"You must be exhausted. After my first day, I only wanted to see the bottom of a martini glass or ten," Margaery sympathized, handing Sansa a drink that she accepted with a limp gratitude.
It was eight o'clock on a Monday. Had Sansa not been shoved through the gauntlet at her last job, her first day at Wall Consulting, Inc. just might have done her in. As it was, she was tired—but not broken—but more than ready for a strong drink. "It's the people, I swear," Margaery added. "They're... a lot."
"There were several characters," Sansa admitted with a wry grin, toying with the olive in her glass and relishing the feel of the day's tension leaving her. It was deeply satisfying to let her constricting but gorgeous heels dangle on her toes as she slouched on the barstool next to Margaery at last. She had survived Day One.
This bar was also one of her favorites in Winter Town, and Margaery knew her well enough to know that this was the hideout from the world that Sansa would need the most. It was a speakeasy-themed bar, one of the first that had cropped up in the city before the trend had become so bloated and overblown. Its entrance was tucked behind a dumpster in a back alley, and required a password for entry. Inside, the walls were lined with rickety shelves of old, rare books that one could page through while curled in cozy, dimly-lit booths, sipping on rare cocktails and listening to witchy women singing haunted songs about broken love. The booths were covered in printed velvet, and the lights shaded with fringed green lamps, setting the tables in an absinthe glow. In the bathrooms, the walls were covered in polaroids of famous celebrities who had visited the speakeasy and had gotten drunk. Beneath their bleary faces they often scrawled either autographs or rude messages, and Sansa loved every picture, and had read each message, cherishing the inside jokes that she would never know and the little quirks of each person's handwriting. The bar was never crowded, and the bartenders were adept in both creating custom cocktails and fending off cloying strangers. It was the perfect respite after the day she had had.
"Wait until you meet Jon." Margaery's eyes were glowing over her cosmopolitan, the curve of her lips wicked. Sansa meant to ask what lip stain she was wearing—it was a deep mulberry shade and, per usual, excellent—but her mind snagged on the name.
"You mean Jon Snow?"
It had started with an offhand comment that morning from the creative director, Renly—something about him missing that tight rear view of Snow's—that had made the women surrounding him infuriatingly giggly. Renly had nodded to the darkened corner office for Sansa's benefit. "You haven't met him yet. Don't look so smug. One day soon you'll be giggling just like the rest of us."
In the moment, Sansa had been focused on getting the coffeemaker to work without embarrassing herself in front of Renly and his circle of adoring women, but she would not have probed further anyway. She had learned her lesson about office drama, and had had plenty of it in the past. This time, she had resolved, she'd live a simple life. She'd stay above it. The drama in her life would be contained to her Netflix and Hulu queues—she swore it.
Margaery leaned in now, clouding the air with her signature sultry rose perfume.
"Wait—you met him already? I thought he was still on that client meeting in King's Landing," she hissed indignantly. She was already checking her mobile, manicured fingers flying along the screen, presumably looking at the company's calendar. "You can't have. He's been gone for weeks. I don't think he'll be back in the office until Friday—I think he has to come back for that company outing thing."
"No, no. I just keep hearing about him," Sansa explained.
Renly's inappropriate remark had been the first of several cryptic references to this Jon Snow (Margaery had started tonight's outing by breaking it to her, gently, that Renly was gay. Apparently this had caused shock and tears among new female employees in the past, but Sansa had just laughed and informed her that she already knew. Well, it took you a few years to figure out my brother was gay when we were younger, so I thought a sit-down might help, Margaery had retorted. Low blow, Sansa had simply said.).
The second reference to this infamous Jon Snow had come when Sansa had been roped into a preposterously long photoshoot with the firm's photographer, Daario. They were taking photographs of a product for a report, and Sansa, still too new to have any projects of her own, had been assigned to help Daario arrange lighting. He was ludicrously handsome, in a dull sort of way, like a man from a cologne advert, with too-shiny hair that held an over-thought blue streak, and his shirt buttoned one button too low. He struck her as impulsive and emotional, and while the detached, experienced part of Sansa disliked him, the deeper part of her, the part that could not help but love people for their flaws, the part that read voraciously and connected deeply with even the side characters, appreciated his intensity.
"Too bad our resident model isn't here," Daario had jested vaguely, and the other photographer, Theon, had rolled his eyes as he set up his own camera. He'd rolled in late, joking snarkily under his breath with another employee about the apparently wild weekend he'd had, his hair mussed with bedhead. Ew, Sansa had thought automatically, but she'd smiled pleasantly anyway.
"If you like that mopey, pouty look," Theon had said, his gaze lingering on Sansa, watching for her reaction. "What about you, new girl?"
His voice had been sly, dangerous. She could already tell that Theon was trouble, something of a prevaricator, seeking drama and prodding for it when he could not find it, but she was prejudiced: she had already heard about Theon Greyjoy. Her brother had known him at university and had been friends with him, in the way that Robb was friends with everyone, but of course Robb would never say a bad thing about anyone.
Still, there was something electric about the room when Theon entered it, some tension on the brink of fun. His eyes were wicked and he was far quicker than Daario, not just with his work but with his retorts, too. The way his shirtsleeves were rolled up and the way his dark eyes gleamed with wit, matching a cocky smile, was oddly compelling, but Sansa felt too old to have a work-crush and knew better than to fancy a man who advertised his sexcapades. She had turned away from him, ignoring the way her belly had clenched at how he'd said, new girl.
No need to play with fire, she told herself. Even if it might seem fun.
"I can't say it's my thing," she'd said blandly, and had knelt down—pencil skirt and all—to adjust one of the tripods. Theon had crouched with her.
"I've got that," he'd said hastily, surprising her.
"Ugh. Get a girlfriend, Greyjoy," Daario had snipped, and Sansa had flushed. It was not even lunchtime yet and already she sensed herself wading waist-deep into office drama. She'd have to be more careful.
"Ignore Naharis," Theon had reassured her, holding out a hand to help her up that she'd not accepted. "He thinks he's funny. It's awkward."
"You're jealous that I use Snow's hands for photoshoots and not yours," Daario had ruthlessly assessed. "You're jealous of Jon Snow in general. You can't understand why he's so successful, or why he's so well-liked, and you think it should be you, not him. It's awkward."
The remark must have hit close to home; Theon had turned away, and Sansa had wondered if she had misjudged him.
"Right, um, I think this angle looks better," Sansa had stammered, still baffled by the cruelty of what Daario had said. She pointed to Theon's set up. "Please don't take this the wrong way. Yours is lovely. But I believe this angle will better satisfy the report requirements. It is a specs photo, after all."
Daario studied her, and Sansa turned away from him with a lump in her throat, but when she faced Theon, he was looking at her with the most naked gratitude that he hastily erased from his face.
"Alright," Daario said at last. Sansa had smiled slightly at Theon—she never could stand a bully—and he half-smiled back at her.
The third cryptic reference to Jon Snow and what she assumed were his good looks came from one of the other senior managers, Daenerys. Perpetually stressed out and, apparently, prone to loud, self-important outbursts, she had not even looked at Sansa when her secretary, Missandei, had brought Sansa in to introduce her. Evidently she had some sort of deadline coming up, and seemed to find her deadlines significantly more important than those of anyone else. Sansa had been curious about her—on the one hand, she sounded insufferable. On the other, she was a woman who had climbed the ladder and had more believers in her than any other woman that Sansa had ever met, so she had to be doing something right.
"Oh, another fangirl for my nephew," she had said, not taking her eyes from her laptop screen. With another hand, she was scrawling an elegant but messy signature on a stack of paper.
"She'll be in Tyrion's group, ma'am," Missandei had said politely, side-stepping the implication. "She won't be working with Mr. Snow."
"Well, she's still got eyes, hasn't she?" Daenerys finally looked up. "Pretty eyes, at that," she noted carelessly. "I have a ten o'clock."
"Yes, of course, ma'am; with Hizdahr," Missandei said, and ushered Sansa out.
When the door shut, Sansa had turned to Missandei.
"Thank you for introducing me, Missandei. The thing is, I care about my career," she said carefully. "What can I do to ensure Daenerys is confident in my—"
The door swung open, and Daenerys poked her fabulously-styled head out.
"Were you the one coming from Vale?" she asked suddenly.
"Yes, I worked under Petyr Baelish and reached Senior Consultant there," Sansa said smoothly. Daenerys studied her, narrowing her eyes and squaring her shoulders.
"Yes, I remember now. Jon was the one who told me about you, actually. Impressive resume. He told me you were fired... but he also told me that Petyr Baelish is a misogynistic ghoul." And without another word, she had slammed the door in their faces.
Margaery was nudging her, bringing her back to the present.
"Sorry," Sansa said, and she took a long swig of her martini.
"I heard one of our resident photographers took notice of you," Margaery said slyly.
"Oh, him," Sansa dismissed, but she found herself thinking again of Theon's forearms. He was not her type—he seemed a bit of a walking disaster of cockiness and self-assurance mixed with low self-esteem—but he'd had something about him. A certain cleverness that was dark, enticing; more intriguing, on the whole, than the bland types she had been dating recently. He'd made a sly reference to an obscure play she'd always loved, Florian and Jonquil, and she'd been so surprised that she hadn't even replied to it at first. "Forget it. Back to this Jon Snow," she said quickly, "what's his deal?"
"Not even I know," Margaery admitted in a low voice. "He doesn't eat lunch with anyone. He's either in his office with the door shut and the blinds down, or out on business trips. He refuses to have a secretary, because he believes it's a wasteful and insulting concept, which is sort of progressive and interesting, isn't it? He and Theon Greyjoy hate each other, and no one knows why. He has one drink maximum at office gatherings—on the rare occasion that he goes at all—and no one has any idea about his personal life. Is he dating? Does he have pets? Does he do anything besides work? No one knows. That, and he's deadly handsome. ...In a sort of brooding way. He's not my type but I absolutely would, given the chance. On the rare occasion that I've seen him present to a client, he kills it. He's got this quiet, solid energy that wins them over every time. He's done his research, he knows his slides, and he just knows what he wants." She paused, thinking. "God, yeah. After a client meeting? I totally, absolutely would."
"Would what? Sleep with him?"
It wasn't terribly surprising—Margaery was much more comfortable with that sort of thing than Sansa had ever allowed herself to be. In university, Margaery had rarely slept in her own bed, and would show up to their eight am lectures with gloriously rumpled hair and mascara beneath her eyes, looking tired and glamorous and deliriously in love, compared to Sansa's sleek ponytail and crisp, good-girl shirts; highlighters and color-coded notes.
Their lives were different, now, and yet...not different at all. Oh, Sans, Margaery had sighed, when Sansa informed her stiffly that she had been let go from her last job. She had not even explained why yet, and Margaery was already looking past the job. Now, at least, you can actually live your life and have some fun. Don't you get it? You're free.
"You'll see. I promise you'll have the same thoughts. There's something about that pouty, brooding mouth and those curls..." She shivered. "I'd never be able to date him, though," she dismissed. "He's far too uptight. But you might actually work well with that," she realized brightly.
Sansa rolled her eyes.
"Thank you, Margaery," she said.
Still, for all the jokes, it was clear that Jon Snow was someone she needed to impress if she wanted to recover from the failure—unfair though it was—of her last position, at Vale. Even though Margaery was already moving on and laughing about something else, Sansa sipped her martini and made a vow. Jon Snow would know her, and would be impressed by her. She would not let his praise of her resumé be the last time he complimented her. She would win him over—she would be successful at Wall Consulting.
It was not until later in the week that she met the notorious Jon Snow at last. And for all of her determination, after the meeting she would have liked to simply bury her head in the sand.
Not a good start.
"So will you be coming along for the office gathering on Friday, new girl?"
Theon was standing in the mouth of her cubicle, examining one of his cameras. Sansa looked back at her computer, to the report she was proofing for Tyrion. She wouldn't have a proper project until next week, so she was eagerly picking up any work she could. So far, she genuinely liked her boss, Tyrion. He was clever, and seemed good at what he did—plus, he hadn't shown any blatant signs of amorality, a significant change compared to her last mentor. Though the man was clearly a flirt, she did not think she'd find herself trapped in an elevator with him as his hand crept up her skirt any time soon.
"Yes, of course I'm coming," she said, defiantly not looking back at him. In reality, the idea of spending her Friday evening with people she worked with sounded nauseating, but consulting was so heavily dependent on relationships. She could not afford to be the new girl who had skipped out on a company social event.
She edited out a semicolon; Tyrion seemed to cherish them. In her periphery, she saw Theon fully enter her cubicle, and heard him lean against her desk. When she quickly glanced up, she saw his hip, and looked back at her screen quickly.
"They're typically a total shitshow," he confided. "Well worth your time. Everyone gets plastered—Lollys usually ends the night in the toilets, vomiting; Tyrion hits on his secretary, Shae; last time Daenerys stood on a table and ranted incoherently about social injustices and was kicked out of the bar."
That caught her attention. Sansa could not help but glance at Theon now and she saw his eyes flash with something like victory.
"A senior consultant was kicked out of a bar?"
"I'm telling you, it's better than Netflix. It usually sucks being new and having to go to these things, but you shouldn't worry about that, here." He paused, biting his lip. "Plus, you're Robb Stark's little sister, so I'll look out for you, make sure no one gross gets any ideas and hits on you," he promised.
"Thanks. I usually can hold my own," she said calmly, turning back to the report.
"I could tell," Theon was saying. "You seem independent. I bet you don't let too many people in—"
He was cut off by a shrill sound, something close to the sound of chickens, and they both looked up. Lollys, one of the junior consultants, skidded to a halt by the cubicle, looking harried.
"Jon is back," she hissed. "Places, everyone! Don't let him catch you chatting!"
Sansa looked bemusedly at Theon, who shrugged.
"Everyone makes a big deal about it when he's in the office," he explained, as a few blurs flew past her cubicle. The office was fluttering with a deadly, quiet sort of activity, like preparing for a national emergency. "It's just because he's never here. He's a tight-ass and will get on your case about whether you're making the most of your billable time," he added. He shoved off from her desk. "Sounds like a good time for me to run out for an espresso break. You want to come?"
"No, thanks—I promised I'd finish this for Tyrion," she said with an apologetic smile.
"Suit yourself," Theon said, and slipped out of her cubicle.
Sansa finished her edits, but she'd always caught more errors on paper than on a screen. Printing it would help. When she poked her head out of the cubicle, the office was notably quiet, the only noises that of the efficient clicking of keyboards and low, muttered phone conversations. It was the most focused she had seen the office yet. Jon Snow's office in the corner, however, remained dark.
The printer was in a separate alcove off of the main area, and Sansa stood before the printer, watching page after page of the report spew out from the printer.
There was a part of her that reluctantly acknowledged that going out for coffee with Theon might have been fun. I bet you don't let too many people in. It was a canned observation, but nevertheless astute. She didn't let many people in, and sometimes she wondered if that was a mistake. It had become a habit, during her last job, and though it had initially protected her, it had also led her to this moment, in which she had been fired, and consequently taken a pay cut, and no longer had her own office—not to mention lived alone. She could not remember the last time she had done something just fun, just for herself.
It might have been fun to go with Theon. It was a crisp day, and outside of the large arched windows, the city looked tantalizing, the way it always did in late autumn, as the world hurtled toward the excitement of Christmastime. It might have been fun to bundle up in her coat and walk to the cafe with him—they might have talked about books, or—
"—Is that print job necessary?"
Sansa looked over her shoulder. A lean man of middle height—she was wearing heels, so that she was precisely eye-level with him—in a crisp dark suit was scowling at her. His jaw-length dark hair was tidy, but he had rough stubble and deep shadows beneath his dark eyes. He had a harried, impatient look about him, like he had had too much caffeine in a short amount of time and was the sort of person to answer emails at four-thirty in the morning. She knew his type: consulting tended to produce men who were either ludicrously lax and prone to drinking whiskey from cut-crystal glasses during the day, or men who developed lockjaw and insomnia and an addiction to their email.
"I don't think we've met—I'm new," Sansa said gamely, holding out her hand. His handshake was firm but his eyes did not soften with friendliness. "Sansa Stark. I'm one of the new consultants."
"I asked about the printing," he said bluntly.
Sansa smiled through her disbelief. Behind her, the report finished printing, and they were left in silence. She could not believe anyone would bother to question a print job, of all things. What was this man's problem?
Theon strolled into the alcove, bearing two paper cups and still bundled in his own coat. Flurries were lingering in his dark hair, and he bumped into the crabby man as he brushed past him. It had not been an accident.
"Welcome back, Snow," Theon shot over his shoulder. "Hey. Got you one," he said to Sansa, handing her a latte, but Sansa was still staring, dumbfounded, at the man before her.
This was Jon Snow?
This was the man that no one seemed to stop talking about?
He's not even that tall, Sansa thought furiously. Over Theon's shoulder, she saw the notorious Jon Snow shoot Theon an irritated look before turning away from them.
"I'm trying to print something. I'd appreciate it if you hurried up," was all he said as he stalked back to his office and shut the door. Theon was smirking.
"That's what he gets for not having a secretary like every other senior consultant," Theon said in a low voice. It was not low enough; Sansa was sure Jon had heard it. "Don't worry about him."
Sansa was mortified. "Seriously, don't worry about him. He must've gone off his laxatives today," he joked.
"Thanks," she said numbly, taking the latte from Theon and collecting her report with her free hand. "I'd better get back to my desk," she whispered.
She hated herself for thinking, as she walked back to her desk, that Renly had not been wrong about the view of Jon Snow from behind.
The week had been a blur, and though overall things had gone well, Sansa had not yet found the opportunity to recover from the awkwardness of her first encounter with Jon Snow. But tonight was the office gathering, and Margaery had confirmed that he would be in attendance.
This was her chance.
Sansa had chosen her outfit with the care of a general preparing for battle—her best black heels, her most tailored black pencil skirt, and a forest green blouse that, magically, required little adjusting and tucked effortlessly into her skirt with no bunching. She wore no jewelry and little makeup, and put her hair in a low, businesslike bun. She looked all business; she looked highly competent and experienced.
She had picked her strategy: she would buy Jon Snow a drink. Whiskey, she decided. Something masculine but tasteful. He seemed like a man who would be interested in the stock market, so she'd open with a vague comment on stocks. Perhaps he liked sports, and so she had picked up a few different sports-related magazines on Thursday night and had spent the evening curled on her couch with a glass of wine, reading and highlighting and making notes. Should he happen to be a man who followed literally any sport—hockey? Cricket? Curling?—she would be ready with a quip. He did not seem to care much for luxury, and he did not strike her as a man with a family, so she would have to be tactical: their conversation would have to, in some way, add value to his life in his eyes.
She would win him over.
All day, she anxiously studied his office, but he was off-site at meetings and would be meeting up with the group directly at the bar. No matter; it would only make her strategy more crisp. She would put him in awe of her knowledge of the stock market and then, once he had warmed to her and had had a few sips of whiskey, she would drop a few mentions of her previous projects at Vale and a few key client names, to remind him of how impressed he had apparently been with her resumé. She would undo his disdain of her and would put herself in a good light in his eyes, and then she would have two of the more successful senior consultants on her side.
"Ready? We're all walking over." Theon was shrugging into an elegant, tailored wool coat as he came into her cubicle. Margaery was behind him, walking with Lollys, gossiping happily.
She was ready.
Sansa rose from her desk like she had been summoned by the gods themselves, and pulled on her own burgundy coat. There was a hopeful flutter in her belly, but she tied the belt of her coat with determined hands. Her career was everything to her, and she would have an office and a senior title of her own within two years, come hell or high water. Her mishap at Vale would not define the rest of her career; he would be proven wrong about everything he had said so softly, so cruelly, into the phone that one last time.
Theon was smirking at her as they left the office. "You're the only woman in the office who doesn't look like she's about to go on a trashy date," he remarked under his breath, as they stepped into the brisk afternoon. The sky was blushing with sunset, and early commuters were crowding the sidewalks.
Ahead, Margaery, Lollys, Shae, and a few other women were walking together. Behind them, she could hear Renly's daring, careless laugh.
"That's a bit sexist, don't you think?" she countered. Theon snorted.
"Come on," he said easily, unabashed. "You were thinking it too."
"I did note that all the men are wearing cologne like they're about to go on a trashy date," Sansa retorted. "Even you." To her surprise, Theon simply laughed, and she found herself grinning reluctantly.
"You just look like you're on a mission," he explained, as they paused at a light. "Espionage, or something."
Sansa thought of the highlighted and earmarked sports magazines piled on her coffee table. She touched her bun, to ensure it was still neat. "You might as well relax," he continued. "Like I said, these things are a shitshow. It's not the usual uptight consulting, where these are basically meetings. Daenerys will be pissed before seven," he added, glancing back over his shoulder warily. Sansa followed his gaze to the blonde. She was walking with Daario, looking surprisingly girlish and flushed.
"Does Jon Snow get drunk?" she asked innocently. Theon scoffed.
"God, no. It's hurt him, honestly," he reasoned. "The fact that he won't let loose with everyone else is not great. That's really the only thing you can do wrong, is not join in with everyone else. And I know he can throw down; I knew him years back, in school. I saw him get utterly trashed for the first time when we were like fifteen. It was hilarious."
"I can't picture that," Sansa admitted.
"He's anal-retentive now," Theon said carelessly. "Lives for his work. He thinks he's got to save the damn company every time there's a screwup; he acts like it's a matter of life or death."
"You don't seem to like him much."
Theon shrugged. They had reached the bar, called The Devil's Details, and they paused and turned to each other, waiting for the rest of the group. His dark eyes flicked, so briefly, to the sliver of her throat not protected by her coat, then up to her eyes again. She had not felt pretty in so long, but the way his eyes lingered on her lips, her throat, her hair made her feel pretty. Wanted. Seen. Don't be an idiot, she warned herself, and she looked away, shoving her hands in the pockets of her coat. She knew better than this, didn't she? Yet he was not so simple; her initial assessment of him had been shallow. She could not help but think he was more than the image to which he so carefully tended, and she could not help but sense that learning what lay beneath that image might be fun.
And she had frankly had very little fun in the last few years.
"Honestly? I just think he's a self-important asshole," he said.
Before Sansa could ask more, Renly and his fans had reached them, and Daenerys and Daario were not far behind.
"Can we go inside?" Margaery complained, dancing in place. "It's cold."
"Let me just let Jon know. He's across town," Daenerys was saying, taking out her mobile and glancing at the street signs for reference. Sansa fought the urge to ask when he would be joining them. She had to make sure Daenerys knew she was not just 'a fangirl' of Jon, so when the other girls started to pipe up and ask when he'd be done, Sansa turned away as though disinterested.
It was only five, so the bar was not crowded. Inside was wood-paneled, the bar backlit with red lights. The front was all windows, looking out onto the street. Later, the street would be packed with revelers—there were many bars along this stretch, and it was a central location—and there would be a line forming out the door, but for now it was easy to find a large table for the group. Sansa was feeling increasingly anxious; if they were all stuck at one table, it would be harder to snag Jon Snow and buy him a drink. How much time would pass before she would have another opportunity to bond with him? A week? Six months?
"First round's on me," Renly called, and some of the group cheered. "Let's start with whiskey," he said devilishly, shrugging off his Burberry coat and clapping his hands together.
"Please tell me you won't go all professional and dull on me," Theon begged, as the shot glasses of whiskey were passed around the two tables they had occupied. Sansa took hers. She'd never liked whiskey, but she also knew consulting politics all too well. Just as she could not be the new girl who did not go out with the group, she could not be the new girl who turned down the first drink—especially when a senior person was paying.
"I can't back out of the first round," she promised, and tossed back the shot with the others. It hit her throat and slid into her belly like molten gold, and within moments, she had begun to calm down. The sky outside was darkening, but still no sign of Jon Snow.
"Look, Lollys is already drunk," Theon said into her ear later, his breath ghosting along the shell of her ear and neck. The bar was already beginning to feel more humid. Indeed, Lollys was red-faced and laughing far too hard at something Renly had said. Renly and Margaery looked between each other, Renly quizzically silly and Margaery biting back laughter. "Lollys didn't realize Baratheon's gay, and a few years ago she tried to get him alone in a bathroom stall at the holiday get-together," Theon confided. "Don't know how she missed that; he advertises it like a neon sign."
"I can't blame her."
"Oh, that's your type?" Theon asked archly, settling back. Sansa rolled her eyes, but Theon was smiling, and she could not help but smile too. When he leaned in again, she felt his leg brush hers under the table.
"He's handsome," she argued. Shae had turned to them with interest.
"No one," Sansa said calmly, just as Theon said, "I am."
"You know who's handsome," Shae began in a low, dangerous voice. "Jon Snow."
"Ugh, here we go," Theon muttered. Next to her, Tyrion threw back his head and roared with laughter. He was on his third shot of whiskey.
"He looks like a punched puppy," Tyrion countered. "I do love the man but really, I don't see the fuss."
"He looks sensitive. Like a good lover," Shae mused, a far-off look in her eyes. "I bet he's not afraid to go south for the winter, if you know what I mean."
Sansa choked on the fresh shot of whiskey that had somehow ended up in her hand; Theon was grinning at Shae. "It's the mouth," she added.
He did have a nice mouth. Sansa had unhappily noticed it earlier in the week, and now she felt foolish though she could not quite pinpoint why. She had also noted Renly's good looks, and has not felt bad about that.
"It's the fact that he looks like a girl," Theon shot back easily, but his words were drowned out. At the second table, Daenerys, her cheeks flushed and eyes bright, was making an impassioned speech that kept getting steamrollered by Renly's sarcasm.
"Next round is on me," Tyrion said suddenly. "Let's do whiskey again; they have one from Skagos that I'm terribly curious about, and I try to have whiskey on-hand when Dany gets going."
He was her boss; she could not turn this one away, either. Sansa raised the shot glass with the rest of them and hoped that Jon Snow would be running late. It would give her time for the third shot of whiskey to wear off. She threw it back with the rest of them, and coughed a little as she set the glass down. The bar was growing crowded, and more from the office had joined. Lollys was getting a bit loud, struggling to sit properly on her chair, and the music was growing louder. Shae was leaning so far in front of Tyrion that her breasts were practically smothering him, and in the corner, Margaery was being wooed by at least five different men with a sort of catlike satisfaction. Sansa watched in shock as Daenerys shrugged off Daario and sauntered to sit with Margaery, and the two women bent their heads together, talking in low voices and making rather a lot of eye contact. Across the tables, Sansa accidentally met Renly's eyes, and he winked cheekily at her.
"And thus, the shitshow begins," Theon said in her ear. Her skin prickled; his lip had brushed her skin.
"I think I need some air," Sansa confessed, her tongue thick in her mouth. She'd never done well with whiskey. She got to her feet unsteadily.
Theon watched her get to her feet.
"There's a back balcony," he said. "Come with me." His hand was at the small of her back, as he forged a path for them to the back of the bar to an open staircase leading to the second floor, which was lofted over the first. The crowding had grown oppressive, and Sansa gratefully burst out into the frosty night air with Theon at the back of the second floor. She wasn't wearing her coat, and the night went through her like a knife. A few people were out there, smoking in clumps, and the air smelled like fire and smoke. Together, they stood in the corner, and looked out over the alley.
"Sorry," she said sheepishly, as they lingered by a pot of soil that must have once held a plant. "I don't like being drunk," she confessed.
"Oh, yeah, me neither," Theon said vaguely.
It was only seven-thirty, but it felt so much later. Her head was swimming and her throat felt raw. It seemed impossible that she had only had a few shots of whiskey and yet felt this tipsy, and she took in steeling breaths. "Are you alright?"
They faced each other; Theon set his hand on the railing beside them, and his forearm brushed her hand. She pulled away, tucking a loose lock behind her ear, and his dark eyes followed the movement disappointedly. She was just warm enough to wonder what might happen if she didn't pull her hand away. It might be fun. This time, she let her handle linger, and when Theon stepped closer, his hand brushing hers, it took her a moment to pull away.
What are you doing? she desperately wondered.
Letting myself have some normal fun, the deeper part of her crowed. Sansa pulled her arm away and twisted away from him.
"Yes, I'm fine. I just needed some air," she admitted. Together, they looked out at the city, glimmering in the night, and listened to the roar of nightlife around them. "We'd better get back inside," she said after a while.
"Yeah. Can't miss the shitshow," Theon said.
Inside, the atmosphere had changed. It was darker, the red backlighting more vibrant, and people knocked into Sansa as she followed Theon to the open staircase. As they turned the landing, she saw the door swing open downstairs, and her heart jolted into her throat.
Jon Snow had arrived. He was scanning the crowd, and nodded when he saw their group. From this vantage point, Sansa could freely watch him shrug out of his coat with movements brisk and businesslike, and push his way to the tables. His suit was plain, and he needed a shave. He looked like he had not slept in a few days, but there was something to him—some indefinable thing that made everyone pause and look at him. To her surprise, he smiled genuinely at a few of the employees, greeting them with one-armed hugs and, in one fiery-haired giant man's case, a full bear hug.
The mystery only deepened: who was Jon Snow? Who was this man of blunt rudeness at prints and bear hugs with graphic designers? Who was this man who had bothered to look at her resumé and seemed to know her story already?
"Great," she heard Theon groan.
This was her chance. She was less tipsy, definitely less tipsy. She was a grown woman who could handle this. She knew how to do business with a little alcohol in her system; at Vale consulting, it had been part and parcel of the job. She squared her shoulders as she came down the steps. She was Sansa fucking Stark, and she would get Jon Snow to love her. Getting people to love her was her talent, she reminded herself; it was her secret weapon.
"You made it," she said, as their path converged with Jon's. He turned to look at them, his brows arching, and with a lurch of horror she realized how it looked: she and Theon had come together from another place, flushed with cold and not wearing their coats. Jon's grey gaze was more chilling than the night air as he looked them over with unmistakable disdain.
"As did you," he remarked. Sansa swallowed. The more awkward she acted, the more incriminating it might seem. There was no way to tell him that she had not been off somewhere with Theon inappropriately; the best was to show him. She pressed on.
"There's an empty chair by me," she said. He didn't look happy about it—nor did Theon—but there weren't any other options, and soon they were sitting side by side, with Theon on Sansa's other side. Jon irritably pushed a large potted palm frond out of his way as he sat. This close, he smelled faintly of aftershave and coffee, but none of the strong cologne that seemed to be a trend among the other men. He smells good, Sansa thought dizzily, then reeled with horror. Oh, fuck. She was still too tipsy. How had this happened? Tyrion tore himself from Shae.
"Snow! You made it. I've already bought a round, but I'm so pleased that this one's on me, too," he greeted. Jon shifted uncomfortably, considerably less warm to Tyrion. He held up a hand as the other loosened his tie.
"—Nonsense!" Tyrion insisted, and Shae laughed a little harder than necessary. Stock market, Sansa reminded herself. Stock market and sports, and I'll ask how his meeting went. She wanted to decline the whiskey that was passed to her, but then everyone—even Jon—was holding a shot of whiskey. "Well, this is in honor of our beautiful boy, who just won us a client that we have been struggling to win over for the decade that I've been at the Wall. From all sources, the meeting was bloody electric, and somehow even Stannis was impressed. To Jon Snow!"
Sansa was so nervous, so lost in her own head, that she threw back the shot before they had toasted together. They looked at her, bemused, but then toasted together anyway, and each one threw back the shot. Wait. Shit.
"You're supposed to wait," Jon remarked, after he had taken the shot and set his empty glass down. His voice was just slightly rough from the whiskey. Sansa's throat was on fire and her neck was warm, and Sansa turned to look at Jon.
This was her chance. She had behaved awkwardly, but she had prepared for this, and she could salvage this.
Stock market, she told herself, but that was not what came out of her mouth.
"Well, I'm a bad girl," she confessed.
In the moment, she did not study the words. It had been a careless joke—she of the color-coded notes and highlighters, a bad girl?
To anyone else, it would have been funny.
There was a buzzing sound in her ears, and Jon Snow was looking at her with powerful disdain. What was his problem? He was looking at her like she'd said something rude—through the haze of alcohol, she realized what she had said.
"I saw your CV—I had hoped for more," he said briskly, and turned from her to face Tyrion.
On his other side, just over his shoulder, Theon was staring at her, his eyes wide and lips parted.
This chapter is also based on things that happened to me! Unfortunately.
And I had to expand it to three chapters, because I WILL NOT shut up, apparently.
The din and clamor of the bar faded around her as everything in her soul narrowed to the space between her and Jon, a single buzzing point of horror. There were so many mistakes that could be fixed these days—deleted files, typos, missed trains, wrong turns—but there was, short of lobotomy, nothing she could do to fix this mistake. There was no way to take it back, and for some reason she could not make her mouth form the words, it was just a joke. It was too late; he already thought less of her. Sansa watched numbly as Jon turned to Tyrion to discuss his meeting with Stannis, a clear dismissal of her. She slumped back weakly in her chair, a roaring in her ears, and stared down at the empty shot glass before her.
When she looked up, Theon was staring at her. His lips curled into a sneer, but it was forced: his brow was furrowed and his eyes looked wide. She had hurt him.
"Not you too," he scoffed. "Didn't think you'd be the type to hit on Snow at one of these."
This fun thing, whatever it was—in which he called her new girl and brought her lattes and walked with her when she would not have had anyone else to walk with—was fragmenting, scattering, before her eyes.
"It was meant to be a joke. Because—because I'm so pointedly not a—" She couldn't even say it. How could she have possibly allowed herself to utter something so clearly sexual—to a male coworker, to a senior male coworker, in front of everyone? She wanted to curl up into a ball—better yet, she wanted to go to bed and not wake up for several days. The worst part of it all, perhaps, was that some part of her knew that this was only the beginning of her agony. The empty shot glass, with a drop of gold still illuminating its bottom, was proof. Once the fuzz of whiskey had retreated—leaving her undoubtedly with a headache and a churning stomach—the shame would be sharper.
"Yeah. Whatever," Theon said, turning from her, raking a hand through his hair.
Her shame abruptly turned to outrage. Even slightly drunk, she knew he was jealous—he was not judging her for her character, he was judging her for her interest (though there patently was none) in Jon Snow. And for some reason it infuriated her, for some reason it was worse. She had spent years not getting the credit her work deserved, had spent years not being taken seriously. She did not want him to be jealous; she did not want to have their friendship (or whatever it was) rooted in his desire of her.
"I need to use the ladies'," she said loudly, and got up clumsily from her chair. Theon said nothing, and Jon's back was still to her, and Sansa walked, alone, toward the stairs, clutching the railing a bit more than might have been necessary in her current state. Had she been younger, part of her would have wanted desperately to talk to Margaery about all of this, to be soothed by her, advised by her. She was excellent for advising her on these types of moments.
But she was older now, and though none of this situation reflected even a single thing about her old job, it was making old frustrations, old humiliations, come to the surface. Unwittingly she had made herself into just another silly woman, a label she had so desperately worked to avoid but which had been placed upon her anyway at her last job, a label that she had never thought she would place so easily upon herself. Theon's jealousy was clear proof. And though she longed for a world in which women were not so clearly delineated in the office based on desirability, based on their apparent readiness to be living breathing beings beyond their work, she also knew that she lived in this world. A man's world, in which women played but never, ever played for keeps; a man's world in which women were reluctantly allowed to play, so long as they played by vastly different rules. And to refuse to play by those rules disqualified you from the game at all—so was it better to play by the rules and uphold the game, or refuse the rules and never get to play at all?
There was a line forming outside of the bathroom, so Sansa bypassed it and went to the balcony that she had stood on with Theon not an hour earlier. Her hands were still clumsy, her limbs still felt numb. Anyone would have told her it was nothing; they would have only been placating her. Once crumpled, paper could not be smoothed. An impression had been made, and nothing she did from here onward would ever totally erase whatever she had made Jon think of her in that moment. It was not a huge deal, in that she would not be held accountable by HR for it; she would not have to quit her job. But in one stupid, mindless joke she had aligned herself with women who dressed like work gatherings were dates; with women who behaved like children at work gatherings; with women who salivated, desperately, over Jon Snow as a prize to be won. And these women—though there was nothing wrong with them—did not get corner offices. Senior titles. Important clients. These women did not get the things that Sansa wanted; these women did not live the life Sansa wanted.
It was not a big deal; it was merely everything.
Had she been younger, she might have wept. As it was, she squared her shoulders.
Get a grip, Stark.
Arya would have told her to down another shot and challenge Jon Snow to a game of pool and consequently kick his ass. Robb would have told her that people were inherently good and if she just explained it had been a careless joke, it would all be fine. Her mother would have cringed for her and told her to move on, and her father would have laughed with her and told her to move on. Rickon would have offered to beat Jon up, and Bran would have suggested a bunch of new books to get lost in.
The point was, none of them would have been wallowing—and she would not be, either.
She metaphorically dusted her skirt and went back inside, standing tall. She would stay for a bit longer, to ensure no one would gossip that she had left early, upset by what would undoubtedly be perceived as a rejection from Jon, and then she would go home and spend hours doing research on Stannis Baratheon's firm, so that come Monday, she would be ready with ideas for how to expand the foundational work that Jon's meeting with him today had done. She would overcome this—she could overcome anythi—
"Sansa!" Lollys was sprawled on the floor outside of the bathroom, her face wet with tears. A group of women with cocktails and men with beers were staring down at Lollys, who had evidently tripped and fallen. She must have knocked into something, because one of her bare knees was shining with blood. They were laughing, amusing themselves as though at the zoo. Beyond them, Sansa could see Daario and a few other Wall employees craning their necks, looking with interest.
"Out of my way," Sansa snapped, pushing past one of the idiots—he was wearing a faded tee shirt advertising Marillion and was guffawing at Lollys—and kneeling down before the blonde. Lollys' hair was mussed and her makeup was beyond help; she had been crying quite hard. "Come on, let's get you to the bathroom."
No one helped her lift Lollys, and Sansa felt a fresh burst of disgust for humanity. She spotted Theon among them—apparently he had migrated to the loft area—and across the group they made eye contact, but his mouth twisted and he turned from her sharply. He was talking to a very pretty girl who worked for Renly, and Sansa suppressed a spike of rage. Seriously? You're so jealous you can't help me?
"I-I-I'm so embarrassed," Lollys choked, as Sansa attempted to shoulder her into the bathroom. And then—
"What's going on?"
Jon Snow was behind them. He had traded his usual look of irritation for one of concern; he was looking at Lollys as though she were a child who had just been given training wheels.
"I think she fell," Sansa explained, as Lollys began crying and slipping out of Sansa's grasp. Sansa waited for Jon to laugh, or make a rude remark—I had hoped for more, he'd said so callously—but he only reached forward and took Lolly's other arm, shifting the woman's weight so that they equally bore it. He pushed the bathroom door open, and shot devastating looks at the few women who were standing before the mirror, lest they even consider making a snide face at Lollys' condition.
"Here," he said, finding the least-foul stall of the group. They were a nauseating beige, the walls of each stall covered in graffiti, and scraps of toilet paper and wrappers from tampons and sanitary napkins littered the grimy tiled floor. Together, brushing arms and knocking knees, Sansa and Jon arranged Lollys on top of the toilet, where she swayed dangerously.
"I think she's going to vomit," Sansa realized. Lollys lurched, clapping a hand over her mouth. "Definitely going to vomit."
It was a bit like human Tetris. The tiled floor was slimy beneath Sansa's bare knees as she and Jon knelt there, trying to hold Lollys, who dry-heaved a few times, in between choking, messy sobs, properly over the toilet bowl.
"She shouldn't kneel on this tile with that cut," Jon muttered, and awkwardly, in the confines of the tiny stall, he wriggled out of his suitjacket, revealing the crisp white shirt beneath. She was hit with a burst of his clean scent, of starch and soap and deodorant. "She's going to get an infection. Lollys, can you move your leg? Thanks." He slid the suitjacket beneath her knees as Lollys heaved again.
"I actually have bandaids in my purse, too," Sansa recalled. "Maybe we can clean out the worst of it when she's done with...this...and at least get a bandaid on it."
"Downstairs? I'll go get it." Jon looked at her. His hair was already becoming mussed. "What does it look like?"
"It's black leather and has some pink folders inside of it. It should be hanging on the back of my chair with my red coat," she said. "There are a few zippered pouches inside and one of them will have bandaids; I don't remember which one. Oh, and there are hairbands in it. That'll help keep her hair out of her face." Jon was already slipping out, and she wondered if he were actually planning on coming back, though the suit jacket on the floor—it was now objectively ruined—was a good sign that he was. The stall felt infinitely bigger, yet lonelier, without him in it.
"What happened, Lollys?" Sansa asked as she combed Lollys' sweaty, damp hair from her face. Lollys wiped at her eyes, smearing her mascara further.
"I tripped and fell," she slurred, then shook her head and began to cry again. "Loras came. Renly's boyfriend. And seeing them together—just love Renly so much. He's so nice to me."
And then with a lurch she heaved into the toilet bowl, and the stench of bile mixed with acidic whiskey filled the stall. Sansa winced; she knew how the whiskey had burned going down so it couldn't feel good on the return trip. "He n-never treats me like I'm dumb," Lollys choked, wiping her mouth with the clumsy sincerity of a child and sitting back on her heels. One high heel had fallen off and the other foot twisted to accommodate the position. "And I am dumb."
"No, you're not," Sansa said patiently, handing her a wad of toilet paper to wipe her mouth with. This just made Lollys cry harder.
"I am, though. I know it. And I always get d-drunk at these things b-because Renly makes me nervous, and then I heard y-you and Theon laughing at me..."
"I'm sorry," Sansa said, her stomach sinking. She had known it wasn't nice to gossip about Lollys like that, had known in the moment that it was unkind and not who she was. "I don't normally do that. I guess I was nervous, too," she admitted, but Lollys was already heaving into the toilet bowl again. Jon appeared, supremely indifferent to the odd looks that the other women were giving him in the bathroom. A few of them looked him over with interest before realizing he had come in here to help them, and he shut the stall door behind him, holding up her purse.
"I just brought the whole thing," he explained. "Hairband first?"
"Yes, in the little pink velvet zip case," Sansa told him, as Jon crouched beside her on the floor. He placed the purse on top of the suit jacket, and rifled through it with brisk, focused movements.
"I-I-I'm so sorry, Mr. Snow," Lollys wailed as Jon helped Sansa to scrape some of Lollys' hair back into the hairtie.
"It's fine, Lollys," Jon said uncomfortably, holding her up as Lollys produced another whiskey-filled heave. Over Lollys' messy hair, Sansa met Jon's eyes.
"It's a little sickening to me that no one else was helping her," she said carefully, thinking, furiously, of how Theon had turned from her, merely out of jealousy. It was not just Theon, though; Daario and the others had seen too . Jon nodded slightly.
"It is. We work with a few selfish, self-absorbed people," he said succinctly. Lollys sat up again, and Sansa helped her to wipe her mouth with another wad of toilet paper.
"Alright, Lollys, can you sit up for me?" Sansa asked. Lollys nodded, eyes still streaming. They helped Lollys to sit on the toilet seat. The blood was smeared all down her shin, now. The scrape wasn't deep, but broad, and the blood had begun to dry faintly with the impression of the texture of Jon's suit.
"Y-you both are so nice," she wept. "I'm s-so embarrassed. I'm so sorry for ruining your suit. I'm so sorry."
"It's alright," Sansa said, stroking her hair as Jon went to the sink. Together, they wordlessly cleaned the skin around Lollys' scrape, arms brushing. The noise in the bathroom waxed and waned; at times nothing more than muttered conversations and the slightly sticky clacking of heels on a filthy floor; at one point a group of drunken women screeching about another one's behavior. It felt that they were in a different, untouchable world; a weird parallel universe where Sansa had not just humiliated herself in front of Jon Snow, a weird parallel universe where they were friends. Lollys' tears began to subside, until she was only dabbing at her eyes with a wad of toilet paper and coughing occasionally, her throat raw from vomiting.
"I'll call an Uber," Jon muttered at last, after most of the blood had been cleaned away. His once-crisp white shirt had splotches of blood, pale with soapy water, spattered across it. His suit jacket was, undoubtedly, ruined. "Do you have anyone who can take care of you at home, Lollys?"
She shook her head.
"I'll be fine," she said in a small voice. She looked up at Jon, chagrined and humiliated. "Um, am I going to be fired?"
Jon rolled his eyes.
"No, of course you're not. But you need to stop getting drunk at these things, Lollys," he said plainly. He picked up his suit jacket and opened the stall and tossed it into the garbage. Sansa knew all too well how Lollys was feeling, and she touched her back in comfort; she could not help it.
"I know it's hard when you like someone. Renly is really nice, but—" she began, but Jon cut her off.
"No, he's not. Renly is funny, and friendly, and perhaps pleasant, but he is not kind. He leads Lollys on by pretending that he sometimes enjoys sleeping with women, because he finds the adoration amusing and he enjoys the attention. That is not not nice, and you should demand better, Lollys," Jon said disgustedly. Lollys stared at Jon, stunned. He bit his lip, the wind taken out of his sails. He seemed embarrassed to have spoken. "I'm going to call you an Uber."
Lollys looked like she had been slapped, but Jon had put into words the very thing that Sansa had been guiltily thinking. She wanted to like Renly, wanted to dismiss that Lollys' absurd antics were her own ill-advised choices—and, in truth, she was a grown woman and they were—but Renly was not so kind as she wanted to think, either. It was the same behavior she had seen in Margaery at times—and, now, in Theon, too. He had bought her a latte, had been kind to her, but when it mattered—really mattered, and involved sacrifice—he was nowhere to be found.
Together, they helped Lollys down the steps. The bar was even darker, and their group had spilled away from the tables. Tormund was dancing with some of the others, Margaery and Daenerys were still sitting together, whispering covertly, and Renly was enjoying an audience.
"Let's go this way. Give her some dignity," Sansa muttered. "I'll grab her things."
Out in the frosty air, they stood on the sidewalk and helped Lollys into her coat. She was despondent and sniffling, and Jon and Sansa stood there with her, shivering.
"Sorry about your suit jacket, Jon," Lollys mumbled. "I'll buy you a new one, of course. Just let me know where you got it."
"Don't be ridiculous. It's just a jacket," he said. The Uber rolled up to the curb at last. After they had deposited Lollys in the Uber, Jon and Sansa lingered for a moment, arms crossed over their chests, shifting their weight to keep warm.
"Guess we'll both need to hit the dry cleaning this weekend," Sansa said weakly. Her favorite blouse—the blouse she had worn as part of her armor in her quest to impress Jon Snow—had been ruined, potentially beyond help. "Thanks for helping me with her, by the way."
"Forget it," he dismissed. "We should go back inside."
When they returned, Theon and his coat had disappeared. Sansa left shortly after Jon, hoping to have a moment out on the sidewalk where they might bond over this shared experience, a moment that might help her begin to smooth out her misstep from earlier. But Jon left without a word to her, as though they had shared nothing at all.
All weekend, Sansa had been researching Stannis Baratheon. She had been up late even through Sunday night, creating a polished slide deck enumerating her ideas for how to build a relationship with and, therefore, get more business from Stannis, so that she could present them to Tyrion. Keeping busy with this had been the only way to manage her growing horror at the moment she had shared with Jon, and then her growing fury with herself for Theon. The shame had come in waves—at times, she had dismissed the moment. It was obviously a joke. There's nothing to be so worked up about. But at others—chiefly in the small hours, with no one to text and nothing to distract her—Sansa had found herself searching, with increasing specificity and sense of hysteria, potential HR policies on sexual comments.
But on Monday, Sansa was ready. She arrived at Wall Consulting early, earlier than anyone else, armed with a latte and a polished slide deck. The only light that was on, this early, was the one in Jon Snow's office. She wanted to hurry past him to her cubicle, but his door had been left open a crack, and she realized his head was on his desk.
He had fallen asleep in front of his computer. He was wearing a plain black jumper, his hair wild. A crisp suit hung on a hook from one of his shelves, and empty coffee cups littered his desk, which was piled high with notes.
He must have been planning on falling asleep, must have brought the crisply tailored suit in preparation. She walked away from his office, and sat down at her cubicle, and continued working on her presentation. She scheduled a meeting with Tyrion for early that morning, and until he rolled in late at nine-forty-five, she found herself anxious and restless. Theon came in and breezed past her cubicle with nary a word, but Lollys came by with a cupcake and an apology. She looked terrible, wan and limp-haired, but Sansa also noticed that she seemed more focused, and spent the morning at her computer with her headphones on, working more productively than Sansa had seen her last week.
And perhaps she did open Jon Snow's calendar—she just wanted to see if, by any chance, he had a free block where she might strategically drop by, present a few of her ideas on how to manage Stannis as a client...
"Sansa?" Tyrion poked his head out of his office, and Sansa hastily blocked any view of her computer screen. No need for anyone to see she had been stalking Jon Snow's calendar... "Come in here. These ideas are superb."
She warmed at the fact that Tyrion had said it so publicly, loud enough for others to hear. The part of her that had always been the teacher's pet, that had been in childhood a bit of a tattletale, was delighted as she made her way to Tyrion's office, with so many people aware. She brought her laptop into Tyrion's office with her, just in case, and he closed the door behind her.
Tyrion's office was dark but lush, all expensive mid-century decor and framed posters of celebrated cinema on the walls. His desk was littered with the sort of intellectual toys that people bought men they did not know, and his bar cart, with glittering whiskey decanters, sent rainbow twinkles across his carpet. From the strong scent of the room, it seemed he had already gotten started. "Take a seat. Did you work on this all weekend?" Tyrion hopped into his chair and Sansa sat down across from him smoothly.
"I heard a lot about Stannis Baratheon at Vale," she explained. "So I already had some ideas that I wanted to follow up on. I think we could build that relationship further. He's not an easy man to work with, and our having his brother might hurt us, but—"
"—Astute. A self-starter. Socially sensitive," Tyrion was musing. "I did not know what to think when we hired you, you know. You have the black mark because you were fired from Vale, but personally I always love a comeback kid, and Snow, of course, was the one to vouch for you from the start. He insisted that anyone fired by Petyr Baelish had to be trustworthy, had to be someone worth hiring. It's like finding a Cartier ring in a fast-food parking lot."
Tyrion's mismatched gaze was heavy, and his office suddenly felt airless. Sansa licked her lips.
"Well, I hope to wipe away any misgivings," she said, instead of the many, many things she could have said. Tyrion grinned.
"I certainly think you will. Set up a meeting between myself, Snow, Dany, and Renly for this afternoon. Snow's calendar will be blocked—" It was; she would not admit that she already knew, "—but send the invite anyway, and I'll tell him to make time. You'll present these ideas, so that we have some raw material going into our strategy meeting later this afternoon." He clapped his hands. "Now, shoo. I need to hop on a boring call with Pycelle from Council."
With a weakly fluttering heart, Sansa picked up her laptop and left Tyrion's office. Wall was quiet today; everyone who was here seemed focused on catching up on the emails that they had allowed to pile up, and many people had mysteriously taken the morning off. Sansa carried her laptop, still open and ready to run through her slides, to the cafe area. She was going to present; she was going to present ideas that Tyrion had liked, had found useful. Coffee—she needed coffee. She set her notebooks and laptop down on the counter and began making coffee, remembering exactly one week ago how she had stood in this spot and listened to Renly airily talk about Jon Snow's 'rear view.'
She almost dropped the mug. Theon was behind her, his gaze strangely combative even as his posture was casual.
"Hi, Theon." She turned away from him, hunting for the sugar.
"I left early on Friday," he began in a low voice. He was fishing for something, but she would not give him the satisfaction. She heard him lean against the counter beside her. "Did you stay for the whole shitshow? Or leave early?"
"I left," she said simply. She kept seeing the way he'd turned away from her and Lollys when they had needed help, and it was so much worse than seeing the look on his face when she had made that comment to Jon Snow. "Did you have a nice weekend?" she forced out. When she glanced at Theon, he was gazing at her so brokenly that it gave her pause.
"Um, yeah," he admitted. "It was fine. Did you?"
"I worked for most of it," she said pointedly. "I should get back to it. See you later."
"Sansa—" he halted. When she arched her brows at him, however, he pressed his lips together. That look of vulnerability, that look of broken hope, was fleeting—and in its place was a sneer. "Snow."
Jon Snow was walking past them. He nodded to Sansa, but would not look at Theon, and he was gone as soon as he'd come, leaving them in uncomfortable silence. Why did they so clearly hate each other?
"Unless you needed something else," she began, "I'd better get back to it." Without waiting for his word, she turned away from him.
Unable to carry everything, she balanced her notebook and mobile on the keyboard of her open laptop, and carried the coffee mug with her free hand. She would not let Theon ruin her morning; she was having a wonderful morning, and this was her chance to undo the damage that Petyr had done to her career; this was her chance to undo the damage that she'd done herself. She got back to her desk and set her things aside. Her calendar had been open on her screen, as had been Jon Snow's, and when she went to open a new meeting invite, she saw it.
10:45 - 11:45 AM
To: Jon Snow, Sansa Stark, Stannis Baratheon
Sansa's hands shook. She looked up from her computer screen to find Missandei standing in the mouth of her cubicle, holding a tablet and looking exceedingly uncomfortable. "Hi, Sansa. How are you?" she asked politely.
Sansa cleared her throat.
"Um. Great," she squeaked. How had it happened? How had she sent an invite to Jon Snow like that? How? She hadn't—oh, god, she'd had her laptop open and had had her notebook resting on the keys, just over the left side of the keyboard—god, no, this was not happening— "How can I help you, Missandei?"
"Well, Daenerys asked me to manage Jon Snow's schedule, as he's been getting double-booked," she began carefully, "and I see you sent an invite to Jon and to one of our clients, Stannis Baratheon—well, I just was wondering how...literally...you meant this meeting."
The two women stared at each other for a long moment. Sansa cleared her throat.
"Missandei," she began, "I desperately need your help."
"I mean, I've deleted it, but it's already gone to his mobile," their resident IT help person, Mya, said. She smoothed a hand over her short black hair, fluffing absently at the undercut she had clearly just gotten.
Missandei and Sansa looked to each other weakly.
"I'm so sorry, Sansa," she whispered, sounding as horrified as Sansa felt. Mya was chuckling.
"Come on, it's not a big deal," she reassured Sansa, elbowing her lightly. Sansa decided she liked Mya; the woman was acting like they'd been friends for years. "Snow's a good guy. He'll probably laugh." She then hesitated, looking thoughtful. "Well, maybe not laugh, but he'll at least crack a smile. And as for Uncle Stannis..." she shrugged. "I mean, I'll tell him Uncle Renly did it as a practical joke, and he won't even question it."
"Is it believable that Renly would do that?" Sansa hissed. Mya grinned.
"He once covered Uncle Stannis' car inside and out with tinfoil. More recently, he drew a dick on Uncle Stannis' party hat at last year's New Years' party, and Uncle Stannis didn't find out until after midnight. He just walked around all night, already pissed that he had to wear a party hat, with a dick on his head. So yeah, pretty believable."
Had Sansa not been so sick, she might have laughed. She sank down to the floor, hugging her knees to her chest. Her meeting with Daenerys, Tyrion, Jon, and Renly was just minutes away and they had not been able to resolve what she had done—nor had they heard a thing from either Jon or Stannis Baratheon.
"I just don't know how I did it," she despaired. Mya shrugged and her fingers, the nails painted green and gold, flew across the keyboard.
"Look. You must've had your calendar open and hit a new meeting invite. When I type 's', Jon and Stannis are the first contacts to come up. Stannis' email was recently added to our org, so maybe that's why he came up before others." Mya paused, narrowing her blue eyes at the screen. "Oh, and it looks like you already had Jon's calendar open. I guess to send the invite for your other meeting?"
"Um, yeah," Sansa said weakly.
"You'd better get to the other meeting," Missandei said, checking her watch. "We can't fix this problem, but we can avoid compounding the problem."
This was it.
Sansa had lost so much time to trying to resolve this issue with Mya and Missandei that she now felt unsettled and unprepared to meet with Tyrion and the others. She stopped in the bathroom to straighten her hair, to give herself a get a grip sort of moment. But all she could think of was how foolish her ideas would look in light of the idiocy of what she had already sent Stannis—she would look incompetent, incapable.
Gripping her closed laptop, Sansa walked grimly to the meeting room. She could hear Tyrion and Renly talking, punctuated by loud disagreements from Daenerys.
But Jon Snow was striding to the conference room as well. In front of the door, they both paused. Jon was carrying a cup of coffee and his own laptop, wearing the fresh suit she had seen hanging in his office. This man lived and died by his job, and she had just humiliated their company to the client he had just so expertly netted—
"You've probably already seen the meeting invite. I just wanted to say I am so sorry, I don't know how—"
"—Forget it," Jon interrupted, and he gestured for her to go into the conference room.
"I understand that this must—"
"—Sansa, forget it." His lip twitched, the ghost of a smile, and he turned from her. "It's done."
But for a moment the absurdity of it—she had actually sent a meeting invite titled ASS; this was a thing that had actually happened—made her own lips twitch too, and they shared a private smile, a smile she would not have guessed she could ever share with a man like Jon Snow. Over his shoulder, she glimpsed Theon leave the photo studio and walk past them, but he determinedly did not look their way.
They walked in, with Tyrion looking suspiciously at both of them.
"I've never seen Snow grin like that. I want to know the joke," he complained. Renly also looked intrigued, and was studying them both. Sansa stood at the front of the room, in front of the screen, and connected her laptop as she heard Jon sit down.
"You had to be there," Jon said, and Sansa had to mask her grin behind her laptop. She risked a glance up and across the room met Jon's eyes; there was that twist of his pretty mouth as he hastily stifled a laugh again. And she found herself thinking, again, of what Tyrion had said earlier, what Daenerys had implied: Jon Snow of course was the one to vouch for you from the start.
"Thank you all for joining," she began. "I wanted to share some of my ideas."
Chapter 3: Chapter 3
Yep. I just made this four chapters instead of three. I HAVE NO SELF CONTROL.
(Also, if you're reading Pumpkin Spice as well: yes, I know. I have a thing for this specific scenario. Call it wish fulfillment.)
Sansa had been lounging on cloud nine ever since her presentation to Tyrion, Jon, Daenerys, and Renly, swooning over a future that involved a corner office, better tailoring, and a name that finally—finally—commanded respect. The meeting had gone better than she ever could have imagined: Tyrion had been swilling a crystal glass of whiskey, musing on his new employee's rare brilliance, 'like a canary diamond,' yet another analogy to jewelry that was slightly creepy but, she supposed, well-meant; Daenerys had swelled like a bullfrog and then informed Sansa, with great drama, that she was absolutely brilliant, and Renly had bumped her hip after the meeting and whispered, "go Sansa," under his breath appreciatively.
And yet all of these moments of validation were nothing compared to the one she got from Jon Snow, which had not even looked like validation on its surface—yet its quiet depth was a gift given to her in secret, a gift she knew she would find herself taking out and studying with private joy for a long time to come. He had been the first to raise his hand, and, she'd noticed, had been taking notes voraciously throughout her presentation. His pen had not stopped moving, and she had been watching it throughout the presentation with increasing paranoia.
"Can you go back to—" He paused to look down at his notes, "—slide twelve, and give me some detail? The idea is a little vague. How are we going to do that in practice?"
When she'd cleared her throat and said that she'd thought it through and had some rough ideas, he had simply nodded and taken more notes as she had listed her ideas, neither smiling with approval nor showing any disdain. He was not gushing with delight like Daenerys—who evidently was happy any time a woman showed even the most remote sign of competence—nor was he lightheartedly encouraging her like Renly, nor was he waxing poetic on her jewel-like brilliance like Tyrion.
He was, quite simply, taking her seriously.
This, somehow, meant more than Renly's quiet encouragement, more than Daenerys' emotional outburst, more than Tyrion's musings. It had felt more real; it had felt more like a reflection of her work than a reflection of how Jon wanted to be perceived. So often, it seemed that advancement was dependent not upon your own worth but your ability to mirror the worth of the people above you; true recognition, true collaboration, was as rare and fleeting as a shooting star. Nearly every moment in her career that had advanced her—as well as the moments that had cast her down—had been tied to her willingness and ability to flatter someone. She had never really been taken seriously before; she had almost assumed it was not possible. And it was this epiphany that gave her pause, that she went over and over again in her mind that night when she could not sleep for her sudden, swooping happiness. In his straightforward criticism of her, in his blunt delivery and un-couched demeanor, he had given her the thing she had been craving all of her life—the very thing that had been so thoroughly ripped from her through her dismissal from Vale.
This was probably what heroin felt like.
The next morning, Sansa came in to Wall still high on her win, feeling dismissive and airy about her mistake with Stannis. She had almost forgotten it, truthfully—that was, until Missandei stopped by her cubicle.
"Sansa," Missandei greeted with strained optimism, holding her tablet. "Good morning. I do hope you brought your umbrella; it's supposed to rain cats and dogs tonight." She waited the socially-obligated necessary beat between small talk and work talk before continuing. "I have some news that Jon asked me to pass on: you will be accompanying him and Renly to their meeting with Stannis Baratheon this Wednesday." She held up her tablet and examined it. "It's at three-thirty and will—per Jon's wording—'unfortunately' likely involve happy hour afterward."
Missandei lowered the tablet as Sansa tried—and failed—to hide her shock.
"Right," she said, clearing her throat. Missandei's smile was fixed—the woman clearly knew her pain. "Thanks, Missandei."
"You'll be Ubering over with Jon. Renly has to come from another meeting," Missandei explained. "Jon will be leaving precisely at two-forty-five." She paused. "Stannis is formal," she added suddenly, hand on the edge of Sansa's cubicle, her normally crisp demeanor folding slightly. "A suit and pearls wouldn't be out of place."
"Thank you," Sansa said. "Really. Thanks."
Missandei left Sansa with a sympathetic smile that brought back, in vivid glory, the lurching horror of the moment she had realized she'd sent that invite to Stannis and Jon. But Daenerys' follow-up message encouraging her after the presentation was still on Sansa's screen. No, she reminded herself, thinking of Jon so carefully taking notes during her presentation. I'm better than this. I'm not going to freak out over that stupid email. I'm going to make plans and strategize and figure this out.
She left her cubicle, palms clammy, and went to Jon's office. The blinds were drawn, and Missandei was nowhere to be found. It was impossible to tell if he was inside or not.
She was just going to do it—she was going to knock, and ask Jon if he thought she ought to do anything about that email.
Her fist hovered before the door and she paused. What was there to do about it? It had been done. If there were a strategy that needed to be sorted out, wouldn't he have approached her already? Did it look better to leave it, or look better to tackle it?
Better to seem unruffled by it, Sansa decided, turning away resolutely. She had already shown Jon she was competent, that she could still do good work in the face of a silly mistake—what if he found her lacking in confidence now, if she asked for his guidance on her email snafu? She would pretend to have forgotten it, she decided, walking away from his office and smoothing her hair self-consciously.
Across the office, above the length of cubicles, she saw Theon.
He was holding his camera, leaving the photo studio, and instead of looking away from her like she had expected he would, he was biting his lip and looking at her with something like worry, his gaze lingering on Jon's office behind her. He offered a short wave. Baffled, Sansa offered a limp wave back, then turned and went back to her cubicle.
What was Theon's deal? One minute he was so jealous that he couldn't even be bothered to help a drunken, injured girl—yet now he was waving to her across the office, tail between his legs? There was something infuriating about it, and in a huff she sat down in her wheelie chair again. The interoffice chat icon was flashing on her desktop, and she opened it in surprise. No one had chatted her yet, save for Margaery.
Theon Greyjoy: okay so Im a dick and feel fully confident saying that over this thing
Theon Greyjoy: i mean everyone already knew anyway, right ;)
Theon Greyjoy: the only one who polices our chats is Mya and she already thinks so too
Theon Greyjoy: i know because she told me like a half hour ago
Jon Snow was standing in the mouth of her cubicle, holding a folder. He wasn't wearing a suit today, and his shirt sleeves were pushed up. She had only a split-second to process that he had lovely forearms—she would have to file that one away for later examination.
"Um. Hi." She hastily clicked away from Theon's messages, but Jon's dark grey eyes lingered on the screen just long enough to see it swipe away. "How can I help you?" The cubicle was decidedly frostier as he passed the folder to her.
"These are some notes on Stannis Baratheon."
Their eyes met as she took the folder from him. The warmth that they'd shared yesterday—his rare half-smile at her email mishap—had dissipated. They might as well have never met. Was this in reaction to seeing Theon's messages on her screen? Was he seriously judging her for that?
"Thank you," she said, swallowing her irritation at Theon, at herself, and at Jon. "I'll make sure to read through them."
"Right. Good." He lingered a moment, drawing in a breath as though he had something he wanted to say, and they avoided each other's eyes until at last he turned away and left her cubicle without another word.
Theon's chat window was flashing and she brought it up again.
Theon Greyjoy: listen
Theon Greyjoy: i know im a tool but i also know youre reading this
Theon Greyjoy: please let me buy you a beer and at least explain?
Theon Greyjoy: its just a misunderstanding
Her fingers hovered over the keys, but in the end Sansa resolutely closed the chat window, and opened the folder of notes on Stannis Baratheon. She glanced at the screen periodically, waiting, expecting, assuming Theon would try again—just one more time—but he didn't. You did the right thing, she told herself, fingertips grazing a hardcopy of Jon Snow's notes. You didn't want to wade any deeper into office drama. You want to be taken seriously. You know Theon is bad news.
Still, all day she was on-edge. What if Theon wanted to know why she wasn't responding? What if this turned into a thing? She had already had so many things in her first week; should she have just accepted the beer, just to play nice? Should she have responded?
Jon Snow passed her cubicle multiple times, but they did not speak the rest of the day, though each time he glanced at her when he passed, his steps slowing briefly like he might pause, only to hasten once more.
When the sky had darkened at last, and the office was nearly empty, Sansa at last donned her burgundy coat. She had not seen Theon again and he had not tried to chat her again. The light was still on in the photo studio, but it might have been Daario.
And no matter how many times she told herself, as she stepped out into the murky, harried evening, that she had done the right thing, it seemed a hollow victory. It sometimes seemed there wasn't any right thing, any correct answer. It sometimes seemed that it was one of those trick knots that could not be untangled. She thought of how quiet Lollys had been the last two days, so focused on her work and so different from the woman who had been crying in the bathroom last Friday. Why was Tyrion, for example, not punished for cavorting and drinking, but Lollys now had to become a nun to 'make up for' her past behavior; why was Lollys now receiving approving nods for her new dedication and focus, whereas no one expected that of Daario or Renly? Why was Sansa now in anguish over whether she had injured a coworker's ego? Why was she imagining whispers, from Theon's lips to other coworkers—like that pretty girl who worked for Renly—in retaliation for an unanswered chat that was, in all honesty, likely overstepping certain HR policies? Was she paranoid, or was it as bad as it seemed?
Her anger was mounting as Sansa hastened along the streets, her head bowed against the harsh winds. The air was metallic with the threat of rain as she turned onto the main drag, and the usual lively, frantic energy of the streets during happy hour was missing, to be replaced by the terse haste to avoid being caught in a storm. A group of men in suits was spilling out from a bar on the corner, an exclusive steakhouse and cocktail bar with an art deco entrance, blocking her path as they talked and held up their smartphones for their Ubers. Assholes, Sansa thought furiously, sidestepping one bloated fool with a combover and simultaneously wondering why she was being so unreasonably crabby. She ought to still be thanking the universe that she had a job at all; she had no right to be so angry about minor inconveniences at work; she ought to—
"Why, if it isn't Sansa Stark."
She halted, her shoulder smacking into another besuited man with a severe brow and blue eyes. She had a swooping, lurching feeling, as though she had missed a step, as though she was falling; her only thought was, no, please.
Petyr Baelish was standing before her on the sidewalk under the glow of a streetlamp, smirking at her as though he had expected to find her there, sleek in a mulberry-colored suit that most men would not have dared, but which was undoubtedly elegant on him. Though he was not touching her, was not even that close to her, the air was claustrophobic with his presence, humid with the scent of mint that always followed him, and the hint of Myrish cologne and talc. He was tilting his head toward her, angling his head like a lover, and the man she had smacked into looked at her in surprise.
"I know that name," he blurted suddenly. Petyr glanced back at the man, then smiled again at Sansa.
"Sansa, this is Stannis Baratheon. Stannis, Miss Stark is with Wall now—you might know her from your new dealings with them."
She might throw up.
She smiled instead at the man with the heavy brow. His eyes were Renly's eyes; it was startling to see those merry eyes look so stern and set in a face so unfriendly. Stannis Baratheon was studying her with puzzlement and then—a look of dawning comprehension—and then disdain.
"Yes, I know of her," he said shortly. "My Uber's here," he added before he turned away from them and slipped into a black car.
And then it was just her and Petyr there on the sidewalk—just the two of them and her billowing rage, which swelled like the storm brewing above them.
"This is awkward, I suppose. You running into me with Stannis Baratheon, given how badly Wall wants him. But Snow's not the only one romancing Stannis Baratheon," Petyr observed, quirking a brow as though he'd disbursed some great quip to her. In the past, she might have forced out a laugh, and he would have laughed with her and lightly touched her back, and she would have felt sick as she decided whether to ignore it or not. "Business as usual. It's too bad I'm infamously better at courtship than Jon Snow."
His feline green eyes were glittering. "Though I hear he's the handsomer of the two of us."
He had always been good at getting a reaction out of people, but she no longer owed him anything.
"I think it's going to rain, so I'd better get going," she ground out, and she made to walk past him, but Petyr angled himself to block her.
"You look well," he said in her ear. "Wall agrees with you."
There were so many things she would have liked to say. So many things she would have liked to do. Though she had been unquestionably wronged, there was a lump in her throat like she was the one who had been humiliated. Her eyes were burning and she hated herself all the more for it.
Petyr pulled back from her immediately, smoothly. Sansa turned; Jon Snow was striding toward them briskly, looking harried and brusque as he had all day. "Thanks for waiting for me," he said as he reached them. He was wearing a sporty parka, and Sansa thought again of his rolled-up shirtsleeves, and mentally filed away this new clue for later. He gave an unfriendly smile to Petyr Baelish; a smile that did not reach his eyes and looked little kinder than the baring of teeth.
"The notorious Jon Snow," Petyr observed. "We were just speaking of you."
"Interesting," he dismissed, looking at his mobile. "Sansa and I have a client meeting in ten minutes and I'd like to review some things with her." He looked up from his mobile, pocketing it. Petyr let out a scoff of a laugh.
"I used to have those with Sansa, too. They're far more fun with a coworker as lovely as her," he said slyly. Jon did not smile, but looked upon Petyr so coldly that she thought she could hear the crackle of frost forming over them.
"We should get inside, Jon," Sansa said wildly, as she watched Petyr's smile melt away, saw a muscle leap in Jon's jaw. "I didn't have time to review your notes yet, truthfully, and I need to catch up." She turned to Petyr. "I hope you're well," was all she could wrench out, before she and Jon turned toward the door.
"Good luck with Stannis Baratheon, Snow," Baelish called after them. Jon and Sansa paused in the doorway. Jon looked back over his shoulder. Baelish was grinning again. "I was just meeting with him here, tonight. He mentioned he has a meeting with you tomorrow...and that he doubts the point of it, now that he's met with me."
Jon barely reacted.
"Then I ought to be the one wishing you luck, Baelish," he said coldly. "I've known Stannis Baratheon a long time, and I've never known him to like or tolerate men who take advantage of the politeness of their female colleagues." He turned back to Sansa. "We'd better go in before we lose our reservation."
He pushed open the door and they stepped inside, abandoning Petyr on the sidewalk. Inside was dimly-lit, with vintage rock jangling warmly in the background and cool, suited men and women lounging on leather barstools in front of a long, dark bar that was backlit with chartreuse and featured multiple bartenders in crisp vests and shirtsleeves. It was absolutely the sort of exclusive bar and steakhouse that Petyr would frequent; she felt nauseated even being here.
"Thank you," she blurted, turning to Jon in front of the mahogany hostess-stand. "I don't—"
"—Forget it," Jon said. He glanced out the door. "He's still there; we'd better just get a seat and wait him out."
Before she could protest or say anything further, an annoyingly young blonde hostess came to them, flashing bright white teeth.
"Do you have, like, a reservation?" she squeaked. To his credit, Jon looked disgusted by the very thought of it.
"No," he said shortly.
"Well, the bar? Is like, open? But like, we won't—"
"—That's fine," he interrupted, and shouldered past the hostess and into the bar. Sansa had no choice but to follow him. They found two open barstools on the opposite end, in the very back. Sansa wished the bar weren't so dark and warm, wished the chartreuse lighting and leather did not feel so pointedly seductive. Well, I'm a bad girl, she kept hearing in her head, with every step toward the bar. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Now she was a damsel in distress to be saved; now she was squarely placed in the 'weak woman' box that she had been so desperately trying to wriggle out of. Yet even amid all of that, she felt so—so—so seen.
They sat down, with Jon still scowling in the direction of the door as he shrugged off his windbreaker. With clumsy, heated movements, Sansa shrugged out of her own coat. She had never been more aware of the fact that her makeup was not meant to hold up this many hours and was likely half-melted off of her face, or the fact that she was still clammy with a haunted rage, or that her mouth felt like it was full of cotton. By contrast, Jon seemed distracted and hardly aware of her, radiating waves of disgust and staring at the door with the focus and intent of a man who thought he could set it on fire with his eyes.
When they had both settled, there was nothing to do but sit there in uncomfortable silence. Now they were here. They could hardly leave—but could they even stay? Did he intend on ordering drinks? Surely at a bar like this, they could not get away with sitting there, ordering nothing.
Get a grip, Sansa told herself, mysteriously in Arya's voice. She cleared her throat and twisted on the stool to face Jon.
"Look, I used to work for Petyr, and he fired me," Sansa said plainly. Jon was looking at her now, with slight surprise, like she'd shocked him out of his thoughts.
"I know," he said with a nod. "Consulting is a small world."
Her mouth was so dry. She licked her lips and did her best impression of someone with any dignity left.
"Right. Well, I just—" Her face was growing hot again. The bartender was approaching them. "—I'm not a damsel, or anything."
The bartender was standing before them, with an uncertain smile on his face, edging away slightly from Jon.
"Hi! Welcome. Can I get you two anything to drink?" he hedged. Jon was scowling at the doorway again, and Sansa decided to take the plunge. She was supposed to be good at solving problems, at getting others out of sticky wickets. It was, quite literally, her job description. At the very least, she ought to be able to do it for herself.
"Two gin and tonics, thanks," she said smoothly, and the bartender gratefully slipped away from Jon's obvious cloud of rage and disgust. "I hope you like gin. It seemed like the right thing to order here."
Jon didn't say anything, and Sansa sensed, keenly, how he had saved her; how pathetic she must have looked, shrinking away from Baelish. Her skin was still crawling as though she could feel his fingertips tangling in her hair; she was still shuddering away from the scent of mint, which somehow still lingered in the back of her throat.
"I know you're not a damsel," he said suddenly. "And gin's fine." For a moment, he seemed embarrassed; he was gripping the counter with one hand as though to steady himself, and raking the other hand through his hair.
"Well, you've sort of seen me in several mishaps over the last week. I wouldn't blame you if you thought I was an idiot."
The bartender was approaching them tentatively, eyeing Jon with the expert sensitivity of a lion tamer.
"Two gin and tonics," he winced, sliding the drinks to them.
"And for the record, since we're here," she added, as the bartender walked away, "I wasn't hitting on you last week. Let's just get that out of the way. I was just being funny, and it came out wrong."
"I did work that one out," Jon said at last, taking his own drink.
He glanced at her and held his drink out. You're supposed to wait, he'd said that night, and she found herself half-smiling in spite of everything as they clinked their glasses together. And there it was again: that brief half-smile that made those cold grey eyes turn warm, impossibly warm, a warmth that made her skin prickle in the right way. Oh, fuck, she thought as she turned away and took a long swig of her drink.
"Not my finest hour," she admitted when she'd set her glass down. Jon scoffed.
"Not mine, either." He rubbed the back of his neck, and she thought he might be about to continue, to say more on that, but he straightened and cleared his throat. "Tomorrow, with Stannis, I'll do the introduction, and I'd like you to talk through the proposal. A lot of it involves your work that you prepared for us, so you'll be better able to speak to it. Renly will be there too, to chime in, but I think it's best if we do the bulk of the talking."
They might as well have been in the office; there was no place in this bar for such a businesslike, clipped voice. Still, it was a relief that he was being so awkward, so brusque. He was as uncomfortable as she was, and something about that made her like him even more. He wasn't taking advantage of her, and he disliked the man who had—not just that, but he knew Petyr had, and had said it out loud. He had helped her with Lollys, and had disliked the people who hadn't helped. He had disdained her when he had thought she was making a pass at him, and when she thought of it that way...
Get a grip, she told herself again, firmly, for very different reasons.
"Are you sure? Even with—well, you know." She bit her lip. "The invite. I cannot believe I did that. I had my notebook resting on my keyboard—I won't be doing that again." She glanced at Jon. "I would completely understand if you feel like it's best for business if I stay out of it."
He hesitated, and when he spoke at last, it was a confession.
"When I first started, I was overworked and not feeling well, and accidentally sent all of our work with Lannister&Lannister to Olenna Tyrell."
"No!" Sansa stared in horror at Jon. He was shaking his head, that hint of a smile still lingering about his mouth. "Oh, god. They're direct competitors! How did that even happen?"
"No idea," he said with a shrug. "I thought I was going to be fired."
"So what happened?"
"Nothing. Tyrion handled it. I made more ridiculous mistakes and forgot about it completely until Monday, when you sent that invite." He took another drink. "You'll say something wrong tomorrow; no matter how much you prepare, something will come out wrong, and then you'll have something else happen, and then another thing, and you will forget that you ever sent that invite until someone else screws up with their email and reminds you all over again."
For a moment they were grinning together, and the nausea she had felt seemed very far away, and she wished that they had ordered something like wine, something that could be savored more slowly, to give her more time in his presence. For a moment, there was warmth between them once again.
"Anyway, yes, you'll present, even with the invite," he said, that businesslike tone returning again. "Especially with the invite. Your ideas are good. It'll overshadow the invite, if Stannis even remembers it—which I doubt."
"I met him tonight. He didn't exactly seem like he'd forgotten my name."
Their drinks were nearly done; they were expensive, tiny drinks. It was for the best. She could not even feel the alcohol, and she would take a clear head when dealing with Jon Snow any day, but there was still a pang of regret. She had never met any men like him before, and she was not sure she would again. The world was full of Theons, of Daarios, of Baelishes and Stannis Baratheons—but there were only so many Jon Snows. How many men existed in the world who would not have used this moment to their advantage, who would have felt uncomfortable at the prospect of too much intimacy between them and disgusted enough by Baelish to risk calling him out? "But you're right," she decided as the bartender approached them warily. "It's a good chance to make a better impression."
"Are we ready for round two?" the bartender asked them. Sansa took out her wallet as Jon took out his. It was ending; it felt too soon, but, she reminded herself bracingly, Jon had given her the best thing anyone had ever given her: he had taken her seriously. He had given her what she had been looking for her entire life. It was natural to feel warmly toward him, it was natural to admire him.
She would not tar it, would not taint this new bond between them, by behaving unprofessionally.
"Thanks, we'll close out," she said, handing the bartender her card.
"Sansa, don't be ridiculous—"
"—I've got it," she insisted, and the bartender took it from her with a wink. She smiled at Jon. "Seriously, thank you."
Jon bit his lip and looked away—again he had looked like he had something he wanted to say, something he wouldn't let himself say. They shrugged into their coats. She signed the check, and then they were venturing into the evening again, the blessedly Baelish-free evening, in uncomfortable silence. You don't even really know him—no one does.
"Well." They paused on the sidewalk. Hands shoved in pockets. Shivering. Avoiding each other's eyes. "I'm this way. L-train," Sansa said, crossing her arms over her chest.
"I'm that way," Jon said, nodding in the opposite direction, and she felt embarrassed for how her spirits fell. He was probably going home to a girlfriend, a girlfriend he never talked about because he was too busy succeeding, too busy working. She wanted to be like that, too.
"I'll see you tomorrow, then. We'll kill it," she said bracingly.
What were they meant to do now—embrace? High-five? Wave?
"Right." Jon cleared his throat. His posture was stiff. He did not know what to do either. "Have a good night." He began to turn, so she did too, and then— "Wait."
"Yes?" She turned back to face him.
A siren was going off somewhere, and a giggling group of girls nearly knocked into them; someone was shouting into their mobile, and the air was murky with the threat of rain. Jon's gaze was electric; she suddenly was not cold at all.
"Look," he began, "you don't need to win everyone over."
The siren was nearer, blaring in their ears and painting them in dangerous red. "You're allowed to tell Petyr Baelish to fuck off, you're allowed to report Theon Greyjoy to HR if he's bothering you, and you don't have to put up with Tyrion comparing you to—to jewelry," he yelled over the siren as the ambulance passed them. Then it had rounded a corner, and they were breathless. "And—if I made you at all uncomfortable—"
"—No, of course not—"
"—You're allowed to—"
Crack. The heavens opened and the air around them was shimmering silver, blurring everything, and Jon was fumbling for something in his bag. A black umbrella snapped open over their heads as the people around them darted and hastened for shelter. Now they were too close; the hand holding the umbrella brushed hers, knuckles and the nylon sleeve of the windbreaker. Cats and dogs, Missandei had said, Sansa remembered suddenly, just as she realized that Jon's eyes were precisely the same color that the rain had turned everything around them. "I've got a hood," he said now, looking away. "So I don't need my umbrella. You can have mine." He was handing her the umbrella.
"Oh, you don't—"
"—Just take it," Jon said impatiently, and she took it awkwardly as he pulled the hood over his head. "See you tomorrow."
He turned away from her on the sidewalk, and numbly she watched him stalk off in the opposite direction, hands shoved in the pockets of his coat.
She didn't know how to feel. Everything was a mess within her; blindly she made her way to the station, the world a blur around her. Too much had happened, she was at once too high and too low. Her mobile was buzzing but she did not stop to check it until she had reached the shelter of the station. Folding Jon Snow's umbrella and standing on the platform in the buzzing fluorescent light, Sansa checked her mobile. It felt impossible, after the dreamlike quality of tonight, that she should return to normal life now.
It was from Margaery.
Margaery Tyrell: omg girl!!! everyone is talking about you!!! pls dish!!
What? Sansa replied immediately with shaking hands.
Margaery Tyrell: Renly sent me this! he got it from theon! WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN UP TO WITH JON SNOW, YOU BAD GIRL?!
The picture popped up on the screen. It was a mobile-phone snap, taken from behind her and across the street, a film of downpour not enough to mask what was unmistakably her red hair and burgundy coat. A black umbrella, glossy with rain. Jon Snow's hand over hers. In this picture, it almost looked like they were kissing.
Blaring train whistle, clang of tracks. A swarm of commuters parting around her. Sansa heard and saw none of it. She could only stare at the picture in horror and, increasingly, rage.
What the hell had he done?
Jon stood on the subway, the people around him knocking into him carelessly with the rock and sway of the train, but he processed none of it. What the hell had he done? He almost called Dany, or Tyrion. Someone ought to know what he had done. Someone ought to be prepared for the inevitable fallout. Hi, Dany, yeah, it's me. Listen, I just threatened Petyr Baelish and told a colleague she could tell certain key people to fuck off. Yes, there was alcohol involved. Yes, it's the colleague that Greyjoy has been obviously preying on. Yes, it's the colleague that you won't stop teasing me about, the one that you told me could handle herself.
He couldn't tell Dany. He couldn't. But he knew he had to. He had to tell her. He had to tell someone. No, better to tell Tyrion, he decided, as the train lurched to a stop at his station. Tyrion was less reactive, more strategic. He would know how to handle the Baelish problem.
By firing me, Jon thought as he got off the train and blindly, on autopilot, walked up the stone steps and into the pouring rain once more. It didn't matter; he was already soaked, but he hardly noticed it. I would fire me, without hesitation.
Would he, though? It wasn't such a reliable measure. Every time Jon thought of Baelish's face, the decisions that he had made tonight seemed unimpeachable and inevitable to him, but not everyone reacted as intensely as he did to that snake. Other people would insist it was none of his business; other people would insist that there were men like Baelish everywhere and he had made a fool of himself for a serpent that was no more than a common garden snake. But why do we put up with them at all? he wanted to ask. Why is he allowed to do that and still have a job?
The irony—that Sansa Stark had confided in him about her mistakes, that he had reassured her that she would forget one mistake after she had made several more—was not lost on him. Yes, you'll make more mistakes, he thought in increasing horror, as he unlocked his apartment door. See exhibit A. He only realized his mobile had been going off when he went to shed his drenched coat and saw its screen brightening on his countertop. It was probably just the group text with Sam and the others; it was usually around this time of night when Sam set off the group text by sharing something ridiculous he had found on Reddit, usually involving either politics or pandas. Jon glanced at it and went cold when he saw it was an image, from an unknown number.
Even in the rainy night, Sansa Stark's red hair was unmatched. He knew it at once.
Unknown: Seriously, Snow?
I tried so hard to finish this in 4 chapters. I really did. If you're familiar with me and my writing, you won't be surprised that I couldn't end it so soon.
I've been holding onto the story for a few months because I knew it felt wrong, and I knew I was ending it in the wrong way, and I'm glad I waited. So, one more chapter plus an epilogue after this.
Margaery Tyrell: Renly sent me this! he got it from theon! WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN UP TO WITH JON SNOW, YOU BAD GIRL?!
Sansa stared down at her mobile in shuddering, horrified disbelief. There was a roaring in her ears; the train suddenly seemed far too small and confined to contain her billowing, nebulous rage.
For some reason, the exclamation points in Margaery’s text message were the last straw.
She rode in stunned silence, staring out the window of the train at the black night without seeing it, and walked up to her apartment as though guided by someone else. She could so easily picture Margaery curled on her sage-colored velvet sofa, facemask on and glass of rosé in hand, gleefully cackling over the picture and making light of the thing that mattered most to Sansa.
It was just like their university days all over again: when it was just the two of them, Margaery was friendly, and conscientious, and caring—yet in a group, at parties or sorority get-togethers, Sansa was suddenly on the outs and alone.
There had been one party that Sansa had wanted to leave early, uncomfortable with the growing sloppiness around her and anxious about one man in particular who had been just slightly too insistent, spilling beer on her and grabbing at her. Standing in the dimly-lit kitchen with Margaery and three other girls, their legs thin and their tops glittering, Sansa’s face had prickled with heat as Margaery had joined them in teasing her for wanting to leave. Always such a good girl, they'd giggled.
She’d felt betrayed and unreasonably stung. In the moment she had smiled and laughed with Margaery, but for days there had been a strange, subtle distance between them. She had resented Margaery and resented herself—it wasn’t a big deal, so why was she so upset?—but, afraid of losing a friend and uncertain of whether she was overreacting, she had said nothing. And then each time it happened after that—subtle disloyalties, tiny rejections—she would swallow her feelings and, like a sunburn, the slightest friction would start to sting. She would wonder, are you my friend, or am I just a prop in your life, meant to add color and entertain you?
And then she and Margaery would get lunch and laugh, or Margaery would text her asking for outfit advice, or shoot her a sly grin in class, and she would feel embarrassed that she had been upset at all, but the sunburn would remain, never fully fading.
You don’t need to win everyone over, Jon had said, and he could not have known what it had meant to her.
How many places in her life did she sacrifice her own self-worth just to win people over? Her coffee table still was piled with sports magazines from when she had been preparing to win Jon over, so certain that she alone did not bring enough value or worth for him to like her. Theon had sent her an array of subtly inappropriate chats, in spite of her visible anger towards him, and he never would have been brave enough to do that to other women: stronger women, louder women.
Petyr still believed, even after humiliating her and firing her, that it was acceptable for him to so much as look at her, let alone whisper in her ear as he had tonight. She had never said otherwise and had allowed him to interpret—or not interpret—her body language as he chose. Always a good girl. And even though Margaery knew that her career was everything to her, she still believed it was acceptable to tease her like this, still believed that Sansa was merely a prop in her life to amuse her, and Sansa had never forced her to think differently.
In this light, Jon's brusque and dismissive demeanor did not look like bad manners, so much as armor. No one questioned his competence, no one disrespected him. And if he was a little distant, if he was a little isolated, at least he had his own self-worth like a shield and could wield it like a blade. She did not even have that.
Sansa Stark: he ran into me and saved me from a horrible encounter with Baelish. We weren’t doing anything remotely unprofessional.
When she typed the next message, she felt strangely calm and clearheaded. The words were on the tip of her tongue because she had been holding them in for years; not just from Margaery but from everyone who had treated her poorly, everyone she had put up with.
Sansa Stark: and my career, the thing that means most to me, is not your evening entertainment, and I'm really, really angry with you for treating it that way.
She slammed her mobile down and paced away from it, her heart racing.
What had she done?
Margaery was her friend, Margaery knew everyone, and was her key to fixing this—if anyone could—and dispelling any burgeoning rumors.
But there was a sense of relief, like a burst balloon or a sneeze. She was breathless, she had to grip the back of her sofa to steady herself. She waited for the buzz of her mobile—surely Margaery would apologize at once—but it never came.
She started pacing again. What to do now? She wished she could have called Jon; he would come into the office tomorrow and likely not know why there was something different. She also wished she could punch Theon; this was not a feeling she was particularly familiar with but she kept thinking of the flashing chat icon on her desk and wanting to throw up for the anger coursing through her. Would this have happened if she had just agreed to the stupid beer? And why, why was he allowed to do this to her because she had chosen to behave professionally? Why was she being punished and Theon wasn't?
And then another thing that Jon had said came to her, a thing he had said multiple times: forget it.
He had been right: the stupid joke she had said to him, the stupid accidental invite—she had forgotten about these, and they already seemed laughably minor in comparison to this.
“Forget it,” she said out loud, testing out the words in the silence of her apartment. “Move on. It’s happened.”
She thought of Jon turning away from her, his shirt ruined from helping Lollys. She thought of him half-smiling and dismissing her foolish invite. She thought of him turning from her in the cocktail bar, his face still flushed with anger toward Petyr. Forget it, he had kept saying.
She wiped her eyes. She turned her mobile off. And she sat at her desk and set to work.
It was a silly photo; it wasn’t even truly incriminating. It was nothing. And whoever had taken it, and all of the chain of people who had passed it on in vengeful, petty glee—they were so beneath her. They were there for the wrong reasons, they were forgetting the purpose of a career. And if they were so focused on that, they were really only harming themselves. They were not worth her time.
The office was quiet, as it was not even seven o’clock yet. This was likely the only thing that would ever get Renly or Tyrion in the office this early, as Tyrion was typically still sleeping off a wild night and Renly was usually at some exotic, highly specific class at the specialty gym he attended. Mountain yoga, or ballet with goats, or something. Jon walked toward the conference room, his palms sweaty.
The trouble was that he had known, at once, what he needed to do.
Lying in bed last night, staring at the picture from the unknown number, he had known. It was a sign—a thing he had been waiting for, subconsciously—that it was time for him to take the step he had been contemplating, the step that seemed both tantalizing and terrifying.
Everything in him that searched for logic told him it was the wrong choice, that it was foolish, but despite what people thought and despite the image he projected, he knew he made his choices based on how he felt about them, not on cool logic or studied fact. He had always, ultimately, been guided by his heart and not by his head. And though this choice scared him, though it was uncomfortable, there was something about this choice that felt right.
He just didn’t feel ready, but he knew he never would. There was no certainty, but it was time to take the leap of faith. There had been no reason to do so, before—but now there was another person at stake. It was no longer personal.
Because, with this picture being circulated around the office, Jon knew how this would go: there would be gossip, and his back would blaze with looks of interest and curiosity. He would be somewhat annoyed by it, but he ultimately held the power here and the employees all knew it and would thus leave him alone. Meanwhile, Sansa would be in the thick of it. She would be paranoid about whether it would impact her chances at promotions or advancement. She would have to deal with a reputation that had been tainted with gossip no matter what she did.
She would suffer for it, and she was too smart, and had worked too hard, for that. She deserved better.
More than ever, he knew it was the right thing to do. Now that it was no longer about him, it was not even a decision anymore.
But that didn’t take away the fear of the unknown.
He drew in a breath and pushed open the conference door. Renly was clutching an expensive iced latte, Tyrion had a greasy breakfast sandwich before him that he seemed unprepared to eat, and Dany was still in her complicated exercise clothes from her CrossFit class. When he entered, they all turned to him and their fatigue melted.
“Okay, can I go first? Because I need to go first,” Renly exploded as Jon shut the door behind him. “You are actually,” Renly circled his hands in the air like a conductor of a symphony, thumbs and middle fingers together, “an actual, literal idiot. Baelish is everywhere. Half of our clients use him. He is fully capable and fully petty enough to ruin us over this. Did you seriously—did you seriously—threaten him?”
“He clearly was harassing Sansa Stark,” Jon countered, feeling his neck and ears grow warm with anger, as he took his seat across the table from them, “and I heard he fired her because she rejected his sexual advances. I refuse to leave an employee of ours alone with a predator.”
“He's disgusting. Why not just take a swing and punch him?” Daenerys blurted, shooting up from her chair and clutching her sex toy-pink water bottle like a weapon. Renly rolled his eyes.
“Dany, not everything is solved by violence,” he drawled. Daenerys frowned.
“But surely most things are,” she said uncertainly.
Tyrion was ignoring them, and staring at Jon with narrowed eyes.
“You obviously know this was folly on your part, and you know what needs to be done—yet you don’t seem too concerned,” he observed, toying with a cufflink thoughtfully. “You have a backup plan."
Jon’s mouth went dry. He wiped his palms along his thighs as the room fell into buzzing silence. Dany was looking at him in mutinous disbelief, Tyrion with scathing interest, Renly with a slight smirk.
“Yeah, actually, I do,” he admitted.
Here goes nothing, he thought. “I will voluntarily leave before you have to fire me.” He waited one breathless moment. “I’m starting my own consultancy.”
“You’re leaving?! What are you talking about, 'before you have to fire me'? No one was going to fire you. It was a stupid comment, that's all. We can overcome it.” Dany’s face flushed with anger; Renly scoffed and rolled his eyes as though he had guessed it; Tyrion merely studied him calmly. “You never said you were unhappy here,” she added accusingly.
“I’m not,” Jon promised. “But it feels like the right next step, and it's something I've been thinking about for a long time, and if I strike out on my own now, Baelish will focus on me, not on Wall. And I expect that internally, you’ll show Sansa that you understand she did nothing wrong.”
“We can announce it in a staff meeting,” Tyrion reasoned. “To show it is a coincidence. But I think the damage has largely been done. Fortunately, Sansa is more talented and focused than the average fool we employ. I am not concerned for her. The question is, who took the picture?”
They all looked to Renly. “You said Greyjoy sent it to you.”
“He got it from an unknown number, though,” Renly said, shaking his head. “Whoever took it sent it to Greyjoy.”
“And Greyjoy sent it on to you,” Jon began coldly. Renly was looking at him with powerful disdain.
"Yes, he did. He reacted, in an emotional moment, to learning that the girl he likes might have kissed the guy he hates," Renly said scathingly, leaning forward. "Not everyone makes the right choice every single time, Snow—case in point, you blatantly fucked up with Baelish, but you don't think you did. You think you responded appropriately to a threat."
Jon had never seen Renly so engaged, or so direct. "You have literally no right to judge him, and you could try learning to forgive people every now and then, especially since you're about to run your own company. People will fuck up—just as you have so massively fucked up—and you will need to be prepared to, at least occasionally, forgive them for their humanity."
He leaned back, reverting like a cloud passing before the sun to his usual irreverent, flippant self. "And anyway, the damage is done here, and the picture is not a big deal. We can announce Snow leaving in a staff meeting, but any attempt to 'correct' the gossip will look false. The best way to counteract it for Sansa—not that she needs it—is to overshadow it with more gossip."
He took out his mobile. "I've been sitting on something, waiting for the right time to use it," he began maliciously, a gleam in his blue eyes, "that I am about to so graciously use. Let's be clear, this is for Sansa, because she's an adorable nerd who did nothing wrong, and is absolutely not for you, Snow, because you're a strident, rigid asshole. There will be some collateral but it will be worth it."
"Well, now I have to know," Tyrion remarked with a snort, glancing back at Renly. Renly was typing away, grinning.
"If you're one of the cool kids, you'll find out," he said airily, then set his mobile aside. "Done."
Dany was still staring at him. She looked infuriated, and stung.
"Why would you want your own company?" she asked, her eyes bright with tears. "We're family. We’re the only family either of us has left. I love working with you; I love you. And besides, you're not a natural leader. You need people who are good at leading, good at working with other people, to do that for you."
It hit him where it hurt.
Not a natural leader. He knew he was awkward, knew he was not as friendly as Renly, or as awe-inspiring as Dany, or as cunning and ruthless as Tyrion. He was just Jon, rigid and strident as Renly had said, sometimes dramatic and sometimes highly reactive. He had built up a veneer over the years to protect himself, to hide his soft heart, and the result was that he now had a reputation that made employees shrink from him, that baffled the people who actually knew him, and kept his circle of friends small and consistent. He often felt like a ghost, like a cardboard cutout of a person, like a mere prop in others' lives. None of them knew him and it was his own fault. Not a natural leader. Not a people-person. Dany was not usually so precise in her cruelty. Jon looked away, but looked back in surprise when Tyrion snorted.
"Not a natural leader? You mean he doesn't fill the room with hot air like the three of us do. He's simply a different kind of leader, and a certain caliber of people will follow him. He's the most natural leader I've ever seen. I guarantee you that we'll lose people to this, good people, which is why I'm personally pissed off."
Tyrion shrugged. "But we all need to test our limits, and see if we can prove ourselves wrong, sometimes. I support the decision, mainly because it takes Baelish’s focus away from us and therefore benefits me, but also because I understand it. I needed to escape the shadow of my own family to learn who I truly was."
He turned his mismatched, shrewd gaze on Jon. "So let's find out who Jon Snow really is." He took a large bite of his breakfast sandwich. "May fa beft man win," he said around a mouthful of egg.
"Or woman," Dany put in, and Renly groaned and rolled his eyes.
Sansa had not seen Jon all day, nor had she seen Theon. She had walked into Wall, wearing her best suiting and prepared for any looks, any whispers, and yet when she walked in, hardly anyone looked up. There was frantic whispering, but it did not seem to be directed at her, and when she spotted employees grabbing at each other and gossiping, they only seemed to glance at her in afterthought.
Bemused and a little embarrassed, she carried on with her work, waiting for someone to allude to the photo. It wasn't until lunchtime that the chat icon on her desktop flashed, and her heart leapt into her throat.
Theon Greyjoy: can we talk
Theon Greyjoy: i am begging you, new girl
Sansa looked around, as though expecting to find some wise elder or fairy godmother who might advise her on this situation. Everything in her that loved people even for their flaws, that wanted harmony, that understood others, roared to life, prepared to hear Theon out. But the harder part of her—the part that still stung from being dismissed from Vale and that was still tingling with rage from last night's photograph—wanted to hit him in the face with her laptop and lock him in the supply cupboard.
Theon Greyjoy: i have a peace offering
Theon Greyjoy: and just FYI i did not take that pic
Theon Greyjoy: meet me in the photolab
His status icon went grey and Sansa stared at her screen. She thought of swallowing her anger at Margaery, of leaving Vale with her head bowed and her cheeks burning with humiliation.
Sansa opened an email.
I just saw your chat. You may not have taken the picture, but you still forwarded it. While there is nothing unprofessional about my relationship with Jon Snow, what you did was done in bad faith and has made me incredibly uncomfortable. I plan on bringing this up with HR, and will not be meeting you in the photo lab.
With a shaking hand she hit send, and then anxiously checked her email—and looked over the edge of the cubicle—every few moments. She heard a door slam and knew Theon was leaving the photolab, but he never replied to her email, and never reappeared online.
Missandei was at the edge of her cubicle, holding her tablet and looking aloof and slightly apologetic as usual, and for a moment, with a sting, Sansa wondered if Missandei had seen the photo, too. The woman offered an uncomfortable smile. "Jon told me to tell you that you should make your way to Mr. Baratheon's office yourself—he's been held up in another meeting across town."
Missandei smiled again, more of a stretching of the lips than anything. "I've emailed you the address," she continued now, hastily, "and if you forward the Uber receipt to Mya, she can show you how to expense it." She paused, lingering at the edge of the cubicle. "Good luck," she added quickly, before retreating.
"Thank you," Sansa called after her.
She downloaded a copy of her presentation from the server, just in case the internet in Stannis' office wasn't working; she polished her laptop of any smears; she checked her teeth and hair in the mirror in the bathroom; and she called an Uber, alone, to Stannis' office.
In the Uber, she stared out at the grey daylight. Jon's umbrella was sitting in her purse, on top of everything. She would return it to him when they met up at Stannis' office, but somehow she was sorry to do it. She took the umbrella from the bag and ran her fingers over the plain, cheap black nylon, and clutched the umbrella as she watched the city rush by in smears of grey and green and red.
Her life had recently felt like a rising sneeze that had suddenly abated, a movie poorly-plotted, a petering-out melody with no resolution. She had worked hard—so hard—ever since childhood, and until Vale had mostly been rewarded, tit-for-tat, for her hard work with equivalent, measured successes. Her mother and father had taught her to work for what she wanted, even if she had been born luckier than most, and she had always done as told. And then Vale, and Petyr Baelish, had happened, and everything had shifted: it had seemed such a foolish cliche, to be surprised that the world was unfair, that good behavior was not always rewarded but instead sometimes punished. You could do everything right and yet still fail.
She had grown up believing that, so long as she crossed off her to-do lists and treated people as she would like to be treated and recycled and got her teeth cleaned on time, her life would be set on some inevitable track of happiness: career success, fulfilling friendships, and—of course; she was a romantic if nothing else—a swooning romance filled with beauty and flowers and poetry.
She had none of those things—not really. And as the nervousness began to rise, a squiggly feeling in her gut and a clamminess in her palms, knowing she was drawing near to Stannis Baratheon's office and the time was about to come, she had to acknowledge that she might be punished for hard work again. Today might not go well, in spite of all of her preparation. And all of the things that she wanted might not ever come to pass, no matter how hard she worked.
The car pulled up in front of a nondescript modern building, sandwiched between a Gothic revival and an ornate, baroque building. Renly was strolling down the sidewalk, and—her stomach clenched—there was Jon, standing outside, scowling at his mobile. His suiting was pristine as always but he was wearing, again, that sporty windbreaker on top that seemed so much more natural for him, and she wondered how much of himself he hid. Did he ever get this nervous? He had admitted, last night, that he had made his own share of foolish mistakes, but it seemed impossible that he could feel this same gut-wrenching fear.
"Thank you," she said to the Uber driver, and tipped generously as she shouldered her bag and walked toward Jon.
When her heels clacked on the sidewalk, Jon looked up, and she paused, clutching his umbrella. Their eyes met across the sidewalk, and she saw his lips part, saw his shoulders rise and fall as he studied her. She was always a romantic, always reading too much into things, always seeing the world for its glimmers, and perhaps that was why what had happened to her at Vale had been so uniquely soul-crushing—yet here she was anyway, looking into Jon Snow's eyes that looked like a mirror and seeing her own powerful, stupid hope reflected in them. Or, maybe, she told herself, he was simply looking at her. Maybe it meant nothing.
"I have your umbrella," she said, holding it out as she reached him, and he took it from her, opening his mouth to speak. Renly was just meeting them, all in Tom Ford and Burberry and looking exasperatingly handsome.
"Why, there's the turncoat," Renly said cheerfully, though the cheer didn't quite reach his eyes.
"Turncoat?" Sansa prompted, and both Jon and Renly turned to her.
"—He's leaving Wall," Renly interrupted before Jon could speak. "Running off on his own, and probably taking some of my favorite designers with him."
Sansa stared at Jon in shock.
She saw him swallow, but he met her eyes anyway, direct and unafraid as ever.
"Yeah," he said at last. "I've been planning it for a long time. It seemed like the right time," he said evenly.
There wasn't enough time to rearrange her features, to hide how it crushed her. She knew she was being ridiculous, she knew it, but there was something devastating about the thought of never running into him again, something tragic in how she would no longer get to anticipate every encounter with that tiny, blazing hope that he ignited in her. They did not know each other well enough to foster any kind of friendship moving forward; he would leave Wall and she would think of him and wonder if she would ever meet a man like him ever again. In spite of the many, many mishaps of the last few weeks, he had cast a golden light on her life that was about to be put out, and she would only have these few encounters between them to treasure. It did not seem like enough; it did not seem fair.
"That's great," she said at last, recovering a beat too late and aware of Renly looking between them with fascination. "You're starting your own firm?"
"Yeah, I am."
He let his words sink in. His grey eyes were so perceptive, and she wished they weren't. She had gotten good at hiding how she felt about things, but she felt like she was being X-rayed right now and she did not want to be so vulnerable, especially not before such an important meeting.
"You'll be great," she said quickly. "You're such a natural leader; it's a shame we'll have such competition."
His brows knit together briefly, something like gratitude but also something like hurt, but Renly's sudden laugh broke the moment.
"Funny you say that, Sansa," he said. "Dany says he's not, but I happen to agree with you."
"We'd better get inside," Jon suddenly said brusquely, turning away from them and pushing into the building. Renly arched his brows, shook his head, and held the door open for Sansa.
"Ugh, look—of course my brother's office is still hideous," Renly complained. They had stepped backward approximately forty years in time, into a lobby with dingy mustard wall-to-wall carpet and a very sad fake orchid on laminate. "You would never know Stanny's worth so much, with the way this shithole office looks."
Abruptly, she realized that Renly was rambling to distract her, because he did not stop to even take a breath as the three of them reached the elevators. Jon's arm brushed hers as they got onto the elevator and her skin tingled all over. "Have you ever been to the art museum?" Renly was wondering now, as the three of them watched the doors close, and Sansa wondered how he had possibly made this conversational jump.
"Um, yes, actually," she admitted, looking back to Renly across Jon. He was looking defiantly at the floor of the elevator, and Renly seemed to find this amusing.
"Wonderful. I haven't actually been inside, personally," he admitted carelessly, "because I would rather die, but I love the cafe inside of it. Best beet salad on this side of the city. Glorious. It has pistachios and rocket, and the pistachios are perfectly crumbled. Loras and I go there just for that salad and to buy their gorgeous pens in the gift shop. You know, they serve it with ricotta—"
"—Please stop talking," Jon said suddenly, as the elevator came to a queasy, jiggling stop, and the doors parted. Renly threw back his head and roared with laughter.
"I was wondering how long it would take. Listen, I'm going to go use the bathroom, because Stannis gives me gastrointestinal distress. I'll be back," Renly said as they stepped into the hall, and then Jon and Sansa were alone, standing on mushroom-colored carpet with a grim view of the side of the Gothic revival building, before a set of dated, frosted-glass doors.
The hallway felt airless. Sansa ran a hand over her hair, and Jon shifted, mindlessly unzipping and zipping his windbreaker.
"Listen," he began suddenly, turning to her, and she turned too rapidly and their arms brushed again. They each stepped back as she tried not to think about how it had felt to brush against him, or how it would never likely happen again. "I—"
"—Good luck," Jon said now. He was looking away, biting that pretty lip. "Renly and I will be there to step in, but you won't need it. Stannis is all about the facts, so just be straightforward and honest."
She wanted to be like him, she felt it overwhelmingly now. Resilient, unruffled—steel. She did not want to be like Lollys, crying in the bathroom, or Theon, begging for secret meetings in the photolab, or Daenerys, stomping around and bragging about herself, or even like Renly, foolish and distracted and so often inappropriate.
When their eyes met again, she held the gaze, wishing he could read her mind. It would not be very Jon Snow-like to suddenly divulge just how highly she esteemed him, not now, when there was something to be accomplished at hand, but she was still herself, underneath it all, and she still wanted him to know.
"Thanks," she said, instead of the things she wanted to say to him. She cleared her throat and faced forward. "If you have any feedback for me on the presentation, let me know. I'd like to learn as much as I can from you before you leave."
She heard him let out a breath, but she did not dare look at him. Why was her heart in her throat? The floor squeaked as he shifted, and now it was his turn to clear his throat.
"Yeah," he said at last. "Sure."
The door unlocked as though on a timer, and a striking woman with long, henna-dyed red hair and a line of cleavage (which must have been riveting to the right audience) opened the door.
"Jon Snow," she purred appreciatively, pushing the door open further as though it were her apartment door, and Sansa felt a sudden desire to slam the door shut and block this woman from his view. Jon, to his credit, seemed hassled more than anything.
"Melisandre," he greeted. "Renly's on his way. We have an appointment with Stannis."
"I know. I saw it on his calendar," she said, backing from the door, and Sansa saw Jon briefly, irritably, roll his eyes.
And now they were walking into the office—and it was time.
Forget it, she told herself. Forget it forget it forget it. Forget the photo. Forget Vale. Forget the fact that Jon is leaving.
Melisandre led them into a boardroom with a surprisingly pleasant view of the street. A pitcher of water and a pot of coffee were waiting at the center of the table. "Stannis will be in momentarily—he's wrapping up a call," she explained. "Let me know if you need anything to set up."
"We should be fine, thanks," Sansa said.
They were alone again. She opened her laptop and connected it to the large screen opposite the picture window, as Jon settled one seat away from her. When he shrugged out of his jacket, she was hit with a burst of his scent, and she irresistibly thought of kneeling on the floor of the bathroom with him, watching him shrug out of his suit jacket without a second thought, and had to bat the memory away. It was difficult to be alone with him. At least, she told herself, it gave her a moment to collect herself before Stannis came in, to fiddle with the display and PowerPoint—
A too-lean man with Renly's blue eyes and a locked jaw under a severe brow strode into the room. His suit was slightly dated and conservative, but just as pristine as Jon's, and he shook Jon's hand in a firm shake before turning to her.
"Stannis, this is Sansa Stark. You might have heard of her before—she came from Vale," Jon explained. Sansa tried not to swallow too visibly. Was it wise to draw attention to her history? Especially when she had just run into Stannis and Baelish last night? Stannis' eyes swept over her, not with a lecherous gaze but with a decisive, judgmental one.
"The name's familiar," he conceded, shaking her hand. "I believe I received an odd email from her—"
"—That was me."
Renly breezed in, slapping his brother on the back hard enough to make Stannis cough slightly, and winked at Sansa over Stannis' shoulder. "Sorry. Bit of hazing—she's new," he explained casually, taking a seat at the very end of the table.
Forget it, she told herself.
"Well, once my laptop's up and running, we can get started," she said firmly as Stannis took a seat across from her.
"You might have gotten here earlier to start it. I don't have all day," he remarked, and his acidic tone made her stomach lurch like she'd been yelled at. Sansa watched the PowerPoint logo pop up on her screen at last, and then it was mirrored on the large screen at the head of the conference room. Her title slide came up. "You used my company's template," Stannis noted now, and she couldn't tell whether the tone was appreciative or not.
"I'd hate to distract with a different look and feel," she said quickly, meeting Stannis' eyes over the table, before Jon or Renly could jump in. "I'd rather you focus on what I have to say."
"I approve," Stannis said, squinting at the screen, and Sansa tried not to look too elated. She happened to sweep over Jon when she looked at the screen again, and though he was not smiling, there was something electric in his eyes that made her neck grow warm, made the room feel too small.
Why did he have to leave?
"We'll just jump right in," she said, clearing her throat and going into presenter mode. "Here's an outline of what I'll cover today," she continued, moving to an agenda slide, "and here are my top points. I'll explain these as we go through, of course, but this is the short of it."
Her voice smoothed as she watched Stannis become absorbed. He was half-listening to her, half-reading, nodding slightly at the moments she would have hoped—she was doing this. This was working. Stannis was asking questions, fully engaged, and in the corner of her eye she could see Renly trying to hide a brilliant smile behind his hand.
"Now, I have some market segmentation data," she continued after she'd made her main points, "and I wanted to start with that, before going further."
And then it happened.
She hit the arrow on her keyboard to advance, hardly looking at the screen. The graph she had obtained from the Winter Town Business Review was going to pop up next—or so she thought—and she had rehearsed her story so many times that she did not even think about it. She opened her mouth, glanced at the screen, and realized the room had gone cold.
It was a collage, where the graph should have been. A collage of photographs of her, the most prominent one focused on her behind as she bent over at her desk, underwear lines clearly visible through her pencil skirt, the slit at the back of the skirt gapping just enough to show more of the backs of her thighs than was appropriate. There were others, too, one of her discreetly adjusting her bra at her desk, evidently assuming she was alone; one candid one down her shirt—
—She snapped her laptop shut.
No one was speaking.
Stannis was staring at the darkened screen blankly in shock; Renly was, for once, not smiling; and Jon was simply staring at the screen, clenching his teeth so hard that she could see a muscle leaping in his jaw.
"More hazing, apparently," she managed to utter with a laugh, but her eyes were burning. "Why don't I just talk you through the rest of it?"
Stannis did not speak right away.
"I believe you have some employees to fire, and some people to possibly sue," Stannis said at last. There was a snapping sound that made them all jump—Jon had snapped his pen, and black ink was leaking onto his notebook.
"We do," he said furiously, getting up from the table, the look on his face murderous. "I'll get paper towels; sorry."
No, she thought, fisting her hands to hide how they shook. Those photos had been taken at Vale—she had recognized her desk immediately—but someone else had gotten them and had put them on the PowerPoint. Her keen mind was working fast with all of the ways it could have happened, but none of them answered the question of why?
She had prepared. She had done everything right. And this had been going well. For the first time in so long, something had actually been going well, without scandal or drama or embarrassment. And now she was being sabotaged? For what—because she hadn't wanted to blow Theon in a supply closet? Because she'd refused to slink home with Petyr, that she'd drawn a line at drinking his wine and letting him grope her under his table?
"L-like I said, why don't I just talk you through it?" she said again.
She would not relinquish this victory, even if it had already been taken from her. She was Sansa fucking Stark, and no man was ever going to make her leave a boardroom, leave an office, leave a job, with her head bowed in shame ever again.
She heard Renly shift in his seat, still shocked into silence, and watched Stannis turn toward her.
"Those were taken at Vale, I think," he said bluntly. "I recognize the decor."
"Yes, I think they were, and I'll deal with that privately. I'd really rather focus on what we were talking about for now," she insisted. "I had a lot of ideas of how we might support you."
"Good ones, too," Stannis said, just as Jon was coming back in with damp paper towels to clean up the mess he'd made with the pen. "Go on."
"Thanks. Let's see..." she checked her notes. "Right, as I was saying..."
Jon exploded into the tiny bathroom, knocking over a snake plant on a low table next to the door and scattering dry soil across the yellowed tile. "Fuck," he muttered, and crouched down to clean it up as best he could with ink-stained fingers.
The look on her face—it had been the same look as last night, when he'd run into her and Petyr Baelish. It hadn't been shock, or anger; it had been humiliation. That was what killed him. Had that been the look on her face when she'd gotten the picture last night? Had that been the look on her face when Baelish had fired her?
There was no question of who was at fault here, and the irony was that that buffoon had only given Sansa another opportunity to show Stannis who she really was. Sansa might have felt humiliated, but the way she had refocused on the work without even skipping a beat was exactly the sort of strength and poise that Stannis would respect most.
She shouldn't have had to show such poise and strength—but she had, and in the moment it had taken everything in him not to kiss her out of desire and pride. It was exactly how he so deeply yearned to be, to be so resilient and so in control of himself. He had already proven time and time again to himself that his temper easily got the best of him—the snapped pen was an excellent example—and Dany's words echoed again. Not a natural leader.
He almost wanted to laugh. Sansa had asked him for feedback, but it should have been the other way round. She had told him he was a natural leader (the irony had not been lost on him, and not on Renly either, apparently), when she might as well have been talking about herself.
He got to his feet and washed off the pen as quickly as he could. He wanted to watch her land on her feet yet again.
"I'll send you the actual slides," Sansa said as Stannis walked them through the main lobby. Renly and Jon followed behind them, Renly still uncharacteristically silent, and Jon unusually passive, letting her and Stannis talk.
"I would like that. And if you could send me the article from Winter Town Business Rev—Oh."
Her gut lurched. Standing there in the lobby, shaking out his black gabardine trench and flashing the iconic plaid lining, was Petyr Baelish.