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you're in my blood like holy wine

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The day after the Tyrell ball opening the season, Sansa receives a card in her dressing room as her companion is putting up her hair. It is too early in the morning for callers, but that hasn’t stopped Lady Arianne Martell before and it looks unlikely to stop her now. Sansa and Arianne are considered intimates, although Sansa has no truly close friends amongst the Ton; it would be devastating to this precisely-arranged relationship to refuse her. 

For a long moment, Sansa closes her eyes and focuses on the pain in her temples. She hadn’t slept nearly enough last night, not after a raucous dinner with Alysane Greyjoy and her sisters at the Mormont townhouse on South Audley Street and dancing every set at the Tyrell ball, and she is not shored up for Arianne’s bright spirits.

“Please send her up,” Sansa finally tells her companion, placing the card on her dressing table. “Have the footman send for chocolate, please, Jeyne.” She tries to blink away her headache, which is about as successful an endeavor as one might think.

“Have you heard?” Arianne says as she sweeps into Sansa’s dressing room in a swirl of bright yellow muslin. “It’s delicious, absolutely delicious, Sansa.”

“I have no idea,” Sansa says. She gestures to a chair by the fire, which Arianne rejects in favor of circling the room. Her expression is one of salacious delight.

“Gossip of the first calibre and it’s mine,” Arianne says, savoring the words like they are an ice on a hot day.

“You’ll have to share it,” Sansa says; she forces herself to sound playful. No one else in the family will play the game of the Ton--if there is gossip to be heard that might serve them well or ill, it is for Sansa to ferret out. 

Despite having resigned herself to her duty, she can’t help but wish that the ferreting could be done at a later, more civilized hour.

Arianne finally flits to Sansa’s side. She collapses into the chair by the fire and sweeps her skirt across her knees. “It’s the Baratheons,” she says, attempting a serious look. “You do recall that the previous lord had a natural son--Gangrene, or what have you.”

“I believe it is Gendry,” Sansa says. She cannot turn to look at Arianne head-on, as Jeyne is still braiding the ends of her hair, and this saves her from having her eyes seared by Arianne’s vivid morning dress.

“Are you sure?” Arianne says. “Well, regardless, we’ll be sure to hear it about and get the right of it eventually--because, you know, he’s not Robert Baratheon’s natural son after all.”

There is a knock on the door and an upstairs maid appears with a silver chocolate pot and a pair of cups. “Thank you, Nance,” Sansa murmurs as the tray is placed on the dressing table and Nance slips back out of the room.

Arianne waits in silence for Jeyne to cease braiding and Sansa to pour them both chocolate and dispense sugar; it takes Sansa nearly an entire minute to realize that she is waiting for Sansa to say something.

“Goodness,” Sansa says, handing Jeyne the cup and saucer to take to Arianne. “Is he the by-blow of another house, then? The Baratheons took on the cost of his education; how scandalous.” Only years of training and discipline prevent this from coming out in a decidedly sarcastic manner.

“Better,” Arianne promises. “They were married.” She flicks a look at Jeyne through her lashes as she accepts the cup and says, “Good morning to you, Mrs. Poole.” Jeyne bobs a curtsey and does not reply.

Sansa lifts her own cup to her lips. “Who?” she asks.

“Robert Baratheon and Gangrene’s mother,” Arianne says.

No ,” Sansa breathes. She prides herself on her composure, as must all ladies, but Arianne will want a scandalized reaction so Sansa needn’t hide it. “Does she still live, the lady?”

“Died in the childbed, by all accounts,” Arianne says. “No, the marriage to Cersei Baratheon hasn’t been invalidated--but this has neatly scooped the title right out of her greedy little hands.”

Sansa has no love for Cersei Baratheon--one could even say, if one were in the kind of ungenerous mood best characterized by Sansa’s sister, that Sansa loathes the woman and the very air she breathes--but with that comes respect of a talented and ruthless enemy. Sansa had only failed to engage herself to Cersei’s oldest son and for that she had spent a year being brutalized by the lady’s poisonous schemes. Sansa cannot imagine what Cersei will do to anyone so stupid as to steal a title from him.

“There will be carnage,” Sansa says, for a brief second forgetting herself and her company.

Clearly satisfied with herself, Arianne wriggles back into her seat and takes a sip of her chocolate. “As I said-- delicious .”

~

The news makes the rounds so swiftly that the first card Sansa receives at half past three is Petyr Baelish’s and he strides into the front sitting room brandishing a bottle of champagne.

“Brava,” he says, sweeping her a low bow. “Truly a triumph, my lady.” He comes out of the bow and presents the bottle of champagne to her with a small flourish.

“I’m not sure I can accept,” Sansa tells him, lightly pressing her fingers to the label as she reads it. “Wouldn’t it be dreadfully unpatriotic of me to take French champagne during a time of war?”

“We’re taking on the French like water, they might as well bring along their best export,” Baelish says lazily. “It wouldn’t do to mark the occasion with anything less, my lady.” As always, the title--technically correct but nonetheless inappropriate when spoken so silkily--sends a small shiver of trepidation down Sansa’s spine. Many people see her mother when they look at her, but Baelish is the only one whose appreciation feels dangerous. Sansa has learned from rough experience not to ignore these feelings.

“I daren’t ask what triumph you’ve assigned to me,” Sansa says, drawing her fingers back and tucking them into her lap. She looks to Jeyne, who puts down her sewing and rises, with a curtsey, to accept the bottle. “I’m afraid it will make me look so very countrified.”

“Fetch us glasses, Mrs. Poole,” Baelish says. “We must have a toast--to Gendry, Lord Stormsend, the newest bird pecking at Cersei Lannister’s eye.”

“Let’s not be unkind,” Sansa says. She doesn’t mean it, of course, but there’s no point in being trapped into an anecdote that Petyr Baelish can dine out on for the next fortnight. “I had heard some word, of course, but you must have the full story. Is it true that a solicitor found the entry in a parson’s book buried in Cornwall?”

“In Bristol, but really, that’s nearly as bad,” Baelish says. Behind him, Jeyne leans out into the corridor to send a maid for champagne glasses. She flicks a look at Sansa out of the corner of her eye and Sansa minutely shakes her head. It won’t do for visitors to come and find Sansa and Petyr Baelish laughing into champagne so early in the day--Sansa will have to refuse callers until he’s gone.

“I hadn’t realized the Baratheons had property in Bristol,” Sansa says to Baelish. She gestures for him to take a seat on the settee catty corner to her chair, which will be close enough to make him feel satisfied but far enough away that Sansa’s skin needn’t crawl off of her fingers.

Baelish says, “Oh, I couldn’t, my lady, my spirits are far too high,” and he leans back to brace his shoulder against the mantle above the empty fireplace. “When his father was alive and Robert Baratheon was still Blackhaven, he made some pretext of stopping over in Bristol and within a matter of days had married some local curate’s widow and made her the Marquess of Blackhaven. The gossip is Old Steffon wouldn’t stand for it and called for an annulment; but by then the lady had whelped and died and the family thought it better to bury the whole thing. Had the child put about as illegitimate and hid him in plain sight.”

Jeyne returns from the doorway with the glasses and then sinks back into the background, picking up her sewing and making an excellent show of being a piece of statuary. Baelish cheerfully pops the cork off of the champagne into the fireplace and pours Sansa a tall, fizzing glass.

“To Old Steffon,” he says, raising his glass. “Still a thorn in Cersei Lannister’s side some twenty years dead. I would consider that the mark of a true master of the Ton.” 

Sansa raises hers as well, smiles thinly at Baelish, and takes a small sip. It is so hard to get French champagne now; it tastes deliciously light and cool on her tongue. This makes it easier to turn her smile into a small, real one. “Until he’s declared, it won’t be much of a victory,” she says. “Has the matter been put before the House of Lords?”

“Tomorrow, by all accounts,” Baelish says. He looks about as cheerful as Sansa has ever seen him. Now, with the excuse of the toast, he is lurking closer--looming above Sansa, in a way, although Sansa is not vulnerable to threats of height, as she is so very tall herself. “No one wants Lannister’s demonic grandson sitting pretty on top of the largest landholding in Cornwall and they’re pleased enough to be fighting amongst themselves on who will present it. Gendry Baratheon will be the duke and Cersei Lannister the mere mother of his heir--until, that is, Lord Stormsend sets up his nursery, which if he has any sense will be by January.”

“I dare not ascribe sense to any member of that house,” Sansa says quietly. Baelish adores, above all else--above even Sansa’s dead mother--carefully describing the clockwork ticks of his own brain. Sansa has learned so much from Baelish’s lectures that she daren’t cut him off. 

“True enough,” Baelish says. “But a lack of sensible brains will make him ripe for the mamas of the mart and someone clever will snap him up. Frey has a thousand daughters, hasn’t he, and some dragon seeing them out?”

Sansa sips at her champagne. It is so easy for a brash young lord to die--carriages are prone to accidents, horses are prone to being high-strung, highwaymen in the south are prolific and dangerous. The footpads in London are getting worse every year; why, last year, they’d slit the throat of Frey’s eldest son as he walked home from his club. Only a fool would consider Cersei Baratheon a threat fully quenched.

“Oh, at least,” Sansa says.

“And your dear sister, of course,” Baelish says lightly. “Lady Arya is making her debut, is she not?”

For a moment, Sansa’s hand feels very chilled. Perhaps it is the champagne, which had to have been kept in a bucket of ice in Baelish’s carriage to be this temperature now. But likely it is Baelish’s small, lazy smile in the corner of his mouth. 

“Yes,” Sansa says. She lets herself be visibly weary for a moment. “She’s so wild, you know. It’s the northern blood. I daren’t throw a coming out ball lest she do something tragically outré, but Mrs. Poole and I will be ferrying her about. That would put something in Cersei Baratheon’s eye, would it not?” She laughs, to make it sound foolish.

Baelish laughs as well; she has left him no choice. Sansa does not let herself think that that will be the end of it, but she has made her meaning clear: Arya will not be forced into marrying a Baratheon. Maybe one day Sansa will regret that she could not be more cold-blooded in gambling to secure her own protection. But it is so exhausting, you know, to guard only yourself and leave those you love vulnerable. It makes a bitter, grasping shell of a person. Sansa need only look at Petyr Baelish to know this.

~

This Season is to be Arya’s first--a coming-out in the least strict sense of the term, as Arya cannot be trusted in court dress to meet the Queen and is barely capable of dancing a set at a halfway decent ball; Sansa does not even think about Almack’s, let alone mention the possibility--but it is Sansa’s fifth. Such accomplishments are hard-won.

“The wardrobe is non-negotiable,” Sansa tells Arya. “You dislike balls and parties and fripperies, which is fair enough, but you will dislike them more if you look like a country bumpkin. Sit still for an afternoon and Madame Cormier will outfit you comfortably for our stay.”

Predictably, Arya says, “I’d rather have a new horse. I have plenty of dresses--why not give the coin over to something I actually want?” She says this with petulant disdain.

“You have dresses, certainly,” Sansa says, not looking up from her breakfast plate and the piece of toast she is buttering. “I would hesitate to term their number plenty . Regardless, you haven’t a single ball gown, dinner gown, carriage gown, or pelisse, so your wardrobe in fact does require expansion. Our stables do not.”

When Sansa looks up to see how Arya will take this, she sees that Arya is scowling down into a pile of kippers and eggs. The child eats like a midshipman and curses like one, too. “It’s three months,” Sansa tells her, frankly. “It has to be done, because you are the daughter of a duke and the honor of our house demands it, but it won’t last the rest of your life.”

“If I fall asleep at a dinner party, you’re going to have me hitched to some marquis faster than I can wake up and spit,” Arya says. She looks far too demoralized and suspicious for someone who is nineteen and pretty and not in the kind of dire financial straits that require marriage.

“I haven’t dared to lift my hopes so far as a marquis,” Sansa says, innocently nibbling on a piece of toast. Arya makes a face at her. 

Once upon a time, Sansa had desired a house full of noisy children. She had dreamed about laughter and shrieks filling stone corridors, a daughter or five who would want to cling to the silks of her skirts and borrow her grandmother’s pearls to play princesses. The corridors and boudoirs of her imagination had always looked like Winterfell; it had not occurred to her to daydream of raising her children somewhere else.

But Sansa had become responsible for her siblings once her parents had died and the reality was much harsher than she had imagined; harsh enough to smother her pleasant dreams with the reality of doing your best to raise someone who imagined you as the enemy. Sansa had thought her children would be quiet and fair, like herself, that their desires would be simple and easy to fill and they would adore her for doing so. The purest memory Sansa has of her own mother is the small smile on her face as she had bent down and dabbed the crystal stick of her perfume against Sansa’s neck behind her ears. They had understood each other, where others had not. 

Arya’s desires are simple but she resents Sansa’s fulfillment of them and there is no room for adoration between them. Sansa’s duty is to do best by her sister and she loves her, the way it is possible to love someone and want to wring their neck at the same time, but that does not make the shopping any easier.

“Please trust that I do not suggest this merely to torture you,” Sansa finally says. Of course it is with Arya, contrary and difficult, that the rules of polite society are anathema. Being honest is the only way to convince her to do anything, and delicate manipulation is distrusted or rejected. How exhausting it must be, to be Arya, to demand unflinching honesty at every turn.

“I daren’t,” Arya says, but by rote. She finishes her eggs and then says, sullenly, “I suppose, then, we’re going to waste the whole day on this farce.”

Sansa bites off the nearest corner of her toast. She chews thrice and swallows. “I will do my best,” she says, “to confine your torture to a single afternoon.”

“The longest afternoon in the world ,” Arya says.

“But think of how lovely you’ll look in pink,” Sansa says innocently. “It’s all the rage this season and you have the coloring for it.”

Arya stabs a kipper through the midsection and hefts her fork like Triton triumphant. “No pink,” she growls.

Sansa says, “Please, let us compromise on something fashionable, Arya.”

Arya bites the head off of the kipper. “ No pink ,” she says.

Sansa sighs and pretends to be badgered. She’ll sacrifice ruffles after breakfast--terrible for someone of Arya’s uncompromising, no-nonsense attitude--and the lace fichus somewhere into the second hour at Madame’s, and by the evening Arya should have a complete wardrobe that she can feel satisfied at having wrested out of Sansa’s control and Sansa can rest easy that no true sartorial disasters await them further into the Season.

“We’ll see,” Sansa says. She puts down her piece of half-eaten toast and signals the footman to take away her plate. “I suppose you look well enough in mint.”

“Mint!” Arya barks, predictably. “No, I’m not done,” she tells the footman. “And don’t take her plate--Sansa, are you going to starve yourself into getting a husband? It hasn’t worked yet, you know.”

Sansa pours herself another cup of tea and takes a bracing sip. “It’s all right, Ed,” she says to the footman. “I’m done, thank you.” After he’s whisked her plate off to the kitchen, she says, “Don’t comment on someone else’s eating habits, Arya. It’s dreadfully rude.”

“So’s fainting into your bowl of soup,” Arya retorts.

“Let us hope we both manage to navigate around such disasters,” Sansa says, choosing not to rise to Arya’s bait. She’s come far from a nervous seventeen-year-old being badgered into marriage and it wouldn’t do anyone any good for Sansa to revert back to such behavior--except maybe her own temper, which feels constantly at the edge of its leash--least of all Arya. “You may of course eat as much as you wish. Perhaps, however, you might refrain from holding your fork in such an aggressive conformation.” She drops her eyes to Arya’s fork, still held clenched in her fist, and raises an eyebrow. “Good for stabbing bad conversationalists, perhaps, but otherwise not very useful.”

Arya bares her teeth in an expression only the very lackest of wits would term a smile. “That’ll get me a reputation as eligible, won’t it?”

“You won’t like the suitors that shakes loose,” Sansa says, and something in her expression makes Arya sulkily drop her fork onto her plate. 

“I suppose mint would be acceptable,” Arya finally says. “But not a single lick of pink!”

Sansa hides her smile in her next sip of tea. “All right,” she finally says, when she has sufficient control over her mouth. “We have our first compromise.”

~

After two dinners during which Arya manages not to stab any of her dining companions, Sansa deems her ready for a larger social gathering. Lady Corbray’s ball, ostensibly for her son’s birthday but in reality the latest in a series of desperate attempts to get him to marry literally anyone, is the ideal location for Arya’s de facto coming out--it is sure to be crowded, mostly with young people, and crawling with chaperones. The house has so many daughters that every rake with a self-preservation instinct will be far, far away. Aunt Lysa has agreed to serve as Arya’s chaperone, as Jeyne had asked a few weeks ago to have the evening for herself.

It does indeed turn out to be a dreadful crush and Sansa dances every set until the dinner dance. There is an alchemy to the evening such that it feels like the kind of glittering dream that Sansa had held to herself in bed, at ten and eleven and twelve--the heavy smell of rosewater and lilies from too many perfumed petticoats, the brilliant light of a dozen perfectly polished chandeliers, the murmur of voices and shrieked laughter and music for dancing. Sansa is chased for every dance and she hasn’t more than a half-second to spare between sets to make sure that Arya is still presentable and hasn’t escaped. She’s been swallowed by a passel of rowdy-looking bucks but judging by their laughter she’s holding her own, and she anyway has Lyra Mormont on one side and Jorelle Mormont on the other, which means their elder sister Mrs. Alysane Greyjoy must be nearby. It’s not surprising that Arya will take with the more exuberant of the younger people; they love blunt talk and daring acts. 

Dreams are fragile things, and Sansa should know better than to trust balls that feel like champagne: bubbles coming up through her nose and lifting her head off of her shoulders. She dances every set until the dinner dance, retires to dinner on the arm of Willas Tyrell, Earl of Gardener, quiet and charming, and then he relinquishes her after dinner to Perros Blackmont for a minuet. Everywhere that Sansa looks as she turns, people are laughing and dancing. She can barely feel the heat, which is normally oppressive and inescapable.

“Champagne!” cries Perros once he’s spirited her off of the dance floor. “I must have champagne, and not another moment must pass without it. If you disappear I shall mourn forever and die, Lady Sansa.”

“I’ll await your return, sir, if only for some refreshment,” Sansa tells him. “As to your own fate, I cannot comment.”

“A hit!” Perros cries, clutching his hand to his chest. “A hit, from such beauty.”

Champagne ,” Sansa reminds him, laughing, and then she deliberately turns away from him and opens her fan. She languidly sweeps her fan in front of her, trying to cool her neck and chest without being obvious about it, and appreciates the moment to rest her feet.

The dowager Lady Corbray, very small and wearing a very large turban, spies Sansa through the crowd and makes towards her determinedly, her fan striking the air. She’s followed by someone tall and dark, obscured by the height of the turban. “Oh, Sansa, dear,” says Lady Corbray, “have you met Targaryen? My lord, Lady Sansa Stark.” Lady Corbray is beaming at Sansa, drunk and well-meaning; she is not an unkind woman nor is she prone to gossip. Maybe she even thinks to be turning her hand towards matchmaking outside of her immediate family, an enterprise in which all the elderly ladies of the Ton delight in dabbling.

“Yes, ma’am, we have. My lord,” Sansa says. She can feel the ice crusting over her skin and down her spine, lending her strength as she snaps her fan shut and sinks into a gentle curtsy.

“Lady Sansa,” Lord Targaryen says. It would be cowardly, not to look at him, and the sort of thing that would make people talk behind their fans. Sansa fixes her eyes to the bridge of his nose and relaxes her face into a mask of calm, polite attention. “How does this evening find you?” He has an unfashionably scratchy voice; it is low, and unsuited to crushes in ballrooms. Sansa can barely hear him over the screeching of the violins. 

“Very well, my lord, thank you,” she says. “And yourself? I had not thought you to join us in London for the Season.”

“I had not, myself, until very recently,” he says. 

“I had not realized you were acquainted,” Lady Corbray declares. She is too kind to feel truly upset at being thwarted; Sansa turns towards her politely and sees that the lady is still delighted with them.

“We are cousins, ma’am,” he says. “My mother was a Stark.”

“Oh! Oh, but of course!” Lady Corbray says. She has realized her error; Sansa sees her face turn red. If Sansa does not act quickly, the embarrassment might have a chance to gel itself into resentment. 

“T’was a kindly-meant introduction, my lady, and much appreciated,” Sansa says. She takes the chance to press her palm down on the lady’s forearm and squeeze it gently. Do not fear; I, too, am embarrassed , the gesture means. 

After a terrible second, Lady Corbray lifts her own hand to rest atop Sansa’s. “Thank you, my dear,” she says. The danger of this particular moment has passed; Sansa is left keenly aware of the danger that remains.

“My lady, I had to go positively feral in your defense,” says Perros, appearing with appalling timing at Sansa’s elbow with two glasses of champagne. 

It is difficult to look at Jon’s face, with its weathered lines and cragginess. It is the face of the North, and a face that northerners trust; the face of Sansa’s brothers and her father, who had been loved and respected by their tenants as their forefathers had been when they were kings. How can Sansa feel anything but resentment, looking into that face and knowing that all of her years of hard work will never earn her the respect that that profile engenders within seconds? But she does. It is a small, burning coal of something that must be smothered.

“I appreciate your struggle, sir,” Sansa says, and it is not arch enough, it is too absently spoken. Sansa is forgetting herself.

“Lady Sansa,” Lord Targaryen says, quiet and grave, “might I have this dance?”

“Oh, but it’s mine, you know,” says Perros, taking a sip in turn from his glass and then offering the other to Sansa. “If you take it from me I can’t swear to my own good behavior.”

Sansa sees the line of Jon’s mouth flatten and she is keenly aware that the situation requires expert handling. “I’m revoking my acceptance,” Sansa says to Perros, molding her voice into a silky, sulky sound. “This champagne is flat and you are banished from my presence, sir. I will take a walk about the room with my dear cousin and you must think on your sins.”

No ,” Perros says, horrified and gleeful. “I must beg the pardon of the lady a hundred times. Tell me what I must do to make amends. A thousand roses on your doorstep before dawn tomorrow?”

“I will accept nothing less,” Sansa tells him, and then she doesn’t allow herself to pause before she tucks her hand into the crook of Lord Targaryen’s elbow. She looks up to him and throws him a brilliant smile, letting delight glitter in her eyes. “Come, I have danced holes clear through my slippers and cannot accept this dance, coz, but I’ll take a turn with you.”

He looks dazed, but also angry. Maybe it is unfortunate that these are the circumstances under which they are meeting again, when Sansa is playing at the height of her character. She hasn’t spoken a word of sense to anyone in hours. As always, the cool grey of his eyes is like a shock of frost. Sansa’s hands are burning in her gloves where they clutch at his elbow; she’s conscious of the rise and fall of his chest as he breathes, the fine cut of his coat, the careful way his hair has been combed back at his temples. Someone has oiled his curls enough to keep them tame--the same someone who has tied his cravat, presumably, into a careful and subtle knot. Lord Targaryen is a man of austere tastes, or so the gossip goes. 

Sansa’s mouth is so very dry. She’s glad she didn’t finish the champagne.

“You seem well, my lady,” he says when they’ve gone half a turn around the room. It’s not an elegant walk, for all that he has measured his strides to match her shorter ones. The crush is nearly unbearable. How is it that his voice can cut through the noise so clearly? Sansa wishes she could pretend not to hear him and smile like a simpleton for the next dozen minutes.

“Thank you,” she says. It’s as if there is someone inside of her, a hand opening and closing her mouth. She isn’t conscious of the words she’s saying until they’re already emerging, which is a dangerous state. “Of course, it’s Arya’s first Season. I am very well, to have my sister with me.”

“Surely not,” he says. “Arya’s first Season, already?”

“She is nineteen,” Sansa tells him, but surely he remembers. “It was to be last year, but she broke her leg.” And Robb and Mother broke their necks, but Sansa does not speak of them.

“Yes, Theon wrote to me,” he says. How dour and grave he is. How much it hurts to hear the sincerity in his voice, low and for her ears alone. He has a peculiar way of speaking that is narrowing, absorbing. Sansa feels at the center of his great capacity for focus. It is unbearable. “She is recovered?”

“Yes,” Sansa says. It has been ages since she has smiled; she affixes one onto her face, twitching her mouth into position.

“And you?” he asks. “Have you recovered?”

“Oh, yes,” she lies. It’s easier to smile now, to twinkle up at him like a pretty piece of glass. “You must come by the house, of course. Arya will be so pleased to see you. Rickon has come with us, he will want to hear of your adventures.” 

“What adventures?” he says, as though that matters at all.

Once a great monster had lived inside of Sansa’s breast and poisoned her brain, making her silly and surly and a terrible bore. She has no time for that kind of overpowering emotion, not anymore, but still she can feel the curl of the sleeping creature in her chest. It would take so little to awaken it again.

It is foolish, but she takes a moment to wish that he will not smile. If he smiles, she is lost.

“Oh, every and any adventure,” she says. “Rickon misses the north--we have a lovely garden at Stark House but it isn’t nearly enough, you know. There is something that craves wildness in Rickon.”

This is a calculated bit of honesty. It hurts, but is worth the gamble. His eyes soften from their terrible, grey stare. “Yes,” he says. “Of course. I have missed them.”

Them . Sansa should be too clever for this to cut. It does, of course, very deeply, but she is not going to let anyone know. There will be gossip if Lady Sansa Stark and Lord Targaryen are thought to be at odds--the nasty kind of gossip that Sansa’s mother had weathered thirty years ago, with her thin, reed-like strength--and he will feel guilty, maybe, if he knows that her feelings are tender to his careless slips of tongue.

She forces herself to smile as genuinely as possible, bright with real joy. “If you do not hunt Arya down this very night, she will skin you, you know.”

He does not smile, but his expression is kinder. Most of the ice has melted out of his face. Sansa looks at his cravat, at its neatly starched folds, drawing attention to the strong line of muscle in his throat. The fashion now is for pins, but Sansa is not surprised that Lord Targaryen eschews them. Someone skilled has turned his native staidness into an attractive, elegant simplicity. Sansa hopes they are being paid accordingly for this monumentally skilled work. 

If she looks at his cravat, his expression remains a mystery and she can thus lie to herself, later, when she is in bed, that they had pulled this off with skill and aplomb. “Oh,” she says lightly, as the last of the violins fade and applause erupts from the dancers, “but I have promised this next sixsome to Mr. Marbrand, and I daren’t offend him with my absence. Do find Arya, won’t you?” She presses her hand against the curve of his elbow, feeling the tips of her fingers burning, and then she draws back her arm.

“Lady Sansa,” he says, with a neat bow. “I will call, my lady.”

“Yes,” Sansa says, snapping open her fan. Over his shoulder, she can see Addam Marbrand delivering Sera Peckledon to her mother with a polite, exquisite bow, and turning unerringly in her direction. She smiles at him, brilliantly, and flicks her eyes back to Lord Targaryen’s neckcloth so that she looks like she’s flirting with him. “We look forward to your visit, your grace.”

“Don’t--” he says, but either he is too smart or too reserved to finish this piece of idiocy; either way, he nods to her once more and leaves her to Addam Marbrand and the complex figures of the sixsome reel. The bubbles have gone out of Sansa like flat champagne and so the next two hours are a long, slow grind. Her head is aching again and she really has danced through the soles of her slippers by the second country dance after supper, but she forces herself through no other mechanism that her own willpower to rally and smile and laugh, silly but beautiful, through to the end.

Sansa will always rally.

~

She sleeps poorly.