Gilly Craster [11:10am]: oh my god please get here soon
Gilly Craster [11:10am]: i just did a shot of something called fernet while hiding under sam's dad's billiards table
Gilly Craster [11:11am]: tastes funny, do you think its gone bad???
Gilly Craster [11:12am]: actually might be good if it did, can better hide from mrs tarly while in hospital
When Sansa arrives at Horn Hill, the sun is turning the beech tree leaves translucent green, the sky is cloudless, and the air is buzzing with summertime. All of the ice in her iced latte is melted, and her once-crisp poplin shirtdress is sticking damply to her back. She has been driving for five hours, and she desperately needs to pee, and her mobile is buzzing frenetically on the passenger seat with texts from Gilly—texts that started out sparse and reserved, as they usually are from Gilly, and have increased to a fever pitch as the morning has worn on.
Gilly Craster [11:15am]: i told mrs tarly her curtains were nice and she said THEYRE DRAPES and everyone looked at me funny
Gilly Craster [11:15am]: are u not supposed to tell people their curtains are nice??
Gilly Craster [11:16am]: sANSA HELP
Horn Hill looms at the end of a long allée of hazel trees, a pale Georgian mansion that has been in the Tarly family for generations and generations, crowned with spectacular rose gardens and an elaborate hedge maze with a stone fountain at its centre. When Sansa reaches the front drive, a valet dressed in tails is waiting to park her tidy mint-green Mini among the glossy sleek sports cars of the other guests.
"Oh, totally not necessary," Sansa promises hastily as she rolls down her window, flashing her kindest smile at the sweating valet. "I'm only here for the day. By the time you find a spot for me, I'll be on my way home again!"
Even from here she can hear the strains of violin as the string quartet prepares for the afternoon garden party, which is being held to kick off a week of wedding festivities leading up to the wedding next Saturday evening. Baffled and awkward, the valet fumbles before directing Sansa to a corner of the park, out of the way of the other cars. If it's this packed now, hours before the party is meant to start, Sansa can't imagine what the actual wedding will be like next weekend. Poor Gilly.
Maybe she should have agreed to stay the whole week, like Gilly wanted. Sansa suppresses a twinge of guilt as she slings her leather and canvas weekend bag over her shoulder, and shifts her garment bag holding her frock for the party. She shades her eyes, staring up at the mansion. Horn Hill has been featured in Vogue, Town & Country, and Harper's, not to mention multiple other posh magazines, and it looks like it would be. Other people, like distant royals, have paid to have their weddings here. Even Sansa, who grew up adjacent to this kind of wealth, is intimidated by it, so she can only imagine how out of place Gilly feels. Gilly, who still has the 'wrong' sort of accent (according to people like Melessa, who is actually technically Lady Tarly); Gilly, who until very recently worked three jobs just to survive.
Maybe she should change her mind. Gilly needs her; what kind of friend leaves their friend alone like this?
The thing is, she really, really needs to avoid the best man—and as big as this house is, she won't be able to do that if she stays the whole week.
And besides, even if she feels selfish for this, ruining Gilly's already stressful wedding with obvious tension and hostility would definitely be worse. Right? Right. Besides, Gilly's got her maid of honor, Morag, who fits in even less than Gilly does and doesn't mind it at all. Gilly definitely doesn't need Sansa that badly. It's fine.
I'm here, she taps out on her mobile, but at the exact same moment, Gilly bursts forth from the front door in a frothy, high-necked Zimmermann dress that is so entirely not Gilly that the effect is almost comical.
"They have so many tiny forks!" Gilly's voice is haunted and dark as she envelops Sansa in the tightest hug she's ever given. "Why do they need all those forks? What are they for? Also, I think Morag stole some candlesticks."
"Candlesticks?" Sansa blurts into Gilly's professionally-curled hair, which is stiff with hairspray and smells like expensive shampoo. "Is this Les Mis, or—"
"Sansa!" Talla Tarly, Gilly's soon-to-be sister-in-law, comes out the front door in a couture lavender frock, still wearing her boat shoes, with her brown hair half-done. Gilly groans into Sansa's shoulder before releasing her and pasting on the faint, frozen smile of someone who has been horrified into a state of catatonia.
"Talla! I love your dress," Sansa says too brightly, trying to make up for Gilly's silent horror. She does not know Talla well, but she does know she is exhausting. Every time she has met Talla has been on double-dates with Talla and her dull fiance, Robert, where Dickon and Robert stay awkwardly quiet and Talla drinks too much white wine and asks Sansa increasingly embarrassing, personal questions.
"Oh my god, you're so chic as always; have you lost weight? You look a bit more svelte in the tummy than you did last we spoke, that time we all went to Hot Pie's; you're one of those girls who looks better without any extra weight, I'm just the same, isn't it absolutely awful?" Talla gushes, doing the cheekbone bump that only the wealthiest families do. "Mummy is insane, Gill can tell you all about it, and half the guests arrived early to play golf with Daddy, and I think poor Sam is somewhere on the course with them, probably being humiliated by Daddy, you know how it is."
There are few things Gilly hates more than being called Gill. Sansa slings an arm around Gilly's waist as she smiles indulgently at Talla. "Cannot believe we'll probably be doing this all again next year, when you and Dickon get married," Talla adds carelessly as she turns to lead them inside. "And don't play dumb; I bet Marg ten-to-one that he'll ask you sometime this week. Dicky's not terribly competitive, ha ha, but Daddy does like to work him and Sam up—"
"Is Dickon with Sam on the golf course?" Sansa cuts in as they step into the front hall, a whirl of cool marble and gold-leaf cornices and bouquets of peonies and roses in chinoiserie vases. She can hear Melessa's cool, sweet voice from the kitchens, and the string quartet's louder now. On the back lawn, which is as massive as several blocks in King's Landing, there will be a striped awning, dozens of white-clothed tables with costly but tasteful floral arrangements on each one; there will be waiters ready to carry trays bearing heirloom flutes of French 75's around to the guests as they dine and talk about stocks and their children at Cambridge.
"Oh, of course," Talla prattles, and then she turns back to Sansa and Gilly with a flush on her cheeks. "And you know, Jon Snow arrived this morning, and he's there too. Good god, the calves on that man. What a thirst-trap, as the kids say. He's the only man who could make golf shorts look sinful. He's that hockey player," Talla adds at Sansa's carefully blank look—though this was her aim all along. "You know him; plays for the Direwolves, voted Sexiest Man of the Year last year, and I think he won some sort of hockey award, I don't know."
It was the Arthur Dayne trophy, and winning it put Jon solidly on the top ten hockey players of all time list. Not that Sansa has been following his career, because that would be weird. She's a sponge for news, is all.
"Right," she says vaguely, clearing her throat. "I don't really follow sports, but he sounds familiar."
"It's only because you're dating my brother," Talla says carelessly, "you don't feel pressed to go window-shopping. But it doesn't matter, because he brought his horrible supermodel girlfriend along, the one named Val something, frosty blonde, long legs, ugh, and she's not like us normal girls, obviously."
Gilly stifles a snort and Sansa merely smiles at Talla. "Anyway, let's get you settled so you can change. I can tell your hair went a bit flat, so you'll want a shower, of course."
Sansa represses the urge to fluff her hair self-consciously as she and Gilly follow Talla up the enormous front staircase, to a wing that is exclusively guest rooms. The walls here are covered in smoke-blue silk, and between every carved door is a crystal wall sconce that glimmers and shivers with their steps. As they walk, Sansa can hear hair dryers and couples chatting and laughing. "If you were going to stay, of course, you'd sleep in Dixon's room with him. Mummy and Daddy aren't that old. But since you're not staying," Talla sniffs as she pauses at a random door, "you might want your own space to change."
"This is so wonderful! Thank you," Sansa says sweetly, making Talla look pleased. The door opens to a luxurious guest room that walks a fine line between glamorous and stuffy. A fluffy robe hangs on a silk hanger at the door, and the air is heady with freshly-cut roses.
"I'll help her," Gilly informs Talla, not quite making eye contact. "She'll need a lot of help with her, erm, flat hair."
"Don't say that!" Talla titters at Gilly. "Don't worry, Sansa, it's not that bad," she reassures her.
When Talla finally leaves, Gilly shuts the door and Sansa realizes her shoulders are shaking with silent laughter.
"Not like us normal girls," Gilly mutters. "She's like a twelve year old. Do you see what I've been putting up with?"
"In one week from now—"
"—eight days, actually—"
"—In eight days," Sansa acknowledges, "you will be sauntering around Pentos with Sam, wearing one of the fabulous outfits I picked out for you, sipping enough Aperol spritzes to forget this whole week, while he tells you everything he knows about feminist guitar makers, or his favorite podcast on frogs, or statue genitalia over the years, or something."
"Aperol spritzes," Gilly prays, closing her eyes and nodding. "Aperol spritzes and sunburn and flat shoes and absolutely no tiny forks. I wish you were my maid of honor. Morag's been useless. I think she's hiding in the bush maze, smoking."
Another twinge of guilt. Sansa clenches her teeth against the urge to change her mind, to promise Gilly she'll stay the whole time. She absolutely cannot do that; the fallout would be so much worse than this guilt, than this distance between them that both of them are just a little too polite and reserved to really bring to the surface. She knows Gilly is hurt that she isn't staying for the full week of wedding activities; and she knows Gilly, perceptive as ever, can tell she feels badly about it.
Sansa unzips her garment bag, her back to Gilly.
"Look, I'd be on my mobile the whole time, worrying about emails and clients," she points out, lifting her sleek navy dress out of the bag and hanging it on the back of the door. It is determinedly cool and aloof; she will not look like she tried too hard today. "I'd be way worse than Morag."
"You could never," Gilly says fiercely, but then she retreats, careful and considerate as always. "Anyway, um, I love the dress. And the shoes. And your hair's not flat at all. And I'm sure Dickon won't try to propose today," she adds, sensing Sansa's worries. "If he does, I'll accidentally spill my champagne on his head, or choke on a prawn, or something."
"Thanks. You know I'm not the marrying kind," Sansa says, glancing back at her friend as she takes the elegant heels out of their storage bag in her weekender. Gilly's lips twitch like she's said something funny.
"Well, not to Dickon anyway," she mutters, but before Sansa can correct her, Melessa's voice is coming down the hall.
"Gilly? Gilly, where are you, darling?"
"Wish me luck," Gilly says gloomily, before turning to leave.
"The men are almost back from golf, and we'll need to be ready," Melessa is saying as Gilly opens the door. Her impeccably-dyed and highlighted brown hair is soft around her jaw and neck, and she's zipped herself into a very tailored, very tasteful dusty-rose sheath that is likely custom. "Oh, hello Sansa, you look lovely as always," she adds absently. "Come, Gilly, oh, look what you've done to your hair, it's all a mess again..."
When they're gone, Sansa looks at her reflection. Her shirtdress is wrinkled across the lap from the ride, and her hair did go a bit flat and lank from the humidity, but instead of seeing that, she zeroes in on the ways she has changed in eleven years: her mother tells her that she looks more and more like a Tully every day, with her sharpening cheekbones and blue eyes, but she also sees the little signs of being overworked and overstressed through university, law school, and a prestigious but stressful job at Steel Street Chambers, where she works in criminal justice and human rights. She looks tired, more tired than she did at age nineteen, anyway. Her hair isn't waist-length like it was then, either. She was so proud of it, and she's embarrassed of that kind of vanity now. Now it hangs just above her bra line, freshly-cut and highlighted because she needed the confidence.
She won't see him. She'll make sure of it. She has no idea how he will react to seeing her, but she knows, at least somewhat, how she will react, and it would be enough to ruin this party. Sansa is just going to stay out of Jon Snow's line of sight as much as humanly possible, and hopefully if he does see her, he doesn't recognize her.
Because there's no good way to explain what they once were; especially not to Dickon, who is in love with her, or to Gilly, who loves her. There's no good way to explain any of it, even to herself.
So she showers and blows out her hair, and after wriggling into a bit of shapewear, she slips into the costly but simple navy dress. She spritzes on the perfume that Dickon gave her. It doesn't suit her, but it was a sweet gesture nonetheless, and he seems to like it, so. She applies a subtle lip and a bit of makeup, and regards her reflection once more.
"Let's do this," she mutters.
Over the last eleven years, Sansa has painstakingly developed a persona. She has become a woman who wins arguments, a woman who wears a lot of dark colours, a woman to whom you will listen. All of this is necessary to balance who she was as a child, and the mistakes she made at age nineteen. Arya was the smart one, and Sansa was the pretty one. Arya was a blade, and Sansa was background scenery. Everyone told Sansa not to worry for her future, knowing she would be pretty enough to land a husband who would take care of her soft girlishness.
Most of us build our masks layer by layer, until we have forgotten what we ever looked like beneath it, but Sansa's mask sprang into place so quickly that she can pinpoint the exact day that she first held it up to her face.
Still, some of who she really is—a girl in a tutu that she called her "fairy princess outfit"; a woman who never forgets a birthday and who always sends a thank-you card—slips out sometimes. Her girly Mini is wildly impractical but woe betide any man who makes fun of it. Her bookshelf in her flat has an entire shelf dedicated to swoony romances. She sneaks out to movie theatres alone and, in the dark, she eats popcorn and lets her deepest desires play on the screen.
But her successes never feel like they belong to her, and she can never relax. She can never let anyone see behind the mask, or it will all collapse, and everyone will know what she really is: a fool, a daydreamer, a boy-crazy girl who would throw everything away for a ring on her finger.
That can't happen. Dickon doesn't know that side of her, nor does Sam; if Gilly perceives it, she never comments on it. No one can know who Sansa really is, and thus the mask must be perfect.
The only other place that she lets herself slip out from her mask is her shoes, and she feels almost rebellious as she regards them in the mirror now. The shoes are delicate, glittering works of art that complement the simplicity of the sleek navy dress. Twelve year old Sansa, who wanted everything sparkly and covered in fairy dust, would approve.
The finishing touch, necessitated by the unusually brilliant sun, is a pair of highly glamorous, bitchy, don't-talk-to-me sunglasses. Jon will absolutely never recognize her with these on, as they basically cover half her face.
The plan is simple: go downstairs, mingle and stake out where the bridal party is meant to sit, and sit as far from that table as possible, wearing her sunglasses the whole time. Then, slip out as early as appropriate without hurting Gilly (or Sam).
There. Sansa is ready. She slips out of the guest room with her sunglasses in hand, ready to slap them on at the first sign of Jon Snow, and walks along the long hall feeling rather like a spy. The party will start soon, and as Sansa reaches the enormous central staircase, she looks out the grand window that spans the landing of the stairs, out at the hazy August afternoon—
Smack. Sansa smacks into Dickon's hard chest just as she hears a gasp and the glassy rattle of something fragile being caught just in time, somewhere below. Dickon's warm, large hands go to her bare arms.
"Whoa there," he says with a smile, steadying her. He is flushed from the warm day, still in his golf clothes—pastel pants that he is actually kind of working, and a polo shirt that stretches tight over his biceps—and his brown eyes, so like Sam's, are warm at the sight of her. Together they look to the foot of the stairs, where Sam has nearly tipped over a small mahogany table bearing a vase. He's in golf clothes, too—plaid pants that are probably historically accurate—and looks a bit wan, like he's been in tears recently.
"You're here, Sansa!" Sam exclaims, looking up at them. "You look so lovely, as always. Jon, this is the friend from work I've told you all about! She's the best barrister I've ever met. She's just brilliant, really," he continues in that rambling, loving way of his. "Come on, you've got to meet her."
And there he is, staring up at her from the foot of the stairs.
After years of following Jon's career, Sansa could not have forgotten his face, as it is everywhere. After all, the Internet is obsessed with him: a quick search on Tumblr reveals a shocking amount of erotic 'slash' fanfic concerning him and his teammates, as well as a whole lot of self-insert fanfic. Twitter's not much better, nor is Buzzfeed (25 Times Jon Snow's Mouth KILLED Us All; 41 Pictures That Prove Jon Snow's Ass is Here to Save the World). There was a particularly painful March, about nine years ago, where he was on the cover of GQ, and she had to walk past that face every single day on her way to work.
(The only way to cope was via pastry; it was consequently also an expensive March.)
She knows the pretty mouth, the dark curls, the dark eyes fringed with sooty lashes that are annoyingly pretty. She's seen thousands of gifs of him both on and off the ice, watched that slender form dart along the ice with the speed that landed him the Arthur Dayne trophy and won him enough playoffs to earn him as many haters as followers. She's watched his face in close-up gifs as he curses, as he gets into fights on the ice, as he sits in the penalty box looking furious, as he scores goals (in this year's playoffs, he notably was not even looking as he scored a goal; he was quite clearly fiddling with his mouth guard with his free hand. "At least look at me when you fuck me, Snow!" the humiliated goalie yelled, and thus a thousand memes were born).
And yet it's different, because a thousand gifs and Buzzfeed lists cannot account for the parts of Jon that, somehow, seem like they belong only to her: a wry mouth that twists when he's trying not to laugh, gentle hands, and lean shoulders that slump, slightly, under all of the worries he has.
He's here, still steadying the table that Sam almost knocked over, looking up the stairs at her... and she has never seen so much hostility in just a look.
He's wearing dark, sporty clothes and a baseball hat over his famous curls, all courtesy of his recent Nike partnership. The front of his shirt is sticking damply to his lean stomach with sweat, and his nose is a bit pink like it's been sunburnt, and there's a bit of tape across it. He must have gotten hit during practice recently. His stubble is growing in, and god, Talla wasn't kidding about the calves either. She knows those calves; she grew up watching Jon's strong, lean legs as he chased after her siblings, as he helped Robb move into his first flat.
"Apparently my girlfriend's a hockey fan," Dickon laughs a bit nervously, waving his hand in front of Sansa's eyes. Sansa sees Jon's Adam's apple move as he swallows and looks down. He caught the table that Sam knocked over with those lightning-fast reflexes, and he steadies the chinoiserie vase now.
"Oh! You're that Jon," Sansa exclaims belatedly, face flushing. "That's where I've seen you! This is so embarrassing. Sorry, I was trying to figure out why I knew your face."
Her heart's pounding and her hands are shaking. Will Jon blow her cover? Jon looks up at her again and somehow it's both better and worse, because his gaze is somehow both scalding and freezing, fire behind ice. No one has ever looked at her with such profound disdain.
"Oh, I should have mentioned that bit, I guess," Sam blusters, "but I don't like to go around telling everyone I've been friends with Jon Snow since university, because Jon's so private. Not that I don't trust you, of course. I trust you more than almost anyone, Sansa," he continues earnestly, wringing his plaid hat in his large, soft hands, "but the media's always trying to get at Jon, you know; it's really terrible. They went through his rubbish recently!"
"Wow. Well, that must be awkward," Sansa forces out. Jon's left brow quirks like he's enjoying a private joke at her expense, and he looks away disgustedly again. Even from here she can see the little white scar over his eye that he got in the playoffs a few years ago.
(Sandor Clegane of the Knights went after him after a power play and took Jon down with a punch that sprayed blood everywhere, but Jon still scored, and Sansa can remember watching the camera zoom in on his face shining with blood as he looked, archly, back at Clegane.)
"They only found some receipts from my girlfriend's latest shopping spree," Jon says casually with a shrug, and Sansa stifles a burst of hurt. Val with the legs, she tries not to think in Talla's voice.
"Ah, Sansa, you've arrived!"
Randyll Tarly enters the hall, sidling up to Sam and Jon, and beams up the stairs at Sansa. "Good to see you. Too bad you can't stay the whole week. You ought to have come with us today. Dickon played well, as usual. You would have been proud."
He shoots Sam a dark look. "As for Samwell, not so much. Bit of an embarrassment, really, but Samwell was never worth half a damn in anything athletic. He plays worse than his sister, and if you point out what he's doing wrong, he gets weepier than his sister! Should've been practicing a bit so he wouldn't embarrass himself like this."
It comes out fast. Maybe it's because she's been so shellshocked by the sight of Jon; maybe it's because she can see Sam's lips quivering like every nasty word his father utters hits him like a slap; maybe it's just the heat.
"He was probably too busy changing history," Sansa blurts out, and tries to polish it with a smile. Sam shoots her a grateful look, but Randyll only laughs.
"If that's what you want to call pushing around bits of paper and wearing a wig and a dress, then certainly," he scoffs. And then he turns to Jon and claps him hard on the arm. "It hardly matters anyway, because Jon here destroyed us all."
Jon's look at Randyll bears no friendliness.
"Perhaps you ought to have been practicing a bit," he suggests coolly. Jon has never been great at controlling his temper when his friends are threatened. Apparently profound fame and success did not change that about him. For some reason, this is annoying.
"Well," Randyll begins awkwardly, dropping his hand from Jon's arm at Jon's frosty tone, "we'd better all get ready for the party. Get yourselves cleaned up, boys."
Sam and Jon walk up the stairs, with Sam mouthing 'thank you' to Sansa as they pass. Sansa resolutely does not look at Jon as he passes, and tries not to notice how familiar the scent of his skin is as he brushes past her. Everything feels slippery and dangerous, like she's got a poor, clammy grip on something explosive.
After they turn the corner, it's just Sansa and Dickon alone on the landing. Dickon raises his brows at Sansa.
"So," he begins awkwardly in the quiet, "I didn't know you liked athletes."
"Are you jealous?" she teases, trying to distract him, and she squeezes his arm. "You look rather like an athlete yourself, you know."
Dickon relaxes, clearly deciding Jon bears no threat, and presses a soft kiss to her cheek.
"It was horrible," he confides in a low voice. "Dad was just awful to Sam, as usual. Thank god Jon was there, because he's always been good at stepping in and calling Dad on his crap. I never know what to do about it." Dickon shakes his head bitterly.
This is why Sansa has liked Dickon from the start. Dickon, a foot and a half taller than Sam with film star looks and an easy, likable manner, is the family golden boy. But he's never, ever seemed happy about how his parents treat him compared to Sam. He always seems bewildered and embarrassed and angry; he has never once taken joy in his older brother's pain.
"There's probably nothing you can do about it," she reassures Dickon, squeezing his hand. "Go get cleaned up, and hurry up and join us outside."
"Alright. You do look beautiful, by the way, but I'm assuming you already knew that," Dickon says, and he plants another quick peck on her cheek. "See you out there in a bit. Don't let my sister near the champagne."
"A futile effort," Sansa quips. Dickon laughs before releasing her hand and hastening up the rest of the stairs.
Outside, guests are already milling about in clouds of Chanel and Hermes. Gilly's hair looks even stiffer than before, and she is clutching a flute of champagne, stuck between two of Melessa's friends.
"Morag is missing in action again," she says through clenched teeth, after Sansa manages to wrangle her free and guide her away from the ladies, "and I have had to explain like fifty times why I didn't go to university. This is all of my nightmares at once, plus I'm wearing Spanx."
"Aperol spritzes," Sansa repeats soothingly, like a prayer, "and white sand, and flea markets where Sam befriends literally every stall owner and probably knocks over a stand of peaches, and romantic beach walks at night..."
"You're right," Gilly mutters, and she downs her champagne. "D'you have any idea how to pee in Spanx, by the way?"
"There's an opening, but I always just take mine off," Sansa coaches, trying not to look out for Jon like a perpetrator on the run. This is Gilly's day. Gilly's day, not hers, and within a few hours she will be on her way back to her lovely flat in King's Landing and she can knock herself out with cold medicine and sleep off the memory of how it felt to meet Jon's eyes. For now she owes it to Gilly and Sam to not make this day about her.
"You look weird," Gilly remarks, peering at Sansa. "I mean, you look great like always, but weird for you."
"You're not the only one in Spanx," is Sansa's easiest excuse, and Gilly buys it, rolling her eyes.
"Oh, right. That's why you look more...what was it? Svelte?" She shakes her head.
The afternoon passes. Sansa nurses her single French 75 with care, and throws herself into being the best possible party guest for Gilly and Sam's sake. She laughs, she charms, she mingles. When Jon and the other men finally join the party, she prides herself on not even missing a beat. She sees them come out onto the lawn in her periphery, but she bulldozes on in her conversation with Olenna Tyrell about antique jewelry with barely a glance in their direction.
(Unfortunately, she did look long enough to glimpse Jon's sleekly tailored trousers and rolled up shirtsleeves, but no mind. She's doing rather well, all in all. And when she hears whispers of Val, the leggy blonde who seems to be gracing all of the covers this summer, she doesn't even look!)
The sun moves over them, the violins and cello whine out a Coldplay song, and the end is in sight. She even manages Morag for a bit, steering her away from certain people and toward nicer ones, eventually settling her with Margaery and one of her numerous Tyrell cousins. She avoids Jon and his girlfriend without making it too obvious. She laughs with Randyll and compliments Melessa.
It's really not that bad, all things considered. The wedding will be a pinch, actually. She feels silly for all her drama about this earlier.
And then it happens.
"Ugh. Please," Renly is snarking, head inclined conspiratorially toward hers. "You cannot tell me you think that Zimmermann was a good choice for her. The poor thing is fucking drowning in all that eyelet. I love a Zimmermann as much as the next man, but she looks like a walking adaption of Little Women if it was, like, set at a music festival."
Sansa is just thinking this is unfortunately apt (and Gilly would be the first to agree) when there is a shriek and the horrible sound of glass shattering, and all heads swivel to find the commotion.
The champagne fountain has been knocked over, and shards of heirloom champagne coupes litter the lawn. Gilly is red-faced and soaked in champagne, staring in furious silence at Morag, who looks defensive and angry. "Oh, lord," Renly says softly. "Could've told you this would happen. That girl definitely has got some bone to pick with Gilly—"
Sansa doesn't hear the rest of it because she's pushing her way to her friend. Jon is rushing over to help, too, but she ignores him.
"What's all this?" Sansa asks brightly, shading her eyes. Morag crosses her arms as the whispering starts.
"Just go," Gilly forces out at Morag, her round face increasingly red with fury.
"You're taking this way too seriously," Morag snarks back. Both women ignore Sansa, and everyone else, for that matter. "It was an accident, alright?"
"You don't want me to be happy," Gilly realises quietly, pressing her fingertips to her eyelids. "I can't believe I didn't get it sooner. You have never wanted me to be happy."
Sansa's stomach writhes. She has to do something, but what can she do? The damage is already done. No use crying over spilled Perrier Jouet, as someone, somewhere (probably) says.
She accidentally meets Jon's eyes, and they each look away hastily. They used to have whole conversations with their eyes alone, but she can't think about that right now.
"Gilly, let's go inside and wash out some of that champagne," she says crisply, taking her friend by the elbow and frogmarching her back toward the house.
"Look," Morag says after them, following them like an angry goose into the cool shelter of the house. As soon as the door swings shut, the talking and gossiping grows into a roar outside. "It's like you wanted to make me feel like shit here," she continues, following them as Sansa steers Gilly into the nearest powder room. "Did you even think for a minute how I'd feel here, with these posh snobs?"
"I thought you would be honored," Gilly says quietly, as Sansa turns on the sink. Sansa can feel Gilly's hands trembling.
"Honored?" Morag scoffs. "God, you think you're so special now that—"
"—How about you give them a moment, and let's get a glass of water," comes a firm voice. Jon is standing behind Morag. Sansa avoids his eyes, tries not to let her hands shake as she reaches for the soap.
"We'll come get you," she promises Morag. "We've really got to get this champagne out of the dress before it stains."
"No." Gilly's voice makes them all pause. Sansa hears Gilly swallow. "Morag, just go."
The silence is ringing, and Gilly is blinking rapidly. Jon is biting his lip, the way he always does when he's trying to make a decision. Stop looking at him like you're in this together, she scolds herself. It is shockingly easy to fall into old habits after eleven years—even habits that never had the time to become old.
"Go. I wanted—I wanted a friend. This whole thing's been horrible," Gilly says thickly, staring at Morag, "and you've made it all about yourself. You're supposed to be here for me. I've been terrified and lonely, and my maid of honor is supposed to be my rock through all of this. I want you to go."
"Because it's all about you, isn't it," Morag shoots back.
"This week, yes, it is quite literally all about Gilly," Sansa cuts in, and Jon seems to read her intent in her eyes because he steers Morag away from the door.
"Time to go," he says brusquely. "Come on."
Sansa swings the powder room door shut and locks it. They hear a loud scoff of disgust and the clattering of heels as Morag stomps away on the marble, and then they are alone. There's a flash of sound as Jon goes back out onto the lawn, back into the party, but then the door swings shut again and all is blessedly silent.
Gilly lets out a shuddering breath and covers her face with her hands.
"Oh god. The one thing I wanted to avoid was a scene, and now I've ruined everything, and I have literally no one here on my side, and this week is going to be a nightmare—"
"—You've got me." Sansa grips Gilly's arms. "I'm right here."
She forces down the thought of how Jon looked at her earlier. It doesn't matter. None of that matters, she tells herself. "I'll stay."
Gilly lowers her hands. Her mascara's already running, and Sansa releases her wrists to root through her clutch for some tissues.
"Y-you will?" she asks faintly as Sansa finds her tissues. She offers a wet laugh. "You'll be my maid of honor?"
"If you'll have me," Sansa says with a smile, and she dabs the tissue under Gilly's eyes, but Gilly begins crying in earnest, and they're laughing again as Sansa tries to salvage her makeup. It's a good distraction when it feels like a thousand hummingbirds are trapped beneath her skin.
Pull yourself together, Stark, she says to herself in Arya's voice in her head, as she often does when she needs a bit of steel.
It takes all of her strength to force out the words she says next. "I'd be honored to be your maid of honor. I'll stay the whole week."
"You're the best of them all," Gilly whispers.
This is fine, Sansa tells herself.
Spoiler alert: it is definitely not fine.
Gilly is still in the powder room with a cold glass of water, having a quiet moment before she braves the crowd again, and Sansa decides that now is the time to confront Jon.
It doesn't have to be a big deal, she tells herself as she slips out of the powder room. Even if what happened between them was about three tons of dynamite, that blast went off eleven years ago.
The hall is cool, with golden panels of afternoon sunlight splashing across the marble. Through the veranda doors, she can see the party is still in full swing. Caterers and waiters have already cleaned up the remains of the champagne fountain, and Sansa can see Renly and Margaery valiantly trying to hold court; Renly is wildly gesticulating as he tells one of his infamously meandering, exaggerated stories. She makes a mental note to thank them both later.
She doesn't see Jon out there, but that's explained within a moment when she hears petulant stamping. Morag is coming back down the stairs with her luggage, her eyes red from crying, with Jon following her. He must have come back in to watch over Morag.
"Guess this played out just how you wanted," Morag snarks when she reaches the bottom of the steps, but Sansa can tell she's hurting and ashamed. She doesn't quite meet Sansa's eyes when she brushes past, and even if Sansa's disgusted with her, she also feels sorry for her. Not everyone can handle the pressures that the Tarly family—Randyll in particular—exert with grace.
"Not at all. I wanted Gilly to have a friend from her past here," Sansa corrects as she holds the front door open for Morag. "Do you have a ride back?"
"Yeah." Morag seems embarrassed as she tells the valet which car is hers, and Sansa feels another squish of disgust, but this time it's for the Tarlys. They've done nothing to make Gilly—or Morag, for that matter—feel less awkward about their disparity in wealth. In fact, this whole party has been over the top even for Randyll and Melessa, like they're trying to compensate for Gilly's lack of wealth, of family, of education. For a moment, Sansa resents them so powerfully that she's glad Dickon isn't here to see it in her face.
"I'm sorry you had to go through this," she says, and she considers trying to hug Morag, but thinks better of it. Sansa might not be from Tarly wealth but she's still privileged compared to most. A hug will look like condescension. Morag takes the keys from the valet, and looks between Jon and Sansa.
"Can you tell her I'm sorry?"
"Tell her yourself," Jon says acidly, and Sansa resists the urge to shoot him a look.
"I'll tell her, but it'll mean more coming from you, maybe after the honeymoon when she's had some time," Sansa hedges.
Together they watch Morag get into her beat-up car and drive off. Now it's just them, standing there on the magnificent front step of Horn Hill between two topiaries. Neither one moves or speaks for a moment.
But Sansa has become a woman who is a force with which to be reckoned, and she wants Jon to know that. And, as they say, start as you mean to go on, and she means to not bring her baggage—or Jon's—along on this week during which Gilly needs her strength. So she speaks. "Look, Gilly asked me to be her maid of honor in place of Morag, and I said I would, so we'll be seeing a lot of each other."
She risks a look at Jon, because she'll have to get good at just looking at him like it's nothing at some point, and he meets her eyes with that arch look that she once knew so well.
He is, after all this time, merely an arm's length from her. It is surreal, it is fake, it must be something she made up in that twilit time in the morning, when she's not quite awake yet and her alarm hasn't gone off, and she's still bundled under the covers without her mask on, letting herself get carried off in wild dreams.
"Sansa, I don't want this to be hard either," he says almost wearily. "Do you know me at all? I'm not going to make a scene. This is Sam's week; I wouldn't treat him that way. You know that."
"Well, I don't actually know you anymore," she points out, and Jon bites his lip as he averts his eyes. "And you're sort of known for making a scene, at least on the ice."
"You do know me. I'm the same person I've always been," Jon says, ignoring her jab. There's something almost accusatory in his tone—or is she just reading into it? Was it I'm the same person, or was it simply a statement?
She hates this.
She's just thinking that maybe she'll turn to Jon with a smile and offer her hand. Truce? she'll ask, and maybe it'll all be fine. Or maybe she'll say, congratulations on winning the playoffs again. Or maybe... But it doesn't happen, because Sam is opening the front door, his face flushed. Dickon is behind him.
"I knew you two would be fast friends," Sam is saying, his eyes bright like he might cry, and he envelops Jon in a crushing hug. "You're both what I like to call Helpers. Both of you are always first to throw yourselves on the grenade. Oh, I just love you both so much."
"Sam," Jon chokes out, patting Sam on the shoulder, "I can't breathe."
"Sorry, sorry." Sam releases Jon and straightens his bowtie and wipes his eyes. "Didn't I say, Dickon, that Jon and Sansa would get on?"
"Yeah, you did," Dickon says from the doorway, his voice cracking slightly. Sansa sees Jon glance at him.
"Let's get back to the party," Jon says suddenly. "Val's like me; she's only got so much small talk in her, and she gets a bit rude when she hits her limit." There's so much wry familiarity in his tone.
Jon guides Sam deftly back into Horn Hill, leaving Dickon and Sansa there. Dickon steps out and shuts the door and stands in the place where Jon was only seconds ago.
There is a part of her that suddenly feels powerfully alone—sort of like how Gilly must have been feeling. Like there's no one here on her side. There is no one here who really knows how she would feel, the way Jon knows Val gets sick of small talk. This epiphany is hollow.
"Well, looks like I'll be here all week," Sansa says bracingly at last, when the silence gets too uncomfortable to bear.
"Yep," Dickon agrees, rubbing the back of his neck like he does when he wishes he didn't have to say whatever he's about to say. She waits, but he doesn't continue.
"Are you happy about that?"
"I mean, I've asked you like six times to stay the week," he points out, still not looking at her, "so yeah. I guess I am happy."
For a moment, Sansa considers what it would be like to explain it all to Dickon: why she so firmly turned down the invitation from the beginning; why it was never up for discussion; why she has changed her mind now. After all, they're supposed to be friends as well as lovers, right? Isn't that the point of a relationship—to know each other? But the topic first came up when they were still just dating casually, meeting at wine bars and, on occasion, sleeping together, and it felt too enormous, too nebulous, to explain at the time. Somehow this secret has only gotten bigger, more vague, and more gaseous since then, even though theoretically she and Dickon are more of an item now.
And there's a part of her that feels ashamed for all of this, yet at the same time resents Dickon. What, just because they're an item now, does that mean he automatically has rights to all of the things she struggles with, all of the scar tissue that she doesn't let anyone else see?
Even in this moment she can tell she is being unfair to him, but that makes the loneliness even sharper. "It's just that," Dickon says suddenly, surprising her, "I feel sometimes like I don't even know you."
"Know me?" Her voice breaks. Dickon is never so perceptive. "What do you mean?"
"Forget it, I think I had too many of those champagne cocktails." Dickon shakes his head and runs a hand over his soft brown hair. "And too much sun."
She is shaken, but she takes the lifesaver he throws her.
"Probably," she says with a laugh, and he smiles but it doesn't reach his eyes as he takes her hand and pulls her back inside.
Gilly Craster [7:22am]: day 2 of hell
Gilly Craster [7:22am]: hell on a boat
Sansa is already awake, lying in Dickon's childhood bed, when Gilly texts her. Dickon, exhausted from riding to and from King's Landing with her last night after the party, is still sound asleep beside her.
Sansa [7:23am]: Ugh. Maybe it will rain?
Gilly Craster [7:23am]: nope already checked
Gilly Craster [7:23am]: no rain
Gilly Craster [7:24am]: therefore clearly no god
"What's funny?" Dickon asks sleepily, lifting his head and blinking at her.
Sansa waits a beat as Dickon drops his head onto the pillow again. "I keep thinking about Morag," she confesses. She has thought about this all night, waking up every other hour, staring at Dickon's fine clock, at the crown moulding on his ceiling, at all of the little things that Morag must have seen and felt unequal to.
"Ah, really?" Dickon's tone says, quite plainly, please let me go back to sleep, but he is too polite to just say it.
"Yeah," she presses on anyway, because this is the promise she made to herself last night while driving: that she would let her mask slip a bit for Dickon. "I feel terrible for her. She seemed so lonely."
"I guess." His voice is muffled by the pillow but she can still hear his doubt. "Maybe just forget it?" he suggests. "I don't know, Sansa, it's all just really uncomfortable to think about."
Sansa presses her lips together. Never mind. Try again later, she thinks.
Dickon goes back to sleep, so Sansa gets up and gets dressed for today's event: brunch on the Tarly's boat, which they have exclusively for brunching on the lake. Sansa slips into a patterned day dress and flats, and decides to set off to find Gilly before Talla or Melessa can force her into another set of Spanx.
Horn Hill is still quiet when Sansa closes the carved door to Dixon's bedroom behind her. Probably the other guests are nursing their champagne-and-sun hangovers. This side of the manor is where the family lives, and Gilly is—oddly—not staying here with Sam. It's something about 'building up the romance', according to Melessa (ew).
Sansa [8:14am]: Where's your room? Am bringing coffee and breakfast.
Gilly Craster [8:15am]: i love you
Gilly Craster [8:15am]: literally
Gilly Craster [8:16am]: maybe more than sam
Gilly Craster [8:16am]: its the one next to the painting of the fruits that look like boobs
In the kitchen, the Tarly's chef has fresh pots of gourmet coffee, piles of scones and croissants, trays of fresh fruit and pots of granola—and of course, because this is her luck, Jon is there, looking exceedingly uncomfortable.
"No, really, I'm not a child, and you've got enough to do, I can get my own—" he is stammering, caught in something that looks suspiciously like tug-of-war with the chef.
"—You destroyed the Knights for me; I cannot let Jon Snow get his own coffee like a pleb—" the chef snarls back, but both men freeze when Sansa enters. Jon is casual in jeans and a soft grey tee that has a hole in the sleeve, his hair still wet from a shower.
"Hi," she manages with a small wave, "sorry, don't mind me. Just getting some breakfast for the bride."
"Ah, let me get you a platter," the chef says, blushing and releasing the mug that he and Jon have been fighting over. He turns away, leaving Jon and Sansa to stand beside each other in awkward silence. He smells like toothpaste and soap, and Sansa notes he's already got a plate of orange slices, probably for Val.
"How is she?" Jon's voice is low and discrete, because of course he's worried about Gilly too.
"She'd probably be better if it suddenly rained today," Sansa admits after a moment's deliberation, and she catches Jon biting back a grin. "'Hell on a boat' were the words she used, I think," she adds in a lower voice, encouraged by his grin, and is rewarded when Jon snorts.
"Sam should've put his foot down about all this," Jon mutters. "This isn't fair to her."
"That's what I told him," Sansa whispers in surprise, and he glances at her.
"Yeah, I know."
They have edged too close to something, and its proximity makes them both go still and silent. Jon seems to feel embarrassed, because he clears his throat. They watch the chef produce an heirloom plate tipped in gold, and load it with delicate poached eggs and golden toast.
"Well," Sansa begins, "I thought perhaps we can work together today to handle...them all."
"I'll take Randyll," Jon says immediately, catching her meaning as he pours another cup of coffee—for Val. "You take Talla. Any time I try to talk to her, she starts rambling about my calves for some reason." He grimaces and Sansa laughs, and then he's laughing with her. She forgot how rewarding his laugh is: it's soft and reluctant, like he's trying to hold it back, and she feels like a victor every time he lets it out.
"Poached eggs in a basket, for the bride," the chef says now with a flourish as he hands Sansa the platter.
"Oh, it look beautiful, thank you," Sansa replies, taking the platter from him. She glances at Jon. "See you later," she adds with a smile. Jon's lips twitch, and he doesn't quite meet her eyes.
Well, it's not a total victory, but she'll take it. Sansa bites her lip as she leaves the kitchen and tries to stifle the sense of jubilation and powerful, overwhelming relief. Of course it's fine; they're both reasonable, polite people (so long as no hockey pucks are involved...) and they both put the people they love first. Of course this is fine. She shakes off the shivery emotions that ripple through her, and forces them all somewhere deep down.
Now, time to find a painting of fruits that look like boobs.
The Tarly yacht, mysteriously called Heartsbane, is docked at a nearby lake that touches part of the expansive Horn Hill lands, in a neat line of shining yachts. Uniformed waiters are already on board, and a long table stretches on the deck, laden with crystal and china and little vases of tea roses that glimmer and twinkle in the sun.
"Can you just always pick what I wear?" Gilly asks as they wait on the dock for everyone else to arrive. The breeze toys with the hem of her ivory silk mousseline dress (a simple relaxed silhouette that requires no contraptions beneath it) and plays in her un-styled brown hair. "I think this is how I'm supposed to feel this week. Like the prettiest version of myself."
Sansa is delighted with her work: Gilly seems more cheerful than she's seen her yet, and more confident, too—which surely will help to rebuff Talla's subtle bullying and Randyll's more overt rudeness.
She's just congratulating herself when a car door slams and they see that the Tarlys have arrived, and Sam gets out of the car, looking chastened and tearful. Gilly's face falls at the sight of him. "Oh, no," she sighs, shoulders dropping. "I guess there was another argument."
As they wait on the docks with the Tarlys, Sansa spots Jon and Val arriving in a sleek black car. Val gets out of the driver's side, and Jon out of the passenger side, his hair pulled back into a man bun (#freethemanbunjon trends on Twitter on the rare occasion that Jon makes a public, non-hockey-related appearance), looking casually stylish with his shirtsleeves rolled up. Did Val pick out his clothes? Val also looks effortlessly cool, in the kind of sleeveless top and trousers more often seen at that summer film festival where all of the most stylish stars are snapped in relaxed couture. Sansa suddenly feels uncomfortably twee and, honestly, kind of basic in her patterned dress and flats.
Oddly, when Sansa meets Val's eyes, the blonde offers her a wry, familiar grin, like they know each other. It's a sympathetic, ugh-can-you-believe-these-people type of grin—the type of grin that suggests they see things the same way, and that they could be good friends.
Too many emotions at once, especially given she really shouldn't be having any emotions at all about this. The idea of being friends with Jon's girlfriend should not be so complicated. So she smiles back, offers a polite wave, and then turns to Gilly and the others. Randyll and Melessa are busy with ordering the waiters about, so it's just the Tarly siblings and Gilly.
"Gilly! You look so... bohemian," Talla is giggling snidely, eyeing Gilly's uncoiffed hair. "I'm so jealous, I suppose I'm just too concerned with looking good to let myself relax like that. But at least you look comfortable, ha ha!"
"Doesn't she?" Sansa steps in. "And you look just like your mother today, Talla! The resemblance really is something." She lets it sink in as Gilly pretends to have a coughing fit.
Behind Talla, Dickon looks mortified, but Sansa ignores it. She can understand his reluctance to step in when Randyll is being a bully—Randyll is explosive, and it's hard to know how best to respond without making things worse—but is he really going to let his sister be this petty and mean? "Should we get onboard? It looks like they're ready for us."
Soon the yacht is flooded with guests. It's a smaller gathering than yesterday, and intended to be more relaxed and intimate, but somehow a small party always feels less intimate than a big one. Everyone is awkwardly porting around their mimosas and bellinis, never breaking off into small enough groups to make conversation quite comfortable or meaningful. Sansa spots Dickon across the yacht every now and then, but they never cross paths and they never make eye contact. Is he mad? Or is he just overwhelmed by his family's tension? She doesn't actually know him well enough to know one way or the other.
But she hardly has the time to worry about it, because she and Jon are working so hard to keep the mood light and the tension at bay, and every so often she finds herself meeting his eyes from across the yacht. It's a silent exchange, a sort of checking-in, that is so swift and so subtle it could be missed, but that carries volumes. At one point, when Renly arrives and immediately traps Randyll in a long, semi-aggressive interrogation about his yacht, she smiles at Jon briefly, and he smiles back, that half-smile that she once knew so well, and she has to sip her mimosa to hide it.
Eventually she and Jon end up at the edge of the deck together, a consequence of everyone attempting to politely shift conversations. For the moment, their quarries are still occupied ("You just don't look like a boat person, I'm sorry," Renly trolls Randyll, and Randyll snaps back, "I am a boat person! Look at this boat! It's mine, so I'm a boat person!") and Sam and Gilly are safely chatting with Olenna Tyrell ("Yes, but did you get it insured?" Olenna is asking, placing a bejeweled hand on Gilly's belly; Sansa does not want to know what's happening there.).
They can relax, at least for a moment. Jon leans back against the railing, facing the party, and Sansa faces the other way, out toward the glittering lake, elbows resting on the railing.
"It's going well thus far," Sansa observes cautiously.
"It's not bad," Jon agrees in a tactical, focused voice—his captain voice, she thinks, and then shoves the thought aside. He's studying the party, keen eyes watching for Randyll and Talla, and he checks his watch. "But we're only an hour in; we haven't even sat down to eat yet. We need a better strategy for the rest of the week. We can't babysit them every second."
"I was thinking that. Maybe we can come up with an excuse to take Sam and Gilly out somewhere this week? We could get them out of the house and away from...all this...for at least a few hours."
Jon nods thoughtfully.
"That could work. A break might be good," he says slowly, rubbing his stubble thoughtfully. "At some point, though, you have to wonder if a blowup has to happen."
"It should be on Sam's terms, though. He likes to think things through," Sansa reasons.
"I guess you've seen him in action," Jon admits. "He must be good in court."
"He's excellent, when he feels prepared," Sansa says immediately. "He is my favorite person to work with."
"He said that about you, too. He said you're like steel."
"He is, too," Sansa replies, but she can feel herself blushing. It's true that she and Sam work well together. They both go overboard with color-coding their notes, always showing up to court with about twelve more binders than they technically need. She tries not to linger on the fact that Sam has clearly talked to Jon about her over the years, and that Jon has clearly never said anything. How long has Sam been talking about her, and how does it make Jon feel when he does?
(Somehow, the very worst thought is that Jon feels nothing, that she has now become nothing more than a person from his past. But shouldn't it be that way? Why does she want him to feel something about it? Shouldn't she want him to have moved on just like she has?)
(...Can she actually, strictly speaking, call it 'moved on' when she's feeling like this?)
There's a pause, and Sansa wonders if he is trying to drum up an excuse to move on to the next person, when he suddenly speaks again.
"I wanted to say thanks."
His voice is low and quick, like he's embarrassed. In her peripheral vision she sees him look down at his drink and chew his lip, so she forces her gaze ahead, out at the luminous trees drowsily stirring in the wind on the other side of the lake. "Or sorry, I guess, is more accurate."
Her gaze settles on a single tree like a beacon. The thought of Jon apologising brings her unaccountable pain, pain she thought she could not feel anymore. She has a mask, doesn't she? So why won't it stay on? Is he really doing this now?
"I was out of line with Morag," he says quickly, and whatever she was holding up in the air plummets down; her feet tingle like she's going numb. "When we were seeing her out yesterday, I mean. I lost my temper and I shouldn't have. It wasn't fair of me and it's a good thing you were there to be kind to her."
"I was mad at her too," Sansa hedges, but there's a lump in her throat.
"You've always been better at keeping it together when you're mad," Jon observes, and the lump grows and her eyes turn wet. Her sunglasses are in their case in her car so she can't hide behind them, and she blinks rapidly to stop the emotion welling up. She isn't even sure what to call this emotion. It feels curiously like grief, but that hardly makes sense. "I just kept thinking about it last night—"
"—Me too," she confesses, relief flooding her. "I feel horrible for her. I almost feel like she was forced into it."
"It's such bullshit," Jon says fiercely. "All of this. It's like they're doing it on purpose."
"I thought that too."
Their eyes meet and she knows he can tell that her eyes are wet, but she can't look away. His grey eyes have always been so soft. She remembers trying to capture that particular shade of grey, and its unusual depth, in one of her art classes, and she remembers being unable to. His eyes are like the lake: the light reveals the depth, and what might seem plain or murky suddenly looks bright and warm and safe.
And he's looking at her so intently that she feels both dismantled and revealed, like she's a ruin and he's dug her up after a thousand years, thumbs brushing away the silt to reveal the patterns and secrets beneath. And for all the relief that secret romantic movies and glittering shoes bring her, they are not air and sunlight, and for the first time this lie she has so carefully crafted feels like a death mask. To become someone else is to kill who you are, but to be loved for the lies you tell will never feel like life. There is no substitute for being liked just as you are, for being understood just as you are, and Jon has always been able to cut to the bone with a look alone.
But then he's clearing his throat and stepping away from the railing, and Sansa feels like she's been doused with icy water, and she straightens and looks away too.
What the hell is she doing? "I should go check on Gilly," she says, grappling for her mask. "Here we are, dozing on the job."
She runs before Jon can reply, and catches Dickon watching as she makes her way back to Gilly, who is zoning out between Melessa, Talla, and another Tarly cousin who are clearly locked in some spirited discussion. But she can't worry about Dickon right now, so she inserts herself into the shockingly banal debate of whether Chanel espadrilles are 'over' or not. Gilly is peering at her with alarm.
"They were over before they began." A husky, throaty voice draws Sansa from her internal panic, and it takes her a moment to realise it's not a response to the memories playing out, in rapid fire, in her mind.
Right. Chanel espadrilles.
Val has sidled up to them, though Talla, Melessa, and the other woman are still locked in debate and don't notice. She has donned large, round sunglasses that would look like costumewear on Sansa, but on her look utterly cool and natural. "Cool dress, by the way," she adds, giving Sansa a once-over. "I have it in blue."
"Cool car," Sansa says when she's recovered. "I'm guessing you picked it out."
"Well, yeah. It's mine," Val says, looking amused. "I'm obsessed with cars."
"Oh, I just meant, since you and Jon are a thing—" she stammers, and Val laughs.
"We're not that domestic," she says dryly, like there's a joke Sansa hasn't caught. "And there's absolutely no way I'd let that rage-kitten drive one of my cars, anyway. He's got awful road rage."
She likes Val—she can't help it—and it's just another bit of chaos buzzing in her head. She is surprised she likes Val, but why should she be? Jon is a good man, and he has always been a good man. Of course Val is cool, and nice, and funny; Jon would not be with her if she weren't. Of course their relationship seems relaxed and happy, yet deep, too, in all of the ways she is starting to see that her thing with Dickon is not.
"I have heard he's got a temper," Sansa says. Val smiles mysteriously.
"Hockey fan, are you?" She seems still more amused, and Sansa wonders if she is used to running into Jon's fans.
"Oh, Val!" Talla suddenly gushes, before Sansa can reply. "Ugh, I love your sunglasses. Margaery and I were literally just saying last night that we can't remember if we're following you on Instagram!"
"You aren't, because I don't do social media." Val offers nothing more, and only takes a long, almost taunting sip of her mimosa.
"Ah, that explains it," Talla says awkwardly, after a beat. "Jon doesn't, either, does he?"
"No, he doesn't. He finds it vapid," Val replies dismissively, and Sansa remembers Jon mentioning Val's low tolerance for small talk. She studies her nails. "Well, I'm done here."
Without an explanation, she saunters off as Gilly snorts into her mimosa, and Sansa watches her rejoin Jon. Across the yacht, Jon meets her eyes, but this time there's no secret smile. His brows are knit together as he studies her, and she keenly senses how she has probably revealed far too much of herself. Stupid girl, she thinks, and she turns away from Jon before it can get any worse.
When at last it's time to sit down to brunch, Sansa waits for Dickon to sit beside her and Gilly, but he ignores her and sits at the other end of the table with Renly and Margaery, and Sansa sits down, humiliated, beside the empty chair. Out of the corner of her eye she sees Jon and Val muttering to each other, and then he's taking the empty seat beside her, with Val sitting across from her.
"Nice guy," Jon mutters as he slides in beside her and pulls his chair in, and their elbows brush. Sansa wants to retort that Dickon is a nice guy, but there's no opportunity for a retort, and besides, the words would be thin and meaningless.
Dickon is clearly mad at her, and she can think of a few reasons that he might be mad—some more valid than others. But when she steals a glance at him, he's nodding politely at something Margaery is saying, or laughing easily at one of Renly's quips, just the same way he listened and laughed politely with her in posh restaurants and wine bars—just the same way she listened and laughed politely with him.
"Are you alright?" Gilly asks in her ear, and Sansa is reminded of her real goal. This isn't a time for selfish introspection or an existential crisis. It's a time to support Gilly and Sam. So she looks away from Dickon, ignores Jon, and throws herself back into being Gilly's maid of honor.
It's just that something that was polished porcelain has cracked, hairline fissures dispersing like veins, and she isn't quite sure of how she'll put it back together again.
That evening, as they all part ways for their respective rooms, Dickon leads Sansa to his room, and Sansa feels eyes on her back as they climb the stairs together. At the landing she looks back over her shoulder, and has a wave of deja vu to yesterday, when she first spotted Jon from the landing. He's standing there now with Val, looking up at her, but when she meets his eyes he looks away.
When they enter Dickon's room, Dickon is quiet at first. Sansa stands by the foot of his bed—one of the maids has remade it, and the duvet is crisply folded, the pillows fluffed—as Dickon goes to the en suite bathroom, pulling off his shirt as he goes.
She is at a loss, for they have never had an argument. Who should begin? How should it go? What are the rules? Sansa wonders how Jon and Val fight, but pushes the thought away. She cannot keep thinking about Jon and his girlfriend like this—especially not now.
"You're mad," she begins cautiously, going to stand in the doorway of the en suite bathroom. It's all golden light and warm marble, and Dickon, shirtless, is turning on the shower.
"Just leave it, Sansa," he says wearily, holding his hand under the water.
"No, I can't just leave it," she says in shock. "You completely humiliated me in front of your family."
"I humiliated you?" Dickon shakes his head and looks back at her. For a moment she considers doing as he says and leaving it. They can pretend nothing is wrong; they can continue on as they are, impersonal and shallow and unfamiliar. But the thought is intolerable. She cannot go back to how things were before.
"You didn't sit with me, and it was really obvious to everyone else." She folds her arms. "Are you mad because I was talking to Jon?"
Dickon turns back to the shower, adjusting the temperature.
"Jon? The hockey player? No," he scoffs. "This has nothing to do with him."
That throws her.
"Then what is it? Is it about your sister?"
"Do you have to fight back every time?" His voice is low, seething. He is furious. "Why couldn't you just let Talla be Talla?"
Rage blooms. She realises she is furious, too. Unaccountably furious.
"Because she's been viciously mean to Gilly, just like your whole family—"
"—Because Talla's a bitch, Sansa!"
Dickon finally turns back to her. There's a rare flush on his cheeks, and his eyes are bright with fury. He is breathless, and she watches him let out a long, ragged breath before letting out a caustic laugh. "That's just who she is! You don't have to get involved every single time she acts like a bitch, because that's just who she is!"
"Maybe she's only a bitch because she's allowed to be one," Sansa parries.
"I thought we were on the same page," Dickon marvels, looking away. "I hate scenes, I fucking can't stand them, okay? It was always some scene or another between Dad and Sam, my whole fucking life, or a scene with Talla and someone else, and I'm just—I'm fucking sick of it, okay?"
"Maybe it only keeps happening because you keep putting up with it!" Sansa shoots back. "People can change, they can change for the better, but they don't if you just keep letting them be horrible."
"You think my family's horrible," Dickon observes flatly.
The silence is ringing.
"They're cruel, Dickon," she manages at last. "And you just let them be cruel. I get that your dad is a lot to take on, but don't you love Sam? Don't you want to help him make things work with Gilly and your family?"
"Sam has never, even once, stood up for himself. I'm not fighting his battles with Dad. I've got enough of my own."
"Battles? You are your father's golden boy," Sansa scoffs. Dickon swallows. "He can't stop singing your praises. Since when do you fight any battles?"
"I have to be the golden boy, don't you get it? You can't fight my dad, so you have to deflect. It's Sam's own fault for not getting that. Why do you think I live in King's Landing, Sansa? Because I like the smog and lack of parking?"
Tears are pricking her eyes because she feels trapped. There is a part of her that cannot help but feel for Dickon, just as she could not help but feel for Morag. She hates this part of her, this soft, vulnerable part that is as fallible as flesh and blood. Dickon turns off the shower and presses his fingertips to his eyelids.
"So you think it's Sam's fault? You think Sam deserves this?"
Dickon drops his hands.
"Look, you know I don't like it," he yells, stepping toward her. She has never seen him so angry. "But it's none of my fucking business, at the end of the day, and it's none of yours, either!"
The blood rushes to her head as they stare each other down.
What transpires is confused, jumbled, ugly: they reach for each other and he smacks the lights off before they walk, clumsily, to his bed.
They undress with spiteful, hasty movements. This is the most connected to Dickon she has ever felt; this is the most personal that his naked skin has felt against hers. He's cursing as he tries, furiously, to undo her bra, their foreheads pressed together. It is the only time she has ever felt any strong need for him; their coupling has always been as polite and shallow as their dates have been.
But as he gets her bra off, her stomach turns. None of this is in the romance novels that are stacked on her bedside table. None of this is in the swooning movies she goes to see by herself. And once upon a time, she learned what it felt like to be undressed by someone who loves you. Her own words come back up her throat like bile: they're cruel and you let them be cruel.
"Get off me," she whispers. Dickon immediately draws back, and turns away and sits on the edge of the bed, rubbing at the back of his neck. Her eyes are burning as she reaches for her bra. "I'm going to go sleep in one of the guest rooms."
"Whatever." Dickon has his hands over his face as she dresses, clumsily, and snatches her pajamas and toothbrush.
She walks along the halls of Horn Hill, nauseated and angry and hollow, clutching her pajamas to her chest. She knows that there is a guest room that is empty, and she is beelining for that room when she passes a window and happens to glance out and spot a figure sitting out there in the darkness.
She stops. Jon is sitting on the veranda, reading a worn paperback by holding his mobile phone's light over it. He's hunched forward, a worn tee stretching across his lean, muscled back. He is alone.
That seems odd. Why wouldn't he just read in the bedroom with Val? Maybe they had a fight, too. Maybe they just like their own space. After all, Val did say they weren't 'that domestic,' whatever that meant.
He doesn't look unhappy, merely preoccupied with his book. He always did like to read; it was in fact one of the very first things that they realised they had in common. But she can't think about that now, because it hurts, and right now everything seems to hurt. She continues on, but pauses when she hears a familiar throaty, sultry voice coming from one of the rooms.
So that's why Jon is outside; Val must be on her mobile with someone. She's chatting, teasing; but Sansa can't quite make out what she's saying. A ridiculous thought, that Val might be cheating on Jon, pops into her mind, but she dismisses it. She has to stop looking for fissures in their relationship, and start focusing on her own.
She passes a gilt mirror hanging between two doors and sees, even in the blue night, her face blotchy with tears, her hair mussed, her dress not buttoned properly. She looks away and continues on.
For all of her promises of making this week about Gilly, her own crises seem to keep creeping in. Her mask is falling apart in earnest now. How is she going to make it to Saturday?
She doesn't see much of Jon or Dickon over the next two days, because it's the final fitting for Gilly's various dresses, and an emergency fitting must be done for Sansa to get into Morag's maid of honor dress, a heinous beige thing that would flatter no one.
She sleeps in the guest room again, finding times to slip into Dickon's room to get her things when she knows he is out of the house. She doesn't want to see him; she knows what must be done but she doesn't know how to do it without drawing attention to it. So she ignores the problem, and Dickon ignores it too. And she throws herself back into being maid of honor, the most important part of which, right now, is planning how to give Gilly and Sam a break from the tension, which has only gotten worse.
When the idea comes to her, she is so excited that she momentarily forgets her own troubles, and impulsively asks Sam for Jon's mobile number. In the guest room, hunched over her laptop, she takes a deep breath and goes for it.
Sansa [4:13pm]: Hi Jon, this is Sansa.
Sansa [4:14pm]: I had an idea for where we could take Sam and Gilly for tomorrow. You could bring Val and we could make a day of it. I even got the chef to agree to make us a picnic basket :)
Jon does not reply right away, and she has to sit on her hands to stop herself from texting again, qualifying her previous texts. Maybe this is too much. Maybe she has gone too far. She thought he was willing to put aside their own history for this week, but perhaps it doesn't extend to text messages? She almost doesn't save his contact information on her mobile, out of respect for whatever wish for distance he might have.
But then he does reply.
Jon Snow [4:22pm]: of course you did.
Jon Snow [4:23pm]: where?
Is the first message disdainful? Exasperated? Or, maybe, fond?
She replies at once, her heart in her throat, and this time, he replies right away.
Jon Snow [4:25pm]: val says it sounds boring so she's out.
Jon Snow [4:26pm]: but i'm in. i'll figure out what to do about the Tarlys. wish i had thought of it.
Jon Snow [4:26pm]: what time?
"I'm sorry, but I can't help but be suspicious of any destination that requires galoshes," Gilly is saying as Sansa leads her to her Mini the next morning. She has told Gilly to wear shoes that can get muddy, the only clue as to where they are going. For her part, she only had her running clothes with her, and she is self-conscious in her old trainers and leggings, but it doesn't matter, because she is so excited and exhilarated that this plan is actually coming together. Finally, something is going right this week.
Jon and Sam are already there; Jon has already packed the picnic basket from the chef in the boot of the Mini, and Sansa tries not to grin at him. She also tries not to think about all of the thirst threads on Tumblr and Reddit that are dedicated to pictures of Jon Snow in jeans, and how they'd react to the sight of him now, and luckily Gilly draws her from her musings. "And honestly, I don't think I've ever seen you in non-fancy shoes. Who are you, and what have you done with Sansa Stark?"
"It'll be worth it, I promise," Sansa teases as they reach the boys. Sam is looking anxiously back at the house.
"They know we're leaving? And Dad wasn't mad?" Sam worries breathlessly as he and Gilly climb into the back seat of the Mini. Jon sits in the passenger side as Sansa slips into the driver's side, per Val's strongly-worded advice from last night. Protect that baby, she had said softly, tracing the shape of the Mini through the window of her bedroom. Protect it from that dumbass.
"We have Val to thank for that, actually," Sansa explains as they start down the long drive out of Horn Hill. Beside her, Jon snickers, but doesn't say anything. "She told Randyll she wants to learn how to golf, and apparently that meant that Melessa and Talla had to go golfing, too."
Gilly snorts as Sam gasps, clutching a hand to his heart.
"She did that? For us?" His voice sounds dangerously wobbly, like it does when he's about to cry.
"I think I'm in love," Gilly mutters. "Sorry, Sansa. I've always considered you the perfect woman, but..."
"You have?" Sam asks curiously. "You mean like in a romantic sort of way?"
"Well, if I had to become a lesbian," Gilly reasons, "Sansa would obviously be my first pick, but now I'm torn."
"That makes sense," Sam agrees seriously. "If I had to become gay, I would fall for Jon."
"Well, at least that's sorted," Jon snarks, and Gilly and Sam are laughing freely, like they haven't in days, and Sansa feels like there is an ever-swelling balloon in her. She rolls her window down and feels the wind through her hair and tries not to think of that moment with Dickon two nights ago, which keeps returning to her at odd moments to haunt her, making her shudder.
"In all seriousness," she begins quietly, when Sam and Gilly are occupied ("I was reading this book about submarines last night," Sam begins excitedly, and Gilly says, lovingly, "ooh, sounds gripping, tell me everything," and Sam begins telling her everything) "it is really cool of Val to do that."
"It's not charity, believe me. She's probably going to have more fun than anyone today," Jon dismisses in a low voice, as Gilly laughs, giddily, at something Sam says. "Val eats people like Randyll for breakfast. There will be tears before noon, and they won't be from her. Besides, she's probably a better golfer than any of them. She's going to destroy them and laugh about it."
She glances at him, and he's smirking to himself. It's a private, fond look. She focuses ahead on the road, which winds through grassy knolls and beneath wild sycamores. She hears Jon clear his throat. "Um, is Dickon going with them?"
"I—I don't know, actually. He, um, didn't say," Sansa admits.
The implicit meaning hangs in the air between them.
She hears Jon shift in the passenger seat, hears him clear his throat again. When she glances at him again, he's looking out the window but his face and neck are flushed, like he's just sprinted. "You should choose some music!" she says wildly, her voice breaking.
"Everyone makes fun of my taste in music," Jon complains, but he's fiddling with her aux cable anyway.
"It's okay, you're in a safe space here," she teases him, and when she glances at him again, he's looking at her.
"I know," he says, and then he presses play.
He picks a classic rock album that makes her think of sunshine and red buses, and they drive past sprawling farms, their pastures dotted with cows ("Look! They're so cute!" Sansa cannot help but gasp as she steals a look, and Jon leans over to point out how the far-off ones look like toys; he smells like clean cotton and soap and his arm brushes her chin and they pull back quickly). They drive past the old church where Sam and Gilly's actual wedding will be, and they fall quiet for a bit until they're well past it, and then the joy returns once it drops beneath the hill behind them. The road becomes bumpier, lined with a crumbling, ancient wall that is covered in vines, and then it narrows, twisting and turning into the hills again, and large beeches surround them, casting the Mini in cool shadow.
"Hang on," Sam realises suddenly as they round a tight bend, "this is the way to Summerhall, isn't it?"
Sansa cannot stop herself from beaming, and she and Jon look at each other quickly. Jon is trying, valiantly, not to smile. He rolls his eyes and shakes his head.
"It is," Sansa says coyly, and senseless joy bursts in her chest as they round the final bend, and the ruined, crumbling castle rises up before them, wildflowers dotting the grass around it, wild roses twining over one window like Sleeping Beauty's castle. "We've got all day, and a picnic packed in the boot, and you can show Gilly the whole castle."
Sansa parks in the shade. Behind her, Sam bursts into sloppy tears, and Gilly pats Sam on the shoulder.
"There there," she says gently, "I had a feeling there would be happy tears, somehow. Good thing I brought tissues."
"Okay, you're back in my good graces, Sansa. Val is nothing to me; you're everything," Gilly declares as they open the picnic basket.
The four of them are kneeling in the grass, in what Sam has identified as the spot where Summerhall's great hall must have been. They have spread out the yellow plaid blanket that Sansa keeps in the boot of her car, in a spot that is shaded from the August sun but has a view looking out from the ruins.
And the view is spectacular, even better than she could have dreamed of: Summerhall is on a high hill, looking down at rolling knolls of tall grass and wildflowers, and, lower down, little winding creeks running through clutches of oaks that are just big enough to get lost in. Sansa is glowing, because this is precisely what she was hoping for: a romantic, private hideaway for Sam and Gilly that is rich with history and steeped in pastoral loveliness.
And the picnic is perfect—the chef did not disappoint, and Sansa wonders if he went a little overboard as an acknowledgment of how awful the Tarlys have been. There is a bottle of dry rosé and two stemless wine glasses; pristine, tiny tea sandwiches that are fragrant with dill; foil-wrapped cheeses and little bowls of fruit; packages of crackers; and little pot-de-cremes in tiny white ramekins with matching spoons.
"I think you're actually in love with the chef, not me," Sansa points out as Jon carefully lifts a little rosebud vase out of the basket, looking amused. "I didn't actually make any of this."
The chef has also packed sandwiches for Jon and Sansa, as well as glass bottles of sparkling water (she specifically requested food that is casual as possible, and the sparkling water is rather pushing the limits of casual), and Sansa grabs these from the picnic basket. "Well, we're off."
"Oh, no! You don't have to go," Sam begins as Sansa and Jon get to their feet. "I love you both; we can all spend time together. Actually, that sounds like a really lovely way to spend the day, as a matter of fact. You really don't need to go."
"Yes, they do," Gilly says flatly, opening the bottle of wine with a strong grip. "I've barely gotten to see you at all this week and I am missing my fiancé quite a lot. Sorry," she says to Jon and Sansa, "I love you both, but you need to go."
"I do love it when you're bossy," Sam says dreamily. Jon and Sansa are already ducking out of the ruined castle, waving at the lovebirds and laughing as Sam pulls Gilly closer for a passionate kiss.
"Let's get as far as we can," Jon says grimly, glancing at Sansa as they walk. "I've been camping with those two and the ...sounds... travel pretty far."
Sansa can't help but let out a giddy, tipsy laugh (though she has had none of that rosé) as they pick their way down the hill. Everything smells sweet like grass and roses, and there is something so nostalgic about the beauty of this place. She would have loved to spend a day here, once upon a time, roaming the ruins and imagining herself as the subject of all the romantic fairytales she used to lose herself in.
Jon is a few paces ahead, scanning the tall grass for any holes or hidden obstacles. Maybe she should be dreading all of the alone time they are about to have, but as much as she tries to, she just can't. She always used to delight in the rare moments she got Jon all to herself; even before they had admitted their feelings, she would take selfish, savage pleasure in those little stolen moments: an unexpected car ride, just the two of them, or a sunlit afternoon on the porch when Jon would 'accidentally' arrive early to meet Robb.
He was always different with her than with the others: softer, gentler, and perhaps a little more himself, or at least, she liked to think so. In the earliest days he'd ask her about her poetry or what books she was reading, and she would be flustered and flattered that this boy, so utterly boyish and athletic and inaccessible (and so moody and ill-tempered), would ever take an interest in such things. At first, it always went the same: he'd ask, she'd answer, and it would all be fine until somehow things would turn prickly and argumentative. They had only been young teens when it had all first begun, and they hadn't known what name to give the rushing, swooping, blooming feelings that these private moments stirred up.
And she'd grow teary, of course, and say something snotty; Robb would always have to take Jon aside and tell him to stop riling Sansa up; Jon would always dismiss Robb and tell him his sister could take care of herself.
(And then, so soon after those days, Sansa learned why she couldn't stop thinking of the freckles dotting the inside of Jon's wrist, and why she liked to go to his hockey practices, even if she couldn't follow the game, just to watch him fly along the ice so effortlessly, like he wasn't even thinking of his skates or the ice. She learned, very quickly, why they would turn so cruel toward each other so quickly, and why she so often caught Jon's gaze lingering, so privately and so intently, on her neck, her lips, her hairline, her shoulders.)
(No one has looked at her like that since, not even Dickon.)
Sansa comes back to the present, in which Jon is a man and not a teen, walking ahead of her with strong, certain strides. Those days of mystery and heartache are over, relegated to all the things that you can only feel when you're a teenager, and her heart seems to break all over again for all of the things she should have valued more, all of the things she should have taken better care of, and all of the things she should have fought for harder.
They descend the last hill, into a little wood filled with ancient, gnarled oaks that are so wild and twisted that some of the highest boughs dip nearly to the ground. The sun is nearly blocked out by the leaves overhead, and the ground is soft and mossy. Here and there, the sun pokes through and sets the moss in gold. "Oh, god, it's lovely here," she breathes, turning in a circle. When she turns back, Jon is looking at her, shaking his head.
"We are definitely in Sansa Land," he says wryly, looking around at the ancient oaks. "I wouldn't be surprised if we ran into a knight errant or a runaway maiden by sheer force of your imagination."
"I must have been so annoying," she says as she watches Jon test the sturdiness of one of the boughs that curves close to the ground. "When we were kids, I mean. Constantly talking about fairies and knights and all."
"You know you weren't," he says, not looking at her. "I think this one's safe to sit on."
Sansa hops onto the branch while Jon sits on another one nearby, a bit lower to the ground, and they unwrap their sandwiches. Jon motions for Sansa to toss him one of the bottles, and, cringing (she was never so great at the whole catch-and-throw-thing) she obeys, and Jon catches it with ease.
They eat in quiet for a bit, looking up at the forest canopy above them and listening to the birds trilling. "Sam always mentioned Summerhall," Sansa explains, setting aside half of her sandwich, "so I Googled it and saw the pictures. Apparently there's another ruin somewhere around here—it's an old tower—but the castle looked better for a picnic."
"Sansa," Jon asks plainly, looking at her quite frankly, "do you want to go find the tower?"
"Well, you don't have to, but I might try to find it," she admits sheepishly, and Jon shakes his head again, half-smiling, as he goes back to picking at his sandwich. "I think we'll be here a while."
"A long while," Jon says, looking pained. "Sam has complained nonstop about not getting to share a room with Gilly and I have a feeling he's going to want to make up for lost time."
"It's so strange, isn't it? I mean, they had no problem with Dickon and I—"
She halts, then realises she shouldn't have paused because it calls even more attention to her misstep, but Jon is still picking at his sandwich.
"Val said you were in a guest room," he says casually. He doesn't seem to find this conversation uncomfortable, and that, somehow, is even worse. Sansa looks down at her own unfinished sandwich.
"Well, Dickon and I had a bit of a disagreement," she admits, "so I decided to switch to one of the guest rooms."
"About brunch?" Jon guesses, and then quickly backpedals: "I mean, it's none of my business, so, forget it. Sorry. I didn't mean—"
"—No, no, it's okay." She begins shredding a piece of basil from the sandwich. "It was sort of about brunch. He, um, wasn't thrilled with how I handled his sister snarking on Gilly."
"How did you handle it?" Jon wants to know.
"I may have told her she looks like her mother." She winces and risks a look up, but Jon is grinning down at his own sandwich. He sobers after a moment.
"I'm sure you two will work it out," he says, but he's still not looking at her.
Sansa thinks, again, of that moment two nights ago: Dickon's fury echoing off the marble; his forehead pressed against hers; and the scorching, unhappy realisation that that was the only time they had ever truly seen one another. It's just that she cannot help but contrast that moment with another moment, eleven years ago: an unfamiliar room, the inside of Jon's forearm brushing against her skin as he guided her down onto the bed, lips against her forehead murmuring her name, and his fingertips ran beneath her bra as she faintly heard her mobile chirping from across the room, the sound muffled by her hastily-packed duffel bag.
"I'm not sure about that," she admits. "It was ...bad... and it revealed a lot about us. I'm not sure I want to work things out."
"Because he's a selfish coward?" Jon asks testily, and when she looks at him, his face and neck are flushed, and he is tossing bits and pieces of his sandwich spitefully at another bough. "Don't ask me to be nice about him," he adds bitterly. "Don't tell me he's a nice guy, or whatever. He didn't say a fucking word that whole afternoon when we golfed; he just watched his dad drag Sam."
"Watching his dad abuse Sam is practically abuse in its own right," Sansa says defensively. "It wasn't easy for him either. He grew up almost as abused as Sam."
"So did I," Jon says acidly. "That doesn't mean I can quietly watch someone I care about getting hurt."
"Well, Dickon is not you," she points out. "But, honestly, that is the problem."
Jon is staring at her, his gaze electric. She realises, a beat too late, that her words came out wrong. "That he isn't willing to stand up to his parents, I mean," she clarifies hastily. "I just... I saw a side of him..."
She looks down. "Sorry, you probably don't want to hear this," she acknowledges. "Just a boring lovers' spat. You probably don't even have those. You and Val seem like such a..." she casts around for the right word, "...unit."
"Yeah." Jon's voice is tight. "That's one way of putting it."
He gets to his feet suddenly. "I'm not really hungry, and it looks like you aren't, either," he observes, brushing off his hands. "Do you want to go find that tower now?"
Their eyes meet fleetingly, and Jon looks away. The pleasant, golden feeling is gone, and it's her fault.
"Sure," she forces out.
Sansa gets to her feet, brushing the moss off of her leggings, as Jon gathers their rubbish and crumples it with terse movements. "I'm sorry, I feel like I just made things weird—"
"—Stop apologising, Sansa," Jon says in exasperation. He's still crumpling up the wax paper that their sandwiches came wrapped in, and she watches the muscle in his back shift beneath his tee shirt as he crushes the wax paper savagely. "I asked you a question and you answered. You still do that, where you're always taking things on that aren't your—"
"—I just didn't mean to go into detail on a topic that might be painful!"
"You think that's the painful part?" he scoffs, rounding on her.
And then he sees her face, and his grey eyes search hers, and his shoulders drop. He closes his eyes and rubs the bridge of his nose, where the tape is. Sansa doesn't trust herself to speak, so she looks down. "Look, it's just awkward, that's all," he dismisses. "Neither of us expected this, and there's no... guide... for how to do this right."
"How to do it right?"
"Yeah, like, honorably, and all," Jon tries to explain, looking embarrassed.
"Well, as long as it doesn't interfere with Sam and Gilly—" Sansa begins, but Jon rolls his eyes.
"Sansa, they're not the only ones who are important here." He lets out a short breath. "You're important, too. Just because the romantic part between us ended, it doesn't mean I don't care about how I treat you."
"Me too." She knew the words were true long before she said them.
"And I'm sorry for how I acted on Saturday when I first saw you. I just... I just wasn't prepared, in that moment."
"I'm sorry, too. I wasn't prepared either. I was literally carrying around huge sunglasses so I could better hide from you during the party," she admits with a laugh, and she is gratified when she hears Jon's soft half-laugh.
"Yes," she says sheepishly, and now it's her turn to laugh as Jon covers his face and groans. "I literally had a disguise planned. So clearly I don't know how to do this whole thing honorably either."
And then they're laughing together, and even though she feels drunk with joy, there is also sadness there, too. Because moving past this stage of clumsiness and into friendship means she is letting go of something. Their laughter dies, and then Jon is smiling at her, his half-smile that she knows so well. She has to turn away from it. "So! Tower?"
"Lead the way," Jon says.
They walk for a long time, with Jon leaving little marks on trees to mark their path, and Sansa frequently checking the Summerhall page she has bookmarked on her mobile. When the canopy overhead thins, she can see the sky has gone murky, in just the way that Gilly would have wanted on Sunday, but there's no rain forecasted today, so she ignores it.
They catch each other up on their lives: Sansa tells Jon about the flat she has moved into, which she considers to be her first real flat and which has its own office ("you filled it with books, didn't you?" Jon guesses shrewdly, and Sansa flushes with pleasure). Jon tells Sansa about his teammates, and, most importantly, about the Direwolves' infamous line which includes him, Waymar Royce, and the recently traded Loras Tyrell, and is known informally as the Cerberus for how difficult it is to get past (Waymar is pompous and frequently gets pranked by the other players, and Sansa guesses correctly that Jon both finds the pranks funny and also has banned them; Loras is even more aloof than Jon about his private life and won't even tell Jon who he's so often texting).
But they're careful, too: she does not bring up the Starks at all, and he does not ask. For all of their newfound friendship, they are cautiously circling an enormous hole. Maybe in time they will find a way to talk about the Starks, and about everything that happened that night, but for now, this is enough: walking through an August forest with Jon, listening to him rant about the reporters he has wanted to punch ("do you know how many times I've been asked whether I'm secretly dating our goalie, Tormund?" he rants, and Sansa thinks again of him alone on the veranda that night, and wonders...) and telling him, in the detail she has not told anyone else, of some of her favourite cases.
"There it is," Sansa breathes, halting abruptly. She can feel Jon hastily stop before he walks into her back; all of the hairs on her skin stand at attention like they sense his electric presence.
But she can't let herself think about that now, so she and Jon look up at the ruined tower together. It is caved in and covered in vines. "Can you believe it was built six hundred years ago and it's still here?"
"Yeah," Jon says behind her. "Some things aren't so easily torn down."
"It's probably not safe to go in," Sansa says quickly, when the silence stretches on too long, "but we can at least get a closer look."
They pick their way up to the tower. A tree is growing out one of its narrow windows, and vines trail over the broken archway leading inside.
"Careful," Jon warns, pushing past her to peer into the tower. "This is probably home to a bunch of animals I'd rather not meet."
They're circling the tower as Sansa tries to stop herself from waxing poetic on its associated legends, when they hear a chirp.
"That's Val's noise," Jon explains, pausing to look at his mobile.
"Ah." Sansa swallows and tries very hard to not have any feelings about that. "And?"
But, curiously, Jon turns bright red and puts his mobile away hastily.
"Don't worry about it," he mutters darkly, shaking his head. "She just—ah, never mind."
"Was it romantic?" Sansa teases even as there is a burning pain that makes it hard to breathe. She climbs up onto a ledge of rock and looks back at Jon, and to her surprise, he swings up easily after her, and turns to face her.
"Look," he begins, meeting her eyes, "this is between us, but Val and I aren't actually—"
His mobile goes off again with the same tone, and he mutters an oath. Sansa glimpses the screen: it is just the water splash emoji. Jon seems like he wants to bury himself under the leaves out of sheer embarrassment as he stuffs the mobile back into his pocket. "—We're not romantic," he finishes at last.
She's just staring at him in shock when there is a crackling sound, and then, quite suddenly, the world is shimmering around them with a downpour. "Shit, here," Jon calls over the rain, strong hand closing around her wrist. He pulls her toward the tower and they take cover under the arch, breathless and laughing more in shock than anything else, and the ground sinks and gives way beneath her trainers and she lets out a shriek of surprise and Jon reaches to catch her, and her hands are on his chest and his hands are gripping her upper arms, and her forehead brushes his chin, the stubble scratching her skin. Her arms and his hands are slick from the rain and his chest is hard beneath her fingertips, and she can feel his heart pounding beneath, and she thinks, suddenly, of him scoffing and saying, you think that's the painful part?
"Are you alright?" Jon is looking down at her feet but his voice is gentle. They shift, so that her hands are not pressed on his chest, and his hands are not gripping her so tightly.
"Yeah, I'm fine."
They quickly step back, and Sansa leans against the crumbling stone, feeling the spray of the rain on her face and arms. "Wow. So, not romantic," she says, and Jon looks away. "That, um, well. I don't know what to say to that, to be honest."
"You don't have to say anything," Jon says with a shrug. "But, like, you seem to think we're this paragon of romance or something, and I have no idea where you got that idea."
"So it's just... a ruse?"
Why is her stupid voice shaking?
(And why is her brain choosing now, this moment, to zero in on his lips and remind her of how, during the playoffs, #OralFixation was trending specifically because of Jon's mouth and how it looks when he bites his lip like he's doing now? Why, brain, why?!)
"Yeah," he says at last. "It's completely fake."
Jon leans against the arch behind him and stares at her levelly, and she wishes he wouldn't. Because she has no mask on; she has no idea where she left it; and besides, it's not like it was working so well on Jon anyway. But as a result there is no way to hide her feelings, to hide the swooping, trembling, embarrassing, senseless joy that fills her now. No way to stop her lips from twisting into a smile, so she has to bite her lower lip and hope for the best, and then she sees that Jon is watching her, his gaze on her lips. "That is... a thing," she finishes eloquently.
"I mean, it's actually not a thing, by definition," Jon points out. "But. Um. Yeah."
They glance at each other and then quickly look away, out into the rain, and Sansa hopes it never lets up.
Sam and Gilly are quiet on the ride back. Everything is slightly damp from the downpour, and the inside of the Mini smells like wet grass. Sansa worries that Sam and Gilly had a disagreement, but they are sitting quietly in the back with their hands clasped together, looking—to use her own words—like a unit more than ever.
"I don't want to go back," Gilly admits, when they pass the church where they will be married.
"I know," Sam agrees, his voice thick. Jon and Sansa glance at each other, but they don't speak. Sansa feels guilty for the shining sense of joy she cannot help but feel, and for the new certainty that she has not had in so long. It is a relief, to know exactly what she must do next; but she feels guilty for her newfound sense of freedom, when Sam and Gilly are so clearly feeling the pressure of Sam's family.
She must end it with Dickon, and today made that abundantly clear. She had forgotten what it felt like to be seen, to be known, to be understood, and now she cannot—she will not—go back. Jon has reminded her of what it feels like to be loved for who you are. How she is feeling today—how she feels when Jon glances at her, when their eyes meet—has erased any lingering indecision about what to do about Dickon. Her mask is not worth feeling the way she and Dickon felt that night two nights ago. Nothing is worth feeling that way. She would rather be alone forever, alone with her romances and fairy tales, than be trapped in an empty terror like that merely to avoid making 'a scene.'
She has made scenes, and she has survived them; she is tossing aside her mask for good.
"You look lighter," Jon observes quietly, as they approach Horn Hill in the sunset. Sam and Gilly are busy reassuring each other, so they do not notice Jon and Sansa talking.
"I feel lighter," she admits. "I made a decision of what to do about Dickon."
She can feel Jon looking at her. "I'm going to end it," she adds in a lower voice, glancing in the mirror to ensure Sam and Gilly aren't listening. "We aren't on the same page, and he's just... he's not the right man for me."
"Because he won't stand up for Sam," Jon observes.
They are approaching the long line of hazel trees signaling Horn Hill's drive, and as they slow, Sansa risks a look at Jon. He is gazing at her intently, and she watches his chest and shoulders rise slightly as he takes in a deep, unsteady breath. All of the hairs prickle along Sansa's skin, and she looks back at the road, her heart pounding.
"Because he won't stand up for Sam," she confirms, and she hears Jon let out a long, shaking breath.
"Right. Well. That makes sense." Jon's voice is carefully flat and smooth, but as they drive along the allée of hazel trees, their shadows flashing in the car, Sansa glimpses Jon rake a hand over his hair and hastily bite his lip as he looks away—sort of like he is overcome with joy, like she was in the tower in the rain earlier. Or maybe she's reading into it. Maybe, maybe, maybe...
Talla is waiting for them by the front door, wearing a Lilly Pulitzer acid-green golf shirt and matching pink-and-green skort and a visor, looking miserable.
"The lovebirds return," Talla observes sourly, as Sansa helps Sam and Gilly climb out of the back seat. "Did you have fun not telling Mummy and Daddy where you went? Because they're furious. And Gilly, nice boots—very lesbian-chic."
Jon and Sansa look between each other, but then Sam speaks up.
"G-get bent, Talla." His eyes are bright with tears and his voice is quivering, but Talla chokes on a gasp all the same.
"You heard me," Sam sniffs, and he lugs the picnic basket out of the boot without looking at anyone, before pausing to look thoughtfully at Talla. "Do you know," he begins in his fact-dropping voice, "you make so many jokes about other women's looks, I've sort of always wondered if perhaps you're a lesbian." He frowns in thought. "It wouldn't be okay with 'Mummy' and 'Daddy' but I'd still love you for it, and maybe you'd be less horrible to be around if you just admitted it."
And with that, Sam takes Gilly's hand with his free hand, and marches Gilly past a shocked Talla. Talla sputters for a moment before scrambling to her feet and chasing after them, leaving Jon and Sansa alone in the drive.
Jon turns to Sansa with his face shining, and Sansa cannot help but beam at him.
"I'll take it," he says at last with a shrug, and holds up his hand.
"Are you actually high-fiving me right now," Sansa blurts in surprise, and obligingly reaches up to high-five him. Their hands clap against each other, and Sansa looks away to hide her furious blush. It's just that she got another glimpse of Direwolves captain Jon just now, and she is remembering the fierce pleasure that she once took in learning all of his facets.
"Can't wait to hear how Val tortured them," Jon mutters as they continue inside. Sansa tries not to grin too broadly.
"Please tell me everything," she says under her breath.
"I'll text you," Jon says. They climb the stairs together in giddy silence, and part with a shy wave when they reach Jon and Val's room.
In the guest room, Sansa peels off her damp leggings and tee. She is slightly sunburnt and looks like a mess, but she cannot help but grin at her reflection in the mirror.
She's going to do it tonight, because she can't stand to wear this ridiculous mask another second. She feels good about it: based on how Dickon's been avoiding her, she's sure that he'll be relieved, too. He might even be debating how to go about it politely now.
Sansa washes her hair and imagines them sitting together on the veranda, very politely and civilly, exchanging their reasoning. Maybe there will even be a handshake. Maybe they can stay friends. They'll get together for lunches occasionally in King's Landing, reminiscing about the wedding, and maybe he'll start dating some posh, sleek blonde who also never wants to make a scene, and she will be delighted for him and attend their wedding in an impeccably-tailored dress and dramatic fascinator... The future explodes open before her.
(Maybe Jon has a place there, maybe he doesn't; but either way, what joy, to see any number of open roads before her, and feel with such certainty that she can take whichever one she chooses, and that she can face whatever challenges each one offers!)
After showering, she changes into jeans and a striped jumper, and puts her wet hair in a ponytail.
(Still, she does put on a bit of makeup. You never know who you're going to run into in the hall.)
Horn Hill is still buzzing as guests prepare for dinner. When Sansa passes by Jon and Val's room, she hears Jon's low mutter and Val's throaty laugh, and she cannot help but grin as she keeps walking. All this time she thought Jon and Val were so deeply in love, and now she has to laugh at how wrong her impression was, and how blind she was to all of the signs that they were nothing more than friends. She does not want to think about why she is so relieved, or why the thought of it makes her stomach clench, so instead she focuses on the task at hand: ending things with Dickon.
She crosses the large staircase, past the glittering cranberry crystal chandelier, and passes into the wing of the house that holds the Tarlys' bedrooms. Talla's door is closed but Sansa can hear Talla's tearful voice, muffled, coming from inside, and for a moment she feels sorry for her.
Sansa halts. Melessa is coming out of one of the rooms; judging by the mahogany and dark leather behind her, Sansa assumes it is some sort of library or study. Melessa is wearing pristine white trousers and a dusty rose twinset, and a fabulous spinel necklace glints at her throat. She smiles at Sansa. "I was just going to have someone fetch you, but now you're here. Come in, please."
Sansa pastes on a smile to hide her disappointment.
"Actually, Melessa, I was just on my way to see Dickon—" she begins, but Melessa opens the door wider.
"It won't take more than a few minutes, I promise," she says. "Please, come in."
Frustrated and impatient, but polite as ever, Sansa follows Melessa into the study and shuts the door behind her.
It must be Melessa's study, because despite its classic decor, it has feminine touches: a bowl of passionate hydrangea sits on the expansive cherry desk; the walls are patterned in stripes of salmon and smoke-blue; a gilt-framed mirror hangs on one wall above a narrow antique table, its frame shaped like a loose, winding bow. "Have a seat wherever you like," Melessa encourages as she goes to sit behind her desk. Sansa can see now that there's a thick, leather-bound file on the desk, beside a freshly-poured dram of whisky. "Would you like some?" she asks when she spots Sansa's eyes lingering on the whisky.
"Thank you," Sansa says, sensing that to decline would be a problem, and Melessa gets up and goes to the elegant brass bar cart beneath the windows, and pours Sansa a dram from a glittering, cut-crystal decanter. When Melessa hands it to her, they toast to Sam and Gilly, and Sansa takes a sip. It's surprisingly sweet for whisky, but it still burns going down.
"Now," Melessa begins pleasantly, as she takes her seat behind the desk, "I have a small matter and was hoping you might be able to help me."
She unclasps the file and opens it reverently. Sansa's heart begins to pound as Melessa slips on a pair of glittering eyeglasses, and thumbs through the papers. "You see," she explains, shaking her head as though baffled, "this week has been illuminating, to say the least."
"Yes," she agrees mildly, "it has."
What is in that folder? She can't see from her velvet seat, but what if it's something ugly about Gilly's past? What if it's something that could hurt Sam's career?
"We always knew that Gilly and Sam were an odd fit," Melessa continues, "but this week has made it abundantly clear that they're not just an odd fit—they're an impossible fit. We've tried to explain this to Sam, but, well, you know how he is."
She smiles fondly at Sansa. "He's surprisingly stubborn, for someone so soft. After that embarrassing mishap on Saturday, we had so many arguments with him... but he wouldn't budge. And you and Sam's dear friend Jon haven't been helping matters. In fact, I noticed your defense of Sam seemed quite personal; almost like you were in fact defending yourself."
The whisky glass grows slippery in Sansa's hand. "So I did a bit of research. After all, I hardly know you, and if Dickon intends on marrying you, I ought to know you well. Don't you think?"
"I'd be happy to get lunch—" Sansa begins, but Melessa laughs.
"Don't be silly, darling! The thing is, what I learned was ever so surprising. After all, you never mentioned to any of us that you once knew Jon Snow so well. One would think it would have come up—your history with one of the most well-known professional hockey players in the world." She touches her spinel necklace in mock-innocence and surprise. "And what an explosive history it is, based on what I managed to cobble together. You'll have to tell me the full story sometime; it seems ever so gripping."
Sansa stares. That night flashes before her eyes: Jon's lips ghosting over her forehead; the shabby inn's stained ceiling; that phone call; the eerie, flickering light in the hospital... Catelyn sobbing, Ned's face ashen... Arya's fury and Robb's grief... She has gotten so good at keeping it together in the courtroom; she has gotten so good at fighting for others, but she is still learning how to fight for herself.
Melessa shakes her head, brown bob swishing. "You must have worked so hard to keep it quiet. It could ruin his career, after all, and yours, too. Who would trust your work in the courtroom, knowing you were to blame for such an accident? And as for Jon Snow, well, something like this would certainly be a black mark on his reputation... and he's such a private man, isn't he? Not to mention your father's government work. What a scandal this could be!"
Melessa is smiling sympathetically at Sansa. "You poor dear. Dickon told me you were estranged from your family—but now it all makes sense! How you've suffered for all of this. It breaks one's heart, truly. And to think, after all of these years spent keeping this quiet, you could have it all blow up in your face, if I were to accidentally leave this file open, or to have just a bit too much champagne and let something slip..."
"What do you want?" She knows how to face evil; she does it every day. She stares Melessa down, but her heart is pounding and her stomach is writhing. Melessa's smile only softens.
"Well, it's not about what I want, Sansa. It's about what's simple and easy."
"Simple and easy," Sansa repeats numbly.
"Samwell is a Tarly; he might not look like one, but he is one." Melessa's voice is firmer now. "He carries the Tarly name, and the Tarly name brings both privileges and responsibilities. If he associates with a girl like that, why, he's tarnishing our reputation! Perhaps you can help him to understand, before he lets that poor girl walk down the aisle on Saturday."
Melessa closes the file, and does up the clasp with a satisfied snap. "I do love paper copies; I love any excuse for fine leather folders," she muses now, "but of course, they're so impractical. One must back everything up these days, mustn't one?" She taps her laptop beside her fondly. "Well, that's all! So sorry to keep you. Finish your whisky, dear, before you carry on. It's the finest."
Sansa sets the whisky glass on Melessa's desk with a shaking hand.
"No thank you," she says, but her legs are like jelly and there's a roaring in her ears. Melessa frowns and cocks her head to the side.
"Are you unwell?"
"No, I'm perfectly alright." Sansa turns back to the door, and twists the crystal knob.
"Don't let this cause a scene, darling," Melessa says behind her. "So long as you do your part, we can do this neatly and quietly. No one need suffer anymore. It's the kind thing to do, really."
this got really out of hand; i am SO sorry.
Sansa stands in the dark hall, a roaring in her ears. Her barrister's mind is running through all of the crimes that Melessa has just committed, and how she will make her pay for those crimes—but her softer side, her sweeter side, is surging with horror as she realises that, no matter what, she must cause pain.
There is no solution that does not require the truth. And even with the myriad ways that Sansa (and Sam) can trap Melessa from a legal standpoint, those take time, and process, and proof. Sansa does not have the time for legal proceedings. If Melessa gets a hint of what Sansa plans, she can always drop the bomb early. Even if Sansa can retaliate legally (and she means to, in spades) the damage will already be done: the truth will be out, the scene will be made.
And how will Sam feel, knowing that his own mother—the mother he has always described as gentle, as sweet, as soft—has done this? Sansa knows she must tell Sam, but to tell Sam means she must hurt him. And to tell Sam also means she must reveal what she and Jon have kept hidden—from him, from Gilly, from the world.
And as she walks back to her guest room, anger surges, hot and bitter, and makes her eyes burn and her hands shake. Even after all of these years, and all of this pain, she still must suffer for a choice she made when she was nineteen—an innocent choice, a loving choice. A choice that Sam may very well be forced to make, whether he is ready or not.
Love or family.
She understands it all now: she is about to watch Sam be forced to make the choice she was forced to make eleven years ago. No matter what she does, she cannot protect him from this choice. No matter what she does, her choices eleven years ago must haunt her and everyone she loves.
In the last several years, she has learned to cope with her fears and her pain by burying herself in work; by exercising until she cannot move anymore; by pasting on her mask and floating out in King's Landing, drifting through posh dimly-lit restaurants with Dickon and laughing at everything he says; by voraciously shopping for sleek, tailored clothing that will feel like armor. When she was younger, she coped by burying herself in fairy tales and romances, by penning poetry, by slipping on her headphones and getting lost in sweeping ballets. But to bury herself in beauty cannot help her now, either.
Neither her past nor her present can help her now. Moments ago her future seemed to be dozens of shining paths unfurling before her; now it feels like a gaping hole.
Once again, she is the one who will upend everything.
On swift, silent feet she bursts out the veranda door and into the lavender dusk. The trees are silhouetted black, and the wet grass soaks her trainers and the hem of her jeans, but she keeps running, lungs burning, eyes streaming. Her chest aches and her muscles scream, but she runs even faster, until she is lost among mossy fallen trunks and spindly birches, and Horn Hill is a shadow in the distance.
She slows to a stop, gasping and wiping her eyes with the sleeve of her jumper. If only she could go back—if only she could rewind—but to when? To earlier, when she made the mistake of walking past Melessa's study? To Saturday, when she agreed to be Gilly's maid of honor?
...Or further back?
If she could go back to that night, and undo the choice she made that night—would she?
Her throat is raw and her eyes pulse with the pain of crying, but a curious calm overtakes Sansa as she stands there in the woods. A breeze rustles the canopy of leaves overhead, carrying the faintest edge of impending autumn, and Sansa closes her eyes and breathes in the scent of leaves and earth and rain.
She has spent so long crafting her mask that she did not realise what else she was crafting: a backbone, a will of steel. She has used it for others, but never for herself. She does not regret choosing Jon that night, and she knows that if she were to go back and do it all over again, she would still make the same choice. She would choose Jon again, in any life, in any timeline, and faced with any pain. And now that it's come down to it, she's proud of that choice—it is the choices she made afterward that she regrets: that she didn't ask for help when she needed it; that she withdrew from the people who held out their hands to her; that she so easily let go of her own convictions.
Eleven years ago she was blamed for something out of her control; eleven years ago she was forced to make an impossible choice and she made it alone. She thinks of Sam and Gilly today, holding hands quietly in the car—a unit, a partnership, willing to face any challenges together.
She needs to talk to Jon.
When Sansa returns to Horn Hill, rain has begun to fall, drenching her through. By the time she reaches the veranda it is fully dark, and the golden windows of Horn Hill look like dozens of cruel eyes staring out from some silhouetted, unknowable creature. Her heart is pounding but her head is strangely clear. She knows what she needs to do, but she isn't sure yet how she'll do it.
But first things first—she needs to get proof now, while it's still easy. She might be a romantic, but she's also a barrister, and a bloody good one at that. Melessa will feel her wrath.
She texts Jon I need you to take a folder from Melessa's study, will explain later, and waits anxiously for the three dots to pop up, but the screen stays stubbornly unchanged. She can't wait; she'll ring him—but just as she is pulling up the screen to ring him, the veranda door opens.
"There you are!" Talla's eyes are swollen and red, and she has tried to hide her weeping with quite a lot of makeup; it is not effective. "We're all sitting down to supper. Where on earth have you been?"
"I went for a walk and got caught in the rain!" Sansa tries not to sound strained. "So sorry! I'll just run upstairs and have a quick shower—"
"—Nonsense! Tonight is casual; here, let me get you a towel," Talla says as she drags Sansa inside.
Sansa's trainers squeak against the marble as she tracks mud and rainwater in. Her heart is racing. The laptop, the folder—she needs to get it now. Why, oh why did she have to run? But she can't blame herself now; she must get that proof before she does anything else.
The Tarlys' dining room is massive, with gilt crown moulding and carved panels; sconces dripping with crystal; plumes of floral arrangements. Two long tables have been set for the guests that are here this week, and nearly every spot is taken. When Talla pushes Sansa into the dining room, the room falls silent, and everyone is looking at her. Margaery shoots her a sympathetic grimace, doe-brown eyes lingering on her soaked hair; Renly is wiggling his brows at her like he suspects she's been up to something naughty, and shoots her a roguish wink when she meets his bright blue eyes; Gilly is giving her a where-the-fuck-have-you-even-BEEN look; Val may or may not be checking her soaked jumper out (she files this away for later, when she can question Jon); and Jon is looking at her questioningly, worriedly. You beautiful idiot, she seethes inwardly, check your bloody mobile!
"Here's Sansa after all! Got caught in the rain, did you?" Randyll asks loudly at last, when the silence stretches on for too long. "Well, have a seat, and we'll get you something hot. We were just about to begin."
"No, really, I'm quite uncomfortable," Sansa says, pulling away from Talla's clutches. "Let me at least change."
"Allow me to help you, dear. Oh, you're going to have such a nasty cold," Melessa says, rising from the table. She smiles sweetly, and ruffles Sam's hair affectionately as she walks past him, never taking her eyes from Sansa. Jon is frowning as he studies her, and she meets his eyes again desperately.
The gaze he returns is searching, questioning. Too bad their telepathic connection has its limits. There's only so much you can say with a look, and 'Sam's mother is blackmailing us both and the proof is in her study and we need to get it' falls decidedly out of its range.
"That's so kind, Melessa," Sansa forces out. "Really, I can manage—"
"No, no, you're our guest!" Melessa insists, taking Sansa by the elbow. "Please, allow me to be a mother hen!"
She's dragging Sansa out of the dining room, and Sansa can only look back desperately at Jon and mouth 'mobile' before being pulled up the grand staircase. "I do hope you had some time to reflect on your walk," Melessa muses as she pulls Sansa along the hallway. But instead of turning toward the guest rooms, Melessa is pulling Sansa towards her study. "I had some time to think, too—and some time to safely store my personal documents."
She opens the door to her study, revealing a clean desk. The laptop and file are gone, and Melessa is smiling. "Now, let's get you something nice and dry to wear, and we'll have a lovely supper, won't we? You've already made quite the scene; I think that's quite enough for one night, isn't it?"
Sansa slips her hand into her pocket, and when Melessa's back is turned, she turns on the voice memo function before being pulled next door, into the master bedroom.
It is sumptuous, with emerald green brocade drapes and an enormous mahogany four-poster piled high with golden and emerald pillows. Melessa walks to a walk-in closet and flicks on a soft, golden light.
"I did have some time to think while I walked," Sansa says carefully, shifting so that her mobile is partly out of her pocket, "and I was thinking that you did some good detective work, to find all that out about me. It couldn't have been easy."
"Oh, it was nothing," Melessa replies sweetly, holding up a rose twinset and narrowing her eyes critically, before replacing it. "We have a man we work with frequently for such sensitive matters. He works wonderfully fast."
"And you contacted him just to gather information on me?"
"Yes, dear," Melessa says somewhat impatiently, and she produces a beige silk blouse.
"All so you could ensure I'd help you break up Sam and Gilly before the wedding," Sansa marvels. "Right?"
Melessa is holding the blouse up to Sansa.
"Well, it was more of a coincidence," she says sweetly, wrinkling her nose cutely at Sansa. "I don't think this one will suit you after all," she adds, shaking her head and returning to the closet.
Sansa decides to change her tack, and she pinches her hand to make her eyes fill with tears, and lets out a pathetic sniffle.
"What if they don't break up?"
"I'm sure you'll do the right thing. Sam tells me how wonderfully persuasive you are. I don't think we need to worry about that at all," she muses, producing a rather sad lavender floral blouse. "Just think of how motivated you'll be! I'll bet you'll be even more persuasive than usual. So much is at stake—three livelihoods, really. I know you'll do the right thing."
Got you, Sansa thinks, but she only tearfully nods—
—but then there's a crash and a shattering sound, and a lot of swearing, and Sansa and Melessa freeze.
When Sansa opens the bedroom door, she is greeted by a ridiculous sight: Jon is sprawled on the floor, trapped beneath Talla who has apparently tackled him, blood streaming from his lip; Val is crouching on top of them both, pulling on Talla's hair and making her cry; Sam, Gilly, and Dickon are in the hall behind them, looking horrified.
"Oh for fuck's sake, Jon, just hit the bitch back," Val snarls, apparently unmoved by the sight of Melessa and Sansa. "How many times do I have to tell you that your supposed chivalry is actually miso—"
"What on earth has happened here?" Melessa flutters in horror, but Val pulls on Talla's hair harder, making her wail even louder, and Dickon has to yank Val off her to get her to stop.
"H-he s-suddenly went upstairs and she followed, and I th-thought they might be going to your study," Talla sobs, "and I was right!"
"My study?" Melessa asks innocently, as Jon sits up. A crystal vase has been shattered, and little shards fall to the marble with little clicks as Jon gingerly brushes his hands; his mouth and chin are wet with blood, but he doesn't seem to notice. "What would you ever need to go in there for?"
No one speaks. Jon is very carefully not looking at Sansa as he stands up. She can see him clenching his jaw as he tries to come up with an excuse, but there's no good excuse. Her heart is pounding.
Now is her moment. Jon took the fall for her before; she won't leave him to handle this alone again.
"Because I told him to," she says, and everyone looks to her in shock. "To get proof that you are blackmailing both me and Jon."
Jon jerks his head to look at her, his eyes wide, and she returns the look, hoping to convey everything that she feels. There's no time to talk this through, no time to plan or apologize. She will do her best to spare him, but this is going to get worse before it gets better.
A lot of things happen at once: Gilly draws in a sharp breath; Talla lets out a sob; and Melessa laughs.
"Oh, that's ridiculous, Sansa," she says gently, but Dickon is the one to speak.
"Then why did Talla bother following them?"
His voice is low, caustic. He is looking between his mother and sister with profound disgust, and Melessa seems momentarily stunned by the look. Talla looks down, shamefacedly, and sniffs. "Why would you do that?" he presses his mother, brows drawn together.
"She wanted me to step in and help her convince Sam to stop the wedding," Sansa explains to Dickon, who blanches, before Melessa can try and worm her way out of this. Melessa is flushing angrily, but she forces a sweet smile.
"Only because Sansa herself has some experience with marrying the wrong person." She turns a glittering gaze on Sansa. "Don't you, darling?"
She can't look at Jon, or it will implicate him immediately; but she doesn't have a lie ready that is smooth enough. "And it proved to be tragic," Melessa continues, shaking her head.
"It wasn't the wrong person," Sansa counters, but she doesn't know what to say next. The words jumble in her mouth, and she thinks, again, of Sam and Gilly's clasped hands. The mistake she made eleven years ago wasn't in choosing Jon—it was in not choosing him; in trying to fix everything herself; in letting herself be swayed. So she looks to him now, and her skin prickles all over as she meets that soft gaze.
"And it wasn't tragic, either," he finishes for her, then turns to Melessa, wiping the blood from his chin. "You can't use this against us, Melessa. Sansa and I did nothing wrong."
"Wait, you two were married," Dickon blurts out, but Sam speaks before anyone can reply.
"Mum? What have you done?"
They all turn to look. Sam pushes past Dickon, his eyes wet.
Sansa has seen Sam cry on countless occasions, but she has never seen him look the way he does now: no chin-wobbling, no weeping, just wet eyes and a look of heartbreak. "Jon and Sansa are my friends," he says quietly. "And Gilly is the love of my life—whether you like it or not."
He wipes at his eyes as Melessa's lovely face crumples.
"Oh Sam, you'll have so many loves of your life—" she begins, drawing towards him, but Sam takes a step back.
"I gave you so many chances," he observes, shaking his head. "I thought this wedding would be a compromise; I thought you had finally learned to respect my choices. I thought you, of all people, supported me."
"But don't you see, sweetheart, I do support you—"
"—No, you don't!" Sam laughs in disbelief. "You threatened my two best friends with something they obviously don't want to share with people. You've been terrorizing my fiancee. You've been trying to humiliate me by breaking up my own wedding. This—this is ridiculous, Mum. I-I won't stand for it."
His chin wobbles as he draws himself to his full height. "But don't worry. You won't have to see me get married. We're eloping."
"Oh, Sam," Gilly bursts out, throwing her arms around Sam. Melessa's eyes grow wet.
"Come on," Sam says to Jon and Sansa, "we're leaving now." Sam turns on his heel and looks up at Dickon. "If you would like to be there, you're invited," he begins stiffly.
"Of course I want to be there," Dickon mutters, shaking his head. He looks at his mother and sister one last time, his light brown eyes full of reproach, before grimacing disgustedly once more.
"Right, well, that's settled then." Sam's voice is high and strained. "And one more thing, Mum: should you dare so much as breathe a word of Jon and Sansa's past to even the cat, I-I w-will be bringing the full force of the law down upon you." He presses his lips together to stop his mouth from quivering.
"And I was recording you," Sansa adds to Melessa, "so we've already got proof."
Sansa feels Val grab her wrist, and then she's pulling her along with them toward the guest rooms.
"Pack your bags, and let's leave tonight," Sam is saying as he leads them along the hall. There's a curious light to him; Sansa has only seen him stand quite so tall in court. She meets Jon's eyes, and realises they're both smiling.
No matter what's happened between them, they are both still proud of Sam. No matter what's happened, they still see things the same way. Something in her chest twists painfully as she tries not to think about the epiphany she had earlier, and she tears her gaze from Jon.
"We can stay at my place; it's big enough," Val offers. "Dickon, you can ride with me," she says. "Believe me, those two have some talking to do."
She jerks her head towards Jon and Sansa.
"Right, we'll meet outside in twenty, and we'll follow Val's car, yes?" Sam is surprisingly brisk. His warm brown eyes linger on Sansa worriedly; Gilly is also looking between Jon and Sansa, and Sansa is relieved that there is no anger or reproach in either gaze. Just confusion, and concern, and maybe a little curiosity, too.
"Um—I'll get some ice for you," Dickon mutters to Jon, "and some towels. Um. Right. Thanks for not hitting my sister back."
"Any time," Jon says, looking somewhat amused in spite of it all.
Sansa packs her bag with numb hands. Her knees are weak. This is shock, she observes, but she still lets out a small scream when her door opens just as she's zipping up her suitcase. Dickon is there, biting his lip.
"Can I come in?"
"Yes, of course," Sansa stammers, and he shuts the door behind him. "So. Tonight was a lot. Look, I know—"
"Sansa," Dickon interrupts, shaking his head, "you don't have to explain right now, okay? I'm guessing my brother and Gilly don't know the full story, and they're going to want it too."
"Thanks," Sansa sighs in relief, closing her eyes for a moment. She just wants to talk to Jon before they explain anything. She doesn't feel equal to reliving that night just yet—not without reliving it first with Jon.
"I just—um, well," Dickon begins, going a bit pink. "This is sort of awkward, but—we're over, right?"
Of all the things for Dickon to bring up now.
She stares at him in shock.
"Yes, I think so," she replies slowly.
"Yeah, I mean, I figured it was sort of a foregone conclusion after the other night, and now—" Dickon rubs the back of his neck, looking embarrassed. "Well, Val just mentioned she and Jon Snow aren't actually a thing, and she's quite fit, isn't she—"
"Oh my god," Sansa blurts out, realising what Dickon means. "Right. Yes. Have, um, at it," she stammers.
"Brilliant," Dickon beams. "Alright. Well, I've got to pack. See you in a bit."
Before Sansa can even say 'see you in a bit' back, Dickon is gone.
Sansa pauses before the mirror. She has quickly changed out of her soaked clothes, and done her best with her hair, but she still looks a mess. This is not precisely how she would like to appear in front of Jon, but tonight is a night for truths, not for pretty lies. She leaves the guest room, and meets Jon in the hall. His lip is split, the cut shiny and red, but the blood is cleaned up and he's holding an ice pack to his mouth, with a fine black duffle bag slung over his strong shoulder.
They regard each other carefully.
"Are you—are you alright?" Jon asks quietly. Sansa nods after a moment.
"Yeah." Jon swallows. He looks like he might say more, but Val leaves their room and shepherds them down the stairs. At the front door, Sam and Gilly are being accosted by Olenna and Renly.
"Do text me pictures of the ceremony!" Olenna is saying, oddly patting Gilly's stomach again. "Margaery just bought me a new mobile, and I quite enjoy it."
"Will do," Gilly promises uncertainly, shooting Sansa a confused grin.
"And ignore Randyll and Melessa; they always were humorless goats," Olenna adds, and Renly snorts into his drink before taking Gilly's bag for her and helping them out the door. "Ah, and here's our hockey player. You do wear a split lip so well. Loras mentioned he finds you quite handsome on the ice."
"Um, thanks," Jon says uncomfortably, and he and Sansa glance at each other—so that's why Loras never says who he's texting!—before following everyone out onto the drive. There's a lot of commotion as bags are loaded and the less-awful guests come out to wish Sam and Gilly well, and then, before they know it, before Sansa even feels ready, she and Jon are alone in the Mini.
There's no running away anymore. It is time to talk about what happened that night.
oh lord. I wrote this story SPECIFICALLY to challenge myself to stay on-pace, to stick to my outline, and to not exceed my word count. I was doing SO WELL until this chapter. FORGIVE ME I HAVE NO DISCIPLINE OR SELF CONTROL
(also I am super nervous about this chapter, so I really hope you all enjoy it!! I am SO SORRY that there is only one chapter left of this story!! pain!!)
"You know the way?"
"Yeah, just go toward King's Landing, and I'll direct you from there."
Up ahead, Val's sleek black car pulls out of the drive. Sansa and Jon follow after Sam and Gilly, driving along the allée of hazel trees, and soon the lights from Horn Hill fade. After they turn out of the drive, the only light is from the dashboard inside the Mini, and from the partly-visible moon, which edges Jon in silver. The countryside is velvet black around them, and Sansa cracks open the window so they can hear the night noises: insects chirping, breeze through leaves, tyres on gravel. The air still smells like the downpour that drenched her earlier, metallic and green and dark.
"I guess that was a lot for Dickon to take in," Jon says after a while. "To find out your mother was blackmailing your girlfriend about her past marriage."
"Oh, I don't think he was that bothered." Sansa thinks of Dickon earlier, turning pink as he broke up with her. "He, um, sort of broke up with me tonight."
"Tonight?" Jon blurts. "As in, just now?"
Sansa nods, trying not to grin.
"Just now. He sort of assumed we were over anyway, but he wanted to check—apparently Val told him you two were never a real thing, and I suppose he figured he would shoot his shot tonight, as they say."
She glances at Jon, and laughs at how he shakes his head, eyes wide. "I was on my way to break up with him tonight when Melessa pulled me aside, so believe me, I'm not upset. Val is a little too cool for him, I suspect, but he's welcome to try."
"Best of luck to him," Jon mutters grimly, "'Cool' is maybe not the word I would use. Val's like... like a warrior princess," he explains, gesturing with one hand, "and Dickon's like..."
"...A very handsome, very useless prince," Sansa finishes, and they laugh together before falling silent again.
That fleeting sense of normalcy draws back like a tide, and they are once again left stranded out here, with nothing but each other and all of their regrets in a ruin between them. Jon clears his throat. "So... how did it all go down? With Melessa, I mean."
"She hired a private investigator, and found out about the wedding and—and everything else." Sansa flexes her fingers on the steering wheel.
The 'everything else' is what they skirt around, and she knows at some point they will have to confront it head-on, but she can't dive in just yet. "And earlier tonight, she pulled me aside, and told me if I didn't convince Sam to break things off in time, she'd leak the story and ruin our careers, and my dad's too."
Jon lets out a low curse, grimacing in disgust. "So I just sort of... ran. I didn't know what to do. I mean, I knew what to do from a legal standpoint, but I realised that no matter what, it would all come out. We'd all get hurt. Sam would have to find out what his mother had done, and you and I would have to tell at least a few people what happened. It just was too much. We've been working so hard to make this an easy week, and..."
She trails off.
"But then you texted me," Jon prompts, and when Sansa speaks, she feels her voice growing stronger.
"Yeah. I decided to talk to you first. My plan was that we would talk about how to explain it all to Sam and Gilly, and then the four of us could make a decision about Melessa, on Sam's terms. But then, I guess she realised I had plans of my own, and tried to thwart me when I came back, so we had no choice."
She can feel Jon looking at her. "Thanks, by the way," she adds. "For being willing to just break into her study, like, without question."
"Always," Jon says at once, and Sansa abruptly remembers how he sounded when he said, I do, and she stuffs the memory back down. She can't think about that right now but that night keeps coming back to her, clinging to her like perfume. "Well," Jon continues heavily, "I think they're still going to want an explanation."
"Yeah. I think they are."
She stares ahead, still trying to will away how it felt to hear Jon say always like that. Like no time had passed at all; like no tragedy had passed between them. I'm the same person I've always been, Jon said on Saturday, but she hadn't really believed him. She can remember being nineteen and standing before Jon and thinking, vows mean something to him. Maybe she was a little more perceptive at nineteen than she gives herself credit for. She pushes the thought away, and focuses on the matter at hand. "What—what did you want to do about that? About telling them, I mean. I think if we didn't want to give all the details, they would respect it."
Jon doesn't reply at once. She can hear him fidgeting with the ice pack, surely now melted, its plastic crinkling. She can hear him swallow.
"It's your choice," he says at last. "I'm not ashamed of it, but—if you are—"
"—Of course not. I'm not ashamed of it at all."
She does not risk looking at him as she speaks. "I realised that tonight, too. I'm not ashamed of our choices then. I'm ashamed of how I handled it afterward. How I just...caved. How I allowed them to persuade me. How I just agreed to everything."
She can feel Jon looking at her, but she does not dare look back at him. She keeps her gaze steadily on the road. At last she hears him let out a long, ragged exhale.
"We were really young, Sansa," he says. "And your family was everything to you. It's not like with Sam. He's had more than thirty years of this crap with his family; this was a long time coming for him. He's had a lot of time to think on it and prepare. Don't compare us to Sam and Gilly, because it's not the same."
"I'm sorry," she whispers. These are the words she has wanted, for so long, to say to him, but she can only whisper them. "For everything."
"No, I am. It was my fault. I forced your family's hand. I should have just backed off," Jon says disgustedly, "I should have listened when your dad asked me to forget about you. I should never have—"
"—If you had backed off, I would have chased you," she says immediately. "That one I know for sure. I would never have just let you go."
"And, honestly, I probably would never have backed off," Jon admits. His voice sounds wry. "We were both pretty headstrong, I guess."
"And in love." Her voice is thick again with the threat of tears. "I've spent so much time thinking on it, and—and it wasn't like it was out of nowhere, Jon. We weren't Romeo and Juliet, idiotically throwing away our futures for someone we'd just met. We had known each other, loved each other, for years. We weren't being stupid. I was certain about you. Even after everything, I was still certain. I just no longer felt like I deserved you, or that I deserved happiness."
"Yeah." Jon lets out another shaking breath, and shifts in his seat. She is uncomfortably aware of his body, aware of his strength, his heat. This damned car is just too small. "I was certain, too. There was never any question."
For a long time, they drive in silence, alone on this island with just their regrets and their isolation and anger. The lights of King's Landing pop up in the distance. Soon they will arrive at Val's; soon they will surely be asked to talk about that night.
"So," Jon begins, "if they want us to talk about it..."
"I want them to know. They're our friends. I think we should tell them."
They cross the last bridge. Already the air is more humid here. "And," Sansa continues, keeping her voice level, "I want you back in my life, in—in whatever way you're willing to be in it. Even if we just. I don't know. Get coffee every once in a while. If you're up for it."
She hears Jon let out a surprised laugh, and when she looks at him, he's regarding her and pressing his lips together to stop himself from smiling. The wound from Talla glistens slightly in the light. Dammit but he does look handsome with a split lip; Olenna was right.
"Get coffee?" he teases, raising his brows, and she flushes. It's just a trick of the light, she tells herself, the way his eyes look so velvety and dark and warm.
"Well, I don't know! I was just trying to think of something low-pressure," she protests over his quiet laughter.
"Alright, you're going to take the next exit," Jon directs when he's stopped laughing.
Sansa does not miss that he never really agreed to stay in her life, but she can't think about that now: getting into King's Landing is a bit of a nightmare, with hundreds of little side-streets and one-way roads that sometimes dump you onto major roads, and sometimes unexpectedly end at a dead end. Jon directs her toward one of the trendier neighborhoods, and they pass by dozens of very posh, very cool clubs and bars; boutiques and art galleries; beer gardens and art installations.
When they turn at last onto Val's street, it's quiet, and well after one in the morning. The street curves, a long line of pristine townhomes with ornate entrances with lacquered black doors and front gardens spilling over with roses. It is the sort of quiet street belonging to Jon and Val's ilk: supermodels, heirs and heiresses, professional athletes... Sansa cautiously parks the Mini behind Val's car, her stomach writhing.
But Jon is all business, getting out of the car and getting both their bags from the boot, so Sansa decides to be all business, too. As they walk up the front walk together, she muses that they both are in careers that require a game face, a mask of sorts; the ability to pretend. Her gaze slides to Jon. His face is carefully blank, and she wonders if his stomach is writhing, too.
"Finally," Val says when Jon pushes open the door like he lives there. She must have been watching for them.
The front entryway is all checkered floor and crown moulding, and a modern glass chandelier. Val has changed into sleek, pale loungewear that Sansa instantly covets, and she's holding a glass of whisky. "Come on in, we're all settled in. We can figure out sleeping arrangements later."
Val catches Sansa's eye and gives her a steely sort of look, and Sansa realises, belatedly, that it's a look of support. A you've-got-this sort of look.
Sam, Gilly, and Dickon are in Val's living room, a large, high-ceilinged room with a magnificent fireplace that must be cosy in winter. Contrasted with the ornate crown moulding and old hardwood floors, the furniture is simple and modern: Sam and Gilly are cuddled on a puffy white loveseat; Dickon is sitting on an ottoman by the fireplace, elbows on his knees as he studies his glass of whisky; and after Val pours them both glasses of whisky, she perches on the edge of an ice-grey winged-back armchair like an elegant, long-necked bird.
That just leaves Jon and Sansa on the sofa, and they sit together, keenly aware of everyone's eyes.
"Well, I called Aemon, and he agreed to do the wedding for us tomorrow," Sam tells Sansa over Gilly's head. His voice has that loud, taut quality of awareness: he is trying to give them space if they need it, and not push the matter, but he isn't a good enough actor to hide that he's dying of curiosity. But Gilly is studying Sansa and Jon carefully, and Val rolls her eyes.
"Oh, for fuck's sake. You know you want to ask," she drawls at them, "so just ask."
"We agreed not to—" Sam begins, but Jon clears his throat.
"No, no. It's alright," he promises Sam. "Sansa and I talked about it. You're our friends; you deserve to know the story."
The sofa is just a little too small. Her hip brushes Jon's as they settle in, and it lights her ablaze. The scent of his skin is too familiar, and it's too close now. That scent makes her want to bury her face in the crook of his neck, and that is decidedly not a helpful urge right now. And then Jon makes it worse by looking at her. "So let's tell it."
He nods encouragingly, and Sansa has to look away. She looks down at her glass of whisky.
She has never talked about it. She has spent the last eleven years reliving it, intentionally or not, in dreams, in nightmares; in sudden, swooping moments when a scent, a sound, a turn of phrase will throw her back into it. But she has never, ever talked about it.
"Eleven years ago, Jon and I got married, and it triggered a tragedy in my family," she begins slowly, and she hears Sam draw in a sharp breath. "But to understand how it all happened, we have to go back to the beginning.
"Jon was my brother's best friend, growing up. You all already know he was in the foster system, and he was being fostered by Mr. Thorne at that point."
"An asshole," Val proclaims, and Jon snorts.
"It was unhappy," Sansa agrees carefully, "so he was at my family's house a lot. We all loved Jon, but my mother felt like he was a bad influence, and it was a constant source of tension."
"A bad influence?" Gilly blurts out. "How? Jon is so... responsible."
"You can just say 'boring,'" Val reassures Gilly, "he's used to it."
"I was angry, and always getting into fights," Jon explains, ignoring Val. "Her dad, Ned Stark, told me to find a sport I enjoyed. It would keep me occupied, give me discipline... so I found hockey, and it took over my life."
Sansa can remember the shift: when Jon went from being Robb's quiet friend with the hand-me-down clothes and the hungry look about him to being someone that people whispered about in school. After years of seeing Jon follow Robb—suddenly, Robb was the one following Jon, but Catelyn wasn't happy with this either. Robb had always been the athletic one, the talented one, the special one. Now Jon was the special one.
"Even after Jon's life changed, Mum wasn't happy," Sansa adds. "She felt like Dad was giving more time to Jon—going to games, helping him make plans and prepare to talk to scouts—than to any of his own kids. It wasn't true, but it just made things worse. Mum resented him, and for a long time, I agreed with her."
Sansa looks at Jon, and he nods.
"Sansa and I didn't really interact for the first three or four years that I knew the Starks," he explains. "I thought she felt the same way her mother did, so I avoided her. But I'd always been secretly curious about her, and as the years went by, and as we got to know each other better by accident, I started to feel differently. I started to come up with excuses to stop by more often, and I thought I was being subtle—but Sansa's parents sat me down and told me they had noticed my interest, and asked me to back off."
"Even her dad?" Sam asks in surprise. "But it sounds like he cared so much about you."
"Dad felt the need to protect me. I was sort of known as the pretty, stupid one," Sansa explains dryly, but it still hurts. Val laughs into her whisky.
"Oh god, that explains a lot," she laughs darkly. "No wonder you're so intense. Though I have no idea how anyone could call you stupid."
"I liked romance, and stories, and ballet, and girly things, and no one else in my family did. I was the airhead, the ditz, and Dad always felt like I needed to be taken care of. He didn't even want me to drive anywhere on my own because he was afraid I wouldn't pay attention to the road."
"It was wrong," Jon says fiercely. "As we all know, Sansa's brilliant, but families are complicated—"
(Dickon snorts and shakes his head)
"—and I guess they thought they were protecting their little girl," Jon finishes disdainfully. "But I had just been drafted by a minor league team at that point, and things were looking promising for my career, so I think they assumed that I'd move away and be too busy with hockey, and that would be the end of it."
"But it wasn't," Sansa admits.
(She can remember it all: the high of finding out Jon had been drafted; sneaking off to meet him that night and kissing him in the backseat of his car. He had given her a hickey that night, and when she'd pointed it out, he'd said, in an uncharacteristically roguish moment, "just think what'll happen if I get drafted for the major league" and she can still remember the satisfying clench of anticipation she had felt, and the ensuing realisation that this was what arousal felt like.)
"We became more serious," Jon says, and Sansa can feel herself blushing to her hairline, and she knows that they can all read on her features what he means by this. "I got a flat close to the arena, and Sansa started at university, and we were always meeting up. We'd spend entire weekends together—"
"—Until my brother Robb accidentally called us out," Sansa remembers with a cringe. "He didn't mean to, but he didn't know any better. The fallout was...awful. Screaming, yelling, a lot of threats... They told me I couldn't see Jon anymore, and made me move back home for the rest of the semester, to stop me from seeing Jon."
"But why?" Gilly despairs. "Jon was already on track to be major league at that point, right? So it's not like they could assume he'd be a deadbeat or something."
"I got a concussion that season and wasn't playing."
Jon's voice is haunted; Sansa remembers those harrowing days, brain scans and complicated charts and a moody side of Jon she had not seen in years, and before she realises it, her hand is clasped in Jon's, fingers lacing with his instinctively. His hand is warm and calloused, and she is afraid he will retract his hand, but his grip tightens when she tries to gently, apologetically pull away. When she looks up, she sees everyone's gaze flicker to their hands and then look away quickly, as though embarrassed. "So suddenly the idea of a career in hockey seemed like it was off the table."
"Mum and Dad were even more convinced that we shouldn't be together," Sansa recalls. "I was majoring in art history, with a focus in the history of fashion, and they all pointed out how I was, more or less, studying to become a housewife. I wouldn't be likely to make a living on my own—"
"—But that's simply not true!" Sam bursts out indignantly, stamping his foot a little. "There are plenty of—"
"—The way my family saw it, I just was never going to be anything more than a wife and a mother, and that I was wasting all my time on someone with no future, no stability, no ability to provide for me. For my mum, it was snobbery; for my dad, it was misplaced protectiveness.
"It was a low point. And being separated—" she pauses to collect herself. "It was hell. And then Jon climbed in through my window one night and proposed, and I knew it was right. I said yes, and we decided to run off the next night."
Even now there is a trembling burst of joy as she remembers that night: Jon's wild dark hair in her fingers, the sound of the rain coming through her open bedroom window, the lace curtains rippling, his thumbs tracing her jaw, her lips; she will never forget how it felt to be touched like that.
"It was only meant to end the discussion," Jon explains, shaking his head. "To prove that we were serious, that this wasn't up for debate. We thought things would be awkward, but that they would eventually blow over. I was going to university, and was using my minor league earnings to keep myself afloat while I worked at the university part-time. We figured we would live together in my flat and figure things out as we went. We knew her parents would be mad, but they're good people—" at this, he squeezes her hand gently, "—and we thought they would eventually get past it."
"Oh, no," Gilly sighs sadly.
"The next night, before I left, I had a furious row with Mum. I had always been really well-behaved, so we had never argued like that. But it was awful," Sansa remembers. "We said things—things that you don't forget. I never knew how cruel my own mother could be, but the things she said... So, I ran off with Jon, in tears."
"But they didn't know where Sansa and I had gone," Jon steps in. "They thought we could have gone anywhere, and it was an icy night, so they set off to look for us—and left Bran and Rickon, the youngest ones, at home."
"I never thought they'd come after us," Sansa confesses. "So I didn't even think of what the consequences might be. I still assumed it would all work out, somehow, in time. We got married in a civil union the next day, and got a room at a really cheap inn. We had cheap champagne—"
"—Undrinkable—" Jon recalls.
"—And then I got the call."
Her stomach drops. Here is the part she cannot bring herself to speak of. Here is what she cannot do. She registers Jon's thumb tracing along her skin, and she scrunches her eyes shut.
"Her little brother Bran always liked to climb things—walls, trees," Jon continues for her. "And he'd been left alone, so there was no one to yell at him to stop."
"And it was icy," Gilly realises in horror.
"He was on the roof. He'd been upset, and had wanted to take his mind off of the drama, so he'd climbed all the way to the top of the house—and then he slipped and fell. When Sansa got the call, her parents were in hospital with Bran. He was unconscious, and no one was sure what would happen."
"Of course I couldn't stay away—not when it seemed like my brother might not wake up," Sansa says. "So we came back."
"...We went right to the hospital, and their family lawyer was there," Jon remembers bitterly, "and that was the last time Sansa and I saw each other until this past Saturday."
"Oh, god," Gilly breathes, fingers splayed over her mouth in horror. Dickon's face is twisted in sadness as he stares at the floor. Sam is blinking rapidly.
"He took care of annulling the marriage," Jon adds, "and I agreed to never contact Sansa again. I felt like it was my fault—what had happened to Bran—so I didn't think I had a choice."
Tears streak down Sansa's cheeks and she feels them drip off her chin and jaw, and land on her bare arms. She is back again: those months of waiting and watching, of daily trips to hospital to check in on Bran, of being a pariah in her own home. You'll be happier this way, Catelyn had said once, stroking Sansa's hair, and it couldn't have lasted, Sansa, Dad had agreed quietly. "After that, I threw myself back into hockey and hoped the concussion wouldn't prevent me from playing again," Jon finishes, "and I never spoke to any of the Starks again."
"And Sansa switched to studying law," Sam concludes quietly, "and never spoke to any of the Starks again, either."
Sansa nods and feels Jon's gaze on her.
"None of them?" he asks brokenly, and she can only nod mutely, for fear of crying in earnest.
"Arya still leaves me angry voicemails," she admits when she can speak again, "but otherwise, no."
"Me too. And Robb used to send me long, rambling emails," Jon admits, "but I never replied, so eventually he gave up."
"What happened to Bran?" Dickon's voice is soft, his brows drawn together.
"He still walks with a cane, last I heard," Sansa says. "It took him a long time to wake up, and even longer to be functional. His speech and memory were ...not good... for a long time. He ended up studying philosophy at university, and going for his doctorate—"
At this, Val scoffs disgustedly.
"Oh, but that's much more employable than a degree in art history. No sexism there at all," she mutters, finishing off the rest of her whisky.
They all sit in quiet. Sansa tries to blink back her tears but they continue quietly. When she looks at Jon, he is staring determinedly at the empty fireplace, but his eyes are wet and she can see his throat moving as he swallows.
"But it wasn't your fault," Sam says at last, still indignant. "They left your brother alone, Sansa, not you! They forced you out—"
"—It didn't feel that way. Not when I saw him in his hospital bed, hooked up to all those tubes... It still doesn't feel that way."
Dickon is the first to get up. He silently pours them all more whisky, and then holds up his glass.
"They say blood's thicker than water, but I—I think that's crap," he says awkwardly. He's flushed, because Dickon is never the one who speaks up. "So, here's to found family, or whatever," he finishes uncomfortably. Val grins and mutters, 'bless his dumb heart,' before taking a drink, and Sam gets up and hugs Dickon before taking a drink as well. Gilly walks over and kisses the tops of Jon and Sansa's heads.
"You're my favourite people, besides Sam, you two," she whispers, "and I'm glad you told us. It doesn't change a single thing, but I'm glad you told us. You shouldn't have to keep that hidden."
They all take a drink; at some point, Jon and Sansa let go of each other's hands. But his leg is still pressed against hers, and all she wants to do is turn to him and bury her face in his chest. Exhaustion overtakes her, but there's a curious lightness to her, too. She doesn't edge away from him, and as she drinks more whisky, she lets herself revel in the feel of his strong leg against hers, of his arm against hers. There is such a primal pleasure in touching him, a primal pleasure that nothing—not shopping, not winning in court, not sipping wine with Dickon, not even furtive trips to the movies to watch fictional people fall in love—can give her. She can feel him relax against her, too.
Maybe he doesn't want to be in her life, after this. After all, he didn't say anything earlier, in the car ride. So for now she'll drink in this moment and let it burn and seduce her like whisky, because the poison has been let and those dark memories are drifting away from her like flotsam. All that is left is a powerful ache for how much she has loved this man, and how far she was once—and still is, truthfully—willing to go for him. She is as certain as she ever was. And maybe she always had a backbone after all; maybe they needed to do this, to discover their own bones. Maybe to fall in love is to be found as an old ruin, and then slowly revealed, dug up from the earth, and made whole again. Jon has always revealed her.
The conversation eventually drifts away from Jon and Sansa, as they make their plans for tomorrow. Sansa sits there, slightly drunk, marveling at how the world has not ended. They all know now, and though they're being gentle and considerate, they aren't looking at her any differently. No dark, furtive looks, like they can't believe what she has done; no looks of reproach or disgust, or anger that they didn't explain sooner. Even Dickon seems mostly unbothered, and, as he grows more tipsy, seems increasingly preoccupied with staring at Val.
She looks at Jon, and he looks at her, and it is a curiously private look. She used to know that look, but maybe she's misreading it. Certain places prickle with heat and she tells herself to look away, but instead she smiles at him.
"They know," she marvels, and Jon smiles back. He slumps back slightly, and his bare arm brushes hers. There are literal, actual entire Tumblrs dedicated to his forearms (not that she looked) and once upon a time those forearms belonged to her. "Maybe it wasn't our fault."
His grey eyes linger on hers. She thinks of slipping into a warm lake, she thinks of kissing him in his car, she thinks of his strong hands steadying her in the rain earlier today, though it feels like a lifetime ago.
"It wasn't, Sansa," he murmurs, and the way he says her name is like a caress, nearly as good as feeling his thumb brushing her jaw. She'll take it. He hasn't said if he's willing to get coffee with her, so maybe this is all she gets. Either way it is worth it. She is a ruin revealed; she thought she was throwing away something in getting rid of her mask, but now she sees there was never any mask all along: just too much dirt and history, hiding her bones.
And then everyone is growing sleepy and quiet, and Val announces that it's time for bed.
There is a moment when Jon rises from the couch and helps Sansa up. His eyes graze hers, and his grip is strong, but his gaze doesn't linger. She thinks of how he said, always, and then she thinks of how he never said whether he wanted to stay in her life again or not. And then she thinks, wow, I am actually a bit drunk.
Sansa goes into the guest room on the first floor, while she hears Jon climb the stairs to another room—the one he usually stays in, apparently, when he's at Val's. The guest room she's staying in is lovely: bright and airy, with ice-blue accents and crisp, clean sheets. She gulps down water greedily, hoping to avoid a hangover. It shouldn't be too bad, but her head already hurts from the tension and the pain and the hope, and she doesn't want to be fussing with a headache at Sam and Gilly's wedding. Not after all she has put them through.
She showers and changes into pajamas, a dark navy set with cream piping that is worn soft from years of wear. Her headache is already clearing and she already feels herself sobering up. She turns off the light, and is just about to slide into the highly tempting sheets, when there's a knock at her door.
Her heart leaps into her throat, and she tells herself it's just Val; or maybe it's Gilly, wanting to unpack the night a little more.
"Hey," comes Jon's soft, deep voice, and her stomach clenches. "We need to talk."
I was going to wait until tomorrow to post this, but here we are.
Some housekeeping: I received some pretty upsetting comments last chapter, which I have since deleted. I try to be transparent, but if a comment is upsetting or inflammatory, I will just delete it and not engage. I don't like deleting comments because it feels like censorship, but fanfic is my stress reliever and is intended to be a place of joy for me. I'm sorry to anyone who may be upset by my writing, and I honor that you have your own viewpoint, but I don't like having comment wars breaking out on something that is supposed to be my source of joy. Thanks for understanding!
I hope you guys enjoy this final chapter!
The most ridiculous thing is that the first thing she thinks is, but I look like crap. Her hair's still wet from the shower, and her eyes are slightly puffy from crying, and even though she loves these pajamas, they're a little pilled with age, and wrinkled from being in her suitcase. But before she can protest, the knob is turning.
"Wait, I'm not—" She's about to say she's not decent, but then the door is open, and Jon is standing in the doorway. He's still dressed, in a grey tee and jeans, and his split lip looks darker.
The room is silent. Somewhere she can hear traffic. The fact that the rest of the world is simply carrying on right now is somehow both unbelievable and utterly hilarious. Jon is in her bedroom, looking at her like that. And they're all just living their lives! Impossible!
There is something electric, something alive, about his presence. He closes the door quietly and leans against it, regarding Sansa. His eyes trace over her, and she silently thanks whatever higher power of personal grooming there is that she shaved last night, because her pajama bottoms are shorts and there is no hiding right now.
Her heart is pounding, and her knees are jiggly and loose. Why does he have to look like that? Why can't he simply speak to her through the door? She crosses her arms and wishes that she had put on her bra. "Um. Right. You wanted to talk?"
"I didn't know you weren't speaking with your family."
Okay, not what she expected, but then again, she isn't sure what she expected. She can't read his face so she isn't sure why he means to bring this up.
"Well, it didn't happen overnight," she admits slowly. "And like I said, I still get the angry voicemails from Arya—"
"—But I do too," Jon interrupts angrily, stepping away from the door. "I promised I'd let you go, and I thought I was making that promise so you could have your family." He rakes a hand over his hair. "Fuck, Sansa, if I had known you were going to—"
He halts abruptly and turns, pacing. His back is to her, his hands on his hips, that thoughtful, frustrated posture she's seen him adopt on the ice. "What was the point?" he asks at last, his voice breaking. "What was the point of us not speaking anymore, if you were going to give up your family anyway?"
"I didn't mean to give them up," she argues, forgetting her braless state and pacing away from him. "But it just got to be too much. I could tell Mum and Dad felt badly about it, and that they were always trying to reassure me that things would be better this way... When I changed my focus to law, Dad was so proud," she remembers bitterly. "He left me a voicemail saying that he was so proud I had chosen to grow in the face of adversity. And I never returned the call, because I was so angry. It was just, like, oh—now I'm good enough?"
The fury courses through her again and she blinks back tears. "Now that I'm less girly, now that I've given up the things you find boring—now I'm worthy? Now that all of the things that gave me joy, that made me who I am, are gone—now you're proud?"
She thought she was done crying, but these are tears of rage, and she covers her face. "And honestly, a part of me did crave that approval, too. A part of me really, really wanted Dad to finally be proud of me, to see me as a person, not me as just his silly, helpless daughter. And a part of me understood his worries. He finally felt like I could stand on my own, that he could trust my decisions. ...All it took was the destruction of everything I held dear.
"And at the same time, Arya and Robb wouldn't stop pushing me—Arya kept confronting me and telling me I was acting like a coward, and Robb kept looking at me so sadly, like he felt so sorry for me. He kept offering to help me go after you, and I just—I couldn't. Because you never came after me, and I never went after you, and at first I wanted to give you space, and then I was mad that you had given me space. And all the while, Bran was recuperating so slowly, but any time he was lucid, he had to tell me it wasn't my fault, and I still felt like it was my fault, then, all of it. And it just felt like every time I went home, I stepped into this—this maelstrom of emotion, of feelings, of all of these forces pushing me in different directions. Do this, don't do this—it was too much, alright? I couldn't do it anymore. No matter what I do, someone thinks I'm acting like an idiot. No matter what I do, I'm the villain."
She hears Jon's steps on the soft carpet and realises he is behind her.
"I know a bit of how that feels," he says wryly, his voice soft. When he lets out a sardonic laugh, it ruffles the back of her neck, and again she feels that damned pleasurable clench in the pit of her belly, and remembers she is braless. She furiously wipes at her cheeks and crosses her arms over her chest, though she is facing away from Jon. "Sometimes I'm grateful for what happened," he adds quietly. "It pushed me further into hockey than I ever would have gone on my own. And maybe you needed to pursue law, to prove something to yourself, too."
"Oh, so it's fine, because it all worked out in the end?" she snaps, and Jon laughs sadly again, his breath fanning along the little downy hairs at the nape of her neck. She wishes he wouldn't do that, because it's highly distracting, and she'd like to focus on being angry right now, thanks much.
"I mean, would it have hurt so much if a part of us didn't sort of believe them?" he wonders. "I'm not saying it's right. I'm saying we believed them, and that's what wasn't right. Your mum told me I'd never amount to anything, and it was just the worst thing she could have possibly told me. The most painful thing. And when your dad even seemed to wonder about my prospects, my abilities..." He draws in a breath. "What I mean is, maybe our own insecurities would have split us apart soon anyway."
"Oh, I see. You're saying they were right, it was always futile, and we were just two morons after all. Thanks. At the end of this very long, very painful night, that is just the sort of thing I'd like to hear," she forces out, her voice taut.
"I'm saying maybe we weren't ready for each other, Sansa!" Jon snaps back. "I dunno, I've spent a lot of time trying to find meaning in it, trying to see it as something other than this painful bomb going off in my life. And this is just what I managed to come up with."
"What you came up with is not very good," Sansa points out.
"Yeah, it's crap," Jon agrees, to her surprise. "But I'm here now. Why do you think I'm here right now?"
Curiosity killed the cat, after all, and before Sansa can stop herself, she turns to face him.
Well, that was a mistake. He's so close. Her belly drops. She considers taking a step back, but her feet are rooted to the soft carpet and she seems to have forgotten how to do simple things like walking or breathing.
"Well," she blusters. Where is the cool, steely woman who steps into court in immaculate Manolos and a cloud of custom perfume? She is gone, gone, and there's just Sansa, a mess of longing and love and hope and regret and embarrassing, unbridled wants. "I don't know. I offered that we could stay in each other's lives, earlier, and you never really responded—"
"—I don't want fucking coffee," Jon blurts out suddenly, saying coffee like it's some sort of vulgar, offensive term, like she's offered they meet up to dine on sheep brain or shoot rodents. "That's such bullshit, Sansa. What the hell did you expect me to say to that? I don't want to catch up once in a while. I don't want to be friends and watch you date morons like Dickon—no offense, but—"
"—None taken, but he's really not that stupid, just a little—" Sansa says quickly, but halts when Jon gives her a really? sort of look. "Right. Anyway." She bites her lip again, watches him watch the motion again. "You don't want coffee." Her knees are outright trembling now, and she locks her legs and digs her toes into the carpet, hoping to hide it. "Then what do you want?"
Jon cocks his head to the side.
"What do you think, Sansa?" he asks slowly. "Do I really have to spell it out?"
"Y-yes," she stammers. There is something unfurling in her, something blossoming in her. Oh, right. Arousal. As it turns out, she hasn't been this turned on in a very, very long time, and apparently there's no blood left in her brain. "You do have to spell it out. I want you to."
Jon draws in a breath, and she watches his shoulders rise and fall. Then he relaxes, and there is a look of curious resolve about him. But his eyes look darker than ever. Oh, but he's pulled this shit before on her, with the smoldering thing. Wanker, she thinks furiously, and then she wonders why she's so angry with him, and dimly wonders if the damp heat between her legs and the swollen feeling in her breasts have anything to do with it. But he's looking at her with such heat that she can't really detail it further than that.
"I realised from the moment that Sam asked me to be his best man, I've been thinking about you," Jon begins in a low voice. "I started a fake relationship, for fuck's sake. I was angry, and bitter, and humiliated, but I was still consumed. I thought I'd gotten past it, I thought I'd moved on, but I haven't. Because the only part of that night that I haven't let go of is the fact that I walked away without you."
Jon is not a man for speeches, so he halts here, staring at her, trying to read her. "So if you want me to walk away now, I will," he continues, less certain, "and I swear that'll be the end of it. But I can't be friends with you. I can't get fucking coffee with you."
"No coffee. Got it," Sansa says, but she's smiling, the sort of smile that she had on her face when Jon said, I do. Her joy is senseless, shivering, brilliant joy, and she watches, with profound pleasure, as Jon's grey eyes read her as easily as if she were a book. "I think you know what I want." Her voice is embarrassingly breathless, but whatever. She is braless and visibly turned on; she has no dignity left. Jon's gaze lowers to her mouth.
"Spell it out," he says softly. Gods but something about the way he is ordering her around now makes her want him even more, but she has learned how to argue—she has crafted a backbone, dammit!—and for some reason he's making her want to use it.
"Remember when you were drafted for the minor league? That night in your car?"
"Vividly," Jon replies with heat, his gaze settling on her neck—precisely where he gave her the love bite.
"You said, just think what'll happen if I get drafted for the major league," she reminds him, as Jon tears his gaze from her neck. "And—not that I've been following along—but I believe you were drafted."
"Right, that's embarrassing," Jon says sensibly. "That was ten years ago and I never followed up."
"It is embarrassing," she says just as sensibly, her voice straining. "All this talk about proving my mum wrong, yet here—"
He cuts her off with a searing kiss, and her bare legs brush the back of the bed. His calloused hands are on her jaw, fingers twining in her hair, lean hard chest pressed against her breasts, and she can feel the slick line of the gash in his lip. And she closes her eyes and twines her arms around him, breathing in his scent as he guides her back down onto the bed and then balances over her as she clumsily grapples with the hem of his shirt. There is no hiding, now; there is no way to stay cool and collected and composed. She is nineteen again, desperate and needy and swooning, starry-eyed, and utterly in love. It is as if no time has passed at all.
Jon pulls his tee shirt over his head and tosses it aside, and slides one hand beneath her top, along her back, guiding her to arch her back as he presses his lips to her collarbone, to her neck; as he rakes his teeth along her neck in just the way that makes her shudder and writhe against him, because he knows her body and perhaps it's changed a bit, but she is still the same Sansa she was eleven years ago, even if she looks a little different now.
He is the same, too, but also different: he still gasps when she rakes her nails along his shoulder blades, the same way he did eleven years ago; but those shoulder blades are different now. More muscle shifts along his back, and he's broader, too, just like her breasts are a little fuller and her hips a little wider; her thighs perhaps a bit softer. But he still bites his lip when she kisses the inside of his forearm where those freckles are, just like he did the first time she did that; and he still likes to tease her: lips grazing the peak of her breast through the fabric of her top, teeth on her hipbone, the softest touch between her legs, maddeningly gentle and almost sly.
It is nothing like the cool, rhythmic, dull sex with Dickon: it is clumsy, and uneven, and she is slick with sweat in even odd places like her knees, and when Jon pulls off her pajama top, one of the buttons gets stuck in her wet hair, and Jon lets out a breathless laugh as he hovers over her, carefully untangling her hair from the button. "Knew you weren't wearing a bra," he mutters as he tosses the top aside and inhales her skin.
"Looking closely, were you?" she gasps giddily as he moves lower, hair grazing her breasts, and hooks his fingers in the waistband of her pajama bottoms.
"Always," he jokes, pulling the shorts down her legs, and she is embarrassed by how obvious her need is—and then he seems to be giving her a love bite between her legs, and all rational thought flees her brain. Her fingers are twined in his thick curls—she thinks of #freethemanbunjon and laughs, but then he does a thing with his tongue that makes her back arch and the laughter get stuck in her throat, and she stops thinking about Twitter, thank goodness.
He brings her over the edge and she dizzily reaches for him as he pulls away from between her legs, wiping his lips and hovering over her. His face is flushed and his hair is wild, and she blindly reaches to unbutton his jeans, and there's some awkward kicking as he struggles out of his jeans and underwear, and then—and then—
He breathes her name so she breathes his as they move together. Her heels trace along his strong calves and she remembers, just a few days ago, Talla shrieking about Jon's calves. But the thought doesn't linger, because he shifts his hips against hers in a different way, and she only has time to dearly thank the Direwolves for their rigorous training program which has clearly done very, very happy things for Jon's hip muscles—she doesn't have the brain power to remember the muscle name, which is embarrassing, but—oh, fuck it.
A very long time later they at last collapse together beneath the crisp sheets. Dawn is already turning the room pale blue as Jon reaches for her and pulls her against his chest.
"We are going to be completely useless at this wedding tomorrow—today," she corrects, laughing against his skin, and Jon laughs into her hair, his voice still a little ragged from exertion.
"I think all we have to do is show up," he reassures her, his hand smoothing along the line from her breast to her thigh reflexively, possessively.
They fall quiet. Sansa's eyelids grow heavy with exhaustion, but she cannot relax just yet.
"And after that?" she asks sleepily, relishing Jon's rough hand moving along her skin so drowsily. "What happens after that?"
Jon toys with her still-damp hair.
"I think," he says quietly, "whatever we want."
"Is that Jon Snow?" Aemon Targaryen, cataracts for days, is peering at Jon with interest.
"Yes, it is," Sam interrupts, uncharacteristically impatient. "Captain of the Direwolves, Arthur Dayne trophy winner, etcetera. The thing is, Aemon, we've only got this room for about eight more minutes, and—"
"Yes yes, of course," Aemon wheezes, and Sansa and Gilly exchange a grin.
They are in the Lannister Foundation Museum, a magnificent collection of jewels, artifacts, ancient weapons, and uncovered bones, attached to the Citadel Library. This room—full of ancient scientific instruments—is Sam's favourite, and is where he proposed to Gilly by accident months ago, when he was carrying too many books and the ring box fell out of the pocket of his cargo pants.
("Cargo pants!" Gilly wailed, slightly drunk on joy and margaritas, when she first told Sansa about it. "This is how you know I love this man!"
"Cargo pants!!" Margaery had shrieked with glee and horror, and Sansa remembers Margaery sliding under the table, laughing too hard to sit up, as Gilly wept into Sansa's shoulder with joy and mirth.)
There is a medallion in the mosaic tiling in the floor, depicting a rearing lion; the palladian window lets in golden light from the humid August day, and sets the room in a fae glow. They are positioned between a glass display of long swords ("Stiff competition?" Val teased Dickon earlier, when she'd caught him peering at them, and Dickon turned bright red, stammered something, and Jon snorted so hard he had to be pulled away by Sansa to get a grip), and a case of fabulous jewels: an emerald collar, a hairnet dripping in amethysts.
Gilly is dressed in a floaty lace dress that skims her calves and moves dreamily even in the stillness of this room, and Sam, Jon, and Dickon are all in the tuxedos they were going to wear for the Tarly wedding. Val looks gloriously rumpled yet somehow still polished and pristine in a daring crop top and midi skirt pairing that would look good on approximately zero other people; and Sansa is wearing the dress she set aside for the rehearsal dinner, a periwinkle guipure number that stops just short of being princess-y; the perfect union of teen and adult Sansa.
"Stand there, I don't trust that lion," Aemon explains, directing Sam and Gilly closer toward the window, Gilly mouthing to Sam, what lion? and Sam mouths back, the floor, and Gilly rolls her eyes. The sun hits Gilly's brown hair, edging it in gold, and Sam quite visibly swoons (he is already crying, of course). "It looks so hungry. Greedy. This museum, as a matter of fact, was built on gree—"
"—Yes, it's all very interesting, isn't it," Sansa sweeps in, touching Aemon's arm. "Tell us all about it over lunch, later. For now, how about we read through those vows?"
Jon is trying very hard not to grin at her, and keeps biting his lip to make himself look serious and focused. He looks infuriatingly hot in his tux, especially with that split lip, and Sansa amuses herself with thinking of all the many sub-Reddits dedicated to ranking Jon's formalwear as they all get into position. From behind Gilly, Sansa meets Jon's eyes, and he flicks his brows up briefly, making her grin even more broadly, as Aemon ponderously reads through the vows, and Sam's sniffles grow ever louder.
It all happens in a blur, like happiness inevitably does: one minute she is beaming at Jon, the next she finds herself discreetly trying to wipe away her tears as Sam and Gilly say, I do, and reach for each other in a clumsy, desperate kiss. Dickon is blinking away tears and Val is rolling her eyes at Sansa as she nods to Dickon, in a can-you-believe-this-idiot sort of way that Sansa is beginning to see is a trademark of Val.
And then they're being chased out of the museum by a very hassled-looking employee, and spilling out into the humid street.
Sansa watches Gilly and Sam through eyes blurry with tears, as she and Jon follow them down the large, shallow steps of the museum. And Gilly stops at the foot and turns back to Sansa with the most brilliant smile, and pitches her bouquet at her, rapid-style, and Jon catches it for her with the lightning-fast reflexes that have won him more than a few games.
"Good thing you caught it," Sansa jokes, "because I already told Gilly I'm not the marrying kind," and Jon says, "she must not know you like I do," and pulls her close and kisses her long and slow and deep, like he knows her, like he is drawing her from the deepest well, like he is shining sunlight on all of her hidden parts.
6 months later
"This is my favourite part, wake up," Sansa says, elbowing Jon in the side, and he groans and lifts his head from her shoulder. On screen, Florian is professing his love for Jonquil, and Sansa sniffs at the romance of it all, but Jon rubs his face blearily.
"Very sweet," he yawns. Normally he is nearly as wrapped up in a good romance as she is (though he would rather die than admit it) but he has played three games in the last week, and he is exhausted.
She doesn't mind; she likes these nights, where she waits up for him and he comes into her flat with a casualness, a familiarity, like it's his home, too. He drops his Direwolves-branded bag on the floor of her entryway with a thud, and staggers to the couch or the bed, wherever she is, and drops down against her with a bone-deep, pleasurable exhaustion, usually burying his face in her neck.
(Sometimes, though, he is is electric when he comes home, and those nights, they do not get much sleep. Sometimes she is electric when she comes home from court, and the last time she was, they did not even make it to the bed.)
He's cuddly and sweet now, in a worn grey jumper that she wears when he's away, and his hair is wild. But last night, he was a demon on the ice, slicing his way up and down the rink. She watched from her living room and shrieked when Sandor Clegane of the Knights, his old rival, smacked into him and tackled him against the plexiglass; he has a purple bruise on his face but he's smug as ever, pointing out that he still scored anyway.
"S'your mobile vibrating?" Jon asks sleepily, relaxing back against her. Sansa glances over; her mobile is indeed vibrating, buzzing its way along the cushion, and she squints to see who it is.
"It—it's Dad," she says flatly, her stomach dropping.
Jon is alert at once. He sits up and together they stare at the little buzzing mobile, until at last the buzzing stops, and the call is sent to voicemail. Neither Jon nor Sansa can speak, and they watch the screen light up with a new voicemail alert.
"You don't have to listen to it. You don't have to share it with me," Jon says immediately. Sansa looks at him, feeling her nose prickle. He's biting his lip as he studies her. "You don't have to do anything you don't want to do."
"I know." Her voice is raw. She flips her mobile over, and presses play on the movie with a shaking finger. "Let's—let's just finish the movie."
As always, Jon is ever in her corner, and he sinks back against her like nothing has happened. But her mind is buzzing like her mobile was, buzzing with the word 'dad', and she cannot focus on the movie.
But she doesn't listen to the voicemail.
The movie ends, and they get ready for bed, and they lay awake together, hands clasped as they stare at the ceiling.
"What if—what if something bad's happened," she eventually wonders at about four am.
"Arya'd call, or Robb," Jon says immediately. "I don't think anything—anything is wrong."
(Arya left her usual voicemail at Christmas, and this time, Sansa listened.)
(She only said, "I'm so sorry, I love you," and rung off, and Sansa has listened to it perhaps a thousand times.)
One day slips by, then another. Sansa feels every moment like a brush burn. She does not delete the voicemail, but she doesn't listen to it, either. Jon follows her lead, never bringing it up unless she does.
On the seventh day, Sansa decides, at last, to listen to the voicemail. It happens like this:
Jon has just got back from a game down in Dorne, and he is in the shower. Sansa is getting dinner started; when Jon is out of the shower, he will come out and help. She is in a strange mood: she is exceedingly happy, as she always is when she and Jon have these quiet nights, but she is still aware of the voicemail, like it is a bug bite or a bruise, something that she can forget about until it is accidentally touched, and then suddenly she is hyperaware of it.
She hears Jon's hockey bag slide off the bench by the entryway, and she rolls her eyes good-naturedly. He always just drops it there like that's its place, and it's not. She wipes her hands on a towel, and picks up the bag and carries it to the bedroom. She's not paying attention when she starts grabbing his clothes out of it, throwing them in the hamper, and that's when her hand hits something hard and small, and she freezes, her fingers lingering on the object.
There is a small, hard box in Jon's bag.
She moves her finger a smidge, and is met with the soft resistance of velvet.
Naturally, she shrieks and drops the thing as though stung, and smacks backward into the wall, staring at the innocuous bag, heart pounding, eyes burning with a profound happiness.
"You alright?" Jon calls from the shower, and Sansa bites her lip to hide her furious, senseless joy.
"Y-yes," she calls back. "Stubbed my toe!"
She backs out of the bedroom as though hiding a live animal in there, and pours herself a glass of wine but doesn't drink it, she just paces back and forth in the kitchen, pulling at her hair. It's not like it's a surprise, necessarily; this was always the plan; but it is a surprise, and it's not like she's some silly girl who cares about this crap—oh, but she is. She wants the ring, she wants the romance, she wants the fairytale, and that Jon knows this about her—knows it, loves it, respects it; honors it—is all the better. It fills her with brimming joy, it strengthens her—
—And that is when she calmly walks to the counter where her mobile is charging, unlocks it, and presses play on the voicemail.
"Sansa," Ned Stark begins, "it's been almost twelve years. And I try to be an honorable man, but I haven't been honorable. I try to be a good father—but I've been a shit one, haven't I? I'm so sorry. Your mother is so sorry."
She hears him let out a long exhale. Her hand shakes on the mobile. "You don't owe us anything. But I wanted to tell you I'm sorry, and I love you, and whatever you're doing, I hope it's exactly what you want to be doing. And I hope I'll get to hear your voice again one day, but if not, I understand."
She registers Jon's light footfalls behind her, but she cannot move. "I'm sorry, I love you," he says, and the voicemail ends.
Jon's arms slide around her waist, and he presses a kiss to her shoulder. He smells like soap, and his skin is still warm from the hot shower.
"Yes," she says, setting the mobile down, and, strangely enough, it's true.
"What are you going to do about it?"
"Don't know yet," she admits, looking down at Jon's lean forearms. They belong to her again. "I'll see how I feel."
They stand like that for a long time, until at last Jon kisses her neck once more and lets go of her.
He is put on tomato-chopping duty, and they work side-by-side, rehashing the events of last night's game (Jon scored a goal almost entirely by accident and was called out by Twitter for it; Loras got punched in the face by Oberyn Martell and finally lost his teeth) and talking about Sam and Gilly's latest ultrasound (Gilly sent the pictures in the group Whatsapp and Renly sent back "eh" and inspired a lot of outrage before Loras—his secret boyfriend!—explained, with exasperation, that he was trying to be funny).
She loses herself in the perfection of her life, and notices how there is a certain secret mischief about Jon, like he's looking forward to something, like he's nervous, like he's got a secret. She knows his secret, and she suspects that he knows that she knows, and every time their arms brush or their eyes meet, she is pulsingly aware of the beauty of her life, which is slowly unfolding and blooming like a flower, or maybe like a ruin rising from the sand, silt falling away, revealing the palace that is hers to explore as she wishes.
She doesn't know yet what she will do about the voicemail; whatever it is, it will be exactly what she wants.