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The First Five Times

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The first time Sansa Stark meets Jon Snow, she’s at a hotel bar.

It isn’t her usual scene— the plush red cushions, the velvet rope, the faint clicking of paparazzi lenses outside the Chateau Marmont are all missing. Instead, she perches in discomfort on a minimalist stool, hands resting weakly on the glossy bar top. The mirrored finish shows her a glimpse of flushed cheeks against pale skin until a puddle from her dripping hair mars the image. She blinks quickly to clear away the water from her vision and sniffs, glancing up to catch the eye of the bartender.

The décor isn’t the only aspect of the bar that puts her outside her comfort zone. Sansa is accustomed to mixologists who jump at the chance to impress a bona fide star, especially in a city as obsessed with celebrity as Los Angeles. But the man behind the bar makes no move to engage her beyond a nod. He punches his thumb against the touchscreen above the register without much care, scratching at a dark tattoo behind his ear with his free hand. If he recognizes her as a Grammy winner, he’s determined to treat her like any other customer.

Petyr wouldn’t approve.

The thought makes her blink away more blurriness. Her former manager had endless advice for preserving her image at social appearances (his term, not hers). How many friends to invite. When to arrive. When to leave. What to order- nothing that will stain her teeth, nothing with too many calories, nothing too cheap. Always get photographed entering and leaving. Never get photographed alone with a man. Never get photographed with more than one man—

The ding of the elevator interrupts her recollections. A man about her age with dark curls and round horn-rimmed glasses strides to the bar. Ignoring the chrome stools completely, he leans forward on a toned forearm and rasps, “Four Roses on the rocks, please.”

“Sure thing, man.” The bartender immediately sets to work, his bleached topknot shining as he scoops out ice and executes a long amber pour with a flourish.

“Thanks, mate.” Though gruff, there’s a melodic quality to the man’s voice that tickles something in her memory. Sansa looks over just as he takes his first swallow, Adam’s apple bobbing, and suddenly it clicks.

He’s Jon Snow, drummer and frontman of Nightwatch, and he’s turning to look at her with a frown.

Before she can think of anything to say, the bartender finally acknowledges her existence. “Can I get you a drink?”

It takes a moment for Sansa to fight off the phantom of Petyr’s list of everything she’s doing wrong. She breathes with control, like she’s in front of a mike.

“I’d like a cocktail, please. Do you have a menu I could see?”

While the bartender shuffles around by the register, she glances back at Jon. His frown has softened, directed now at his glass instead of her sodden hair. Despite working in the same industry, they’ve never been introduced— they don’t share a record label or an agent or any other convenient professional connections. Their songs don’t even compete on the same charts; her songwriting drifts between acoustic ballads with just enough twang to be country and electro-pop when she picks up the tempo, whereas his music falls somewhere under the umbrella of alternative rock, or maybe whatever passes for punk at a major record label. The kind of thing her sister Arya prefers.

The bartender returns with a booklet bound in black card stock. Sansa flips through three pages of drinks with violent names seemingly inspired by Tarantino films. Open Throttle. Three Fingers. Blood of the Bride. Its industrial typeface does nothing to make the ingredients more comprehensible.

The bartender crosses his arms with impatience as she returns to the first page. She can feel the drummer’s eyes on her, too, and she’s about to give up and order something simple like a vodka soda when he interrupts her thoughts.

“What are you looking for?” When she doesn’t answer right away, he gestures at the menu. “Something sweet? Fruity? Herbal? Something to warm you up?”

His last question reminds her what a fright she must appear: hair mussed and blazer water-stained, alone in the bar of who-knows-what hotel.

“Sweet,” she says firmly. Then, more quietly, “And strong.”

“How about a Cosmo?” the bartender offers in a dismissive tone. Jon looks back at him and grins like his suggestion was a joke.

“You can do better than that, Edd. May I?” At her nod he steps closer, leaving his empty glass behind him on the bar. His proximity already makes her feel warmer, his shoulder nearly touching hers as he peers at the booklet. The sleeves of his henley are rolled above the elbow, and when he reaches across to turn the page the muscles evident in his forearms are, frankly, unfair.

Satisfied, he turns the menu in Edd’s direction and taps twice next to one of the drinks. “Another bourbon for me and this one for Miss Stark.”

Sansa twists as delicately as she can atop the stool. “You know who I am?”

Even as she says the words, her attempt at modesty falls flat. Jon looks disbelieving. “Everyone knows who you are.”

“I meant…we’ve never been introduced.”

Obediently, he offers his hand. “Jon Snow.” His grip is there and gone before she can form an impression of his handshake.

“Please, call me Sansa.”

The bartender produces their orders, looking slightly less bored. Jon raises his bourbon in her direction and nods before drinking. She brings the martini glass to her lips, careful not to spill. It tastes like ginger and honey, the sweet heat of the sun captured by flowers.

“Mmmmmm. This is incredible, Jon.”

He ducks his head slightly at her praise, and smiles. “I’m glad. And I’m not going to ruin it for you by telling you what it’s called.”

Edd grumbles something that might have been a rude name. Sansa lets them trade insults, her attention drifting away from her discomfort now that alcohol is warming her from the inside. A few more enthusiastic pulls, and soon she’s nearly finished. The clank of Jon’s empty glass on the bar brings her back to the moment just as he motions for another.

She copies him.

“Are you staying here?”

“Here, at the hotel? No!” He reaches for his third glass just as she remembers that he arrived from the elevator. “I mean, not at the moment,” she says, trying to soften her abrupt answer.

“What brings you here, then?” He sets his drink back on the bar after a smaller sip this time.

“I got caught walking in the rain. Well, I was driving, but then I needed some air, so I decided to walk instead. And then it started to rain.”

He nods as if her explanation makes sense to him, and his handsomeness hits her just as her first drink really takes effect. More words escape before she can consider them carefully.

“I fired my manager.”

“Good for you.”

She stares at him, wide-eyed. “You’re the first to say so.”

“Baelish is a snake,” he explains, shrugging. “If it were up to him, you’d still be performing in pigtails and princess gowns. You’re better off without all that crap.”

“I liked the princess gowns!” Sansa argues.

“Exactly. Liked. When you were how old, sixteen?”

His dismissal puts her on the defensive. “Lots of my fans are sixteen.”

“I’m just saying, it’s okay to grow with your audience. You’re successful because you’re a real songwriter, not just because of the whole blue eyes, perfect hair, pop goddess…whatever.”

He buries his nose in his drink and gulps. Droplets cling to his beard when he puts down his glass, and she’s struck by the fullness of his lips. And he more or less just described her as a goddess.

Time to refocus on her drink. Appreciate the fragrance of the lemon peel garnish, the way the acid and alcohol make her mouth buzz. She moves to get her phone out of her clutch but remembers, just in time, the photos that sent her into the rain in the first place. She lets Jon’s words spin in circles through her brain instead.

“How do you know so much about Petyr Baelish, anyway?” she asks after a moment.

“I’ve never met him or anything,” Jon says, wrinkling his nose, “but from what I’ve read, he seems—”

Sansa can’t help but laugh. The thought of Jon Snow, brooding rock star, reading about her manager in the tabloids is too absurd. “What you’ve read in Us Weekly? The Daily Mail? People you follow on Twitter?”

“Hey, I mean—tour buses are fucking boring, okay?” he sputters, scowling, but when she laughs harder his expression softens. He runs a restless hand through his hair and pulls at a curl behind his ear.

“And you believe everything you read?”

He voice turns flat. “Everyone else seems to.”

There’s some kind of scandal attached to his name, she suddenly remembers. A fire after his band’s breakthrough show at a Scottish festival. There’d been chatter online that it had something to do with the bassist of the Wildlings. A break-up, maybe, or jealousy over a record deal.

Definitely not something Petyr would approve of. Another reason they’ve never met. But not a reason to trust him with the truth, either, except— trust is exactly what Sansa wants to feel again, and Jon is sitting right there, solid and somber.

“It was worse than that. He sold information about me. And pictures. He had all these rules about how to dress, how to behave, how to maintain my brand, and the whole time he was tipping off paparazzi to get photos of me leaving the doctor, leaving the gym, climbing out of cabs, anything unflattering.”

Jon swears, his knuckles white from clenching his glass. “Shit. Shit, that’s…Sansa, you should sue him. Breach of contract, or privacy, or, I don’t know, something.”

Sansa shakes her head. “He won’t try anything else now that I know. He wasn’t trying to hurt me, just…profit off both ends, I guess.”

His hand twitches on his knee, as if he were about to reach out to her, but instead he pushes his hair back again. “But he did hurt you.”

The accusation makes her flinch. “He also made me. Everything I am, the records, the tours, the awards, all of it. And without him, I don’t have a career.”

There’s a helpless note to her voice that she didn’t intend, but Jon doesn’t wince or brush her off. He looks her carefully in the eye, close enough now that his hip brushes the edge of her stool.

“That’s what he wants you to think. Look, you’re Sansa Stark, and you write the kinds of songs that speak to entire continents of teenage girls. Who your manager is doesn’t change that. Maybe this is your chance to cut some dead weight out of your life.”

Dead weight. She tries to smile, to respond to his kindness with something lighthearted, but nothing comes to mind. Without meaning to, he’s conjured up another ghost. Margaery had spent months trying to convince her that Joffrey was holding her back, a burden on her emotions and her career. Their texts were sprinkled with the iconic paparazzi shot of Elia Martell wearing DUMP HIM across a babydoll t-shirt. Sansa returns to her drink to anchor herself in the moment, here, now, or she’ll lose it again thinking about Margaery’s latest Instagram post.

“I broke up with my boyfriend, too.”

His eyebrows shoot up. It has to be the alcohol that’s making her spill all her closest-held secrets to someone she just met. The warm burn in her stomach and the warmth in Jon Snow’s eyes make for a potent combination. “Cheers to you. Can I ask, was the final straw the lap dances in Ibiza or egging cop cars from hotel balconies?

His comments should sting, but instead it’s a strange relief not to feel obligated to come up with a plausible defense for Joffrey’s actions. “I get it. He’s a jerk. I’m stupid.”

“I didn’t say that. Well, he is a jerk. No argument there. But stupid? Never. You said you broke up with him, right?” She nods. “So you made the smart move.”

He waves at the bartender to refill her drink. She waits until he’s slicing fruit at the back counter, out of earshot, before tilting her head at Jon. “Do you always take it upon yourself to give relationship advice to strange girls in bars? It doesn’t exactly fit with the image.”

He shakes his head and pushes his glasses up his nose. His smile brings creases to the outside of each eye just beyond the edges of the frames.

“Not sure I really look the part of a tough guy. Rock musicians can be sensitive, too, we just sing about it a high volume. Although, if I open up Lainey Gossip next week and read about Jon Snow’s soft heart, I’ll know who’s to blame.”

The elevator dings again, and there’s a rumble of heavy boots . The men crossing the lobby are the rest of the band, Sansa realizes, and the sympathetic moment she’s been sharing with Jon is lost. He nods in their direction as she turns back to her drink. Her first sip goes down without any burn at all. It’s a sign she should probably make it her last, but she doesn’t want to stop.

The first man to approach is the shortest but also the largest. He chokes on his words for a moment, stammering, “Sansa Stark? Are you…wow!”

“Sansa, this is Sam. He plays bass.” She can tell there’s a tease hidden underneath Jon’s mild tone.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” she says as he extends a shaky hand from the pocket of his hoodie.

She meets Grenn (guitar) and Pyp (also guitar) after they growl at Edd and grip Jon’s shoulder in greeting. The question of her presence hangs in the air and she drains her glass before anyone can give it voice. Declining another round at a gesture from the bartender, she reaches for her bag.

Sam shuffles closer. “If you wouldn’t mind,” he begins, “Could I have your autograph? Please?”

Sansa smiles, ignoring Pyp’s groans and Grenn’s muttered “No chill.”

“Of course.” It takes her two attempts to open the clasp on her purse to look for a pen while Sam checks his pockets wildly for a scrap of paper. Eventually, he grabs a silver bar napkin and holds it out.

“To Sam?”

“To my girlfriend, Gilly. She’s— we’re enormous fans.”

Sansa asks him about their favorite songs, jotting down a quoted lyric under the hotel name— CASTLE BLACK— printed along the top of the napkin. Sam beams when she hands it to him, breathing his thanks.

Mindful of the hem of her dress, she presses her knees together and hops off the stool. Jon is there wrapping an arm across her back before she can take a wobbling step.

“Let me walk you out to your car,” he murmurs. She can’t reply— she can barely manage to breathe, pressed close to his side and doubly intoxicated. He says something about his tab to the bartender and she waves weakly at his friends before he guides her through the lobby.

Outside, the sky is still heavy from the rain that has washed the night air clean. Sansa takes a deep breath to enjoy the bass notes of the city’s perfume, a green bouquet usually hidden under exhaust and concrete. There’s a moment, fumbling with her phone to send for a car, that she wonders if Jon’s going to ask for her number. He lets his arm fall from her shoulders, but remains at her side, staring out at the lights of the city.

“Thank you for taking care of my drinks.”

“Thank you for letting me buy your silence. The rock world isn’t ready to know that Nightwatch listens to Sansa Stark on heavy rotation.”

A low, black car pulls up to the curb, and Jon moves to open the door. Finally, he offers her his hand. She takes a chance.

“If you ever want to pivot to singing pop music for teenagers, you know who to call.”

The words earn her one last smile. “Maybe I will.”