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The First Five Times

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The third time Sansa Stark meets Jon Snow, they aren’t supposed to be on stage.

The safe pathways laid out by neon electrical tape have disappeared since the morning’s rehearsals, covered by a landscape of glittering moondust. The set ties together the gleaming statuettes awarded at the VMAs and the launch of Fossoway Beauty’s latest highlighter, a masterstroke of product placement. From her seat in the audience, Sansa admires the spectacle throughout the first half of the show. The stage lights reflected by so many iridescent particles cast a cool glow across the faces of each presenter, like candlelight through frosted glass. There’s already an effect on Instagram to replicate it, she’s sure.

As the audience applauds the Brotherhood Without Banners (Best Hip-Hop or Rap Collaboration), Sansa slides from her seat to make her way backstage. Performers get thirty-eight minutes to change outfits and set up their mikes, but presenters have just the space between commercial breaks to line up in the wings. For the first time, she’s one of the latter.

Petyr considers it a job for fools. “It’s the easiest formula in the business. Put out a single in the month before the show and MTV gives you free publicity to the tune of 12 million viewers. Or, save your next release for September and get onstage with a Bachelor reject to give an award to someone more successful than you,” he would say. But he’s not in charge of booking her appearances anymore, so instead of polishing up something she left off her last record, Sansa’s enjoyed a weekend off between East coast legs of her tour.

She went hiking in the hills outside L.A. with her older brother Robb and the family’s dogs. She snuck into a late night screening of the latest Spiderman movie with her bright hair tucked up under a baseball cap, just to see if she still could. She came home smelling like fake butter from Rickon’s popcorn, pleased to have made it in and out of the theater undetected. Now she’s ready to give MTV twenty-five seconds of cheerful teleprompter reading and call it a night. Sansa Stark is done competing for status in Petyr’s made up music business hierarchy.

Of course, nothing goes according to plan.

She lines up behind Renly Baratheon and Arianne Martell, just as they practiced. They starred together in the latest Marvel crossover, she thinks, and as actors used to the spotlight they’d hit every mark during rehearsal like pros. Arianne’s dress is an eye-catching firetruck red, the side panels slashed by a complicated lattice of cutouts trimmed in gold. Sansa’s about to ask her what kind of tape she’s used to keep everything in place when feedback crashes through the monitors.

Up and down the narrow backstage hallway, hands fly up to cover ears. An audio tech waves his clipboard above his head, a futile signal of distress. As abruptly as it started, the screech ends and the band launches into song.

Sansa already knows it’s Nightwatch, the same way she knows where to make eye contact with the best camera angles and the time allowed for thank-you speeches down to the second— she didn’t get where she is today by leaving the details to others. But she isn’t prepared for the current that races through her blood at Jon’s low voice counting them in, familiar even though they haven’t run into each other in several months.

She’s avoided their music, too. Typing a capital N into the Spotify search bar feels like an admission of something she isn’t ready to put into words. A secret she’s keeping from herself.

Despite the soundproofed halls that separate them now, vibrations buzz across the floor and up through her bones, singing in the spaces between her teeth. The sheer volume creates a physical connection between the music and everyone listening, bodies jumping each downbeat, as if they all had a finger on the same bass drum.

Entranced, Sansa doesn’t notice the stage manager until he’s right at her shoulder, holding a black and silver envelope under her nose.

“Miss Stark, I need you at the front of the line. You’re up as soon as we return from commercials.”

She shakes her head, gesturing at the couple beside her. “I’m after the Avengers,” she says while the manager frowns at his tablet. The band must be reaching their final chorus, pushing the volume loud enough that she has to yell. “It’s Patchface, then the In Memoriam video, then the Avengers and then me.”

He looks at her face, looks back at his tablet, uses his free hand to wipe sweat from his brow onto his black polo.

She tries again. “I’m Sansa Stark, presenting Best New Artist. After Renly and Arianne with Best Movie Kiss.”

He mutters something into his headset, holding the receiver tight against his ear to hear the answer. Nodding, he points down at the screen and turns it so she can see.

PERFORMANCE— Nightwatch— 3:15

—Commercial break #8— 2:40

BEST MALE POP PERFORMANCE— Sansa Stark, presenting

The song ends, but her ears continue to ring. There’s applause from the audience as she flips over the envelope in her hands to double check the label.

Best Male Pop Performance

The backstage monitors go blank, then begin the countdown to the end of commercials. 160. 159. 158. When the screens reach zero, someone has to be walking out on stage to present. There’s no room for error in a live broadcast.

The realization hits her in the stomach, visceral as Jon’s drumming.

Joffrey’s nominated.

She’s Joffrey’s very public ex-girlfriend.

He’s going to win, and MTV is going to have more than a dozen cameras fixed on her face as she gives him his award.

Her stomach clenches. She knows the power of viral moments, how a video becomes a gif and loops endlessly across social media. An entire musical career compressed into three silent seconds, repeated ad infinitum. Not that MTV is particularly concerned with her legacy— they’ve engineered this trap, pitting her reputation for professionalism against the clock, trusting that she’ll be compliant enough or naive enough to go onstage and give them a reaction shot worthy of a Twitter moment.

She glances at the countdown clock. 140 seconds remain to prove they’ve underestimated her.

Sansa draws herself up and puts on a warm smile. She’ll be a performer tonight if she has to be. “What’s your name, sir?”

The stage manager looks relieved that she’s no longer arguing. “Lyn Corbray, miss. Now, if you’ll just follow me,” he says, turning down the hall.

“Hold on please, Mr. Corbray. Are you aware that I’ve been scheduled to present Best New Artist for more than eight weeks now? Because I’m the only musician in the past decade to win this award and release a second album that hit number one. And a third. And a fourth.”

“Miss Stark, I don’t think—“

“And are you also aware that I’ve memorized every musical cue and line for the intro to Best New Artist?”

The rest of the presenters in line aren’t even pretending not to pay attention. Arianne nods, something sharp behind her eyes as she supports Sansa’s story. “They turned her teleprompter off this morning.”

Corbray begins to sweat again. “This schedule is final,” he starts, pointing weakly at the tablet. “I’m sorry if you think there’s been some mistake.”

“You’re wrong on two counts there.” Sansa breathes deep from her diaphragm, fighting to keep her voice level. “I don’t think there’s been a mistake. I think you’ve sprung this change on me at the last possible moment on purpose so that I’m forced to give an award to my ex. And I also think you’re not nearly as sorry as you’re going to be.”

Nightwatch is practically bouncing their way back from the stage now, high on adrenaline. Pyp reaches them first, but he stops and hesitates to walk between Sansa and the stage manager. She sees the band register the tension in the air and catches Jon’s eye before she continues.

“When I get offstage, I expect that my manager and I will receive an apology for breach of contract and a full explanation from whomever is responsible for this. Put that headset to use and call them over here.”

Corbray lowers the tablet and steps forward. There’s a glint in his eyes she doesn’t like, a look that says he doesn’t appreciate being reminded of her power in the industry. “Those are some pretty strong allegations, Miss Stark. Do you have any way of proving any of them are true?”

“Mr. Corbray, is Joffrey Lannister’s name inside this envelope?”

“You can’t know that!” he sputters, cheeks flushed. “We take award security very seriously here!” He’s staring at the envelope in her hands as if she’s about to tear it open in front of them all, but Sansa has other ideas. She’s been reading self-help and, yes, watching plenty of Melisandre Red’s afternoon talk therapy show since sloughing off her manager and her boyfriend and she’s taken a phrase as a sort of touchstone for dealing with everything.

We teach others how to treat us by accepting the treatment we think we deserve.

Lyn Corbray can scowl at her like she’s a diva, and maybe she is, but humiliating herself to give an award to Joffrey is not what she deserves.

Just under a minute remains on the clock when she gives her final ultimatum. “I’m not going to open this envelope until I’m onstage and I’ve read out the nominees. But I want you to think very carefully about the answer to my question. If there is the slightest chance I might be called upon to announce his name, you have—“ she makes a show of checking the clock “— 47 seconds to fix this.”

She turns and stalks to the front of the line, brushing past the panting members of Nightwatch on one side and the silent presenters on the other. Before she reaches the stage door, Jon catches her wrist with two fingers. His hands are warm and a little gummy from gripping his sticks.

“You okay?”

She almost crumples. Thinks about leaning into his chest, refusing to move, wailing for someone else to turn the situation right side up. “Not really,” she answers, unable to pretend otherwise.

He shifts, eyes glancing at his band mates and then up at the clock. “Want me to help you fuck this up?”

Despite her anger, Sansa laughs. “Absolutely.”

“Great.” He nods, letting go of her to scrape his hair back from his face into a messy half-ponytail. “Bring that punk attitude, yeah?”

As the doors open onto the stage, the heat and glare of the lights send her swaying. She tightens her core and reaches down for Jon’s arm as the disembodied voice of the MC echoes from the speakers: “And now, nine-time VMA winner Sansa Stark!”

They make an odd couple, she knows: Jon in combat boots and a black t-shirt featuring the white outline of a raven escorting her, a vision in layers of white and silver beaded fringe. Underneath the applause she can already hear some laughter, the audience anticipating the mismatch is part of a bit.

Once they reach the microphone, Sansa greets the audience without even glancing at the teleprompter. “Thank you, MTV! I am so excited to be here presenting tonight. The next award will be for Best Male Pop Performance.”

Jon leans in, straight-faced. “As a Best Male, it feels awesome to be here, receiving this award. I want to thank—“

“Hold on, Jon,” Sansa cuts in. “You didn’t win.”

The audience chuckles as he plays dumb. “I didn’t?”

“It’s for best Pop Performance,” she explains. “Nightwatch is an alternative rock band.”

“You’re telling me they didn’t even consider us?”

She wouldn’t have expected it, but Jon has great comedic timing. She has to stifle a giggle at his disappointed expression, and she decides to push a little further. Hopefully he’ll go with it.

“Listen, I’m a pop singer— why don’t you show me some of your moves and I can give you some pointers, so MTV doesn’t ignore you next year?”

“My moves?”

“Let’s start with your falsetto.” She hands him the mike with a smirk.

Jon is up to the challenge. He croons into the microphone, taking a Nightwatch song up the octave, eyes screwed shut as the audience laughs. It’s a shame she has to interrupt him after just a couple of lines.

“Good, that’s good! But it’s not just how you sing, it’s what you sing about. Pop is all about connecting to people through our emotions. I write songs about falling for the right guy, falling for the wrong guy, falling back on my friends when I need them, that kind of thing. What emotions do you sing about?”

“Anger,” he replies with a straight face. “Fear. Disenfranchisement.”

Sansa makes a face at the audience. “We might have to work on that one. Now, pop performance means you have to have some dance moves.”

“Oh, I’ve got this.”

Jon struts in a little circle toward the center of the stage, then jerks his feet backwards, one at a time, in a truly awful imitation of the moon walk. She can see cameras drifting above the audience from the corner of her eye, catching howls of laughter and shaking heads. They’ve already gone well past the time allowed for presenting an award, but she doesn’t care. If MTV wanted to stick to their schedule, they shouldn’t have pulled a bait-and-switch on her.

“Yeah, that’s definitely why they put you behind the drums.” Jon gives her a thumbs up. He doesn’t look even a tiny bit nervous to be making a fool of himself. It gives her the courage she needs to ask one more favor of him.

“Okay, Jon, last skill. A pop star has to be able to make his fans scream like crazy.”

He raises both eyebrows. “You want me to take off my shirt?”

Shrieks rise up from the seats as Sansa grins. “Do it.”

He strips off his shirt the way only boys seem to do, grabbing the collar behind his neck and pulling it forward over his head. The move flashes his triceps, then his abs, shimmering with sweat from his performance, then his shit-eating grin.

She gives him an exaggerated once over, then leans forward to the mike. “Next year, it’s all yours.”

The audience eats up the punchline, as she knew they would. Jon steps up to the microphone with a hand outstretched and she trades him her envelope for his shirt as if they’d practiced. It’s suddenly easy to take a step back and fade into the middle distance of the stage; the cameras have to focus on Jon, dutifully reading Joffrey’s name in a voice that lacks the enthusiasm of their performance.

She folds his t-shirt over one arm so she can clap politely, keeping her eyes on the back of Jon’s neck so she doesn’t get caught off guard by one of her ex’s famous smirks. Jon gives Joffrey’s hand a quick shake, reaching up to slap his shoulder twice before he drifts toward her, grin firmly in place.

Instead of handing back the shirt, Sansa takes his hand in hers, guiding it up to his waist and sliding her grip to his forearm as if he were a gentleman escorting her at some long-ago ball. She barely hears Joffrey begin his acceptance speech as they make their way offstage.

On the other side of the doors, they find the rest of Nightwatch still in the hallway, crowded around one of the monitors. They greet Jon with whoops and high-fives.

“Dude,” Pyp begins, “your dancing sucks.”

Jon flips him the bird, laughing.

“Pyp’s worried you’re gonna have us all taking off our shirts now,” Grenn teases, making the other guitarist blush as Sam pokes him in the ribs.

“Speaking of which—“ Jon turns to her with a meaningful look and Sansa returns the black tee. Before he can put it on, she slides one hand around his back to rest on his shoulder, bringing him close in a half-hug so she can murmur in his ear.

“Thank you, Jon.”

She lets her lips trail down his cheek across the edge of his stubble, the barest whisper of a kiss. Then she strides past the band to the tall blonde figure waiting at the end of the hall.

“Miss Stark,” Brienne says, still formal as ever. “You wanted to see me.”

Sansa smiles. “Let’s go have a conversation with the producers from MTV.”