Charming country farmhouse with unscreened porch and fenced backyard. Original pine flooring throughout. Pullout couch and small bedroom on first floor perfect for young children. Guest bedroom on second floor shares bath with master. Fresh, nutritious breakfast provided daily. $300 per night.
Posting the details of her house on the internet wasn’t Sansa’s favorite idea, but it was a sensible one. Families all over town were renting out their spare bedrooms, their living rooms, even their backyards to visitors seeking an uninterrupted view of the Great American Eclipse. Why shouldn’t she make some easy money and host a family?
“This is a terrible idea.” Arya’s voice came through the phone when Sansa finished reading her the description. Her sister tended to FaceTime in the middle of her Sunday evening chores, which meant Sansa spent the call staring at the ceiling above Arya’s bedside shelves.
“No, it’s not. Maege says $50 per night is the going rate, and between the guest bedroom, the study, and the living room couch, I could sleep six, easy. And I have two bathrooms—“
Arya’s face made a rare appearance as she picked up the phone to peer into Sansa’s eyes. “Do you understand how Airbnb works? It’s a whole group of strangers staying in your actual house.”
“Obviously, Arya, which is why I just told you where they would all be sleeping,” she said. “I actually stayed in one for Margaery’s bachelorette party in New Orleans.”
“Penthouse apartments don’t count.”
Sansa couldn’t understand her sister’s doubts. “Why are you so worried about this? You share a one-bedroom with two boys, which honestly I still don’t understand. Aren’t you supposed to be telling me it’s a good thing to get out of my comfort zone?”
“I’m in New York. Everyone splits up bedrooms here. You, on the other hand, have an entire bedroom dedicated to your dog. I really think you’re underestimating your control issues. What if it’s a group of frat guys who want to blackout for the black out?”
“Frat guys are not driving all the way to Carbondale to get drunk, eclipse or not,” Sansa replied. But later that night, when she logged on to the hostess profile she’d already created, something made her hesitate before she hit post.
She’d wait a week. Think it over a little longer.
June was slow at the SIU office of admissions, but by the end of July work was picking up. There were visits to schedule with high school counselors, the new application timeline to edit and publish, and the occasional anxious email from applicants who had filled out their common app the second it went live.
Two weeks before the eclipse, Sansa’s boss called her minutes after she’d gotten home from work. She was curled up on the swinging bench of her wraparound porch, sweet tea in hand, and the sound of her phone vibrating against the whitewashed wood made her husky mix prick up her ears.
“It’s alright, Lady,” she soothed, swiping her thumb across the screen. “Dean Mormont? Is everything okay?”
“Just fine. Sansa, I forgot to ask you—is your house rented out yet for the weekend of the eclipse?”
“No. I didn’t actually put up an offer anywhere.”
“And you can sleep six? How does a grand sound?”
Sansa was confused. “Are you a rental agent now?”
Maege laughed. “Just trying to do my part. Didn’t you see the mayor’s press conference last night? She’s promised a tax cut if we make it to 60,000 visitors.”
“To a town of 30,000? Right. There aren’t enough beds.” Sansa shook her head doubtfully.
“But you can add six more! That’s for two nights, the 20th and the 21st. I can lend you an air mattress if you need one.”
Maege was a veteran admissions counselor of six different state university systems, and she knew how to close a deal. “Okay, I guess. Do you know the family?”
Her boss sounded much more cheerful now that she’d accepted. “Nope! Heard they needed a place to stay through my brother. I’ll bring the mattress to work the Friday before it all goes down. Enjoy your evening!”
The dean hung up, and Sansa started making a plan to clean her house.
The morning of her guests’ arrival found her back on the porch in the same position, Lady’s nose poking at her hip. She went over all the arrangements again in her head— clean sheets and towels, instructions for using the window AC units, the spare key on a Lady Salukis lanyard hanging next to the back door. Maege hadn’t told her they expected any meals, but Sansa planned to lay out a spread for breakfast both mornings anyway. Just because she wasn’t really from the Midwest didn’t mean she couldn’t be hospitable.
A text came in from Arya: don’t forget to tell them about the oak floors.
Sansa was texting her back a row of pine trees when a navy van rolled past her house. The driver braked hard, wheels screeching, before he threw it in reverse and whipping the vehicle backwards to rest against the curb.
She rose to greet them, Lady pressing close against her side, but stopped at the top of the stairs. The passengers spilling out of the van resembled a tactical military unit— strong, efficient men in grey t-shirts and heavy boots, all loaded down with identical canvas duffels. The only woman jumped down from the passenger’s side just in time to shove at the driver as he came around the front of the van.
“Told you you’d miss it. Two tours commanding night ops in Kandahar and you can’t read a city grid for shit, Tormund.”
Sansa thought about Arya’s warnings and scratched at Lady’s ears. It wasn’t frat guys, exactly, but this was no family road trip either.
Her nerves must have shown on her face. One of the men, shorter than the others but no less solid, approached her on the porch, hand raised cautiously like one might greet a frightened animal. Lady curled her tail around Sansa’s ankles, but otherwise remained still.
“Are you Sansa?”
She tried to look relaxed. "That's me."
“I’m Jon Snow. I can’t tell you how happy we were to find this place on such short notice.”
“It’s no trouble,” Sansa answered automatically, though trouble was exactly she anticipated as she tried to imagine any of them sharing an air mattress. “Please, come in and get settled and then we can talk about, um, sleeping arrangements.”
“We brought tents,” Jon reassured her.
“But we would be more than happy to accept beds!” another man added, approaching the porch. He had large eyes in a kind, round face. “Dr. Sam Tarly, ma’am. Your hospitality is greatly appreciated.”
“Only one bed, I’m afraid, but there’s an air mattress and a pullout couch. My boss gave me the impression you were a family with young children, otherwise I wouldn’t have told her I had room for six.”
“Your boss was right,” said the lone woman. “You just haven’t met Tormund yet. Geeks can stay inside if they want, but I’m sleeping under the stars.”
“Pyp and I come from the academic side of things,” Sam explained, moving aside so the skinnier man could shake her hand. “The rest are all military, as Ygritte constantly reminds us.”
“And— sorry—who are you, exactly? I mean, how do you know each other?”
Pyp cleared his throat. “Grenn, Tormund, get over here. It is my honor,” he waved his hands dramatically, “to introduce the Astronaut Candidates of Group 22.”
“The Night’s Watch,” Grenn added proudly.
Ygritte snorted. “Group 10 were the Maggots. We got lucky.”
“Oh,” Sansa blinked in surprise. “Are you here to study the eclipse?”
This made Ygritte smile. “Something like that. Gear to the back, ASCANs. Telescopes before tents.”
“And tripod before telescopes,” said Pyp. Their voices faded as they pulled more bags from the van and started hauling them behind the house, leaving Sansa and Jon alone on the porch.
“Let me help you,” Sansa offered, descending from the porch and reaching for the nearest bag.
“I’ve got it,” said Jon as she tried and failed to lift it more than a few inches. “Lenses are heavy, and you’re not…” He gave her gingham skirt and espadrilles a meaningful glance.
“Not in the military,” she finished for him. His fingers brushed hers as he took the straps from her and tossed the whole bag over his shoulder. Lady barked from the porch.
Jon nodded up at her. “You’ve got a beautiful dog.”
“Lady is a sweetheart,” Sansa agreed easily, “All of my siblings grew up with dogs that we trained. She’s the only piece of home I brought from Boston when I moved here.
“You did a good job training her.” He turned to go, then called back. “And I’m not, either. In the military.”
“But you were once.” Sansa saw traces of it in his posture and the clean efficiency of his movements. If it weren’t for his long hair, gathered into a tight knot at the back of his head, he could have walked out of a recruiting poster.
Thanks for reading! No, sorry, you can't stay at my house for the eclipse. Find me on tumblr @ caesiamusa.
Sansa took Lady back inside. Tongue halfway out of her mouth, the dog crashed on her side while Sansa refilled her water bowl. She lay there, panting loudly and following her owner’s movements with her eyes as Sansa dithered around the kitchen. Should she follow her guests outside? Leave them to their work? What had Maege told them to expect from her?
She had half a mind to call her boss and demand an explanation. Certainly, she’d known who the group of visitors was, or she wouldn’t have been so insistent that Sansa agree to host them. But Maege would only laugh and say Sansa hadn’t asked. Instead, she straightened the waistband of her skirt and slipped out the back door.
Ygritte, Green, and Tormund were assembling a platform while bickering good-naturedly about whose side wasn’t level. Pyp towered over the rest of them from a step stool set behind a sophisticated camera. While he fiddled with the focus, Jon and Sam were unpacking crates and laying pieces of equipment on an unrolled tarp.
Sam saw her first. “This location is perfect, Sansa. No power lines, no trees, low streetlight interference.”
“Sounds good,” she replied. “Is this all part of one telescope?”
“Yeah, but we brought two more.” Jon was counting nuts and bolts as he talked. “We’ll set this one up to focus on the moment of totality, but that only lasts a couple of minutes. The others will have special filters, so we can track the movement of the moon for the entire event.”
Grenn straightened up while the two redheads crowded together over a phone, confirming a measurement. “Stage is set, commander,” he said.
“All pieces and parts accounted for, “ Sam agreed.
Jon nodded as he finished his count. “Pyp, take it away.”
“Right. Silence on my signal, then Sam has the intro. The rest of you are on assembly. You know the rules- no obscene gestures, no backs to the camera unless you’re the commander.”
“He’s got the best ass,” Ygritte stage-whispered to Sansa.
“Any questions?” Pyp looked away from the viewfinder to scan the group. “Sansa, once Sam is done you’re free to talk. I’ll edit in music anyway.”
Sam took his place in front of the camera. As Pyp raised his hand for silence, Tormund darted out and placed a flimsy pair of glasses onto the scientist’s nose.
“Oh come on. Why do I have to wear the glasses. Jon?”
He smirked. “Tormund’s right. NASA wants us to model eclipse safety.”
Once Pyp started filming, Sam relaxed into the role of educator despite the goofy-looking glasses. He outlined the ways scientists would take advantage of the eclipse to study the sun while the other ASCANs huddled by the edge of the tarp, out of frame. As soon as Sam finished, they hustled into place and began screwing together the stand that would hold the telescope at its proper angle.
“How’d it go?” Sam asked, folding up his cardboard glasses.
Sansa smiled. “You’re a natural teacher, Sam. If you had been my professor, I might not have ended up an art history major.”
The compliment made Sam blush. “I always liked art. Dad wanted me in the hard sciences, though, so… here I am. PhD in astrophysics.”
“It suits you,” she said, and meant it. His modesty was charming. “There’s one thing I don’t understand, though. You said NASA is sending aircraft with imaging devices along the path of totality here in Carbondale, but you aren’t flying those planes, right?”
“No, we’ve just started our NASA flight training. The mother of dragons wouldn’t let us near her babies.” Sam laughed.
“The mother of dragons?”
Ygritte stepped off the platform and joined them as the three men hoisted their six-foot telescope into position. “Dany Targaryen. She’s the officer in charge of all WB-57 missions. Those three planes are practically her children.”
“She’s actually Jon’s aunt,” Sam added.
Sansa returned her attention to the dark-haired man as he bent to look into the scope. “Is that why you call him the commander?”
Ygritte and Sam exchanged an amused look. “He’s the commander because he got the old bear to sign off on this trip,” she said. “Against Dany’s better judgement.”
“You’re not really here as part of any NASA mission, then.” Sansa confirmed.
Ygritte grinned with a ferocity that made Sansa step back. “Not at all. We’re tourists like the rest of them, except we have a better telescope.”
“Just don’t ask Jon why we’re here,” Sam warned. “He’s got a whole speech about redundant infrared imaging systems he fed to Lt. Mormont. It’s guaranteed to put you to sleep in about twelve seconds.”
Filming complete, Pyp eagerly accepted Sansa’s offer of her study— and the air mattress there— so he could edit the footage. The others started pitching their tents along the edges of the yard, and Sansa took the opportunity to walk Lady before the neighborhood was too crowded with visitors. The sticky afternoon heat had her dripping sweat before they left her block, and by the time they returned she was panting as hard as Lady. The dog made a beeline for her water bowl while Sansa went straight upstairs intending to shower.
But instead she found Jon, duffel in hand, hovering outside her door. He stared at her a moment before speaking, Sansa’s heavy breaths hanging in the air between them.
“They convinced me to take the bedroom,” he said.
“Of course,” Sansa managed. “You’re the commander.”
“Yeah. Well, I mean, not really— did Sam tell you?” Sansa could only nod. He gestured to the doors at either end of the hallway. “I wasn’t sure which one was yours.”
“This one,” she said, expecting him to turn to the other room. Instead he stepped closer. Sansa felt the moisture beading at her hairline as his eyes traced her face. She knew the doorknob was just inches from her fingertips and yet something held her in place, unable to turn away.
Her eyes skated across his lips and settled on the place where his shoulder met his neck, muscles casually corded from the weight of his bag. He had a certain compact strength, unassuming but undeniably present. It was the build of a pilot, she decided.
“Thanks again for hosting us,” he murmured at last.
Sansa repeated her words from earlier. “It’s no trouble.”
It wasn’t what either of them had wanted to say. But she managed to open the door, and to close it behind her, and to hold her breath until she heard the dull tread of Jon’s boots as he walked away.
Thanks again for reading! I'm totally geeking out over all of NASA's plans for studying this eclipse, as you can probably tell! As always, you can find me on tumblr @ caesiamusa.
When she got out of the shower, Sansa checked her phone to find three missed calls from Maege Mormont. She slipped on her lavender bathrobe and gathered her hair over one shoulder to braid it before returning the calls. If Maege wanted to crow over her clever plan to land Sansa with a house full of astronauts, she could wait.
Sansa did her makeup before getting dressed, choosing a dark blue dress in eyelet lace with belled sleeve that ended just above her elbows. Satisfied, she picked up her phone, but hesitated before calling. It only took a moment to cross through the bathroom and knock on the door that connected her to Jon.
“Yes?” he answered, opening the door with caution.
“I’m done with the bathroom, in case you wanted to shower,” Sansa said.
He eyed her outfit. “Great. Thanks. Are you going somewhere?”
She resisted the urge to look down at her dress. “No, why?”
“You look…nice,” he finished weakly, running a hand through the hair that now curled wildly, freed from its knot. “Thanks for the shower.”
Sansa hid her smile as she turned away. She wondered how many times she could get Jon to thank her before his stay was over.
Maege answered on the first ring. “Sansa! How’s the crew of space cadets?”
“The gang’s all here,” she replied through gritted teeth. “Honestly, Maege, couldn’t you have given me some warning?”
“Don’t spoil my fun. Dinner’s at seven thirty. Randa and Dacey will be there too.”
“Thanks for the invitation. We’ll see you then.”
Downstairs, she fed Lady and wandered into the backyard to spread the invitation to the other ASCANs. The second telescope was already set up, and Grenn was nearly finished assembling the third.
“Has all your help abandoned you?” Sansa asked, looking around for Ygritte and Tormund.
Grenn snorted. “Their help isn’t wanted. This one’s all mine.” He pointed to the dark attachment that capped the lens. “I customized the filter. Instead of looking at the corona, I want to try and see the ISS pass in front of the sun while it’s still partially visible.”
“The International Space Station?” Sansa guessed. “That’s where you want to go, once you’re an astronaut.”
He grinned. “It’s been my dream since I was a little kid, reading science magazines for middle schoolers. Every time they added a piece, I would think: One day, I’ll use that when I’m up in space.”
“It sounds like you’re getting pretty close.”
Green shrugged, but she could tell he was proud. “Still two years of training as a candidate to go, but it’s the next step. Sometimes I never thought I’d even get this far, you know?”
She nodded, smiling at his enthusiasm. He promised to text the others about the dinner invitation and she slipped back upstairs to update Arya before they all had to leave.
You will never believe who showed up to rent my house
Her sister texted back immediately. Ultimate frisbee team? Crossfit owners? Quadruplets?
The most recent class of astronaut candidates
As soon as she tossed her phone back on her bed, it started ringing.
“You have got to be kidding me. Astronauts? That is so fucking cool.”
“Hello to you too.” Sansa paused and thought about her conversation with Grenn, and the light in Sam’s eyes as he introduced their film. “Honestly, they’re secretly kind of geeky.”
Arya argued, “Um, not a secret. Astronauts are like the perfect synthesis of high school quarterbacks and kids who willingly took 9 am lab sections in college. You have to introduce me.”
“What, like you’re going to get on a plane and visit?”
“I’m serious. Astronauts have to do so much extreme training for bone and muscle health. I’ve heard they have simulators for—“
Someone knocked on her door. “Arya, hold on,” Sansa said as she went to open it.
Ygritte stood there, one hand cocked on her hip. “Hey, sorry to interrupt. Is dinner some kind of fancy event, or is Jon being an idiot?”
Arya could be heard shouting into the phone, which Sansa tried to smother against her chest. “Maege doesn’t cook, so dinner will be Carbondale’s finest pizza delivery. I think Jon got freaked out by my dress, so…”
“Definitely an idiot.” Ygritte snickered. “Shouldn’t have asked. Do you need to get that?”
“…THAT ONE OF THEM? IS SHE A CHICK? SERIOUSLY Sansa I HAVE to meet them!”
“My sister.” Sansa explained. “She runs this parkour-meets-ultimate fighting gym in Brooklyn and she wants to know about astronaut training regimens.”
“Cool.” Ygritte reached for the phone just in time to answer as Arya switched to video. “I’ll go get Tormund. Tell Jon to stop worrying about his clothes and meet us downstairs.”
Jon didn’t answer his door when she knocked. She tried again, louder, only to receive a “Fuck off!” that made her smile and open the door anyway. Sansa hadn’t heard the shower running since she came back inside, so she was surprised when Jon answered his door still in his undershirt. The contents of his duffel looked to be spread out on his bed, neat rolls of dark t-shirts lined up alongside a dopp kit and a pair of sweats.
“Shit,” he said, blinking. “I’m so sorry. I thought you were Ygritte.” He slipped something grey from the edge of the bed back into his bag. Sansa let herself speculate for a moment before meeting his eyes.
“She told me you were struggling with your outfit, so I thought I could help. I am the resident expert on Carbondale fashion.”
He snorted. “I just don’t want to show up looking like a slob.”
“And if Maege were the type of person to be impressed by fancy outfits, I’d be sure to let you know,” Sansa promised. “But she’s not. Pick a t-shirt you don’t mind getting smoky. There’s probably going to be a bonfire.” She gave his options another glance. “Better make it black.”
“It’s my color,” he replied, reaching for the closest shirt. She turned to leave him despite the urge to linger and watch him change.
“Come down when you’re ready. My sister wants to meet you.”
Arya, of course, got on famously with Jon and the two red-haired astronaut candidates. They squeezed into the back row of the van together so they could continue discussing torture methods, as far as Sansa could tell, leaving Grenn and Pyp to take the middle row and Sansa to navigate.
“Did you draw the short straw?” she asked Sam as he buckled his seatbelt.
He grimaced. “I should have known it was too good to be true when I didn’t have to drive on the way up here. They set me up.”
She directed him out of her neighborhood onto the main road leading to campus. Maege Mormont lived on property that bordered the university’s practice fields, but the edge of her yard was a thick tangle of trees and brush. They parked in her gravel drive behind Dacey’s dark green Jeep, the rear window covered in SIU softball stickers.
Sansa could hear Jon promising to email her sister some kind of training plan, so she waited for him as the others approached the house. He returned her phone and frowned at the bottles peeking out from Sansa’s tote. “Hostess gift?”
“What, you didn’t bring anything?” She teased him. “I don’t drink beer, so this is for me, and Randa, and anyone else who wants it.”
‘Right.” He reached up to smooth back his hair, once again gathered up in a bun. Something about the nervous gesture made Sansa take pity on him.
“Maege is the least fussy person I know. As long as you weren’t raised by wolves, you’ll be fine.”
To her surprise, he choked out a laugh. “And what if I was? Raised by wolves?”
“They must have been very handsome wolves.” Jon and Sansa both turned to the woman in the doorway. She raised one perfectly feathered eyebrow as she looked him up and down. “No wonder Sansa’s keeping you all to herself.”
“We were just headed in,” said Sansa, more defensive than she would have liked. “Myranda, this is Jon. Jon, Myranda works with me under Dean Mormont.”
“Nice to meet you.” Jon extended his hand, already retreating back to formalities.
Myranda looked past him to Sansa with an exaggerated wink. “The pleasure is all mine.”
She led the latecomers into the kitchen, where the others were already filling their plates with pizza. Maege stood in the middle of the room, arms crossed, barking out orders not to let any slices go to waste. Sansa slid around the counter next to Dacey to set down her tote.
The coach looked on amused at her mother’s antics. “Makes me feel like the season’s started already,” she joked as she hugged Sansa. “Mom’s ordered enough for a whole team dinner. I hope astronauts eat as much as softball players.”
Sansa pointed at Tormund picking up an entire box of pizza before heading outside. “I don’t think it should be a problem. Is Margaery here?”
“She’s out back, getting the fire started. She’d appreciate a glass of this, though,” Dacey said, lifting a bottle of red out of Sansa’s bag.
“I’ll grab the corkscrew.” Sansa made it halfway to the drawer beneath the microwave before Maege caught her elbow.
“What’s it going to be, Stark? Are you still pretending to be mad at me for landing you with houseguests?”
“Of course not,” Sansa said smoothly, catching Jon’s concerned look. “They’re no trouble at all, especially since you’re the one feeding them.”
“That’s the spirit.” Maege leaned in to whisper, “My brother’s pretending to be very concerned that they gather lots of data from the eclipse, but really he’s jealous. If he weren’t needed by command at JSC, he’d be here with them.”
“They’re all certainly very excited,” Sansa commented.
She shrugged. “I guess we’ll see tomorrow what it’s actually like.”
Some of the descriptions of totality sounded far-fetched. The internet claimed that shadows would appear like writhing snakes, that dogs would howl and birds would fly in strange patterns as the temperature dropped suddenly. It sounded more like a horror movie than a real event.
But the astronauts obviously thought it was worth the drive from Houston. Maybe it would live up to the hype after all.
Sansa successfully located the corkscrew and passed it to Dacey. When Jon left the kitchen with his plate. Myranda practically screeched, twirling dramatically to face the only remaining astronaut.
“Okay, who’s single?”
Ygritte smiled, slow and sly. “Sam’s the only one married. I’m convinced Tormund has a secret someone, but it’s still just a hunch. The rest are all yours.”
“Not all mine,” Myranda said, giving Sansa a meaningful look as Ygritte took her plate outside. She pretended not to notice, accepting a glass from Dacey before the brunette took the rest of the bottle out to her girlfriend.
After Maege followed her daughter, Sansa finally turned to her friend. “Don’t start.”
Myranda threw her hands up in mock innocence. “Every time I try to set you up, you say you don’t want to get tied down to anyone in Carbondale. The way I see it, that excuse doesn’t apply here.”
“I’d rather be tied down on earth than tied to someone floating up in space!”
Even as she protested, Sansa could tell she wasn’t making sense. But Myranda decided not to push it. “I’m not saying you have to date anyone. Just, if you find yourself itching for a little company, you’ve got some good options. And the prettiest one is already interested.”
Now Sansa rolled her eyes. “He was just concerned about making a good impression on Maege. I don’t think he spends a lot of time around women in dresses.”
“So put him out of his misery,” Myranda said, eyes glinting. “See how he likes you in nothing at all.”
“Randa,” she hissed, but she couldn’t stifle a giggle. The other woman was an incorrigible flirt, but Sansa only pretended to disapprove. They linked arms as they made their way out onto the deck at the back of the house.
Thanks so much for reading! Right now, this is looking like it will have two or three more parts before I finish. As always, you can find me on tumblr @ caesiamusa.
By the time they cleared away their plates and pizza boxes and cracked open a second case of beer, Sansa had put all her nerves about hosting the astronauts behind her. The wine certainly helped; the friendly teasing and camaraderie among the ASCANS took care of any lingering fears about strangers sleeping in her house. At Dacey’s suggestion, they helped move benches and chairs from the deck down into the yard around the fire pit, and Margaery retrieved supplies for s’mores from their jeep.
Sam left Sansa’s side to search out likely sticks for toasting marshmallows, and Tormund took the empty seat. He tilted his head in Myranda’s direction.
“If you were a betting woman, what would you say— does she go for Jon or Grenn?”
Her friend was sitting between the two men, halfway through a story, but Sansa didn’t have to look at her body language to answer.
“Depends who’s funnier, I think.” At Tormund’s look, she explained, “Myranda likes to be near the life of the party.”
“Better mark her down for Pyp, then.” Tormund tapped his lips with a finger. “Not a word to Ygritte about this, okay?”
Sansa laughed. “Do you have a pool going? Because Myranda will have your hide if she doesn’t get a share of the winnings.”
“Not a word to her either, then!” He winked at her as Jon approached, frowning. “Have my seat, Snow! I need another beer.”
Jon’s mouth twitched into a fleeting smile as Sansa patted the bench next to her, but his expression turned dark again as he watched the redhead make his way toward the cooler. “Tormund’s up to something.”
“He’s got a bet going with Ygritte on somebody’s love life,” Sansa murmured, stretching out her feet toward the fire.
Jon snorted. “Then that’s what he wants you to think. Makes you feel like you’re in on it. What did he ask you?”
She turned to face him, taking in the furrows right between his brows. “Why are you so suspicious? He’s like your astronaut teammate, right?”
“Tormund hid Pyp in the trunk of our van at a rest stop in the middle of Arkansas, pretended to realize we’d left him behind thirty minutes later, and didn’t give up the con until I was on the phone with command trying to trace him by his NASA-issued cell phone.” Jon said. “Don’t think you’re safe just because he got you involved.”
Sansa could hardly believe it. “Nobody noticed? What were you all doing?"
“Sleeping,” admitted Jon. “And thanks to him, we’re all too paranoid to nap in his presence ever again.”
“Maybe that’s a good lesson,” Sansa pointed out.“I hope you made him drive the rest of the way.”
Jon shook his head. “We made him take the last shift, though. Southern Illinois is brutal.”
“Worse than Arkansas?”
“Absolutely. Vultures literally flew into our path in the middle of the interstate. I think one dented the windshield.” The story made Sansa smile, and it took Jon’s attention off Tormund long enough for the bigger man to find a new perch on the other side of the circle.
When Sam returned, triumphantly carrying an armful of slender branches, Jon helped him strip off the twigs and leaves. Then he passed them out around the circle, Margaery trailing behind with the bag of marshmallows, while Sam carefully laid out graham crackers on the lip of the fire ring. Sansa caught onto his idea and began snapping apart bars of chocolate. She covered each cracker with a dark square until Dacey saw her and protested.
“You leave my chocolate alone, Sansa Stark!”
“But it’s so much better melted,” she said.
Dacey rolled her eyes. “If you toasted your marshmallow properly, it would do all the melting needed on its own.”
“You mean if I set it on fire.”
The coach brushed off the accusation with a shrug.“Gives it some texture. Nothing like the crunch of burnt sugar.”
“Mmmm, and a little bit of smokiness too,” Ygritte agreed.
Margaery and Jon completed their circuit. Jon offered Sansa the last stick, but she waved him off.
“You go first. I’m going to wait for my chocolate to melt.”
She settled in beside Margaery instead. The two of them gaped in disbelief as Dacey immediately stuck her marshmallow straight into the flames.
“Patience, babe!” Margaery cried. “It’s going to be raw in the middle, look.” She scraped it onto an empty graham cracker, shaking her head. “I’m with Sansa on this one. Marshmallows should be gooey and melted, not crispy.”
“More for me.” Dacey opened her mouth so that Margaery could feed her the rejected treat. “I’ll be more patient on the next one,” she promised.
She wrapped an arm around Margaery’s waist to pull her close as the younger woman rummaged for another marshmallow. Cold without a body beside her, Sansa moved nearer to the fire, where Jon was almost finished.
"What do you think?” He asked. Unlike Dacey’s, his marshmallow was golden all the way around, with only a few dark bubbles of sugar near the very end. Sansa beamed.
“It’s perfect! Quick, before it falls—” Together they positioned the marshmallow in the middle of a pair of graham crackers, melted chocolate already sliding out the sides. Instead of accepting it, Jon shook his head and grinned wide.
“It’s for you. I did my best not to let it get burned.”
Left holding the s’more, Sansa could only gaze up at his transformed expression and murmur her thanks. There were creases at the corners of his dark eyes, no longer smoldering with concern but shining in the dancing firelight. He had dimples, too, underneath his evening stubble. Sansa had the unthinkable urge to kiss him there, right on the corner of his mouth.
The moment was shattered by the click of a shutter. “Now look this way, Sansa!”
Myranda and Pyp stood side by side, cameras covering their faces. She lowered hers as Sansa turned, frowning. “No, keep smiling, Jon. That was really good! If you could just tilt towards the fire a little more so we have better lighting…”
Sansa plastered on what Myranda called her Saluki smile. Jon brought a tentative arm around her shoulders as they pivoted closer to the fire pit. Three more snaps and she could feel chocolate begin to drip down her wrist.
“Done,” said Pyp. “Now, let’s talk hashtags.”
“Sorry about that,” Sansa said, bending to catch the melted chocolate with her tongue as Jon stared. “Randa has an Instagram for advertising SIU and answering admissions questions. Somehow I end up posing for half her pictures.”
“Pyp’s the same way.” He finally tore his eyes away and loaded another marshmallow onto his stick. “He’s really into the idea of astronauts as scientific ambassadors. Came up with our name and everything.”
“The Night’s Watch,” Sansa repeated, remembering Pyp’s introduction. “It’s a good name.”
“It’s an even better name for Pyp’s high school garage band, but you didn’t hear it from me.” Ygritte had made her way around the circle to join them, resting one arm on each of their taller shoulders. “What do you say, commander?”
Jon sensed another layer to her question. He gave a careful look around the fire before answering. “Sam looks beat. One more beer and then we should say our goodbyes. If that’s okay.” He glanced up at Sansa, deferring to her.
“Works for me. Maege is letting us work from home tomorrow to avoid the crowds on campus,” Sansa replied.
“LAST CALL!” Ygritte announced to the rest of the circle. “ASCANS need to make up for lost sleep on the drive up.” She glared at Tormund, who simply waggled his eyebrows. He didn’t look repentant at all.
Back at Sansa’s house, the astronauts in training prepared for bed with characteristic efficiency. Ygritte and Tormund had a sleeping platform set up next to the telescopes in less time than it took Sansa to make up the pull-out couch. They all said their goodnights, Sansa pausing in the kitchen for a glass of water before she headed upstairs to try and forget about the handsome stranger sleeping only steps away.
Except he was hovering in the hallway again outside their rooms. Shirtless.
“What is it?” Sansa asked, keeping her distance to avoid yet another tension-filled staring contest.
“Your dog is on my bed. It doesn’t seem like she wants to move.”
“Lady!” Sansa strode past him, resisting the temptation to glance down at the trail of dark hair across his stomach until the last possible moment. “I’m so sorry. That’s normally where she sleeps.”
He followed her as she entered his— Lady’s—room. “She gets an entire bed to herself?”
“And it’s nothing less than she deserves. Right, Lady?” Sansa couldn’t help but adopt the sing-song voice unique to besotted dog owners. “Up! Come sleep with me tonight.”
Jon had his hands on his hips now, full lips curling. “Lucky dog.”
She flashed him a quick smile, unsure if he meant to be suggestive. “Sleep tight, Jon.”
Lady’s paws clicked against the floor as she padded to the other bedroom, but Sansa lingered for a just a moment in the doorway. A tattoo had caught her eye as she passed the half-naked man, a figure lunging across his shoulder toward the muscled groove of his spine. At first, she’d thought it was a grey and white dog, not dissimilar to Lady, but a second look showed a snarling mouth that gleamed red with blood.
It was a wolf.
Thanks so much for your patience to everyone still reading! Now I'm hungry for s'mores. Find me on tumblr @ caesiamusa if you're interested.