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Saskatoon Berry Pie

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At home Sansa liked it when her mother bought a lemon meringue pie at the corner bakery on nights when company was coming over. She always thought it the height of indulgence, the epitome of elegance, but she hasn’t had lemons since she went to live with Aunt Lysa and Uncle Petyr. Aunt Lysa didn’t like them and wouldn’t abide them in the house, and while Petyr would have bought them for her if she asked, she knew better than to cross her aunt. Now that she’s in Saskatoon, the chances of stumbling upon lemons are unlikely. The days of lemon meringue pies are probably behind her forever, along with dances with dance cards and white gloves and trolleys and fresh flowers delivered every day. But Mr. Reed said Saskatoon berries make a good pie, and Sansa’s determined to embrace new things, the things that are actually within her reach. So she agreed to try Saskatoon berries and he sent his son, Jojen, out to pick some for her, after she announced she wanted to make something special for dinner tonight to serve their expected guest, Sergeant Jon Snow.

Jon is a cousin that was raised with her back in Philadelphia. He moved to Canada and became a Mountie, a member of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police, when she was twelve, and that was the last time she’d seen or had any communication with him. No real loss, since they’d never been close, despite living in the same house together. He was eight years her elder and too somber to be interesting, and he wasn’t her real brother, something that always seemed an important distinction in Sansa’s mind. There was Jon and then there was Robb, who was obviously the most perfect brother a girl could ask for.

Robb didn’t feel that there was that kind of distinction though. They were brothers, true brothers, whether a great white north separated them or not, so Robb kept in touch, and maybe eventually they would have all seen each other again, except there was a rail accident, an accident that irreparably changed her life and saw to it that the Starks and Jon Snow could never again all be in the same room together. In one derailment, her parents and her siblings were all killed, and the connection between her family and Jon was severed.

She went to live with Aunt Lysa in New York, the closest family left to her, and initially she was relieved to be going to stay with people who would love her and take care of her, and she gave no thought to her cousin in Canada. It was only when things started unraveling there that she thought of him again. He was an orphan, just like her, and he was mild mannered and kind if a little solemn. She sat in her window in Uncle Petyr’s house with her head propped in her hand and thought about how good it would be to see him again and how if they were reunited, it would help her remember what it was like when there was a whole noisy household of Starks instead of just her alone. Jon might not be her closest relation, but he wouldn’t shout at her and make threats and belittle every little thing she did. Jon didn’t have it in him to be cruel. He was fair and good. When she finally decided life with Aunt Lysa was unbearable and Aunt Lysa made it clear she would rather her niece disappeared than continue to draw the attention of her husband, Sansa didn’t just daydream about Jon commiserating with her over the loss of their family or taking her side against Aunt Lysa, she began to think of Jon as her escape plan.

Daddy’s lawyer, Mr. Varys, the one Petyr dealt with so she didn’t have to, was happy enough to help, when she contacted him while Petyr was traveling on business. Mr. Varys had an address for Howland Reed, an old buddy of her father’s that helped Jon settle in Canada, when he moved north. Sansa reasoned that Mr. Reed would know how to reach Jon even if the lawyer didn’t, so that’s who she wrote and that’s where she intended to go. Mr. Reed lived in Saskatoon on what looked like the edge of civilization to Sansa, when she peered down at a map spread over Aunt Lysa’s walnut dining room table, but anything was better than where she was. She boarded a train to leave Aunt Lysa and Uncle Petyr and her cousin Robert behind forever, putting her trust in a man she’d never met and in a cousin she hadn’t seen in five years.

Jon was always dutiful. She’s counting on him thinking it is his duty to take the sole remaining child of his adopted father into his custody and protection now that she’s arrived on the doorstep of the north, but if she can show him how useful she could be—keeping his house, darning his socks, cooking and baking for him—he might be convinced that she’ll be less of a burden and more of a happy addition to his household. Men will do something more readily to improve their lives than they will something that is likely to cause them grief, and even if Jon is a good man, surely he’s no different in wanting to be happy.

That’s why this dinner and the pie in particular is so important to her. Except, when she set out to make the perfect dinner for Jon Snow, it was the first time she’d attempted to prepare a dinner. She’d never actually cooked or baked anything in her life, something Aunt Lysa was quick to point out to Petyr, when he praised her quick wit.

She’s been spoiled. Hardly knows how to do a thing. She’ll never make a decent wife.

Aunt Lysa’s words lodged somewhere in her chest and made her hands tremble as she worked the dough for the crust. The stew and bread Meera helped with, but Sansa wanted the pie to be her creation alone, so that when Jon ate it, he’d be reminded of the benefits of having a woman around. Not just any woman, but Sansa Stark, cheerful, budding domestic. Surely as a bachelor, he’s been surviving on pretty meager fare, and she can fix that with a little practice. That’s the hope she clung to at least until he walked through the door.

He doesn’t look as if he’s been starving, as they sit in uneasy silence over the meal she helped prepare and he reaches for his glass, his shoulders pulling at the wool of his coat. That he looks as well as he does is an odd kind of disappointment, ruining the little picture she painted for herself, in which she would be his savior as much as he potentially could be hers. Sansa sneaks glances at him over her bowl to verify that yes, he looks plenty well fed. Someone’s been cooking for him. He’s tall and broad, filling out his uniform well enough. There was color in his cheeks too, when he stepped through the door, a healthy flush from his walk from the train station or from his excitement or both. His hair’s the same, although the dark curls stand out more against the red of his coat than they ever did against the muted navy, greys, and blacks of his school coats growing up, and she recognizes those sad eyes.

They look like her father’s, which is part of the reason she feels drawn to stare between each small spoonful of stew. While Sansa and her brothers took after their mother, her sister and their cousin Jon had those long Stark faces, dark hair, and grey eyes. There was always a resemblance, but he looks a great deal more like her father than he did five years ago. This must have been what her father looked like the day he married her mother—handsome and serious and probably just as nervous as Jon seems to be sitting across from her at the Howlands’ table.

The years have made Jon look more like a man and less like a boy, but then, she looks older too, she thinks, as she smoothes her skirts—blue with ruffles, too dressy for the occasion, but chosen because it’s the prettiest dress she owns and makes her look the oldest, nipping in at the waist with a broad, white belt she fastened one hook tighter than usual to make the most of what nature had given her in the last year. He’s the only person left that would recognize how much she’s changed, and she wishes he’d comment on it, but he hasn’t. He’s never been one to prattle on, but he’s even quieter than usual. Some little compliment directed her way would help put her worries to rest, help assure her that she is winning him over.

It wasn’t the change in her appearance that made him gawk, when Mr. Reed opened the door and Jon stepped through with another red coated man with graying hair at his heels, coming back into her life in a gust of warm wind off the prairie. She only had to see his mouth go slack in silent shock to realize that he expected Arya, her little sister, who Jon doted on when they were children, and for what felt like a full minute everyone stood in silence as he stared back at her, feet astride, and eyes wide. The confusion was straightened out with some awkward clearing of throats among the men, as she forced herself to move over the linoleum to kiss his cheek and tell him how good it was to see him.

And it was. Her heart thumped hard in her chest and she wanted to wrap her arms around his neck, but it was more painful than it was sweet, because it was clear that he wanted someone else.

My apologies, Mr. Reed said, though whether he was apologizing to her or Jon wasn’t made clear. The letter Mr. Reed sent Jon about Sansa’s imminent arrival by train only referred to her as ‘Ned’s daughter,’ and Jon drew his conclusions.

I didn’t expect you’d ever come looking for me. I didn’t even know anyone survived the accident until I got Howland’s letter.

She hadn’t survived it, so there was no mention of her in the newspapers that publicized the prominent Philadelphians killed in the tragic rail accident. She hadn’t been on the train at all. She’d refused to go on holiday with the rest of the family, because she wanted to stay with the Lannisters, so she could spend her summer making eyes at Joffrey, freshly home from Princeton and looking so smart in his short sleeves and pressed slacks with his blond hair and mischievous grin. Mrs. Lannister had pleaded on Sansa’s behalf and her mother finally agreed to let her stay behind. Not getting on that train was hardly the blessing some people wanted her to believe it was. Getting her way was the cosmic joke that left her alone in the world.

Alone except for Jon, who doesn’t really want her. Her plan to win his regard with pie seems increasingly ridiculous, since Sansa senses Jon’s sullen discomfort with every shoveled bite of stew he brings to his mouth. At least the stew isn’t a failure. He wipes the bowl with his bread and leans his elbows on the table, eating eagerly enough even if he can’t meet her eyes.

He’d rather it was Arya that traveled west to be his companion, because he loved her sister. Sansa can hardly blame him. The two of them would have been happy in whatever dreary conditions Jon’s station post boasts. Now that Sansa’s seen what life is like here, she knows Arya would have thrived on the prairies as much as she was totally out of place in the society of Philadelphia.

It’s not like that for Sansa. She stepped onto the platform in Saskatoon and felt nothing but a hollow ache, when she stared out over the flat expanse of the newly green prairie and ranging cattle. There are no guarantees either Jon or Sansa will be happy together, sharing a home in this untamed land. Still, Sansa intends to try for both their sakes if he’ll take her. And there’s one thing she knows: Arya wouldn’t have ever gone to the effort of making anyone a pie and she would have let him wander around with holes in his socks. Those are the advantages left to her and she must make the most of them.

“It was good, Meera,” Jon says, pushing away the empty bowl to show he’s finished, and Sansa can’t help but think his manners haven’t remarkably improved with time and seclusion.

Meera is older than Sansa by four years, old enough that she could have a husband instead of tending to her brother and father and their ranch hands, but she seems well suited to a place like this. In the time Sansa’s been here, she’s watched as Meera left with her father to hunt and fish, while her brother Jojen stayed home and scribbled away in his journal that he won’t let anyone read. Meera’s merry and attractive. That she’s a little skinny and short like a boy doesn’t stop some of the men from paying her mind. Theon Greyjoy, one of Howland’s hands, always stares at her during dinner and tonight’s no different. He always looks like he’s planning something, but he’s not the only one that casts eyes her way.

Sansa can only hope Jon isn’t as interested in Meera as Mr. Greyjoy seems to be, because Jon’s less likely to let Sansa stay with him if he’s thinking about settling down. A couple of weeks with Aunt Lysa and Sansa learned that wives don’t appreciate single young ladies being introduced into their homes.

Bless Meera though, she’s a good friend to have, because as she gathers up the bowls, she puts in, “You ought to thank Sansa too. She helped and she’s made us a pie.”

“I’ll get it,” Sansa says, eager to leave the table and bring in her dessert, the coup de grace.

“I’ve been thinking about it all day,” Mr. Reed says, patting his stomach. “Bring us all a slice, honey.”

She cuts Sergeant Tollett and Sergeant Snow’s pieces first, since they’re guests, but gives Mr. Reed and Mr. Greyjoy equally large slices with a little smile and bat of her lashes as she sets their plates down in front of them. It doesn’t leave much of the pie for her and Meera and Jojen, but she’s full and neither Meera nor Jojen ever eat very much. Besides, what she’s most interested in isn’t tasting the pie herself, it’s watching Jon eat the fruits of her labor.

Mr. Reed digs in first, taking a big scooping bite, but she doesn’t bother to observe his reaction. Mr. Reed is easy to please, a generous, genial man that she can easily imagine being friends with her father; he’ll be satisfied even if the crust isn’t as buttery and flaky as the ones her mother purchased. Jon’s not hard to please either, but he knows how good those pies from their childhood were, he must remember as well as she does, so she watches through her lashes, as Jon brings his first bite up to his mouth, while she pokes at her plate, trying to look as if she isn’t desperately awaiting his praise. There’s too long of a pause between the pie passing his lips and his thick swallow, a pause that makes her glance around the table to see several oddly contorted faces staring down into their plates.

“Good?” she asks.

“It’s delicious, honey,” Mr. Reed says, setting his fork down. “Just so rich after that big meal. Don’t know whether I could eat another bite.”

Sergeant Tollett, who’s been mostly quiet tonight at Jon’s side, no doubt as a result of the tension present at this awkward family reunion, tilts his head, as he inspects the tines of his fork, “Well, you might eat another bite, but no telling whether you’d live to…”

Whatever he means to say is cut off by a thump under the table that makes Sergeant Tollett jerk in his chair and tuck his chin down.

Sansa’s heart begins to race, as she pushes her fork into the crust, determined to taste for herself why the table’s gone so strangely quiet. It looks pretty. Perhaps not a basket weave crust like she’d liked to have attempted, but it looks serviceable and the density seems right, as she scoops it onto her fork. There’s no guessing its flavor. She didn’t actually taste the berries while preparing the pie, since she wanted to make sure she’d have enough. They looked like blueberries, but this pie tastes nothing like blueberries. She wrinkles her nose. It’s salty, which is more than passing strange, since she never tasted a salty berry before. Tart is one thing, she likes tart, but pies shouldn’t be salty. It’s only her pride that makes her swallow the mouthful and then reach for her glass to wash the lingering taste away.

She must have done something wrong. Mr. Reed said Saskatoon berries were good. He waxed poetic about it all day long. Jojen’s fingers were stained blue, when he came back from picking them, and his lips too, evidence that he couldn’t wait for them to be baked into a pie to sample their delights. It’s not the berries. It’s her incompetence. This is the opposite of everything she wanted. She blinks, willing tears not to form, when she hears a fork scrape against a plate and looks up to see Jon taking another monstrous bite.

“It’s the best I’ve ever had,” he says, talking around the food tucked in his cheek, while he breaks off yet a further piece.

“It’s not lemon meringue, I’m afraid,” she says with what she hopes is a convincing smile.

“No, that it isn’t, but the good news is that you’re awfully pretty, Miss Stark,” Mr. Greyjoy says with a wink and pushes back from the table, as she feels her cheeks heat. It’s the compliment she was looking for, but from the wrong man. “Excuse me. I’m going to have a smoke.”

“I’ll join you, Greyjoy. Delicious dinner, girls. Thank you,” Mr. Reeds says, and Sergeant Tollett and Jon stand too, nodding their thanks, Jon still wiping his mouth, as they depart for the front porch to puff on pipes and talk about the weather.

The table is almost cleared, when Sansa stands up straight, wipes her hands on her apron, and works up the courage to ask Meera, “I didn’t do it right, did I? It tasted wretched.”

Meera talks into the waste bin, scraping the last of the dishes, “I think you switched salt for sugar, but I wouldn’t worry about it. Sergeant Snow didn’t seem to mind. He about finished his whole piece, and he’s the one you were hoping to impress, I imagine.”

Sansa lets her eyes slip closed, cursing her stupidity. Who mistakes salt for sugar? And was she really that blatantly obvious in her pathetic attempts to impress Jon? It’s enough to make her want to flop back down in one of the chairs and bury her face in her arms, but there are dishes to wash and dry and somehow she has to convince Jon before he leaves tonight that he should take her with him, so she shakes off her self pity and grabs for a towel, since drying is less unpleasant a task than washing. The quicker this stack of dirty dishes is finished, the quicker she can join the men on the porch and work to undo the damage her ineptitude at all things domestic has already done.

Meera comes to stand by her and gives her a little bump with her hip. “You drying?”

“If you don’t mind.”

Meera’s answer is to dunk the first plate in the water. “I can tell you’re stewing, but he ate it even if it did taste like a salt lick. There’s only one reason a man would subject himself to bad food like that with such gusto.”

Martyrdom, perhaps. “He was trying to be nice.” Or trying to make up for his reaction, when he barely put his arm around her, as she kissed his cheek. He never was the kind of boy who wanted to hurt people’s feelings. Sansa doubts he’s any different as a man grown. He’s probably mentally abusing himself for not doing a better job of feigning excitement to see her, but Jon’s always been an unconvincing liar.

“Sergeant Snow is a nice man, but I’m willing to bet that’s not the whole of it.”

Meera speaks as if she had some knowledge on the subject, and a queer feeling stirs in Sansa’s chest. Sansa imagined that she and Jon would share a personal history no one else would ever be able to boast. It’s one of the things she hoped would help them grow to be comfortable with each other in time. “How well do you know him?”

“Oh, we all know Sergeant Snow. Everybody from here to High Prairie, I suppose. He’s real helpful even if not everybody is thrilled to see a lawman. Most of us are glad to have him around.”

Jon’s somebody around here, and while she should be happy for him, the idea of his local popularity only deepens her unease. “Has he,” Sansa begins but can’t make herself say what it is she’d like to really know. Has he got a girl, a fiancée, someone who might object to her returning with him to the north? “Lots of friends?”

“Sure. Course he does.” Meera leans into the sink up to her elbows. “Never takes a girl to any of the barn dances though, despite those pretty curls of his.”

When they were younger, Jon wasn’t good with girls the way her brother was, but this news comes as something of a relief. “Probably because he’s a terrible dancer. He’ll step on your toes ten times before a dance is over.” She’d know, they learned together in the parlor, when she was half his height.

Meera laughs. “That might be, but wouldn’t it be worth it to wrap those curls around your finger?”

Sansa rolls her eyes, although the suggestion prompts an image in her mind that makes her feel suddenly too warm, and she lifts her apron to dab at her neck. It’s hardly fair that Jon has the kind of soft curls that girls tie their hair in rags at night to achieve. Lovely, long dark lashes too.

“I’m only saying that plenty of girls will be very jealous of you, Sansa, if you go back with him.”

Sansa gives the plate she’s drying a rather aggressive swipe of the towel. “I’m not sure he’ll take me. I proved how useful I could be, didn’t I?”

“He couldn’t stop staring at you,” Meera says with a shrug. “You can always learn how to cook later.”

“He was only staring because he was expecting my little sister. He was in shock, and not the good kind.”

Meera shakes her head. “I think he was expecting a little girl all right. You must look rather different from what he remembers.”

“So does he.”

“Is that right? How’s our Sergeant Snow different?”

Sansa’s too embarrassed to comment on the breadth of him, which seems rather personal, so she fibs. “Taller, I guess.”

“Too tall,” Meera says, rising up on the balls of her feet. “A girl would have to bend her neck back like a crane to kiss him.”

Meera would. Not every girl would need to however. “I like that he’s tall.”

“Oh, I see,” Meera says with arched brows, handing her the last plate to dry.

“Don’t repeat that, Meera,” she says with unaccustomed sternness. If Meera told tales, that little comment could cost her. He might misunderstand, and she doesn’t want to make him uncomfortable.

“Wouldn’t dream of it. We can’t go telling men like Sergeant Snow that we like that they’re tall or that we admire them in their uniform, can we? Unless you think he’d like to hear such a thing,” Meera says, nodding at the window, outside of which a cloud of pipe smoke drifts by. “You might tell him yourself. We’re about finished up here.”

“I should go talk to him a little,” Sansa says, nervously wiping her hands over her apron.

“Just a little,” Meera agrees.

Sansa unwraps the apron from about her waist, folds it on the counter, and moves towards the door. It’s open a crack with just the screen door keeping the bothersome summer bugs at bay, and she can hear the men’s laughter, as her hand closes on the cool metal handle.

“Just think, Snow, marry her and you could have a pie like that every night.”

“If you do, you’ll be dead by winter,” someone responds, and Sansa lets her hand drop.

“I’m made of tougher stuff. I’ll gladly stomach her pies if you’re afraid to marry her, Sergeant.”

It’s Mr. Greyjoy’s voice this time, she recognizes it before she hears Jon’s gruff command to silence the hand’s joke. It has to be a joke, for surely they’re all teasing. Marriage was never discussed as an option for her, a solution to what to do with her now that she’s arrived by train to the middle of the prairie with a suitcase full of city dresses and no skill at sitting a horse. There was no talk of marriage. Not by Mr. Reed and certainly none in Jon’s letter, the one he sent to Mr. Reed, assuring him he would be there by July, the one Mr. Reed let her keep, which she’s read at least fifty times since arriving in Saskatoon.

“I’m sorry, Jon. It’s nothing against you, but I don’t think I can let you take her into the wilds without knowing she’ll be cared for properly. Her father isn’t here to protect her, so I have to say something.”

“Of course I’ll care for her, Howland.”

Sansa presses her hand over her mouth. They’re serious. They’re discussing her as if she is an object to be disposed of. It’s as bad as when Aunt Lysa would talk about the old men she wanted to bring to the house in hopes that one of them would marry her and take her off her aunt’s hands. Sansa’s feelings apparently are not to be consulted. They’re of no more consequence here than they were back east.

It’s the feeling of being a pawn in one of Petyr’s games of chess that makes her walk right out amongst them in the midst of their discussion. At least Jon and Sergeant Tollett have the good sense to look down at their boots in embarrassment, but Mr. Reed doesn’t appear ashamed of what he’s said in her absence at all and Mr. Greyjoy grins back at her, looking mighty amused.

“You were speaking about me?” she says, folding her hands behind her back and lifting her chin just a hair in defiance.

“Theon, why don’t you show Sergeant Tollett the new little filly we got in the back pen,” Mr. Reed speaks around his pipe with a nod towards the barn.

Sergeant Tollett seems happy to escape, although Mr. Greyjoy is obviously annoyed at being dismissed.  He still plays the gentleman though, tipping his head at her before he jumps down the two steps with one hand on the rail. “Evening, Miss Stark.”

“Evening, Mr. Greyjoy, Sergeant Tollett.”

“Come have a seat by Jon, honey,” Mr. Reed suggests, and Jon scoots down on the backless bench he’s perched on, still fixedly staring at the wide plank floor of the porch.

She sits right on the edge of the white washed bench as prim as can be before saying with steely determination, “I won’t marry anyone without being consulted on the matter, no matter how right you might think the arrangement, Mr. Reed, while I greatly appreciate the kindness you’ve shown me under your roof.”

“No one’s going to make you marry anyone, Sansa,” Jon says, turning his head enough that she can see the high color on his cheeks. It probably matches hers. There are decided liabilities to being as pale as a lily. “I promise.”

Mr. Reed pulls the pipe from his mouth. “Very gentlemanly of you, Jon, but my reasons for suggesting it stand. It’s a harsh place up north, no place for a single young woman.”

“It is harsh,” Jon agrees, and she can see how his eyes skim her skirts, and though she thought she looked appealing in the mirror hanging in the room she shares with Meera, she wishes she hadn’t dressed quite so fine. “Maybe it’s best you go back to your Aunt Lysa, Sansa.”

“Now from what the girl’s told me, that’s not an option at all. We won’t consider that.”

She’s thankful Mr. Reed said it so she doesn’t have to. She can’t ever go back to Aunt Lysa’s, but she’d be ashamed to tell Jon why. He might think she encouraged Petyr, as Lysa did, and she doesn’t want him believing she’s that kind of girl. Just thinking about it makes her pull her feet in closer underneath herself.

The next thing Mr. Reed says, however, is not quite as endearing. “But we must consider that she’s young.”

Sansa doesn’t know whether it works for or against her to say it, but she can’t let the comment pass without defending herself. “I’m not that young.”

“You’re young,” Jon agrees, and Sansa has to bite back a scowl every bit as deep as his.

“I suppose time will take care of that, and you’ve been through more than plenty of girls your age,” Mr. Reed says, considering her with somewhat hooded eyes before turning his attention to Jon. “What year was it you joined the company, Jon?”

There’s an inexplicable reluctance on Jon’s part to respond. He shifts on the bench and scuffs one boot against the floor before admitting in a lowered voice. “Aught five.”

“You’ve got your five years in then. No reason why you couldn’t marry. Man can’t marry until he’s got his five years in with the Mounted, you see, honey.” Mr. Reed gestures at Jon with the pipe. “Jon’s a good man. Says he’ll take care of you. Seems a good enough match, but if you want to be consulted, I’ll leave the two of you to the consulting,” he says standing up with an audible creak and then slaps Jon on the shoulder the way men do when they’re trying to show they care.

He probably thinks he’s doing what’s best for his friend’s daughter. Probably thinks it will work out best for the both of them if they marry, but Sansa’s worried his dictate will only scare Jon away entirely. Then what will become of her?

As Mr. Reed wanders away into the increasing gloom of the evening with his arms crossed over his chest and his pipe trailing clouds, Jon clears his throat. “I’m sorry about this.”

“Who knew a friend of Daddy’s could be such a matchmaker.”

He straightens up and his smile almost reaches his eyes before dying out like a snuffed candle flame. “We haven’t even had a chance to talk about your family or how you’re doing.”

Sansa stares out over the flatness, the total never ending flatness towards the town, where lights flicker in the distance and the squat box like buildings rise above the horizon. “There isn’t much to say. I’m surviving. I’d survive your wild north too. I’m stronger than I look.”

“You probably are,” he says, leaning back against the house. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there. To help you after.”

“You’re here now.”

He takes her hand, where it lays between them on the bench. It’s the first time he’s reached for her. It’s the first hint he might want her, and it takes some of that strength that’s been tested in the last year to keep from leaning into his chest and letting all those tears she’s held back flow at this small kindness from the only person left to her from before.

“This isn’t at all how I imagined tonight would go,” she confesses softly, her lips loosened by his gesture.

“What did you imagine?”

“I thought we’d be restored to each other, that you’d be starving for company and good food and I’d give both of that to you, so you’d want to take me away and things would get better for us both. I thought you’d like my dress. Why would you care about my dress?”

“It’s a nice dress.”

She can hear the embarrassment in his voice at the admission and gives his hand a squeeze. “It was silly. Girlish nonsense. We were never close.”

“I know I wasn’t your favorite.”

“Nor I yours. That doesn’t matter anymore.”

“Doesn’t it? With talk of marriage?”

She tries to imagine it. Meera said girls would be jealous of her. He’s the kind of man that other girls want for their own it would seem. Could she want him too? Would it be so different being his wife than it would be if she only kept his house as his relation? They would share a bed, but maybe that would be nice. They could have a little family. She feels her cheeks heat again. Here she is imagining their future, when he doesn’t seem to think very much of Mr. Reed’s suggestion. He might be quite happy as a bachelor, admired by all and completely unfettered.

“How are you, Jon?”

His thumb brushes over the back of her hand, and maybe she doesn’t know how to cook or bake a pie, but she knows her hands are soft. “A man can get lonely.”

And that settles it for her. Almost. All but the small part of her that trembles at the thought of saying yes to Jon and his life forever. But she tries Meera’s suggestion out. “Shame to be lonely, when you’re so handsome in your uniform.”

Jon huffs, looking slightly off to the side away from her. “You’ve lost your mind, Sansa Stark.”

“No, I’ve been lonely too. We might not be so lonely together. We might be some company for each other. I’m not as spoilt as I once was.”

“Course you’re not. You’re fine, Sansa, and I’d be lucky to share your company. But my orders take me to Edmonton for the summer. I’ll have to leave again tomorrow morning.”

“Oh.” It’s all Sansa can manage. He’s leaving her. Either because she’s not Arya or because of Mr. Reed’s insistence that they be married.

“I’ll be back in two months, and you can give me an answer, when I return.”

It takes a moment for his words to register, while she looks down at their clasped hands, and when it does she wonders if she’s misheard. “That isn’t a proposal of marriage, is it?”

“Depends on what your answer will be, I guess,” Jon says, pulling his hand free to rub his chin.

“You’d really agree to marry me after tasting my pie?”

At that he really does laugh. It’s a nice sound, his laugh. Deep and resonant in the emptiness of this place. “I’ve had worse.”

“I’m sorry for you then. It was nice of you to eat it though.”

He shrugs off her remark, tucking his hands under his arms. “Howland’s not wrong. It’d be better if we were married. No one up there would understand a white woman, a refined city girl like you, unmarried, living with a Mountie. Wouldn’t be proper.”

“Well, if it’s a matter of propriety,” Sansa says, the corner of her mouth quirking as a noise from inside the house draws her attention to the screen door. She’s always been the one to worry about such things, more so than the rest of her siblings. “You ought to have said so from the start and avoided my stubborn outburst.”

“I’d have been worried if you didn’t come stomping out here, hearing yourself be talked about like that.” He taps his boot and rubs his hands over the length of his trousers. “I don’t know how much you heard, but I would take care of you.”

“Course you would.” She doesn’t know if he is the husband she’d choose amongst all the men of her acquaintance or if she’d be the wife of his choice, but whoever Jon might marry, he’d be a good husband to her.

He nods. “Would two months be enough for you to decide?”

“Yes, probably.”

Probably enough time for him to decide whether he wants to actually come back from Edmonton or whether it would be better to leave her in Mr. Reed’s hands. She isn’t the only one being asked to make a weighty choice after all. But with him gone, there’d be no chance to get to know each other as they are now, there’d be no chance that this could develop into something they wanted, rather than a marriage of pure convenience, an answer to wagging tongues. She might look like her mother and he might have the appearance of her father, but this would be no more than a pale reflection of her parents’ loving marriage.

“All right then.”

It certainly isn’t the proposal of her dreams, the one she imagined from the time she was little, but there is something comforting about his voice, about his presence here beside her, despite the disappointments of the evening. That’s what she’ll focus on while he’s gone, as she tries to build something in her heart for him that isn’t based on hopeful foolishness. And they still have a few minutes yet to draw out the moment and fix it in her mind.

“Will you sit with me here until it’s time to turn in, Jon?”

“If you like.”

“I would.” She reaches for his hand this time, letting the dark obscure her boldness. “No harm if we hold hands, is there?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“We’re practically engaged.”

“Yes, I suppose we are.”