldn't want to eat more than a couple of bites. Cersei criticised Shae's for being too sweet and cloying. They were in love with every aspect of Margaery's cake, and Jon received kind comments about how his shards of perfectly tempered chocolate looked like a work of modern art. Finally, it was Sansa's turn. She held her breath as Varys and Cersei each took a bite.
"I think the level of hazelnut liqueur in the buttercream is perfect," Varys said after a long, tense moment, turning to Cersei. "But I suspect you'll say you'd like a bit more booze, won't you?"
"You know me too well." Cersei pursed her lips. "We wanted really elaborate chocolate work, and you've kept things quite simple, but I do like your little feathers, Sansa. A bit more liqueur would be nice, but I would definitely have another bite of that if I hadn't just tried ten other cakes. Overall, not bad."
"Thank you," Sansa squeaked.
She was so overwhelmed by the praise that she almost didn't hear Varys and Cersei discussing Oberyn's clumsy decoration and the crimes against cake he had apparently committed by adding beetroot to the mix. Shrugging off the criticism far easier than Sansa would have done, Oberyn returned Sansa's attempt at an encouraging smile and added a wink.
Sansa steadied herself. One challenge down, hopefully many more to go.
"Bakers," Davos said, "it's time for your first technical challenge."
"Look at their little smiling faces," Tormund said. "They have no idea what horrors await them. Today's challenge has been set by Cersei. Cersei, any advice?"
"Budget your time wisely."
"Right," Davos said. "Useful. Thanks for that. Now, the technical is judged blind, so off you pop, you two."
"There they go," Tormund said as Varys and Cersei left the tent. "Off to their smizing lessons. All right, bakers, the judges would like you to make a strawberry polka dot cake."
"It's a vanilla sponge that contains pink spheres of strawberry sponge, so when you slice into it, you get a lovely polka dot effect," Davos said. "You have two and a half hours to complete the challenge."
This time, when the presenters shouted that it was time to bake, the tent was almost silent as everyone read the very sparse recipe.
"I don't know what I was expecting," Sansa said. "I've seen the show. I should have known that pretty much all it would say is bake."
Everyone, even Jon, watched their ovens as they baked the strawberry portion of the cake. Sansa wondered if the smell of strawberries would send her into cold sweats for years to come. Stannis was the first to take his out of the oven. His bench was immaculate, everything arranged in precise rows and not a speck of flour marring the surface. Sansa craned her neck to see him scowling at his dots of strawberry sponge.
"I don't think my balls are big enough," he said in a serious voice.
Lyanna and Tormund both snorted.
The two and a half hours flew by far too quickly. Sansa wasn't at all satisfied with her own balls when she placed her cake behind her photograph. Perching on a stool between Jon and Stannis, she twisted the hem of her apron in her hands and awaited judgment.
"Well," Varys said, twisting his mouth into an inscrutable expression. "Shall we start with this one, Cersei?"
Stannis had been right to worry; he placed last. His face remained as stern as ever when Sansa patted his arm. To her relief, she was ranked right in the middle. Unless she had a disaster of a showstopper, she had a good chance of making it to week two. Lyanna's balls were declared perfectly proportioned and her sponge light and airy, netting her first place.
On the minibus back to the hotel, there was talk of going out to celebrate the fact that they had survived their first day, but Sansa was too exhausted to think of anything but sleep. Collapsing onto her bed a short while later, she only just remembered to text Gilly before closing her eyes.
"I'm a bit nervous about today's challenge," Sansa said, giving Alys a little shrug. On a normal Sunday, Sansa would still be tucked beneath her duvet at this hour, but today she was already on her third cup of coffee and her second interview. "I've seen some amazing illusion cakes. Things you wouldn't believe are actually cake, they look so much like a loaf of bread or a miniature castle or whatever else. I've had some hits and misses with mine, and none of the hits have been when I did it within the time limit, so…" She winced. "We'll see."
Sansa had a detailed timetable to help keep her on track with her showstopper, every minute scheduled. On her last attempt, she'd constructed the cake in Sam and Gilly's kitchen, ordering them to let Little Sam in to pester her at random intervals to see if she could do it in an unfamiliar oven with plenty of distractions. Little Sam had relished his role as a Cersei and Varys stand-in.
It shouldn't have been terribly complicated, compared to other illusion cakes. Hers was meant to look like a giant lemon. But she cut the lemon sponge into wedges and arranged them so that when the cake was sliced, it looked like the inside of a lemon, and she spent ages with an airbrush and various tools to give the outside the texture of real lemon peel. If she didn't manage to get those details right, it would fail to impress anyone.
As soon as the clock started, Sansa sprang into action. She kept her focus as much as possible, only looking up from her bench when she absolutely had to. While she was mixing melted marshmallows with icing sugar and yellow food colouring to make her fondant, words they absolutely could not air on a pre-watershed show erupted from the bench behind her.
"What happened?" she asked Oberyn.
She knew by the way he raked a hand through his dark hair and jabbed at the buttons on the cooker what he was going to say. It happened to one person every year.
"My bloody oven wasn't on."
Just like the previous day, the time went too quickly. Sansa had her cake assembled and enough detail on the bright yellow peel to be mostly happy when she overheard Jon and Tormund chatting about Jon's crow-shaped cake.
"This bird is you," Tormund said.
Jon laughed. "Is it?"
"Look at its face." Tormund stooped down so his eyes were level with the bench and studied the head Jon had not yet attached to the body. "It's very… brooding." He rose back up to his full height, towering over Jon. "I like it. Good luck, Little Crow."
Nan finished her rather straightforward sandwich-shaped cake early and bustled over to Oberyn to offer her assistance. His cake was meant to look like a poisonous orange frog, but at the moment it was more of a shapeless blob.
"Don't worry, petal," Nan said. At eighty-five, she was the oldest contestant to ever appear on Bake Off. "I've seen worse."
"Were you looking in the bin at the time?" Oberyn asked, his voice infused with a surprising amount of humour.
"Bakers," Davos shouted, and Sansa scrambled to press a few more dimples into her fondant. "Time is up. That's it, please step away from your benches."
Sunshine warmed Sansa's back as she stretched her legs out in front of her. Breathing in, she let the smell of warm grass relax her. The bakers sat outside together, awaiting the final judgment from Cersei and Varys.
"Delicious," Varys had said about Sansa's cake. "The sharpness of the lemon is perfect, and I love that it actually looks like a lemon when you slice into it. That's a nice touch."
Cersei had used the word simple again. Even so, Sansa thought she was probably safe this week. Not star baker, but not the one being sent home, either.
"Well, it has been nice meeting you all," Oberyn said with an easy grin.
"It might not be you," Stannis said. "I came last in the technical, and they said my showstopper was sloppy and amateurish."
Margaery returned to the group from her latest interview and sat next to Melisandre. There was no chance of Margaery going home, and everyone knew it. Both Varys and Cersei had raved about her cherry pie illusion cake with its jug of pouring custard suspended in midair.
"My wife is going to love your kraken cake, by the way, Mel," Margaery said. "Her surname is Greyjoy; back when house sigils were still a thing, theirs was a kraken."
"Thank you." Melisandre's dark red lips curved up. "My brother insisted it was too creepy, so I made him a tarantula cake for his birthday. Complete with fur."
Lyanna nodded in approval. A few minutes later, Alys approached to summon them back inside. Nan positioned herself between Stannis and Oberyn when they sat down, grabbing their hands in a way that suggested she would not tolerate Stannis's tough act.
"Bakers," Tormund said. "I get the fun job this week. I get to announce star baker. This person rose to great heights with her chocolate cake and impressed the judges with her cherry pie showstopper. The star baker this week is Margaery."
"And that means I get the difficult job," Davos said once the applause had died down. "I hate doing it. If it was up to me, I would adopt the lot of you so you could all stay forever, but apparently that's unreasonable and would make it not a real competition. So, the person going home this week is…" He paused long enough for Sansa to glance over and catch Stannis giving Nan's hand a squeeze. "Oberyn. I'm sorry, mate."
"It's okay," Oberyn insisted as Tormund wrapped him up in a hug. "I knew it was coming. It's fine."
All of these people were barely more than strangers to Sansa, but it didn't feel at all odd when the inevitable round of hugs began. Even Cersei gave her a brief embrace, murmuring advice to not play it too safe in the future.
"Well done," Jon whispered as he wrapped his arms around her.
"You too," she said. "Ready for biscuit week?"
"I'm still not ready for cake week, to be honest."
With her arm looped through his, they walked out to give their final interviews of the day.
As the minibus carried the bakers away from the tent, Sansa powered up her phone.
"I'm going to ring Gilly," she said to Jon, who sat beside her on the long bench seat in the back. "Are you still keeping your presence in the tent a secret, or should I use FaceTime?"
Tapping his thumbs against his knees, he shrugged one shoulder. "FaceTime."
Gilly answered almost instantly. "How'd it go?" she asked
"I survived. Cersei hugged me. Well, she hugged everyone, but I didn't enjoy it, out of loyalty to you. And I have a surprise." Moving her phone so Jon was also in the frame, Sansa grinned at her friend. "Look who I found in the tent."
"Hey, Gil," Jon said, waving at her.
"Are you serious?" Gilly's eyes went wide. Her tone switched from stunned to her Mum Voice. "Jon Snow, you better have had a sudden career change to cameraman." She barely paused long enough for Jon to explain himself before she huffed and said, "Well, now I don't know who to cheer for."
"I beg your pardon," Sansa said primly. "How about the person who loved you enough to have you in her at-home scenes?"
Gilly tilted her head to one side. "Hmm. That's a good point. Also, you actually live close enough to regularly supply me with cake. Sorry, Jon."
"That's okay. My mum will cheer for me. Probably."
"Little Sam will cheer for both of you," Gilly said, then frowned. "Speaking of which, I have to go. I just realised he hasn't made any noise for at least ten minutes. That can't mean anything good."
Jon and Sansa caught the same train back North, sitting together on the same side of a table. They couldn't talk too openly about what had happened in the tent, so they tilted their heads close together and whispered.
"It's kind of weird to think about, isn't it?" she said. "In a few months, a lot of these people might know our faces."
"Yeah. Hopefully we won't end up recognisable for the wrong reasons."
"We should make a pact: if one of us sees the other getting dangerously close to a Bingate situation, we talk them out of it."
"Deal." His knee knocked against hers as he shifted around in his seat. "Are you getting the same train down next week?"
"I should be."
"Want me to save you a seat?"
His smile was gentle, and he was close enough for her to smell the mint on his breath. Sansa refused to examine why her face felt warmer.
"Yeah," she said. "I'd like that."
The recipe that inspired Oberyn's beetroot chocolate cake can be found here.
Rhaenys: Did you know Dad's moving back to Westeros?
Staring at the text from his sister, Jon gritted his teeth. No, he had not known that. Well, just because they would once again be sharing a continent, it didn't mean Jon had to see Rhaegar. Or have anything to do with him.
Jon: Do not, under any circumstances, give him my number
Three dots blinked in and out of existence several times before Rhaenys apparently decided against the predictable responses about making amends and being the bigger person and he's your father, Jon.
Slipping his phone back into his pocket, Jon swallowed the sharp, unwanted guilt that tried to surface. As the train pulled into Winterfell, Sansa grinned and waved at him from the platform. The sunlight made her hair look as if it really was kissed by fire, much like the first time they'd met.
Jon didn't think she fully remembered their encounter at Sam and Gilly's wedding. Jon and Val had been in an off-again phase at the time—one of many before things between them had frozen over for good. Milling around the reception on his own, he had spotted the lumpy, dramatically tilted wedding cake and he'd gone in for a closer look.
The positioning of the skylight in the reception venue had been unfortunate; it had cast a circle of light over the table, as if the cake was the coveted prize at the end of an epic fantasy quest, rather than disappointment sculpted out of fondant. What Sam and Gilly had requested had been a pretty, pale green cake dotted with sugarpaste cherry blossoms. What the baker had presented them with had reminded Jon of the toxic blue-green algae that sometimes appeared on the lake near his mum's house. Here and there, the algae fondant had been stabbed by artificial daisies.
As Jon had stood in front of the cake, someone to his left had let out a scoff. A woman with red hair had joined him in the pool of light. It had taken all of his willpower to keep from openly staring at her. She'd been as breathtakingly beautiful then as she was now. In unison, they'd both tilted their heads so they leaned in the same direction as the cake. She had laughed.
"It doesn't look anything like what Gilly wanted," she'd said. "I hope she isn't too upset."
Jon had motioned with his wine glass at Gilly, who had been throwing enthusiastic shapes on the dance floor. "I think she's all right."
"Mm, seems to be." Grinning, she'd shrugged one shoulder. "Maybe it'll taste better than it looks."
Jon had rifled through his brain to find something—anything—to say to keep the conversation from ending. What he'd come out with had been, "We could probably find out without anyone noticing, if we're sneaky about it."
"We could, but I'm afraid that if we touch it, it'll fall over. Then again, that would save Sam and Gilly from having it fall on them when they cut it."
"Exactly. It would be heroic, really."
"It would." Nodding, she had giggled. "Next best thing to hunting down the baker and getting their money back for them."
Rubbing his chin, Jon had let his gaze drift from her blue eyes down to her mouth. "If we're going to be heroes together, I should probably introduce myself. I'm Jon."
Her hand had been soft in his, her handshake firmer than he'd expected. Sansa's smile had made Jon almost forget that he wasn't great—or even halfway competent—at making the first move. As the music had transitioned into something slower, he'd given in to the impulse to ask her to dance.
Her smile had wavered as she'd said, "Thanks, but I should probably go find Dickon. If they don't cut the cake soon I am definitely on board for the heroics, though."
Later that night, Jon had helped Sansa haul her inebriated then-boyfriend up to their room. Jon wasn't surprised that that was the portion of their first meeting that had stuck in her mind all these years later. It had been the part that had involved Dickon. Also, someone attempting to hit on her was probably a regular occurrence. Not anything noteworthy.
Now, Sansa beamed at him as she entered the train carriage. When she shoved her bag into the overhead rack, her shirt rode up, revealing a few inches of pale skin. Dropping into the seat next to Jon, she gave him a quick, one-armed hug.
"Gilly has been telling me all about you," she said.
Jon couldn't decide whether this was a good thing or a bad thing.
"Has she?" he asked.
"Mostly about when you both moved into the same shared house when you were in uni, and one of your housemates decided that the oven was the best place to store tupperware."
Jon groaned. Even thinking about it brought back the acrid smell of burnt plastic.
"I still check the oven before I preheat it, even though I live alone and I know there's nothing in there," he said. "Definitely one of my worst baking moments."
"At least it wasn't your fault. My absolute worst baking moment was when I was about thirteen or so. I had seen someone making crepes Suzette on a cooking show, and I decided to try it at home. Although, I don't know, do crepes count as baking?"
"I think they made them on the show a few years ago."
"Hmm. Anyway, long story short, when it came time for the flambe part of the recipe, it all went a bit pear-shaped and I ended up using a fire extinguisher for the first time."
Jon chuckled. "But not the last?"
"How are you feeling about the challenges this week?" Alys asked.
Leaning back against the wooden fence, Lyanna twisted a blade of grass between her fingers and looked directly into the camera before remembering to focus her gaze on Alys. "Biscuits were the first thing I learnt to bake," she said, "so I'm more comfortable baking them than anything else."
"Oh? Why biscuits? Was it a family recipe?"
"No. I live with my cousin, and his idea of cooking is heating a ready meal in the microwave. I learnt to bake mostly out of spite. One of our neighbours is really mean to the kids in the village, always screaming at them to be quiet even though she's the idiot who chose to live next to the playing fields. She always made a big deal about placing first in the baking competition at the village fete, so when she shouted at me one too many times, I decided I was going to teach her a lesson by out-baking her. I was sick of biscuits by the end of it, but I absolutely annihilated that old lady with my shortbread."
Jon paused, biscuit cutter hovering over his orange and cardamom flavoured dough. Their signature bake was meant to be twenty-four sweet sandwich biscuits. Edd shifted a bit to the side, offering a better view of his bench, and, yes, that was definitely a bottle of ketchup in his hand.
"Err," Jon said. "You all right, mate?"
Edd squeezed a generous dollop of ketchup into his bowl. "Yeah, fine, thanks, you?"
"Not bad. Is that… ketchup?"
"Yeah." Edd stirred his unholy mixture. "I'm making ketchup macarons. My mum has this old cookbook with ketchup in every recipe. Ketchup peanut butter biscuits, ketchup apple pie, ketchup chocolate cake. I tried the biscuits, and they weren't bad, but you couldn't tell they had ketchup in them at all. I decided to try making something where you can actually taste the ketchup."
Jon half believed Edd could pull it off. Edd's baking style was best described as experimental. The week before, he had used sage in his chocolate cake signature, and Cersei and Varys had both loved it. Jon imagined Edd's kitchen as being at least half laboratory.
"What's this?" Tormund asked, peering into Edd's bowl. When Edd explained and offered him a spoonful, Tormund's eyes lit up.
"You should make it into a burger," Tormund said, licking his lips. "A tiny macaron-sized burger."
"Gods." Melisandre piped up from the bench behind Jon. "That is too dark, even for me."
Cersei and Varys, it turned out, were united in their hatred of ketchup.
"What possessed you to make them ketchup flavoured?" Cersei asked. "Ketchup doesn't belong in… Well, in anything, if you ask me. You've been so good with your flavours up to now, but you really missed the mark on this."
"We could put it down to a matter of different tastes if it was well executed," Varys said, "but I'm afraid your macarons are quite flat and dry. It's a bit disappointing, Edd."
Edd wasn't alone in being on the receiving end of their criticism and pinched expressions. According to them, Stannis's lime and coconut biscuits lacked even a hint of lime, and Margaery's flower-shaped lavender biscuits were overpowering to the point of tasting soapy.
Trying to be supportive, Jon tasted all of the failed bakes. Stannis's biscuits were nice enough, but Margaery's were like licking a jar of potpourri. Jon had to covertly grab one of Sansa's tiramisu flavoured biscuits to get the taste out of his mouth. Edd's were simply… odd. Sam, who drove Gilly mad by dumping ketchup on every meal he ate, would likely think the bright red macarons were delicious.
Swallowing a mouthful of macaron, Edd shrugged. "I still like them."
"I bet my friend Sam would, too." Jon swiped one of Lyanna's buttery shortbread biscuits as another palate cleanser. "I should introduce you to him."
Brienne set the recipe for the technical challenge back on her bench, wrinkling her nose at the camera.
"Have you ever made them before?" Alys asked.
"Of course I've never made wagon wheels," Brienne said. "I can't imagine they'll be worth the faff. If a friend told me they were going to make wagon wheels instead of just picking some up at the shop, I would ask if they needed to lie down."
Alys tended to agree. Then again, if not for the leftovers that came with this job, pretty much all of her baked goods would come from a shop.
While he waited for his biscuits to cool, Jon wandered over to join Sansa and Nan.
"How long has it been?" Nan asked.
Jon knew what—or, rather, whom—they were talking about as soon as Sansa gave her answer: four years. Four years ago, Jon had been living in Essos. When the shrill ring of his phone had dragged him from sleep late one night, he had answered with a gruff, "Someone had better be dead."
In hindsight, he should have known better, as a death was one of the only reasons anyone he knew would ring him at that hour. Sam hadn't seemed hurt by it, calmly saying that yes, actually, his brother and father had died in a car accident. Sam even laughed about it now, but Jon always cringed when the memory resurfaced.
Living half a world away, Jon hadn't been able to make it to the funerals. He'd sent flowers—blue winter roses—and had stared at the blank interior of a sympathy card for fifteen minutes before Googling what in the seven hells to write.
"Tsk, he must have been so young, poor love," Nan said, pulling Jon's thoughts back to the present. "It's been twenty years for me, since I lost my Philip."
"You never remarried?" Jon asked.
"Gods, no." Nan cackled. "If I had a husband, he might scare off all of my boyfriends."
"Bakers!" Davos called out. "You have twenty minutes remaining."
Jon was still chuckling by the time he got back to his own station.
It wasn't a hot day. Early spring in the Reach was mild and pleasant, but with eleven ovens going at once, the interior of the tent felt more like the height of summer. Fridges and freezers opened again and again as almost everyone gave up on proper tempering of their chocolate and fought to get it cool enough to set. Jon's efforts were nearly as lumpy as Sam and Gilly's wedding cake had been, with marshmallow oozing out of the sides.
When Tormund called time, Jon was relieved to see that his wagon wheels weren't the sloppiest. Brienne had earned that title. Only Sansa, Margaery, and Lyanna had anything that remotely resembled the shop-bought version.
"Hmm," Cersei said, raising her eyebrows.
"Oh dear," Varys said.
Brienne seemed defiantly proud when her wagon wheels were pronounced the worst. Her hand shot up in the air to claim the puddle of chocolate, marshmallow, and biscuit.
"And in sixth place," Cersei said a short while later, gesturing at Jon's offering, "is this one."
Jon nodded at the expected complaints. His hopes raised for Sansa with each subsequent announcement, until it was down to Lyanna and Sansa for the top two. A grin broke over Jon's face when Varys revealed that Lyanna had placed second. Jon nudged Sansa with his elbow. Gripping his arm, she smiled at him.
"And that means in first place," Cersei said, "we have Sansa."
Varys went on to compliment the tempering of her chocolate and the neatness of her work. Jon would have ducked his head against the onslaught of praise, but Sansa kept her posture straight and her chin high, even as a blush tinted her cheeks. The judges had adored her sandwich biscuits as well. If she kept this up, she would be the obvious choice for star baker.
"You know," Shae said, "I just realised that I don't know what you two do for a living."
Sansa, Jon, Shae, and Lyanna were gathered in Sansa's hotel room, sitting on her bed. The rest of the bakers had gone out for a pint, but as Lyanna was underage, Jon and the others had opted to keep her company.
"I'm a midwife," Sansa said.
Jon thought he had been told that before. Sam had mentioned working in the same hospital as his brother's widow, hadn't he? Shae, he knew, worked in PR.
"History teacher," Jon said.
"Well, you both have my admiration," Shae said. "My phobia of medical stuff is only matched by my phobia of high schools." Leaning over to peer at Lyanna, who had curled up with her head pillowed on her folded hands, Shae smirked. "Aww, she looks so innocent when she's asleep, doesn't she?"
"Fuck off," Lyanna grumbled. "I am not."
Shae snorted. "Innocent? Or asleep?"
"Either." With a mighty yawn, Lyanna stood up and stretched her arms overhead. "But I will probably fall asleep here if I don't go to my own room soon. Night."
"I should go, too," Shae said. "I'm not looking forward to that wake up call tomorrow. Goodnight."
Jon didn't want to leave just yet. The night air blowing in through the open window was cool and rain-scented, and he was comfortable and almost relaxed—a welcome change. He knew he probably should, though. He didn't want to overstay his welcome.
Once they were alone, Sansa picked up a thick cookbook with Varys's face on the cover.
"Do you want to stay a bit longer and revise with me?" she asked, worrying her lower lip between her teeth. "I've been trying to absorb as much as I can in order to prepare for the technicals. We could quiz each other."
Cracking the book open to a section near the middle that had been highlighted to within an inch of its life, Sansa cleared her throat. "Right," she said. "Tell me the method for making a Meereenese sponge."
"Err. I think it involves whisking the eggs, somehow? I've never actually made one."
Sansa gaped at him as if he'd confessed to using shop-bought pastry. "Jon. They always include a Meereenese sponge in one of the technicals, and there's always one baker who has never made it. You can't be that baker!"
"All right, yeah, that's fair." He rubbed the back of his neck. "I'll try baking one this week, I promise."
"Good. Now, hmm. Tell me, start to finish, how to make choux pastry."
"Are you going to have a stroke if I say I don't know?"
Jon waited a beat for her jaw to drop before he laughed. Rolling her eyes, Sansa gave his shoulder a light shove.
"I was ready to demand they call Oberyn and give him your spot for a second, there," she said.
"There's always a chance I'll get sent home tomorrow, before Meereenese sponges or choux even come up."
"Well, we can't let that happen." Sansa toyed with her necklace, dragging the locket back and forth on its chain. "I'd be bored on the train."
"Guess I'll have to stick around, then." Jon chuckled. "Okay. First, you heat the butter and the water in a saucepan…"
Jon found a disaster site when he opened his oven. His gingerbread had spread as it baked, and the edges of some of the smaller figures looked burnt.
"Seven hells," he said. "My people have mutinied."
For their showstopper, the bakers were supposed to construct a 3D gingerbread scene of a memorable event in their life. Jon had chosen his uni graduation, recreating the ornate stage and the huge audience in biscuit form. Only, now it looked as if the gingerbread version of Jon would be receiving his degree in front of an audience of charred blobs. He didn't have time to do it all over—not if he wanted to have a chance of getting it assembled and decorated.
"Can you save it?" Alys asked.
"I can re-cut them while they're still soft and get rid of most of the burnt bits," Jon said. "I don't know why it spread so much. The last batch was fine."
As he reached across the bench to grab his person-shaped biscuit cutter, Jon's elbow knocked against a cooling rack. Gingerbread Jon and several walls would have crashed to the ground if not for Melisandre, who was in the right place at the right time to reach out and steady it.
"Thanks," Jon said, placing a hand over his racing heart.
Melisandre patted his shoulder, leaving a floury handprint behind. "No problem."
She raced across the tent in search of more icing sugar, her frantic movements making the Bake Off theme tune start playing on a loop in Jon's head. Upon her return, he glanced over his shoulder. Melisandre's biscuit scene was not yet assembled, but several pieces were halfway decorated: bats, coffins, ghosts… and was that a tentacle?
"Mel?" he said.
"I thought you said your biscuit scene was supposed to be of your first job."
"Did you earn pocket money by summoning demons?"
"No. My first job was jumping out and scaring people in a haunted house." Keeping her face completely serious, she bent down to add a pair of fangs to a vampire biscuit. "I only summon demons as a hobby."
"I may have made a huge mistake," Sansa said. She stood close, lowering her voice as if that could help her hide from the many cameras.
"What happened?" Jon asked.
"I told Cersei that her gingerbread recipe has always been my favourite," she said, "and that I sort of used it as a jumping off point, changing the spices a bit and toying with the amounts of ingredients until it was just the right level of crisp. I realised about halfway through that I was basically saying hmm, your recipe is all right, but I made it better. And even after that realisation, my mouth just kept moving, babbling about molasses and black pepper and I don't even know what else. You should have seen the death glare she gave me."
Jon gave her a sympathetic grimace. "I'm sure it'll be fine. She looks at everyone like that when she's in judge mode. It's part of the show. I doubt she thought anything of it."
Davos, who had been present for the conversation, placed a hand on Sansa's shoulder and said, "I wouldn't worry. Trust me, I've worked with her and Tormund in the same tent for years. I've seen her angry."
Sansa looked unconvinced, but Edd provided a distraction in the form of his half-constructed biscuit castle falling to pieces. Even with the help of Sansa, Jon, and a ton of royal icing, there was no rescuing it.
Setting her showstopper in front of the judges, Sansa stepped back. Her shoulders rose and fell with a deep breath. Her fingers, stained green with the food colouring that had transformed her biscuits into trees, smoothed over her skirt.
Sansa's scene was a snow-dusted walk with her siblings in Winterfell's Wolfswood Park. The trees were tall enough that they should have met the same fate as Edd's castle, but they hadn't so much as wobbled during the walk to the judge's table.
"It certainly looks impressive," Cersei said. "There's a surprising amount of detail. But I want to know how it tastes."
Cersei went for one of the human figures, while Varys picked up a smaller tree. Jon crossed his fingers as they chewed in silence.
Chuckling, Varys nudged Cersei. "This is better than yours. Really, Sansa, I love it—especially that lovely hint of spiciness. I want that recipe."
And there it was: the death glare. At least it was directed at Varys, rather than at Sansa.
"Hmm," Cersei said. "It's a decent gingerbread, but I'm not getting any of the black pepper."
Varys once again praised the construction of Sansa's display before sending her back to her seat. As they raved about Lyanna's biscuit sculpture (surfing on giant waves off the coast of Bear Island), Jon caught Sansa's gaze across the tent and shot her a smile. Cersei's black pepper comments aside, Sansa was definitely going to be star baker.
"This week, I get the pleasure of announcing star baker," Davos said. "This is someone who is equally skilled in matters of shortbread and surfing. Our star baker this week is Lyanna."
What? Lyanna had done well in all three challenges, sure, but Sansa had been the clear frontrunner. Had Jon missed something? No, Lyanna looked just as baffled as he felt.
"And I get the horrible job," Tormund said. "Leaving us this week is… Edd. I'm so sorry."
Edd's face didn't have a chance to fall before Tormund was there, wrapping his huge arms around him and making Edd promise to post him more unusually flavoured treats.
"Varys told me it was really close between me and Lyanna," Sansa said. They were whispering on the train home again. "Maybe next week. I felt so bad for Edd. His castle looked like it was going to be amazing before it collapsed."
"Yeah, it did," Jon said. "He's going to make some of those ketchup macarons for Sam. I told Edd I'd ring him when I get sent home and have some spare time again."
"When you get sent home?" Sansa snorted. "I love your optimism. It's inspiring, really."
Jon could see his own face reflected in the dark train window, smiling alongside her. He found himself wishing for the next week to fly by.
The ketchup macarons (as well as the other ketchup desserts) are a real thing. I have never tried them, because I’m clearly not as brave as Edd. If you are like Sam and think ketchup goes with all things, here's the macaron recipe. The gingerbread with black pepper is something I make every year (recipe here).
Also, I forgot to mention it last time, but I exist on tumblr if you want to come say hi/see me reblog things you have almost certainly already seen on your dash.
Next time: Bread Week!
Rail replacement bus service. Not an auspicious start to the weekend.
As she boarded the bus, Sansa spotted Jon in a seat near the front, resting his temple against the window with his hood pulled up. His skin was paler than usual, and the smile he gave her looked more like a grimace. Sitting down next to him, she placed a hand on his clammy forehead.
"Are you all right?" she asked.
"Yeah. There are just… so many twisty roads between Castle Black and Winterfell. I miss the train. The lovely train and its lovely, straight tracks." With a long, shaky exhale, he clenched his eyes shut. "Trying to watch the road hasn't been helping. Here, switch with me. It might be safer if I'm on the outside."
After they'd shuffled around, Sansa rubbed his arm. "Let me know if you need me to hold your hair back."
Jon snorted. "Thanks."
"How was your week?"
"Not bad. I made a Meereenese sponge, and it seemed fine. My students ate it, anyway. How was yours?"
"Uneventful." Watching his head loll back against the seat, Sansa patted her own shoulder. "Here. You can use me as a headrest, if you want. I'm used to it. Both of my little brothers used to fall asleep on my shoulders about ten minutes into long car trips."
There was something unmistakably Northern about the way Jon smelled—as clean and fresh as the air up there. As he laid his head on her shoulder, surrounding her in that scent, Sansa gave his hair a few soothing strokes. When she moved to place her hand back in her lap, Jon grabbed her wrist and encouraged her to keep running her fingers through his curls, making her giggle.
"You aren't demanding at all, are you?" she asked.
"Nope." He half hummed, half sighed. "Being on a bus for so long reminds me of going to visit my father when I was a kid. I used to have to get a coach all the way down to Dorne, and I got travel sick every time."
Now that he mentioned it, Sansa noticed that Jon's accent sounded as if the North had a brief flirtation with Dorne. The different inflection only appeared in certain words: bus, Dorne, and father.
"Ugh, that sounds awful," Sansa said. "Did you like Dorne, at least?"
"It was probably wasted on me. I usually spent as much time as possible on my own, reading."
"I would have done the same. The only time I ever skipped school was to finish reading a novel."
His chuckle warmed her skin. "Mm. Somehow, I'm not surprised."
Each pass of Sansa's hand over Jon's hair got slower and slower as his breathing deepened. Her eyelids drooped, each long blink like a little nap. When her hand became too heavy and fell to his knee, his only response was a sleepy murmur as he wriggled closer.
Far too soon, a loud voice jerked Sansa from that almost-sleep, announcing that they were at Moat Cailin, past the engineering works. Jon woke up slowly, smiling at her like he was both surprised and pleased to find her there next to him.
They followed in the wake of the group from the bus, filing into the station and aboard a crowded train. Words abandoned Sansa; she could think of nothing to say once they finally found an empty pair of seats. It was better to be on the train—more comfortable, less likely to make Jon queasy—but she couldn't help but wish she'd been able to doze snuggled up to him for a little bit longer. She wanted to recapture that easy comfort, but she didn't know how to initiate it without being completely awkward. So, she held her tongue.
For the first time since they'd started travelling together, the journey passed in near silence.
"Tell us how you're feeling about the signature challenge today," Alys said.
She pressed her lips together to hide her grin. Interviews with Stannis were often… challenging. He had been far less taciturn during auditions. Perhaps he had used up all of his words back then.
"Had you made many quick breads?"
Stannis shook his head. "Not really."
Silence. Again. At this rate, Alys was going to need to look up some advanced interrogation techniques. Maybe she needed a bad cop to play off of her good cop.
This week, instead of a silent chant to turn on her oven (already done), Sansa's internal reminder focused on not putting her hands anywhere near her face until she had washed them at least half a dozen times. Chilies were one of the main ingredients in her signature quick bread.
Back in her own kitchen, Sansa had once ended up stumbling around with her burning eyes clamped shut after she'd been careless while chopping the chilies. Gendry had come through for her when she'd shouted for someone to pour milk in her eyes, springing into action and grabbing the bottle from the fridge. It hadn't been until after she could blink again that he'd asked why, exactly, she'd wanted him to do such a thing.
Sansa's bench was right at the front of the tent, so she couldn't occupy (or distract) herself by spying on what the person in front of her was doing. Jon was behind her, and if not for her own constant chili reminders, Sansa might have glanced over her shoulder more often than she should have. She kept thinking about the warm weight of his head on her shoulder and his lazy, sleepy smile.
The fact that Podrick occupied the bench between Sansa and Jon also helped to keep her gaze pointed in the right direction.
"Gods," Podrick said. "It's already boiling in here. What kind of sadist decided it was a good idea to do this show somewhere without air conditioning?"
Letting out a soft laugh, Sansa shut her oven with her soda bread inside and turned to face him. Jon was wiping down his bench.
"We should count ourselves lucky that Cersei hasn't brought in heaters to help break our spirits," Sansa said.
Right away, she knew she'd made a mistake. Both Podrick and Jon gave her the same cringing, wide eyed look. It was the sort of expression that almost screamed, oh my gods, she is right behind you.
Cersei was, in fact, right behind her. Arching a single blonde eyebrow, Cersei walked past her without a word.
If it had been Varys, Sansa was quite sure he would have laughed and told her that he needed no props to break her spirits, thank you. But as it was Cersei, Sansa was still fixating on the interaction by the time her bread sat on the end of her bench, awaiting judgment. They started on the other side of the tent, with Shae.
"Now, this green colour comes from a Lorathi herb, you said?" Varys asked. "I've never tried it before, so this should be interesting."
Sansa couldn't see what they were doing; it was only by the lull in speaking that she guessed Cersei and Varys must have tried a bite.
"It tastes… a bit grassy, doesn't it?" Cersei said after a long moment. "You could have saved the import fees and just used cuttings from the lawn."
Varys hummed. "It is a bit overpowering. I'm not sure it's my new favourite flavour, but I can see how it would work if there wasn't so much of it. And if we look here, the centre of your bread is very underbaked. You want the cuts to go all the way down in order to get heat into the centre of the loaf."
Through the scrum of cameras and crew, Sansa tried to flash a sympathetic look at Shae. As Cersei, Varys, and Tormund worked their way through the benches, Sansa's pulse quickened. This part—the waiting—was almost worse than the judging.
"Remind us what is in your bread, Sansa," Varys said when he finally stood before her with Cersei and Tormund.
"Chilies, Dornish cheese, onions, and cumin. I usually make it for my sister, but I toned it down quite a bit for you. She treats Scoville ratings like some kind of dare."
"Ah." Varys beamed. "She sounds like a woman after my own heart."
Tormund helped himself to a big chunk. When he popped it into his mouth, Sansa couldn't decide whether his dramatic exhale and immediate grin were a good sign or a bad sign.
"Oh my," Varys said in a somewhat strangled voice.
Cersei coughed. "This is toned down? Is your sister's mouth made from asbestos?"
"Possibly?" Sansa winced. "I only added one chili."
"It was a powerful one." Wiping his forehead, Varys leaned closer to Sansa's bread. "The bake is fine, but you just can't taste anything over the chili. It's a shame."
Sansa waited until they had passed judgment on Podrick (too much bacon, couldn't get any of the maple syrup) and Jon (wonderful Northern cheese and roasted garlic, a perfect bake) before she tried some of her own bread. It didn't reach Arya levels of spiciness, but it did make her lips and tongue feel as if they'd been set on fire. Gods. Where was Gendry to come to her rescue with some milk when she needed him?
Fanning her mouth, Sansa resolved to bring chilis from home in the future. Clearly, the supermarkets in the south got their peppers from one of the seven hells.
"Bakers," Davos said, "for your technical challenge today, Cersei and Varys would like you to make a stromboli."
"I've seen one," Tormund said. "Think pizza meets roulade, and you'll have the basic idea."
"You have two and a half hours to complete the challenge. On your marks…"
Great. A rolled-up bread made to a Bake Off schedule was a recipe for a doughy, undercooked centre. After a cursory read-through of the recipe, Sansa flew into action, getting the dough mixed and kneaded so she could start its first prove. The rest of the tent faded away—even Podrick, with his dramatic way of slamming the dough onto the worktop as if he was trying to make it cry rather than activating the gluten.
Once she'd let it double in size, punched it back, and pressed it into a rectangle, Sansa layered tomato passata, prosciutto, and mozzarella over the dough and rolled it up loosely enough to give it room to expand.
Everything seemed to be going according to plan until midway through the second prove. The recipe didn't specify how long the stromboli should be baked, of course, but they had enough time left that Sansa thought she might be able to present something that wasn't raw in the middle. Leaning against her bench, she reached up to toy with her necklace, but her fingers brushed over nothing but skin and fabric. No chain, no locket.
"What's wrong?" Jon asked as she rifled through everything on her worktop.
"My locket is gone. I'm sure it was there at the start. I…"
Trailing off, Sansa stared at the proving drawer. Her heart gave a panicked lurch. No. She couldn't have. She would have noticed if she'd rolled a necklace into her stromboli.
Within minutes, word spread around the tent. Everyone but Stannis, who was still rolling out his dough, joined in the search. Jon and Shae both got on their hands and knees, circling Sansa's work station and sweeping their fingers over the carpet.
"We'll find that locket," Brienne said, squeezing Sansa's shoulders. "I promise I'll turn the whole tent upside down for you if necessary."
"I keep worrying about it being inside the stromboli," Sansa said. Just the thought of it made her stomach twist and her breaths turn shallow. "Should I unroll it and check?"
Nan, Lyanna, and Brienne all shook their heads in unison.
"You'll ruin it if you do that," Lyanna said.
"I'll ruin it if they cut into it and hit metal."
In the end, Sansa shoved her stromboli into the oven a few minutes earlier than planned. She didn't want to carry on looking at it and wondering, and she had to do something to keep herself from digging through the filling and getting annoyed with herself when she found nothing but the huge mess she'd made.
"It'll be all right," Davos said to her at one point. "Even if it is in there, which I doubt, it still won't be the worst bake they've had on this programme. People have made cakes using salt instead of sugar. What's a little necklace compared to that? It's just… added texture."
"Sansa," Jon said, jogging up to her, "I just had a thought."
Hooking one finger into the pouch-like pocket of her apron, he held it open and reached inside with his other hand. Jon's face lit up with a triumphant smile that made Sansa's own lips curve up before he even withdrew the locket and its broken chain.
"Oh, thank the gods," Sansa said, grabbing him in a tight hug. "I was really starting to think it was going to turn up in the bloody stromboli. It was in my apron the whole time? Are you serious?"
Jon chuckled. "If it helps, I got the idea because I was thinking about the time I was looking for my phone, had a friend ring it, and discovered the phone was in my pocket." Giving her a gentle squeeze, he stepped back and placed his hands into his own apron pocket. "At least you have the excuse of not knowing the necklace fell in there. I had no one to blame but myself."
Sagging against her bench, Sansa rubbed a shaky hand over her face. All of the anxious energy bottled up inside her had nowhere to go. Usually, when she felt like this, she baked something. As she laughed to herself, a spot of red in her peripheral vision caught her attention. How long had Podrick been walking around with food on his face?
"Pod," she said. "Come here."
Using the hem of her apron, she wiped the smear of tomato passata from the end of his nose.
"Has that been there since I filled my stromboli?" he asked.
Exchanging a look, Jon and Sansa both shrugged.
"Err, I'm not sure," Sansa said. "I didn't notice it before, or I would have told you."
"I'm thinking the odds of all of the footage of me with passata on my nose being cut are slim to none." Turning to the nearest camera, Podrick winked directly at it and added, "Gentlemen, I know it may be difficult to believe, but I am, in fact, single. Form an orderly queue."
Cersei and Varys mercilessly jabbed stromboli after stromboli, repeating the verdict of underbaked again and again. They didn't even take a bite of Stannis's, as he'd got it in the oven too late and had presented something that was still mostly dough. Lyanna, Brienne, and Melisandre didn't fare much better.
"This one isn't too bad," Cersei said of Sansa's stromboli. "It's almost there. Five more minutes, and it would have been perfect."
"Tastes nice," Varys said.
Jon leaned over on his stool to bump his shoulder against Sansa's. She smiled. The tension that had been tightening in her chest all day began to ease—even more so when Cersei and Varys declared Jon's stromboli to be a perfect example. That Jon placed first surprised no one but him. Sansa was thrilled with her own third place. Certainly an improvement on her earlier visions of Varys scowling and pulling a necklace out from between a couple of pieces of prosciutto.
"I can't believe I got second," Shae said. "I thought they would find a river of uncooked dough when they sliced into it. Gods, I hate bread week. You're coming out to the pub this time, right?"
"I have something for you," Shae said as she and Sansa walked side-by-side through Newbury. "Give me your locket."
When Sansa obeyed, Shae produced a silver chain from her handbag and threaded the locket onto it.
"There," Shae said with a satisfied nod. "I would have given it to you earlier, but I had to get it from my suitcase."
"Thank you," Sansa said, holding her hair aside and bending down so Shae could fasten the clasp for her.
Shae winked. "I couldn't let you bake tomorrow without your lucky charm."
Was it her lucky charm? She would have been upset to lose it, but she hadn't thought of it as something she had to have on her person for quite a while now. Wearing the locket had become a habit sometime after she'd stopped wearing her wedding ring. Training wheels she'd coasted along with until someone else brought up the subject.
The village pub was crowded and noisy, with a network of little snugs that brought a rabbit warren to mind. The sticky carpet had a pattern so hideous, it almost made Sansa's eyes water.
According to the others, Melisandre and Margaery were expert table poachers. Sure enough, they had barely bought the first round when Melisandre spotted a booth being vacated. They had to squeeze in to fit; Sansa ended up somewhat squished between Jon and Margaery. He draped his arm behind her, over the back of the seat, to give her a bit more room.
"My wedding reception was in a pub just like this," Margaery said, giggling when both Sansa and Jon raised their eyebrows. "It was where we had our first date. Yara's choice. It was perfect, actually. They do amazing food. If you're ever in Highgarden, I'll take you there. My only regret from that day is the cake. I really should have done it myself."
Jon gave her a lopsided grin. "It couldn't have been worse than my friend's cake."
"Oh, gods, Sam and Gilly's?" Sansa said. "I forgot all about that."
For some reason, this made Jon chuckle. "I know you did."
What was that supposed to mean? Sipping her pint of crisp cider, Sansa thought back to Sam and Gilly's wedding day. Of course she hadn't actually forgotten that disaster of a cake. The bright green fondant and the dramatic lean of the tiers had been enough to cement it in her mind, even without the plastic daisies.
"We had a conversation about the cake at the reception," Jon said. "During which I hit on you, and you very gently turned me down."
Gasping, Sansa poked Jon's shoulder. "You did not."
He barked out a laugh. "I promise you, I did."
Had he really? Sansa wished she could remember. Imagining Jon's dark eyes turning flirtatious did half-familiar flipping, swooping things to her belly. She licked her lips.
"I can leave you two alone if you'd like to try again," Margaery said, smirking. "But if you're going to make me give up my seat, you'd better make it more memorable this time, Jon."
Jon chuckled again, but he didn't say anything one way or the other.
In the middle of the sweltering tent, Alys fanned herself ineffectually with one hand. The bakers' showstopper challenge this week was peekaboo bread: a loaf that looked ordinary on the outside, but revealed a pattern or a picture once it was sliced. With so much food colouring flying around, she was questioning her decision to wear white.
"Wait," she said to Varys, Tormund, and Margaery. "Sorry, could you start that conversation over again? I don't think any of the cameras caught the beginning of it."
They waited, obedient and smiling, until everything was in position, as if Margaery had been a part of the team as long as Tormund and Varys.
"I've been wondering something," Varys said, resting his elbows on Margaery's bench and watching her enthusiastically knead what would allegedly become a zebra-striped loaf of bread. "Why in the seven hells do you wear such high heels to bake in the tent? Do you wear them at home?"
Margaery's laugh was as natural and easy as it had been the first time around. "No. In my kitchen, I'm always in my slippers and my ratty old penguin onesie, but I'm hardly going to appear on TV like that."
"And why not?" Varys asked in a dry voice. "It sounds positively stunning."
"The tent is too bloody hot for penguin onesies, for a start, but also, I didn't even let my wife see me like that until we'd been married for about a year. I'd have to marry every single viewer to reach that level of comfort with them, and that hardly seems feasible."
"Not with that attitude, it's not," Tormund said.
"I'll tell you what." Margaery dusted a bit more flour over her work surface. "If I make it to the final, I'll wear the onesie, just for you two."
Varys chuckled. "Don't think you can bribe me, my dear."
"If you had seen my penguin onesie, you would know that threatening to wear it is actually the opposite of a bribe."
"What about the slippers?" Tormund asked. "That might sway him."
"Oh, definitely no slippers. I'll be wearing heels with the onesie, thank you very much. I'm not an animal."
Alys jotted down a note to bring this conversation up again if Margaery made it to the final.
From her position at the front, Sansa could just about see everyone's showstopper when they brought it up for judging. She flinched in sympathy at Nan's (meant to be a heart, but looked more like a lopsided egg) and Shae's (an underbaked, doughy panda) offerings, but most of the other bakers did well. Stannis's gluten free checkerboard bread was astonishingly precise—probably enough to save him after his performance in the earlier challenges, given how Cersei and Varys gushed.
"Look at that," Varys said as he revealed the centre of Sansa's rainbow swirl loaf. "It's so vibrant. And it looks like a good bake, too."
Cersei made that pursed-lips expression that always made Sansa's stomach drop. "I would have liked the outside to look a bit more plain. It's meant to be a surprise, but we can see all of your colours on the crust."
At least Cersei agreed that it tasted fine.
Jon had been the front-runner for star baker all weekend, as far as Sansa was concerned. When Varys sliced open Jon's showstopper and revealed the face of a wolf, it practically became official.
"It has whiskers!" Varys said. "How did you manage that?"
"Sheets of roasted seaweed," Jon said.
"The detail is absolutely amazing," Cersei said. "I don't think we've ever seen anything like it during bread week."
Sansa grinned. Jon's face was turned away from her, but his reddening ears gave away his blush.
"This week, the star baker is someone who somehow managed to make adding whiskers to bread a good thing," Tormund said. "It is, of course, Jon."
Sansa clapped enthusiastically enough to rival Arya at a hockey game. Any other verdict would have been an outrage. As everyone calmed, she took Shae's hand. Shae's face was the picture of serenity and poise, but her fingers trembled against Sansa's when Davos cleared his throat.
"I really do hate doing this," Davos said. "Especially as the weeks go by and we get to know all of you. This week, the person leaving us is… Shae. I'm so sorry, love."
Shae flashed a smile that looked like she was consoling Davos, rather than the other way around. With one final squeeze, Shae's fingers slipped from Sansa's as Tormund and Davos sandwiched Shae in a hug.
Sansa made the rounds herself, patting Stannis's back when he told her he thought it should have been him and hugging Jon twice when she congratulated him. By the time she made it back to Shae, the smile had slipped and unshed tears shimmered in Shae's deep brown eyes.
"I'm going to miss you," Sansa said, wrapping her arms around Shae. Her own eyes stung.
"I'll miss you, too. But you're going to come visit me, right?"
Sansa couldn't hide the wobble in her voice. They hadn't been in the tent together very long, really, but she still struggled to imagine it without Shae. It was almost a relief that the first time she went all weepy on the show was due to saying goodbye to a friend, rather than her pastry being soggy.
"Oh, no, don't cry," Shae said with a fond laugh. Holding Sansa's face between her hands, Shae wiped away the tears with the pads of her thumbs. "And hey, no pressure or anything, but I fully expect you to win this thing. None of my favourite bakers have ever won, except Missandei. I'm relying on you to fix that."
"I'm your favourite baker?"
"Now that I've been eliminated? Of course."
Chuckling, Sansa kissed Shae's cheek. "I'll do what I can."
Cersei was right there as Sansa moved away from Shae, so Sansa went in for the expected embrace. Turning as if she hadn't noticed Sansa at all, Cersei drew Lyanna into a hug.
Sansa let her arms drop back down to her sides. Well. That was her told, then.
No one else appeared to have noticed, apart from Jon, who scowled and hugged Sansa a third time, as if to make up for Cersei. He smoothed a hand down her hair, like she'd done to him on the bus. In spite of the heat, a delightful sort of shiver ran through her.
"You all right?" he asked in a gruff whisper.
"Yeah, of course." Drawing back, she straightened his collar where it had been rumpled by his apron. "I'd rather have a hug from you, anyway."
"Oh, I'll be baking again tomorrow," Shae said. With a wet laugh, she dabbed at her cheeks with a tissue. "I don't think I'll be making bread again anytime soon, though. I'll be holding a grudge against yeast for a while."
Alys hated these exit interviews. They were never easy, not even during these first few weeks.
"Any idea who might win?" Alys asked.
"I know who I want to win, but I don't want to jinx it." Sitting up straighter, Shae brightened. "Ooh, I know. Stannis, Jon, Sansa, Melisandre, Margaery, Nan, Lyanna, Podrick, Brienne. There. Now you can edit this so it looks like I said the name of the actual winner."
The trains were running again, mercifully, but it was still too late to fetch Lady from Gilly and Sam's by the time Sansa got back to Winterfell. She wanted to walk home through the quiet streets, looking up at the stars like she'd done on the way back from the pub in Newbury, arm-in-arm with Jon. It was the sort of night that felt like it should be cold, with big clouds of steam every time she exhaled and a layer of frost sparkling on the pavement. Nights this silent belonged in winter.
As home was a forty minute walk from the station, and it was late, she took a taxi. Her flat looked like it belonged in winter, too, all shut up and dark, with no welcoming click of claws on hardwood as she unlocked the door.
Unclasping the locket and sliding it off of Shae's chain, Sansa turned the silver oval over in her hand a few times before clicking it open to look at Dickon's face. Maybe it was time to retire her training wheels—to only wear the locket sometimes instead of every day.
She had even worn it on dates. Nan's claim that a husband would scare away all of her boyfriends came to mind.
Nodding to herself, Sansa strode through the flat, turning on lights in every room. Dickon would have told her to do this a long time ago. There was a large chest in the hall that had been made by Gilly during her woodworking phase. Gilly tended to go through new hobbies the way most people went through clothes. Sansa had been using the chest to store scarves and a few loose bits and bobs, but those could be moved elsewhere.
Pieces of her life with Dickon were scattered all over the flat. A half-used bottle of his shampoo still lived under the sink—that, she threw in the bin, along with his holey old socks. Other things got tucked into the chest: their wedding album, his old rugby shirt, the locket. Sansa stood in front of the pictures on her lounge wall for ages, trying to decide which one to keep out. A photo of the two of them with both of their families was the eventual winner. Little Sam was there, too, in the slight curve of Gilly's belly.
It didn't feel like burying him all over again. She could still take those memories out and hold them if she wanted. Satisfied, Sansa closed the lid of the chest. It felt more like carving out her own space. Like looking ahead.
The recipe that inspired Shae's showstopper panda can be found here.
Next time: Dessert Week.
The train was packed. Jon didn't manage to get a seat for himself, much less save one for Sansa. Several cancelled services had forced an irate crowd onto Jon and Sansa's usual train. At least it was a train this time. Jon would have sooner walked to the Reach than take another bus.
Wedged into a vestibule, he texted Sansa to let her know which coach he was in. The prospect of a journey all the way down to the Reach without her company made him feel a bit morose. He had things to do—students' essays to mark if he eventually found a seat, audiobooks to listen to if he didn't—but he preferred to pass the time chatting away to Sansa and having her quiz him on obscure baking techniques.
By some miracle, she managed to choose the right door of Coach B and squeezed in next to him.
"I hope you're okay with me invading your personal space," she said, shuffling closer in an effort to avoid being pressed up against strangers. Her body ended up almost flush against his.
"Yeah, of course. You're always welcome to invade my personal space."
Smooth, Snow, he thought, cringing internally.
Sansa grinned. "I'll keep that in mind."
They talked about their weeks, not daring to venture anywhere near the topic of baking with so many people able to overhear their conversation. Standing so close to her, with the rhythmic motion of the train, Jon was bizarrely reminded of a junior high dance. If he placed his hands on her waist, it would have that same sort of jittery, breathless newness to it, set to a soundtrack of grumbling commuters instead of blaring pop music.
At Lychester, when Sansa was in the middle of a story about her younger brother's rather explosive science experiment, a teenage couple boarded the train and promptly began to make out right next to them.
Sansa pressed her lips together to smother a laugh and opened her eyes wide.
"Almost makes you wish we were back on the bus," she whispered.
"No, it really doesn't." Remembering the soothing sweep of her hand through his hair as he dozed on her shoulder, he added, "Well, I suppose the bus did have its moments."
Catching her lower lip between her teeth, she smiled.
"How are you feeling about the challenges this week?" Alys asked.
Shrugging one shoulder, Nan gave an easy grin. "Not too bad. The petits fours showstopper really isn't my thing. What's the point of cakes that small? If you're going to have a cake, then have a cake. But I'm making up for it with my signature cheesecake today. It's double decker."
"Double decker? As in one cheesecake stacked on top of the other?"
"Aye. More cheesecake is always better. It's how I've lived so long."
Alys chuckled. "By eating more cheesecake?"
"By doing what I enjoy and not caring what anyone else thinks." Nan's watery blue eyes gleamed with mischief. "Which is maybe not the best way to win a competition like this one, but at least I'm having fun."
Watching Sansa bake was almost hypnotic. Jon's bench was directly behind hers this week, giving him a distracting view. Her technique was nothing like Stannis's military precision, but every fluid movement was intentional. More of a rehearsed dance than the frantic battle Jon often felt he was fighting against his ingredients in the tent.
While Jon waited for his cheesecake to finish baking, a song started up across the tent in a strong, pleasant voice.
"Happy birthday to you…"
Holding a miniature version of his signature birthday cake cheesecake, a grinning Podrick approached Lyanna's bench. She stopped in the middle of forming a sugarpaste leaf as others joined in with the song.
"What's this?" she asked, staring at the single candle sticking up out of the little cheesecake.
"What do you think it is?" Podrick said. "You didn't think I'd let your eighteenth birthday pass without some sort of display, did you?"
Her eighteenth birthday? Jon had no idea. Based on the surprised looks from most of the other bakers, they hadn't, either.
Ducking her head, Lyanna blew out the candle. "I'd thank you properly," she said, "but I'd be tried as an adult now."
The words held no bite at all when she followed them up with a tight hug.
"Remind us about your cheesecake, Jon," Varys said as he sliced into it. To Jon's relief, it held together, unlike Nan's double decker cheesecake, which had been so underbaked that the middle had been nearly raw.
"It's a bourbon caramel swirl with a brownie bottom," Jon said.
"Brownie bottom is a new one for us, isn't it?" Davos asked, readying his fork for a bite.
"Hopefully it'll make a nice change from all of the soggy bottoms we've had." Varys's smile only lasted until he tasted the cheesecake, at which point his mouth flattened out into a thin line. "The bourbon is really overpowering. I can hardly taste anything else over it."
"Don't listen to him, Jon," Cersei said as she went back in for a second forkful. "The level of alcohol is absolutely perfect."
Not the result he was hoping for, but at least better than Nan and Podrick got (Pod's had been declared too sickly sweet by both judges).
Once the judges and Davos moved on to Margaery's bench, Sansa gave Jon an encouraging smile. Cersei had to ask Margaery about her cheesecake twice; the first time was interrupted by Sansa's explosion of laughter when Jon tried to wink to assure her that he wasn't bothered.
Jon was still staring at the recipe for the lemon souffle technical challenge as Sansa burst into action and started pouring milk into a saucepan. Calling it a recipe was being incredibly generous. Apart from the list of ingredients, the only words on the page were make a souffle.
"Have you ever done this before?" Tormund asked.
Jon shook his head. "I'm not sure I've ever even eaten a souffle before."
"Well, at least you're in good company. General opinion around the tent seems to be that you're all equally screwed."
"That's reassuring, I suppose."
Sansa had mentioned souffles during one of their train quizzes, hadn't she? Something about making a creme pat and mixing it with whipped egg whites. It seemed as good a direction as any, so Jon went with it.
Over the whir of mixers and oven fans, the tent was full of complaining and muttered curses from every corner. Only Stannis and Sansa worked in efficient, confident silence.
"I half expect them to whittle the recipe down to nothing one of these days," Brienne said to Jon as he hemmed and hawed over how long to leave his souffle in the oven. "They'll give us a pile of ingredients and a little slip of paper that just says, good luck, you poor bastards."
"Shh," Podrick said. "You'll give them ideas."
"They're kind of retro, aren't they?" Melisandre said. "Souffles, not Cersei and Varys. I think of souflees as something that housewives made on old sitcoms—always with the souffle collapsing because someone slammed a door or something."
"I'm the most retro one here, and I don't have the slightest idea what I'm doing," Nan said.
When it came time for the judging, it was a parade of sunken messes. Cersei and Varys made the same face over and over as they tasted the bakers' offerings: disappointed disgust. Jon's own souffle wasn't too bad, though he'd taken it out of the oven too early.
"And in fourth place," Varys said, stopping in front of Jon's. "We have this one."
Fourth place wasn't bad at all for only having the vaguest idea what he was doing. He'd take that. Margaery and Sansa were third and second, respectively. Given how much Stannis had struggled with technical challenges in the past, everyone started applauding before Cersei finished announcing that he had placed first.
And then, everyone witnessed a Bake Off first: a grin from Stannis.
"Oh, it was awful," Melisandre said through a self-deprecating laugh. "I tried a bite of mine after the judging. It was like sweet, lemony scrambled eggs. Just… vile. I'm not surprised I came last. I'm actually amazed Varys and Cersei managed to swallow it. I had to spit it out."
Had Tormund been around, he would have drawn attention to the obvious innuendo, but Alys was a professional. She only smirked a little.
"Will you try making it again, do you think?" Alys asked.
"Absolutely. As many times as necessary. I can't let any recipe win. I am going to conquer that souffle and make it my bitch." Melisandre paused. "You're going to make me redo that because I said bitch, aren't you?"
"Nah, we can bleep it out."
"Good. Sometimes only a swear word will do. Go try my souffle and see if you don't swear."
Tempting as the prospect of sugary scrambled eggs was, Alys would have to pass.
In honour of Lyanna's birthday, everyone caught the bus into Horn Hill that evening to go out somewhere other than the village pub. Sansa and Jon, both familiar with the area, led the way through town. As they passed by a tattoo parlour with a flickering neon sign, Nan stopped to look in the window. It took Jon a moment to realise the others were no longer tagging along behind him and Sansa.
"Are you sure you want to make such a permanent decision on the spur of the moment?" Brienne asked Nan when Jon and Sansa doubled back.
"Why not?" Nan asked. "I won't have to worry about what it looks like when I get old, will I? I've been thinking about it for ages, actually. There's a very handsome young man who frequents my local coffee shop; his arms are absolutely covered. When I asked him what they felt like, he let me touch them." She winked. "Maybe if I'm lucky, he'll touch mine."
Laughing, Melisandre wrapped an arm around Nan's shoulders. "Can't argue with that logic."
The interior was clean and modern, all smooth white surfaces with pops of bright colour. Instead of trying to squeeze everyone into the small space, only Lyanna went in with Nan while the others waited outside. Brienne, Podrick, and Margaery claimed a nearby bench, Brienne inviting Sansa to sit on her lap (she accepted) and Margaery telling Stannis he could perch on her knee (he did not).
Jon did not imagine being in Brienne's place. Much.
Eventually, Nan emerged with a clingfilm wrapped bicep. She'd chosen a pink frosted cupcake.
"Seemed appropriate," she said.
"I like it," Stannis said. "Did it hurt?"
"She stabbed me repeatedly with a needle. It didn't exactly tickle, petal."
Together, they proceeded down the high street to a pub Jon had visited several times with Sam. Unlike the pub in Newbury, which was an old man's pub if ever Jon had seen one, this place had been recently refurbished. There was now an abundance of copper and quirky wall art, giving it the air of somewhere that might not serve a single deconstructed item on its menu on an actual plate.
A few of the tables had swings instead of chairs, and Melisandre and Margaery managed to snag one. A chain bolted the swings to the floor, only allowing a few inches of actual movement.
"If I hadn't just turned eighteen," Lyanna said, "I would take this chain as a challenge."
No one wanted to drink much or stay out too late, so there was much debate over what Lyanna's one birthday cocktail should be. While Margaery and Podrick were still mulling over the extensive selection, Jon got a text from his half-brother.
Aegon: I hate to tell you this via text, but I am going to have to marry your mum
Jon: …the fuck?
Aegon: don 't worry, I won't make you call me Dad. but after the cake she just gave me, I have no choice but to propose
Shaking his head, Jon laughed. His mum had been the one who had taught Jon how to bake. The only time he hadn't been at her side in the kitchen, helping to measure out ingredients, had been during his surly teen years. He could well imagine how good the cake had been.
Aegon: has Dad contacted you?
Jon: No. If you give him my number, I'll tell my mum to never make you another cake ever again
Aegon: you can't stand in the way of destiny and true love, Jon. also, OBVIOUSLY I won't give him your number. I'm not an idiot
Aegon: it would serve you right if I really did marry your mum
"This really seems like a recipe for spilt drinks," Sansa said, swaying as much as she could on her restrained swing.
"Yeah," Jon said. Suddenly, the vaulted ceilings of the pub weren't high enough. Too many thoughts about an inevitable confrontation with Rhaegar crowded for space in Jon's head. "I think I'm going to get some air for a few minutes. Want to join me?"
A drizzle had started up while they were inside, but not enough to send anyone scrambling for cover. The light droplets were warmer than any rain Jon had ever known outside of his childhood trips to Dorne. It made Sansa's hair frizz and had her tilting her face up as if soaking up the sun.
"You all right?" she asked, her voice soft.
Apart from Aegon, most people tended to layer on the guilt and ask why Jon had to be so cold to his father, so he left it at that. He was all right. Nothing more to say.
Sansa didn't look convinced, but she didn't pry, instead insisting they stop at a tiny chip shop with blue and white striped awning.
"It's the best one in Westeros, I swear," she said. "Or, it was when I was here with the Tarlys about five years ago. If they've changed it, they'll break my heart."
It was at the oblique mention of Dickon that Jon realised she wasn't wearing her locket this weekend. He wondered if she was worried about losing it again.
The chips, to Sansa's delight, were exactly as she remembered. The two of them stood under the awning, out of the rain, eating hot chips soaked in tangy vinegar.
"This is amazing," she said with a pleased sigh. "Almost as good as Margaery's cheesecake. Did you try it?" When he shook his head, she let out a little moan. "It was the best thing. Pumpkin with this pecan crust… If she wasn't already a married woman, I might have got on bended knee. Hmm, do you think I can serve these chips up as my showstopper? I feel like that's an instant star baker move."
Jon chuckled. "Only if you put them on a biscuit or cake, and that seems like it would go the way of Edd's ketchup macarons."
"Shame." Leaning against him, she swirled her last chip around in the pool of vinegar. "Hey, Jon?"
"Next time I'm panicking in the tent, promise you'll wink at me."
Her giggles only intensified when he rolled his eyes.
"Is it really that funny?" he asked.
"It's adorable. Have you never seen yourself wink before? Here—" she fished her phone out of her pocket, "get ready." Binning her polystyrene container and wrapping her free arm around him, she held the phone out for a selfie. "Three, two, one, wink."
Oh. There, on the screen, Sansa was winking and grinning, while Jon was decidedly blinking with one corner of his mouth quirked up. How had he never known about this? He let out a snort of laughter.
"I am making this my lock screen," Sansa said. "I love it so much."
A few swipes of her thumb, and their faces replaced the picture of her dog that she'd been using before. That she actually wanted a silly face made by him as her lock screen made Jon feel curiously light and warm.
"We should probably get back," she said. "They might have chosen a cocktail by now."
They hadn't. Or, they had, but by the time the decision had been made, Lyanna had already gone up to the bar on her own and obtained a pint of beer. Once Jon had a pint of his own, he tapped his glass against Lyanna's.
Rubber. Jon had produced a sheet of solid rubber. His breath bottled up in his chest as his hands trembled.
Choosing a Meereenese sponge had been an obvious mistake. Why hadn't he stuck with what he knew best? Why had he idiotically chosen a cake he'd only made a few times?
"All right, mate?" Davos asked.
"Not particularly. I have to start again."
Davos prodded the rubbery sponge. "What happened?"
"I have no clue." Jon rushed around, cracking eggs into his mixing bowl. "It worked fine in my kitchen."
He was going home. What in the seven hells could he do differently the second time around when he didn't know where he'd gone wrong? The bakers were supposed to be presenting twenty-four petits fours: twelve sponge based and twelve biscuit based. At this rate, he'd have to abandon the vulcanised sponge to have any hope of finishing the biscuits.
"Hey, now," Davos said. "You look like you're ready to give up. You have plenty of time left. Loads. You can fix this."
Sansa appeared when Jon was ready to start adding the dry ingredients, as if summoned by near baking mistakes.
"Not yet," she said. "Hold your mixer up for a second… Yeah, it's not ready. It's almost there. You want the ribbon that falls from the beaters to hold its shape for a few seconds. And be very, very gentle with it once you start adding the dry ingredients. Hold the bowl as close as possible to the pan when you're pouring it in."
With that, she dashed back to her own bench. Jon did what he could to distract himself by cutting out his biscuits while his second cake baked. When he pulled the sponge out of the oven and saw light, unrubbery perfection, he had to run to Sansa's station.
"Thank you," he said, pressing a quick kiss to her forehead, since her hands were too full of a piping bag for a hug.
"You're welcome," she said.
Jon worked as fast as he could, willing his hands to remain steady. At the bench behind him, Margaery chatted with Tormund and Davos.
"I absolutely love this sort of thing," she said. "Little, fancy bakes are the sort of things I make at home to destress."
"I think it'd have the opposite effect on me," Davos said. "Why peaches and snowflakes, by the way? How do those go together?"
"One is summer themed, one is winter."
"You could have done an aubergine instead of snowflakes," Tormund said. "Risque emoji themed. No? No good?"
Margaery laughed. "I don't have any use for the aubergine."
"I would have preferred these to be covered with a glaze," Cersei said, examining Sansa's raspberry and almond petits fours. "With the exposed layers of sponge, it makes me wonder if you took the easy way out, since I'm sure you know how difficult it is to get a smooth finish with a glaze."
Nan had demonstrated the potential pitfalls of adding a glaze well enough. She hadn't managed to finish more than half of her sponge petits fours, and Cersei had said that those that were complete looked as if they had cellulite on the sides. Biting the inside of his cheek, Jon glanced at his own chocolate and peanut butter petits fours, with their exposed layers of sponge.
"They are lovely, even layers," Varys said. "That shows a great amount of skill. And I love the sugarpaste cherry blossom on top. I think they look lovely, Sansa."
Over the ranting of his own worried internal critic, Jon was relieved to hear both judges praise the taste of Sansa's showstopper. She was definitely still safe. Heart in his throat, he went up for his own judgment.
"Impressive layers on the sponge," Varys said.
"Mm," Cersei said. "Your little biscuits are quite neat as well. Everything is just the right size. Overall, it's a very elegant display."
Not five minutes before, she'd criticised Sansa for having a similar display. It stuck in Jon's throat, dry and sharp. His father always had different rules for everyone, depending on who was currently his favourite. Jon had never been able to stand it.
"Are you sure I didn't take the easy way out?" he asked before he could think better of it.
Jon's face burned. Well, it was out there now. No taking it back. He wasn't sure he wanted to take it back. As Cersei arched an eyebrow, Varys's lips twitched as if fighting a smile. The rest of the tent was eerily silent.
Through a panicked sort of fog, Jon took in their (mostly positive) comments about the taste. Cersei didn't like peanut butter, but there wasn't much he could have done about that.
"Thank you, Jon," Cersei said, dismissing him.
Turning around, Jon caught Brienne's gaze. She gave him a wide grin and mouthed the words well done. He doubted she was talking about his actual performance in the showstopper.
Margaery's summer and winter petits fours met with rave reviews from both judges. Jon hardly paid attention. He was too distracted by the way Sansa kept glancing at him over her shoulder with a stunned smile, making his stomach flip.
After the heat of the tent, the air outside felt almost chilly. Away from the rest of the group, sheltered by a copse of trees, Sansa wrapped her arms around Jon. He let his hand rub up and down her back, her long ponytail tickling his wrist on each pass.
"Thanks," she said softly, pressing a kiss to his cheek.
"Anytime. Thanks again for saving my arse."
The hug stretched on, swaying and tight. Almost like they were back on the train, pressed together, even though all around them there was wide open, green space. Sansa was the one to let go first.
It was just before sunset, the low angle of the sun turning the light golden and warm. It made her cheeks look pinker.
"Gilly always insisted that Cersei is obvious about preferring certain bakers," Sansa said.
Jon chuckled. "I guess neither of us are her favourites, now."
"That's okay. Cersei is on my sister's list, and in a fight between the two, I'd bet on Arya every time."
"Our star baker this week is someone who managed to bring snowflakes into the tent without melting under the pressure," Davos said. "For the second time, the position of star baker goes to Margaery."
Tormund took a moment during the ensuing applause to take a long breath. Jon could guess what was coming. When he reached over to hold Nan's hand, she patted his shoulder, as if she was the one consoling him.
"Sadly, one of you has to leave us," Tormund said. "And this week, I'm sorry to say, the one going home is… Nan."
"Hey, I lasted longer than most other oldies on this show," Nan said with a grin that didn't waver. "Nearly halfway isn't bad at all."
Just like when she'd said goodbye to Shae, Sansa teared up giving Nan a farewell hug. Jon couldn't resist the soft half-smile that blossomed on his face, though it was gone in the next instant, as Cersei approached him. After his display during the judging, he had expected her to dodge him the way she did with Sansa, but she caught him in a stiff embrace, the same as every other week, though without any encouraging advice or comments.
Huh. Okay, then.
Sansa didn't even attempt a hug with Cersei, but Jon hugged Sansa twice to make up for it, anyway. He would keep doing so as long as they were both still in the tent.
The train was nearly empty on the way back North. Alone with Sansa at one end of the carriage, Jon started to relax, letting all of the nervous energy of the weekend ebb away.
His peace was short lived. They were barely out of Highgarden when his phone vibrated with a text.
Val: Hey. Your dad texted me. He seems to think we 're still together? Didn't know what to say, so I just didn't reply.
For fuck's sake.
Jon: Sorry. I'll tell him to leave you alone.
Bumping her shoulder against his, Sansa leaned in as if preparing to tell him a secret.
"If you need me to tell anyone off for you the way you did for me with Cersei, just say the word," she said. "I'll do it."
Jon believed she would.
This chapter was brought to you in part by Kit Harrington’s inability to wink. My partner has the same affliction, and it cracks me up every time.
The recipe that inspired Nan's double decker cheesecake can be found here
Next time: Alternative Ingredients Week!
Sansa paced the length of the platform for the eleventh or twelfth time, her fluttering pulse refusing to calm. What in the seven hells was wrong with her? She had been unable to settle all morning, staring at the slow, slow clock too often and willing it to go faster. And now, the stupid train was running late.
She was going to get Arya to add Northern Rail to her list.
"The next train to arrive at platform four will be the delayed 10:23 service to Highgarden."
Finally. Bouncing on the balls of her feet, Sansa stood just behind the yellow line as the train pulled in. Catching sight of her from his window seat, Jon smiled and waved. Unbidden, the memory of the warm press of his lips against her forehead replayed over and over. Sansa's pounding heart leapt up into her throat.
Like always, Jon's arms were ready with a hug when she dropped into the seat next to him. She could no more hold back the grin that stretched across her face than she could control the train times. When they released each other, they stayed close, their shoulders pressed together as if they didn't have plenty of space at the table to spread out.
"Are you dreading this week as much as I am?" he asked in a whisper.
"Gods, yes. I don't think I've ever been so nervous about a technical before."
"I've spent all week reading about vegan baking and gluten free baking. I brought some books if you want to study."
Sansa laughed. "This is a role reversal."
One corner of his mouth tugged up. "You must be a good influence on me."
As they fell into their usual rhythm of quizzing each other about techniques and talking about their failures in the kitchen, Sansa forgot all about checking the time. It was a four hour journey to Highgarden, but when the conductor announced, "All change, please. All change," it came as a complete surprise. She could have sworn they weren't any further south than The Twins.
"Hold still," Brienne said to Podrick, pressing the damp flannel firmly against his cheek. "It'll smear if you keep wriggling."
"Are you sure you want it on your face?" Stannis asked.
Pod shrugged, jostling Brienne's arm. "Bit late to turn back now. Besides, Nan will see it when the episode airs and know that I obviously love her the most."
Pulling the flannel and white paper away, Brienne revealed a bright, unsmudged pink cupcake on Podrick's cheek. It had been Lyanna's idea for the bakers to wear temporary cupcake tattoos in honour of Nan. They had gathered in Lyanna's room after their pre-dawn wake-up calls, groggy-eyed and clutching cups of bitter hotel coffee.
"Your turn," Jon said, approaching Sansa. "Where do you want it?"
She snorted. "If we were being filmed right now, that would absolutely end up on that No Context Bake Off Twitter account."
Something about his lazy smirk made Sansa's stomach swoop.
"Here," she said, pointing to a spot just below the crease of her elbow.
Like Sansa, everyone else had chosen to place their cupcake on an arm. Stannis's tattoo—curved across his left bicep—looked so wildly out of place on him that Sansa almost giggled every time she saw it.
Suitably decorated and caffeinated, they made their way out to the minibus. The sky was just starting to lighten at the horizon, soft pinks and oranges stretching out over the golden fields of the Reach. Sandwiched between Jon and Margaery, Sansa clutched her jar of wheat free sourdough starter the whole way to the tent. She had spent weeks building it up from scratch, feeding it until it was frothy and perfect. Without the starter, her signature bake would be a fairly ordinary loaf of gluten free bread.
"Good morning, bakers," Davos said once Sansa stood at a bench between Brienne and Melisandre. "For your signature bake today, Cersei and Varys would like you to make a gluten free loaf."
"You can use any flour you like, as long as it doesn't contain gluten," Tormund said. "And now, on your marks…"
Sansa wasn't sure how her bread would go over with the judges. Traditional sourdough contained no yeast. It took hours and hours to prove, the starter serving as the only rising agent. Then again, traditional sourdough was also made from wheat flour. Sansa was going for an approximation of sourdough, rather than the real thing. Sourdough adjacent.
Brienne was attempting sourdough as well. While their bread was proving, they sniffed and prodded at each other's foamy starters.
"I'll bring you some of my regular starter next week if you want," Brienne said. "I've had it for years. Well, I'll bring it assuming I make it to next week, of course."
"Assuming we both make it."
Brienne shook her head. "You'll make it."
The certainty in Brienne's voice lifted Sansa's mood and made the rest of the challenge soar by. Jon's garlic, rosemary, and thyme focaccia was the first bake to be judged.
"The flavour is amazing," Varys said. "It just needed a few moments longer in the oven. You were maybe two minutes away from perfection."
Stannis and his seeded white loaf didn't meet with such praise; his verdict from Cersei was underbaked, stodgy, and bland. A handful of equally scathing reviews followed for the other bakers, until they reached Sansa's side of the tent.
"It's good," Cersei said to Melisandre after sampling her gluten free soda bread. "But it's not anything new from you, is it? It's just a gluten free version of what we saw from you for your quick bread during bread week."
"I agree," Varys said. "It's a nice flavour and a decent texture, but I would have liked to see some new flavours from you."
After Melisandre, Sansa was next to be judged. Varys, Cersei, and Davos gave nothing away as they took a bite of her bread.
"That is absolutely stunning, Sansa," Varys finally said. "You almost wouldn't know it was gluten free."
Cersei nodded. "I would like a bit more salt, perhaps, but overall it's quite good."
Quite good. Sansa felt like doing a victory lap around the tent.
"How's it going so far?" Alys asked.
Podrick scratched his cheek just below the pink cupcake. "It's not going amazingly, to be honest. Before last week, I'd never done any of this sort of baking. It'll be a bloody miracle if I don't get sent home. Do you think they'll honour me after my departure like we're doing with Nan? Maybe they could walk around with passata smeared on their noses."
Alys smothered a chuckle. "Maybe."
"It's a difficult look to pull off. I'd forgive them if they just wore black in mourning instead."
Leaning over her mixing bowl, Sansa took a sniff of the chickpea water. Not exactly something she would have thought to put in a dessert. For their technical challenge, the bakers had to make twelve aquafaba macarons—aquafaba being the water from a tin of chickpeas.
"This does not smell like anything I want in my mouth," Brienne said.
Melisandre hummed. "Another one for the No Context Bake Off Twitter."
Thank goodness the book Jon had brought on the train had contained several tips for cooking with aquafaba. None of the free-from recipes she'd rehearsed over the past week had used it as an ingredient.
Aquafaba needed to be whipped much longer than egg whites, as well as being baked at a lower temperature. Sansa cringed as mixers shut off all around her far too early. Only Jon and Melisandre kept going. If it had been the showstopper or the technical, Sansa would have dashed around the tent, telling everyone to keep mixing, but they weren't supposed to confer for the technical.
Not that such a rule prevented everyone from peeking at what the other bakers were doing, of course.
Nowhere near enough time had been granted to them, but when had it ever? Sansa was relatively pleased with the macarons she produced. They had decent feet on them, even if they were still warm enough to melt the filling.
"I have no idea if these are any good," Melisandre said to Sansa as they took their bakes up to the gingham altar. "I completely guessed on everything."
"I think everyone pretty much did."
"Hmm," Cersei said, scanning the row of macarons. "Interesting."
Macaron after macaron was declared to be too flat, too dry. Only Jon, Sansa, and Melisandre escaped a complete slating.
"In last place," Varys said, standing in front of Margaery's macarons, "we have this one."
Margaery was followed by Stannis, Brienne, Podrick, Lyanna, and Jon, leaving it between Melisandre and Sansa for first.
"And in second place," Varys said, "we have these."
He gestured at Sansa's plate. Raising her hand, Sansa turned her head to shoot Melisandre a grin. Not bad for guesswork.
No pub or tattoo parlour this week; unlike the rest of the bakers, Jon and Sansa opted for a quiet night in the hotel. They got pizza from the only takeaway place in the village and sat on Jon's bed with the window open as far as it would go to help them recover from the sweltering tent. Someone in the next room had a song on repeat, the lyrics muffled through the wall, only a faint impression of a slow melody drifting through.
"After Dickon, the only guy I saw more than a handful of times was Harry," Sansa said. "We went out for a couple of months."
She wasn't sure how they'd ended up on the topic of exes. Something about her high school boyfriend's unusual pizza topping preferences. Honestly, tuna and pineapple? Even at fifteen, she should have known they were doomed from the start.
"What happened?" Jon asked.
"Harry was… not suited to monogamy."
Scowling, Jon shifted the empty pizza box to the side table. "Remember your offer to tell someone off for me if necessary? Well, I'll do the same for you, for the record."
There was nothing spectacular about their surroundings: a generic hotel room, indistinguishable from hundreds of others. It was a perfectly ordinary night, set to the soundtrack of someone else's music, but there was something about the way Jon looked at her—solemn and protective—that made it feel almost magical.
"Not necessary, but thank you," she said, pushing a stray curl out of his face. "It was a rebound thing. I was never all that invested. Do any exes of yours need telling off? I meant it when I made the offer. Just point me in the right direction. I'll use the same voice I use with pushy mothers and mothers-in-law who try to elbow their way into the delivery room when my patient doesn't want them there. Trust me; it'll work."
Jon squinted. "People really do that?"
"Oh, you have no idea. If I ever give birth, the father of the child and the staff at the hospital will be the only ones who know when I'm in labour."
Jon huffed out a laugh. "That seems reasonable to me. And no, no exes in need of your scolding. The most recent one, Val… I decided to break up with her when I was shopping for an engagement ring, so if anything, I'm the one you should be telling off."
"She wasn't shopping with you, was she?"
"No, no. She didn't even know I was going. She still has no idea. I knew marriage and kids was something she wanted, and I just sort of realised while I was comparing rings that it was something I wanted too, but not with her. There had to be a reason we'd always been more off than on over the years. I felt like shit for wasting her time." He sighed. "I don't know, maybe I'm being presumptuous. She might have turned me down if I'd actually proposed."
Rolling her eyes, Sansa gave his knee a shove. "Yeah, who would want a man who can bake and stand up to the likes of Cersei Lannister?"
Jon's smile was slow to dawn, as if her words took a few moments to register. Sansa's gaze fell to the curve of his mouth. She teetered on the brink of something, heart racing and breath caught in her chest, but before she could explore it further, a knock sounded on Jon's door.
"Mate, you still awake?" Podrick said. "We rang Nan. She wants to say hi."
"If I wasn't awake before, I would be now," Jon called out.
Hugging her knees, Sansa watched him amble over to answer the door. The ordinary magic that had been building all evening fizzled out with the entrance of a grinning, somewhat tipsy Podrick.
The next time Pod waltzed around on national television with food on his face, Sansa might just keep quiet.
"Had you ever made any vegan cakes before the competition?" Alys asked.
"No. I'm not particularly worried, though." Lyanna shrugged one shoulder and reclined on the grass, propping herself up on her elbows. "My test cakes all turned out really nice. You can't go wrong with copious amounts of fat and sugar."
"Do you think you'll ever use the recipe again?"
"I like the cake, so yeah, I'll probably make it again. Oh, and I made some vegan pastry when I was trying to prepare for what the technical might be. It was surprisingly good. I'll most likely make that again, though I suppose it'll defeat the purpose if I use it to make a meat pie."
"…Just a bit, yeah."
Sansa cracked her knuckles. The tent was hotter than it had ever been. Even in shorts and a thin top, she felt suffocated by too many layers of clothing. And her vegan showstopper cake was the most elaborate thing she'd ever attempted. Brilliant.
"This looks frighteningly detailed," Davos said, leaning over the schedule she'd written out for herself.
"Yeah," Sansa said. "I've been told off in the past for my designs being too simple, so I'm going completely over the top with the decoration this time."
"Have you scheduled in time to breathe?"
"I might have a tiny little window while the cakes are cooling in the freezer. I'll breathe then."
That window closed when Sansa ran behind on sculpting her fondant flowers. Vegan fondant wasn't as stretchy as the stuff made with gelatine, which meant it was easier to tear. Other bakers ran into struggles of their own. Jon's vegan version of buttercream was just as prone to melting in the tent as the type with dairy. Podrick dropped one of his sponge layers on the floor, leaving him scrambling to make another. Margaery, who had chosen to do intricate chocolate work, crafted her decorations inside an open freezer near Sansa's bench.
"Oh, stop it," Margaery muttered. "How can you be clogged? You little… argh!"
"All right, Marg?" Sansa asked, not looking up from her fondant work.
"I'm fine." Her voice wobbled on the edge of tears. "My piping bag just burst and shot chocolate everywhere."
Standing on her tiptoes, Sansa peered at the chocolate disaster zone. Enough remained in the bag that Margaery could salvage most of it.
"Take one of my bags. They're just there, on the end of the bench."
"Thanks." Tilting forward, Margaery rested her forehead against the edge of the freezer. "Is anyone baking with booze this week, do you know? I might have a cocktail and book my taxi home. Save myself the bother of presenting what is definitely going to be a chocolate puddle."
"Hey," Tormund said, appearing from nowhere as he and Davos often did when a baker was in need of comfort. "You can save this."
"I really, really can't."
"Well, then, want me to present it so they send me home instead? I'll do it. I could use a holiday."
This coaxed a tiny laugh from Margaery. Armed with a fresh piping bag, she went back to work.
"Bakers," Davos said what seemed like seconds later. "You have one minute remaining."
Not enough time. Sansa did stop breathing then, willing her hands to remain steady as she rushed to finish up her piping. When Tormund shouted for everyone to step away from their bakes, Sansa's cake wasn't as perfect as the one she'd made at home, but it didn't look half-painted, unfinished. The fondant and icing garden of elaborate blossoms and twisting stems would appear complete to anyone but her. Her fingers itched to grab the piping bag and keep going till it was flawless, but the cake would do.
"Melisandre," Tormund said. "Please bring your showstopper up to the front."
Like Margaery, Melisandre had made a chocolate cake. She'd opted for less delicate decorations: chunky chocolate gemstones that she'd dusted with glittering paint, turning them to rubies.
"It's quite dry," Varys said once he'd swallowed his bite of cake.
"Afraid so. That's a shame."
"A bit bland as well," Cersei said. "And the decoration isn't your best, Melisandre."
"Mm. A bit sloppy with the piping around the sides. Overall… Disappointing."
Disappointing said in that tone Varys had—like a stern teacher who knew his students could do better—made Sansa's stomach plummet for Melisandre's sake, but Melisandre had placed first in the technical. She was likely safe.
With Melisandre back in her seat, it was Sansa's turn in front of the judges.
"It looks exquisite, Sansa," Varys said after his usual gut-churning pause. "You should be proud of this."
Cersei gave a slow nod. "The flowers are well crafted. You could have done with spending more time on your piping. You were quite rushed towards the end, weren't you?"
Sansa forced out a chuckle. "Yeah, as always."
Forks cut through all of her hard work and raised up to the judges' mouths. Sansa wanted to cover her face with her apron. How were they so good at giving nothing away as they ate?
"That," Varys said, "is quite possibly the best carrot cake I have ever had—vegan or otherwise."
"Really?" Sansa said from between the fingers she'd clapped over her mouth.
He grinned. "It's fantastic."
"I can't find fault with it, either," Cersei said. "I almost don't want it to be so delicious, because I'm always going on about how cakes need butter and eggs."
"This cake proves that they don't," Varys said. "Well done, Sansa."
"Our star baker is someone whose showstopper was plant-based in more ways than one," Tormund said, making Jon grab Sansa's hand before the announcement was even finished. "It is, of course, Sansa."
Beaming at her, Tormund nodded as if to say, "Yeah, you heard me correctly." Jon and Brienne performed a sort of hug pincer attack, trapping a giggling Sansa between them as the other bakers applauded. She couldn't have stopped smiling if she'd tried.
Her bright bubble of joy deflated a little as Davos cleared his throat. Time for the hard bit. This week, Sansa's money was on Stannis or Margaery. Stannis's vegan lemon cake had gone over well with the judges, but his other two challenges weren't great, and he had just barely scraped through for weeks now. While Cersei and Varys had adored the taste of Margaery's showstopper, it had been the chocolate puddle Margaery had predicted, and she'd come last in the technical.
Reaching across Brienne, Sansa gave Margaery's hand a squeeze. Stannis would have received the same treatment if he hadn't been too far away. She didn't want to see either of them go.
"Leaving us this week is… Melisandre."
Sansa gasped. Were they serious? Melisandre gave the expected smile and said it was okay, but she couldn't have been anticipating that.
That week, in addition to her two hugs from Jon, Sansa doled out an extra hug to Melisandre.
After a long day of filming, Alys spent the final interviews with her thoughts drifting to images of her bed. Sansa stood in front of the camera, phone in hand, waiting to share the news of her star baker win, and all Alys's exhausted eyes could see was pillows and sheets and blankets. As soon as Sansa's friend Gilly answered the call, Alys's attention snapped back to her current surroundings. Not many Bake Off calls to loved ones began with a shout of dismay.
"Oh my gods. Lady, stay."
Sansa exhaled a quiet laugh. "Err, Gill? You all right?"
"Yeah. Sorry, Little Sam has—oh, for f… Just a sec. Sam. Sam."
A masculine voice came over the speaker, mingling with the unrepentant giggles of a small child.
"Right," Gilly said. "Go ahead. I'm ready now."
"Paint. Just… so much bloody paint. Your dog was a very obliging canvas, apparently. Along with the kitchen cupboards, the floor… Gods. If you're ringing to tell me you got sent home, I am going to need at least twelve pints of ice cream to deal with it."
"Nope." Sansa grinned so wide, it had to hurt her cheeks. "I got star baker."
This inspired an even louder yell than when Gilly had discovered her kid's masterpiece. Glancing over to where Jon stood slightly off-camera, Sansa shared a secret chuckle with him. Hmm. Was Alys's lack of sleep making her see things, or was there something going on with those two?
"Pastry." Jon said the word like it was a threat—a predator lurking in the dark, waiting to strike.
Shifting around in her train seat, Sansa nudged him. "Not looking forward to pastry week?"
"It's definitely never been my strength. What about you? Are you worried about the curse of the star baker?"
Star baker. The mere mention of it made her want to jump up and down and announce it to the whole train carriage. Only the NDA she'd signed held her tongue.
"I actually like making pastry," she said. "I have an advantage; my hands are often cold."
When she touched one chilly palm to the back of his neck, Jon yelped. He dodged her laughing attempt to repeat the action, catching her hands in his.
"How are your hands this cold?" he asked, his fingers warm around hers.
"Built for pastry, I guess. Also, I'm sitting right next to the air conditioner vent."
Jon chuckled. His thumb traced back and forth across her wrist, sending pleasant shivers tingling along her skin.
"All tickets, please," the conductor said as he strode down the aisle.
Jon pulled away to rummage in his pocket.
The conductor's nametag said Addam, but Sansa decided he should be called Podrick.
The recipe that inspired Melisandre’s gluten free soda bread is here.
Next time: Pastry Week! With hopefully less of a wait, now that the holidays are over and I have more time to write again.
Chapter 6: Pastry Week
There is some mention of a narcissistic parent in this chapter. This is still very much a fluffy, feel-good fic, and the mention is very brief and not much more detailed than this warning, but I didn't want to catch anyone unawares.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Maybe it was a telemarketer or a scam call. If Jon answered, he would hear a recording of a woman's voice with a mild King's Landing accent pretend to carry on a conversation with him. Hello? Yes, hi, this is Jeyne from Baelish and Slynt. We're ringing about the accident you were involved with that wasn't your fault.
Tapping his thumb on the screen, Jon refused the call. After a few seconds, it started ringing again.
"Need me to tell them off for you?" Sansa asked with a grin.
Some sort of madness made him place the phone into her palm in spite of knowing the likely identity of the caller. No convenient tunnels lurked around the bend in the train tracks to make Jon's phone lose signal.
"Hello," Sansa said.
The voice that answered her was clear, recognisable in an instant and loud enough to make the man across the aisle glance over.
"Hello?" Rhaegar said. "Is Jon around?"
Why was Rhaegar trying to get in contact after so many years of radio silence? Jon mouthed to Sansa to claim it was the wrong number.
"Jon?" Sansa said. "Sorry, you must have the wrong number. There's no Jon here."
Rhaegar made that little hum sound that meant he thought someone was lying to him. "This is the number his mother gave me."
Mum, for fuck 's sake.
"I don't know what to tell you," Sansa said.
Another hum. "That's a shame. I was calling to congratulate him, since his mother says he's going to be on Bake Off."
Oh. Rhaegar loved reflected glory. He'd gone to every single one of Rhaenys's gymnastics competitions… until she'd started losing.
Sansa's eyebrows drew together. Her hand landed on Jon's knee, giving a gentle squeeze. "Good for him, whoever he is, but that still doesn't make this the right number."
Rhaegar hung up without saying goodbye. That had always been his signature move. More than once as a kid, Jon had been left talking to dead air for a few seconds before realising what had happened.
Sansa tsked. "Bit hard to tell him off when pretending not to know you, but oh well. Who was that?"
"My father. We don't speak."
Jon shook his head. "It was my choice."
She let silence thicken between them, inhaling a few times as if about to say something before letting the breath out in a long exhale.
"When I cut my aunt out of my life," she eventually said, "it was almost like she'd died. I was left mourning… not her, exactly, but the relationship we should have had. It was one hundred percent my choice, but that didn't make it easy."
People who knew firsthand how difficult Rhaegar could be had often repeated the words, "Give him another chance, he's your father." Leaning closer, Jon brushed a kiss over Sansa's forehead.
"Thanks," he said.
She gave him a soft smile. "Anytime."
"I don't want to tell the judges how to do their jobs," Margaery said, plucking a daisy out of the grass at her feet and tugging off the petals one by one. She loves me, she loves me not. "Actually, no, I take that back. I do want to tell them how to do their jobs, because what were they thinking? I should have been the one to go last week. My performance was shocking."
"Do you still think you'll make it to the end?" Alys asked.
"I want to make it to the final, but if I do, I think it'll feel kind of hollow now. Like I didn't really earn it." A smirk tugged at one corner of Margaery's mouth. "But I really, really do want to win."
The sudden rumble of Podrick's food processor made Jon jump. Podrick jabbed the button again and again, pulverising the flour and butter inside.
"Is that a good idea, using the machine?" Tormund asked, casting his gaze around the rest of the tent. Margaery was the only other baker not mixing by hand, but unlike Podrick, she'd left it at a few short pulses of the food processor.
Varys nudged Tormund with his elbow. "Have you actually learnt something about baking after all these years?"
"Absolutely not. I wasn't trying to give him some sort of hint. It was a genuine question. I'll have forgotten the answer by next week."
"It's always worked fine at home," Podrick said, "but that doesn't mean it'll work in the tent."
Cersei nodded. "Tell us about your tart, Podrick."
"It's peach and almond with sweet shortcrust pastry. My friends say it's good. I don't really like pastry, so…"
Jon glanced up from his own mixing bowl. Cersei gave Pod that thin smile of hers that never reached her eyes.
"None at all?" Tormund asked, looking like Podrick had just confessed to hating puppies and kittens.
"Not really, no. I'd rather eat cake. I'd rather make cake, too."
"Well," Varys said, "good luck."
Jon's discussion with the judges also ended with a "good luck" said in a tone that suggested they expected it to go spectacularly wrong. Chocolate shortcrust was, according to Cersei, a "brave" choice. He waited until they moved on to Sansa before he slid his pastry into the fridge and approached Podrick's bench.
"How long are you going to rest yours?" Jon asked.
"Half an hour." Podrick frowned at the clingfilm as it stuck more to him than his lump of pastry. "I need to blind bake it as soon as possible. My filling usually ended up runny when I tried to do it to time at home."
Jon couldn't decide whether to advise Podrick to do the pastry again, being gentler with it. Tough pastry was better than soggy pastry, and if the timing was that tight with his filling, it was probably best to leave him to it.
The judges were never generous with their time allowances, but they'd been particularly stingy with the fruit tart signature. Rolling his pastry out took Jon far too long; the hot tent made the dough sticky and overly soft, even after forty-five minutes in the fridge. From the muttering at the bench behind him, he gathered Sansa had run into a similar problem. At least he knew the fruit part would taste all right. Tormund and Davos had battled with spoons to be the one to scrape the lemon filling out of the bowl, and the little bit of it that Jon had tasted himself had been the perfect mix of sweet and tangy.
Podrick was the first to be judged. Jon almost couldn't bring himself to watch. Had he done the right thing in keeping quiet?
"It's as tough as old boots," Varys said. Shit.
"Mm," Cersei said. "You've overworked it, and it's far too thick. I was worried it would be when I saw you over here playing patchwork with your shortcrust."
"It is baked, though," Varys said. "Just. And the filling is good."
Far too soon, Davos stood on the other side of Jon's bench, smiling reassuringly at him as Varys cut into the pie.
"Aha," Varys said, flipping the slice over to reveal undercooked pastry. "Look what we have here, Cersei."
"You're our first soggy bottomed tart, Jon," Davos said, like it was a great accomplishment.
"It's a shame about the pastry," Cersei said, "because the filling is absolutely delicious. But this is a pastry challenge, so that's the part that really matters." Setting her fork down, she gave him a not-mad-just-disappointed sigh. "It's not your best."
Jon was with Pod when it came to the subject of pastry; he'd rather make cake.
Sansa didn't fare much better, producing the second soggy bottom of the series. Only when the judges reached the other side of the tent did words like crisp and short and perfect start getting thrown around. Brienne had also opted for the controversial choice of chocolate pastry, but, crucially, hers was actually baked.
"Curse of the star baker," Sansa said, resting her head on Jon's shoulder.
"Nah, you're built to make pastry, remember?"
"There are no air conditioner vents in the tent."
"We'll install one, then."
She giggled, then wrinkled her nose and put a few inches of space between them. "Ugh. Sorry. It's not you. It is just way too hot for being that close to anyone."
"Hmm. All the more reason to install air conditioning, then."
It was difficult to say for certain, since her cheeks were already pink from the heat, but it almost looked as if Sansa blushed.
Cersei and Varys would choose rough puff for the technical. Muttering to himself, Jon grated a frozen block of butter as quickly as he could. The temperature in the tent had sweat trickling down the back of his neck and his shirt sticking to his torso. If he took too long, the butter would likely be transformed into a greasy puddle in record time.
The bakers had been told to make six raspberry millefeuille. Jon had a vague idea of what the millefeuille were supposed to look like, but he'd never even eaten one, much less assembled one from scratch.
"At least it's not filo pastry," Podrick said.
That was an excellent point.
After doing all of the turning and folding and placing his dough in the fridge, Jon got to work on his raspberry jam. Jam was one thing he could always make without instructions, so the three word method on the recipe sheet (make the jam) was not a problem.
Every autumn, without fail, Jon and his mother walked the hedgerows near her house, filling baskets with fat, juicy berries that they then made into enough jam to last until the following autumn. The process of measuring out fruit and sugar, heating it to the right temperature, and testing it on a plate to make sure it wrinkled made Jon think of crisp mornings and perfect cups of tea in the sunny warmth of his mum's kitchen.
Their jam ritual was all tangled up with the relief of coming home to the North after weeks spent in Dorne as a kid. Even though his mother wasn't on the list of things Jon wanted to think about at the moment—particularly not in the pressure of the tent—the tension in his shoulders loosened a bit as he went through the familiar motions.
Jon was crouched down, staring at his oven in spite of not actually being able to see his pastry when a burst of profanity came from Podrick's bench.
"What's wrong?" Jon asked.
"I missed the bit that says you're meant to bake the pastry between two baking sheets. I'm guessing it isn't supposed to be all puffed up like that."
"Oh no," Sansa said, wincing as she joined Jon in examining Pod's pastry. "If it's any consolation, it looks like you have a lot of nice layers in there."
It probably wasn't any consolation at all, but Podrick gave her a smile, anyway.
Jon's pastry ended up ever-so-slightly overdone. Cutting it into equal rectangles without it crumbling all over the place stretched his patience to its limit. He barely had time to slap the raspberries, jam, and cream between the layers before Tormund and Davos called time.
"Really nice jam on that one," Cersei said, spinning Jon's millefeuille around to scrutinise the other side. "It's a shame the piping is so sloppy."
"Yes, and they've left it in the oven too long." Varys sidled along to the next one in line: Podrick's. "And here we have someone who didn't quite read the instructions, I think."
No one was surprised when Podrick placed last. Margaery reached over to give Pod's arm a pat before Varys even finished the sentence.
"And in sixth place," Cersei said, "we have this one."
Jon raised his hand. Also not a surprise. Sansa followed him in fifth place; her pastry was fine, but she hadn't finished piping her cream. Stannis and Lyanna got fourth and third place, respectively.
"In second place, we have this one," Cersei said, gesturing at Brienne's millefeuille.
Margaery looked both thrown and relieved to have placed first. It had to be gratifying after the struggles she'd had during the previous week.
"I think we're on the wrong side of the tent," Podrick said to Jon. "They're all doing so much better. Our side is clearly cursed. An ancient burial site, probably."
"Should we have an exorcism or commandeer the other benches?" Jon asked.
Pod shrugged. "Better do both, just to be safe."
Mum: I'm sorry, love. He seemed so interested in what you've been up to. I just thought it might help if the two of you talked about things. Are you really planning to shut your dad out forever?
Right. That was about the response Jon had expected when he'd sent a text telling his mother off for giving his number to Rhaegar.
Jon: Are you really planning to shut your ex out forever? It might help if the two of you talked about things
Mum: All right, point taken. I'll stay out of it. xx
"Look what Brienne gave me," Sansa said, plopping down next to Jon and holding up a jar that was half full of foamy, white goo. "It's some of her sourdough starter. She's been keeping it and feeding it for like fifteen years, so she basically just gave me her child."
Jon forced a smile. "A child you're going to use to bake bread."
"Yes, and he will be delicious." Setting the jar on the sticky pub table, she tilted her head to one side. "You okay?"
"Yeah, just talking to my mum about the whole thing with her giving out my number."
"Ah." Sansa gave the slow nod of the slightly inebriated, making Jon chuckle. "Wanna talk about it?"
Rhaegar wasn't a subject Jon discussed in depth with most people. Sam had been the sympathetic ear to several of Jon's rants about his dad's raging narcissism, but other than that, Jon tended to keep the topic locked up tight around every one but Aegon and Rhaenys. Even his mum, who knew firsthand how difficult Rhaegar could be, had been left mostly in the dark. Jon had spent so many years insisting everything was fine, great, perfect, going really well during his visits to Dorne.
Looking at Sansa's open, warm expression, Jon found he wanted to let her in on that part of his history. Maybe he was a bit tipsy, too.
"Not right now, but thanks," he said, swallowing the urge.
"It's not something you should do as a casual hobby," Stannis said in a stern voice as he showed Brienne and Margaery his tub of wild mushrooms. "It can easily turn fatal if you make a mistake. One wrong mushroom, and that's it. Dead."
Alys didn't know why his warning speech made her want to laugh. She knew the words were true; identifying wild mushrooms was indeed best left to those with some experience. Something about Stannis's severe expression turned the words comical to her.
"I think I'll stick to sword fighting," Brienne said.
Margaery sniffed the mushrooms. "You're sure these are the non-poisonous ones? You'll probably get sent home by default if you're wrong. Killing the judges is generally frowned upon."
Brienne barked out a laugh. "I love how that is your concern. Not that two people would be dead, but that he'd be disqualified from the competition."
"I'm not just ambitious for myself; I want to see all of you succeed, too."
"You do realise that only one of us can win," Stannis said.
"I can want two contradictory things at the same time. I contain multitudes."
Jon looked back and forth between the drawing on Podrick's bench (still on the "cursed" side of the tent) and the pastry faces that Podrick was creating.
"That one's me?" Jon asked.
"No. You're on that pie over there, with Sansa. This is Brienne. No beard, see?"
Jon did not see, but he nodded anyway. For their showstopper challenge, the bakers were supposed to make four decorative savoury pies. Podrick had chosen to adorn his venison pies with likenesses of all of the remaining bakers.
"Good thing I'm probably leaving," Podrick said. "I can escape everyone's wrath when they get insulted."
"Hey, Sansa and I are on the cursed side of the tent, too. One of us might go. I bet you'll still be here next week, fending off an offended mob of bakers."
Pod exhaled a quiet laugh. "Thanks. Ugh, if I don't get these in the oven soon, I'm screwed."
"Anything I can do to help?"
Jon's pies were safely in the oven, leaving him with nothing to do.
"Could you crack some eggs for me? I'll be ready for the egg wash once I finish this bit. This is as good as they're going to get in the time. Gods, they were so much better at home."
"Everything always is, mate."
As Jon tapped an egg on the edge of a bowl, Tormund joined them.
"Did you know that you and Stannis are making the same kind of pie?" Tormund asked Jon.
"Aye. His has mushrooms he foraged himself, though. He's decorated them with the first couple hundred digits of pi."
Jon's chicken and mushroom pies were topped with twisting plaits and pastry leaves. He'd used red, orange, and yellow egg washes on the leaves to make them look autumnal, but maybe his designs were too simple for showstopper level decorative pies.
"Battle of the chickens." Tormund clapped his hands together. "Sansa, are you joining in the chicken battle, too?"
"No, I'm doing butternut squash with spinach and blue cheese." She pointed at the pastry lid she was crimping. "And this is a dove, thank you very much."
Unlike Podrick's efforts, Sansa's pies resembled their subjects. She'd opted for four birds: the aforementioned dove, an owl, a peacock, and a crow.
"I like them," Tormund said, resting his elbows on her bench. "This one is like Jon's crow from week one. Remember that? The brooding one that I said looked like him."
"Battle of the Jon portraits, then," Podrick said.
"Yes." Tormund beamed. "Everyone should do that. I'm going to go tell them to change their ideas right now."
Unless one of the elaborate pastry blossoms on top of Brienne's cheddar and caramelised onion pies was meant to be an abstract representation of Jon, she hadn't accepted Tormund's challenge to enter the battle of the Jon portraits.
"That is almost criminally good," Varys said with a contented sigh. "I could eat the whole thing. You should be very proud of these pies."
Brienne's grin shone through her voice. "Thank you."
"I agree," Cersei said. "The texture, that lovely oniony flavour, the perfectly short pastry… I can't find fault with it."
"Podrick," Davos said as Brienne practically floated back to her bench. "Please bring your showstopper up to the front."
Podrick's portraits had ended up looking as if they'd spent the summer holed up indoors with the curtains drawn; every last one was startlingly pale. When Varys and Cersei cut into them, juice from the meat flowed out in a river, and the bottoms of the pies were predictably soggy. Jon gave his best attempt at a comforting smile when Pod walked back to his bench looking as if he was fighting off tears.
Jon was next. Stannis's chicken and mushroom pie hadn't done well; Stannis had spent too long cleaning his foraged mushrooms, leaving him with insufficient time to bake the pastry. The mushrooms had been correctly identified, at least, so no judges were harmed in the tasting. The tops of Jon's pies looked all right, but he had no clue what lurked underneath.
"It's baked," Varys said, scraping a fork over the bottom and smirking when Jon sighed in relief.
"Nice and crisp," Cersei said. "And it's holding together nicely."
Like always, it took forever for them to chew their mouthfuls and give their verdict on the taste. Brienne had once said that she could bake another showstopper in the time the judges took to eat the damn thing.
"That's delicious," Cersei finally said.
Varys nodded. "You've seasoned it beautifully, and you've done well to avoid the juice from the mushrooms turning everything soggy. Well done, Jon."
On wobbly knees, Jon returned to his bench. Had that been enough? Melisandre had seemed safe the previous week, so Jon was reluctant to let himself hope.
Upon cutting into Sansa's pies, the judges discovered that although the bottom was crisp, the sides were a bit too thick, resulting in a layer of uncooked dough. Both Cersei and Varys liked her bird designs, but they disagreed on the filling.
"Far too much blue cheese," Cersei said. "It's such a strong, pungent flavour. It overpowers everything else for me. Eyes closed, I wouldn't be able to tell you what else was in the pie at all."
"I think the balance is fine," Varys said. "I can taste the squash, and it's lovely. If you ignore the pastry on the sides, that's a very nice pie."
Jon couldn't tell whether Sansa had done enough to save herself, either.
"The star baker this week," Davos said, "is someone who made flowers out of flour, pastry out of chocolate, and served up a near perfect mi… whatever it was called."
"Millefeuille," Cersei said.
"Yes. That. For the first time, Brienne is our star baker."
Out of the corner of his eye, Jon caught Sansa's hands shaking as she applauded. He laced his fingers together with hers, heart lodging in his throat. The other member of the cursed trio sat on Sansa's other side. She grabbed Podrick's hand with her free one and squeezed.
"I think next year I'm going to try to get it written into my contract that Davos has to do this part every week," Tormund said. "This only gets harder as the weeks go on. Leaving us this week, I'm very sorry to say, is… Podrick."
A contradictory blend of relief and sadness curdled in Jon's stomach. In the hug scrum that followed, Podrick ended up comforting Sansa, who cried almost as much as she had when saying goodbye to Shae.
"Shouldn't this be the other way around?" Sansa asked. "You're the one who is going."
"Well, you're the one being deprived of my company." Winking, Pod dabbed at her tears with his apron. "And you have to do this all again next week. I, on the other hand, can relax and have a nice lie-in."
Sniffling, Sansa kissed his cheek. "I'm sorry. I feel so guilty. I really thought it was going to be me."
"I didn't. And hey, next week was practically made for you, right?"
The days were getting longer and longer as spring brightened into summer, but filming had wrapped so late that the windows of the train grew dark not long after Jon and Sansa boarded. As they moved further North, the number of passengers thinned out until they were the only ones left in the carriage.
"Do you think we'll both actually recognise the technical next week?" Jon asked.
"Hmm. Doubtful. It'll be something completely obscure that no Northerners have actually made for centuries." Wriggling around in her seat to get more comfortable, she lowered her voice to the kind of whisper reserved for secrets and late nights. "Still, Northern Week. We stand a decent chance. I hope."
"We'd better. We'll be forced to move to the South out of shame if we do as poorly as we did this week."
"That might not be so bad. I'd miss the snow, but we could live in a beach house on the Summer Islands."
Jon grinned. "A beach house? Together?"
Her cheeks turned an encouraging shade of pink. "Well, house prices are ridiculous in the South."
"That's true. I wouldn't mind sharing a beach house with you."
Understatement of the century.
Jon's gaze traced the now-familiar contours of her face, settling on her mouth. Her tongue darted out, wetting her lips. Would she pull away if he leaned in for a kiss? The way she tilted her upper body towards him suggested it would be welcome, wanted. The way she reached up to tuck a wayward curl behind his ear, tickling fingers lingering on his neck, suggested she would kiss him back.
Ever so slowly, Jon inched closer. Sansa mirrored his movements for one wonderful, stomach-flipping second before she drew in a shaky breath and sat up straight.
"I think we're almost to Winterfell," she said. A perfunctory kiss landed on his cheek, near the corner of his mouth. She hesitated, barely a centimetre separating them, before bolting out of her seat. "Have a good week."
Gathering up her things, she all but ran away.
Stannis’s mushroom foraging speech was inspired by one in Series 4 of the real Bake Off.
Inspiration for Pod’s peach and almond tart is here
Next time: Northern Week!
She should have kissed him.
"We are sorry to announce that the 10:23 service to Highgarden is delayed by approximately twenty minutes."
Yeah, yeah. Sansa knew how late the train was. She also knew why she was so antsy—why her belly always twisted and somersaulted during her weekly wait for the train. It was the anticipation of seeing Jon.
Gods, she should have kissedhim. When he'd leaned in, it had been one of those rare, perfect moments. A snapshot that could be tucked away and brought out to brighten cloudier days. She had wanted—ached—to feel his lips on hers, to tangle her fingers in his hair.
It wasn't as if it would have been her first kiss since Dickon. But Jon mattered more than Harry ever had, which was probably why she'd run away like an idiot, heart in her throat. And now Jon likely wouldn't make another attempt.
During her internal rant, the delayed train pulled in. Boarding their usual carriage, Sansa scanned the crowd for Jon. She found him near the back, his smile so instant and easy that she almost wondered if she'd imagined their near-kiss.
"Hey," he said, giving her a one-armed hug. Nice and platonic. Dammit.
"Hi," she said, pausing when his phone vibrated with a text. If that was his dad hassling him again, Sansa would rip the man a new one. "How was your week?"
"Not bad." Something must have shown on her face, because he added, "The wrong number game must have worked. My dad's been uncharacteristically quiet."
He chuckled. "The fact that I blocked his new number probably helps. Anyway, enough about him. What's your favourite Northern bake? Nan's just been texting me about hers, and it's something I've never even heard of. Is a Nightrunner roll a real thing, do you think, or is she just taking the piss? It sounds like some sort of evasive flight manoeuvre. Or a sex act. I'm a little afraid to look it up."
"It sounds vaguely familiar," Sansa said with a snort of laughter, "but that doesn't mean it's something people bake. She might be taking the piss. I don't know what my favourite Northern bake is. Skirling bread, maybe? It's a shame Nan didn't make it to this week; I bet she would have made star baker."
"Yeah. She would have put us all to shame."
Sansa rummaged in the heavy bag she'd stowed at her feet, shifting her cast iron pan aside to grab the battered cookbook she'd inherited from Granny Stark. It was the sort of cookbook that had dogeared pages stained by the ghosts of old cakes. Its margins were crammed full of notes in Granny's spidery handwriting.
"We can't hope to reach Nan's level of mastery with Northern baking, but we can do some last minute studying," Sansa said.
They went from cover to cover in Granny's book on their way to the Reach, but Sansa doubted she'd retained a word of new information. She was too focused on the sensation of Jon's thigh pressed up against hers, the timbre of his voice, the curve of his smile.
She should have kissed him.
The three Northern bakers crowded together on a bench in the rose garden, each of them cradling a cast iron pan. Jon, who was squashed in the middle, balanced his pan on his knees and stretched his arms out along the back of the bench. Alys studied the placement of his hands with interest. The arm he'd put around Lyanna barely touched her, his fingers loose and relaxed. Brotherly, almost. His other hand cupped Sansa's shoulder, his upper body angling towards her. Hmm.
"Did you all agree beforehand to bring your own pans?" Alys asked.
"We talked about the pans at the end of last week," Sansa said, "but I don't think any of us said we were definitely bringing our own."
"Clearly, none of us trust Southerners to season a pan properly," Lyanna said with a grin.
"Stannis told me he's using a cake tin for his Skirling bread," Jon said.
Sansa gasped. "Sacrilege."
Alys had made sure Jon and Sansa had once again been placed at neighbouring benches. They'd given her nothing beyond a few lingering hugs the previous week, but she still thought there was something going on between them. The way Sansa kept looking at Jon with heart eyes confirmed it.
They'd never had a romance on Bake Off before. This could be good.
"Bakers," Tormund said in a booming voice, his arms outstretched, "welcome to my week."
Davos gave him a sidelong glance. "Settle down. You don't actually know how to make any of this stuff."
"I know how it should taste. That's basically the same thing."
"Right." Davos cleared his throat. "For your signature challenge this week, the judges would like you all to make Skirling bread."
"You can add whatever flavours you like, and you can use butter, lard, or a mixture of both; it's entirely up to you." Placing his hands on his hips, Tormund stared them all down. "Just know that only one of those options is the correct way to do it, and if you get it wrong, it's not only Cersei and Varys who will be judging you."
"You're going to be like this for every challenge, aren't you?" Davos asked.
"Of course. Now, on your marks…"
Sansa started melting her butter and lard together straight away. It would need to cool a bit before she could mix it into her dough. A combination of lard and butter was how Granny Stark had always made it, so hopefully it would meet Tormund's high standards.
This was the challenge that required a cast iron pan. Ordinarily, Sansa cooked Skirling bread over an open fire. It was the food of late summer camping trips with her siblings. Making it at home—or in the Bake Off tent—felt a bit like pitching a tent in the middle of her kitchen. Novel, but not quite right.
"Do you think they divided the tent into North versus South on purpose?" Lyanna asked a little while later, when Sansa was willing her onions to caramelise faster.
Sansa hadn't noticed it before Lyanna mentioned it. She had been placed between Lyanna and Jon, with all of the Southerners together on the other side of the tent.
"Maybe our side won't be the cursed side this time," Jon said, throwing her a smile over his shoulder.
Both Lyanna and Jon were also using a mixture of butter and lard, which had to be a good sign. Sansa couldn't see what the Southerners were up to, but judging by the porky smell wafting over, at least one of them was using lard—and burning it.
Once her dough was kneaded and tucked safely in the proving drawer, Sansa crossed the North-South divide to investigate the other side of the tent.
"Sansa, does this glaze need anything?" Margaery asked, wielding a spoonful of orange liquid.
"Glaze?" Sansa said. "For Skirling bread?"
"Yeah. Mine's a sweet one with pecans and dried cranberries, and this just gives it a little something extra."
Leaning across the bench, Sansa tasted the glaze. The brandy she could smell around Margaery's station was almost completely buried underneath the sweetness of orange.
"A bit more booze," Sansa said.
"Trying to take Cersei's job?" Davos asked, grinning when his sudden appearance next to Sansa made her jump. "That's her catchphrase."
Before Sansa could shush him and tell him not to say such things within earshot of Cersei, Margaery jumped in, cheeks dimpling with a smirk. "Sansa wouldn't do that. I would, though. Tasting a whole bunch of lovely bakes and retreating to an air conditioned trailer to watch box sets when the tent gets too hot? Sign me up."
Davos gave a laughing shake of his head. "You'd be a natural, I'm sure."
"Besides," Margaery said, pausing to take a sip of her tea, "Sansa has plenty of reasons to want to stay in the North."
There was that teasing, dimpled smirk again. Margaery looked right at Jon. Sansa couldn't help but breathe out a laugh. Margaery saw through everyone, didn't she?
"This is your grandmother's recipe?" Cersei asked as she cut into Sansa's Skirling bread.
"Mostly," Sansa said. "Granny Stark didn't use rosemary and caramelised onions. Hers was always plain. Mine is too, if I'm honest, but you know. Bake Off."
The bread crumbled in their hands as the judges and Tormund all took a piece. Jon's chili infused Skirling bread had received rave reviews by all, suggesting a combination of butter and lard had been the right choice—at least in Tormund's opinion. Sansa had fed this bread to nearly every Northerner she knew over the past week, but getting their opinions hadn't been a fraction as nerve-wracking as waiting for the three people in front of her to finish chewing.
"Mm." Varys leaned against the bench. "That is a thing of beauty, my dear. Oh, my. I'm going to have another bite, actually."
The tension that had been twisting in Sansa's chest unravelled, lifting her mouth into a smile. "Thank you."
"It's a nice texture," Cersei said, "and the flavour is quite good. I would have liked to see the presentation have a bit more flair, but I suppose there's not much you can do to dress up Skirling bread, is there?"
"Err, I guess not."
"Congratulations!" Tormund said, wiping the crumbs from his beard and sticking out his hand. "You have passed my test. You can stay in the North."
"Oh my gods, don't encourage him," Cersei said with a roll of her eyes as Sansa shook Tormund's hand.
"I don't think it makes any difference whether he's encouraged or not," Varys said. "Thank you, Sansa."
Like Jon and Sansa, Lyanna escaped exile from the North. Brienne, the first of the Southerners to be judged, was offered honorary citizenship for her cheesy Skirling bread (Sansa got the feeling that Brienne only accepted Tormund's handshake because it irked Cersei).
While none of the Southerners were banned by Tormund, the judges were less enthusiastic about Stannis's sultana Skirling bread. Underbaked and stodgy were the words Sansa heard repeated from across the tent. Opinion was divided on Margaery's extra glaze; Varys wasn't a fan, but Cersei loved it, which had to prove she hadn't overheard the conversation with Davos. That, or Cersei could always be won over with more booze, no matter what. Sansa would have to file that information away for later.
"It's basically an iced Maidenpool tart with a little fern design on top, right?" Sansa asked, squinting at the sparse recipe for six fern cakes. Make the pastry, make the jam, make the frangipane. She could have guessed that much on her own.
Tormund's smile was all-knowing. "I couldn't possibly say."
Swatting his arm with the laminated sheet of paper, she groaned. "You are enjoying this far too much."
"I think I'm enjoying it just the right amount. Come on, you can't tell me you haven't seen a fern cake before. You grew up in Winterfell."
"I've seen them at bakeries plenty of times, yeah, but I've never known anyone who made them at home."
"Neither have I, to be fair."
Talking to Tormund wouldn't give her more time to rest her pastry, so Sansa got to work rubbing chunks of cold butter into flour while he went off to pester the Southern side of the tent. Apart from the usual time constraints, this technical challenge seemed dangerously simple. She knew what the end product was supposed to look like, as well as knowing how to make all of the components. If she let herself get too confident, she'd probably drop the damn things, but cautious optimism—that, she could do.
"Pastry again," Jon said. He watched her more than his jam as he stirred the pot of blackberries and sugar, as if he could sense when the thermometer climbed to the right temperature. "I guess it's a chance to redeem ourselves. Or we could prove we really know nothing about pastry."
"Speak for yourself," Sansa said. "My bottoms are not going to be soggy today. I won't allow it. Crisp bottoms only."
The weather wasn't any more on their side than it had been during pastry week. Harsh sunlight pressed down on the tent, warming rested pastry and turning it sticky. Sansa worked as quickly as she could, with somewhat more success than she'd had before. There was less swearing, at least.
"I can't remember what the stupid design looks like," Lyanna said once her fern cakes were out of the oven, cooled as much as she could manage, and waiting to be decorated. "Honestly, if they asked me to write my own name on them I'd probably question the spelling at this point."
In the end, Lyanna and Jon's piped chocolate ferns looked much like Sansa's, so they all decided it must be right (Tormund grinned mysteriously when asked). There was more variation on the Southern side of the tent. Stannis hadn't managed to get anything piped onto his; he was still slapping icing on when Tormund and Davos called time.
Seeing the six lots of fern cakes lined up on the gingham altar underscored how few bakers were left. There were nowhere near as many places to hide now. Everything had to be perfect.
"Beautiful jam on that one," Varys said, nudging one of Jon's fern cakes with his fork.
"And the decoration is good," Cersei said. "They could have used just a bit longer in the oven. The pastry is crisp, but do you see this? The frangipane is ever so slightly runny. It was minutes away from perfection."
Sansa's fern cakes were the last to be judged. She couldn't guess where anyone had placed so far, apart from poor fernless Stannis. Technicals were not his forte. The others had all been neck-and-neck with each other, every baker receiving only slight complaints. Wiping her sweaty palms on her jeans, Sansa held her breath.
"Nice decoration, perfectly crisp pastry," Cersei said. Taking a bite, she sighed. "And it's absolutely delicious. This baker got the timing just right."
"That," Varys said, "is a wonderful example of a fern cake. I'd be happy if I walked away from a Northern bakery with a bag full of those."
Tormund winked at Sansa.
Stannis came last, Margaery fifth, Jon fourth, and Brienne third. It was down to Lyanna and Sansa for first place.
"And in second place," Cersei said, "we have this one."
Lyanna. Sansa had started hoping when they'd been so effusive in their praise of her fern cakes, but she hadn't let herself believe it until Cersei gestured at Lyanna's plate. Margaery's arm wrapped around Sansa's shoulders and gave her a squeeze.
"Which means in first place, we must have Sansa," Varys said. He smiled at the other bakers as they applauded her. "These were expertly done. You should be proud."
Waiting for the other bakers to finish their last interviews of the day, Jon and Sansa took shelter in a copse of trees—the same place they'd hidden after he'd stood up to Cersei for her. The same place they'd had that long, swaying hug. Now that Sansa stood in the shade with a cool breeze ruffling her hair, the lingering scent of jam and frangipane that floated out of the tent smelled sweeter.
"I've never actually eaten a fern cake before today," Jon said. "Think Tormund will ban me if he finds out?"
"He'll have to go through me if he wants to try."
"Of course. The only way you're leaving the North is voluntarily, when we follow through with our plan to run away to the Summer Isles."
Jon smiled at her like he had on the train the week before. That mischievous smile that said he wouldn't mind sharing a beach house with her. Sansa's heart raced, her chest tugging with the longing to be closer to him. If he picked up on her attempt to recapture that moment on the train, she wouldn't run away this time.
But he didn't. He didn't close the distance between them, didn't press her up against one of the trees, didn't try to kiss her. Instead, he stared at her mouth for a beat before looking away, as if catching himself doing something he shouldn't.
"Jon," she whispered.
Sansa didn't give herself a millisecond for self-doubt to creep in. Making her intentions clear by cupping his face between her hands, she took a deep breath. Jon's eyes widened a fraction, but he caught on quickly. Hands settling on her hips, he gave her a new smile: slow and tempting. When Sansa leaned forward, he met her halfway, his mouth brushing against hers. Another perfect snapshot of a moment to tuck away.
"Remember when I said who would want a man who can bake and stand up to the likes of Cersei Lannister?" Sansa asked.
His forehead rested against hers, making his face blur. "Of course."
"Me. I would. Well, obviously." She tangled her fingers in the hair at the nape of his neck. "I'm sorry I ran away before, on the train."
"Don't be." Jon cut off anything more she might have said with another kiss.
Tentative, soft presses of his mouth grew rougher, Jon taking her sigh for the invitation it was and slipping his tongue past her lips. Everything outside their grove faded into background noise. No tent, no competition—nothing but Jon's mouth, Jon's hands, Jon, Jon, Jon. Sansa almost wanted to laugh with the relief and thrill of it.
Neither noticed Alys directing a cameraman to zoom in on them.
The Southern bakers sat on the same bench the Notherners had used the day before, minus the cast iron pans. Margaery took up Jon's former position in the middle, stretching her arms around Stannis and Brienne. Alys didn't bother to scrutinise anyone's body language. Even if Margaery hadn't already been married, there was no chance of a Bake Off romance with this lot.
"How are you all doing with Northern Week so far?" Alys asked.
"I think it's going okay," Margaery said. "I've heard of all but one of the challenges, which is about as good as any other week."
"I still don't understand why they're called fern cakes when they are blatantly tarts," Stannis said. "None of the Northerners seemed to know, either."
Margaery patted his shoulder.
"How do you think the others would do if we had a Southern Week?" Alys asked.
"Every week apart from this one has kind of been Southern Week, hasn't it?" Brienne said. "I think the Northern bakers would do just fine if our positions were reversed."
Glace cherries were the hot topic of conversation around the tent. Stannis and Brienne were both using them in their showstopper tiered fruitcakes, as they had been unaware that doing so was very much a Southern thing. Tormund was appalled.
Jon and Sansa hadn't yet discussed when to tell everyone about the new developments between them, but at least one of the other bakers was aware. The night before, when they'd all traipsed back to the hotel after a group outing to the pub (Margaery having insisted that with so few of them left, it was unacceptable for anyone to stay behind at the hotel), Brienne had caught Jon giving Sansa a goodnight kiss. After apologising in that formal way of hers, Brienne had rushed past them, though Sansa was sure she'd heard Brienne mutter, "About bloody time."
Evidently, Brienne hadn't shared what she'd seen with anyone else. Sansa would have been surprised if she had.
"Sansa," Cersei said. "Tell us about your tiered fruitcake."
"It's another one of my granny's recipes," Sansa said, continuing to toil away on her decorations as she talked. "It has orange zest, mixed spice, raisins, sultanas, currants, flaked almonds, and candied peel. Granny usually spent weeks feeding it with booze, so I've had to modify it a little."
"Is it a good idea to spend only a few hours making a cake that usually takes weeks?" Cersei asked.
Sansa forced out a laugh. "Probably not, but it's too late to turn back now. My brothers said it tasted almost as good, which I took to be the highest compliment, because no one could ever beat Granny Stark when it came to fruitcake."
Giving her an indulgent smile, Varys craned his neck to see the tiny marzipan decorations scattered over her bench. "And how will you be decorating it?"
"For some reason, I thought it would be a good idea to use a lavender field near my parents' house as my inspiration." Sansa worked a few drops of purple food colouring into a ball of marzipan, ignoring the staining of her hands. "There's going to be marzipan lavender blossoms on all three tiers, going in a gradient from light purple to dark."
"Goodness," Cersei said. She nudged one of the finished lavender sprigs. "Are all of the flowers going to be that small? You've given yourself a lot to do."
"We'd best leave you alone so you can get to it," Davos said. "Good luck, Sansa."
As quickly as she could, Sansa rolled out the purple marzipan and used a cutter to stamp out the spiky flower shapes that she would cut in half. It was a more difficult than working with fondant—stickier, not as firm.
Like Sansa, the other bakers had gone all out with their marzipan decorations. Lyanna's cake was a tribute to her home, complete with several of the bears that used to roam there. Brienne's sketch of her forest cottage cake looked like it belonged on the pages of a picture book, and both Stannis and Margaery had opted to create tiny, realistic marzipan fruit.
The night before, grinning to herself as she'd struggled to settle down and go to sleep, Sansa had imagined sharing covert, flirtatious glances with Jon in the tent. In reality, she could barely look up long enough from her marzipan sculpting to give him an occasional smile. He was similarly absorbed with creating dozens upon dozens of marzipan bees and hexagons of honeycomb for his honey infused fruitcake.
Roll, stamp, cut, sculpt, repeat. With each second that ticked by, Sansa's hands trembled more and more.
"Bakers," Davos shouted. "You have five minutes remaining."
Sansa refused to think about how many minutes worth of work she had left to do. Roll, stamp, cut, sculpt, repeat. A shout of dismay rose up on the other side of the tent, but she couldn't look up from her bench to see what had happened. The most she could manage was hoping the other baker was okay as she kept churning out dark purple lavender sprigs. Five more, four more, three more…
"Thirty seconds left," Tormund said.
Ten seconds per sprig wasn't enough, but somehow, Sansa managed it. The last decoration went on the cake without an instant to spare. As soon as Davos called for everyone to step away from their bakes, Sansa stood on tiptoe to see the Southern side of the tent.
"Oh no," she said, wiping her purple hands on her apron and crossing to Brienne's bench. "Are you all right?"
The forest cottage had suffered a landslide. Brienne gave a stiff nod and insisted she was fine, but she held on tight when Sansa offered her a consoling embrace.
"Having these larger top tiers to create the illusion of an overhanging roof was a nice idea, in theory," Varys said, frowning at Brienne's pile of cake. "I suspect it wasn't cool enough when you assembled it, and that's why you've had some structural issues. It's a shame, but let's see how it tastes."
Sansa didn't care if she smudged purple all over her face as she held both hands over her mouth and waited on the edge of her seat for Cersei and Varys to give Brienne their verdict.
"That's a very nice fruitcake," Cersei said. "Not strictly Northern, as I gather you have already been told, but it has an excellent flavour."
Varys nodded. "The texture is nice and light, as well. A cake as delicate as this one is never going to stand up to the kind of construction you were attempting, but as far as eating it goes, I'm not going to complain."
Sansa's relief lasted through Margaery's judging (truly Northern, well decorated, good flavour), faltered at Stannis's (lovely decorations, but close textured and bland), and soared when Cersei and Varys declared Jon's cake to be near perfect.
"Sansa," Tormund said. "Please bring your showstopper to the front."
Conscious of every step, Sansa made the long walk with her cake balanced in her still-shaking hands. By some miracle, she managed to transfer it onto the gingham altar without dropping it or smushing the fragile lavender.
"I had my doubts that you would finish," Varys said. "But you've pulled it off—and quite magnificently. It looks like a wedding cake, Sansa. Most bakers would take at least a week to make something like this."
"You could give me a week next time, if you want," Sansa said with an attempt at a grin.
"Not a chance," Cersei said. "But nice try."
When Varys sliced into it, the interior looked like Granny Stark's fruitcake. Sansa resisted the urge to cover her eyes as the judges each took a bite.
"It tastes good," Cersei said, "though I wonder if it's as intense and rich as your grandmother's original recipe, since you tried to do it in such a short time. Also, since you've decorated it with lavender, I almost expected to taste lavender when I took a bite. I'm not saying it should have lavender by any means, but that first taste is a bit jarring and confusing."
Sansa wanted to ask if she expected Lyanna's cake to taste like bears, but managed to keep quiet.
Varys took another slow bite. "When a cake tastes as good as this one, I almost don't care how it's decorated. It's fantastic, Sansa. I just want to keep eating it. The amount of fruit you have in there, with that hint of alcohol… It's perfection, truly. And I do like the decoration. I knew it was fruitcake, so I expected to taste fruitcake. You've shown us a lot of skill."
"Thank you," Sansa said.
Cersei's fake smile was directed at Varys, rather than Sansa, so Sansa decided to take that as a win.
The judges had never taken so long to deliberate before. Sansa paced, did her interviews, paced some more. Two cups of tea went cold in her hands.
"I bet they're arguing because Varys thinks you should be star baker," Jon whispered to her, one hand going to the small of her back. "He's right, of course."
Sansa leaned against him, her cheek tickled by his stubble. "Who do you think Cersei wants for star baker?"
"Hmm. Margaery, maybe?"
"This is Cersei we're talking about. Gilly always said she plays favourites, and I ruled myself out as a favourite a few weeks ago."
"True," Sansa said. "I like that about you, though."
Jon smirked. "I know."
Cuddled up to Jon, Sansa almost forgot to check her watch to see how long it had been. Almost.
"It's good to see you all again," Tormund said. "It feels like it's been years. These two wouldn't stop bickering." He jerked a thumb in the direction of the judges. "You've all done so well that it's no wonder it took them bloody ages to reach a decision. But I weighed in with my Northern expertise—" Cersei's eye roll did not deter him, "—and at last, Cersei and Varys and I have agreed that our star baker this week is someone who drew her inspiration from her Northern grandmother to make a cracking Stirling bread, perfect fern cakes, and a lavender fruitcake without a glace cherry in sight. For the second time, Sansa is star baker."
Jon's murmur of, "Told you so," was barely audible over the applause of the other bakers.
Just like the last time she'd been crowned star baker, Jon and Brienne sandwiched her between them in a squeezy hug, making her giggle. As they released her, Sansa took Brienne's hand.
Blinking as if holding back tears, Davos sighed. "Once again, the producers have refused my request to adopt you all and keep you here forever, which means we have to say goodbye to one of you. I'm very sorry to say that leaving us this week is… Stannis. I'm sorry, mate."
"No, don't be. I knew it was coming."
Sansa had known, too. It had been building for weeks—since the beginning. She gave Stannis an extra hug when saying goodbye.
With a near-empty train carriage, it was easy to hide in the back with Jon, whispering and kissing like a couple of teenagers.
"Think anyone but Brienne noticed?" Sansa asked.
"They will next week, when we go on a date instead of tagging along to the pub."
She laughed. "Is that your way of asking me?"
Leaning forward to kiss him again felt like answer enough. She had forgotten what this was like—when everything was new and exhilarating and her cheeks hurt from constantly smiling. A throat cleared behind them.
"All tickets, please," the conductor said.
It was Addam, AKA Podrick II. Sansa beamed up at him as she and Jon produced their tickets. This time, she would forgive the interruption.
Apart from the showstopper, this week’s recipes were heavily influenced by Scottish baking, though I know as much about that as I do about Northern Westerosi baking. The recipe that inspired Stannis’s bread is here.
Next time: Chocolate week/the quarter-final!
Chapter 8: Chocolate Week/The Quarter Final
More talk of Rhaegar’s narcissism in this chapter, but again, it’s not a lot. If that’s something that might be upsetting to you, after Aegon texts Jon on the train, you can skip the rest of that section without missing much.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Sunshine brightened Sansa's fiery hair, making her stand out on the platform at Winterfell. Not that she wouldn't have stood out, anyway. She had her phone held to her ear, concern drawing her eyebrows together, but she gave Jon a little wave and a smile when she spotted him watching from the train window. As she boarded the train and moved down the carriage towards him, her words slowly became audible.
"Seven hells, Brienne. Are you seriously baking something right now? I can hear you cracking eggs, so don't even try to deny it." Pausing, she whispered a hello to Jon and held the phone away from her face so she could kiss him softly on the lips. "You should—yes, I'm with Jon now. I just got on the train." Her next statement was directed at him. "Brienne says hi."
Jon chuckled. "Hi."
"Anyway, I'll let you go now, so you can get some rest. I mean it… Okay… I will. Feel better."
"What's going on?" Jon asked as she ended the call. "Is Brienne all right?"
"Apart from being so ill she can hardly speak without coughing, she's fine. Stubborn, but fine. She rang me to complain about the doctor insisting she wasn't fit to be in the tent this weekend. And, of course, instead of going back to bed, she went straight to her kitchen to practice next week's recipes."
"Shit. What are they going to do about the judging? Has this ever happened before?"
"Not that I can remember. I guess we'll find out."
She settled in next to him, tucked into his side with his arm around her shoulders as if she'd always been there. Like nearly every week before, she brought out a cookbook so they could study. This time, Jon distracted her now and then by stealing a kiss. Sansa didn't seem to mind. Halfway to Highgarden, a far less pleasant distraction interrupted Sansa's question about the proper tempering of chocolate: a text from Jon's brother.
Aegon: I'm starting to think you had the right idea with dad
Jon: What happened?
Aegon: he's just talking about all that stuff with Rhae as if it was somehow my fault? he actually said, "well, if you had loaned me the money when I asked, it never would have happened."
Aegon: what the fuck
Aegon: it's fine, though. I have your mum and her cake to comfort me. don't worry, I haven't proposed yet. I thought we might live in sin for a while first
Jon's snort of laughter must not have chased away his scowl, because Sansa asked if he was all right.
"Yeah, I'm fine," he said. "Just my dad again. He's bothering my brother this time."
Her blue eyes narrowed. "I'll stand up for your brother, too, if necessary."
Something lifted in Jon's chest. He'd had many occasions over the past week to smile over the new developments with Sansa, but none more so than that moment, because it meant he could swoop in with a kiss.
"Do you want to talk about it?" she asked, toying with the collar of his shirt. "The stuff with your dad, I mean. If you don't, that's fine, but if you want an ear, I have two rather good ones."
"There's not much to talk about, to be honest. Mostly, he's just a complete narcissist. If you aren't feeding his ego and making everything all about him, whatever you do is wrong. If you call him on doing something hurtful, he'll always insist it didn't happen the way you said it happened. A couple of years ago, he took out a loan in my sister's name and wrecked her credit, and he's still trying to twist it around and act like he wasn't to blame. I just… decided I was done with it when I moved back to Westeros. Done with him."
"I don't blame you. I'm amazed your sister still talks to him."
"I think she's more susceptible to his guilt trips. Her favourite refrain is he's our father."
Sansa squeezed his hand. "That only means something if you want it to."
Kissing her forehead, Jon steered the conversation back to happier topics, like how to get the smoothest finish on a chocolate mirror glaze and the ideal baking time for perfectly fudgy brownies. Chocolate was always preferable to thoughts of Rhaegar.
"Last man standing," Jon said, ruffling his curly hair with one hand. "And it's the quarter-final. I never really thought I'd make it this far."
"No?" Alys asked. "Not even when you made star baker?"
"I'm still half-convinced that getting star baker was a fluke."
Shifting around on her chair, Alys pondered how to phrase her next line of questioning. She'd been mulling it over all week.
"Do you feel like you've gotten close with the other bakers?"
Jon nodded. "The other bakers are great. No matter how it turns out, I'm sure we'll all stay friends after this."
Or more than friends, in some cases. Alys moved on to questions about the challenges Jon would be facing this week. If he didn't want to share anything about his budding romance with Sansa yet, she wouldn't push him.
The judges were sadists. Why else would they make Chocolate Week take place so late in the competition, when they knew how hot the tent would be? They had added extra potential for disaster to the mix by asking the bakers to make chocolate mousse cakes. On what was supposed to be the hottest day of the year.
Jon had two mixers going at once, trying to get his cake in the oven so it had time to cool. His mousse should have already been in the freezer according to the schedule he'd made. And then he had to think about the chocolate work for the top, and whether that would hold up in this sauna of a tent. Bloody sadists.
"Sansa, tell us about your chocolate mousse cake," Varys said.
Once again, Jon had been placed on the same side of the tent as Sansa. He wasn't going to argue with a streak of luck like that.
"It's a dark chocolate cake with blood orange curd and a vegan chocolate mousse."
"Vegan?" Cersei said. "Why? Is the rest of the cake vegan?"
"No, it was a practicality thing. The mousse is made with silken tofu and melted chocolate, and it takes half the time to make compared to traditional mousse. It also sets in around half an hour."
Damn. Jon wished he'd thought of that.
Cersei hummed. "Aren't you concerned about sacrificing taste?"
"I really like it, actually. If I was served that mousse, I don't think I'd know it was vegan unless someone told me."
"I'm looking forward to it," Varys said. "Thank you, Sansa."
Cersei's dubious expression didn't lift during Jon's description of his chocolate cake with white chocolate and pink peppercorn mousse. The idea for the flavours had come from Edd; they'd had a long conversation via text about unusual pairings for different types of chocolate. Jon had been intrigued by the pink peppercorn idea, and found he loved it when he tested it out. It wasn't until Cersei was in front of him that he remembered how she'd turned her nose up at Sansa's pepper-studded gingerbread. Too late to turn back now.
Jon was less keen to try Edd's other suggestions of white chocolate and caviar or dark chocolate and grasshoppers. Edd's palate was in a league of its own.
Cersei was often referred to as the Queen of Chocolate. It was her specialty, and Jon knew from watching Bake Off in previous years that she was at her most brutal during Chocolate Week. If all of them made it through the challenges and interviews without weeping, it would probably be some sort of record.
"I am calling it my Chocolate Revenge Cake," Margaery said on the other side of the tent. "Three different types of chocolate, plus some chocolate liqueur in the buttercream. I'm going to get my revenge on chocolate after that mess I made of it during Alternative Ingredients Week."
Jon let out a quiet laugh. In the taxi from the hotel to the tent, Margaery had talked at length about how she was going to make chocolate learn to respect her. He wished her luck with that. He'd settle for chocolate mostly obeying him.
Turning his mixers off, Jon fumbled with the tins he'd greased and lined, nearly dropping one on the floor. He needed to calm down. It was just another bake. Never mind that it was the quarter final. Just bake.
Lyanna did not cry. Pressing her lips together in a thin line, she narrowed her eyes. Jon wasn't sure how he would fare if he was in her shoes. Both judges had said her passion fruit, coconut, and dark chocolate mousse cake was amateurish and not up to the standards of a Bake Off quarter final. Her mousse hadn't set; it burst through the attempted mirror glaze and oozed onto the plate. Cersei kept repeating herself, going on and on about how disappointed she was. Sansa looked near tears on Lyanna's behalf.
Margaery received more favourable comments; her revenge against chocolate was declared a moderate success. Jon held his breath as the judges moved to Sansa's station.
"Hmm," Cersei said. "I'm not convinced by the vegan mousse. It tastes a bit… beany."
"I disagree," Varys said. I disagree had become Varys's catchphrase when talking to Cersei about Sansa's bakes. "It's set beautifully. It doesn't taste exactly like a traditional mousse, but I do like the flavour. I think it was a very clever idea. You knew the limitations of baking in the tent, and you came up with a solution. And that blood orange curd is delicious. Well done, Sansa."
Jon's turn. Gods, he felt like he was going to be sick. Shouldn't he have gotten used to presenting his bakes to Cersei and Varys by now?
"I'm actually really annoyed that I like it," Cersei said. "I was so certain that I wouldn't, but the flavours are astonishingly good. The level of pink peppercorn is just right. I thought it would get lost under the chocolate cake, but you've pulled it off."
During the break between signature and technical, Jon found a moment to talk to Margaery without anyone else around.
"Where would you take someone on a date in Highgarden?" he asked.
"That all depends." Margaery arched an eyebrow. "Who is your date?"
As if she couldn't guess.
Clapping her hands, Margaery beamed. "Good. If you said some woman from the village or something, I was going to give you the name of a restaurant that really ought to be shut down by the health inspectors."
He didn't doubt for a second that she meant it.
"I don't know, maybe she'll have a place in mind already," he said, "but I was thinking I'd ask you for somewhere off the beaten path. Sansa has been to Highgarden a lot, so maybe… somewhere she isn't likely to have gone before."
Somewhere she wouldn't have gone with Dickon. Stirring up painful memories didn't seem like an ideal start to their first date.
Margaery's omnipresent smirk softened. "Jon," she said. "You do realise that you are the reason she's going on this date, right? The venue doesn't matter as much as the company, darling." She patted his cheek. "That being said, I do have a few ideas…"
Jon glared at the two balloons on his bench. Cersei and Varys had reached new levels of evil.
For their technical, the bakers had been asked to make a melting chocolate dome dessert. The balloons were to be used to create the chocolate dome that would encase the dessert (which was a gods damned miniature opera cake). The idea was to coat the balloons in melted chocolate, wait for it to set, and then pop the balloons. They weren't allowed spares, so he had two shots to get this right.
A chorus of groans went around the other stations. They would all be lucky if their chocolate domes survived long enough to be melted by the heated raspberry sauce. Jon's clothes felt like clingfilm thanks to a fine layer of sweat, and he had to pause to tie his hair up off of his neck. Gods.
The bakers worked in near-silence, all running their own personal races against the clock. As Jon coated his second balloon in chocolate and rushed to put both in the freezer (proper tempering be damned; this was a matter of survival), a loud pop sounded from Sansa's station.
Chocolatey hands going to her pink face, she paced away from her bench as if tempted to try to flip the whole thing over.
"You okay?" Jon asked, shutting the freezer.
"I'm down to one balloon, and I had to do the Tyrosh sponge twice because I overmixed it the first time, and honestly, I may as well just throw the whole thing in the bin. It's going to be a mess."
"Hey," Jon said, placing his hands on her shoulders. "None of that. Didn't we promise each other after the first week that we'd pull each other back from any potential bingate situations?"
She gave him a weak smile. "But I really want to throw it in the bin."
"I know. I don't blame you. It's a fucking horrible challenge."
"It really is. And… We should probably get back to it. Ugh."
Sansa straightened her shoulders, ready for battle. In an attempt to make her laugh, Jon winked at her. It worked—on more people than just Sansa.
"Jon," Tormund said, rushing over. "Jon. Jon. What was that? Was that supposed to be a wink? Let me see it again."
Not a single chocolate dome on the gingham altar was an actual dome. Sansa's one balloon had come through for her; hers was the closest thing to fulfilling the brief, only caving in slightly at the top. The others had all succumbed to the heat of the tent—much like Jon felt like he was about to do.
"Well," Varys said. "I think you've all done as well as you could in the current conditions." He moved towards Jon's plate. "Shall we start with this one, Cersei?"
Jon's mini opera cake was declared the neatest when they cut into it, but Sansa's sponge had the lightest texture. The big test for this sort of dessert, according to Cersei, was whether the chocolate melted when the heated sauce was poured over the top. They'd all been given a boost in that department.
"Fourth," Varys said, "is this one."
Lyanna. Not enough rise in the sponge, and her dome was the most collapsed. Margaery and Jon were close, but Jon's cake won him the second place slot.
"Which means in first place, we have Sansa," Cersei said.
Good thing Sansa hadn't thrown it in the bin. Now that the challenge was over, Jon was never, ever making that thing again.
Rose Walk teemed with people, but Margaery had been right. The view was not to be missed. Built just a few months before, the elevated boardwalk twisted around past Highgarden Castle and the ancient briar labyrinth. In the distance, the lights of downtown Highgarden could be seen starting to twinkle to life as sunset painted the sky pink.
Jon and Sansa strolled along, hand-in-hand. She was wearing a pretty blue sundress, pausing now and then to smile radiantly at him, and the tent seemed a million miles away.
"Have you ever done the labyrinth?" she asked, leading him over to the railing.
"I haven't," Jon said.
"Me either. Should we try?"
From above, the puzzle was no more complicated than a maze on the back of a cereal box. The tourists within the labyrinth took the wrong way at junctions and ran into dead ends more often than not, but Jon didn't think that meant much. On several occasions, tourists had stood directly in front of the entrance to the Wall Museum and asked him where to find it.
"Sure," he said. "How hard can it be?"
Sansa chuckled. "Famous last words."
Taking one of the ramps down to street level, they paid at the gate and entered the labyrinth. The air inside was pleasantly cool, perfumed with the scent of the roses all around them. Fairy lights and old fashioned lampposts illuminated the cobbled path.
"I think I know which way to go," Sansa said. "If we turn left here, and then… oh."
Giggling, she turned back from the dead end and wrinkled her nose. They were alone, so Jon stole a quick kiss, hands going to her waist, lips brushing over hers.
"Hmm," she said. "Come on. Let's go find more dead ends."
After many accidental wrong turns (and more than a few on purpose ones), they emerged at the centre of the labyrinth. A lit-up fountain full of wishing coins stood in front of a busy cafe. It was idyllic and charming for all of one minute—until a blond man backed into one of the servers on the cafe's patio. The full tray of drinks in her hands wobbled and fell, drawing gazes from all over with the resulting crash. A few idiots predictably applauded.
While the server apologised and scrambled to clean up the mess, the man berated her, his wormy lips contorting into a sneer. As if it hadn't been entirely his fault.
"Gods, what an arse," Sansa said.
Jon's thoughts exactly. Given the way the man's scowl deepened, Jon suspected he'd overheard her. Jon kind of hoped he had.
"Seriously," Jon said, steering her towards the other side of the maze with a hand on the small of her back. "I hated customers like that when I used to wait tables."
"People like that are the worst. I worked in a supermarket during university, and I probably did permanent damage to my jaw from clenching my teeth when I had to be polite to people who absolutely did not deserve courtesy."
Falling into a conversation about their worst jobs, they slipped back into the labyrinth and went in search of more dead ends.
Morning in the tent was marginally cooler than the previous day. Or maybe Jon just thought so because he hadn't yet started running around. He hoped the clouds that had rolled in overnight stayed with them, maybe let out a cooling shower. The bakers would need all the breaks they could get with the temperature. Their showstopper this week was a cake with a chocolate collar. Not Jon's favourite thing. He'd crumpled up more than a few sheets of acetate in a fit of rage when trying to get the bloody sheet of chocolate to adhere to the outside of his practice cakes at home.
Deciding to make his collar look like lace had been a mistake. In the heat, it had all the structural integrity of cooked pasta. When it worked (which was rare), it looked even better than a solid chocolate collar. Intricate and delicate, like something Sansa or Margaery would make.
Catching Jon during one of the few moments they had to breathe, Margaery winked at him. Everyone was bloody winking now.
"How'd it go?" she whispered.
Jon couldn't hold back a smile. After the labyrinth, they'd gone to one of the food stalls back on the Rose Walk, sitting in the waning sunlight and eating fish and chips (which Sansa had agreed were almost as good as the chips they'd shared on Lyanna's birthday). The bus ride back to Newbury had passed in sleepy, companionable silence, both of them so worn out from their day that they'd nearly taken another bus nap, cuddled up together on the upper deck. He'd walked her back to her hotel room, intending to say goodnight with a few kisses. A few had turned into pressing her up against the door, one hand teasing its way up her abdomen.
With Brienne at home, it had been Lyanna's turn to stumble across them. She'd said, "Seven hells, you two. I would say get a room, but you are literally right in front of one."
He'd gone back to his own room for his third shower of the day after that.
"It was good," Jon said to Margaery. "Thanks for the tips."
"My pleasure." Reaching up, she wiped a bit of chocolate from Jon's face. "So? You're going to repeat the experience?"
"I'm glad your flirting was more memorable this time."
That was right; she knew about his failed attempt at flirting with Sansa at Sam and Gilly's wedding, didn't she?
He laughed. "Me too."
Jon's cake needed to stay in the freezer a bit longer to give the crumb coat a chance to set, but he didn't have the time. The others could slap their second coats of buttercream on without worrying about making the sides neat, as they had sensibly chosen solid designs for their collars. Jon spun the cake around and around, making everything smooth and perfect.
"Fifteen minutes left, bakers," Tormund shouted.
That was cutting it way too fine. Wrapping his collar around the cake, Jon mentally crossed his fingers. His actual fingers were busy decorating the top of the cake with the chocolate flowers he'd made. If it was up to him, he would leave the collar with the acetate in place for at least an hour before trying to remove it. But, well, Bake Off.
"Five minutes," Davos announced.
Damn. It was almost certain to be a disaster, but he had to try. Slowly, slowly, slowly, Jon peeled back the acetate. The fragile design tried to come away from the cake a few times, but with the help of a palette knife and rather a lot of swearing, Jon managed to force it to obey him. He threw the acetate on the side, triumphant.
"That's it, bakers," Tormund said. "Step away from your bakes. Time is up."
"Jon," Davos said, "Please bring your showstopper up to the front."
He was the last one to go. Everyone else had received mostly rave reviews. They were astonished that Lyanna had achieved a white chocolate collar that held together, given its lower melting point. Margaery was praised for the marble effect on her collar, as well as the texture and taste of her Haunted Forest gateau. Only Sansa had been given criticism. Cersei thought the pink polka dot design on her dark chocolate collar was clumsy. Varys used his favourite catchphrase and disagreed.
At least neither of them could argue with the taste of Sansa's white chocolate and raspberry cake. Jon had sampled a few of the offcuts, and he looked forward to stealing a slice of it.
"I really like this collar," Varys said, twisting the plate around so he could see all sides of it. "It's absolutely stunning. If you'd done this yesterday, I don't think it would have survived, but the cloudy weather has helped you out."
"There's a nice shine on the chocolate," Cersei said. "You've tempered it well. Let's see how it tastes."
The interior of Jon's cake was a checkerboard of white, dark, and milk chocolate sponge. Both Davos and Tormund said ooh when it was revealed.
"That is one of the best chocolate cakes I can remember having," Varys said.
"It's very nice," Cersei said. "Moist, light, full of flavour. I really don't have any complaints."
"You should be very proud of this cake, Jon," Varys said.
Jon's face heated. "Thank you."
"Our star baker this week," Davos said, "surprised the judges with his flavour combinations and stunned everyone in the tent with his attempt at winking. It is, of course, Jon."
Had Jon heard that right? Star baker for a second time, and on Chocolate Week? He was almost too stunned to absorb the news. A hug from Sansa and a pat of his leg from Margaery confirmed that he had not imagined the announcement.
"As you know, Davos and I switch off doing this bit," Tormund said, directing a soft smile at Lyanna when she let out a shaky breath. "We both hate this part of the job. But this time, the person leaving us is…No one!" He paused, waiting for their wave of relieved laughter to pass. "The judges agreed that with Brienne unwell, it wouldn't be fair to eliminate anyone this week. Now, this does mean that two of you will have to go next time, but hey! All of you are going to the semi-final."
"Oh my gods," Lyanna said, leaning forward with her hands on her knees. "You couldn't have told us that at the start?"
"What would be the fun in that?" Tormund asked.
None were more relieved than Davos, who muttered to Jon when he hugged him that he was going to try to convince someone to be "off sick" every week so they never had to send anyone home from that point on.
"I don't know if it'll work out the way you want, mate," Jon said, "but it's a nice try."
"When do summer holidays start for Castle Black schools?" Sansa asked.
She had her back against the train window, her legs slung over his. Jon stroked her knee.
"Tuesday is the last day," he said.
"So, you're free after that? Apart from baking and such."
"Pretty much, yeah."
"I have Wednesday off. Want to come down to Winterfell and see me mid-week for a change?"
Oh, he definitely did.
The chocolate pairings I attributed to Edd are real things that I had to read with my own eyes while researching the recipes for this chapter. Caviar and white chocolate. I’m still not over it.
The recipe that inspired Lyanna’s chocolate mousse cake is here.
Next time: Pâtisserie Week/The Semi-Final!
Sansa: You could come over to mine. I have plenty of baking supplies on hand. Far too much, tbh. Few fridges have ever held so much butter. We could go through my pâtisserie cookbooks and practise some of the recipes
Jon: Oh my gods, Sansa. We are not BAKING on our second date
Sansa: Oh, so it's more of a third date activity? All right. Noted
Sitting on the edge of her bed, wrapped in a towel, Sansa grinned at her phone. When she'd made the suggestion for them to bake, she'd pictured very little actual baking. Her mental images had run more along the lines of Jon lifting her onto the kitchen worktop, standing between her legs, and trailing kisses down her neck. But no, it was probably best to keep their baking lives and their dating lives separate for the time being. Doing otherwise would inevitably lead to distractions in the tent as she replayed recent memories in her mind.
Jon: Please tell me you aren't going to show up with an Easy Bake Oven at the weekend so we can bake in the hotel
Sansa: Ooh, I think my parents still have my old one in their loft
Sansa: Have you already left for the train?
Jon: Not yet. Just about to head out the door
Sansa: Bring your swimming costume
Jon: Okay, but if this is some sort of extreme underwater baking thing…
The last time Sansa had visited the hot springs, she'd been thirteen. Arya had splashed and splashed and held Sansa's head underwater, which had led to such a screeching, hair pulling row that they should have earned a lifetime ban. Arya liked to brag that she and Sansa were the inspiration behind the designation of a separate kiddie pool. It had happened suspiciously soon after their visit.
Now, Sansa lounged in the biggest pool with Jon. The water stretched out alongside the ruins of the castle, the crumbling stone walls casting jagged shadows over them. At midday on a Wednesday, they had plenty of space all to themselves. Plenty of space for her to admire a chest and arms that, frankly, had no business hiding under Jon's apron and shirt in the tent.
"This may have been a bad idea," Sansa whispered.
"I mean, this water is pretty much as hot as the tent." Moving in a slow arc through the pool so she faced him, Sansa rested her hands on his shoulders. "This weekend, when I'm running around in similar temperatures, I'm probably going to get my sugar and salt mixed up or something. I'll be too busy thinking about seeing you half undressed like this."
"Maybe that was why I agreed to it." A grin spread across his face. Ducking his head didn't hide his blush. "Distract the competition."
"Yeah?" She tried to smirk—probably failed. The attempt was interrupted by a pleasurable shiver when he traced a calloused thumb over the strap of her bikini. "How are you going to distract the others?"
"Um. I'll bring swords for Brienne and Lyanna."
"Well, that'll do it."
His thumb travelled down, down, until his hand reached the swell of her hip. Gods. Only the presence of other people held her back from climbing into his lap.
"Which only leaves Margaery," he said. "Hmm. Tricky."
Silence. They shared a laugh.
"I can't think of anything that could make Margaery take her eyes off of the prize," Jon said.
"No, nor me."
"We should probably just give up and go home."
Flashing back to her earlier fantasies, Sansa worried her lower lip between her teeth. "We could go to mine."
Nerves made her throat feel tight, trapped her words behind a lump. She almost wanted to wrap the feeling in tissue paper to keep it safe. The uncertainty of every new step—the sparkling, anxious novelty of it all—was terrifying and precious in equal measure. Years before, she'd been so sure that she would find companionship here and there, but not romance. Not anything that mattered. She'd believed she couldn't ever be so lucky as to meet someone who made her heart flutter and race like this. Someone who reminded her how deeply she could fall.
"Not to bake," she said, her voice soft.
Jon cursed under his breath. "I am really regretting that we're around other people right now."
And just like that, her nervousness evaporated into laughter. "Me too."
Dropping a quick kiss to her lips, Jon took her hand. "All right. Let's go."
They stumbled into her flat in a tangle of limbs, Jon pushing her up against the wall before the door even clicked shut. No interruptions here, apart from the clack of Lady's claws on the floorboards as she approached them to investigate. Without moving a centimetre away from Jon, Sansa pointed in the direction of Lady's bed. Jon didn't appear to notice. He was too busy toying with the zipper of Sansa's jeans, telling her how badly he wanted to touch her. That she didn't shout her reply was something of a miracle. All of her was a constant, needy chant of yes. Slipping a hand past the waistband of her knickers, he smiled against her throat when she gasped.
Grabbing his elbow, Sansa towed him towards her bedroom and kicked the door shut behind them. They needed to be naked. Now. Her hands trembled as she unbuttoned his shirt, but Jon was there to steady her, to help her shrug out of her own clothes as she removed his.
"Fuck," he said, putting an unacceptable amount of space between them so he could look at her body. "Get on the bed, love."
It was a casual endearment, used by nearly the whole of the North for strangers, loved ones, and everyone in between. Even so, the sound of it falling from Jon's lips made something wonderful twist in her belly. Sansa stretched out on top of the duvet, still-damp hair fanning out over the pillow. Jon stared a few moments more before he joined her.
Everything became a blur of sensation, hazy edges flowing together. The softness of the kisses he feathered over her neck, her chest. The tickle of his beard against her inner thigh. His mouth on her, slow and hot and perfect, his tongue making her moan out his name. His pleased hum as she clutched his hair, cresting wave after wave until it was almost too much. The crinkle of a condom wrapper. That first, breath-stealing thrust—that open-mouthed pause when his hips were flush with hers. The satisfying weight of his body pressing her into the mattress. Strong muscles tensing beneath her fingertips. His voice rasping out that she was so beautiful, that she felt so good. The way he kept his gaze locked on hers. His hand moving between her legs, sending her over the edge again.
After, with Sansa cuddled into his side, Jon pushed her hair back from her face and smiled.
"The semi-final isn't a terrible time for us to get sent home, right?" he asked. "Because I'm warning you now: I will try to convince you to spend the whole weekend in bed with me instead of going into the tent."
She giggled. Her body felt loose and giddy, like she was drunk on him.
"It won't take any convincing," she said. "Gods. Who needs the Bake Off final?"
After getting in from the long train journey to Newbury, all Sansa wanted to do was take a shower and crawl into bed with Jon. That pre-dawn wake-up call on filming days felt earlier and earlier every week. But this was the semi-final, and it was a Bake Off tradition for all of the semi-finalists to go out for a celebratory dinner with the judges and hosts. As non-negotiable as the photo spreads of the five of them that would appear before the episode aired.
So, instead of dozing between crisp hotel sheets, Sansa found herself seated between Jon and Cersei at a restaurant in Highgarden, listening to Tormund and Davos joke about things that had happened behind the scenes in previous years. Across the room, a blond man sauntered in, flanked by people who looked more like bodyguards than friends. It took Sansa a moment to work out why his face was familiar.
"Oh, gods," she muttered to Jon. "That's the guy we saw in the labyrinth, isn't it?"
Jon scrunched up his nose. "I think so."
Following Sansa's gaze, Cersei raised her eyebrows. "What happened in the labyrinth?"
Leaping at the chance to talk to Cersei about something other than Cersei's deep disappointment in something Sansa had baked, Sansa launched into a retelling of the event with the blond man and the server at the cafe. Cersei sipped her glass of wine as she listened.
Cersei had restaurants of her own nowadays, but she hadn't always been the Queen of Chocolate. She'd put herself through culinary school by serving in the restaurants of others, dealing with the sort of pompous jerks who proved the customer was not always right. Knowing all of this (Sansa may or may not have read Cersei's autobiography several times), Sansa expected a glimmer of something from Cersei. A sympathetic wince, a roll of her eyes, a scoff at the man's behaviour. Something. Instead, all Cersei gave her was the sort of dangerous smile that, in the tent, often preceded the words underbaked and clumsy.
"So, basically, he was just… the worst," Sansa said haltingly, not sure how to wrap up the story. Not sure where she'd gone wrong.
She glanced back in the man's direction. Why in the seven hells was he approaching their table? He hadn't recognised her, had he? No, he was looking at Cersei. Maybe he was a fan. Maybe—
"Mother," the man said, bending to kiss Cersei's cheek. "I didn't expect to see you here."
Mother. Mother. Oh, gods. A chill spread through Sansa's gut. Under the table, Jon squeezed her knee.
"What a nice surprise," Cersei said. That dangerous smile flashed in Sansa's direction once more. "Everyone, I'd like you all to meet my son, Joffrey."
Joffrey. Her beloved eldest, who had received an entire, bloated chapter in the autobiography. In all honesty, Sansa had skimmed that bit. She could stand only so much gushing about someone else's kids.
Well. If Cersei hadn't hated Sansa before, she certainly would now.
"Feeling better?" Alys asked.
Brienne nodded. "I'm fully recovered."
"Glad to hear it. How are you feeling about this week's challenges?"
A fat bumblebee circled a wildflower at Brienne's feet. Brienne watched its progress for a moment as she mulled the question over, her posture becoming even straighter than before.
"I'm… confident in my abilities, but there is a lot more pressure than before," she said. "I feel like I need to prove that I've earned my place here, since I was given a free pass last time."
"You don't feel like you earned it based on the weeks before that? You were star baker not that long ago."
"That doesn't matter. Everyone in the tent this weekend has been star baker at least once." She paused. "Actually, have any star bakers been sent home yet?"
Alys ran through the list. Margaery, Lyanna, Jon, Sansa, Brienne… Brienne was right. No one other than those five had earned the title.
"Well, two will be sent home this week," Brienne said. "It'll be difficult for any of us to leave when we're so close to the final, but that might help. Going with a friend."
Cersei was in top form this week.
Waiting at the back of the tent for someone to bring her more sugar, Sansa took a few deep breaths. Her chat with the judges and Tormund about what she was making for the signature challenge had left her rattled, fingers fumbling her jar of sugar, scattering grains all over the floor. She needed to calm down before she really did mix up her salt and her sugar.
According to Cersei, Sansa's raspberry, chocolate, and rose flavour combination for her entremet was somehow both too basic for a semi-final and a risky move, in danger of tasting like soap. That Lyanna was using raspberry and chocolate as well did not seem to matter. The only comments Lyanna had received were along the lines of needing to improve on her performance in the previous week, and those had come from Varys. The amount of gelatine in Sansa's recipe had received a turned up nose and a comment of, "Well, let's hope your mousse isn't too rubbery."
Accepting the extra sugar with a quick word of thanks and rushing back to her station, Sansa gave herself a shake. She was being too sensitive, assigning hidden layers of meaning to Cersei's words that probably weren't there. This was a semi-final. The judges were supposed to be tough. Cersei was a professional; she wouldn't let personal feelings poison her judging of Sansa's bakes. She would—
Why in the seven hells was Sansa's oven not on?
"No, no, no."
"What's wrong?" Jon asked, crouching next to her as she cursed at the oven.
"It's not on. I know I turned it on."
Inspecting the display (definitely off), he frowned. "Are you sure?"
"Yes." Tension put a bite in her voice. "It was warm when I put the cake in there. I know it was."
In spite of all of her cavalier talk of bunking off and spending the weekend in bed with Jon, Sansa wanted the Bake Off final. Of course she did. If it didn't matter so much, she wouldn't have spent hours—days—studying recipes and making the same cakes over and over and over until they were perfect.
Jon touched the door of the oven. "It's still warm," he said. "Maybe you—or, err, someone—bumped it and turned it off by accident."
Jabbing at the controls, Sansa set the temperature back to where she'd had it. Of all the things to go wrong. Gilly was going to lose it when she saw this episode.
"I think it'll be okay," Jon said, sweeping her hair out of the way and rubbing soothing circles on her shoulder. "The oven couldn't have been off that long, so I doubt it lost much heat. You probably caught it just in time."
"I hope so," she said.
She wanted to give him a kiss before they went back to their bakes, but a cameraman loomed over them. A six foot mood killer. Given the way Jon's gaze zeroed in on her mouth, he had the same thought. A brief, one-armed hug had to suffice. Sansa watched him circle her bench and jog to his own before she sprang back into action.
There were so many different components to make. So many things to try to save from melting. Tyrosh sponge, mousse, mirror glaze, jam, an almond crunch layer. Providing interest through different textures was the secret to a successful bake in this challenge. That, and making it look so perfectly smooth and elegant that people would gasp and ask how it had been accomplished.
Right. She could do this. She had, to date, made this recipe twelve times. Lucky number thirteen was going to be flawless. It had to be.
Sansa's Tyrosh sponge looked fine when she pulled it out of the oven. A good rise, not collapsed in the centre. Sansa almost felt like collapsing herself with sheer relief. Cakes were so fussy about temperature during the first part of baking. Opening the door to take a peek could make them sink, leaving them close-textured and claggy.
Like always, the clocks in the tent moved at a faster pace than those in the regular world. Sansa found herself pouring her marbled white and pink mirror glaze over the cake at the very last minute, managing a mercifully uneventful transfer of entremet to plate mere seconds before Davos shouted for everyone to step away from their bakes.
It was almost perfect. One little smudge marred the mirror glaze near the bottom, where she'd used a knife to slide the entremet into place, but the strategic placement of a cluster of raspberries and a white chocolate rose had solved that. It was the best she was capable of. Hopefully it would be enough.
"I like the combination of apricot and rosemary," Cersei said. "It's unexpected—refreshing. You have a nice blend of textures as well. Unfortunately, your finish leaves much to be desired, and the appearance is a big part of this challenge."
Sansa cringed in sympathy for Brienne. Lyanna had received similar comments. So far, only Margaery's domed mango, coconut, and lime entremet had been given effusive praise.
Jon was next. Resting her elbows on her bench, Sansa strained to see around him, trying to catch a glimpse of Cersei and Varys's expressions. His peach, honey, and basil entremet both looked and smelled amazing. The pale yellow mirror glaze was so smooth, it reflected the spray of sugar paste peach blossoms he'd placed on top. The jam he'd made for one of the layers had left their side of the tent smelling like fresh summer peaches.
"That is a thing of beauty, Jon," Varys said. "I'm not really getting the honey, but to be honest, I don't care, because the peach and basil are so good."
"Nice presentation as well," Cersei said. "The sugar paste flowers could be a little neater, perhaps, but that mirror glaze is perfect."
Sansa held her hands behind her back to keep herself from fidgeting as Cersei and Varys tasted her entremet. Please don't taste like soap, she thought.
"When you do something this well," Varys finally said, "with this perfect combination of textures and a delicate blend of flavours, it's not too basic or simple. It's classic. I love it."
"Really?" Sansa asked, one hand coming up to clap over her suddenly grinning mouth.
"Absolutely. You've nailed it."
"Are we eating the same entremet?" Cersei asked. "There's far too much rose. It overpowers everything. I feel as if I've just had my mouth washed out with soap. Rubbery soap, at that. I thought you'd gone overboard with the gelatine, and you have. The mousse is like a car tyre."
A soapy tyre. Heat flooded into Sansa's face. Her eyes smarted with the promise of tears she was not, under any circumstances, going to shed. She wasn't.
"I could not disagree more." Tapping his fork against the mousse, Varys scoffed. "See? Light, airy, not at all bouncy."
"I can feel the gelatine floating on my palate," Cersei said. "It's really quite unpleasant."
"Well, they obviously aren't going to agree on this," Tormund said. He gave Sansa such a kind smile that the tears almost overflowed. "I like it, and that's what matters, right?"
Sansa let out an attempt at a laugh. "Right."
Taking shelter beneath the shade of a tree, Alys took a long drink of blissfully cold water. One of these days, she really was going to convince them to film in winter.
"The viewers are going to tear her apart if she keeps this up," a voice said over her shoulder.
Alys jumped. She hadn't heard Varys's approach. Rolling her eyes, she nodded. Specifying who he meant was not necessary. They'd had these bitching sessions about Cersei since the first series.
"Of course they are," she said. "They hate even a whiff of favouritism, and this time, she reeks of it."
She took another gulp of water. In her opinion, it was much too late for Cersei to pull back and try to make nice. Well, as nice as Cersei ever got. The Twitter storm was coming, no matter what Cersei did.
Varys sighed. "It's not good for the show. People watch to see the bakers being kind to each other. They only want enough toughness from us to push them and give them a reason to literally cry over spilt milk now and then."
"Hmm. Are you going to do anything about it?"
"I'm not certain. We'll see what happens in the final."
Even after so many years of working together, Alys couldn't read Varys at all. She had no idea whether he was telling the truth. Maybe he would bring up his concerns, issue ultimatums. Maybe he already had. If it came down to a choice between the two of them, Varys would win. No question.
Alys traced a fingertip through the beaded condensation on her water bottle. Sansa's oven had been on earlier. Alys was sure of it. And then, it hadn't been. No one had seen anything, but…
"You may want to instruct someone to film that clearing just over there," Varys said mildly. "But mind you don't disturb our lovebirds."
That Varys knew about Jon and Sansa did not surprise Alys in the slightest. When she peered into the clearing, she discovered Sansa nestled into the loop of Jon's arms. Not kissing or whispering—just being together. Careful not to make any noise, Alys backed away. They had plenty of shots of Jon and Sansa sharing meaningful stares and lingering touches in the tent. She could give them a moment to themselves after a difficult morning.
Hissing in pain, Sansa shook her hand in a futile attempt to dislodge a chunk of molten caramel from her thumb. The croquembouche technical challenge was not her favourite. She liked making choux pastry, and baking and filling the buns was no problem. It was the assembly that was a complete pain in the arse. Everyone was burning themselves on the damned caramel as they tried to build their choux buns into a tower.
"Oh, no you don't," Jon said. "Stay right there."
The bakers had been given a sheet of card and some tape to make the inner support for their tower. Jon evidently hadn't used enough tape; his card cone had begun to come apart at the seams, pushing the choux buns outwards. Davos came to his rescue with more tape, but not quickly enough to save a few of the buns from toppling to the floor.
"You all right, Jon?" Sansa said.
"Just, you know, mildly fucked. Otherwise I'm fine, thanks, love."
There was that twist in her belly again. She shot him an encouraging smile over her tower of buns, laughing when he responded with a two-eyed wink.
"Bakers," Davos called right as Sansa finished decorating her tower with fine threads of caramel, "that's it. Your time is up."
The bakes they placed on the gingham altar were in varying stages of completeness. Sansa and Margaery were the only ones who had finished entirely. Both Lyanna and Brienne were missing the swirl of sugarwork, and Jon had several buns missing from his mountain. Sansa's stomach churned with worry for all of them.
Varys and Cersei pronounced all of the buns decent and light, and all but Lyanna's well-filled.
"It's a shame this one isn't finished," Varys said of Jon's tower. "I think these might actually taste the best."
"In last place," Cersei said after they'd deliberated. "We have this one."
Jon. Not a surprise, as his was the least complete. Lyanna and Brienne followed him, leaving the first place slot between Margaery and Sansa. When Varys announced that Margaery had placed second, Jon gave Sansa's knee a squeeze.
"Which means in first place, we have Sansa," Cersei said. "Well-filled buns, good sugarwork—we couldn't find fault with it."
Cersei looked as if she might choke on the words. A petty, spiteful sliver of Sansa almost hoped she did.
Brienne broke her swan's neck when Sansa was running past. Sansa saw it coming—saw the legs on the cooling rack slip—but could do nothing to stop it. All she could do was help Brienne gather up the biggest pieces and call for Tormund to hold it in place while Brienne tried to patch it back together.
For their showstopper, the bakers had been instructed to make a meringue centrepiece, using at least two different types of meringue. Brienne's Lorathi meringue swan had a little family of cygnets to sit on its back. It would have looked elegant if not for its accident.
Everyone was in a panic. Sansa had never seen so many egg whites all at once, and she kept checking her oven to make sure it was still on. In spite of the fact that the tent was, in fact, as hot as the hot springs, she didn't even let herself get distracted with thoughts of a shirtless Jon.
Well, not very distracted, at any rate.
The tent had none of its usual chatter. Apart from Sansa's brief interaction with Brienne, all of the bakers were keeping their heads down, whipping egg whites and rushing to get things done.
"How are you doing, Sansa?" Davos asked, peering into Sansa's bowl of bright red Dornish meringue. "Are you all right?"
"Uh, yeah. I'm… It's a bit hectic, but I think I can just about pull this off. Gods, it's hot. You'll catch me if I faint from heat exhaustion, right?"
"I promise I will dash gallantly across the tent with my arms extended at the first sign you might collapse."
"Thanks. But bring some smelling salts or something to revive me if that happens. I don't have time to faint."
"Will do." Without warning, he raised his voice to a shout. "Fifteen minutes, bakers!"
Fifteen minutes? Maybe she couldn't pull this off.
Varys and Cersei both pursed their lips as they bit the heads off of a pair of Lyanna's meringue tigers.
"It tastes good," Cersei said. "Meringue can often be too sweet, and the grapefruit counters that nicely. My concern is whether it really fulfills the brief."
Swiping a fork through the fluffy Braavosi meringue that formed the grass of Lyanna's zoo, Varys nodded. "This is Pâtisserie Week. What you have here is very cute, and I do think it was executed well, but it's something you would see at a children's birthday party. It's too cartoonish; it would look out of place in a pâtisserie window. I'm afraid it's simply not what we asked for."
When she turned to take her showstopper back to her bench, Lyanna's face was a stony mask. Sansa was, once again, the last to go up. Margaery's windmill (with moving sugarwork sails) had received a round of applause from both judges. Jon's beehive with flowers had been received positively, and Brienne's swan had received comments like, "Shame about the neck," and, "It mostly tastes of sugar."
"Sansa," Tormund said. "Please bring your showstopper to the front."
Sansa had created a forest floor for her centrepiece, with all sorts of different mushrooms and plant life. It had come out well in the end—as realistic as meringue ever got without the assistance of things like fondant. Setting it on the table in front of the judges, she could feel her pulse thudding in her ears. Good thing Davos was close by for catching purposes. Stepping back, she let out a long breath. If she'd messed this up, it could be her last challenge in the tent.
"I'm not sure it looks particularly appetising," Cersei said. "I wouldn't want to eat a forest floor."
No, but you wouldn't want to go biting into a windmill or a tiger, either, Sansa thought.
"I think it's enchanting," Varys said. "I could easily see it in an autumnal display in a pâtisserie us of the flavours?"
"Blackberry and almond, with a plum compote running through the tree stump."
The judges started sampling everything before she'd finished talking. Varys chuckled.
"That is really bloody good," he said. "Not too sweet, and the compote is delicious. If I hadn't just sampled four other showstoppers, I would be in danger of eating a lot more of that."
"Thank you," Sansa said.
Cersei took a moment longer to give her opinion. "The compote is fine, for what it is," she said, "but I can't find the blackberry or almond at all."
Sansa nailed a smile on her face and nodded at every criticism as if she agreed at all. Not too horrible. It definitely could have been worse.
"Bakers," Tormund said, "you have all done brilliantly to reach this point in the competition. I'm really glad that I get the job of announcing star baker this week. For the third time, our star baker is Margaery."
No surprise, there. The applause was more subdued than usual, Margaery's smile not quite as wide. As they waited for the names of the two people who would not get to participate in the final, the bakers joined hands. Jon and Brienne's palms were warm against Sansa's, their grips firm and grounding. Davos was going to say her name. She just knew he was.
"Just so you know, I tried to stage a rebellion to prevent this," Davos said. "It didn't go well. Turns out you can't lead a successful resistance when you arm yourself with a stand mixer and a few piping bags." Tilting his head back, he blinked rapidly, as if trying to stave off tears. "This was a very close one. I think it's the first time we've had to have other votes be cast, since these two kept bickering and would not agree. I'm so, so sorry to announce that the two people leaving us this week are… Lyanna and Brienne."
Not Sansa. Had she heard that right? Brienne squeezed Sansa's hand tighter for a second, then let go. This time, Sansa didn't fight the stinging in her eyes. Tears for Brienne and Lyanna were far more acceptable than tears brought on by Cersei. She gave them both an extended hug, until Lyanna squirmed and said, "It's not like I'm going off to war, Sans."
Releasing her with a laugh, Sansa moved to where Jon and Margaery stood together. Margaery opened her arms, wrapping both Jon and Sansa in a tight embrace. Even after hours of sweaty baking—in high heels, no less—Margaery still smelled like a Highgarden rose. Witchcraft.
"We made it to the final," Jon said. "I think I'm still in shock."
"Don't be," Margaery said. "You deserve it. We all do."
It was still light out when Sansa got to Winterfell, the summer sun just starting to set. She walked through the quiet, cobbled streets to Sam and Gilly's tree-lined neighbourhood, grinning like an idiot the whole way. Jon was on his way up to Castle Black, but he wouldn't stay there long. They'd planned another midweek visit. In a couple of days he would be back in Winterfell, back in her bed.
If she could talk him into it, they might actually bake on their third date. They needed all the practice they could get. The final. They were in the final.
"Well?" Gilly said, beckoning Sansa through the door. "You didn't ring. What happened? Did you make it through?"
Sansa had called her siblings and parents for the cameras, giggling and holding the phone at arm's length as they all shouted and cheered for her. Inside Gilly and Sam's, Lady bounded up at the sight of Sansa, rushing over to greet her with none of her usual decorum. Only one more weekend of leaving her with Sam and Gilly like this. Sniffing Sansa's hands, Lady gave her a look, as if to ask where she'd left Jon. They'd bonded during his visit, Jon earning Lady's devotion by sharing his bacon under the table at breakfast.
"I'm in the final," Sansa said, bending down to scratch Lady behind the ear.
"I knew it," Gilly said. "Oh my gods. Aren't you glad I made you apply? Oh, what about Jon? Did he make it through?"
"Yeah, he did. Also… Jon and I are seeing each other."
Gilly's jaw dropped open. "That's… Wow. That's great."
"You think so?"
Sansa shouldn't have been nervous to tell Sam and Gilly. Both of them had, in their own ways, encouraged her to move on. But they were only in her life because of Dickon. If not for him, she and Sam likely would have remained distant coworkers.
"Of course I think so!" Gilly said. "Don't you?"
Sansa laughed. "Yes, definitely. It's a very good thing."
"Well, good. Wow. When I made you apply, I never thought you'd end up in the first ever Bake Off romance. And with Jon, of all people."
"First romance that we know of. You're forgetting your theory about Varys and that one guy from the second series."
"Ohh, right. Gods, the innuendos. The eye contact." Gilly snorted. "But even then, Varys didn't play favourites, unlike some people."
Gilly would be at the party after the final, and she would likely meet Cersei in person. Sansa decided to tell Gilly the whole story about Cersei's grudge after that event. If she brought it up now, Gilly would only recruit Arya and get both of them escorted off of the set by security. Best to leave it.
Seven hells. She was actually going to the final.
The recipe that inspired Brienne’s entremets is here
Next time: The Final!
Chapter 10: The Final
Only one more chapter to go after this one. I hope you're all safe and well. ❤
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Sansa’s alarm ringtone was a song from Jon’s teen years—one Aegon had played on repeat the whole summer when he was fifteen. Sugary sweet bubblegum in audio form. It was far from what Jon would have chosen to wake up to, but the woman curled against his back made it far more pleasant. Sansa’s slow breaths tickled his skin. She had her arm slung low around his waist, her knees tucked up behind his.
“Mmf,” Sansa grumbled. “Nooo. Go away, morning.”
Jon chuckled. He’d been staying with her for the past two days, walking Lady and exploring Winterfell when she was at work, and both mornings had started like this. Rolling over, he leaned across her warm, soft body to the bedside table and cancelled the alarm. Sansa didn’t seem quite so sleepy when she took advantage of the opportunity to hook a leg around his hips and trail lazy, tempting kisses along his neck.
He let out a noise that was half groan, half laugh. The other mornings had started like this, too, but they didn’t have time today. They needed to get showered and dressed. That knowledge didn’t stop Jon from shifting his hips against her and letting his hands roam her body.
“The train isn’t for ages,” she whispered.
Jon ignored the existence of things like rush hour traffic and road works as Sansa pushed him onto his back and straddled his lap. They could make the train. Of course they could.
They missed the train.
Sitting in the station cafe, drinking burnt coffee and waiting for the next service to Highgarden, Jon toyed idly with the ends of Sansa’s hair. His phone vibrated with an incoming text.
Aegon: holy shit. I have been joking about all of that stuff about proposing to your mum because of her baking skills, but honestly. HONESTLY. I might just have to make it serious
Jon: What now?
Aegon: so, me and Rhae are at your mum’s. I came over for breakfast pastries, and Rhae decided to join me. allegedly to see your mum, but I know better. she wants to steal my pastries
Aegon: anyway. Rhae got a phone call from dad, and her side of the conversation was all, “I can’t do that. I don’t get to bring a guest.”
Jon’s stomach dropped. He had told Rhaenys that she could bring her mother as a guest to the party after the Bake Off final, since Elia was a huge fan of the show. Rhaegar had better not—
Aegon: your mum told Rhae to give her the phone. and then, your mum/the mother of my future children tore him a new one. omg. he was trying to get Rhae to let him come with her to the Bake Off thing. your mum told him to fuck off and respect your wishes, and I think that’s very sexy of her
Aegon: also, Rhae said no way is she going to bring him, so don’t worry
Aegon: except about me and your mum. worry about that, cause it’s happening. true love, etc
The tension that had bunched at the base of Jon’s neck began to ease. He knew Rhaegar would keep being Rhaegar—would likely give interviews about a Bake Off finalist (and maybe winner) being cruel and cold and not speaking to his own father. But having Lyanna stand up for Jon instead of asking, yet again, why he didn’t give Rhaegar another chance… That was something.
“How do you feel about making it to the final?” Alys asked.
Margaery held her arms wide, showing off the flappy black wings of her penguin onesie. “Reaching the final feels amazing enough to make me wear this in public,” she said. “Sansa and Jon are both so, so talented. The competition is going to be tough. Honestly, if either of them win, I’ll be just as happy.” Pausing, she smiled like she’d been caught causing mischief. “Well, almost as happy.”
“So do you think you’re all on pretty much equal footing? Anyone could win?”
“Hmm, I wouldn’t say that. I think we’re all at a similar level of skill. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, of course. If they give us a chocolate technical in this heat I might actually stage a rebellion. But… I think…” Chewing on her lower lip, she teetered on the edge of saying more. “A lot of it comes down to the preferences of the judges, doesn’t it?”
“Like if you make a beautiful liquorice flavoured dessert, but they’re the sort of mad people who don’t like liquorice?” Alys asked.
Margaery arched an eyebrow. “Or the sort of mad people who don’t like a certain contestant.”
Ah. Well. Margaery would have to be an idiot to have missed that.
“I really do want to win on my own merit,” Margaery said. “Like I said weeks ago, it will be a bit hollow and unsatisfying if it feels like it’s been given to me. I’ve worked so hard to get here, and I want any victory to be the result of that hard work. Also, being the baker who is hated by everyone on Twitter sounds tedious.”
Alys didn’t think anyone who wore a penguin onesie to the final would be Twitter’s most loathed baker, but she kept that thought to herself.
Jon and Sansa couldn’t hope to compete with Margaery’s entrance. All of her talk about baking in the penguin onesie at home had been true; the fleecy fabric was worn thin in several places, obviously well-loved. And, just as she’d promised Varys all those weeks ago, she was also wearing heels.
How in the seven hells was she going to bake in that without getting heatstroke?
“Welcome, bakers, to the final,” Davos said, beaming at all of them.
“For your last ever signature challenge,” Tormund said, “the judges would like you to make twelve cannoli. They can be any flavour you like, but they must all be uniform. Same size, same shape—you know what the judges are looking for by now. This is the final. You have two hours. On your marks,”
Before digging into her ingredients, Margaery unzipped her onesie.
“Darling,” Varys said, mock-scandalised. “We’re a pre-watershed show.”
Margaery laughed as she stripped off the onesie, revealing a much more sensible sundress. “Sorry. I know I said I’d wear it for the final, but I really can’t keep it on the whole time, as much as I’d like to.”
“No, I certainly wouldn’t advise it. Good effort, though. Perhaps you can actually bake in it when we have you back for one of the festive specials. The tent is much more tolerable then.”
“When, not if?” she asked, her smirk almost audible.
“You didn’t think we would let you go that easily, did you?”
Jon got to work mixing his dough. As he rubbed butter into flour, he cast a disdainful glare at the deep fat fryer on the corner of his bench. He hated using it. Even with the thermometer, the temperature of the oil always seemed to be not quite right. The bloody thing defied all reason. And even when the oil was too cold, he still managed to burn himself multiple times.
Two hours to make cannoli was taking the piss. Like shortcrust, cannoli dough needed to be chilled and rested before being rolled out. And then there was the time needed to fry and cool and fill the bloody things. Insane.
Jon’s hands shook as he finished wrapping his dough in clingfilm. He took a deep breath to steady himself. Yes, it was the final, but he would be happy for Margaery or Sansa if they won, wouldn’t he? Especially Sansa.
“Jon,” Cersei said as the judges and Davos approached his bench. “Tell us about your cannoli.”
Not much chance of Sansa winning if Cersei still wanted to see her crash and burn. Jon gritted his teeth.
“They’re inspired by pineapple fritters,” he said.
Varys blinked. “Pineapple… fritters?”
“Yeah, they’re amazing. Have you never had one?”
Cersei pursed her lips. “I don’t like my pineapple to be cooked, as a rule.”
“It could be interesting,” Varys said, looking as if he was trying very hard to be diplomatic.
“I think it sounds brilliant,” Davos said. “Like a cannoli you’d get in a Skirling chip shop.”
Jon laughed. “Not sure that’s quite the ringing endorsement you think it is, mate, but thanks.”
“Well,” Varys said, “thank you, Jon. We’ll leave you to it.”
Sansa had been placed at the bench in front of Jon this week; her station was as neat as ever. Jon watched for a moment as she hulled strawberries with a teaspoon. The heat of the tent had already brought a pink flush to her pale skin. Skin that Jon had touched and kissed. And—
The pasta machine was Jon’s second least favourite part of the challenge. The dough needed to be rolled out into thin sheets. He had never quite got the hang of the pasta machine, but it took far too long to do it by hand. Gods, but he wished they were making bread or a pie for this challenge. That was baking. They weren’t on The Great Westerosi Fry Off.
Jon succeeded in his battle with the dough and the pasta machine (he couldn’t tell which was fighting him more; it seemed a team effort), but his first cannoli unfurled in the oil, transforming from a tube into more of a tortilla. Bloody machine.
Across the tent, Margaery faced similar difficulties. Only Sansa fried cannoli after cannoli with no bursts of expletives that would have to be bleeped out later. Jon had to fry little strips of battered pineapple as well, to garnish each end of his cannoli. Those behaved themselves, thankfully.
“Bakers!” Tormund called as Jon started piping the filling into his first cannoli. “You have five minutes!”
Shite. Jon gave up on making things look neat and focused instead on finishing. A few of his cannoli looked more like tacos, but all had at least a little bit of the pineapple ricotta filling. It would have to do.
Varys prodded one of Margaery’s pistachio and rose cannoli and sighed. “I think your oil wasn’t at the right temperature when you put these in.”
“I know,” Margaery said. “I got in a rush and didn’t realise until after it was too late. Silly mistake.”
“The filling is excellent,” Cersei said. “You’re always so good with your flavours. Sadly, the oil has permeated the pastry and made it greasy, and the pastry is the important part of this challenge, really.”
Margaery smiled as easily as if they’d lavished praise on her. How did she always manage that? Jon had such a chronic case of resting bitch face that he reckoned he’d frowned even when he’d been awarded star baker.
The judges and Davos made their way to Sansa’s bench next. For her filling, she had roasted strawberries with a touch of balsamic vinegar. The acidity-tinged sweetness had scented the air on their side of the tent, almost drowning out the smell of frying dough.
“These aren’t bad, Sansa,” Varys said. “A bit lighter than I would like, but they’ve held their shape.”
Cersei reserved her comments for after she’d tasted the cannoli, announcing that Sansa had used far too much balsamic vinegar, making them more of a savoury snack than a dessert.
Jon’s resting bitch face could not compare to the active bitch face Varys gave his fellow judge.
“I think you should visit your GP, Cersei,” Varys said. “There’s something wrong with your taste buds. The balsamic strawberries strike the right balance for me.”
The judges glared at each other for a moment before thanking Sansa and moving on. Had they always been so quarrelsome with one another? It hadn’t seemed like it on the episodes of Bake Off that Jon had watched, but perhaps that had been clever editing.
“Now,” Cersei said, “Jon. These are… a bit of a mess, if I’m honest.”
Jon forced a chuckle. “Yeah. I was scrambling to get something on the plate at the end.”
“We’ll be kind to you and try one of the ones that held together,” Varys said. “Though that does not leave us with a lot to choose from.”
They were in agreement about the flavour of Jon’s cannoli: surprisingly good, given the presence of fried pineapple. Jon raked his fingers through his hair. He needed to come first in the technical if he wanted the slightest chance of winning.
Jon should have been more specific when he’d wished to bake bread for the signature challenge. He squinted at the instructions for the technical, as if doing so might force the words to make sense. Eight over seven, and then seven over two… Seven hells. An eight-strand plaited wholemeal spelt loaf was not at all what he’d had in mind.
“What in the world?” Margaery said with a groan. “It looks like I’ve mangled an octopus.”
“Maybe it’s supposed to look like that?” Tormund said.
“I really don’t think so. Ugh. There are just… too many tentacles.”
“Don’t worry, Marg,” Jon said. “I’ve ruined a perfectly good octopus, too.”
Sansa giggled. “They can be triplets, then. I have no idea if this is even close to being right.”
Jon wasn’t convinced. If he knew Sansa at all, she had already done this during one of her swotting up sessions. It was one of Cersei’s recipes.
“Two under three,” Jon muttered. “Over eight. And then… Balls.”
“That isn’t so bad,” Davos said bracingly. “Just tuck the ends under, and you’ll be fine. It looks… plaited.”
Jon wasn’t so sure it did, but it was the best he could do. Popping it back into the proving drawer, he sat down to wait.
“In third place,” Varys said, “we have this one.”
Again: balls. Jon raised his hand. It was hardly an unexpected result. His was the messiest of the three: a tangled jumble of strands that looked haphazardly thrown together.
“Jon,” Cersei said. “It was very nicely baked, with a good flavour, but the plaiting was all wrong. And in second place, we have…” Her pause stretched on for so long, it was almost cruel. “This one.”
With that same easy, undefeated smile, Margaery raised her hand.
“Better plaiting on this one,” Cersei said, “and again, a good bake, but still not quite right.”
“Which means in first place, we have Sansa,” Varys said. “Sansa, this was the best plait. It’s still not perfect, but it’s the closest to what we were looking for, and the bake is very good. Well done.”
The applause sounded so quiet in comparison to earlier weeks, with only two bakers left to cheer for Sansa. Jon caught her in a congratulatory hug that stretched on a few moments longer than necessary.
“You’ve done that before, haven’t you?” he asked.
She wrinkled her nose as her lips tilted up in a sheepish smile. “Maybe. Once or twice.”
“Or seven times.”
“Nah. No more than five, tops.”
Jon’s nerves woke him before Sansa’s earworm alarm—before the rise of the summer sun. Taking in his surroundings and remembering what awaited him that day, a breath caught in his throat. One more challenge left, and then their time in the tent would be over.
Sansa lay with her head pillowed on his chest, twisting the hem of the sheet between her fingers. He wondered how long she had been awake.
“Nervous?” he whispered.
She breathed out a laugh. “Yeah, just a bit. Also, I had a horrible nightmare.”
“About baking?” Jon had been having a few of those recently. Fallen cakes, ovens that wouldn’t turn on, legs that wouldn’t move when he needed to run across the tent to rescue a falling biscuit sculpture.
“No, actually.” Tilting her head back, she smiled up at him. “I dreamed that I decided to take up jogging.”
“Terrifying. You should have woken me.” As he craned his neck to see the glowing numbers of the clock, Jon’s chuckle turned to a groan. “We have about ten minutes until we should probably get up.”
“Not enough time to go back to sleep, then.”
“Could you sleep right now?”
“Not a chance.”
The horde of rampaging butterflies in Jon’s stomach didn’t let up as he and Sansa got ready. They hopped into the little shower cubicle together—to save time, Sansa claimed. He wasn’t going to pass up that offer, even if Sansa did prefer the water to be at a temperature that made the tent seem like frozen tundra. Standing safely out of the scorching spray, he passed the tiny hotel soap over her arms, her chest, her legs. She bent her head forward, making a pleased hmm as the shower spray beat down on the back of her neck.
“If one of us wins,” she said, “it won’t change anything, right?”
“Of course it won’t.” Jon brushed a swift kiss over her shower-damp lips. “You all right?”
“Yeah. Just so bloody nervous.”
“Me too. Have we reached the point in our relationship where you’ll hold my hair back if I vomit from nerves? Because I have to tell you, that is a very real possibility.”
The comment had the desired effect: she laughed.
“We reached that milestone weeks ago,” Sansa said. “I offered to hold your hair back on the rail replacement bus, remember?”
“Oh, right. You did. Huh. I’m amazed I didn’t notice your blatant flirting sooner.”
Another laugh. The sound made a few of the butterflies vanish.
They could do this. It was just like any other week. They’d already baked nine showstoppers. What was one more?
“Well, bakers,” Tormund said, “you have spent ten weeks baking pies, cakes, bread and, during Northern Week, some of the best food in the world. And now, we have finally arrived at your last ever challenge in the tent.”
“For your final showstopper, the judges would like you to make a wedding cake,” Davos said. “It must have at least two different flavours of sponge. Beyond that, you can do whatever you like—as long as you do it within the next four hours. And now, for the very last time, on your marks,”
Jon grabbed the bowl for his mixer and got to work measuring out enough butter for an obscene amount of cake. Most professional bakers spent days making wedding cakes. He had managed to do it in four hours at home, but that was without any distractions. Here, he’d be lucky if it didn’t look as lopsided and hideous as Sam and Gilly’s wedding cake had.
“Sansa, tell us about your cake,” Varys said over the sound of Jon cracking egg after egg into his bowl.
“I have three different flavours: lemon and elderflower, chocolate and olive oil, and pecan. It’s going to have an art deco design in different shades of blue and white.” Paper rustled as she pushed her sketches across the bench towards them. “My friends had a really disappointing wedding cake, so I asked them what they would choose now if they could have a do-over. They convinced me to apply for the show, so I figured the least I could do was make them another wedding cake.”
Jon smothered a laugh with his palm. He waited until Sansa’s chat with the judges and Tormund was complete before he said, “You’re making a wedding cake for Sam and Gilly? So am I.”
That cake, ugly as it had been, had facilitated his first conversation with Sansa, so Jon had decided it would be fitting to pay tribute to it now. He’d opted to create what Gilly and Sam had originally asked for from their baker: pale green fondant with an elegant spray of sugarpaste cherry blossoms. Wanting it to be a surprise, he hadn’t told Sam or Gilly about it. They would see it at the party.
“Really?” Sansa asked. “Damn. I feel like one of us should have mentioned it. At least it’s not the same design, I guess.”
“I’m making my cake for some dear friends, too,” Margaery said, directing her smirk at her bench as she mixed melted marshmallows with icing sugar to make fondant. “Though I imagine they won’t need a wedding cake for quite some time. It’s still early days.”
Jon was not going to react to that comment. Mostly because Margaery obviously wanted him to.
Four hours flew by in a blur of mixing, taste testing, baking, and sculpting. Jon knew he had green food colouring streaked across one cheek, but he didn’t care. Nor was he bothered by the fact that about a dozen of his carefully crafted cherry blossoms were left on his bench when Tormund and Davos called time. The cake looked as perfect as any he’d made at home.
“Congratulations, bakers,” Davos said. “You’ve done it. You all survived to the end of The Great Westerosi Bake Off.”
Sansa and Margaery’s cakes were works of art—especially Sansa’s. Margaery had gone for an understated design of black scrollwork on neat white fondant. Sansa’s art deco masterpiece was stacked higher than the other two cakes, sugarpaste calla lilies reaching up from the top. She’d bunched the fondant on the middle tier, making it look so much like pleated fabric that Jon almost wanted to touch it.
The bakers met in the middle aisle of the tent for a three-way hug. Jon squeezed both Sansa and Margaery tight. When he absentmindedly kissed Sansa’s temple, Margaery huffed.
“Where’s my kiss?” Margaery asked. Her fake scowl evaporated when a laughing Sansa kissed her cheek. “That’s more like it.”
Jon brought them both back in for another hug. Only one hurdle left: facing the judges one last time.
The sunlit field that stretched from the tent to the manor house bustled with activity. Crowds of people played ring toss games and giant Jenga. Laughing kids jumped and squealed inside a bouncy castle. Alys searched the sea of unfamiliar faces for the ones she knew: the bakers who had left the tent in previous weeks.
She saw Oberyn first, holding court over several of the other bakers, teaching them the best way to hula hoop—some with more success than others. Nan kept her hula hoop up the longest.
“Who do you think is going to win?” Alys asked Oberyn after pulling him aside for an interview.
His charming smile made Alys wonder, idly, if she was forbidden from getting involved with contestants after they’d left the tent.
“Sansa,” Oberyn said. “I was only in there one week, but my bench was right behind hers, so I got to see her work. Yeah. She’s going to win. Without a doubt.”
Alys went through the other bakers one by one, asking them all the same question, as was tradition.
“I think Jon will win,” Melisandre said. “He’s very quiet and modest, but I think he’s a bit of a dark horse, really. He’ll surprise you.”
“Oh, you’re going to make me give a definite answer this time, aren’t you?” Shae asked with a wry chuckle. “Fine, then. I want Sansa to win. I love that girl. Also, she’s so talented. They all are.”
“Margaery,” Nan said. “She has such a flair for decoration. I tried to get her to decorate one of my cakes when I was in the tent, but she wouldn’t have it.”
“I feel a bit disloyal saying it, since Jon has become a good mate, but I think Margaery might win it,” Edd said. “I’ll be happy for any of them, though. They’re all great bakers.”
“I honestly have no idea,” Stannis said, glancing around him. “I seldom managed to guess the star baker, even when I was in the tent. I think Jon’s family are within earshot, so I will say Jon.”
“Margaery,” Lyanna said decisively, as if there was no question.
“Sansa,” Brienne said, just as decisively.
“In a shocking turn of events,” Podrick said, “I will somehow manage to win in spite of leaving the tent weeks ago. Or, failing that, it’ll be Jon.”
Even votes for all of them, then. Alys knew who she thought should win, but whether both judges agreed with that assessment was another matter entirely.
Cersei scraped the coconut layer of Margaery’s cake with her fork. Her face was blocked from Jon’s view by Margaery’s head, but Jon knew that little hum of dissatisfaction all too well.
“It’s a little dry,” she said. “You’ve overbaked it. Five minutes less, and it would have been perfect.”
Varys nodded. “I agree. You’ve decorated it beautifully, though, and the flavour is very good. Shame about the texture. But your dark chocolate sponge… That is absolutely heavenly. Ordinarily, dark chocolate cakes are so rich that you can’t really stomach more than a few mouthfuls, but you’ve somehow managed to keep it light without sacrificing flavour. I could eat the whole thing. I remember you saying during Chocolate Week that you wanted to show chocolate who was boss after your previous disaster with it. You’ve done that. Move over, Cersei: I think we might have a new Queen of Chocolate in our midst.”
Jon didn’t need to be able to see Cersei to know she glared at Varys for that comment.
Sansa was next; Tormund and Davos had to help her transport her tower of cake up to the gingham altar. The calla lilies wobbled a little as the cake slid into place, but there were no slips, no decorations tumbling to the floor. Jon released the breath he’d been holding.
“The decoration is magnificent, Sansa,” Varys said. “I wouldn’t be able to guess you had done this in four hours if I hadn’t seen it.”
Cersei snorted. “Don’t pretend you weren’t hiding in your air conditioned trailer most of the time.”
“Darling, don’t spoil the magic of the show for the nice people at home. I saw as much as I could of Sansa’s baking without breaking a sweat. Now, let’s see if this cake tastes as good as it looks.”
They sampled all three tiers before saying another word. Varys beamed at Sansa.
“That’s delicious,” he said. “Every single tier. It’s an excellent bake.”
“You’ve outdone yourself.”
Jon waited, perched on the edge of his seat, for Cersei to chime in with some sort of criticism.
“Elderflower isn’t a favourite of mine,” she finally said. “It overpowers the lemon for me. I find that sponge rather cloying, but it is well-baked. I can’t find fault with the pecan and chocolate sponges. I do think your top tier is leaning a little bit to the left, but overall it’s quite impressive.”
Sansa shot Jon a smile on her way back to her bench. He tried not to look like she might have to follow through on her promise to hold his hair back. Thank goodness for Davos and Tormund, whose hands remained far steadier than Jon’s as they assisted him with carrying his cake to the front.
“If someone had lined these cakes up and asked me to choose yours,” Cersei said, “I wouldn’t have guessed this one. It’s so pretty and delicate.”
“It is,” Varys said. “It’s also very well done. I think your friends would be happy to have this cake at their wedding. Remind us of your flavours?”
“One of the sponges is almond and orange blossom,” Jon said. “The other is honey and chocolate.”
Jon’s stomach churned. He would not vomit on camera. He would not vomit on camera.
“Delicious,” Cersei finally said. “Both of them. I think this is some of your best work in the tent.”
“Absolutely,” Varys said. “You should be proud of this, Jon.”
He would be, once he remembered how to breathe. His last-ditch efforts probably weren’t enough, but at least he’d managed a showstopper that was worthy of a Bake Off final.
They were still bickering. Alys sighed. She should have brought a novel to keep herself occupied. Leaning back against the wall, she held her hair up off of her neck. That air conditioning was better than sex. Well, better than any she’d had of late—which sent her thoughts careening back towards Oberyn for a few delightful moments before the judges’ argument distracted her.
“You said yourself that Margaery should be the new Queen of Chocolate,” Cersei said.
“I did, but I also agreed when you said that her coconut cake was dry and overbaked,” Varys said. “Plus, her signature was middling—if I’m being generous—and she didn’t get the plaiting right during the technical. You know very well who delivered the best performance this week.”
“Yes, I do. Margaery’s chocolate cake was among the best we’ve tasted in the tent.”
“It was. I’m not denying that. All I’m saying is that it was not enough to put her in first place after her performance yesterday.”
After a few more repetitions of their arguments, it ended up going the same way it had the previous week; producers had to cast votes and break the stalemate.
“The viewers are going to be furious with you for this series, you know,” Varys said in a low voice to Cersei as everyone started to disperse. He exhaled a sigh that would have sounded regretful to anyone who didn’t know him. “Even more so if word somehow gets out that you paid a certain production assistant to tamper with a certain baker’s oven.”
Clenching her jaw, Cersei gave him a murderous look.
Screw the novel. Alys should have brought popcorn.
Rhaegar wasn’t at the party. Not that Jon had really expected Rhaenys to bring him, but scanning the field and not finding his father’s face in the crowd still made him sag in relief. His siblings, his mum, and even Elia attacked him with enthusiastic hugs and praise the instant he set his wedding cake on the table. The warm glow in his chest grew into a miniature sun when Sansa tentatively approached. Grabbing her hand, he introduced her to his family.
Reuniting with all of the other bakers made Jon smile so much, his cheeks began to hurt. Edd had all sorts of new flavour combinations to talk about. Lyanna and Brienne were planning to go on some sort of fencing road trip together—Jon wasn’t clear on the details. Nan cackled when she saw Jon and Sansa cuddled close together, announcing that she’d known it would happen. Shae leapt at Sansa with such an enthusiastic hug, she nearly knocked her over.
“You both made cakes for us?” Gilly asked, helping herself to a slice of Sansa’s showstopper. “Well, now I really don’t know which one of you to cheer for.”
“They look so nice,” Sam said. “I wish we would have hired one of you to be our baker.”
Little Sam squirmed in his father’s arms, reaching towards Sansa, but he was denied his cuddle. Tormund chose that moment to call for the three finalists to come forward. As they stood in front of the cheering crowd, Sansa joined hands with Jon and Margaery. Jon hoped his palms weren’t too sweaty. Nervous energy still bounced around his stomach.
“Welcome, everyone, to the final of the Great Westerosi Bake Off,” Davos said. Tucked against the huge bouquet of flowers in his arms was the winner’s cake plate. Jon’s heart did a little flip. “It is my enormous privilege to announce the winner this year.”
Tormund must have chuckled at the slight quaver in Davos’s voice, because Davos turned to him with a glare.
“Yes, I am already tearing up,” Davos said. “You knew I would. Shut up, Tormund.” He cleared his throat as laughter rippled around the field. “Right. The winner of The Great Westerosi Bake Off is… Sansa.”
Her jaw dropped open. There was a moment—a fraction of a second—in which Jon felt sinking disappointment, but happiness for Sansa won out, bringing a grin to his face. A shrill, piercing noise that he recognised as Gilly’s whistle rose above the shouting and thunderous applause coming from Sansa’s family.
“Are they sure?” Sansa said as Jon’s arms wrapped around her in a tight, tight embrace.
He chuckled. “Yeah, love. Of course they are. You were brilliant.”
Cupping her face between his hands, he touched his lips to hers. The tone of the cheers around them changed, shifted to more of an “ooh!” Jon barely noticed. He kissed her like they were alone on the train, with only the poor conductor to interrupt them.
“Congratulations,” he whispered.
Margaery wanted her chance to hug Sansa and offer cheek kisses and congratulations, and then Tormund was there, presenting Jon with one of the runners-up bouquets.
“Just so you know,” Tormund said, “next time I’m in Winterfell or Castle Black, I expect you and Sansa to have me round for our own personal recreation of Northern Week. You two will do the catering, obviously.”
Jon laughed. “Obviously.”
Tormund gave Jon’s shoulder a rough pat. “I’ll bring the booze, though. Have you ever had fermented goat’s milk?”
“Ready for your victory speech?” Alys asked, grinning at Sansa. She kept her voice low to avoid waking the little boy who had dozed off in Sansa’s arms. Her nephew, Alys thought. Sam? Something like that.
“Oh, gods, no,” Sansa said. “I have no idea what to say.”
“You haven’t practised it in the mirror a dozen times by now? I’ve had my speech for the Grammys ready to go since I was about nine.”
Sansa laughed. “You’re a musician?”
“Nope. Not even slightly.”
Sansa transferred her sleeping bundle into his mother’s arms before following Alys. Holding her new Bake Off cake plate and her huge bouquet of Highgarden roses, Sansa gave Alys a nervous smile.
“Just say how you feel about winning,” Alys said. “It’s like any other interview we’ve done. You’ll do fine. Just pretend you’re only talking to me. Don’t worry about impressing anyone.”
“I don’t know what to say. I just… Is this really happening? It feels like a dream, and I wonder if I’m going to find myself naked on the first day of school or if my teeth are going to start falling out or any of that other weird stuff that happens in dreams.” She cringed. “My friend Gilly said there was no way anyone could top Missandei’s speech from last year, and she’s clearly right about that when it comes to me, since I’m talking about teeth falling out. Gods.”
Alys almost wondered if that was it—if Sansa was going to let the entirety of her victory speech be about bizarre dream logic—but a shaky breath made Sansa’s shoulders rise and fall.
“I never could have imagined this a few years ago,” Sansa said, her lower lip trembling. “I thought my life was over. I started baking more often as a way to pass the time—to fill the empty hours. Little by little, the hours started becoming less empty. Letting my friends talk me into applying for this show was probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. The whole experience has been amazing. I have no idea when it’ll actually sink in that it’s over, much less that I’ve won. I’m overwhelmed and thrilled and just… grateful. Really, really grateful.”
She looked off to the side of Alys, beckoning someone forward with her cake plate. Jon appeared with his arms outstretched, drawing her into a hug.
“I’m so proud of you,” he murmured.
Alys almost cheered when Sansa tilted her face up for another kiss. The first Bake Off romance was off to a brilliant start. And if Alys’s eyes got a bit misty when Jon tenderly wiped away Sansa’s tears, well. The cameras weren’t focused on Alys. No one would see.
Both Jon and Sansa’s families had driven down to the Reach for the Bake Off party. Jon and Sansa could have travelled back to the North with any of them, but they opted to take the train one last time. Sitting together on the same side of a table in an almost silent carriage, they moved their heads close together, his knee bumping against hers.
“I still can’t believe it,” she whispered.
“Well, I can. Brace yourself; pretty soon you’re going to be stopped every time you go out in public.”
“So are you.”
She had a point. Many past finalists—and even semi-finalists—had gone on to get book deals after the show.
“We should probably squeeze in as many uninterrupted dates as we can before the first episode airs,” Jon said.
Something about the pink flush of her cheeks and the slow dawning of her smile reminded him of their first train journey together all those weeks ago.
“Yeah,” she said. “I’d like that.”
Next time: An Extra Slice!
Does Extra Slice air in other countries? If not, it’s a show that all of the bakers appear on after they leave the competition. They talk about their time in the tent, and the audience brings in (often horrible tasting) bakes that a panel of celebrity fans of the show have to try.
Chapter 11: An Extra Slice
The first time Sansa got recognised, she was checking a patient’s cervix.
“Oh my gods, I just realised where I’ve seen you before!” the patient said. “Bake Off, right? I loved your lemon cake.”
“Thank you,” Sansa said. “That was one of my favourites.”
“Can you tell me whether you make it to the end?”
“Nope, I’m afraid not, but I can tell you how dilated you are.”
Sansa had expected to be stopped in the supermarket or when walking Lady in the park with Jon. Somehow, this exact scenario hadn’t ever crossed her mind. Bake Off truly had transformed her life.
In the weeks after that first episode, Pod developed a habit of forwarding everyone his favourite tweets about the show. Sansa interacted with the nicer people who popped into her mentions on Twitter, but unlike Pod, she avoided scrolling through the GWBO hashtag. She didn’t need to see anyone calling her an ice queen or talking about how much they hoped she failed. Those people were in the minority, but still. It was far better for her mental health to view the rest of it through the relentlessly positive filter of Podrick.
Every week, Sansa still walked across town to watch the show with Sam and Gilly. It was their annual tradition, after all. The only thing that had changed about that (apart from Sansa being on the show) was the presence of Jon. He walked alongside her, holding her hand between their flat and Sam and Gilly’s house.
It was their flat, now.
Podrick’s messages to Sansa went into overdrive during the episode in which she lost her locket. Some clever editing had been done, using her tearful goodbye to Shae to make it look like Sansa was crying over the lost necklace. They had also included her explanation to Shae about the locket being a gift from Dickon.
Pod: Wow, that isn’t how it happened at all. Reality TV isn’t all that close to actual reality… Who knew? Anyway, a selection of tonight’s favourite tweets:
Pod: “I am going to @ every single baker if this goes on much longer. omg I’m dying here. PLEASE SPOILER ME AND TELL ME SANSA GOT HER NECKLACE BACK. @podrickthebaker you seem cool. Come on. I promise I won’t tell anyone you broke the NDA. No one has to know but us.”
Sansa: Did someone really call you cool?
Pod: OBVIOUSLY. These are all genuine tweets Sansa omg. Especially the ones admiring me
Pod: Anyway, I particularly enjoyed these two:
Pod: “if they don’t find Sansa’s locket I might actually cry. Has anyone searched Cersei to make sure she didn’t take it?”
Pod: “I really want Sansa to find her locket, obviously, but is anyone else completely distracted by the chemistry between her and Jon?? No? Just me? Okay.”
Laughing, Sansa showed Jon her phone screen.
“Do you think that last person would lose it if I replied to them saying that I saw it, too?” Jon asked.
“I’m about to lose it in a second if that cow doesn’t get off of my TV,” Gilly said, crossing her arms. “I still can’t believe you let me shake her hand.”
Gilly had taken Cersei’s grudge against Sansa more personally than even Sansa had. The first time Cersei had given Sansa that false smile and said she couldn’t taste the black pepper in Sansa’s gingerbread, Gilly had announced that she needed Jon and Sansa to leave the room while she called her sisters and made some plans. Sam had been granted leave to stay or go, as he liked. He couldn’t be forced to testify against Gilly, since they were married.
“Sorry,” Sansa said. “I didn’t expect you to actually speak to her, given how mean she was to Shireen in the series before ours. I had it on good authority she was dead to you.”
“She’s gonna wish she was dead to me,” Gilly muttered.
“Oh, Pod already responded to that person who asked about our chemistry,” Jon said. “He said he saw it too, and plot twist: he seduced both of us and now we’re a throuple.”
Sansa snorted. “This is why he keeps sending me these tweets, isn’t it? So I have no reason to go on Twitter and see what mischief he’s getting into.”
A few weeks later, Sansa and Jon were both stunned to see their first kiss appear on the show.
“How did they get that without us noticing?” Jon asked.
“No idea,” Sansa said. Her phone vibrated in her pocket. “Ah, that’ll be Podrick.”
Pod: Twitter is losing its collective shit. Not sure I’ve ever seen so many exclamation points in one place. I can’t wait to see their reaction when Jon kisses you during the final. Look at this:
Pod: “Hey @podrickthebaker will it break your NDA to tell me if Sansa and Jon are living happily ever after rn? Also I know this will definitely break your NDA, but do they both make it to the final?! I am way too emotionally invested in this…”
Pod: “Bit weird to see my former teacher kissing on tv. Even weirder that I’ve been sort of shipping him with Sansa for weeks now. If I get to the point where I start writing RPF about Mr Snow and Sansa, someone please stage an intervention.”
Pod: (Including the handle for this one, lol. You may recognise it.) “@shaewillwinbakeoff: MY BABIES!!! How adorable are Jon and Sansa? I mean, I already knew they were, but now I get to actually see the cuteness I missed when I left the tent! I am calling dibs right now on baking their wedding cake.”
Pod: (And the response to the previous one.) “@margaerygreyjoy: Um, excuse me, @shaewillwinbakeoff, but you’ll have to fight me for the right to make that wedding cake.”
The next week, Twitter lost its collective shit for a different reason: a close-up of Margaery touching Jon’s cheek and giving him a tender look. Sansa knew that Margaery had been giving him advice about where to take Sansa on their first date, but as their conversation had been inaudible, Twitter was unaware.
And Sansa had just been thinking they’d gotten off lightly when so few people paid any attention to Rhaegar’s interviews about how his cruel, cruel son had cut ties with him. She should have known another storm would start brewing.
Pod: Seven hells. Poor Marg. People are being vicious. Nothing worth copying and pasting today. Gotta go defend our girl
Sansa and Jon broke with tradition and opened Twitter during the show to do the same as Podrick. The first thing to appear on Sansa’s timeline was a tweet from Margaery.
@margaerygreyjoy: Did you all forget about the whole lesbian thing? I know I mentioned my wife in interviews. If I’m going to “steal” anyone, it’s going to be Sansa. If I wasn’t already taken, I totally would (sorry Jon xx)
Without looking at any of the vitriol directed at Margaery, Sansa composed a tweet of her own.
When you attack my friends, she wrote, you aren’t defending me or doing me any sort of favour. I wouldn’t even want you attacking someone I wasn’t friends with. Also, I love @margaerygreyjoy, now and always, and she is welcome to steal me anytime (sorry Jon xx)
Jon laughed. “Pod has just invited Margaery to join our throuple.”
“I knew the bakers in previous series were close,” Sam said, “but I think you lot might be taking it too far.”
The semi-final saw Twitter’s ire directed at another source: Cersei. Conspiracy theories abounded about her orchestrating some sort of sabotage against Sansa. Even though Sansa was certain her oven had been on, she dismissed it as Twitter overreacting, as per usual. But then Cersei’s cousin, Lancel, who worked as a camera operator on the show, revealed that Cersei had paid him to switch off Sansa’s oven.
“I cannot believe this,” Gilly said, pacing back and forth. “Oh my gods. Right. I’m going to need a shovel and—no. My uncle is a pig farmer. We’ll take the body there.”
“That’s… sweet?” Sansa said. “But not necessary, Gill. Cersei already announced she’s leaving the show. And, as you may recall, I did win.”
Gilly harrumphed. Chuckling, Sansa turned her attention to her vibrating phone, expecting to see one of Pod’s usual texts. Instead, she found two rather similar messages from two different sources.
Lyanna: dw. Brienne and I are on it
Arya: like I said before: Gendry knows a guy
Had Arya and Lyanna met at the party after the final? Sansa couldn’t remember. Probably best to keep the two of them separate during the filming of An Extra Slice, if possible. No good could come of them collaborating on some sort of revenge plot.
“I think I’m on Gilly’s side,” Jon said. “I wish I’d caught Lancel in the act.”
“That would have made things interesting,” Sansa said. “Hmm. I wonder who they’re going to get to replace Cersei.”
Sitting on the most comfortable sofa she had ever encountered, Sansa watched Meera Reed greet Jon and Margaery. Bran was probably seething with jealousy in the audience. He’d had a crush on Meera, the host of An Extra Slice, for years.
Margaery looked in her element with the studio audience, grinning and waving, but Jon’s posture was stiff, his smile strained. He had not been looking forward to this aspect of being on Bake Off—the required appearances after the fact. In fairness, Sansa was just as nervous about her turn to sit under those hot lights and try to be charming in front of a crowd. Being the winner did have some perks. She got to go last.
“Now, Jon,” Meera said, “I know everyone wants me to ask you about one thing that has very little to do with baking.”
Jon took a sip of water. Even on the little screen Sansa was watching, she caught his blush.
“Yeah?” he said. “What’s that?”
“Will you wink for us?” Meera asked.
The question effectively broke the ice. Collapsing in giggles, Margaery placed a consoling hand on Jon’s shoulder. He was a great sport about it, looking directly into a camera and doing his patented two-eye wink. As the audience erupted in raucous applause, his blush deepened.
Meera segued into asking about Jon and Margaery’s favourite bakes (him: his showstopper during bread week, her: the illusion cake that won her star baker for the first time) and a few of their triumphs and losses in the tent. Sansa knew the question was coming, though. It was only a matter of time.
“Jon, we saw you and Sansa get quite… close in the tent,” Meera said, bringing a smirk to Margaery’s lips. “What has it been like being part of Bake Off’s first romance?”
“Err.” Jon chuckled. “Surreal? The actual relationship—the stuff with Sansa—that’s all been brilliant, of course. But having so many strangers invested in it… Yeah, definitely surreal.” He nudged Margaery with his elbow. “And certain people making us a wedding cake on the show may have added to that.”
“I have no regrets,” Margaery said.
“I didn’t think for a second that you would.”
“In addition to the romance, there was a lot of controversy in this series,” Meera said. “Accusations of favouritism, and then news came out about one of the judges attempting to sabotage Sansa.”
Sansa frowned. She had expected everything with Cersei to be mentioned, but she’d thought it would happen during her turn to be interviewed by Meera.
“Margaery,” Meera continued, to Sansa’s growing surprise, “that brings us to something we learnt about you at the end of the final. You’re going to be taking over as the new judge next year.”
Jon’s jaw dropped open. “Oh my gods, I can’t believe you didn’t tell me.” Pausing to give her a laughing, one-armed hug, he shook his head. “The audience here knows this, but people at home might not: this show is filmed before the final airs. Margaery didn’t breathe a word to any of us about this, as far as I know.”
“I wanted it to be a surprise,” Margaery said.
“Well, I think you’ve accomplished that,” Meera said. “How did it happen?”
“When that news about Cersei came out, I thought… Why not try? Varys and I got on really well, and I already judge people all of the time. May as well get paid for it. So I made a few phone calls, did a few screen tests, and here we are. Varys wasn’t surprised, by the way.”
“Of course I wasn’t,” Varys said. Varys, Tormund, and Davos were the celebrity panel that week—the ones tasked with tasting the weird bakes that various audience members brought from home. “It was my plan all along.”
Sansa believed it. She couldn’t wait to see the next series. Gods, Gilly was probably thrilled. Seeing Margaery take Cersei’s job and become the new Queen of Chocolate was the best sort of revenge.
The door opened, and a familiar face appeared. Alys beamed at Sansa.
“You’re up,” Alys said. “Ready?”
Buoyed by Margaery’s news, Sansa found that she was. A few TV appearances were nothing, really. She had won—in so many ways.
It was still surreal to hear Meera Reed say, “Please give a warm welcome to this year’s winner of The Great Westerosi Bake Off: Sansa!”
How was this her life? How was Meera Reed actually saying her name? A little shove from Alys made Sansa move onto the stage. Giving the table full of her fellow bakers a brief wave, she rushed to Margaery’s side and enveloped her in a hug.
“Thank you,” Margaery said, her laugh tickling Sansa’s ear. “I think this is supposed to be your moment, though, darling.”
As Jon shifted over to give Sansa a spot to sit, he leaned in and pecked her on the cheek. Predictably, the audience let out a cheer. Face heating with a blush, Sansa turned to Meera.
“Welcome, Sansa, and congratulations on winning Bake Off,” Meera said.
“Has it sunk in yet?”
“Not really, no. I’ve asked a few of the other winners, and they assure me it will, eventually, but I’ll believe it when I see it.”
“Now, you had your share of ups and downs in the tent. How did you feel when Lancel Lannister came forward and revealed what happened during the semi-final?”
“Vindicated, I guess? I knew my oven was on. I think I would be much more upset about it if I’d left the tent that week.”
“I think all of us would,” Davos said.
“Absolutely,” Tormund said. “I would have been the first to chain myself to the tent in protest.”
Taking a deep breath, Sansa smiled at them. The rest of the questions flew by. With so many friendly faces around her, she almost forgot about the audience. It was like the tent—which had never been a calm, peaceful place, but it was familiar. She could pretend she was at one of the pastel workstations, and this was just another challenge.
On your mark…
Sansa rattled off a reply to Meera’s question about her favourite bake in the tent—still the lemon illusion cake.
Warm fingers twined together with Sansa’s as Jon took her hand under the table.
Back in Winterfell, Sansa and Jon had Sam, Gilly, and several of their fellow bakers over to watch the final. Edd brought his ketchup macarons, which were a big hit with Sam, just as Jon had predicted. Stannis brought a wild mushroom tart that didn’t poison anyone, Brienne and Lyanna brought a few batches of the new ginger cakes they’d developed together, Shae and Margaery brought enough booze for a party twice the size, and Podrick brought his phone fully charged for FaceTiming the bakers who hadn’t been able to make it. And for checking Twitter, of course.
“Good news, Sansa,” Pod said as the showstopper challenge came to an end. “In most of the polls I’ve seen, you’re the favourite to win.”
“Most?” Jon asked, like he was offended on her behalf.
“Nan started a poll with her own name thrown in there.” Pod shrugged. “Sansa’s in second place in that one.”
It seemed like no time at all until the winner was announced, and Sansa got to see her own reaction for the first time. She turned her face into Jon’s shoulder, but Podrick wouldn’t let her hide for long.
“People are losing their minds over that kiss,” he said. “Even more so than the first one. Lots of keyboard smashing. This is brilliant. They’re calling you two Jonsa now. I love it.”
After Sansa’s victory speech, the camera stayed on her long enough to capture Jon spinning her around, whispering how proud he was, and kissing her again. As the scene faded to black, words appeared on the screen.
Since appearing on Bake Off…
The view cut to Oberyn smiling ruefully at his lopsided first and only showstopper.
Oberyn has been perfecting his beetroot chocolate cake recipe. He is on his 54th version, and he insists it’s almost there.
Edd appeared, dumping ketchup into his mixing bowl while Jon looked on in bemusement.
Edd is still experimenting with adventurous flavours. His most recent creation combines white chocolate and caviar.
And then it was Shae, sitting on the floor with Sansa and Jon in front of an oven, giggling and looking at the picture in Sansa’s locket.
Shae has kept herself busy baking to raise funds for a domestic violence charity in King’s Landing. Her livestreams of her marathon bakes have had millions of views.
Nan held Stannis’s hand as they waited to hear who would leave the tent.
Nan has been doing baking demonstrations around the North. Her double decker cheesecake is included in the lessons.
Melisandre leaned over her first showstopper, adding detail to one of the tentacles.
Melisandre is still baking spooky cakes. She’s also revisiting the job that inspired her biscuit sculpture. This autumn, she’ll be opening her own haunted house.
The real Podrick—the one sitting next to Sansa—let out an indignant huff as the Podrick on TV wandered around with a smear of tomato passata on his nose.
Podrick wants us to let everyone know that in spite of what he may have said on Twitter, he’s still single. He’s also still a messy cook, and he will not apologise for it.
Stannis held out his tub of mushrooms for Margaery and Brienne to examine.
Stannis is still baking every day and foraging for wild mushrooms when he can. He is happy he never has to do another technical challenge as long as he lives.
A frowning Lyanna watched Brienne attempt to teach Podrick how to sword fight with a pair of sticks.
Brienne and Lyanna meet up frequently to fence and bake together. They’re opening a bakery in Lyanna’s village. They will serve, among other things, Brienne’s chocolate pastry and Lyanna’s old lady annihilating shortbread.
Flapping her way onto the screen in her penguin onesie, Margaery laughed with Varys.
Margaery has found a new career via Bake Off. Next year, she will replace Cersei Lannister as judge. Word is still out on whether her penguin onesie will make another appearance. Her next goal is to convince all of her fellow bakers to return for the festive specials so she can judge them.
Jon made a face at the camera before looking askance at Podrick’s pastry portrait of him.
Jon has been busy moving house. Even when he was packing boxes, he still found time to bake. Saying goodbye to his students and leaving his job as a teacher has left him short on guinea pigs to try his bakes, but he is happy in his new home.
Sansa’s eyes stung as she once again watched herself accept the winner’s cake plate and bouquet from Varys.
Sansa still can’t believe she won. She quit her job not long after the first few episodes of Bake Off aired. Now, she spends her days working with Jon in the flat they share, debating whose family recipes best represent Northern baking.
Jon kissed Sansa’s forehead—both on-screen and off.
They are writing a cookbook together.